Today is the anniversary of the Crimean War’s most famous event, the Charge of the Light Brigade but for a bit of a twist I have focused on the men of the French army who helped them escape from the Valley of Death, so read on and see what I’m talking about, hopefully I’ll see you on the other side.
25th October 1854
Sapoune Ridge Balaclava 11:13 AM.
General Pierre Bousquet was in his mid forties with the round pugnacious face of a French Bulldog. He had two stern eyes that peered over a warlike Gallic moustache, and gave the impression that he was a formidable yet cultured warrior. Sitting with magnificent poise astride his grey horse, Bayard, on the Sapoune ridge, a few miles north of Balaclava, his carefully calculated bombastic features where fixed towards the east were the rocky grey brown hills, covered in a thick jungle of scrub bushes, descended into a number of dry valleys. There was one to the south, hidden by the Causeway Heights, and one to his immediate front formed by them and those of the Fedioukine Heights to his left. The ends and tops of these valley’s where in the possession of Russian army.
The French uniform was especially designed to flatter an elegant body. But even if you where like the General and showed a generous waist, the dark blue of his coat, the gold of his epaulettes, the jaunty angle of his gilt edged cocked hat and the high shine of his riding boots, enhanced the aura of a Corps commander. He was sitting perfectly still, eyes narrowed under thin eyebrows, his right hand casually tucked into his coat, now imitating not only the dimensions of the first Emperor but also his most iconic pose. The British Cavalry Division was advancing.
The bugle calls of “walk march” where rising from the valley floor and the scatter of officers, war correspondents and hangers on, which included not a few elegant ladies and regimental women, fringing the crest, now took greater notice. Their heads turned and their telescopes rose and glinted in the spare eastern sun and the General’s decorations, buttons and trappings shone. The breeze from the black sea blew up from Balaclava lifting Bayard’s black mane, making him twitch his ears and bob his head. Bosquet’s small tricolour guidon flapped and cracked behind him, held by a trooper of the Cent Imperial Guard.
The battle had been progressing in a logical fashion since dawn. The Russians under General Liprandi had launched themselves onto the Redoubts that ringed the distant ridges; the first step in their attempt to cut the British lines of communication. The Turkish infantry holding the redoubts had held for perhaps an hour and a half before abandoning their position and fleeing back towards the port of Balaclava. After their early success the Russians had sent down a strong body of cavalry to reconnoitre the defences of the port. Balaclava sat in the bowl of the protecting hills. Down on the plain of this basin the Russian cavalry had found only one battalion of British infantry to oppose them unprotected by earthworks.
It was an excellent cavalry opportunity for the Russian commander. The Highlanders of the 93rd (Sutherland) regiment were formed in a “thin red streak tipped with steel” before the town, not an ideal formation to receive cavalry. The Highlanders were under the command of the 50 year old Scottish Major General, Sir Colin Campbell, who had them stand their ground, the Russians logically tried their luck, but the consequent volley at close range made them sheer away and trot back to safety with not a few empty saddles. By this time the British Cavalry were stood too and awaiting developments. Suddenly the men of the red coated heavy brigade under General Scarlet were confronted by another mass of Russian cavalry probing the defences and likely attempting to cut the town off from help. The ageing General Scarlet had promptly formed his men and charged. After a sharp fight the outnumbered heavies put the shocked Russians to the right about, thus the port was saved.
Then had ensued a waiting game as the Russians consolidated their hold on the high ground and began harnessing the captured guns from the Redoubts. As things stood the battle looked to end in a rather disappointing day for the British and a marginally successful one for the Russians. The prospect of further action loomed large as the Redoubts would have to be retaken. Lord Raglan, British commander in chief, had sent for infantry to retake them and the Household Division was even then doubling towards the town. The implications of fighting another Alma to secure their supply base must have been in the forefront of every officer’s mind that day at Balaclava. That is until Raglan observed the Russians pulling the captured guns out from the nearer Redoubts.
Feeling this to be an emergency, he sent a vague order to Lord Lucan, commanding the Cavalry Division, to prevent them doing so. The Light brigade led the way in two dark blue lines, Lord Cardigan in front. They were followed in support by the victorious heavy brigade in two scarlet lines. Behind came the long trains of Horse Artillery jogging after them.
