Cardigan’s Charge at Balaclava

The town in present-day Ukraine became famous for the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The war, a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia, was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. Most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula.

The Battle of Balaclava, fought on 25 October 1854 during the Crimean War, was part of the Anglo-French-Turkish campaign to capture the port and fortress of Sevastopol, Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea.

The Allies decided against an immediate assault on Sevastopol and instead prepared for a protracted siege. The British, under the command of Lord Raglan, and the French, under Canrobert, positioned their troops to the south of the port on the Chersonese Peninsula: the French Army occupied Kamiesh on the west coast whilst the British moved to the southern port of Balaclava. However, this position committed the British to the defence of the right flank of the Allied siege operations, for which Raglan had insufficient troops. Taking advantage of this exposure, the Russian General Liprandi, with some 25,000 men, prepared to attack the defences in and around Balaclava, hoping to disrupt the supply chain between the British base and their siege lines.

Charge of the Light Brigade

The battle began with a Russian artillery and infantry attack on the Ottoman redoubts that formed Balaclava’s first line of defence. The Ottoman forces initially resisted the Russian assaults, but lacking support they were eventually forced to retreat. When the redoubts fell, the Russian cavalry moved to engage the second defensive line held by the Ottoman and the Scottish 93rd Highland Regiment in what came to be known as the Thin Red Line. This line held and repulsed the attack; as did General Scarlett’s British Heavy Brigade who charged and defeated the greater proportion of the cavalry advance, forcing the Russians onto the defensive. However, a final Allied cavalry charge, stemming from a misinterpreted order from Raglan, led to one of the most famous and ill-fated events in British military history – the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Thanks to the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, a British cavalry charge due to a  miscommunication was sent up a valley strongly held on three sides by the Russians, in which about 250 men were killed or wounded, and over 400 horses lost, effectively reducing the size of the mounted brigade by two thirds to no military purpose or gain.

The British poet Lord Tennyson immortalized this battle in verse with a famous line:

tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d

Even though the Charge of the Light Brigade is still proudly remembered today, the outcome of the Battle of Balaclava was inconclusive and is in itself not remembered except for the garment which has taken its name. The balaclava, a tight knitted garment covering the whole head and neck with holes for the eyes and mouth, also takes its name from this moment in history, where British soldiers first wore them.

During the Crimean War, knitted balaclavas were sent over to the British troops to help protect them from the bitter cold weather. However, according to Richard Rutt in his History of Handknitting, the name balaclava helmet did not first appear in print during the Crimean War, but only much later, in 1881. This type of headgear was also known in the 19th century as an Uhlan cap or a Templar cap. In modern American English, when made for those serving in the armed forces, they are usually known as helmet liners.

On another fashionable note: the famous charge of the British cavalry on the 25th of October was led by Lord Cardigan (Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan) The Earl is known to have worn a knitted waistcoat supposedly when on campaign. It became a fashionable garment and many knitted wool waistcoats were sold after the war, these became known as cardigans.


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