Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Discourse: Executing the Russian Plan

General Pavel Petrovich Liprandi 1858 c/-Wikipedia
Having re-read The Reason Why recently, Hell Riders and the Osprey Balaclava and Crimean War editions and having watched Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade more times than is normal; what is lacking is a genuine Russian perspective on the battle of Balaclava. I'm not actually speaking of an account of events from their side but rather an appreciation that the day of battle was in response to Russian initiatives and their attack plan.

The fact that the supply lines for the siege of Sevastopol and the whole army was protected by the reserve, half of which were cavalry presented the Russian command with a golden opportunity. They wrong footed the allies and stole the Causeway Heights and with it the Woronzof Road quite early in the day, with relatively minimal losses and well before substantial infantry forces could be pulled back to bolster the Turkish held redoubts, the 93rd Highlanders and the Marines.

Full credit must be given to Liprandi for the numbers he was able to mobilise and shift and of course his was a well balanced force with plenty of infantry supported by artillery and vast quantities of horse. When we continually analyse the faults and failures of the allied battle, we tend to overlook the fact that Balaclava for the allies was a day of response.

Looking at that response, Raglan recalled sufficient infantry if they arrived in time and if the Russian assault could be delayed. Unlike the previous battles in this campaign, the cavalry were committed - first the Heavy and then the whole Cavalry Division with minimal support from what field and horse artillery he had in hand. Easy for historical commentators to assess from their arm-chairs but the sense of desperation must have been suffocating. The battle could very well have ended the war on the spot with disastrous consequences for the Allies.

When committing the cavalry with the Light Brigade as the spearhead, even if the Light Brigade had been directed to the redoubts and reached the guns on the causeway heights, who were they to have been supported by? What could they have hoped to achieve and at what cost? Possibly the Heavy Brigade would have committed in their support but what effect could any number if cavalry have been expected to have had against masses of artillery supported infantry in prepared defences on high ground? Certainly, the entire cavalry division was not to have enjoyed infantry support in the way their Russian counterparts had.

Irrespective of the successes and failures of either cavalry brigade on the day, the allies (chiefly Lord Raglan) were caught out and found themselves compelled to commit the only force at their disposal for each of their seemingly desperate counter-attacks - unsupported cavalry.

This day was a Russian day and all were falling before them. Raglan could not have anticipated a Russian halt on the Causeway Heights. With the forces at their command, the Russian were no doubt expected to have continued on to Balaclava Bay for all Raglan could have known and look set to do so. The failure of Liprandi to do so was a costly error.

A lot of criticism is leveled at the quality of Russian troops but perhaps on this occasion, it is not entirely unfounded. If numbers alone won battles, Liprandi would have been the hero of the century. Time and again; however, they failed in the face of inferior numbers and rarely managed to capitalise on their successes. Personal accounts (for example) of the 'escape' along the valley of death by the survivors of the Light Brigade highlight the reticence of many Russian soldiers to get to grips with even a broken enemy. Liprandi and subordinate commanders may be said to have done well with the material at hand - choosing to strike at isolated Turkish positions and then hold them. To take and hold, after all is a completely valid stratagem under the right circumstances.

It remains a great pity from a Russian perspective that this considerable strike force was either unable or it's commander felt it was unable to advance off the protection of the high ground and continue to advance toward the Bay. I surmise that with the newly captured guns together with their own considerable batteries, they would have had superior fire support to push on.

Balaclava was, for the allies, a series of desperate responses with an imbalanced force which enjoyed as much success as it did due to the quality of its troops compared to that of its enemy. Further, I don't believe Lord Raglan mishandled any stage of the battle to any real degree, notwithstanding the Charge of the Light Brigade itself. I don't think enough is made of these points in any of the Anglo-centric accounts. We often tend to examine events as if one side had total command of the situation when in fact they do not.

For the reasons discussed, I'm not even sure that either side can be said to have won or lost this battle. The Russians made great gains in terms of the ground it held and the damage inflicted on at least the Light Brigade but the objectives realised were limited. Raglan was able to stabilise his position and avoid disaster, securing his rear by the end of the day but had been taken by surprise and had weakened his hold on the siege itself to do so - and ended the day with a decimated Light Brigade. No one tends to consider the loss of confidence in a now shaken Turkish command. Evidence seems to be emerging that some redoubts held fast for some time and took greater casualties than has been traditionally recorded - where was their support?

These are perhaps more reasons why I have decided to wargame this battle - balanced forces but of different make-up. Scenarios can be easily written for primary and secondary objectives, including re-enforcement options and key turning points. Very shortly I am pleased to say I will be commencing painting my first units for the project - the British Light Dragoons.

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