It was a great surprise to find a wealth of translated Russian accounts of the battle of Balaclava online. How then could I not write up the Russian perspective?
General Pavel Liprandi, was the commander of the Chorgun field force, or “detachment”. He launched his attack on the British supply base at Balaclava on the 25th of October 1854. It was a well conceived plan and in the early stages it was executed with considerable skill and dexterity. 25,000 men and 78 guns consisting of Liprandi’s newly arrived 12th Infantry Division, and contingents from Prince Menchikov’s army defending Sevastopol, advanced in four columns from Chorgun, a small town not far north of Balaclava to attack the port. To achieve this they had to take a line of redoubts that crowned the Vorontsov heights, the ring of hills that hemmed Balaclava in against the sea, held by contingents of Ottoman Turkish infantry.
Kasha porridge, strong coffee and tea had already been consumed before setting out, prayers had already been said. The shooting began at 6.00 a.m to the north-east of the port. The Russian left flank column under General Gribbe easily pushed back the force holding Komary and enfiladed on the right flank of the allied fortifications. Liprandi’s main force, which had by then begun to fill up the space below the hills, then opened a heavy bombardment of the heights zeroing in on No 1 redoubt. The Turkish endured this pounding for an hour and an attempt by the British Artillery to support them was repulsed by the Russian batteries. At about 7.30 General Semyakin began the attack, he waved his hat above his head and personally led the Azovsky Regiment up the hill and cleared Redoubt Number 1 with the bayonet. When this position fell the other redoubts went like dominoes and by 800 a.m the Russians were in full possession of the Vorontsov (causeway) heights.
The main force now occupied the hills that dominated Balaclava and the second part of Liprandi’s plan went into action. From the Russian sources I gather that Liprandi’s aim may not have been to take and hold Balaclava. To occupy the port would only risk his force being cut off from supplies by land and risk disaster. But to raid it, destroying valuable enemy supplies while gaining and holding the heights, could force a repeat of the Battle of the Alma in September (only with better results, and at least incur crippling losses) was eminently practical. With this in mind his commander of Cavalry, General Ryzhov, now took over. Having got the word that the heights were taken, he ordered his Hussar Brigade and the usual swarm of accompanying Cossacks to advance. The sound of the Cossacks, harassing fleeing Turks could be heard as they hounded them down onto the flatland of the South valley. All well and good for the shiftless irregulars of the steppe but as a line officer Ryzhov didn’t know the ground well enough to be sure of his bearings.
While his men laboriously climbed the scrubby slope, Ryzhov’s account of his actions here has the smell of fish left out a day too long, but he says that he went to apply to Liprandi for a guide, however the guide in question, a staff officer curiously refused to go, and Liprandi wouldn’t order him to. By the time Ryzhov returned to his men, with a different, more willing staff officer his cavalry were beginning to descend the slope into the south valley.
At this point Liprandi felt more cavalry were required to do the business and ordered a Cossack regiment that Ryzhov was intending to use as a reserve forwards. The Cossacks apparently gave a whoop and went of at a gallop, quickly leaving the rest of the command behind. The implication is that Ryzhov followed this unit out along the spur of the Causeway Heights that separated the North and South Valley’s, and as he did, things began to fall apart.
The goal of the Russians was the British artillery park, their supply dumps and the mountains of supplies piled in the harbour. As a cavalry force acting without infantry, there can have been little other objective than a mission to burn and destroy, even if they had taken Balaclava they couldn’t have held it without infantry support. There is no indication that Liprandi ever gave or intended to give an order for his infantry to advance beyond the heights. As soon as the Russians came in range the British batteries around the harbour opened fire, and immediately began to cause casualties.
As Ryzhov rode down the heights an unspecified group of Cossacks began making directly for Balaclava, whether they were ordered to is open to debate, it is likely they were, but subsequent events mde Ryzhov wish to distance himself from responsibility. Allied sources suggest this body was supported by at least one squadron of the Hussar Brigade, but the Russians are silent on this, nevertheless it is likely the Cossacks were supported. This splinter group rode down from Causway Heights, leaving the main body behind on their original course, through the enemy artillery fire that was targeting them and straight towards a low knoll in front of Balaclava, which as they got closer was suddenly crowned by a “thin red streak, tipped with a line of steel.” The Russian Cavalry did not stop but rode on, the infantry were in line and thus vulnerable to horsemen, it was reasonable to try and charge. But it proved otherwise as a line charged directly has exactly the same stolidity as a single face of a square. The Highlanders of the 93rd supported by rallied Turks, who had been fleeing the Cossacks checked the advance with three measured volley’s sending the Russians back the way they had come.
