Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them
An Irishman’s Diary about Irish soldiers in the Crimean War
Few events in military history are as mythologised, and therefore misunderstood, as the Charge of the Light Brigade, which in the popular imagination has become a byword for the triumph of gallantry over common sense. It was in reality an avoidable and therefore inexcusable error, brought about by muddled thinking and poor communication.
The Crimean campaign was just six weeks old on October 25th, 1854 when a large force of Russian infantry and cavalry attacked the port of Balaclava where the French and British had established a beachhead to aid their Turkish allies. The goal was to take the Crimean capital of Sevastopol, 50 kilometres to the north. Then, as now, it was the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and then, as now, the West feared the Russian bear.
The first line of defence was Turkish artillery. The Turks were overwhelmed and the Russians towed away their guns. Watching from the heights overlooking the battlefield was the British commander, Lord Raglan, a man who according to the Irish-born war correspondent of the Times , William Russell, was “totally incompetent”.
The Russians had set up cannons on three sides of the valley where the light brigade had assembled. To their right , and obscured by a ridge known as the Causeway Heights, Lord Raglan could see the infantry towing away the guns and ordered the Light Brigade to charge and recover them, or at least it is thought this is what his order meant. It actually stated: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.”
The man who should have taken the order to the Light Brigade was Raglan’s aide-de-camp, Capt Thomas Leslie of the Leslie family from Co Monaghan. However, he was unable to ride his horse due to a leg wound. Instead, the order was taken by an impetuous young officer in a high state of excitement, Capt Louis Nolan. He conveyed the order to cavalry commander Lord Lucan (a notorious famine landlord in Mayo who was an ancestor of the famous disappearing one ). Lucan’s view was obscured by the heights so he took the order to mean the massed ranks of Russian artillery straight in front of the cavalry. Lucan was puzzled by the order, but, in the words of the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, he and the rest of cavalry did what they thought they had been told. “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.”
Of the 671 men who charged, half were either killed, injured or taken prisoner. Those who survived the cannonade found themselves mauled when they got to the Russian guns by the opposing cavalry. They had to be rescued by the French.
Though Capt Leslie could hardly be blamed for the debacle, he seemed to blame himself. After the war he married a wealthy heiress called Emma Slingsby and changed his name to Thomas Slingsby, out of shame, his family believe.
Irish involvement in the Crimean War was little remembered until the historian David Murphy published the definitive account almost 150 years later in 2002. Best estimates suggest 37,000 Irish-born soldiers participated in the war with 7,000 fatalities mostly from disease and neglect.
It is difficult for us to comprehend today the enthusiasm with which the outbreak of the war in 1854 was greeted in Ireland, just a few short years after a devastating famine.
Cheering crowds saw the Irish regiments off at Kingstown, but we hardly need reminding that the relationship between Ireland and Britain is a complicated one.
Sevastopol fell in September 1856 and the grateful burghers of Dublin organised for the returning soldiers a month later the biggest banquet Ireland has ever seen.
Some 3,268 Crimean veterans attended on that occasion. The event will be styled, albeit on a much smaller scale, in aid of Barnardos tonight at Ely Bar & Brasserie in the CHQ building on the Liffey quays. The banquet, incidentally, was organised before the current Crimean crisis blew up. *
Among those in attendance tonight will be 97-year-old Jack Leslie, a great-great grandnephew of Thomas Leslie.
Jack’s grandfather, Shane, used to hear Thomas Leslie crying in the drawing room of the family home lamenting his late wife and the demise of his beloved Light Brigade.
The charge seems so long ago and far away, but the distant drums of that forgotten conflict beat a little louder now. Some 220,000 Russian soldiers died defending Crimea. We in the West may have forgotten that fact. President Putin has not.
*The article was edited on Thursday, April 9th.