Fighting Words: Words Coined During the Crimean War | HistoryNet MENU

Fighting Words: Words Coined During the Crimean War

By Christine Ammer
4/22/2010 • MHQ Fighting Words

James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (Photo: ©
James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (Photo: ©

From the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ


The Crimean War does not figure large in modern history books. Most people would be hard-pressed to name its dates (1853–1856) or its combatants (the Ottoman Empire, England, and France vs. Russia). Although largely eclipsed by more momentous events, this conflict left an interesting linguistic legacy.

Already called the sick man of Europe as early as 1621, the powerful Ottoman Empire was in disarray by the mid-19th century. It had lost Hungary and Greece, and was beset by internal troubles. In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia said, “We have on our hands a sick man—a very sick man,” and he hinted that it was time for the British to partition the empire. Within months, a dispute arose between Russia and France concerning control over the holy places in Palestine, and it soon escalated into a major dispute with the empire. Russia sent troops to occupy the Turkish states of Moldavia and Wallachia, whereupon Constantinople declared war on Russia. England and France soon joined the Ottomans.

The most memorable battle of the war was at Balaclava, on October 25, 1854, and it gave rise to two British legends, one highlighting honor, the other incompetence. According to one eyewitness account, a large Russian force had advanced on the Allies at the entrance of Balaclava (a Black Sea port now part of Ukraine). Heavy artillery fire prepared the way for Russian cavalry, and the Ottomans retreated rapidly, fleeing for the port.

This left 550 men of the 93rd Highlanders to stand between the Russian army and Balaclava. The Scots were face-down in a line two men deep on the far slope of the hillside. To the Russians, the hill appeared unoccupied as they advanced. Suddenly the Scots in their red coats sprang up. They had been told there was no possibility of retreat and so they held their ground. As the cavalry halted, the thin red line loosed a volley of deadly musket fire. The Russians wavered, and after two more Scottish volleys, they withdrew. The Highlanders’ victory was commemorated in their regimental magazine, later called the Thin Red Line.

Another engagement that same day had a quite different outcome. Owing to an alleged error in orders, a light cavalry brigade of 670 commanded by James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan, was ordered to charge a Russian position protected by 15,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 10 cannons. To reach them, the Light Brigade had to ride down a ravine between two hills, each guarded by another 10 guns. The brigade descended, only to find that the cavalry’s Heavy Brigade had not followed in support, and worse yet, the British were cut off in the rear.

The cost was immense, with two-thirds of the British killed or wounded. Although Cardigan had long been considered an incompetent officer, the event was immortalized by poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” emphasized the troops’ gallantry: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die: / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.”

The names of two items of clothing came from that battle and remain in use. Ill equipped for the harsh winter climate, the troops adopted all sorts of clothing to keep warm. One was the balaclava, a knitted wool cap that covers the head and neck, leaving an opening only for the face. For a time the name also referred to a full beard such as worn by Crimean troops, but that usage did not survive.

The other item is the cardigan, a collarless sweater that buttons down the front. It was favored and popularized by the same Earl of Cardigan responsible for the ill-fated Light Brigade charge. Soldiers wore it under their tunics for additional warmth, and Queen Victoria allegedly praised it.

Another Crimean officer whose name became attached to a clothing style was Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, first Baron of Raglan (1788–1855). He had served under Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and lost an arm at Waterloo. He also distinguished himself during the Crimean War, before he died of cholera. Because of his handicap, Raglan favored a capelike overcoat with sleeves extending to the neck (rather than the shoulder), and it came to be called raglan. The coat itself is no longer in fashion, but the sleeve style, called raglan sleeve, is still used for coats, sweaters, and dresses.

Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2001).



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