N is for Captain Nolan

From a paiinting now in the 15th/19th Hussars Regimental Museum

Louis Edward Nolan (1818-1854) is now notorious as the man who sent The Light Brigade to its doom at Balaclava. He was the son of Babington Nolan, an officer of the 70th Foot, and was born in Canada where the 70th was then serving, but lived in Italy from 1829 when his father found he couldn’t afford to live in Scotland on half pay. Babington Nolan shows every sign of having escaped from the pages of an Eric Ambler novel. You can find out more about him in the opening chapters of David Buttery’s biography of his son, Messenger of Death. Louis became a cadet in the Hungarian (10th Imperial) Hussars and later studied at the Engineer Corps School at Vienna where he was commended for his “great zeal and application”.

In 1838 Nolan took leave of absence from the Austro-Hungarian Army to attend the coronation in London. It seems he was overcome by the sheer pageantry of it all and determined to join the British Army. Mark Adkin in The Charge: The Real Reason the Light Brigade Was Lost suggests his success had to do with ingratiating letters sent by his father to the Military Secretary, Fitzroy Somerset, later 1st Baron Raglan. In fact there is no evidence Nolan had any official help gaining a place. In March 1839 Louis Nolan (or Lewis as he then spelt it) purchased an ensigncy in the British 4th Foot. He did this swiftly, not waiting for the Austro-Hungarian Army to accept his resignation. He then arranged a swap with an officer who wanted to stay in England, and transferred in April 1839 to the 15th Hussars, then about to move to India. This is a good example of the purchase system at work, demonstrating how a relatively poor man could wangle his way as an officer into a regiment as posh as the 15th Hussars. It’s highly likely (though obviously unproveable) that there was a cash kickback from John Cowell Bartley, the man who took Nolan’s place in the 4th Foot. The regulation purchase price for an ensigncy in the infantry was £450. The cost of an ensigncy in the cavalry was £840. But Bartley wanted to stay in England and is unlikely to have charged Nolan the difference. So it’s unlikely Nolan had to pay any more than his initial £450. and if Bartley was really keen to stay at home, Nolan may well have recouped some of his initial outlay.

15th Hussars 1845 – Orlando Norie

(Sorry about the quality of these illustrations; they are photographs of photographs taken by D P & G of Doncaster whose piracy extended far beyond ISBNs.) Nolan went to India with the 15th Hussars but was invalided home after a few months with sickness. This was a fortunate chance since it enabled him to attend the Cavalry Depot at Maidstone where he took the course in equitation. This was the basis for his later expertise in selecting and training remounts. It also enabled him to be appointed riding master of the 15th Hussars when he returned to India.

15th Hussars stable dress c.1850

Apart from his developing skills as a horseman, Nolan was a formidable linguist with Italian, French, German and Hungarian already under his belt. He proceeded to pick up several Indian languages. He was successively aide de camp to Lt General Sir George Berkeley, Commander in Chief of the Madras Army, and Sir Henry Pottinger, Governor of Madras. In 1841 he bought his lieutenancy and in 1850 his captaincy.

In 1851 Nolan returned to England on leave. He set to work immediately on his first book The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses: a new system. It is sometimes suggested that he was unpopular in the 15th Hussars. The fulsome prefatory letter by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel G W Key, suggests otherwise. Of course, Key was a personal friend, and he and his wife had put Nolan up when he was in India; however, after Nolan’s death, many other officers from the regiment joined him in subscribing for Nolan’s memorial plaque at Maidstone.

The book’s frontispiece below conveys one of Nolan’s main ideas that foxhunting was ideal training and that an English style of riding should be encouraged. The style of riding depicted was so different from continental practice one foreign reviewer doubted that it was possible. People familiar with Surtees will recognise it without difficulty.

In the summer of 1852 Nolan and Key travelled through northern Europe to Russia, seeing how cavalry was trained in other countries. They were impressed by the saddles in use in Holland and brought one back to England which Nolan worked on after he was appointed to command of the regiment’s depot troop at Maidstone. In his second book Cavalry; its history and tactics Nolan unveiled the new saddle he had constructed with the assistance of Sergeant Robert Johnson, a saddler sergeant at Maidstone.

In April 1853 the Duke of Cambridge, then Inspector General of Cavalry, passed Nolan’s saddle as fit for service. Further improvements were made by Robert Gibson and Company but essentially the saddle remained Nolan’s work. It was tested in the Crimea and adopted by the army in 1856, replacing the saddles previously in use that had been copied in 1796 from those of the Prussian Ziethen Hussars.

