No, it’s not going to be particularly cold in the salubrious suburb of East Acton. I refer to the day of commemoration of the Battle of Balaclava, 160 years ago today. The battle was the second major engagement fought by the British Army in the Crimean War and was fought because the British contingent of the Franco-British Army deployed in support of the Ottoman Empire had been given a position in the developing siege of the Russian fortress and port of Sevastopol. `The Russian general, Menshikov, had taken the bulk of his army out of the defences of Sevastopol to preserve operational mobility and attempt to sever the communication lines of the Allied Army and attacked the port of Balaclava in the early hours of the morning of the 25th October 1854.
The battle is much celebrated for the ‘thin red line’ of Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders and the ‘famous’ charge of the Light Brigade, a ‘gallant and glorious’ failure, (read, almighty cock-up from start to end.) More or less unknown to the general public, there was another cavalry charge that day in which the British Army’s Heavy Brigade charged a Russian cavalry force which outnumbered it at least twice, and possibly three times – the actual size of the Russian force is uncertain. The charge of the Heavy Brigade was not only uphill, but was launched from a standing start over such a short distance from the enemy lines that the squadrons barely managed to reach a canter, let alone the pace and shock of a full-blown charge. Nevertheless, the determination and sheer bloody-mindedness of the British cavalry won the day, with 40 – 50 Russians killed and over 200 wounded in exchange for 10 killed and 98 wounded in the Heavy Brigade.
And why, I hear you wondering, am I drawing this to the attention of the Honourable Charioteers? Well. the first British cavalrymen to crash into the Russian Lines were troopers of the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, followed by those of the 5th Dragoon Guards. These two were the predecessors of my Regiment, the Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. They were followed into the fray by the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, one of the predecessors, along with the 7th Dragoon Guards of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards with whom my regiment amalgamated in 1992 to form the Royal Dragoon Guards. The Battle Honour, ‘Balaclava,’ is carried on the Regimental Standard of the Royal Dragoon Guards.
You might ask why young men in a 21st Century Army fight under, (figuratively speaking,) a standard commemorating battles fought so long ago? It is one of the non-quantifiable elements that makes the British Army’s Regimental system a force multiplier. Even the most cynical of soldiers absorbs the ethos and traditions of his Regiment through a sort of slow osmosis and the appeal to ‘the Regiment’ stiffens the sinews in adversity, even of the worst of a Regiment’s soldiers, in a way that an appeal to country, creed or cause cannot match. I separated from the colours in 1993 and yet, even now, the Regimental March squares my shoulders, forces my neck back against my collar and puts a swagger into my step. Silly, innit?
I’m jumping the gun and posting this tonight because tomorrow I am meeting a dozen or so comrades for a late lunch which will, no doubt, last well beyond the dinner gong. Alcohol may well be involved – after all, we’re Irish soldiers, (even the Englishmen among us 🙂 )