William Howard Russell was one of the first official War Correspondents working for both the Times Newspaper and the Illustrated London News. On 25 October 1854, he witnessed one of the most momentous events in the annals of warfare, the Charge of the Light Brigade under its commander James Thomas Brudenell, Lord Cardigan.
The Battle of Balaclava had started earlier in the day with a surprise Russian attack on the Allied positions. The assault had already begun to peter out when Lord Lucan, in command of the British Cavalry received the order to capture the enemy guns. But what enemy guns exactly? The only guns he could see were those at the end of a long treeless valley loaded, primed, and ready to fire with thousands of Russian troops on either side their aim unimpeded on a clear day.
There had clearly been a miscommunication but with Lucan and Cardigan, who was his brother-in-law, barely on speaking terms neither was willing to admit as much. So the Light Brigade would attack as ordered, let the blame fall where it may.
Russell’s dispatch from the Crimea did not arrive in London for some time and was not published in the Times editorial until 13 November by which time it was already old news to those present. Even so, it caused a sensation being seen as an event of outstanding courage as indeed it was and of reckless foolhardiness which it also was, making instant heroes of the participants. As the facts became more widely known however, it would instead become a great scandal; a story of stubborn pride, military incompetence, and a careless waste of human life:
“They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could hardly believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true – their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part – discretion.
The first line was broken – it was joined by the second, they never halted or checked their speed an instant. With diminished ranks, thinned by those thirty guns, which the Russians had laid with the most deadly accuracy, with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow’s death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ere they were lost from view, the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. They were exposed to an oblique fire from the batteries on the hills on both sides, as wed as to a direct fire of musketry.They advanced in two lines, quickening their pace as they closed towards the enemy. A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.
Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabres flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between ‘them, cutting down the gunners as they stood. We saw them riding through the guns, as I have said; to our delight we saw them returning, after breaking through a column of Russian infantry, and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the battery on the hill swept them down, scattered and broken as they were.
The Russian gunners, when the storm of cavalry passed, returned to their guns. They saw their own cavalry mingled with the troopers who had just ridden over them, and to the eternal disgrace of the Russian name the miscreants poured a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of struggling men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin. It was as much as our Heavy Cavalry Brigade could do to cover the retreat of the miserable remnants of that band of heroes as they returned to the place they had so lately quitted in all the pride of life.Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale. At the very moment when they were about to retreat, an enormous mass of lancers was hurled upon their flank. Colonel Shewell, of the 8th Hussars, saw the danger, and rode his few men straight at them, cutting his way through with fearful loss. The other regiments turned and engaged in a desperate encounter. With courage too great almost for credence, they were breaking their way through the columns which enveloped them, when there took place an act of atrocity without parallel in the modem warfare of civilized nations.
At twenty-five to twelve not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns.”