Nolan’s main objection to the Ziethen saddle was that it was raised too high and lifted the rider’s thighs, thus reducing the grip of the knees. He also thought it had too much padding on the sideboards, which could only encourage saddle sore, and substituted a folded blanket. The holster incorporated ideas learned from his friend Captain William Morris of the 17th Light Dragoons who had been impressed by the Sikh light cavalry’s skirmishing tactics in the Aliwal campaign. Nolan’s other objections to the Ziethen saddle are too technical for me. The frontispiece of his second book shows how he thought a mounted light cavalryman ought to look.

Though nobody knew it the Nolan saddle was to be the only solid achievement of Nolan’s career. In the spring of 1854 as the British Army geared up for war with Russia, Nolan was appointed ADC to Brigadier General Airey. This was a prize posting since Airey, who commanded a brigade in the Light Division, was already tipped to become Quartermaster General of the army in the east. Nolan was sent ahead to Constantinople to secure remounts for the army. Not surprisingly Ottoman officials had already secured the best horses for the Turkish army so Nolan could obtain only draught animals in Turkey and Lebanon. He went on to the edges of Arabia returning with 292 cavalry horses bought from the Annizah. He returned to Beirut with this impressive train and was met by HMS Trent which took him and his horses to Devna in what is now Bulgaria where he joined the army. In August 1854 Nolan helped Airey plan the transfer of the British army to the Crimea. His star was riding high.

Nolan continued to do well in The Crimea. On 20th September 1854, as the British and French armies moved to besiege Sebastopol, the Russians blocked them, occupying a strong position on the heights above the river Alma. The Russians were defeated after a British frontal assault. Nolan, thanks to his excellent French, was employed as a galloper between the two allied armies. The battle was a success for the allies, but in Nolan’s view it could and should have been more. Had Raglan unleashed the light cavalry, the Russian retreat would have been converted into a rout. But Raglan held the cavalry back, aware as he was that the Russian cavalry, which heavily outnumbered his own, might well have rallied. Nolan was furious. That evening he raved about Raglan’s failings to William Howard Russell, The Times correspondent. From then on he became one of Russell’s principal sources.

The next setpiece battle, Balaclava, was a very different affair from the Battle of the Alma. The French and British armies had begun the siege of Sebastopol. The Russians had divided their forces with a static mainly naval force defending the city and a mobile army under General Menshikov outside. The British drew their supply from the small harbour of Balaclava to the south of the city. On 25th October 1854 Menshikov launched a raid hoping to disrupt the alllied lines of communication and possibly to reach the harbour at Balaclava and do what mischief he could there.

The map above is adapted by Rebel Redcoat from Trevor Royle’s Crimea: the great Crimean War. It shows the position when Raglan on the Sapoune Heights (top left) was dictating his fateful fourth order to Airey. Raglan had every reason to be satisfied with the progress of the battle. The twin Russian attacks had been stopped by the counter-attack of the Heavy Brigade and the stubborn defence of the 93rd Foot ‘the thin red line’. Reinforcements were on their way from the British siege lines. The only fly in the ointment was the loss of some Turkish guns in the redoubts along the top of the Causeway Heights between the North and South Valleys. Raglan had been trained by Wellington; like his mentor, the old gentleman abhorred the loss of guns – even Turkish ones. He was determined to prevent the Russians taking away the guns they had captured. He had already sent three orders down to the Earl of Lucan who commanded the Cavalry Division. The problem was that Lucan couldn’t see the guns on the Causeway Heights. What he could see were the increasing number of Russian guns being readied for action at the end of the North Valley.

Raglan was undoubtedly irritated by Lucan’s failure to act following his first three orders. He dictated a fourth order to Airey who entrusted it to Nolan who galloped down the hill with it. Various people have claimed that the order was hard to read. It isn’t. Neither is it ambiguous. A rapid advance is different from a charge. If Lucan really failed to understand what Raglan intended, Nolan was there to set him right.

Only Nolan didn’t. Lucan himself, Lord George Paget and several other officers are agreed on what followed. As Lucan later stated, he read the order “with much consideration – perhaps consternation would be the better word….” Then he asked Nolan for clarification.

Nolan said, “Lord Raglan’s orders are that the cavalry should attack immediately.”

‘Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?’

Nolan gestured towards the Russians with his arms. “There, my Lord! There is your enemy! There are your guns!”

Lucan was left in no doubt that he was meant to attack the main body of Russians at the head of the North Valley. Nolan went off to join his friend Captain Morris of the 15th Lancers. Lucan went off to transmit Raglan’s orders to the Earl of Cardigan, brigade commander of the Light Brigade. The two men loathed each other. However, on this occasion, they were both agreed on what transpired. Lucan told Cardigan what he believed Lord Raglan’s orders had been. Cardigan then said, “Certainly, sir. But allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley in our front, and batteries and rifelemen in each flank.” To which Lucan could only reply, “I know it. But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.

