British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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Remarks on the Charge of the Light Brigade

Extracts from the Letters and Journal of General Lord George Paget

These edited extracts are from Paget's own account, The Light Cavalry Brigade in the Crimea Extracts from the Letters and Journal of General Lord George Paget (John Murray, 1881). This document has been taken from its primary location on The Victorian Web

Remarks on the movements of the 8th Hussars - and on the conduct of Lords Lucan and Cardigan

It is an indisputable fact that the 8th Hussars were placed under my command by Lord Cardigan; that I ordered them to advance, and named the 4th as the "regiment of direction;" and that during the advance they became disengaged from the 4th, without, and contrary to my orders. It is a fact, also, that my strict duty would have been to report Colonel Shewell's disobedience of orders, on my return from the charge, and it is due to me to explain why I did not do so. This was because I knew the man with whom I had to deal - one of the most honourable, gallant, conscientious and single-minded men it had ever been my good fortune to be associated with. I therefore gave him credit for that which I felt sure would be his due - i.e. for acting to the best of. his powers in the circumstances in which he was placed; and I determined, therefore, before taking any step, to talk the matter over quietly with him, and most amply was I rewarded for what I think was an act of forbearance on my part: for he then explained to me satisfactorily that he had acted in the emergency of the moment in the best manner that he could have done.

There may be those who might say, "All this is very true, but it is no excuse, firstly, for Lord George in having neglected his orders, in thus allowing one of his regiments to separate from him; and, secondly, for Colonel Shewell, in having disobeyed Lord George's reiterated orders." To such I would say, " Bear in mind all the circumstances of the case; the noise and confusion that prevented either of our voices being well heard, and the difficulty - known only to those who have had experience of it - of controlling the movements of a body of cavalry that has once got out of hand. Bear in mind also, as regards Colonel Shewell, that it was on the impulse of the moment that he had to form a decision, at a very critical moment; and, as regards me, that I had the movements of the cavalry in front of me to attend to (with the words 'Mind, your best support,' always ringing in my ears) as well as my own, and that I had no way of getting the 8th back to me, short of leaving my own advancing regiment, to go back and look after them." I think it will then be conceded that I took the only course open to me, that of leading on with those, who kept on with me.

I must next briefly revert to the conduct of Lord Cardigan on this charge. That he led his first line most gallantly to the guns can be matter of no doubt or controversy, but that he brought his brigade out of action as he ought to have done will not admit of argument; and this, as regards the actual "charge" against him, is all that can be said.

But then it must fairly be urged that this charge, or "advance" as I would rather call it, was wholly exceptional in its nature and in its circumstances, and was a movement to which the recognised rules of warfare could not apply, and if I here make allusion to a term which has become a proverb, I hope I may be acquitted of vainglory, in calling to mind a phrase, the repetition of which by an actor in the affair could, I own, be hardly dissociated from the charge of vainglory, were it not for my assurance that it is here urged in an attempt to vindicate the character of a brave soldier who is now no more - " C'est très magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre," ["This is magnificent, but it is not war"] and it is from this point of view that Lord Cardigan's conduct in the retreat may, perhaps I may say should, be judged. And here let me own to the fact that I have always been in the first rank of his accusers, and for this reason: that I (I must ask for indulgence for the egotism which follows) was the man who in the greatest degree had reason to complain of his conduct.

I was his second in command, and to me he delegated the command of his line of support, and to me it was that he reiterated, in the most urgent manner and tone, his command that I would give him "my best support." It cannot be difficult, therefore, to appreciate the effect which those words must have had on my motions and actions during this day - actions which, so far as " amour-propre " is concerned, I might glory in, [I was told by many officers of my regiment afterwards that they considered me mad, in persevering as I did. I really blushed at the amount of heroism which they thus falsely gave me credit for] were it not for the inward knowledge that instead of the " heroism " that was thus apparently attributable to my conduct, I may almost say that a feeling of remorse has ever since been apparent in my mind for the fear of responsibility which then pervaded my actions - actions which doubtless caused the lamentable sacrifice of many lives, but from which feelings of remorse I have happily been a stranger, in the reflection that after such injunctions it was not in my power, consistently with duty, to act otherwise than I did.

It was with these feelings that, as I have said, I considered myself as the man the most aggrieved at Lord Cardigan's conduct, having always been of opinion that it was his bounden duty, after the solemn injunction he had given me, [I speak thus egotistically of "me," because, as far as Lord Cardigan was concerned, I was the only person to whom, previously to the advance, he gave independent authority, and his words to me were, as far as I know, unheard by any one else] to "see me out of it" in other words, that when he himself was forced to retire, he should have left no stone unturned to find me out, and relieve me of the responsibility with which I was laden by his words, for until relieved of such responsibility by him, how could I think of retiring with the possibility of his being still in my front? For it must be remembered that what has since become history, viz. that the first line was, as a body, annihilated at the end of the valley - was unknown to me at the time, and that in fact, until I saw Lord Cardigan on my return back, I did not know what had become of him.