No sooner had this affair ended than Ryzhov was embroiled in another debacle. While he was deciding what to do about the highlanders he was suddenly confronted by the British heavy cavalry brigade. When Ryzhov saw the British cavalry appear he brought his men down from the heights onto the flat ground in front of the camp of the light brigade and began to deploy. His squadrons formed a dense block that far from intimidating the British, seemed to encourage an attack and General Scarlet wasted little time in closing with them. Most British sources state the Russians did not charge, however Russian sources indicate there was some kind of short advance to meet the enemy.
When the clash came both sides went at it hammer and tongs. The Russians responding late but once engaged stood almost immovable, their officers bravely leading by example and riding forwards to meet the British, and many falling dead and wounded for it. It seemed as if the British were suicidal, successive regiments smashing into the giant Russian block one by one, then splintering. Small bands were soon cutting deep into the formation, their swords bending on thick Russian greatcoats. Ryzhov was even unhorsed and had to be rescued by a Hussar who made sure to go back and save his General’s saddle too. After 10 minutes of fearful butchers work, that was singular in the minds of even the oldest veterans of Napoleon’s wars, both sides drew apart. Here the British say the Russians broke, the Russians indicate that it was necessary to retreat to reform and charge again. The Russians fell back seemingly with the intention of reforming, and perhaps it os telling that despite the lack of a visible Russian reserve the British did not pursue, in truth they also needed to reform. Whatever might have happened next, as soon as the redcoats had disentangled themselves the Russians were pummelled by artillery fire and Ryzhov ordered them to withdraw out of range. A lull now settled over the field, Liprandi, having lost his chance to strike Balaclava, was happy to let the allies make the next move, in the meantime he busied himself with strengthening his position. It was now 1100. a.m. Just before Liprandi had ordered Ryzhov forward he had observed that to hold redoubt number 4, situated at the end of the spur of hills that separated the North and South valleys, would overextend his forces needlessly. He therefore ordered it to be demolished and it’s guns taken to the rear. This movement which in itself shows the Russians consolidating a defensive position further back on the main stretch of heights, seems to show us that Liprandi no longer wished to move on Balaclava and was awaiting an attack.
An attack came but it was not the one that was expected. As redoubt Number 4 was being dismantled General Ryzhov was down in the north valley, where Liprandi had shifted the battered Hussars and Cossacks in order for them to get a breather. They were adequately fronted by several batteries of guns, including the Don Cossack Heavy Field Battery, protected on the flanks by the main force on the hills to their left, and on the right by General Jabrokritsky’s command which was holding the top of the Fedioukine Heights on the west side of the valley. All in all the Russian right centre at Balaclava formed a rough inverted U pointing down the north valley to the enemy position, while the rest hovered menacingly over Balaclava.
Everyone on the Russian side recorded a sense of complete surprise at the realisation that the British cavalry were advancing down the valley. Everyone remembered that it was stupidly brave but seemed utterly foolish, but in essence nobody cared very much how stupid it was because they had some serious shooting to do.
By the time the British reached the guns, rifle fire from the hills, shells and grapeshot had turned the three neat lines of horsemen into a mad weaving swarm of galloping riders, loosely bound in three strung out waves of horsemen with little semblance of order. When the light brigade rode into the wall of smoke created by the last fatal discharge all was confusion in the batteries. The gunners tried to limber up at the last minute and withdraw behind the supporting cavalry, but most were too late and had to fight it out amongst the carriages and caissons. In the panic, officers gave the wrong orders, mad melee’s developed around the retreating gun teams, one individual Cossack Studeniken of the 3rd Don Heavy Artillery, stood boldly over the fallen figure of his officer, Sotnik Rebenin with nothing but a rammer and fought off the British cavalry until they retreated.
The British charge went straight through the gun line and slammed into the bemused cavalry waiting behind them in a dense block. These men already shaken and tired from their fight with the 93rd and the Heavy brigade were deployed with the Cossacks in the front line and the Hussar brigade behind them. Upon being hit by the British, the Cossacks turned tail and ran, it not being their job to engage line troops. The mad wave of blue coated riders then piled straight into the Hussars who could not force their way through and ended up being carried away with the Cossacks all the way to the bridge over the Cherneya river at the North end of the valley. Here the narrow crossing forced those fugitives who had not peeled off to the right and left, to rally and make a fight of it. By the time the lead elements of the Light Brigade had cut their way this far, essentially doing the equivalent of patting the Russians on the shoulder and shouting “You’re it!”, they saw destruction looming had no choice but to turn and ride back the way they had come as fast as possible, no doubt the Duke of Wellington would have been moved to say that nothing much had changed.
