Battle of Balaklava

During the Crimean War, as allied armies attacked Russia’s Black Sea port at Sevastopol. Russian forces attacked the British at Balaklava to break the siege but failed to achieve their goal. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” commemorates a British cavalry unit that suffered heavy casualties during the battle.

Summary of Event

A coalition of British, French, and Turkish military forces landed on Crimea, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, in September, 1854, and soon laid siege to the important Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Russian forces valiantly defended the city but hoped to break the enemy encirclement by undertaking several offensive operations against the invaders. A few miles south of Sevastopol, Balaklava provided a seaport for landing British supplies. By late October, a major Russian objective was to push the British into the sea, or at least reduce some pressure on Sevastopol. The Battle of Balaklava was the first of three major Russian attempts in 1854-1855 to achieve victory and free the naval base from the siege. Balaklava, Battle of (1854)
Crimean War (1853-1856);Battle of Balaklava
Cardigan, seventh earl of
Lucan, third earl of
Raglan, First Baron
[kw]Battle of Balaklava (Oct. 25, 1854)
[kw]Balaklava, Battle of (Oct. 25, 1854)
Balaklava, Battle of (1854)
Crimean War (1853-1856);Battle of Balaklava
Cardigan, seventh earl of
Lucan, third earl of
Raglan, First Baron
[g]Ukraine;Oct. 25, 1854: Battle of Balaklava[3020]
[g]Russia;Oct. 25, 1854: Battle of Balaklava[3020]
[g]Great Britain;Oct. 25, 1854: Battle of Balaklava[3020]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 25, 1854: Battle of Balaklava[3020]
Scarlett, James
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord

British troops at the Battle of Balaklava. From a painting by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler; 1846-1933).

(P. F. Collier and Son)

On October 25, 1854, a Russian force of approximately twenty-five thousand troops attacked British and Turkish forces in the Balaklava area. The terrain was hilly and mountainous, with ridges dividing two valleys that became important in the battle. The North Valley and the Causeway Heights to the south became battle centers. In the first phase of the battle, Russian forces moved across the North Valley to attack the allied position on the crest of Causeway Heights. Although initially successful, thanks to the element of surprise and overwhelming numbers that pushed the defenders back and captured several artillery pieces, the Russian offensive stalled in the face of a determined and ferocious counterattack by Scottish Highlanders.

As the Russian advance wavered, General James Scarlett’s Scarlett, James heavy brigade of British cavalry advanced and forced the Russians to withdraw from the Causeway Heights, marking the second phase of the battle. While observing the fighting from a high vantage point some distance away, British forces commander Raglan decided to try to recapture lost British cannon before the Russians could remove them from the field. Raglan sent an officer with written orders instructing Commander Lucan of the cavalry division to use his forces to achieve this goal. Lucan placed the task on Commander Cardigan and his light brigade.

The confusion of battle and clouds of gun smoke wafting across the field, however, made seeing clearly difficult. The uneven terrain also affected a clear view of the battlefield. From his higher elevation Raglan could see a broader view of the valley, while Lucan and Cardigan could not. Because they saw the North Valley from a different angle, the two commanders could not see the guns mentioned in Raglan’s order, and they did not understand correctly Raglan’s message about the intended direction for the attack.

Cardigan ordered his troops forward; a fateful decision. The light brigade attacked a strong Russian position located in a different part of the field. The British cavalry moved at an oblique angle, advancing toward a line of Russian artillery at the east end of the North Valley. Russian infantry and cavalry units on several ridges overlooking the valley aided the defense of their guns.

The valley was more than one mile long. Cardigan’s light brigade moved across open terrain from west to east through the valley, as the Russians on the heights on three sides of the valley fired on the British troops below. The valley was, as the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Tennyson, Alfred, Lord later wrote, a “valley of Death” for the British soldiers, who were in full view of the Russians.

British casualties, both to men and to horses, Horses;in Crimean War[Crimean War] steadily increased during the advance, but a portion of Cardigan’s unit successfully reached the Russian guns and began fierce hand-to-hand combat. Within a few minutes, as Russian reinforcements moved to defend their cannon, it became obvious the British could not sustain their weak and overextended position. Cardigan ordered his brigade to withdraw. The survivors of the light brigade fell back, fighting their way through the Russians toward the safety of the British lines to the west.

