Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: The Destruction of Lord Raglan

Like so many unlucky generals, Fitzroy Somerset, First Lord Raglan continues to inspire criticism, even antipathy but more often pity and plenty of blame amongst historians, both professional and amateur. Certainly the target of the press in his own time, the good general remains a figure often to be looked down on and judged even today. Whilst somewhat sympathetically portrayed by Sir John Gielgud in Tony Richardson's 1968 motion picture The Charge of the Light Brigade, he remains remembered for being inept; his mind wandering, dithering in imprecision and indecisiveness.

Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan, first published by Longmans in 1961 purports to be the first biography of the man central to the folly of the Light Brigade action at Balaclava and the demise of the army of the Crimea. It is a seemingly balanced and empathetic analysis of the man in his times and in his own particular situation.

Necessarily, much of this account is a chronological walk through the Crimean campaign which was historically his defining moment. Dedicating himself to a lifetime of military service, he very much operated in the shadow of his mentor and sponsor, Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington whose influence over operations of the army extended even beyond that great man's demise. Following in his footsteps, Raglan succeeded as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. When the call to arms came in 1854, Raglan also was appointed Commander of the Allied Army.

Some time is spent rightly in studying the British army command for the campaign and the inexperience coupled with age and inflexibility of the characters who comprised it. Hibbert is clear on one point particularly when highlighting the limitations and character of Raglan for command, concluding that, "On reflection it seemed that there could only be one choice."

An experienced diplomat and fluent in French, in spite of his lack of field command experience, no one existed at the time who was more suitable to the task in hand. In his negotiations with the strong-willed, bombastic and sometimes dissembling French Marshal St. Arnaud Raglan is assessed as perhaps being too diplomatic. Whilst as CinC Raglan was ultimately responsible for the direction of the campaign, Hibbert is clear that significant tactical failures such as the poorly co-ordinated attack on the Alma or the subsequent strategic failure in following up the Russian forces and storming Sevastopol were down to the insistence of an "incompetent and feckless" St. Arnaud and Raglan's compliance stemming from his interpretation of how best to preserve the alliance in the field. We must also bear in mind that St. Arnaud was in the slow process of dying from cholera but he was in turn succeeded by the brave and popular Canrobert; personal choice of Emperor Napoleon but theatrical and unsuited to high command.

But it is Raglan's direction at Balaclava with which I am primarily  concerned. Unfortunately, Hibbert slips into a shallow recount of the battle narrative with very little analysis of Raglan's direction of the battle beyond the fateful Light Brigade order. It is clear he was severely hampered by Sir George Cathcart's refusal to chivy his infantry division into action and the Duke of Cambridge's similar sluggishness in coming to action. The mishandling of the cavalry division as a whole is largely if not entirely laid at Lucan's feet with his repeated failure to patrol and gain any situational awareness.

Nothing much is made of Raglan's appreciation of the movement of his infantry which is curious given his reference to them in his orders to the cavalry. As they were in effect unable to give support to the cavalry advance, it is surprising that so little is made of this oversight more generally. This is perhaps best dealt with in another posting; however, as Hibbert does not spent more than 21 pages on the battle.

Whilst the work is dedicated to Raglan more generally, I was disappointed with the Balaclava treatment and think much more might have be made of assessing the orders of the day and correspondence after the fact to gain a more comprehensive insight into how the CinC attempted to salvage his position in response to the Russian initiatives. For me, from a purely Balaclava perspective this work remains like the battle results for the allies, and cannot be considered a victory.

Having said that, it remains a valuable addition to my library and I have enjoyed reading it for what it is and was intended to be - the first dedicated treatment of the downfall of Lord Raglan. For what followed after Balaclava; Inkerman, Sabastapol, Raglan's relationship with the press, the government, the army and posterity ... you'll have to read it for yourself.