A homicidal snob with too few brains

Historical Notes
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The Independent Culture
THE SEVENTH Earl of Cardigan will forever be remembered as the man who led the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in October 1854. Thanks to a misunderstood order, 676 riders were sent to attack a Russian battery at the end of a valley bounded on three sides by enemy troops. When the bloodied remnants formed up near the same ground they had charged from 25 minutes earlier, only 195 men were still mounted.

Cardigan was lucky. He suffered only a superficial wound and returned home to a rapturous welcome, cheered in the streets, lion-ised by society and decorated by the Queen. Pictures of him appeared in shops everywhere: music halls reverberated to heroic ballads in his honour; and even the novel jacket that he had worn in the Crimea was named after him.

It was all a far cry from his departure, eight months earlier, as one of the most unpopular men in England. Since then the war had degenerated into a costly and controversial stalemate; little wonder that the members of the Light Brigade were held up as shining examples of British valour. And none more so than their vaunted leader, Lord Cardigan. The scandal and disgrace that had hitherto dogged his career - two courts-martial, two court appearances for adultery, a near- fatal duel, dismissal from the command of a crack cavalry regiment, blackballed by the leading military club, debates in Parliament about his conduct - were now a distant memory. But did his actions at Balaclava merit such adulation?

The first seeds of doubt were sown in the public mind by the 1855 publication of George Ryan's pamphlet Was Lord Cardigan a Hero at Balaclava?. A jobbing writer, Ryan had earlier praised Cardigan for his conduct at the charge; he now explained his volte-face by saying that he had been put straight by an official at the Horse Guards who had heard at first hand from a number of officers involved. Ryan's main criticism was that Cardigan had retreated from the Russian battery "before his time" and in a far from orderly manner. In other words, he had left his men in the lurch.

An even more serious threat to Cardigan's status as national hero was posed by the appearance in December 1856 of a book entitled Letters from Head-Quarters by Major the Hon Somerset Calthorpe, who had served in the Crimea. It made a number of harmful claims, the most serious of which was that Cardigan did not even reach the Russian battery; instead "his horse took fright" when a cannon fired "and galloped off with him to the rear".

Fortunately for Cardigan, genuine criticisms were mixed up with half- truths, enabling him to refute them en bloc. Nevertheless, Calthorpe would only agree to make minor alterations to the text, prompting Cardigan to sue him for libel. It was a grave error. At the trial, Calthorpe was forced to concede that Cardigan had indeed entered the battery: but he also produced evidence from seven eye-witnesses who claimed to have seen Cardigan galloping to the rear before they had even reached the guns. It was akin to a naval captain abandoning his ship before the last of his men had got off. The case was dismissed and the impression that Cardigan had retreated prematurely was never dispelled.

The popular image of Cardigan today is of the archetypal early-Victorian army officer: an arrogant, homicidal snob with too much money and too few brains, as likely to be found aboard a woman as a horse. Like all caricatures, it is a distortion of the truth, but based on fact none the less. The Charge of the Light Brigade was a heaven-sent opportunity for Cardigan to put the controversy of his life behind him. Instead, his conduct generated yet more controversy, and ensured that his rehabilitation in the minds of the public would never be complete.

Saul David is the author of `The Homicidal Earl: the life of Lord Cardigan' (Abacus, pounds 10.99)