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I had read accounts of the October 1854 Battle of Balaklava— the most famous combat action of the Crimean War—since my childhood. I knew the theory of how Britain’s Light Brigade had galloped to its destruction because of muddled orders, squabbles between boneheaded noblemen and plain incompetence, but I couldn’t understand how such a thing could have happened. It became clear that if I were ever to unravel the whole vainglorious business, I would have to stand on the ground where it occurred. So I did.

In February 1945, just after the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill had visited the “Valley of Death” where his old regiment, the 4th Light Dragoons, had charged to glory, and I was one of the first British subjects to go there after he did. Soviet paranoia had long forbidden visitors to the site, but in 1993 a friend and I stowed away on a train in Kiev and emerged many hours later in the closed military port of Sevastopol—and were quickly arrested. Our time in Ukrainian cells is another story, but we managed to get out and begin an adventure I’ve repeated almost every year since. When I first visited, it was still possible to find human remains on the battlefields along the Alma River and at Balaklava and Inkerman, even around Sevastopol itself. That is now only the case at Inkerman, but the landscape otherwise remains remarkably untouched.

Above Balaklava the view of the North and South Valleys is breathtaking, and if you stand where Britain’s Field Marshal FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, did just after dawn on Oct. 25, 1854, the battlefield spreads out below like a checkerboard. Although you can see every detail, the valleys and the Causeway Heights that bisect them look fatally flat from above. It’s all too easy to imagine that a man on horseback could see clearly from one dale to the next, but he can’t. You need to get down into the valleys to understand that.

It’s still possible to follow Captain Louis Nolan’s helter-skelter ride down the side of the Sapouné Heights into North Valley and imagine him passing Lord Raglan’s fateful attack order to George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, and James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade. Before I did that, I went to revisit the two earlier phases of the battle. The stand of the 93rd Highlanders —the Thin Red Line—on the hillock at the approaches to the port of Balaklava is readily visible. But the charge of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade is much harder to visualize. How five depleted dragoon regiments charged uphill and tumbled a force many times their size to ruin is difficult to understand. It’s one of the most neglected cavalry charges of all times, the perfect spoiling attack, and it shows how courage, initiative and daring count for so much in war.

If those qualities were present in the South Valley, they were woefully short a couple of hours later in the North Valley. I’m now certain Raglan only ordered a cavalry attack out of frustration at the inertia of the 4th Infantry Division. He had ordered its commander, General Sir George Cathcart, to recapture the redoubts on the Causeway Heights and eject the Russians who had overrun them early in the battle. But Cathcart stalled.

His delay left Raglan with no alternative but to use the only troops still uncommitted—the Light Brigade. Employing cavalry against infantry protected by earthworks is desperate stuff, and the only way it might have made sense would be for Raglan to have ordered the assault from the South Valley, which was entirely in British hands. But the imprecision of the orders given to a brigade that couldn’t see its objective only becomes obvious when you stand where Lucan and Cardigan did.

We can debate the rights and wrongs of what then happened. The fact that a brigade was ordered into a narrow valley dominated on both flanks and to the front by field artillery seems like lunacy, but it happened. You’ve got to tread the ground to appreciate what a target the “noble six hundred”—as poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, dubbed the men of the Light Brigade—must have made to the Russian guns and riflemen. You must also marvel at the bravery and discipline that made that famous, doomed charge possible.

I stood on the battlefield on the 150th anniversary of the charge. When a friend rooted among the vines with the toe of his boot and produced a rusted, twisted British spur, I knew I stood on hallowed ground.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.