Therefore it was that I individually have always felt sorry on this point, and to such an extent that, at the request of those who acted with me on this occasion, I, some time after our return to England, made an official representation to the Commander-in-Chief of the facts as they occurred, which led to an, animated correspondence, which is still, I presume, in the Archives of the Horse Guards.

But "time works wonders," fortunately for the world; and the feelings of irritation which predominated in my mind gave place, as time wore on (and particularly on the occasion of his death), to those of anxiety as to whether I had been wholly impartial in my opinion of his conduct, and the, following is the result at which I have, arrived:

Lord Cardigan, it has been observed, led his first line down the right of the valley, while the second line inclined to the left, and upon this, in my opinion, may be grounded a fair reasoning towards the conclusion that he was unaware of the fate to which his personal retreat left the second line, because conjointly with the fact of the two lines (or the remnants of them) being on different sides of the valley, must be taken into consideration the question of time.

Now supposing that the two lines advanced to about the same distance down the valley, which I believe they did - the one on one side, and the other on the other side - and supposing that the time occupied by Lord Cardigan in his personal combat at the guns, and his subsequent advance beyond them, took up the time that brought the second line up to the guns, and therefore to a spot parallel to that from whence he retreated (a very fair hypothesis, when the pace at which we were going, and the time occupied by his advance beyond the guns is considered); - (1) it then follows that when he had got clear of the guns in the commencement of his retreat, those, regiments must have ceased to be visible objects in front of the, guns, and therefore to Lord Cardigan, for the 11th Hussars, and probably a great portion of the 4th Light Dragoons, must have been by that time in the proper rear of the guns, the remainder of the latter regiment being mixed up with the guns, but all more or less out of sight of Lord Cardigan, between whose view and those regiments (on the other side of the valley) the guns would have intervened.

He therefore could not have met the 4th (2) and the 11th in their advance, and thus falls to the ground the imputation that he, seeing them in their advance, failed to join them, and from this point of view his assertion that "when he commenced his retreat, he could see no troops except those who were retiring before him in different knots," can hardly be called in question. (3) But I will venture to go further, in the expression of a doubt how Lord Cardigan could have known,for certain, that his supporting regiments (at least the 4th and 11th) had made the advance at all, and were consequently down the valley when he commenced his retreat. It was well known that he never looked back from the moment when he first put spurs to his horse, and for anything that he could know to the contrary, the advance of those regiments might have been countermanded by the Lieutenant-General; or their onward course might have been impeded or turned aside by some eventuality unknown to him, in this unusual contest.

The two points of view, therefore, from which his conduct should be judged in the two cases, are as follows:

If his detention at the guns had been as momentary as was generally believed at the time, he must have met the two regiments on their onward course, and it would be difficult in that case to understand how he could have avoided seeing them; but if, on the other hand, his detention was such (and it seems proved to have been so) as that his retreat commenced when those regiments were lost to his view, then apparently falls to the ground the accusation that he failed in his duty towards them

There certainly still remains the question, how he could have failed to meet the 8th Hussars in their advance, inasmuch as their line of advance was more on his side of the valley, and in rear (echelon) of ours; but as I only here deal with his actions as regards the 4th Light Dragoons and the 11th Hussars, it is obviously not in my province to enter on that part of the question.

Now I am not going to make the broad assertion that Lord Cardigan acted in this very peculiar crisis in a manner that defies criticism. (4) I do not consider myself competent to form such a judgment, and further, I doubt much if the most experienced veteran in war could answer with certainty such a question. But this I can and do boldly assert, - that his acts on this day would not have been called in question but for his folly when he came home. And here I must, I fear, digress a little.

The feelings on the part of the cavalry towards him were far from those of austere and critical judges, in the early days after the 25th of October. Besides that, every man had a sort of sympathetic feeling towards those who had shared with them the toils of this arduous day, the natural impulse of every one's mind as regards him was a belief in his courage and daring. His well-known character in the cavalry service, while it may not have been popular as to the mode of his conducting the command of his regiment, was the reverse of that from which could be expected any act savouring of want of such characteristics, and it was only when the columns of the Times began to tell of his vagaries in London, that what were previously but faint murmurs, began to gain a strength which culminated in the widespread accusations which afterwards became notorious.