Bousquet had promised Raglan that he would guard the light Brigade’s left flank and could hear his staff talking amongst themselves, discussing strategy, and counting the Russian guns and numbers. He took a moment to look around. His II Corps of Observation and cavalry from General D’Allonville’s 1st Brigade of the Cavalry Division had a paper strength of just over 10,000 men. They where spread across the top and slope of the Sapoune Ridge on the edge of the Cheresonese Uplands. Blue coated Imperial Infantry lay at their ease sitting down in line, packs off and cooking up rations, while knots of officer’s stood to the front chatting and pointing. Colourful Zouave’s reclined in easy confidence, while throughout glided the pleasant, gay, sight, of the regimental Cantiniers dispensing brandy from their shoulder flasks. The General knew that this was a British show and Bousquet was there to support them, his was the only infantry available but Raglan had not asked him for any. He called for a telescope so he could inspect the British advance more closely, it was a magnificent sight. Now and again snatches of sound reached the ears of the onlookers, the jingling of harnesses and the clunk of equipment mixed with the odd whinny and muffled command. The coats of their horses shone, officers to the front elegantly walking out two horse lengths from centre, muscular, equine, legs rippling dark beneath them, kicking up dust. Troopers bobbed up and down with the rhythm of their march, the red socks of the Hussar’s hats flapped like flags, braid glittering, equipment jangling, rains held tight, sabre’s at the carry. He looked to the right of the 11th Hussars in their red trousers to the fluttering pennants of the 17th Lancers. A waving crest of animated movement above a sombre blue block of tightly packed men. Such beautiful horses, such immaculate dressing and spacing, magnificent, then came the 13th Light Dragoons. Behind them came the second line, the 4th Light Dragoons on the left and the 8th Hussars on the right, with the Horse artillery advancing to the right rear. If only war could just be like a field day. Yes, it was magnificent.
The first shot from the Russian batteries dispelled that fantasy with a sharp bang that echoed from out of the valley. The puff of white smoke hovered twenty feet in the air, fifty yards beyond the Light Brigade’s front. Bousquet took his eye from the telescope to observe it hanging there, suspended casting a small shadow on the valley floor before being whisked away by the sea breeze. Silence followed as if the sound of the explosion had made everything hold it’s breath. It had been a ranging shot, the next burst just in front of the first line, the bugles sounded again and the lines jumped forwards at a faster pace. General Bousquet was an artilleryman, and he knew the next shot from the Russian batteries would open some gaps; they had the range now. He mentally calculated the order, from the heights, the elevation would only need to be adjusted slightly, a matter of a few degrees indeed. A round could travel 1,000 feet in a second. ‘With shell load,’ compensate for the forwards movement of the enemy, the loft and drop, maybe cut a one or two second fuse, Fire! A low thud came from the Fedioukine heights and a cotton bud blossomed from the nearest battery and, yes, a second later the shell burst overhead of the leading squadrons.
It was then Bousquet realised something must have gone wrong. He had been given to understand that the cavalry where to secure the guns on the edge of Causeway Heights, but they where fast accelerating beyond the line were they should have wheeled right to ascend the slope, and were actually entering the heart of the valley. He saw through his telescope the first casualty, a single dark lump on the ground and a horse galloping away in terror. A sudden rippling crash of cannon fire ripped from both sides of the valley. The Light brigade seemed to put its head down and dig in its spurs to the urgent rising call of the charge. Shell bursts by the dozen blossomed in the air above them, cracking and banging angrily, more dark forms where left in heaps behind the brigade as they passed the point of no return and pushed into a full gallop as more Russian batteries came to bare.
Bousquet looked back at his staff askance, among his aides was Captain Dampiere frowning from behind his beard, Captain Fay doing the same, both in simple regulation attire, blue coats and red trousers and Kepis, the aquiline Captain Tomas in his dashing Chasseurs uniform, contrasting deeply with the more sombre colours of Commander Ballard of the Navy. They all looked back, perplexed, the horror of what had just happened had created a pall of stillness over the ridge, and he shifted his gaze to were the Heavy Brigade should be, only to find there where not there, the red coated heavies had made an about face and where falling back. The Horse Artillery had halted and come into action, meanwhile the Russian guns where going at it hammer and tongs, pouring a leaden hail of iron and shrapnel into the valley that was now wreathed in smoke.
