Misunderstanding which led to the infamous charge
CAPTAIN Louis Edward Nolan – played by Errol Flynn in the 1937 film, and David Hemmings in the 1968 version – is regarded as the catalyst for the doomed charge.
He was the aide-de-camp of Richard Airey, the Quartermaster General, who gave Nolan a note scribbled in pencil on yellow notepaper.
The note read: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate. R Airey.”
There was one problem with that missive. From cavalry commander Lord Lucan’s position, he could see neither retreating Russian cavalry nor many guns.
As a result, he led the charge against the wrong battery, one which was well-equipped and defended.
According to reports: “He had not gone far when a piece of shell struck him, ripping open his chest. Out of his chest there poured forth a red streaming tide. His horse swerved round, and throwing his arms aloft, and shrieking so piercingly that his screams were heard above the uproar, he rode back into the brigade, and fell dead.”
After the bloodbath, Major William Inglis, of the 8th Hussars, informed his mother: “We made a glorious charge against some three times our number of Hussars and smashed them.”
Another letter from Inglis stated: “Poor Nolan, of the 15th Hussars, took a wrong order to Lord Cardigan and the Light Brigade were ordered to charge the guns. Only 190 came back out of some 800. Still, the Russians will remember their charge.”
Inglis’s letters were auctioned in June 1939, by Robson Lowe of Regent Street, London.
The lancers’ courage unleashed a flood of gushing, purple prose.
One description read: “Here was the very ground on which the Light Brigade were drawn up: every charger quivering with excitement, every eye flashing, every lip compressed with the sense of coming danger. A staff officer rides up to the leader and communicates an order. Men’s hearts stop beating, and many a bold cheek turns pale, for there is more excitement in uncertainty than in actual danger.
“The leader draws his sword. So the word is given, and the squadron leaders take it up, and the Light Brigade advances at a gallop; and a deadly grasp is upon the sword, and the charger feels his rider’s energy as he grips him with his knee, and holding him hard by the head urges his resolutely forward – to death!”
“Man upon man, horse upon horse are shot down, ye the survivors close in, sterner, bolder, fiercer than before, and still the death-ride sweeps on.”
“‘Steady men – forward!’ shouts a chivalrous squadron leader, as he waves his glittering sword above his head and points towards the foe.
“He is a model of beauty, youth, and gallantry – the admired of men, the darling of women.
“Do not look again, a round shot has taken man and horse.
“The batteries are reached and carried.
“The death-ride sweeps over them, and it is time to return.”
One Russian major of hussars later remarked: “We were very sorry for them, they were such fine fellows, and they had such splendid horses.
“It was the maddest thing that ever was done. I can’t understand it.
“They broke through our lines, took our artillery, and then, instead of capturing our guns and making off with them, they went for us.”
Of the 673 horses involved in that fateful day, 473 were slaughtered and 42 wounded.
The actual trumpet used in the charge sold in 1964 for £1,600. The auction lasted only 55 seconds.
> Captain Louis Nolan