Lord Cardigan was a vain as well as an ambitious man, and his vanity led him astray when he came in contact with the admiring mob of London. Whether it was his feelings of animosity towards some of his own branch of the service, or whether it was his vanity which blinded his eyes to the fact, that by ignoring the services of those with whom he fought on that day he did not add lustre to his own name (it was probably a combination of the two), it is certain that his shortsightedness in withholding from others the meed of praise, which he ought to have been proud that they should have shared with him, was the cause of all his misfortunes; and I fear that it must be at the sacrifice of his loyauté towards his comrades in arms that I (as far as my humble opinion goes) acquit him of blame in his military capacity, the only element of his character with which it is my province to deal.

I must now say a few words as regards Lord Lucan. It is perfectly true that Lord Lucan had been "out of harness" for many years previous to the Crimean War, and that under these circumstances his selection for the command of the Cavalry Division must obviously have been a subject of much criticism at the time, and I must acknowledge that I felt grave misgivings as to what was in store for us under his command, and the more so, with the knowledge which I (with the rest of society) had of his personal relations with Lord Cardigan, and I confess that those misgivings were by no means allayed during the first few days after I found myself under his command at Varna; but after my first what I may call "contact" with him, I wholly altered my opinions of him - my misgivings were allayed.

It was in this wise: We had several "field-days" at Varna, the force consisting of the Heavy Brigade and my own regiment, which, having landed after Lord Cardigan's start for the Dobrudscha, was the only Light Cavalry regiment at Varna. At those field-days Lord Lucan assumed a tone of instruction to us, wholly at variance with that to which we had been all drilled. The elements of cavalry drill had been almost totally changed since his time, and with the sternness of will, which was a leading characteristic of his nature, he, instead of bending to the now order of things, sought to unteach his troops the drill which they had been taught, and to substitute for this the drill which in his time was in vogue.

It was, as well as I can recollect, within ten days of our embarkation for the seat of war that he summoned the commanding officers of regiments to his tent, to (as far as I can remember the words) explain to them his views of drill. On the promulgation of this order, the commanding officers requested me, as the senior one, to expostulate, at our coming meeting, on the difficulties that would arise, were it incumbent on us (in the presence of the enemy) to alter our known principles of drill to others which, while learning them ourselves, we should have to teach to our regiments. I own that it was with much trepidation that I undertook this task - not an ordinary one from a junior to a senior, but one which the exigencies of the moment emboldened me not to shrink from.

I can only say that it would be impossible to over-colour the tone of consideration and forbearance, with which he met this remonstrance - made, I need not say, in the most respectful terms, and merging after a time into a more general conversation, during which he evinced qualities which certainly (as far as I was concerned) set my mind at rest as regards the character of the man under whom I was to serve before the enemy; [I must here observe, that though I had long known Lord Lucan as a friend, I had never been in any way associated with him in a military capacity.] and I may here add that from this moment to the conclusion of his command, I never had an angry word or experienced anything but the most kind and conciliatory behaviour from him.

As regards the much vexed question of his behaviour and judgment in ordering the Light Cavalry advance, it would be an act of presumption in me to offer any remarks, further than to quote the words of the Duke of Wellington [I believe the purport of these words to be in the 'Wellington Despatches.' I have read them there, but I have failed. to trace them out again.] - " that a private Dragoon can be the bearer of a written order as well as a staff-officer, but for this consideration, that a staff-officer is supposed to know somewhat the views of the commander who sends the order, and therefore may be appealed to in the case of a doubt as to the purport of the order " - words which in my humble opinion absolve Lord Lucan from all blame, when it is considered that not only was an officer on the head-quarter staff selected to convey the order, but that the mode in which he delivered it was in such a tone - of manner, as well as of assumed authority (the force of the great Duke's words being thereby so much strengthened) - as to render it impossible for Lord Lucan to disobey the order. We all know now that it would have been better had he done so, but I would with deference ask what would have been the consequences to him if, by his disobedience of the order, any disaster or even mishap had occurred.

Surely it may come within the scope of any one's imagination to suppose that a case may arise in warfare, when the commander of an army may find it necessary - for the execution of a series of operations, the development of which is in his own breast alone - to sacrifice some body of his troops, as a necessary though lamentable portion of the enlarged plan of which his subordinates are in ignorance. Surely, then, for all that Lord Lucan knew, this might have been an order of such a nature coming as it did from afar off, in the midst of a battle, the operations of which extended over a larger area than is common, and coming from a chief who was known to have sent his order from a position the most commanding in point of general view, and therefore one from which he apparently could form the best judgment on the effect that would result from any orders sent by him.

What then would have been Lord Lucan's position had he - by venturing to disobey such an order - caused a clog in the wheels of the great machine which his commander was working? There would have been but one alternative for him! - i.e. (in the very words he used to me that afternoon) "to blow out his brains the moment he got back." I must confess to speaking of Lord Lucan with more emphasis than perhaps my position would warrant, my excuse for which is that I have always felt very keenly that he was a hardly used man, and I am justified in the use of such language by the assurance - the knowledge - that the same feelings were entertained by every officer and man in the Cavalry Division. No cavalry man was ever heard to say anything against Lord Lucan; all had respect for his military character, and all sympathised with him on his recall. And this evidence in his favour, as regards his conduct on this occasion, is all the stronger from the fact that the impetuosity of his character, and the severity of his tone, would rather have biassed those under his command against him.

