On the morning of 25 October 1854, outside the quiet town of Balaclava (not to be confused with Baklava, a delicious Greek dessert pastry), the 673 cavalrymen of the British 4th Light Dragoons, 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, 8th Hussars and 11th Hussars stood at the mouth of a seriously hellacious valley staring at their own suddenly-salient mortality. Atop the large sloped hill on the left side of this ridiculously-deadly valley sat a couple ominous-looking batteries of Russian cannons, all pointing down into the flat grassland below, daring the cavalrymen to approach. To the right, Britain’s Turkish allies had just been driven out of their trenches by a massive onslaught of Russian face-stabbing insanity, and the guns they’d abandoned while getting shanked in the eye had now been commandeered and re-appropriated for the Russian cause. Directly across the floor of the valley, nearly a mile away, the English cavalry was staring down the giant black muzzles of a few dozen artillery pieces that definitely seemed as though there were not fucking around. As if this wasn’t soul-crushing enough, behind those guns lie the main body of the Russian Army – six regiments of cavalry and roughly twenty battalions of infantry.
The Light Brigade had its orders. Take the guns, immediately.
The unit’s second-in-command, Major George Mayow, wasn’t the man responsible for this obviously horrific, Stooges-grade clusterfuck of a blunder that he knew would be destined to lead hundreds of brave cavalrymen to a multi-flavored assortment gruesome deaths. He was a soldier. An officer in the service of the Queen. All he could do now was carry out his objectives, press the attack to the best of his ability, lead his troops through a gauntlet of cannon fire, maintain discipline, and bring his boys back as alive as possible. What would result from his (and the rest of the Light Brigade’s) actins is not only one of the more intense moments in the storied legacy of the British armed forces, but in all of military history itself. An unbelievably daring, borderline-foolhardy suicide charge against impossible odds, carried out without a single complaint, and executed with a greater degree of success than anyone could possibly have hoped for, Major Mayow made damn sure that the five regiments of the Light Brigade set an example to the world on that fateful day of the true meaning of bravery, heroism, having badass Iron Maiden songs written about you, and not saying shit to your dumbass commanding officer even when he gives you an order that’s completely fucking retarded.
|"We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen; so that when we came to within a distance of fifty yards from the mouths of the artillery which had been hurling destruction upon us, we were, in fact, surrounded and encircled by a blaze of fire, in addition to the fire of the riflemen upon our flanks."
Despite what Errol Flynn might have you believe, the story of the Light Brigade starts with a completely pointless conflict known as the Crimean War. While I’m sure there’s a hugely-important back story here that dates back to the Roman Empire or some ridiculous garbage, the short version of the bullshit reason behind this Crimean nonsense is this: The Ottoman Empire used to always come out and publicly say that Russia was the official protector of all Christians in the Ottoman Empire, but then in the mid-19th century they changed their minds and said the French should protect the Christians instead. Logically, Russia got pissed and went to war with everyone in the world. The forces of Imperial Russia crossed the border into Ottoman territory, and Britain, Turkey, France, and like pretty much every European-based organization with a membership of at least four people grabbed a bunch of guns and went to the Crimean Peninsula to rabbit-punch the Tsar’s armies right in their Faberge eggs.
Long story short, the only thing of any value on the Crimean peninsula was the Russian port of Sevastopol, and that was really only important because it was Russia’s naval headquarters in the Mediterranean (an honor it attained by being the only Russian naval port with any kind of access to the Mediterranean). So obviously the French and British wanted to smash the place into rubble and then urinate on the detritus. The Russians were opposed to this, and when the Allies landed on the peninsula, they soon found themselves staring at these obviously-impenetrable, ready-to-hump-you-in-the-asshole Russian positions outside the town of Balaclava.
Despite full-well knowing that his commanding officer didn’t know the difference between his dick and a garden hose, Mayow had a job to do, and as a career military hardass he wasn’t about to start questioning orders now. When the bugle sounded the charge and the unit’s commander – General Sir Lordship Master Earl James Brudenell of Cardigan, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan – led the charge, George Mayow was the second man in formation, spurring his horse straight ahead at the gallop and blitzing balls-out on a suicide charge of goddamned epic proportions. Every man in the Brigade followed. They kept their formation perfectly.
- French Marshal Pierre Bosquet,while observing the charge
"It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness."
Now here’s a fun tip for all of you budding armchair generals out there: it doesn’t matter how tough your soldiers are – if you’re going to order a cavalry unit to charge horse-first into a bunch of cannons, it’s generally a pretty good idea to specify exactly which cannons you want them to go off and get blown up by. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen at Balaclava, and while it turned out that poor General Cardigan was actually supposed to be taking the guns up on the left cliff – not charging straight ahead like a fucking moron – Cardigan really didn’t get that memo. The Captain who passed the order along from the overall British commander rode out as soon as he saw the cavalry start to move, in an effort to warn them they were headed the wrong fucking direction, but Captain Inscrutable was immediately moked out with a cannon ball and never got to spread the word that there was a little bit of a miscommunication going on here.
The Light Brigade advanced at the gallop, and, as you can expect, they got seriously pounded from every possible direction. Artillery, cannons, and sharpshooters rained fire down from the cliffs, the cannons in front ripped off double-loads of canister shot (a nasty type of pellet ammunition that basically turned their cannon into a giant shotgun that would be right at home on a ‘Mech), and the entire valley turned into a hailstorm of smoke, lead, and body parts. It was like shooting fish in a barrel with a 19th century smoothbore cannon.
