Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Scarlett, James Yorke

SCARLETT, Sir JAMES YORKE (1799–1871), general, and leader of the heavy cavalry charge at Balaclava, born in 1799, was second son of James Scarlett, first baron Abinger [q. v.] After being educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was gazetted cornet, 18th hussars, in 1818, and, being placed on half-pay, studied for a year at the senior department, Sandhurst. In 1830 he was gazetted major 5th dragoon guards. From 1836 to 1841 he represented Guildford in the conservative interest, taking no very active part in political strife, but voting unwaveringly with his party. In 1840 Major Scarlett was promoted to the command of his regiment, and henceforward the 5th dragoon guards became conspicuous as one of the most efficient corps in the service. He retained his command for nearly fourteen years—a length of time which served to permanently identify his name with his regiment. In 1853 Colonel Scarlett was on the point of retiring into private life, but mutterings of war with Russia were audible, and in 1854 he was appointed to the command of the heavy brigade. He sailed for Turkey; at Varna, where a large proportion of his old regiment had been suddenly struck down by cholera, he at once made his way to the hospitals, and by his cheerful demeanour reduced the panic that had seized the men. Towards the end of September 1854 he proceeded with the heavy brigade, following after the bulk of the army which had fought the battle of the Alma, to the Crimea, and as brigadier before Sebastopol saw his first shot fired.

Early in the morning of 25 Oct. a force of twenty-five thousand Russians which included a strong body of cavalry, under Liprandi, attacked and captured some of the earthworks which protected the rear of the investing armies, and then, pushing rapidly forward, began to threaten the English camp near Balaclava. At the first semblance of attack Scarlett had his brigade under arms, and, after making some show of threatening the enemy, received orders from Lord Raglan to move from the picket lines in rear of the right of the British army to Kadikoi, an important tactical point. While marching thither the configuration of the ground concealed the further advance of the Russians, but on turning a fold, Scarlett suddenly discovered, on his left flank and close at hand, a body of the enemy's cavalry amounting to about two thousand sabres. Both the hostile forces were astounded at the rencontre. The Russians halted first, but, perceiving their opportunity, began to advance at a rapid trot, with the apparent intention of charging Scarlett's exposed flank. The imminence and magnitude of his peril were met by an astonishing audacity. Scarlett instantly gave the word ‘left wheel into line’ to the three squadrons nearest to him—Inniskilling and Scots Greys—and, placing himself at the head of this puny force numbering barely three hundred sabres, drove straight uphill at the enemy, whose speed had gradually slackened to a slow trot, a walk, and finally changed to a halt. The next moment the three hundred English troopers had bounded into the midst of the enemy. ‘The issue,’ wrote Lord Raglan in his despatch, ‘was never for one moment doubtful.’ After a few moments the charge was supported by the remaining squadrons, numbering about four hundred men, and then the unwieldy column of Russian cavalry heaved, swayed to and fro, and finally broke up. During the fight, Scarlett slashed right and left indiscriminately, far too jostled to single out any individual antagonist, and though he received many an ill-directed blow and many a slight sword cut, and the next morning was black and blue with bruises all over his body, he escaped without a serious wound. The top of his massive brass helmet, however, had been stove in with a powerful blow. The subsequent incidents of the day included the fatal and desperate charge of the light brigade. When its remnants came straggling back after their desperate exploit, and the previous flanking fire from the Russian guns had been almost silenced, Scarlett made an effort to secure some substantial advantages from the previous slaughter. Putting himself at the head of his dragoons, which had been drawn up in reserve, he led the way to a second charge down the valley of death. While advancing at a sharp pace, his aide-de-camp, General Beatson, shot up alongside of him and shouted out that he was charging the Russians alone; his brigade had gone ‘threes about.’ Chafing with anger, he galloped back to ascertain the meaning of this unauthorised retreat, but was stopped by Lord Lucan, who said, ‘It is all right, Scarlett; I ordered the “halt” and “retire” to be sounded. I have lost the light brigade; I will not lose the heavy brigade too if I can help it.’ Scarlett was of opinion that if he had been allowed to persevere he might have captured and carried off the twelve Russian guns at the head of the valley, and would certainly have cut off a large number of their fugitive cavalry near the Tractir Bridge. For his services at Balaclava the brigadier was promoted to the rank of major-general, and in 1855 he was created a K.C.B.

In April 1855 he returned to England, but was soon appointed to succeed permanently Lord Lucan in the command of the entire British cavalry in the Crimea, with the local rank of lieutenant-general. Although family reasons made him at first reluctant to accept the post, he returned to the Crimea without a day's unnecessary delay.

The original splendid force of cavalry which had landed in the Crimea in 1854 had, by the time Scarlett assumed chief command in 1855, been almost annihilated by the sword or by the rigour of the climate. Large drafts of recruits had been sent out to fill up the gaps, and by dint of unremitting labour and barrack-field drill even in presence of the enemy, Sir James by the spring of 1856 brought them to a satisfactory condition of efficiency. ‘But even in 1856,’ he used to say, ‘I would not have ventured with them to fight another Balaclava.’ At the conclusion of the war Sir James Scarlett was appointed to the command of the cavalry in the Aldershot district; thence he was transferred to Portsmouth, and in 1860 was gazetted adjutant-general to the forces. In 1865 he was selected for the prize of home appointments, the command of the Aldershot camp. During the latter part of his tenure of office the brilliant successes of the Prussians in their wars with Austria and France had caused a revolution in tactics. A modification in modern conditions of warfare necessitated a modification in instruction. ‘No doubt this is necessary,’ said the veteran regretfully, ‘but I am too old to go to school again and to unlearn the lessons of my life. I had best leave the task to younger men.’ In his closing years he was one of the last surviving types of the blue and buff school of tories. In 1869 he was created a G.C.B., and on 1 Nov. 1870, on resigning the Aldershot command, he retired from active duty. He died suddenly in December 1871.

Sir James Scarlett married Charlotte, daughter and coheiress of Colonel Hargreaves of Burnley, Lancashire, but left no issue. His portrait, by Sir P. Grant, belongs to Lord Abinger, and a model, by Matthew Noble, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[Private information; Kinglake's Crimea, in which the account of the charge of the heavy brigade was declared by Scarlett to be inaccurate in details.]

H. K.