Saturday, February 19, 2005

Battle of Balaclava

Today there was an interesting show on the History Channel in the Battlefield Detectives series. It was about the Battle of Balaclava, during the Crimean War which happened in the mid 1850s. In this war the Russian Empire had attacked the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey). The nations of Britain and France took this as a sign that Russia was trying to penetrate into Europe. In a rare show of cooperation, the two got together to help the Ottomans defeat the Russians. Balaclava was a port in Crimea, a peninsula in present-day Ukraine. The British, who had recently landed there, were using the town to receive supplies. The Russians were intent on ousting the British from that land and decided to attack.
The British defense consisted of several redoubts north of the port. Redoubts are fortified hills or positions, usually a part of the main battle line. The eastern-most redoubt was called Redoubt #1. It was the key to the entire defense, if it fell the Russians could easily take on the rest of the strongholds. Yet, the British general only positioned a few hundred Turkish soldiers there. The troops lived in poor conditions, with a ration of two biscuits every week or two. They had to scavenge the rest.
The Russians knew that Redoubt #1 was important. Because of this they started their attack there. They began with a destructive bombardment with 30 massed cannons. When the artillery was not firing the Turks were assaulted by waves of Russian infantry. After three hours standing their ground they retreated. Harassed by Russian cavalry. Due to this the Russians were able to take Redoubts number 2, 3, and 4.
Some of you may have heard of Lord Tennyson’s poem, Charge of the Light Brigade. This was about the disastrous charge of a few hundred cavalrymen against the wrong target. When the Russians captured the redoubts they took the British artillery on those hills and proceeded to take them back behind the lines. This was considered an offense back then and the British general in charge wanted the pieces back. He sent an officer to the Light Brigade to order them to take the artillery. The order that was given was vague, only referring to “the cannons”, when the Light Brigade commander asked the messenger where the artillery was he pointed in the general direction of the captured Redoubts. So the Brigade proceeded down one of the main valleys there. After a few minutes they were under fire by the Russian artillery. When the horsemen were supposed to turn right but did not, the messenger tried to correct the path. He rode out in front and started riding in the right direction. The Brigade’s commander took this as some arrogant show and ignored it. Next, an artillery shell landed lethally close to the messenger and shell fragments killed him instantly.
The Light Brigade was now headed towards a completely prepared unit of Russian artillery. As the Brigade entered the valley they came under fire from cannons to their left. Eventually they passed out of those guns’ range. Soon they were under fire from two directions. Cannon to the right and eight guns directly ahead of them. At about this point they charged. The Russian guns were obscured by smoke and the ones to the right stopped when the British were nearing the guns they were actually charging at. Those guns could barely see the cavalry but they could feel the thundering hooves. All of a sudden the horses smashed into the artillery line. A brutal fight ensued were many on both sides were killed. Finally, the exhausted Light Brigade started to retreat. All though six out of every seven men survived, those who died did for little reason.
The whole battle may have been one of the worst military blunders of the 19th century. The British would have almost been completely defeated if it were not for the final stand of the remaining defenders from the Redoubts and a group of Scottish Highlanders, later known as the thin red line. In the events following this battle the public demanded an explanation for this disaster. The British, desperate to preserve their pride, blamed the defeat on the Ottoman Turks. They twisted the story so that the Turks only held for a few minutes before simply breaking and running. At the same time the British glorified the actions of their soldiers. This myth was believed, since then the Ottoman Turks were stripped of combat duties and used to carry supplies and equipment.

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