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News > Tales from the Archive > Old Boys at the Charge of the Light Brigade

Old Boys at the Charge of the Light Brigade

Fifty ex-pupils of the two Royal Military Schools died in the Crimean Campaign of the 1850s, four of whom were killed in the Light Brigade's charge at Balaklava.
The aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade imagined in Lady Elizabeth Butler.
The aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade imagined in Lady Elizabeth Butler.

We know the story well, a misunderstood order and blind, if not fatalistic, obedience on the behalf of a cavalry commander resulted in the catastrophic reduction of the British Light Cavalry Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava. The Charge of the Light Brigade (immortalised in poems and paintings) took place at about 11 o'clock on the morning of 25 October 1854. It should be borne in mind that the brigade's five regiments (numbering around 670 all ranks) had already been much reduced by previous engagements as well as the ravages of cholera and dysentery, thus they were already under strength. A British cavalry regiment would have normally contained 280 all ranks; so, the brigade could have been at 50% of its war establishment on the day of the fateful charge.

We can safely assume that several hundred ex-pupils of the Royal Military Asylum (RMA) and its Irish equivalent the Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS) were spread throughout the British Army in Crimea. We certainly know of at least 28 ex-RMA and 22 ex-RHMS pupils who perished in the campaign; four of whom were killed whilst riding in the Light Brigade's charge against superior Russian forces at Balaklava. The three RMA light cavalrymen killed are recorded on our chapel's Crimean War memorial tablet inscription, they were:

·      Trumpeter John W Dunn of the 8th (The King's Royal Irish) Light Dragoons (Hussars). Dunn is recorded in the 1841 Census return for the RMA as being 8; that would mean he was about 21 when he died at Balaklava.

·      Private Robert Issett also of the 8th (The King's Royal Irish) Light Dragoons (Hussars). Issett is recorded as Robert Issitt in the 1851 Census return for the RMA, aged 14 and born in Woolwich; that would mean he was about 17 when he died at Balaklava.

·      Trumpeter Thomas Lovelock of the 4th (The Queen's Own) Regiment of Light Dragoons. Lovelock is recorded in the 1841 Census return for the RMA as being 9 and born in Wiltshire; that would mean he was about 22 when he died at Balaklava. He is recorded as having joined the army on 26 March 1846, probably straight from the RMA.

The ex-RHMS pupil who died in the Light Brigade's charge was Private Thomas Corcoran of the 17th Light Dragoons (Lancers). Three other 'Hibs' in the Light Brigade survived the charge but were wounded in most cases.

During the Charge of the Light Brigade the 8th Hussars and the 4th Light Dragoons advanced east down the North Valley under fire acting as the brigade's second wave, following their comrades in the 11th Hussars, 17thLancers and the 13th Light Dragoons.  A 19th Century tally of the casualties after the charge was as follows:

                                     Went into action         Returned          Killed or Missing in Action

·      4th Light Dragoons            118                              39                    79 (a loss of 66%)

·      8th Hussars                      104                              38                    68 (a loss of 65%)

·      11th Hussars                      110                              25                    85 (a loss of 77%)

·      13th Light Dragoons          130                              61                    69 (a loss of 53%)

·      17th Lancers                      145                              35                    110 (a loss of 76%)

Totals                                  607                              198                  409 (a loss of 67% of the Brigade's starting strength)

The brigade also lost approximately 375 horses in the charge.

The commanding officer of the 4th Light Dragoons Brevet-Colonel (later General) Lord George Paget reported the following about the battlefield after the charge he had taken part in:

"What a scene of havoc was the last mile, strewn with the dead and dying and all friends. Some running, some limping, some crawling; Horses in every position of agony, struggling to get up, then floundered again on their mutilated riders!"

As to what our allies thought of the doomed mission - after the charge a senior French officer remarked:

"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie" (It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness).

Unlike other famous battle sites like Waterloo, there is very little left to commemorate those British soldiers who fell in battle or died of their wounds in Crimea. In fact, many of the battlefields around Sevastopol are dominated by memorials to the USSR's battle to liberate the city from the Nazis in 1944. What few Crimean War-era memorials that remain are rundown with little prospect of renovation. Even the hilltop from where General Raglan spotted Russian movements and ordered the Light Brigade to charge hosts a display of old Soviet tanks.

As the 170th Anniversary of the Light Brigade's charge approaches, it is worth remembering our RMA and RHMS forebears who served and died in Crimea particularly those four who obediently rode to their deaths in one of the foolhardiest military operations of the Crimean Campaign.

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