This Sunday marks the 160th Anniversary of one of the most well-known and deadly battles in modern military history. Today the Crimean Peninsula is in the lower part of Ukraine, and once again the site of military unrest. In 1854, it was in the crossfire between the forces of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire fighting to prevent Russian incursion into Europe. At the Battle of Balaclava, 670 British soldiers took on 5,240 Russian soldiers in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Because of a miscommunication amongst the officers, the Light Brigade (composed of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, took on a pointless endeavor. Completely surrounded and hopelessly outgunned, they never had a chance of beating the Russians. At the end of the charge, they had suffered 127 wounded, 118 killed, and an additional 60 taken prisoner. 335 horses were also killed during the action, leaving less than a third of the original forces still capable of fighting. The charge was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that begins:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Conditions for injured soldiers during the Crimean War were amongst the worst in history. The war involved about 1 million troops of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and their allies against the 710,000 troops of Russia and her allies. Britain and her allies suffered a mortality rate of more than 35%, while Russia suffered even more, with more than 55% of her troops dying.
Health conditions were appalling. Sanitary conditions were practically nonexistent. Far more men who initially survived their injuries would die as a result of infection and disease. Cholera and Typhus were rampant.
It was about the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade that 34-year-old Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari in Turkey where many of the wounded were sent to hospitals there. She brought with her thirty-eight nurses: ten Roman Catholic nuns, eight Anglican nuns, nd twenty nurses from various hospitals. Within weeks this small group had brought some order to the chaos of the hospitals there.
By early 1855, Florence the death rate rose to 42%, including three of the nurses and seven of the doctors tending to the patients. In May, Florence visited the hospitals in and around Balaclava, tending to survivors of the Light Brigade amongst others. While there she fell ill with “Crimean Fever” (today identified as brucellosis). She became dangerously ill, but survived and return to Scutari, although she would return to Balaclava a year later. In August of 1856 she finally returned home.
A month after her return, she had an audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, discussing the need for health reform, especially in the military. Florence worked the rest of her life for increased health care, and recruiting women to work as nurses. Indeed, the next time you are in a doctor’s office or hospital and are being tended to by a female nurse, you can thank Florence for their gracious care.
In efforts were made to shed light on the poverty-stricken circumstances of many of the survivors of the charge. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read his entire poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for a recording on a wax cylinder by representatives of Thomas Edison. Martin Landfried/Landrey was a young trumpeter who survived the Charge. In 1890, he recorded the charge he and others sounded that fateful day, playing on a bugle that was used on the field at the Battle of Waterloo.