Balaklava and the Charge of the Light Brigade

Today Balaklava is a pleasant, peaceful little harbour town, gradually getting used to seeing foreigners in the streets after years of being part of the closed district of Sevastopol during the soviet era. But it only takes a climb up to the ruins of the Genoese fortress on the headland to realise why it has been of such strategic importance over the centuries.

Balaklava sits on a narrow S-shaped inlet protected by steep hills on either side, so that ships in the port are not visible at all from the sea. But anyone in posess ion of the cliffs where the fortress stands can control the entrance to the inlet with ease. Small wonder that the British and their allies chose it as the base from which they would launch the siege of Sevastopol.

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Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, and Dasha Sevastopolska
In 1854 this harbour bristled with the masts of supply ships bringing food, clothing and reinforcements, and the area was dotted with the soldiers' round white tents. It was here that Mary Seacole set up her "British Hotel" a combination of refreshment house for soldiers waiting to go into battle and nursery and recovery centre for the sick and the wounded. It was here that Florence Nightingale caught the fever on her first visit and was dangerously ill. Although she spent most of her time running the hospital at Scutari near what is now Istanbul, she paid two visits to Balaklava, once in the company of Alexis Soyer, a French celebrity cook and philanthropist from London who advised the British army in Crimea on hospital diet and food preparation for the troops.

There were women helping the wounded on the Russian side too. The most famous of these was Dasha Alexandrova, who ran a tavern in Sevastopol. When the allied troops were disembarking at Balaklava, she cut off her hair, dressed in mens' clothing, loaded a horse with clean rags and bottles of wine and vinegar for cleaning injuries and set off for the front line. Other women joined her and they worked throughout the siege, often in very dangerous conditions, assisting wartime surgeon Nokolai Pirogov. Dasha was regarded as a heroine by the soldiers she helped, and became known as Dasha Sevastopolska.

The battle
The battle of Balaklava actually took place a couple of miles north of the town, in a wide valley in front of Sevastopol's Sapoun Hill (Sapun-gora). Soon after the battle the valley became known as the `Valley of Death', as a result of the Light Brigade's ill-fated charge.The day began with a number of attempts by the Russian army to put themselves in a good position to attack the base at Balaklava, but these ended in stalemate. The Russians' artillery fire had inflicted heavy losses on Turkish positions, but a cavalry charge against the Highlanders had been driven off, and the British Heavy Brigade had then forced the Russians to retire to higher ground. In an attempt to drive the Russians off one of the surrounding ridges and force them to abandon the guns they had captured from the Turks, Lord Raglan sent a message Lord Lucan, in command of the Light Brigade, which was delivered in what some have suggested was a deliberately vague and imprecise way by the messenger, Captain Nolan. The result was that the instruction was misunderstood as as an order for the Light Brigade to charge directly at the Russian guns, a mile and a half up the valley, with Russian artillery and riflemen firing at them from both sides as they did so.

Within 20 minutes several hundred men and horses died as they obeyed the order and bullets rained down from either side. Having cut through the Russian guns, they found themselves at the head of the valley, and had no option but to return the way they had come, sustaining even heavier losses. 700 horsemen charged up the valley, but only 195 came back.

For the Russian onlookers, the charge appeared to be an act of lincomprehensible lunacy, although there was also a measure of respect for the bravery of the soldiers involved. The French general Bosquet, who watched the charge, famously remarked "c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre!" (it's magnificent, but it's not warfare), and the controversy which followed on the British side led to Lord Lucan's enforced resignation from his command.

William Russell, the Times Special Correspondent, was among those who watched the charge. In the report subsequently printed in the newspaper, he suggested that there seemed to have been `some hideous blunder'. Three weeks later Alfred Lord Tennyson was already working on his famous poem:

`Forward the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldiers knew
Someone had blundered:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred
Lines from The Charge of the Light Brigade

After the charge the battle of Balaklava petered out and was regarded by both sides as a draw - the Russians had not captured Balaklava, but they had captured some of the ridges and some of the enemy guns; the British and the Turks had lost the ridges and the guns, but they had not lost Balaklava.

The photos
The photographs in the Balaklava web album are the work of Roger Fenton, who spent four months in1855 in Crimea taking pictures on behalf of the British government and with royal patronage. Fenton earned his living as a solicitor but had studied painting in the studio of Charles Lucy, a member of the Royal Academy in London, and may have been introduced to photography by the French artist Paul Delaroche. He began experimenting with the new medium in 1847, and in 1852 travelled to Kyiv to take photographs for British engineer Charles Vignoles of the suspension bridge he was constructing over the Dnipro river. Early in 1854 Fenton was engaged to photograph the royal family, and was subsequently asked to travel to Crimea to take pictures of the war.

The photographs in the web album are from the Library of Congress collection. You can see the full collection on

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