24 Hours at Balaclava: 25 October 1854

Book review

Robert Kershaw; reviewed by Trevor James, last updated: 25th June 2019

24 Hours at Balaclava: 25 October 1854, Robert Kershaw, The History Press, 2019, 286p, £20-00. ISBN 9780750988889.

Robert Kershaw’s review of what happened at Balaclava in October 1854 is part of an emerging genre of research. He has examined vast quantities of written sources which together give a strong sense of what it was like to be part of the happenings within and surrounding the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. This means that commentary from the Russian perspective as much as from observers and participants on the British side are woven very effectively together.

This is really a specialist book for a specialist audience but I would draw out two particular points. One account of the beginning of the ‘charge’ describes the scruffy and wretched state of the uniforms of the very well-ordered column of solders, not quite what we expect. The other is, of course, the degree to which we have all been influenced by Lord Tennyson’s poem. We now know that he watched the British fleet set out in 1854 from the downs above his house at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight and that he wrote the poem very quickly on receipt of the news of what had happened. Subsequently the detail of how a command may have been misunderstood or mishandled to produce the glorious but tragic outcome did set the record straight but the tone of Tennyson’s poem continues to direct our thinking.

One other important feature of this book is the collection of forty-two illustrations, including some contemporaneous photographs, to add to our insight into the context of this extraordinary event. The emergent photographic record is in many ways as important as Russell’s War Reports for The Times.