Leadership lessons from the Valley of Death: The Charge of the Light Brigade

Leadership lessons from the Crimean war

By Dr James Whitehead, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management and Expert Speaker on the Help to Grow Management Programme.

The Crimean War, which took place between 1854-1856, may seem like a distant memory to many, but it left behind a legacy that continues to impact us today.

From Florence Nightingale’s revolution in nursing to one of the greatest tragedies in British military history, the Crimean War continues to shape our understanding of leadership, communication, and bravery.

One event that stands out in particular is the Charge of the Light Brigade, which occurred on October 25, 1854, during the Battle of Balaclava.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster of communication that offers valuable lessons for today’s leaders and managers.

It was the result of ambiguous messages, unstated assumptions, incompatible viewpoints, personal animosity, and the cumulative distortion of meaning.

To understand the events that took place, we must examine the characters involved and the course of events.

The Characters:

  • Lord Raglan was the Commander-in-Chief, although he had never commanded troops in battle. He was seen as a talented administrator and diplomat, and was considered charming, gentle, and dignified.
  • Lord Lucan was Commander of the Cavalry, which included the Light and Heavy Brigades. He was regarded as a martinet and could be bad-tempered, vindictive, and arrogant.
  • Lord Cardigan was Commander of the Light Brigade. He had thirty years of service but had never heard a shot fired in anger. He was held in contempt by press and public for his harsh discipline. He and Lord Lucan despised each other.
  • Captain Nolan was the ADC to Brigadier Airey, Raglan’s Chief of Staff. He was an accomplished cavalry officer but regarded by his superiors as an arrogant upstart.

The Course of Events:

  • The Allies (British, French, and Turkish) were besieging Russian forces in Sevastopol, and their rear was secured by a number of redoubts (cannon/gun emplacements) on a line of hills known as the Causeway Heights.
  • On October 25, a force of 25,000 Russians took these redoubts and began moving towards the port of Balaclava, the Allies’ supply base.
  • Their advanced was halted by the famous ‘Thin Red Line’ of the 93rd Highlanders and repulsed by the charge of Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade. However, the Light Brigade failed to follow up the Heavy Brigade’s success.
  • Lord Raglan, sitting on high ground overlooking the battlefield, issued a series of orders (the meaning of which is still debated) for the Light Brigade to advance, with infantry in support, and to recover the redoubts on the Causeway Heights. But Lord Lucan delayed, assuming he was to wait for the infantry.
  • As the Russians began taking the Allied guns from the redoubts, Lord Raglan issued another written order for the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns. The order was carried to Lucan by Captain Nolan.
  • Lord Lucan received the orders with some confusion, asking “Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?”
  • The problem was a difference of perspective. The only guns Lord Lucan could see were at the far end of the valley. He could see no guns on the Heights because he was down in the valley not on the high ground.
  • Captain Nolan did not help. In a gesture of rage, he flung his arm out and said, “There, my Lord! There is your enemy! There are your guns!” Lord Lucan took that to mean the guns at the end of the valley and ordered the Light Brigade to advance.
  • To which Lord Cardigan replied, Certainly Sir, but allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley in our front, and batteries and riflemen on each flank.” In other words, it’s madness.
  • Regardless, the Light Brigade charged into the Valley of Death, resulting in 247 casualties out of 673 officers and men. Later, immortalised in Tennyson’s poem.
‘Forward the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
theirs not to reason why,
theirs but to do or die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a cautionary tale of the dangers of poor communication and leadership.

From a lack of shared understanding to unclear orders, the events that took place in the valley of death offer valuable lessons for today’s leaders and managers.

The tragedy of the Charge of the Light Brigade serves as a reminder of the importance of clear, concise communication and the need for leaders to work together towards a common goal.