Like most world trouble spots there is a massive Irish connection. 160 years ago in 1854 in the Crimea it was Britain, France and Turkey against the Russians with Britain going to war to protect its Indian trade routes from Russian interference.
It was also the scene of one of the most legendary charges in history, one right up there with Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, a full frontal assault against impossible odds.
The Charge of the Light Brigade went down in history after Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his famous poem with the chilling lines which every British schoolboy used to know by heart.
“Into the valley of Death rode the 600.
Theirs was not to reason why
Theirs was just to do or die.”
The 25-minute Charge of the Light Brigade took place down the wrong valley at Balaclava 160 years ago. Of its 673 cavalrymen, 141 were Irish and the charge's leaders had interesting Irish connections. An Irish-born war correspondent William Howard Russell from Dublin who was there wrote in The London Times:
“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.”
According to an article in The Word magazine in 2004, “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.”
Someone had blundered sending the Light Brigade into the teeth of cannons.
As the Word noted, “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 Light Brigade, 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."
The son of an Irishman, Captain Louis Nolan was killed in the first few minutes of the Charge. “He met his desserts, 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 harbor 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.
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.”
Lord Lucan 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.”
Raglan’s descendants are also still paid rents by Irish tenants, though he never set foot here.
As The Word noted: “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.”
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* Originally published in March 2014.