Military history


Clifford in the Crimea

Turkey, by the middle of the nineteenth century, was no longer the conquering power that had struck terror into Byzantium and the Christian lands of Southern Europe. The turn of the tide had come at the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699, when for the first time the Turkish Sultan had conceded defeat to a Christian power, the Habsburg Emperor of Austria. During the eighteenth century the champions of the effort to regain Christian land from the ‘Great Turk’ had been the Russian emperors. By the 1850s they had succeededin advancing their power to the northern shore of the Black Sea, to the Caucasus mountains and almost to the Danube in Balkan Europe. Russian assistance also helped the Serbs and the Greeks to win their independence from Turkish rule.

Russia’s success at Turkey’s expense then had the paradoxical effect of bringing Britain and France to the Sultan’s side. Neither power, with interests of their own in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, wished to see Russia replace Turkey as the dominant state in those regions. When Russia opened a campaign against Turkey in the Balkans in 1853, they took alarm. In 1854, when Russia invaded Bulgaria, then one of Turkey’s possessions, they declared war, organized an expeditionary force and despatched it, under the protection of a strong naval force, into the Black Sea to threaten Russia’s main southern base at Sebastopol in the Crimea.

Thus opened the Crimean War (1854-6), familiar to the English-speaking world for the siege of Sebastopol, and the battles around that port at the Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, that followed the initial landing on 13 September 1854.

Henry Clifford, an officer in the Rifle Brigade, was a member of one of England’s old Catholic families that had declined to accept the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Like many of the ‘recusants’, his family maintained a strong military tradition and he proved a brave soldier, winning the newly instituted Victoria Cross (now Britain’s highest decoration for valour) in the course of the war. This letter home describes two of the most famous episodes of the Crimean War, the valiant conduct of the 93rd Highlanders, the ‘thin red line’, at Balaclava, and the Charge of the Light Brigade of cavalry against the Russian guns in the ‘Valley of Death’ that followed. The epic of the Light Brigade inspired Tennyson to write one of the most famous poems in the English language:

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.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Some one had blundered:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered.
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell,
Rode the six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

The Light Brigade, which consisted of the 3rd Hussars, the 4th Hussars, the 8th Hussars, the 11th Hussars, the 13th Hussars and the 17th Lancers, numbered 673 officers and men at the beginning of the charge. During it, 247 men and 497 horses were lost. The charge of the Heavy Brigade, under General Scarlett, which preceded it, mentioned by Clifford, succeeded in its object with very little cost. Bosquet, a French general who witnessed the Light Brigade’s charge, remarked, ‘It is magnificent but it is not war’ (‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre’). His words have become as celebrated as Tennyson’s.


27th October [1854]

With the very best of intentions it is not in my power to write every day. Three days have passed during which so much has taken place, that constant duty has not left me a moment to handle my pen. Before I attempt to give you some idea of the most important events, it may be well to mention that the siege of Sebastopol continues much as usual. Firing from our siege guns, Lancasters, 32 pounders, and 24 pound Rockets and shells, begins at daybreak every morning from our Batteries, and continues till dark, without intermission, pouring into the town a most destructive fire. All but the troops essential for its defence have left it, and they are to be seen at daylight, before the firing begins, lying under the walls close to the sea coast, as far from our guns as possible.

From the nature of the ground in front of our batteries, we have not been able to make close approaches, but the French, who have better ground to work on, are closing on the Town, their foremost works being only 600 yards from it. The Russian batteries keep up a good fire, but the deserters and prisoners say they suffer much. In five days from this it is hoped we shall be able to make an assault; a combined one.

Our losses in the trenches and batteries have been few. Poor young Maule, the Adjutant of the 88th Regt, lost his left arm by a round shot in the trenches yesterday — it has been amputated and he is doing well. So far for our front.

