The defining moment of the 11th Hussars was this famous cavalry action at the battle of Balaklava. To many people it was a military disaster but, although many men and animals lost their lives in this foolhardy act, it was wonderful demonstration of courage that has helped create a respect for British soldiers ever since.
The British cavalry started their day at 5am but were unaware that the Russians were attacking the eastern redoubts which were manned by Turkish artillery under British command. The redoubts were hills forming part of the Causeway Heights which seperated the North and South Valleys. see map The North Valley was the scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade. A force, 3000 strong, of Russian cavalry and artillery stopped at the eastern end of the valley while several squadrons went over the Causeway heights to the South Valley where they were checked by the 93rd Highlanders and were defeated by the Heavy Brigade in their less well-known and more successful Charge.
The Charge of the Heavy Brigade took place near the cavalry camp where a private of the 11th, a Welshman called Hope, was a prisoner in the guard tent. He decided to join in and managed to secure a Scots Greys horse which he mounted, and galloped into the melee. He survived this and joined up with his own regiment and took part in the Light Brigade action. He was the only man to take part in, and survive, both Charges.
The Light Brigade were dismounted at the western end of the valley. Cardigan missed a good opportunity to pursue the Russian cavalry retreating back to the other end. Raglan, commander of the allied forces was situated on the Sapoune Ridge to the north west of the valley. He was concerned about the captured guns on the redouts and sent the first of his muddled orders to Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander:
"Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the heights. They will be supported by the Infantry which has been ordered. advance on two fronts."
Lucan was confused, especially because from his low level he could not see the Russian positions as clearly as Raglan. Forty minutes passed, during which time there was activity on the redoubts. Raglan hurriedly sent the second muddled note which was carried by Captain Lewis Nolan:
"Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop of Horse Artillery may accompany. French Cavalry is on your left. Immediate."
Nolan, a 15th Hussar officer, was an intelligent man who had written useful training manuals for cavalry. He had no respect for men like Lucan and Cardigan so the scene was set for a 'tragedy of errors'. Nolan handed the note, which was hand-written in pencil by Airey the QM General at Raglan's dictation, to Lord Lucan. After pondering over the messge, he looked at Nolan and said,
"This doesn't make sense. What does Lord Raglan want us to do?"
"Lord Raglan's orders are that the Cavalry should attack immediately!" shouted the infuriated Nolan.
"Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir?" asked Lucan.
"There, my Lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!" Nolan kept looking at Lucan but he had flung out his arm to point up the North Valley instead of the Causeway heights. Lucan trotted over to Cardigan to convey the message of doom.
"Certainly, sir, but allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley to our front, and batteries and riflemen on each flank." said Lord Cardigan. "There must be some mistake. I shall never be able to bring a man back."
"I know it," said Lucan "but Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey."
"Very good sir." Cardigan saluted and positioned himself in front of the Brigade.
"Here goes the last of the Brudenells." said Cardigan to no-one in particular, then shouted "The Light Brigade will advance - Walk - March - Trot!"
The front line of the Brigade had the 13th Light Dragoons on the left, the 17th Lancers on the right. The 11th Hussars originally on the right, were positioned behind to form a second line. The third line consisted of the 4th Light Dragoons and the 8th Hussars. There were around 673 men in all. Nolan decided to ride with them and went alongside Morris of the 17th Lancers. As the Brigade advanced at a canter, he realised that they were going the wrong way so he galloped to Cardigan waving his sword towards the Causeway heights. At that moment the Russian guns opened fire and Nolan was hit full in the chest by a large piece of shrapnel. Still sat in the saddle, his horse carried the dying Nolan, 'screaming like a woman' according to one observer, back through the ranks.
Cardigan kept a cool demeanor and insisted that the ranks keep their dressing. The cannon and rifle fire was coming at them from both sides as well as the front. Orders were shouted to close in as gaps occurred in the ranks. Sgt-Major Loy Smith saw Private Young's arm shot off. Young asked what he should do, so Smith ordered him to turn round and get back as fast as possible. The first line came under fire from a 12 gun salvo while they were about 80 yards from their objective and most of them went down. As the regiments went through the guns fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out. The 11th were on the left by the time they reached the guns and down to 80 men. They attacked a body of Lancers successfully but were enveloped by a mass of cavalry and infantry. Loy Smith noticed lancers coming up behind them and knew immediately that they were Russian. Lt-Col Douglas shouted out to them.
"Rally, men of the 17th Lancers!"
"It's the Russian Lancers, sir." said Cornet Palmer.
"Then fight for your lives!"
They managed to join up with men of the 4th Light Dragoons and fight their way through the lancers but many weren't so lucky. The Russian gunners, to their great shame, fired grapeshot at groups of British and Russian soldiers, not caring whether they killed their own. One man, however, did have a lucky escape. Tom Spring fell and his dead horse trapped his leg, at which point a Russian officer emptied a revolver into his chest. Luckily, Spring had padded his jacket out very thoroughly and survived to impress his friends with the dents in his skin.
Despite the bravery of every man in the regiment, there was only one VC won by the 11th that day. Lt. Dunn saved the life of Sergeant Bentley of the 11th, cutting down several Russians who were attacking him. He used a sword that was longer than the regulations allowed.
Cardigan returned they way he had come, chased by Russian lancers. His horse 'Ronald' was in good contition so he was able to evade them. He did not try to help anyone, but found his way back and retired to his private yacht for some champagne. Whatever respect he had earned for his bravery was erroded by this act of selfishness.
Having witnessed the amazing spectacle from a safe distance, the French General Bosquet made the famous remark "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." The Russian General Liprandi was convinced that the British were all drunk. When some prisoners convinced him otherwise he offered them all a vodka.