The rapidity of their fire sounded like the heavy drumming of rain on a canvass tarpaulin, the musketry sounded sharper and heavier, coming in splutters and fits as if a stick was being periodically slid down a washboard. Bousquet handed his telescope to an aid and took in the whole awful picture. A surreal dream of glory and stupidity had begun below them and they atop the ridge where mere distant witnesses, detached and helpless, just like a dream where you could see the disaster and yet do nothing to stop it. A sudden surge in the fire of the Russian guns showed that the brigade was still going, it reached such a peak as to beggar belief, how could guns fire that fast? It was against all principles of war for cavalry to charge artillery frontally that was both well supported and deployed. A stream of panicked, riderless horses where coming out of the dirty yellow – white smoke as the only testament to the cost that was being taken on the well dressed flesh and bone he had seen advancing a moment ago, now hidden by a veil of their own destruction. General Pierre Bousquet had seen war before and was familiar with its ghastly consequences, he was a veteran of Algeria, and he breathed out with a slight shake of his head. He shook his head and placed the fist of his left hand on his hip and spoke: “C’est magnifique,” the words came in a low monotone. “Mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” For the moment he said no more but as the guns gave another intense crash and the faintest peal of a bugle rose plaintively through the carnage, he muttered in glottal disgust: “C’est de la folie”
Sapoune Ridge, Balaclava,
The rising tempo of cannon fire and musketry echoing from the North Valley could be clearly heard by the men of the 1st and 4th Chasseurs d’Afrique. They were part of the 1st Cavalry Brigade psoitioned in dead ground largly out of sight of the action, but even if they could not see much once the British cavalry had passed into the valley proper, they could hear the colossal bombardment of the five batteries of Russian guns and see the smoke rising and the shells bursting over the brim of the hills. They had been inactive since they had come up.
The Chasseurs were dressed splendidly. In red and blue cloth casquettes de afrique, red baggy booted overalls, tight blue jackets and mounted on beautiful Arab and Barb horses. The officers were prominent by their black and silver braid, red kepis and waxed moustaches. They did look a splendid sight as they had moved into position were they waited and listened to the British bang away to contain the Russians. Now the order had come to mount and the prospect of action hovered ominously before them. One of the authors of the charge of the light brigade; Captain Louis Edward Nolan, 15th Hussars, attached to the British Headquarters Staff, then lying dead at the opening of the valley with a shard of shrapnel in his chest, his arm still outstretched and his mouth open in an unfinished scream, had commented favourably on the Chassuers. This as opposed to his own men, writing on the 26th of September “The French Chasseurs d’Afrique… are ever at hand for a reconnaissance an escort or an attack, though few in the French army and & therefore hard worked (these men) have their horses in perfect condition whilst our horses look wretched & are so weak that they can hardly raise a canter”
Positioned where the Woronstov road rises onto the Sepoune ridge after descending from Causeway Heights and bisects the valley floor, the brigade consisted of four squadrons each of the 1st and 4th. Both were battle hardened regiments, and in total numbered some 1,290 sabres, they now waited to see if they would be required to act.
Heads turned as General Armand Octave Marie d’Allonville, commander, 1st Cavalry Brigade of the Army of the East, came galloping down the ridge to his brigade, followed by the usual trail of aides de camp, Spahi guidon bearer and the Colonels of his regiments, he was a sturdy looking man in his mid forties. He had brown hair and a short beard which, coupled with his heavy lidded eyes, long face and downturned mouth gave him a distinctly languid, leonine, look. He had just left General Louis Morris, commander of the Cavalry Division and like most of the officer corps, a fellow veteran of the Algerian war. They had both watched the British go into the valley of death, and for Morris it brought back bad memories. When he was a Colonel of Chasseurs, he had pursued the Moroccans four miles too far after the decisive charge at General Bugeaud’s victory at Ivry in 1844. Isolated with 500 men he had to retreat in the face of 6,000 enemy cavalry, the hard faced cavalry commander had also once duelled in single combat a Merdés chief in a dry riverbed in Algeria and come out victorious. With his experience of bravado, General Morris was not about to sit idly in the saddle, smoothing his cultivated beard and watch the Light Brigade founder unsupported against the whole Russian Army, and he had ordered d’Allonville to clear the heights to his front of Russian artillery.
