Charge of the Light Brigade 'was a military success'

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The Independent Online

Into the mouth of Hell rode the 600, galloping to certain death on a futile mission. Bound by rigid Victorian codes of obedience, the cavalry of the British Army's Light Brigade were scythed down by artillery at point-blank range, as much the victims of the blundering toffs who led them as of their astonished Russian executioners.

Into the mouth of Hell rode the 600, galloping to certain death on a futile mission. Bound by rigid Victorian codes of obedience, the cavalry of the British Army's Light Brigade were scythed down by artillery at point-blank range, as much the victims of the blundering toffs who led them as of their astonished Russian executioners.

Now, as the 150th anniversary of the infamous charge approaches, historians are revising their accounts of what every schoolchild knows was a famous military disaster.

Writing in the October edition of BBC History magazine, a leading academic and author says the Light Brigade helped to lay the foundations for the future success of the British Army by establishing an ideal of heroic and "unthinking obedience", with lasting benefits.

According to A D Harvey, the charge, on 25 October 1854, incurred fewer casualties than its bloody reputation suggests, and was a key incident in helping Britain to victory.

"Its sacrifice was by no means altogether useless," he writes. "It first distracted and then put out of action ... an active Russian battery of eight guns." The uncomfortable truth "is that wars regularly involve large-scale blunders resulting in chilling casualty statistics".

The popular image of the attack is largely formed by Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous poem, written shortly after the event - a story then polished by Hollywood.

The charge occurred during the battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, when 658 British cavalrymen, acting on a misinterpreted order, rode for more than a mile under heavy fire to attack Russian artillery positions, killed the gunners, then retreated, having lost 110 dead, 180 wounded or taken prisoner and 475 horses killed.

Yet the charge helped swing the campaign in favour of the British. A few days later, 10,000 British troops held fast against 40,000 Russians at the battle of Inkerman. In the longer term, the habit of obeying orders - which had not been universal in earlier periods - indicated a new ethos of professionalism in the Army.

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