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The Irish in the Crimean War

30 November, 1999

John Davis recalls the best known battle of the Crimean War, the 25-minute Charge of the Light Brigade down the wrong valley at Balaclava 150 years ago. Of its 673 horesmen, 114 were Irish and its leaders had interesting Irish connections.

“And now occurred the melancholy catastrophe which fills us all with sorrow. It appears that Brigadier Airey gave an order in writing to captain Nolan to take to Lord Lucan, directing His Lordship ‘to advance’ his cavalry. When Lucan read the order, he asked, ‘Where are we to advance to?’ Nolan pointed to the Russians and said, ‘There are the enemy, and there are the guns before them. It is your duty to take them: Lucan with reluctance gave the order to Lord Cardigan to advance… .At 11.10 our Light Brigade rushed to the front. They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun.. ..At the distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from 30 iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls.

Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain. With diminished ranks, with a halo of flashing steel, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses.. ..At 11.35 not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns.”

This eye-witness account of the 25-minute and half a mile charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War on 25 October 1854 appeared in the London Times three weeks later. It was written by William Howard Russell, the first real war correspondent, who was born near Tallaght, Dublin. Britain, France and Turkey fought Russia in the two-year War.

The Balaclava blunder would probably not have become so famous but for Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, which he wrote after reading Russell’s report. A manuscript copy shows that he considered cutting out almost half the poem before publishing it, but later changed his mind. The critic Michael Macrone described it as “a famously bad poem best forgotten”. Yet some of its lines which Tennyson thought of leaving out are now among the best remembered of all poetry:

Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered….
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

There were in fact 673 men in the Light Brigade, of whom 114, or nearly 20%, were Irish. During the charge 118 (including 21 Irish) were killed, 127 (including 16 Irish) were wounded and 45 (including 7 Irish) were taken prisoner by the Russians. Some 360 horses were also killed. Of the Light Brigade’s five regiments, the Royal Irish Hussars had the most Irishmen; after returning from the Crimea in 1856 they were based in Dundalk.

Some contemporary historians, like Clive Ponting ;and Terry Brighton, say the Light Brigade’s Charge was not really such a disaster, in terms of deaths. Not when compared to the 30,000 British and German soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. Even so the “melancholy catastrophe” happened because, as Tennyson rightly rhymed, someone had blundered. The culprit, it seems, was Lord Raglan, who commanded the whole British army in the Crimea. On the morning of the Charge he dictated some badly worded orders to General Airey, whose handwriting was “atrocious”. The last of these – written in pencil on a flimsy piece of paper, still preserved – ordered the Light Brigade to “advance rapidly” and recover some British cannon captured earlier by the Russians.

Lord Lucan, who commanded all the cavalry forces, instructed Lord Cardigan, leader of the LB, to charge at once. “Certainly, sir,” said Cardigan, “but allow me to point out that the Russians have a battery in the valley on our front, and batteries and riflemen on both sides.” Lucan replied, “I know it. But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.” And so, due to an ambiguous order, the Light Brigade charged down the wrong valley – instead of through a parallel valley behind one of the two Russian lines.

Raglan later blamed Lucan, who blamed both Nolan and Raglan. Lucan was dismissed from his command and recalled to England, but he was later exonerated and promoted to Field Marshal, as was Raglan. Nolan was killed in the first few minutes of the Charge. “He met his deserts, a dog’s death – and like a dog let him be buried in a ditch,” said Lucan, who detested him. Cardigan, who led the Charge, deserted his men after some minutes and turned back, deeming it beneath his dignity to fight among common or “private soldiers.” He returned, as he did daily, to the harbour to his luxury yacht Dryad which, with his French chef, he had brought out from England; he had a bath, drank a bottle of wine with his dinner and slept in his feather-bed. Nicknamed the Noble Yachtsman, the cardigan jacket is called after him. Meanwhile the badly fed “common soldiers” had to endure dreadful conditions and diseases, which killed more than were lost in battle. Russell, the war correspondent, wrote in a private letter to John Delane, editor of The Times, that Raglan was “utterly incompetent to lead an army”.

