Friday 22 July 2016

'Scarlett's Three Hundred': The Charge of the Heavy Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava

With thanks to Major Graeme Green of the York Army Museum for his invaluable help and advice.

In 1860 Major Alexander Elliot exhibited a new painting in London.  Entitled ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade, Balaklava, Ukraine’, it commemorated a remarkable but often overlooked action of the Crimean War which saw the British heavy cavalry repel an unexpected attack by a mounted Russian force - despite charging uphill against superior numbers, and led by a commander nearing retirement who was short-sighted and who had seen no military action in his career until he reached the Crimea. The charge took place on 25 October 1854 during what came to be known as the Battle of Balaclava. The day would be remembered for a very different charge, that of the Light Brigade into the ‘valley of Death’ immortalised by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, just six weeks later.  However it was the Charge of the Heavy Brigade earlier in the day that would be praised by a French General at the time as a notable British victory and ‘the most glorious thing’ he ever saw.

'The Charge of the Heavy Brigade, Balaklava, Ukraine, 1854' by Alexander Elliot.
Reproduced with kind permission of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

The painting, which today hangs in the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, shows a view of the charge from the British side looking uphill towards the advancing Russian cavalry and the Causeway Heights above the Balaclava Plain.  Gun smoke hangs in the air above the mass of red and blue-grey uniforms and in the foreground horses and riders are hampered by the white tents of the Light Brigade camp and the trampled remains of an adjoining vineyard as they try to quickly turn to face the enemy.  The scene is chaotic but in the clear space just to the right of centre a few British officers are shown more clearly, leading a large group, their uniforms identifying them as the 5th Dragoon Guards entering the fray in support of the 2nd Dragoons, known as the Greys.  

Elliot’s work has attracted little notice in modern accounts of the Crimean War.  However a recently discovered letter in the Hickleton Papers, the archive of the Earls of Halifax held here at the Borthwick Institute, sheds new light not only on the history of the painting, but also on the actions and reputation of several of key players in that morning’s charge.

The letter was written in December 1860 by an unlikely investigator, William Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester, and loses no time in setting out the issue at hand.  ‘On the 29th or 30th October 1860 I met Lord Lucan in Curzon Street and asked him if the picture which Major Al[ex] Elliott had painted of the Heavy Cavalry charge at Balaclava & had given to Sir James Y. Scarlett, was correct,’ the Duke wrote to his unknown correspondent.   

The opening of the letter between the Duke and his unknown correspondent.
Borthwick Institute, HALIFAX/Derby Papers/Box 2

Lord Lucan was George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan and commander of the Cavalry Division at the Battle of Balaclava.  Lucan immediately denied the accuracy of the painting ‘in strong language’ and went on to give his account of events, which the Duke carefully records in his letter.  According to Lucan, on that morning the British cavalry (consisting of the Heavy Brigade and the Light Brigade) was positioned under the heights on the west of the Balaclava Plain.  Having been ordered to send help to the town of Balaclava Lucan dispatched most of the Heavy Brigade east - 2 squadrons each from the 1st, 2nd and 6th Dragoons and the 5th Dragoon Guards, with only the 2 squadrons of the 4th Dragoon Guards held back.   

It was ‘after they had started, when they had got to the other side of an Orchard’ that he received word that a large force of Russian Cavalry, 2000 strong, were descending the hill and would certainly intercept them.  He ‘gallopped off’ to warn the men, managing to stop some of the 2nd Dragoons (the Scots Greys) and the 6th Dragoons (the Inniskillings) and bring them into formation before ordering them to ‘charge the head of the Column of Russian Cavalry’ who were approaching downhill in two columns with wings.  As the British squadrons met the Russians at barely a trot the two wings closed in, trapping them until Lucan ordered the 4th Dragoon Guards to charge their flank, breaking through the enemy line.  It was, in Lucan’s opinion, a victory for the 4th Dragoon Guards, declaring to the Duke that the 5th Dragoon Guards ‘did nothing’ and that ‘the 4th won the battle.’  The Russians were put to flight and the Heavy Brigade, despite being outnumbered 5 to 1, were victorious.  The whole action took less than 10 minutes.