The events I am about to acquaint you with, and which are full of the greatest interest, have taken place on our rear in front of Balaclava, and yesterday on our right. As I am obliged to make use of I so often you must understand that it is only in my power to tell you what I see and hear, but as this is only written for you, you will not think it brought in too often — as it is with no wish to bring myself before you more than possible — but only to try and give you a better idea of events, difficult to make clear, even with its frequent use.

On the morning of the 24th the siege went on as usual, but in the evening of that day a report came from the French Division in rear, that a large Russian force had made its appearance, on the road leading into Balaclava and had taken up its position on the high ground to the right of that road and the entrance of the first plain in front of Balaclava. This first plain is separated from the second by a ridge of low hills, on which at intervals of two or three hundred yards, redoubts or earthworks had been thrown up, and six or nine guns belonging to the English placed in the three works to the right of Balaclava. (I call the right of Balaclava the side to the right hand as you come from the sea). These works, six in number, were made by the Turkish troops, under the direction of our Engineer Officers and given over to them to defend. A few, four I think, privates of the Artillery, were left to show them any difference there might be between our guns and theirs. After the defence of Silistria etc., such confidence was placed in their troops that it was not thought necessary to place any but Turks in these redoubts.

The constant appearance of a large Russian force in front of Balaclava, prevented any very serious notice being taken of the report. We had our troops in Balaclava on their posts, the Turks on their earthworks were supplied with ammunition, and on the morning of the 25 th of October, the 4th Division under Sir G. Cathcart, the other two Regiments of Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell (Commandant of Balaclava), a Battn of Guards and the First Battalion Rifle Brigade, with all the Cavalry under Lord Lucan, and the Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan, were behind the range of earthworks, about 3,000 yards in rear and to the left of Balaclava.

I went at daybreak to the heights in rear of our camp, by order of Sir G. Brown, to see what was going on. It was a dull cloudy morning and mist lay in the plain below, but it was evident from what little we could see of the enemy, he was preparing for an attack.

The heights on which I stood are held by the French troops, and I had the advantage of standing by the side of General Brite, Brigadier commanding under General Bosquet, and we watched the movements of the Russian Army most closely. At about 8 o’clock the first cannon shot was fired by the Turks at the Russians, from the right of our earthworks, and shortly after we saw a large force of Cavalry and Infantry, about 20,000 men, moving towards us. When they came within range of our (the French) guns in position in front of us, on the heights on which we stood, we opened fire on them, and they retired in good order to the front of the three guns, in the earthworks, worked by the Turks. Why or wherefor I don’t know, but though not a shot had been fired at them, and no attack was being made on them, the Turks on the other three earthworks deserted them, and fell back upon our troops, close upon Balaclava. The whole Russian army then made an attack upon the three earthworks with our guns in them on the right. These works were so strong that had they been occupied by our troops, I am confident we should have held them. After a short resistance during which our Artillery men say the conduct of the Turkish Officers was most disgraceful, the Turkish troops fled, leaving our guns in the hands of the enemy; but fortunately our Artillery men spiked them first.

A great part of the Russian cavalry then made a charge all along the range of little hills, passing the abandoned forts, one after the other, till they came to the last which was closest to our troops. Here a small party of Turks opened fire on them, and I saw about 20 fall out of their saddles. As they rose to the crest of the hill, they saw the English troops formed up ready to receive them; they halted to a man.

One of the Highland regiments (the 93rd) opened a heavy fire of musketry on their right but the centre stood fast. But it was only for a few minutes. The Scots Greys and the Enniskillen Dragoons, advanced in a slow, steady trot towards them, the Russians looked at them as if fascinated, unable to move. The distance between the two Cavalries at last decreased to about 50 yards, and the shrill sound of the trumpet, ordering the charge, first broke the awful silence.

Like a shot from a cannon ball our brave fellows went at the astounded enemy like one man, and horses and men were seen struggling on the ground in every direction. The Russians fled in the greatest disorder, our splendid Cavalry not leaving them till they got under the protection of their artillery.

