Amid all of my looking at the rebellions and agrarian violence in Ireland, and the continuing role of the Irish in conflicts overseas, I have yet to really took a look at the continuing presence of Irishmen in the British military, through both the “named” regiments of Irish origin, and the masses of soldiers in just about every British military unit that were ether Irish born or Irish descended. The 1850’s, dominated by the Crimean War, seems as good a place as any to turn back to this aspect of Irish military history.
The origins of the Crimean War are complicated, even more than normal for a European conflagration. At the heart of it, at least initially, were the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire, a long time political behemoth of eastern Europe and the Middle-East, that was well into a long decline that would culminate with its collapse in World War One over 70 years later. The “Sick Man of Europe” struggled to protect itself both from internal divisions and the predations of its neighbours: Tsarist Russia, under Nicholas I and later his son, claimed responsibility and authority over Christianity in lands under nominal Ottoman control with a particular flashpoint being the status of religious sites in Jerusalem itself.
The Ottoman’s objected, and were backed up by a coalition of Britain and France, who wished to curtail Russian advancement in the Middle-East and the Balkans, fearful of such domination’s possible effect on the precarious balance of power that had been agreed by the “Concert of Europe” after the fall of Napoleon: the Crimean War would be the first major conflict of European powers since Waterloo. After many years of simmering resentment, anti-Russian feeling throughout western Europe and numerous incidents, war was declared in October of 1853. While there would be numerous theatres, from the Balkans to the Baltic to the Caucasus, the conflict is primarily known for the campaigns fought on the Crimean peninsula.
And the Irish were there in force. Over a third of the British Army was Irish at the time, and up to 30’000 or so Irish soldiers probably served in the campaigns, as infantry, cavalry, sailors, engineers and even military police, drawn from the ranks of the Irish Constabulary. Three named Irish regiments, all of them cavalry, fought in the Crimean War, and all saw their most notable service in one of the most infamous clashes in British military history. The invasion of the Crimea by a combined British/French and Ottoman force had in its design the capture of Sevastopol and the neutralisation of the Russian Black Sea fleet. It was in September of 1854 that this force landed: after victory in the Battle of the Alma, the allied forces settled in for a siege of Sevastopol, that would drag on for a miserable 11 months, the soldiers the victims of strategic muddling by a succession of poorly chosen commanding officers.
While Sevastopol was surrounded, fighting continued elsewhere on the peninsula, as other Russian forces attempted to disrupt and drive back the invaders. In late October of 1854, a Russian Army made a move on the British supply base of Balaclava, resulting in a battle that saw all three Irish cavalry regiments called into action.
Balaclava unfolded in three distinct phases. In the first, a massive Russian infantry advance swamped and overran the initial lines of defence on the hilly ground around the port, that were manned by ill-equipped and largely untested Ottoman units. In the second, the Russian assault was blunted by the much hardier British infantry, armed with the most modern military equipment and with arguably the world’s best training, which made them the “thin red line” of legend, that very moniker coming from the stand of the 93rd Highland Regiment at Balaclava. And the third phase, which ended the battle, was a succession of British cavalry attacks.
The first was by the Heavy Brigade, which we have talked about before for its service at Waterloo. Among it’s number were the 4th Irish Dragoon Guards, first raised during the Monmouth Rebellion, that had later seen service in both the War of the Two Kings and the 1798 Rebellion, and the famed 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. Their charge up the north valley around Balaclava was, due to the size of the horses and the weight of the equipment their riders carried, more of a brisk trot before contact with enemy calvary. The 6th were engaged on the left of the advance, and the 4th, crying “Faugh A Ballagh” as they went, struck home on the right. It was the 4th that had more success: despite their numerical superiority, the Russian cavalry were no match for their British counterparts, who had some of the best horses in the world in their number, many of them born and bred in Ireland. In roughly ten minutes or so of combat, the Russian horse were hacked to pieces or forced to ride backwards, the 4th braking through and finding themselves able to cross from flank to flank.
Watching the events from close-by were the more nimble Light Brigade, which counted among their number the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars. They could have made complete the victory by joining the pursuit of the scattered Russian cavalry, but stayed rigidly still, their commander, the Earl of Cardigan, claiming to have been following strict orders in doing so. The Light Brigade’s moment would come shortly after.
The cause for what occurred has long been disputed, but amounts to little more than the sad tragedy of vague orders, handwritten by the overall British commander, Lord Raglan, being misunderstood by their recipient, the Lord Lucan, who was in overall command of the cavalry. Raglan wanted his cavalry to advance against a specfic Russian position in the Causeway Hills, where they had previously captured artillery positions, but meant for them to do so carefully and with infantry support: his orders to Lucan however, essentially told him to move immediately, without being clear about where he was to attack. And so Lucan ordered the Light Brigade to charge through to the top of the north valley, despite the Russian artillery positions in front and on both flanks, having misunderstood the exact target.
The Light Brigade went into two lines, with the 8th Hussars in the second. As immortalised by Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, their action was a catastrophe, as Russian round and canister short, as well as rifle fire, tore into them from every angle. Lord Lucan was supposed to lead the Heavy Brigade in support behind, but balked when he saw the carnage, refusing to send his other horse into such a quagmire.
Despite the intense fire, the Light Brigade did actually manage to reach their objective, and temporarily scattered the Russian horse on the heights and engage the artillerymen defending the guns. But as soon as their losses became clear, they became easy targets for the rallying enemy cavalry, and were forced to break out and head back the way they had came, under fire all the while.
After an operation lasting 20 minutes, a third of the entire Light Brigade were casualties, with over half of its horses dead. The recriminations for what had occurred would last years and never receive any kind of closure: as for Balaclava, the losses inflicted on the Light Brigade brought the battle to a stuttering halt, as the stunned British refused to contemplate further offensive action. The Russians would thus claim Balaclava as a victory, thought they failed to completely bottle up the British supply position.
The war would continue on, with allied victory at the November Battle of Inkerman allowing them mostly free reign to continue the Siege of Sevastopol, which itself ended with the surrender of the city the following September, after several costly assaults and numerous bombardments. With the completion of the campaign objections, the war came to a surprisingly rapid close: the Russians, fearful of a grand allied invasion of their core territory from the west, sued for peace, which was to the preference of the main allied powers, Britain and France, whose citizens were turning against the ever-lengthening war. In the resulting Treaty of Paris, Russian gave up its military position in the Black Sea. Somewhere in the region of 600’000 men had been killed in the course of the fighting.
The Crimean War is remembered today, outside of events like Balaclava, for the pioneering aspects of military life that first reared their heads there: with the hospital services of women like Florence Nightingale, or in the journalistic exploits that made the conflict one the most vividly reported in history, with war correspondents bringing news of battles to mass produced newspapers at home within a rapid amount of time.
But it should also be remembered as yet another part of the British Army’s worldwide commitment that heavily involved Irish soldiers and Irish regiments. It was far from the only one in the 19th century, a period when the British Empire’s military needs stretched far beyond European clashes.
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