By Robert Kershaw
Published by The History Press
It was less a pitched battle than a succession of accidental collisions; less a decisive trial of strength than a momentary eruption of episodic violence that changed nothing and settled nothing.
It was also a case study in anachronism, blundering, and pomposity in military affairs. Less a professionally conducted clash of arms than a display of parade-ground amateurism.
Such was Balaclava, a battle that began at about 5.30 on the morning of 25 October 1854, was effectively over by about 11.30, and, in this time, took the form of four largely separate events – the storming of the Turkish held redoubts on the Causeway Heights, the stand of the 93rd Highlanders (‘the thin red line’), the charge of the Heavy Brigade, and, of course, the charge of the Light Brigade.
The numbers involved, on the Allied side at any rate, were modest indeed. The primary combatants were 1,000 Turkish militia, around 350 British infantry, and about 1,500 British cavalry. A French cavalry unit played a supporting role, and two British infantry divisions arrived as the main action ended; but virtually all the hard fighting was done by fewer than 3,000 Allied soldiers.
They faced odds of 10:1, as a massive steamroller of Russian foot and horse – moving in dense Napoleonic-style columns of attack – moved across the landscape in an attempt to capture Balaclava Harbour and cut the supply line of the British army holding the trenches around Sebastopol.
The relentless incompetence of the British high command – extending from Lord Raglan, the commander-in-chief, downwards – had left the way wide open, and Balaclava became a battle of improvisation and muddle which could so easily have ended in disaster. It was only the serf-like inertia of the Russian Army, combined with the astonishing pluck of a few hundred British soldiers, that prevented this.
What catapulted this handful of skirmishes into a central place in the Victorian national psyche was the grandstand view of the entire battlefield available from the Sapoune Heights, the presence there of Times correspondent William Howard Russell, and the spontaneous decision of poet-laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson to compose a paean in honour of the Light Brigade. Balaclava has been with us ever since, the subject of books, articles, documentaries, films, and so much more. Is there anything new to be said about an event of such minimal military significance?
It seems there is, for Robert Kershaw’s 24 Hours at Balaclava has to be one of the finest books on the battle ever written. Indeed, as an evocation of the visceral human experience of combat, it ranks high among books on battle in general.
NARRATIVE AND EXPERIENCE
Kershaw, a former soldier and now an accomplished military historian, has established a winning format, represented by earlier works on Waterloo, the Somme, and Omaha, and the result is a reading experience almost as intense as watching combat footage on the screen.
The format is not new. I am not sure, but David Howarth may have been the pioneer with his superbly crafted 1968 book on Waterloo, A Near Run Thing, in which the narrative of the battle is told through the experiences of 18 characters, some principals, but mainly junior officers and NCOs. These experiences provide our windows on the successive stages of the action, and Howarth at each point provides the essential narrative framing.
This is Kershaw’s technique. He has a professional soldier’s eye for ground and an intimate understanding of how battle works; he has researched Balaclava in great detail, and has achieved a superb overview of how the action played out, moment by moment.
But others have done that. What makes this book special is that this firm grasp of narrative then becomes the framework for the human experience. In contrast to some ‘history from below’ approaches – where we get only the human experience, and we must seek the military overview elsewhere – Kershaw creates a brilliant synthesis. We always know why these men are in this situation at this moment.
I suspect John Keegan is another influence. Keegan’s most seminal work – The Face of Battle (1976) – is both a polemic against traditional military history and a demonstration of what is necessary to understand battle fully. The meat of the book is his attempt to reconstruct the actual combat experience at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. The outcome of battle, he argues, can be understand only once we have grasped what is actually happening to thousands of men as they collide and grapple and kill in the maelstrom.
This is central to Kershaw’s work. His account of the charge of the Light Brigade is one of the most gripping pieces of battle narrative I have ever read. He avoids long citations from his primary sources, preferring a thick peppering of short quotations embedded within the narrative. The effect is something that races forwards with the speed of a cavalry charge, yet conveys the full horror of the effects of round-shot, shell, case, grape, and canister on a brigade of mid-19th-century horsemen.
Survivors recalled the whirring of the projectiles and the squelching as they hit flesh; the sight of men with limbs blown off or headless torsos riding on; the splattering with the bloody lumps of fallen comrades; the ground strewn with maimed horses and men. The read lasts far longer than the charge.
The Light Brigade advanced at a trot, then a canter, finally a gallop, and it took about eight minutes to reach the Russian guns at the end of North Valley. The flurry of fighting there was frenzied but brief, and then the shattered remnants attempted to make their way back, under fire, harassed by Cossacks; and it was all over about 20 minutes after it began.
Despite the circumstances – a mile-long advance down a valley, under fire from three sides, against vastly superior force, and without effective support – the charge went home. Why this happened is among the most interesting parts of Kershaw’s account.
The casualties were fewer than one might have expected, presumably because the Light Brigade was ranged in lines, at a distance, and moving fast. The losses in horses (56%) were much higher than the losses in men (17%), and Cardigan still commanded 195 mounted men (out of approximately 670) at the end of the battle.
These figures, of course, include horses and men lost either in the fighting at the east end of the valley or during the retreat back down it; the total casualties during the charge itself would have been considerably fewer.
But this is only part of the explanation. Equally if not more significant is the sheer momentum – both physical and psychological – of a cavalry charge. Once it begins, the horses carry the men forwards, and flinching, turning away, going to ground, all things infantry do when under heavy fire, is much more difficult, if not impossible.
No one, of course, wants to be seen to do this: to let down one’s mates, to betray one’s military calling, to risk the social extinction of the coward. But what Kershaw brings out clearly is an additional factor: the sheer adrenalin, ferocity, and bloodlust generated by a mounted charge under fire.
The author describes the strange moment of the collision. Some men, approaching the Russian guns, finding that they were moving through a gap in the fire cones immediately before breaching the enemy line. Some men, breaking in, finding themselves suddenly alone amid the smoke and noise. Others stabbing and hacking, mad for the kill, frantic to murder the gunners who have murdered their mates.
And we discover again – as in Kershaw’s account of the charge of the Heavy Brigade earlier that morning – that the sheer ferocity of the British cavalry overpowered far larger numbers of Russians by its ‘shock and awe’ effect.
There is so much more to this book. Kershaw has mined the Russian sources, so we learn what is happening at each stage of the battle ‘on the other side of the hill’.
He is determined to dislodge deeply embedded myths. One of these is the myth of Turkish ‘cowardice’ – a lie that went largely unchallenged at the time and has rarely been challenged since. The truth is that the Turkish militia charged with defence of the redoubts on the Causeway Heights were left unsupported in defence of meagre earthworks in the face of odds of 20:1 – despite which they held on long enough to suffer the highest unit losses on the Allied side during the battle.
I have one criticism, probably to be directed at the publisher, not the author. The excellent text has been let down by inadequate maps and substandard plates. This problem has become somewhat of an epidemic in publishing, and it is especially lamentable in the case of military history, which is so dependent on good maps.
I will cite one notable example only: the main map of the battle. This attempts to depict all four separate actions in one small image, resulting in a mess of units and lines representing different moments in time, and without even the blessing of proper military icons to distinguish infantry and cavalry.
Buy the book. It will carry you into the thick of the action. It will leave you with an intimate understanding of this iconic British battle. But try to access some decent maps to guide you through it.
Review by Neil Faulkner
This article was published in the July 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.