All four British leaders at Balaclava had Irish connections. Cardigan spent some years with the army in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk and Kilkenny. His brother-in-law, Lord Lucan, whom he “cordially disliked”, owned vast estates in Mayo, where he was MP. The British historian Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote, “He squeezed out the utmost possible amount of cash from his poor tenants to keep up his high lifestyle. He cherished a powerful contempt for them, half-starving and Catholics into the bargain. It is doubtful if he considered the Irish as human beings at all. During the Famine, when he was called the Exterminator, he regarded his tenants as vermin to be cleared off the land.” (The Reason Why) According to A.W. Kinglake’s standard history of the War, “it was Lucan’s conduct in Ireland, his ruthlessness, which decided the Government to select him for a command in the Crimea.” He was an ancestor of the Lord Lucan who disappeared in 1974 after allegedly murdering his nanny and whose family still collects rents from Mayo.

Raglan’s descendants are also still paid rents by Irish tenants, though he never set foot here. But his name was given to a Dublin road, about which Patrick Kavanagh wrote one of his best known poems. Capt Louis Nolan’s father was Irish, his mother Scottish; he was born in Perth and grew up in Milan. At 17 he joined the Austrian army, was soon renowned as a horseman and swordsman and wrote books on cavalry tactics. Some historians surmise that he tried to prevent the Light Brigade charging the wrong way.

Irish involvement in the Crimea was not, of course, confined to the Light Brigade’s charge, which had no effect on the War. In his excellent work, Ireland and the Crimean War, the historian David Murphy reckons that of 111,000 men who fought in Britain’s Crimean army, over 37,000, or one-third, were Irish, of whom some 7,000 were killed. About 4,000 more Irishmen served there in the British navy. The newly introduced Victoria Cross was awarded to 28 Irishmen in the Crimea, Sgt(later General Sir) Luke O’Connor from Elphin, Co Roscommon, winning the first ever VC in 1857.

Over 100 Irishmen served as British army surgeons; and some 33 Irish Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity went as nurses. Florence Nightingale visited the Mercy Sisters in Dublin in 1852, when she considered becoming a Catholic and joining their order. Eight Irish priests went as chaplains to the Crimea, where three of them died.

Irishmen also served in other armies in the Crimea, most of them with the French. The best known were General (later Marshal) MacMahon, who became President of France; Wexford-born General Sutton, Count of Clonard; and General O’Malley. Among those in the Turkish army were General Coleman, who left Ireland after the 1848 rising; Major John Bernard from Co Offaly; and Major Richard Guyon, a Clareman.

Nearly 650,000 men died in the War: 21,000 British and Irish, 95,000 French and 530,000 Russians, 76% from diseases. The bloodiest conflict between the Napoleonic and First World Wars, it was the first to see the use of trenches and breech-loading rifles.

What was it all about? Many historians aren’t sure! Even E.J. Hudleston, the official War Office historian, said its causes were “obscure”. The ostensible reason was a row between French Franciscans and Orthodox monks about the custody of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But the real cause seems to have been the decision of British imperial business interests to safeguard their grip on India and their trade routes to it against possible Russian intrusion. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, and Prince Albert opposed the War, while Queen Victoria was doubtful about it.

One of the most ardent warmongers was the Irish MP, Isaac Butt, who hailed it as a crusade for “liberty and civilisation”. Another supporter of the War was Dublin’s Cardinal Cullen, who said it was “our duty to beg God to bring the war to a successful issue” and to pray “for our own brave Catholic countrymen who have gone forth to fight the battles of the Empire”.

What Tolstoy wrote about one of the key Crimean battles, at Inkerman, aptly describes the War itself: “It was a revolting business. Terrible slaughter. Lord forgive those responsible.” .

Article Credits
This article first appeared in The Word ( October 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.