As the British now began to ride back down the valley towards the chaos of the gun line, their path was suddenly blocked by the appearance of the Composite Lancer Regiment. The Lancers had been formed up on the left flank of the guns, this regiment, strong and fresh, had ridden down the ridge in their wake and now attempted to wheel and trap the light brigade. A desperate Melee erupted as the British with no other option wildly flung themselves at the Russians and managed to get through. The Lancers thought their job was over but the Light brigade had fragmented so badly that there were now two or more large groups of them trying the fight their way home, the Lancers were struck again and again, and they were unable to stop the wild horsemen from breaking out, but not before they had emptied a few saddles in the fight.
With the light brigade now rushing away, the Cossacks regained their usual courage and employed their skill in the chase. The Lancer Regiment joined them, and a hunt ensued down the smoke filled valley as the Russians chased the survivors almost back to their starting point below the empty shell of redoubt number 4, having to run the gauntlet of their own artillery as they did. However the guns of General Jaborkritsky were silent. A sudden brilliant charge by the French light cavalry had forced the Russian right flank to recoil, indeed had there been infantry support they might have turned the Russian flank, nevertheless they temporarily lost the use of their guns. Jaborkritsky had acted as fast as he could. He had only one squadron of Hussars, so he took two battalions of the Vladimir Regiment, formed them in column and led them against the French, when they got close they formed square and the French, after a show of force simply left the heights to them, their job done. Although artillery fire would continue through the day, the battle of Balaclava was over.
That night by the light of burning torches and campfires, the Cossacks organised a horse market, were they sold off many of the superb thoroughbred horses they had captured from the Light Brigade. The rumour in the Russian camp was that they had killed Lord Lucan, and Ryzhov was convinced he had personally chased Cardigan most of the way back down the valley. The one thing he got right was that the earl had indeed been riding a magnificent horse. Though reinforced by one British Division and more French infantry, the great battle everyone on the Russian side expected to occur the next day did not happen. It was not a defeat, but it whatever it was left a nameless, sour taste in the mouth for both sides. Of course as far as the Generals were concerned it was a tactical success, and served to buoy morale in the Russian army for a while. Indeed Liprandi could logically claim he had achieved more than the allies. They had captured the enemy redoubts, taken their guns and seized control of the Vorontsov Road that ran across them, and would be able to severely restrict allied movements thereafter. The cost had been 627 Russians killed and wounded at this rather odd but quite profitable little encounter, with the allies losing 615. Though some junior officers grumbled that more could have been gained, Liprandi was satisfied if not ecstatic with the results.
I have attempted to tell the Battle of Balaclava from the Russian side in as short a space as possible, though I could have gone into more detail I chose to be brief here. Their explanation of how, the redoubts fell, what happened during the charge of the heavy brigade and subsequently the charge of the light brigade gives me no cause to doubt them (except perhaps in the case of Ryzhov’s motives) any more than we should doubt the recollections of the British accounts, indeed for me, bearing in mind those British accounts, it explains allot of the “Why” that surrounds Balaclava.
Hope to see you again for another Adventure in Historyland.
All Translated by Mark Conrad between 1999 2002
Report of Lieutenant General Liprandi, chief of the twelfth division of infantry, to Aide-de-camp General Prince Mentschikoff [Menshikov], dated October 26th [14th Old Style].
General-Adjutant Prince Menshikov’s report on the offensive operation by Lieutenant-General Liprandi’s force against the camp of the allies’ who are covering the road from Sevastopol to Balaklava.
Recollections of the Balaklava Affair of 13 October, 1854.Recollections of the Balaklava, Affair of 13 October, 1854. By Lieutenant Koribut-Kubitovich Composite Reserve Lancer Regiment.
Crimean Memoirs of the Last War: Stefan Kozhukhov, 12th Artillery Brigade, 8th Light Battery.
On the Battle of Balaklava: Notes of Lieutenant General Ivan Ivanovich Ryzhov.
Memoir of an officer of Don Cossack artillery.
Reminiscences of the campaign in the Crimea Peninsula in 1854 and 1855. Anon.
Kozhukhov’s critique of Ryzhov’s account of the battle of Balaclava 1870.
The Ingermanland (Saxe Weimer) Hussar Regiment in the Crimean War (from Genishta’s 1904 regimental history).
All these and some more can be found on Mark’s website.