Amazingly, however, despite the obscene odds, the Light Brigade didn’t slow down. They didn’t turn back. Fuck, they didn’t even flinch – these fearless hardasses pressed on, driving at the Russian cannons ahead, determined to slice those canister-loading motherfuckers into shark chum with a few well-places saber hacks to the brain pan as soon as those chumps were within striking distance.
Against all possible odds (and at a head-crushingly obscene cost, I might add) the Light Brigade reached the Russian positions – crossing a mile-long kill-zone of non-stop cannon fire and crashing into the artillery crew on the far end of the hellacious highway of mutilation and dismemberment. Most of the Russian gunners were understandably mind-fucked by the fact that the cavalry survived their barrages, so they dropped their shit and ran for it. This didn’t help – most of them were slashed down as they fled. Others tried to valiantly make a stand, but the Brits were too jacked up on adrenaline – they dismembered those poor suckers so efficiently that after just a few minutes of hand-to-hand combat the artillerymen on the hills (seeing how badly the guys on the ground were getting fucked up) just started firing cannonballs right into the melee, hitting friend and foe alike.
It was here that Major George Mayow really stepped up as a serious badass. After cleaving his was through the gun crews, the executive officer of the Brigade looked around through the smoke and realized that Lord Cardigan was nowhere to be found. With the commanding officer nowhere in sight (Cardigan was off either swordfighting Russian cavalrymen or running for it like a bitch, depending on who you ask), Mayow took charge of the situation. He stood up in his saddle, waved his blood-soaked saber, shouted, and rallied all the survivors in earshot. Just fifteen Lancers and twelve Dragoons responded. All were enlisted men, as virtually every officer in the first wave had been killed, wounded, or unhorsed en route to the Russian artillery.
Mayow ordered his men into formation and then, through the smoke and fire, he suddenly spotted four regiments of Russian cavalry arranged in a battle line a mere one hundred yards away. At first he was a little surprised, but Mayow quickly (and correctly) realized that these guys were just sitting there waiting for the British to turn back so that they could ride them down from behind and slaughter them.
Well not today. The Brigade Major slowly looked around at the 27 men behind him, turned back to the 300-plus Russians ahead of him, and ordered a full-on charge.
Now let’s take a second and look at this from the Russian point of view. These insane British fuckers had just blitzed through a goddamned gauntlet of cannonballs and sniper fire, survived, emerged from the cannon smoke covered in the blood of dead artillerymen (not to mention their own horrific wounds), and now these thirty fearless, seemingly-invincible demons were charging balls-out and lances-first at a force ten times their size. The Russians lost their nerve and bolted. Mayow and his men cut many of them down as they fled.
This second victory would be short-lived as well, however, as the fleeing Russians retreated back to the nearby river, where a second – even larger – line of cavalry was waiting. And these guys weren’t as impressed with the British show of force.
For a brief moment, there was a somewhat-surreal standoff. Mayow brought his men to the halt, and now they stared out, bloodied, bashed-up, and berserking, at a line of something like two thousand fucking Russian Cossacks and Hussars. The Russians were content to wait – a second column of cavalry was on its way down from the heights to cut off the British retreat, and it took Mayow a moment to notice it. Fuckity-shit.
Mayow and his men slowly backed away, careful not to turn his back on the men in front of him, and when he thought he was a pretty safe distance he ordered his men to turn and get the fuck out of there. Haul ass, but stay in formation, three-across. Don’t give them the benefit of thinking they’ve broken our force, or the British spirit. Because, seriously, fuck those guys.
Mayow and his survivors weren’t quick enough to avoid the second column, but they didn’t let it stop them – they just lowered their sabers, crashed through the incoming Russian horsemen, and then hauled ass back through the valley of death again. The surviving British cavalrymen got a little bit of help from the French during their return, when a French cavalry unit circled around the guns on the left side of the valley and attacked the Russians from behind while they fired down on Mayow’s men, but honestly at this point it was like someone throwing you an umbrella while you’re drowning in the Pacific Ocean. Like, thanks guys, but seriously where the fuck was that twenty minutes ago. Plus, the handful of Russian gunners who survived the Light Brigade’s beatdown returned to their guns as soon as the British left, and now they were trying to ram cannonballs up the Dragoons’ asses as they headed out of there. Despite extreme exhaustion, wounds, and other bullshit, Mayow’s column returned to Allied lines.
All told, less than half of the Light Brigade reported for duty the following morning. Mayow and the first wave had taken the brunt of the damage, but every regiment in the charge suffered at least forty to fifty percent casualties. Despite the near-annihilation of the entire Brigade, and their inability to take an impossible-to-take position, the actions of the Light Brigade at Balaclava is now forever remembered as one of the most badass and valiant charges ever undertaken. Queen Victoria herself was so pumped up after hearing the story of the Light Brigade’s heroism and bravery in the face of certain death that she decided to create a special award to honor the British heroes who had fought so bravely on the field that day. She had an English metalworker melt down a couple of the Russian cannons that had been captured by the Light Brigade, re-cast them into medals, and named her new honor the Victoria Cross.
|"The English fought with astounding bravery, and when we approached their dismounted and wounded men, even these refused to surrender and continued to fight till the ground was soaked with their blood."
- Lieutenant Koribut Kubitovich, Imperial Russian Army
Charge of the Light Brigade
House of Lords Transcript
Brighton, Terry. Hell’s Riders. Macmillan, 2004.
Crider, Lawrence W. In Search of the Light Brigade. Crider, 2004.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization Since 1500. Cengage, 2008.