* Martin Wainwright
* The Guardian, Wednesday November 5 2008
A detail from the Charge of the Light Brigade by James Edwin McConnell: Trooper James Olley was present when the muddled order was received
A first-hand account of the Charge of the Light Brigade, by a trooper who lost an eye and part of his skull in the famous engagement, is to be sold, 120 years after the soldier wrote it to escape from begging on the streets. Trooper James Olley was wounded five times in the misconceived attack on Russian artillery at the battle of Balaclava by British forces on October 25 1854, and fell on hard times after discharge, having no pension or reward for his bravery.
The historic document sale this week by the auctioneers Mullock's includes three pages of Olley's scribbled handwriting describing how a bullet tore away his eye and how a sabre pinned down his foot after he killed the Russian dragoon who had been wielding it. The soldier tells how he grabbed a riderless horse when his own was shot under him, then rode towards the guns and suffered two lance thrusts.
The document is one of only a handful of memoirs of the charge during the Crimean war when, on the British side, 156 men were killed and 122 wounded from the 673 who obeyed a muddled order to attack the wrong guns. Bitter dislike between the brigade's commander, Lord Cardigan, and the head of the British cavalry, Lord Lucan, compounded the already confused situation.
The 16-year-old Olley provided a first-hand account of the fateful misunderstanding between Cardigan, Lucan and the staff officer who carried the order, Captain Edward Nolan. Olley recounts: "I was within 10 paces from the Earl of Lucan and his staff when the order was brought in. 'He (Cardigan) may advance but what can we do?' said the Earl. 'There is the enemy and there are the guns' calvary,' replied Nolan pointing to the Russian squadrons."
The guns he indicated were the wrong ones, commanding the whole valley, rather than a series of captured British redoubts on the brigade's left flank.
Richard Westwood-Brookes, of Mullock's, which is selling the manuscript at Ludlow racecourse tomorrow, said: "As every schoolboy knows, the Charge of the Light Brigade was one of the greatest military disasters in history. What makes this manuscript so important is that Olley was present when those crucial orders were delivered."
The trooper was reduced to begging until he was recognised by a Norfolk squire who wrote angrily to the newspapers and persuaded Olley to add his own memoir. Public outrage led to a subscription fund and Olley lived to be 82, working as a horse trainer, often getting into fights with rivals.
"When he got home his story was remarkably similar to the plight of some of today's heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Westwood-Brookes.
Valley of death
Extract from James Olley's account
The Russians came down with a large body of cavalry, which were well received by Sir Colin Campbell and his men, who brought down many of the Russians ... they made another charge down the valley but was received by the heavy brigade and driven back with great loss.
We then received orders to take our position at the mouth of the next valley, after we had done so, we could see the Russians forming up at the other end of the valley. The Earl of Lucan forwarded the Order by Captain Nolan to the Earl of Cardigan - he got the order to advance down the valley.
We had not gone far before we received the order to charge and take the guns, which were placed across the valley - about halfway down the man that was riding next to me was shot and fell on to my right leg. A little further on my horse was shot down. I caught one of the horses, which was coming back without its rider ...
I mounted it and rode down to the guns, when I was attacked by a Russian gunner who I cut down with my sword. I received a severe wound on my forehead which went through the skull bone. The man, I cut down. We cleared the guns of the enemy. After a time we prepared to return when ... we found we were overpowered by the enemy. Just as we saw the Russians a bullet from the enemy took away my left eye. I still rode on and fought through the lines of the enemy.
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