Now – very unwisely – I’m going to take a position and go along with William Howard Russell’s considered opinion in the 1877 edition of his British Expedition to the Crimea. There are plenty of other opinions about Nolan’s intentions. The Crimean War Research Society is a good place to investigate them. Its website can be found at http://cwrs.russianwar.co.uk/

What everybody is agreed about is that shortly after the Charge got under way, Nolan rode forward in front of the 17th Lancers and rode diagonally across the line of advance towards Lord Cardigan at the head of the Brigade. He was hit in the chest by red hot shrapnel before he reached Cardigan but not before the choleric Earl had noticed him. There are only two possibilities about his intentions.

The first is that Nolan realised Cardigan was heading down the wrong valley and was riding to alert him. Sergeant Major Nunnerley of the 17th Lancers wrote in his Short Sketch of the Life of Sergeant Major J I Nunnerley that, after receiving his death wound, Nolan gave “a kind of yell which sounded very much like ‘Three right’, and throwing his sword hand above his head, his horse wheeled to the right and he fell to the rear. As though obeying this death-like order, part of the Squadron wheeled ‘threes right.” Nunnerley, who had his work cut out getting the squadron back into line ‘front forward’, had every reason to remember Nolan’s order. Nunnerley is supported in his recollection by amongst others Sergeant Morley, also of the 17th Lancers, in his The Cause of the Charge of Balaclava.

The second possibility is that Nolan intended all along to direct the attack along the North Valley. The reason he was riding forward was to speed up the Charge. That was how William Howard Russell and Nolan’s friend Captain Morris interpreted his actions. Interestingly, Robert Henderson, Nolan’s helper at Maidstone Barracks, who wasn’t an eye-witness, remembers in his autobiography A Soldier of Three Queens how “Captain (then Lieutenant) Nolan drew with a piece of chalk on the wall of the Quartermaster’s store a rough sketch which as nearly as possible represented the relative positions of the Russian artillery and the British light cavalry at the battle of Balaclava….”

Take your pick. What is not often commented on is that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a dazzling success. The brigade over-ran the Russian guns. Had it been supported by a timely advance of infantry, the Russian guns would have stayed captured. Unforunately Raglan and the rest of them on the Sapoune Heights were too busy wringing their hands and saying things like, “c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” Whether the capture of the Russian guns would have been worth the loss of 192 men and nearly twice that number of horses is a different matter. But the Charge of the Light Brigade remains a complete vindication of Nolan’s tactical ideas.

This is a photo of an obelisk in honour of William Morris of the 17th Lancers, subscribed for by the county after Morris’ death in India in 1858, and erected in 1860. The bronze relief at the base is by E B Stephens and shows the wounded Morris being carried off from the battlefield after the Charge. The three men carrying him are two dismounted men of the 17th Lancers (identified in a statement by Surgeon William Cattell as Sergeant Charles Wooden and Trooper George Mansell) and Surgeon James Mouat of the 6th Dragoons. Wooden and Mouat were awarded the Victoria Cross. The two plates on the iron gates bear the inscription “This frontage erected 1901 by Sir Robert White-Thomson of Broomfield Manor in memory of his brother John Henry Thomson lieutenant 17th Lancers who fell at Balaklava October 25, 1854 when the regiment was commanded by Captain afterwards Colonel Morris CB.” Next year White-Thomson’s widow delivered a lecture at Hatherleigh from a text written by her husband. The lecture was published as Lieutenant Colonel William Morris CB – a memoir. The obelisk was again restored in 1963 by the 17th/21st Lancers.

Bear with me – I’m getting there. The point of all this stuff about the obelisk is that I want to suggest that Morris more than anyone is likely to have known what was in Nolan’s mind. After delivering Raglan’s order, Nolan joined his friend Captain Morris at the front of the 17th Lancers and got his permission to accompany the regiment. The two men wrote and exchanged letters in case either of them died – Nolan wrote to his mother – and then talked together before the Charge got under way. Morris remained convinced until the end of his life that the Charge proceeded exactly as Nolan expected. He knew what Nolan was doing when he reproved him for riding forward. Apart from anything else, he will have read page 242 of his friend’s book where Nolan wrote, “The most advantageous moment to attack is when the guns are unlimbering or limbering up; a few moments gained being of the greatest importance to the attacking party, who must always dash in at their best speed as soon as the signal is given to charge.” Speed was the thing and Cardigan was proceeding at a trot. Morris himself was so seriously wounded that his wife, her sister and the sister’s husband Sir William Carew came out to Scutari to take him home. Peter Carew has written about their adventures in Combat and Comedy. There is more about Nolan in that book.

I’ve said nothing about Nolan’s softer side. There wasn’t one. Gossips like Fred Dallas speculated about his relationship with Fanny Duberly. It was limited to a shared expertise in horse riding. Such emotions as he had were bound up with Colonel and Mrs Key to whom he left his personal possessions. They were the parents he would like to have had.

I end with Nolan’s memorial plaque at Maidstone.

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