"No, they did nothing - the 4th won the battle" - Lord Lucan's judgement of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade.
Borthwick Institute, HALIFAX/Derby Papers/Box 2

Evidently not content with this single view of events however, the Duke then sought the opinion of the artist himself.  Major Alexander Elliot could claim equal authority as a witness, having been at the head of the charge as aide de camp to the commanding officer of the Heavy Brigade, the then 55 year old General James York Scarlett.  Elliot told the Duke that he ‘had heard that Lucan said it was in correct’ but defended his work, claiming to have consulted ‘several officers who had been present who said his sketches were quite correct’.   His own account of events, again recorded carefully by the Duke, offers yet more detail and a second eyewitness account of that morning.  

For Elliot the day began before first light when the cavalry had been sent to the foot of the Causeway Heights that divided the plains of Balaclava and Chernaya.  Reconnaissance had noted nothing beyond the higher ground, but already some amateur scouts had reported seeing Russian forces massing behind the Turkish redoubts on the Heights.  At 6am the Russians attacked and the Turks fled, ceding the advantageous higher ground to the enemy who soon opened fire on the British cavalry, forcing them to take cover and eventually to retreat towards the Light Brigade camp to the west, next to an abandoned vineyard.  It was as they reached the camp that Elliot states they were ordered to return to assist Sir Colin Campbell in his defence of Balaclava.

Cavalry camp near Balaclava, 1855.  Photograph taken in the Crimea by Roger Fenton.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-9117 (color film copy transparency)]

It is at this point that Elliot’s account begins to differ from Lucan’s.  According to Lucan it was he who received reports that the Russians were approaching, causing him to gallop after the Heavy Brigade and pull back enough men to mount a charge.  In Lucan’s own words, General Scarlett ‘was at the head of the Column and did not see what was going on’ and only belatedly formed his squadrons into a second line.  Elliot however claimed that the Heavy Brigade had scarcely changed direction to return to Balaclava when he himself alerted Scarlett to the Russian Cavalry who had suddenly appeared over the hill to the North and were advancing towards them at a trot.  Scarlett doubted it at first ‘but with the glass saw that it was so’ and immediately turned the 2nd and 6th Dragoons to face the enemy.  

'They had scarcely changed their front when Elliott pointed our to Sir J. Scarlett that
Russian Cavalry was coming over the hill to the north.'
Borthwick Institute, HALIFAX/Derby Papers/Box 2

A first-hand account of the charge by Sergeant Major Henry Franks gives a slightly different description, claiming that the alert was given by a member of Lucan’s staff who called out to Scarlett to ‘look to your left!’ as the mass of Russian cavalry suddenly came into sight, just a few hundred yards away and mere moments after the Heavy Brigade had been ordered to return to support Campbell.  The result however was the same.  ‘As soon as General Scarlett saw the position’, Frank wrote, ‘he gave the order ‘Wheel into line, charge’ and like a true Briton, which he was, he placed himself in front of the Troops and led them.’  

This agrees with Elliot’s account, which claims that far from being unaware of what was going on, Scarlett rode out ahead of his rapidly manoeuvring line of men, Elliot at his side, ‘hollering to them to come on’ before he charged uphill towards the Russians who, ‘quite astonished’ according to a Lieutenant who was present, slowed to a walk and then a halt.  Another officer, Sergeant Major Gowing, wrote that ‘how ever that gallant officer [Scarlett] escaped was a miracle, for he led some thirty yards right into the jaws of death and came off without a scratch.’

The fighting was fierce, with Elliot and Scarlett quickly surrounded by the enemy and separated in the crowd.  So sudden was the attack, in fact, that soldiers fought partly amongst the tents and debris of the Light Brigade’s camp, causing Cornet Grey Neville’s horse to stumble over a picket rope and throw him to the ground where he was stabbed to death.  Elliot himself received a ‘bad cut across the back of the head’ and fourteen sabre wounds in total, and Scarlett was reported to have received five sabre cuts and a dented helmet.  

The fate of Cornet Grey Neville, son of Lord Braybrook, who was 'speared' on
the ground, after falling from his horse, and killed.
Borthwick Institute, HALIFAX/Derby Papers/Box 2

Crucially Elliot claims that it was the 5th Dragoon Guards, and not the 4th, that ‘came up the rear of the greys’ (the 2nd Dragoons) in support, attacking the flank of the Russian Cavalry, and it is this moment that he captures in his 1860 painting.  Moreover Elliot was keen to impress upon the Duke that it was Scarlett, not Lucan, who deserved credit for the successful charge, asserting positively ‘that Lucan was in the rear of the heavy Cavalry – and gave them no orders.  The whole thing was done by Scarlett’.