A pause then ensued, during which the Russian army reformed its Cavalry with guns protecting its front across the plain and a line of infantry lying down in front of the guns to protect them, their infantry in rear of their cavalry on the left, on the heights in the earthworks they had taken from us, and where they had placed some of their field pieces, and on the high ground to their right, where they also had some artillery, and a few cavalry.

On our side, the whole of our Cavalry advanced along the range of low hills supported by Artillery and Infantry, till they came to the earthwork next to that in possession of the Russians. The two forces were about three quarters of a mile, or a short mile, apart. Shots from the field-pieces were exchanged, but with little effect, on either side.

For the first time that morning I saw Lord Raglan and Staff ride up to the troops in position, and General Canrobert with his Staff [as Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Raglan, the British Commander-in-Chief in the Crimea, was mentioned in Wellington’s despatch after Waterloo as wounded; he lost an arm]. Two Squadrons of the Chasseurs D‘Afrique, and about 700 Chasseurs de Vincennes and Zouaves, came out from the same direction on our right, the Chasseurs d’Afrique taking position in the plain in rear, and to the left of our Cavalry, and the French Infantry remaining in support of ours.

It was evident a consultation was taking place, which resulted in one of the greatest disasters, and the most useless and shocking sacrifice of the lives of hundreds of brave men that was ever witnessed.

I must tell you that but little confidence has been placed in the commanding powers of Lord Lucan commanding the Cavalry, and long and loud have been the feuds on public grounds, between his Lordship and Lord Cardigan (than whom, a braver soldier never held a sword) who commands the Light Brigade; and it was thought if a verbal order was sent to Lord L. it might be misunderstood, or not carried out. A written order was, therefore, sent from Lord Raglan by Captain Nolan, General Airey’s ADC (formerly my brother A D C in the Light Division) desiring his Lordship ‘to charge.’ ‘To charge what?’ said Lord Lucan very naturally. ‘Here are your orders,’ said poor Nolan, pointing to the paper, ‘and there,’ pointing to the Russian army, ‘is the enemy,’ and shouting ‘Come on’ to the Light Brigade of Cavalry, he dashed forward. He was wrong, poor fellow; in doing so, he forgot his position, and his conduct was most insulting to Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan, who at the head of his Brigade, pale with indignation, shouted to him to stop, that he should answer for his words and actions before Lord Raglan, but he was called to a higher tribunal, a shell struck him in the chest, and in a few minutes he was a mangled corpse. Lord Lucan then ordered the Light Brigade of Cavalry between 600 and 700 to charge the Russian Army, 30,000 strong. This is the explanation I heard afterwards.

From the commanding position in which I stood by the side of General Brite we saw the Light Brigade of Cavalry moving forward at a trot, in face of the Russian Army. ‘Mon Dieu!!’ said the fine old French General, ‘Que vont-ils faire?’ They went steadily on, as Englishmen only go under heavy fire. Artillery in front, on the right and left. When some thousand yards from the foremost of the enemy, I saw shells bursting in the midst of the Squadrons and men and horses strewed the ground behind them; yet on they went, and the smoke of the murderous fire poured on them, hid them from my sight.

The tears ran down my face, and the din of musketry pouring in their murderous fire on the brave gallant fellows rang in my cars. ‘Pauvre garçon,’ said the old French General, patting me on the shoulder. ‘Je suis vieux, j’ai vu des batailles, mais ceci est trop.’ Then the smoke cleared away and I saw hundreds of our poor fellows lying on the ground, the Cossacks and Russian Cavalry running them through as they lay, with their swords and lances.

Some time passed, I can’t say how much, but it was very long, waiting to see if any would return. Horses without riders, galloped back in numbers, and men wounded on foot and men not hurt, but their horses killed, returned on foot, and then we saw a horse or a man fall, who wounded, had come as far home as he could and then fell and died.

