It is the subject of a famous poem entitled "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry. Made up of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, it was commanded by Major General the Earl of Cardigan. Together with the Heavy Brigade (the Royal Dragoon Guards and the Scots Greys) it was the main British cavalry force at the battle; overall command of the cavalry was with the Earl of Lucan.
Lucan was delivered an order from the army commmander Lord Raglan stating that "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." The order was drafted by Brigadier Airey and was carried by Captain Lewis Nolan, who may have carried further oral instructions, but he was killed during the charge so that is conjecture.
In response to the order Cardigan led 673 (or 661) cavalry men straight into the valley made between the Fediukhine Heights and the Causeway Heights. The Russian forces, under Pavel Liprandi, on the sides of the valley and at the end included over fifty artillery pieces and around 20 battalions of infantry. It appears that the order was interpreted to refer to the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away. The brigade reached the end of the valley and forced the Russian forces from the redoubt but suffered heavy casualties and were soon forced back. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan; he may have been motivated by personal enmity with his brother-in-law. The troops of the Heavy Brigade entered the mouth of the valley but did not advance further. The French cavalry, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, was more effective; they broke the Russian line on the Fediukhine Heights and later covered the remains of the Light Brigade as they withdrew.
When the Light Brigade regrouped there were only 195 men still with horses. The brigade had lost 118 men killed and 127 wounded; 362 horses were killed. The stupidity of the action and its reckless bravery prompted Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre ("It is magnificent, but it is not war.") Initially the Russian commanders believed the British soldiers must have been drunk and it measurably improved the reputation of British cavalry during the rest of the conflict.
Tennyson praises the Brigade, "When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!", while mourning the appalling futility of the charge: "Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd... Charging an army, while all the world wonder'd."
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2 Further reading
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The event has twice been made into a film, first in 1936 by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and David Niven. The second film was in 1968, directed by Tony Richardson it starred John Gielgud and Trevor Howard. Each film followed a distinctly different historical interpretation of the events; the 1936 film was heroic while the second was based more on the revisionist book by Woodham-Smith.