D’Allonville, had been a commander of Spahis in Algeria, he had charged at their head at Smalah where he had won the officer cross of the Legon d’Honneur, which now shone on his chest. He had charged again at the same victorious charge at Ivry where Morris had come to grief and had had the honour of taking the Moroccan Guns.
When he arrived at his brigade, the order quickly went out that the fourth would do duty, the officers where given his intention. They would move forward and drive off or capture the Russian guns now enfilading the retreating British.
The 4th “Traveller” Chasseurs came down the hill into the valley between Sapoune ridge and the Fedioukine Heights. Here the smell of gunpowder was heavy amid the dead ground where the sea breeze couldn’t get at it. The 4th was 532 sabres strong and commanded by the consumate Colonel Coste de Champeron. At the bottom of the ridge, he deployed his regiment in two Demi squadron lines. The Colonel then took command of the 2nd Demi Squadron and handed the 1st, the lead, to his second in command Major Abdelal, it may have been all well and good for Lord Cardigan to lead two horse lengths from the front, so all he could see was the enemy, but unlike the British army, the French put the emphasise on control as well as on dash. Colonel’s of the Emperor Napoleon III’s cavalry stayed in the second line. French officers had nothing to prove by showing their men how to die, and as brigade commander, General d’Allonville took post beside Champeron.
Apart from being an uneven, rocky, slope, the Fedioukine heights were a tangle of three to four foot high brush that came up to the girth straps of the saddles, a formidable obstacle for cavalry to climb and then be expected charge artillery, but the hard bitten Chasseurs who had spent years campaigning in the barren heights of the Atlas Mountains, took it in their stride.
None of this grit was evident to Brevet Colonel Lord George Paget of the 4th Light Dragoons. One of the men now returning from the fools errand of a charge down the North Valley. Powder stained and pale with his mind reeling from concussion and his ears ringing, he was not in the best of moods as he rode out of the valley, using the flat of his sword to encourage his wounded horse. Being the commander of the workmanlike Light Dragoons that had just gone through Hell and back, he was not inclined to be complimentary of the dressing of the Chasseurs d’Afrique as they advanced and he compared them unflatteringly with his own ragged, bleeding, powder stained troopers as he rode in, still clenching his cheroot tightly between his teeth. Thinking that they looked as if they had just stepped out of a bandbox, he saw them advance at a walk with skirmishers out, and thought they where seemingly typical of the worst type of show soldiers out for a stroll. Hanging on the verges of the battle so they could say, they had been there, playing at battle while the real men fought on. “You are very pretty to look at,” Paget remembered thinking scathingly “But you might as well have taken a turn with us, and then perhaps you would not look as spruce as you do.” Later he would have cause to feel guilty of his harsh criticism.
The “bandbox men” of the Travellers had set off en echelon, and as was the custom in the Chasseurs d’Afrique the lead squadrons extended in open order doubling their frontage and allowing more flexibility of movement. D’Allonville had been able to see from the vantage point on the Sapoune ridge that on the slopes of the Fedioukine Heights was some 5,000 men and 10 guns of Major General Jabokritski’s Forward Reserves. Two battalions of foot Cossacks from the Black Sea and two sotnias of No 60 Don Cossack Regiment where supporting ten guns of No 1 Foot Artillery battalion of the 16th brigade of artillery, deployed across the heights en batterie. Their right flank was screened by No 6 Rifle Battalion, to the left rear was the regular infantry of the Vladimir and Susdal Regiments and two squadrons of the Ingermanland regiment .
At the top of the hill the Chasseurs drew swords, five hundred and thirty two 1822 pattern three – bar cavalry sabres rasped from their steel scabbards and came to the carry, each weather beaten face grim and leathered from the North African sun, set with ferocious Bedouin beards fixed on the enemy. Their bodies were lean and hard, toughened from months in the field, their 1854 model percussion rifled carbine’s slung from their backs like the Arab tribesmen they imitated, bounced & clattered. With enemy in sight the trumpet blew trot, and Abdelal’s sword went up. The line billowed forwards from the centre. The men rode easy, bits, snaffles and curb chains jangled and chinked and equipment banged and clanked, as they increased to a canter, the trumpet spilling more repeating notes, the sound of equipment merging with the rumble of hooves as they swept on, bent forwards and lupine – like through the undergrowth.