The fourth and final phase of the battle now involved the delayed and slow advance of two British infantry divisions into the North Valley and ridge line, gradually forcing the Russians to withdraw from the area. French cavalry also entered the North Valley to assist the British.

Casualties for the Battle of Balaklava are difficult to determine, as sources provide conflicting or imprecise figures. For the Russians, estimates are 550 killed and wounded while the allied losses were approximately 660. Numbers for the light brigade, although more certain, also vary widely. Between 600 and 700 soldiers started the famous charge, and the most accurate figure appears to be approximately 660. The number of survivors who reached the British lines on horseback ranges from 165 to approximately 200. One account says up to 300 soldiers were unhorsed by the end of the charge and had to seek safety on foot as best they could, and thus should not be counted as casualties. One source mentions 118 killed and 127 wounded, while a second says 157 killed and 134 wounded.

Terry Brighton’s book Hell Riders (2004) provides the most reliable and thorough account of the battle based on extensive research. He believes that 110 were killed directly in battle or died later from their wounds, plus 152 were wounded, for a total of 262 casualties. Regardless of the variations, Cardigan’s command suffered a lower percentage of casualties than often has been assumed or asserted. Many horses were killed in the engagement or had to be destroyed because of their injuries. Brighton gives the figure of 375, although most sources give higher numbers. These losses in men and horses hampered the brigade’s ability to continue as a fighting unit until replacements could be obtained.

In the aftermath of the battle, a poem stands out to define the carnage. Moved by initial newspaper accounts of the battle and Cardigan’s apparent losses, Tennyson composed “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” []”Charge of the Light Brigade, The” (Tennyson)[Charge of the Light Brigade (Tennyson)] which appeared in the English press in December, 1854, and was included in a book of poems published in 1855. Tennyson Tennyson, Alfred, Lord counted six hundred as the number of troops to fit his creative format (“Into the valley of death rode the Six Hundred”). He mentions the mistakes in the decisions of commanders (“someone had blunder’d”) and describes the heroism of Cardigan’s troops: “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” This patriotic poem became a tribute to British forces, despite the casualties inflicted on them by their opponents and despite the charge moving in the wrong direction.


Despite British losses, the Battle of Balaklava showed that British forces could withstand a substantial Russian attack. The battle has come to represent a victory in the Crimean War for Great Britain and its allies, but the battle, nevertheless, also revealed problems within British military leadership. It also revealed a lack of satisfactory communication between military units (such as Lucan’s and Cardigan’s failure to clearly understand Raglan’s orders) and the unsatisfactory coordination of military operations in the effective use of infantry and cavalry. More broadly, the decision to not take the offensive against the Russians immediately in the aftermath of the battle meant the conflict in the Crimea would continue for many more months.

Russia’s failure to win at Balaklava meant that its forces lost an important opportunity to capitalize against a weaker opponent. The loss also illustrates that the Russian commanders attempted sporadic and limited offensives rather than conduct a concerted campaign against the allies. This was due to limited forces available for field operations, uneven leadership by senior leaders in Sevastopol and the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, and the strong resistance of the allied coalition.

The Battle of Inkerman Inkerman, Battle of (1854) the following month saw the Russians again try to break the allied siege of Sevastopol, but as was the case at Balaklava, the Russians failed to achieve their objective and the fortress eventually fell to the allies in September, 1855.

Further Reading

  • Adkin, Mark. The Charge: Why the Light Brigade Was Lost. London: Leo Cooper, 1996. This interpretation of the battle includes photos and extensive maps.
  • Barthorp, Michael. Heroes of the Crimea: The Battles of Balaklava and Inkerman. London: Blandford, 1991. Contains illustrations to accompany the account of two major engagements of the Crimean War.
  • Brighton, Terry. Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. The most thorough book on the topic, with maps, photos, and a roster of troops in the light brigade at the time of the charge.
  • Pemberton, W. Baring. Battles of the Crimean War. New York: Macmillan, 1962. An older yet still-valuable source on the Crimean War battles.
  • Selby, John. The Thin Red Line of Balaclava. London: Hamilton, 1970. Includes many informative illustrations and helpful maps.
  • Warner, Phillip. The Crimean War: A Reappraisal. New York: Taplinger, 1973. Provides the text of Raglan’s October 28 dispatch to his superiors describing the battle, including the light brigade’s role.

Crimean War

Siege of Sevastopol

Nightingale Takes Charge of Nursing in the Crimea

Third Russo-Turkish War

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Cardigan, seventh earl of
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