I confess also to a personal bias towards Lord Lucan, from the impression made in my mind always of his sense of truth, in the emphatic way in which he always spoke, coupled as that is with the indefatigable way in which he always performed that which he considered his duty. When he was hard on those under him, he was equally hard on himself, (5) knowing no repose, night or day, for himself, yet full of consideration for those whose welfare was in his hands, even though his command may occasionally have savoured somewhat of roughness.

I shall conclude these remarks by recording the, words of an excellent soldier, as typical of the feelings with which he was regarded by all. In the autumn of 1855 the cavalry were ordered to winter in the Bosphorus, during which period it was my privilege to see a good deal of that great man, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. Being interested in the events of the war, it was natural that we should have many conversations on this, at the time, all-absorbing subject. One of these conversations turned to the subject of Lord Lucan, when I concluded my panegyric of him by saying, "But wait till Colonel Mayow (6) returns; he can tell you more about him than I can - having been on his staff, and therefore in a position to judge of him better than I can."

On Colonel Mayow's return from England I related to him this conversation, asking him some day to call with me on Lord Stratford. Colonel Mayow's remark was, "Lord Lucan - all I can say of him is, that he not only thought of his cavalry by day, but he dreamt of them by night."

(1) It must be borne in mind, that while the fact of these two events occurring at exactly the same time would establish the point to which my arguments lead, any addition to the time before which he commenced, his retreat, would strengthen the argument, because the longer this time was, the further would the 4th and 11th have gone, the less therefore would the two regiments have been conspicuous, as a body - not only because they would have been further apart, but also because the, longer the time occupied, the more was the compactness of each broken. [back]

(2) I believe that a soldier of the 4th-supposed (according to Kinglake) by Lieutenant Hunt, 4th Light Dragoons, to have been Lieutenant Houghton, 11th Hussars, who was, like Lord Cardigan, riding a chestnut horse, and who of course wore the same uniform - stated that Lord Cardigan in his retreat passed close to his regiment.

It is curious that I can give the following anecdote, as showing how easy is "mistaken identity " in the cases of officers in uniform, the only difference between the two cases being, that while Lord Cardigan was recognised in the heat of action - the observer and the observed passing each other at full gallop - I, sitting on my horse, standing still, was mistaken for another by two officers, riding at a foot's pace, within fifteen yards of me, and with no bullets flying about.

On the return from a field-day at Chobham Ridges, in 1853, I halted the cavalry at the end of a lane, which led on to the highroad leading to our camp, to wait for a battery of artillery, which was crossing our front down the high-road, and which delay was doubtless a source of momentary irritation to us, after a long day's work. On their arrival in camp, two officers of this battery reported to the officer commanding the artillery that I had used the following expression as they passed: "There go the pest of the service," in consequence of which an animated correspondence ensued - they asserting that they could not be mistaken, on account of my chestnut horse. An officer of my own regiment, one of my "gallopers," was one of the same group with me, and he acknowledged to me but long, afterwards - that he did make use of that expression, for which, and for his delay in owning it, he got the Wigging that he deserved. [back]

(3) Mr. Kinglake (vol. iv. p. 392) says: "There is difficulty in seeing how Lord Cardigan, after his encounter with the Cossacks, could possibly have come back in time to be meeting the 4th Light Dragoons on the English side of the battery." This is the same, story told in fewer words. [back]

(4) The gravest errors of Lord Cardigan were:

Firstly, the theory asserted by him, that his whole duty was with the first line. Secondly, that impulse on his part, so graphically described b Mr. Kinglake, to go "straight ahead," neither looking to his right nor left. Had be looked to his right, he would have seen the guns in the different redoubts, which it was Lord Raglan's intention that he should attack, and seeing them, he would have known that those were the guns which be was to capture, and not those at the end of the valley; and had he clone this, the fatal charge would never have been made. [back]

(5) It is a fact not generally known that Lord Lucan received a contused wound on his leg on this day. I can bear witness to the fact, having seen it, and to the fact that for two or three days he was obliged to lie with it stretched on his bed. But he would not allow it to be reported, though he was forced to limp about for many days. [back]

(6) Colonel Mayow was Assistant-Quarter-Master-General to the cavalry, and when this conversation took place he was absent in England on leave. He bore a very high reputation, and I fancy had not bad "a bed of roses" under Lord Lucan, which makes his testimony the more pointed. [back]

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