The Russian flankers of No 6 Rifle Battalion strung out in skirmish order and largely hidden in the drab undergrowth that blended with their brown greatcoats, saw the sun glint off steel as the French sabre blades where exposed to the light. They heard both the deadly sound of hooves and the high spirited cry as the “Hunters of Africa” charged. A few scattered shots where all they had time to crack off before the Fire and Retire was sounded and they took to their heel’s, popping off shots as they went. In their open order the Chasseurs of Abdelal’s Demi Squadron easily outflanked them, but had a few saddles emptied by the discharge as they brought round their left shoulder’s while moving and rode amongst the fugitives laying about the riflemen with their sabres. The Guns of the first half battery where ahead, having cleared the skirmishers Abdelal continued his charge with great spirit and alacrity, the smooth and professional movements of the new wave of enemy cavalry unnerved the Russian infantry who upon seeing their confident advance instantly went to the right about and withdrew. This triggered a general retrograde movement by all the Russian troops holding the heights, no one had been looking to the right when the light brigade had charged. The guns nearest the Chasseurs immediately limbered up and as the French came near the battery changed ground at the trot. They were not fast enough, however, to prevent the Chassuers getting amongst them. Seeing this, the other half battery, fearing the danger of an open flank, did likewise. From his post in the reserve line, tightly controlling his supports General d’Allonville, identifiable by the guidon held by his Spahi, could watch with satisfaction as the whole Russian right, Cossacks and all, receded in front of his squadrons.
To the Russians, who just moments before where completely focused on gratifying the British cavalry’s mad desire for destruction, this was a disturbing turn of events. Commanding the troops on the heights was Major General Jabrokriski and to his mind the sudden Appearance of the French Cavalry portended the descent of the whole of Bousquet’s corps from Sapoune Ridge to attack his position. Seeing the Chasseurs continuing to put pressure in his retreating command, he galloped to the head of the three battalions of the Vladimir regiment, hitherto standing in readiness to assist the action in the valley, and lead two of them at the double towards the French cavalry. Undaunted at the singular prospect of attacking cavalry, the Russian infantry, veterans of the Alma, responded and advanced in close column, bayonets fixed, to retake the position.
Blue jacketed Chasseurs were roving with impunity over the heights, snapping off shots from their carbines, as the Vladimir regiment came up, panting in their heavy brown greatcoats and equipment. They quickly became the focus on which the disordered Cossacks could reform. The artillery was safely behind them now, as they closed to effective musket range, and as the first volleys rolled along the heads of the columns, accompanied by the snap and crack of rifle fire, the French bugles sounded recall and the victorious squadrons came to a disciplined halt, then with superlative ease made an about face and glided back down the hill into the valley and up to their place with the brigade on Sapoune ridge as if they had never left.
From his vantage point General Morris might well be pleased to watch such a creditable example of how Cavalry should be handled. For the loss of 2 officers & 10 men killed, plus, 16 horses killed, and 28 men wounded, 3 men captured, he had achieved his objective. To put it all the more into contrast, as he looked down he could see all that was left of the gallant six hundred beginning to come back from the valley of death, and if any of them had time to notice, they would realise they where no longer being fired upon from the Fedioukine Heights.
Well if you made it to the end I hope you enjoyed it,
And just for you, some sources.
General Liprandi’s Report on the Battle of Balaclava.
L’Armee Francais, Eduarde Detaille and Jules Richard.
Uniforms and Weapons of the Crimean War, Robert Wilkinson Latham.
History of the Crimean War, Alexander Kingslake.
Balaclava 1854, the Charge of the Light Brigade, John Sweetman.
The Thin Red Line, Julian Spillsbury
The Destruction of Lord Raglan, Christopher Hibbert.
And with thanks to the Victorian Wars Forum for their assistance in finding information about General Morris.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland