‘Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered; stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of hell rode the six hundred.’ – The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Tennyson, 1854.
Edwin Hughes was an elderly man who lived in the seaside town of Blackpool in the 1920s. Hughes was a Welshman born in 1830, seven years before Victoria ascended the British throne and ushered in the Victorian age. Twenty-four years after his birth, Hughes took part in one the greatest blunders in the history of the British Army – the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. By 1923, Edwin Hughes was the last man alive of Tennyson’s infamous ‘600’.
Hughes was a shoemaker before he joined the 13th Light Dragoons in 1852. A year later Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire were at war with Russia in what would become known as the Crimean War. Hughes’ regiment was part of the British Army’s Light Brigade – a lightly armoured cavalry unit designed for skirmishing, attacking enemy positions and cutting down retreating troops. Its counterpart, the Heavy Brigade, was made up of armoured men on heavy chargers used for full-frontal assaults on enemy positions.
The Light Brigade’s date with destiny occurred on the 25th of October 1854 at the Battle of Balaclava. After the British successfully held back a Russian cavalry charge and the Heavy Brigade forced an enemy retreat early on in the battle, the commander of the British Army, Lord Raglan, worried that large naval guns left behind on the Causeway Heights area of the battlefield might be dragged away by the retreating troops and used against his forces later in the day. Raglan gave the order for the Light Brigade to capture these guns.
Captain Louis Edward Nolan of the 15th Light Dragoons was chosen to pass on Raglan’s order to Lord Lucan, the head of the Cavalry Division. Confused as to which guns the Light Brigade were supposed to attack as Lucan could not see the guns from his position down in the valley below the Causeway Heights, he asked Nolan what guns Raglan wanted the Light Brigade to take. “There, my Lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” Nolan replied with a sweep of his arm. Presuming Raglan wanted an assault on the heavily defended Russian artillery position at the bottom of the valley, Lucan then ordered the head of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, to immediately attack the wrong target.
When the order was received to charge the Russian guns head-on, the 670 men of the Light Brigade couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing. This was a reconnaissance and skirmishing unit, not an armoured assault force. Why wasn’t the Heavy Brigade doing this?
‘When we received the order, not a man could seem to believe it,’ wrote Private Thomas Dudley of the 17th Lancers shortly after the charge.’ He was not alone in his disbelief. ‘I could see what would be the result of it, and so could all of us,’ wrote Private Thomas Williams of the 11th Hussars, ‘but of course, as we had got the order, it was our duty to obey. I do not wish to boast too much; but I can safely say that there was not a man in the Light Brigade that day but what did his duty to his Queen and Country.’
Despite their confusion, not one objection to Raglan’s orders was raised. With the realisation that they were about to embark on what for many would surely be a suicide mission, the men of the Light Brigade gritted their teeth and steeled themselves for what lay ahead.
The order was given to advance and the Light Brigade headed into the valley with Cardigan in front. To the astonishment of the watching Russians, the brigade broke into a canter and then a full gallop. Nolan rushed forward in front of Cardigan, leading to later speculation that he was desperately trying to stop the charge after realising the brigade was about to attack the wrong target. If true, it was to no avail as Nolan was killed by a shell which exploded in front of his horse before he could reach Cardigan.
Now at full gallop, the Light Brigade thundered towards the Russian guns, shells bursting all around them as bullets whizzed through the air from all sides, cutting down men and horses in their droves. In a letter to his father sent after the charge, Captain William Morgan of the 17th Lancers described the charge as ‘gallant’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘useless’. ‘On we went – astonished, but unshaken in nerve – over half a mile of rough ground, losing dozens of men and horses at every stride, to attack horse artillery in our front, supported by three times our numbers of cavalry, heavy batteries on our right and left flanks, backed by infantry, riflemen etc.”
The watching Russians couldn’t quite believe what they were witnessing. Sabres aloft, the Light Brigade galloped hell-for-leather towards their target, never flinching or turning as men and horses were mown down all around them. Many of the Russian troops watching this astonishing spectacle assumed the men of the Light Brigade must be drunk. Why else would an elite British cavalry unit be doing this?
Despite suffering heavy losses, the brigade was able to reach its objective, crashing into the Russian defences and slashing away at the defending troops with their sabres. However, with even more Russian troops and cavalry bringing up the rear behind the guns, it quickly became clear to those members of the Light Brigade who had somehow managed to get this far that the guns could not be captured nor held, and the only option available was to wheel their horses round and gallop right back up the valley they had just charged down. Leaving their dead and wounded behind, this is what the remains of the brigade proceeded to do.
The return up the valley was just as ridiculously dangerous as the charge down it, as Private William Pearson of the 4th Light Dragoon recalled in a letter to his mother. ‘I shall never forget the 25th of October – shells, bullets, cannonballs, and swords kept flying around us,’ he wrote. ‘Dear Mother, every time I think of my poor comrades it makes my blood run cold, to think how we had to gallop over the poor wounded fellows lying on the field of battle, with anxious looks for assistance – what a sickening scene!’
Pearson had had a hell of day. Thrown from his horse after it stumbled over the corpse of another, he had managed to mount the charger of a fallen comrade and continue galloping towards the Russian guns. On his return journey, he was able to remount his original horse and get back to safety. His story mirrored many others – men who knew full well they were facing almost certain death charging headlong into a hail of bullets, shells and cannonballs and somehow living to tell the tale. Others were not so lucky. Of the 670 men who entered the valley, 110 were killed and a further 161 were wounded. Thanks to a misunderstood command, the fighting strength of the Light Brigade had been cut by a third.
Survivors of the charge stumbled back to the allied lines with stories of miraculous escapes galore. Private William Pennington of the 11th Hussars wrote to his father after the charge describing how his busby hat had been struck with a shot a mere two inches above his head before he was shot in the leg and fell from his horse. Despite his injury, he was able to mount another charger and head back to safety. As he did, Russian cavalry pursued the fleeing members of the Light Brigade. ‘Of course, with our handful it was life or death; so we rushed at them to break through them,’ Pennington told his father. ‘I galloped on, parrying with the determination of one who would not lose his life, breaking the lances of the cowards who attacked us in the proportion of three or four to one, occasionally catching one a slap with the sword across his teeth, and giving another the point in his arm or breast.'
When he got back to safety, Pennington had to be lifted from his horse because of his injury. Like many others, he was sent to the Scutari Hospital in Istanbul where Florence Nightingale would shortly take up tenure. For Pennington and what was left of the Light Brigade, it had been a day none would ever forget.
And what of Edwin Hughes of the 13th Dragoons?
‘I was on duty that day from four o'clock in the morning until after the charge in the afternoon. We rode out at the command straight for the Russian lines,’ he later recalled. ‘Before we reached them, my horse was shot, and in falling on its side I got partially pinned underneath injuring my leg. I was assisted away.’
Like many others, Hughes had had a lucky escape that day. After the Crimean War was won, Edwin stayed in the army for another nineteen years, eventually rising to the rank of troop sergeant major. After retiring from the army, he joined the Warwickshire yeomanry until he reached retirement age. He then moved to Blackpool where he lived quietly until his 96th year, passing away on the 18th of May 1927. He had played his part in one of the greatest military blunders in British history. With his passing, that infamous charge into the Valley of Death finally passed from living memory into legend.