The dying came first. The charge lasted seven minutes and in that time 110 men of the Light Brigade were killed and 161 wounded, some mutilated beyond recognition. When the survivors reached the Russian gun line, they took a bloody revenge on the enemy.
Russian artillery fired roundshot, shell and canister. A roundshot (cannon ball) was a solid iron ball. Its weight and momentum carried it through a man’s chest without losing power, and on through the next, and so on, killing or removing a limb from up to eight men.
Because the cavalry charged in a line two deep, the maximum loss from each roundshot fired from the front was two men. But a roundshot fired from the flank – and at Balaklava there were enemy batteries on both flanks – came along the line, felling up to eight men at once. Survivors were covered with a shower of blood, and the sights were horrendous:
‘Sergeant Talbot had his head carried off by a roundshot, yet for thirty yards the head-less body kept the saddle.’
Even more deadly was shell, a metal container packed with gunpowder and fitted with a fuse preset to ignite the powder over enemy troops. This sent deadly shards of shell casing plummeting into a dozen or so men and horses:
‘John Lee was smashed by a shell and fell from the saddle. His grey mare kept alongside me, treading on and tearing out her entrails, till she fell with a shriek.’
As the brigade closed on the gun line, the gunners loaded canister. This thin metal container broke up as it left the muzzle and dispersed iron pellets over a wide area. At short range, canister had a devastating effect: mangled men and horses bled-out on the battlefield. Meanwhile Russian musketeers took pot-shots at those still in the saddle:
‘I got a musket-ball through my right knee, another in the shin, and my horse had three in the neck which showered me with blood.’
Having seen their comrades cut down, those who reached the gun line had one thought: kill the Ruskies. They held the steel for the job: the lance and sabre.
The 17th Lancers carried a nine-foot lance with a pointed steel head, lowered to target the chest of a dismounted enemy. A gunner who stood his ground was pierced through before he could slash with his sword; a man who ran was quickly skewered from back to front:
‘I went for him, but he bolted; I overtook him and drove my lance into his back.’
Once among the Russians, the sabre was more effective. Its three-foot blade was slightly curved to ease its passage through flesh and muscle. It was used to ‘cut’ or ‘thrust’. The cut had to slice deeply enough to kill (at the head or neck) or disable (slicing upper arm muscles), and had to be razor sharp:
‘I saw Lieutenant Dunn cleave a mounted Russian almost to the saddle.’
With the thrust the pointed steel could penetrate further into the body. But as it could ‘lock’ inside, held by bone or contracting muscle, the primary target of the thrust was the jugular:
‘A Russian came towards me with clenched teeth. I thrust my sword through his neck.’
With no support coming up, the survivors of the Light Brigade had to ride or walk back to the British lines, still fired on by Russian musketeers. Mounted Cossacks rode out to finish off the fallen and limping wounded.
One man wrote that he walked back ‘through a field of blood, scrambling over dead and dying men and horses.’ Another was asked: ‘What is this on your jacket? And on picking it off I found it to be small pieces of flesh that had flown over me.’
It would be five weeks before Tennyson named it the Valley of Death, but the 666 men who rode Hell’s mile needed no telling.