'Elliott asserts positively that Lucan was in the rear of the heavy Cavalry - and gave them no orders.
The whole thing was done by Scarlett.'
Borthwick Institute, HALIFAX/Derby Papers/Box 2

What can we make of these conflicting accounts?  Contemporary and modern interpretations of the Battle of Balaclava attribute the Heavy Brigade’s victory to Scarlett and it was Scarlett who was personally commended by the Commander of British forces in the Crimea, Lord Raglan, for the action.  Both Franks and Elliot place him at the front of the charge and even the Duke of Manchester seems sceptical of Lucan’s claim that Scarlett did not know what was going on, adding an exclamation mark in parentheses after his remark.

Lucan certainly had reason to want to present his role in the charge in a favourable light.  It was he who received the ambiguous order from Raglan later that day and instructed Lord Cardigan to lead the Light Brigade down the North Valley, leading to the most infamous blunder of the war.  Raglan personally blamed Lucan for the error, publicly declaring that Lucan had ‘lost the Light Brigade’ and censuring him in official dispatches for not exercising his discretion by questioning the command.  Lucan was subsequently recalled to England in March 1855 and despite his later exoneration his less than glorious part in the Battle of Balaclava must have rankled.

However it is also possible that the truth lies somewhere in between the two accounts.  That Lucan was indeed ‘at the rear’ of the Heavy Brigade and gave no orders directly to Scarlett, but still rallied men of the 2nd and 6th Dragoons to charge and brought the 4th Dragoon Guards in to attack the Russian flank – and that Scarlett also saw what was happening and personally led the main part of the brigade in a charge.  Modern historians agree that there was some discrepancy over who exactly had ordered the action.  Situated as they were, at the head and rear of 300 men on horseback, amongst tents and other debris and facing the sudden appearance of 2000 enemy cavalrymen, confusion over exactly what happened and when is perhaps understandable.  The 4th Dragoon Guards came in from the west to attack the right flank of the Russian cavalry, but the 5th Dragoon Guards supported the 2nd Dragoons, the Greys, coming up to attack the right flank of the Russians as it closed in behind them.  ‘In a moment the Greys were surrounded and hemmed completely in,’ Godman wrote, but ‘as soon as we saw it, the 5th advanced and in they charged.’

For his services that day General Scarlett was promoted to Major-General and knighted the following year.  He remained popular with the men under his command, a Light Brigade officer describing him as a ‘good kind old fellow…[the men] will follow him anywhere.’  He retired in 1870 and died in 1871 at the age of 72.  

Lieutenant General, the Honourable Sir James Yorke Scarlett, K.C.B. Photograph taken in the Crimea by Roger Fenton.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-9303 (color film copy transparency)]

Elliot was recommended for his part in the Charge and was promoted to Brevet-Major in 1855, ending his career as a Major-General and Commander in Chief of the British forces in Scotland.  Lucan’s career quickly recovered from the ignominy of Balaclava.  He was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1858, General in 1865, and Field Marshal in 1887, dying in 1888 at the age of 88.

Whilst the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade would go on to be memorialised in verse, music and film, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade has received far less notice and many are unaware that it too was commemorated in verse by Lord Tennyson, albeit some thirty years later.  Unfortunately for Lucan, it is with ‘Scarlett and Scarlett’s three hundred’ that the poem is concerned, drawing the charge to a triumphant close.

For our men gallopt up with a cheer and a shout,
And the foeman surged, and waver’d, and reel’d
Up the hill, up the hill, up the hill, out of the field,
And over the brow and away.
Glory to each and to all, and the charge that they made!
Glory to all the three hundred, and all the Brigade!


Roy Dutton, ‘Forgotten Heroes: The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’ (Wirral, 2008)

Sergt, Major Henry Franks, ‘Leaves from a Soldier’s Notebook’ (Doncaster, 2016)

Donald Richards, ‘Conflict in the Crimea: British Redcoats on Russian Soil’ (2006)

Philip Warner, ‘A Cavalryman in the Crimea: The Letters of Temple Godman, 5th Dragoon Guards’ (2009)