At length about 30 horsemen dashed through a line of Cossacks, who had reformed to interrupt their retreat, and then another larger body came in sight from the middle of the smoke and dust. Two hundred men! They were all that returned of 600 odd that charged. I don’t know the names of the Officers who fell or were taken prisoner, but very few returned, and some are since dead of their wounds; one of the Officers of the 17th Lancers (his Regiment suffered most severely, I believe) told me they charged through a line of infantry, drove the gunners from their guns, but of course could not bring them away. Then through the line of Cavalry till they came to the Infantry when the handful that remained, turned about and recharged the same forces again. The Chasseurs d’Afrique also made a small charge, but when they came face to face with the Russian Infantry in square, with the exception of one or two Officers, they turned round and came back again.

It was thought an attack would be made on the Russians and the redoubts retaken. Sir G. Cathcart wished to take on his Division, but the evening passed away and the Russians remained in their positions and are there now. Yesterday morning I went into Balaclava. The Scots Greys and the Enniskilleners left good marks of the work they had done; Russian Hussars lying in all directions, with awful sabre-cuts.

I got my letters from the post, two very kind ones from Conny and two from Charles. I cannot thank you enough for letters. Such as these would be dear and valuable for the kind expressions of sincere anxiety, interest and affection they contain at any time, but to receive them here, under such circumstances, I cannot tell you what pleasure they give. The latest date is up to the 9th.

I have seen Lord Raglan’s despatch and think it a very good and a very true one, the French a very paltry and insignificant one.

On my return from Balaclava I found the troops under arms. A large force of Russians, about 6,000, I thought, some said more, with about 15 pieces of cannon, were moving to attack our right. Our Division being in the centre and having the siege parties to protect we could not move in support of Sir De Lacy Evans’ Division on the right, whose Pickets were engaged and fighting hard, but Sir G. Brown went up, and sent the nine pounder Battery of our Division, the Guards sent up a Brigade, and the 4th Division moved up, sending our 1st Battalion in front. The Russians advanced in 8 columns at a very quick pace, considering the ground they moved on, which was stony and covered with stunted oak-bushes, about three feet high. They were evidently bent upon mischief, and thought the attack of the day previous had weakened our force on the right to strengthen Balaclava.

They were mistaken: the pickets made a desperate resistance, and held the Russian skirmishers at bay. The advance of the column obliged them to retire, yet the Officer in command of the 48th Picket tried to hold his ground in spite of the numbers that were attacking him. He called out to his men to stand and fight longer, and only retired with them when he had killed two Russian skirmishers with his sword, and received I fear his death wound, a ball in his left breast.

On the Picket coming in, our guns, 24 in number, opened on the advancing columns and the whole of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, went out as skirmishers, with the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, and poured in such a fire of Minié [rifle] balls, that the Russians turned and fled in disorder. Our soldiers pursued them for about two miles from camp, almost within range of the guns of Sebastopol and killed about 400 on the field, besides 62 wounded brought into camp, and many wounded taken away by the Russians.

The prisoners taken say that the sortie was occasioned by the General commanding the Army in front of Balaclava, sending into Sebastopol the news of a victory over the English the day before — that the General commanding in Sebastopol, called them together and told them it, and said that it was their turn to thrash the English. A ration of spirits was served round to each man and they asked to be led against the English. The Russian General took advantage of their enthusiasm and brought them up — only to be driven back with great loss. We have had very few men killed, and 60 wounded, in round numbers, for I have not seen the return yet.

It is said Balaclava is going to be given up as our position is too large to protect, and we are going to have the same place of embarkation and disembarkation as the French. Till Sebastopol falls we have not force enough to attack the Russian army in our rear; to take their position, we should have to lose many men, and we cannot spare one we are so weakened by illness and casualties in fight. If we take Sebastopol I have no doubt we shall pay off old scores.

I believe the Russians treated our wounded shamefully in spite of our kindness to theirs at ‘Alma.’ Our men will not forgive them and will pay them off in their own coin. I don’t think Sebastopol will fall for five days at least, and it will be tough work when we do go at it.

Poor Mr Sheehan, our Priest, went down to Balaclava yesterday sick, so we have only one Priest in our four Divisions up here. God bless you all, continue to pray for me, and think me always your affectionate

&c. &c.


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