Turtle Bunbury

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Castle Leslie, County Monaghan, 1900. The moment he heard the library door open, 15-year-old Shane Leslie dived behind the sofa. Children were not allowed in the library. The person who entered was his great-uncle Thomas. As Shane lay in frozen silence, the old man took a seat in a nearby armchair and began speaking and then sobbing aloud. It became apparent that he was addressing his late wife. And the subject of his discourse was the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which he had been one of the key participants.

The ill-fated Charge, which took place on October 25th 1854, came about because of a misinterpreted order from high command which resulted in a brigade of nearly 700 mounted cavalry, including 114 Irishmen, galloping into a valley full of heavy duty Russian artillery guns. It was the most epic, glorious and downright insane event to take place in the Crimean War of the 1850s.

The Crimean War erupted in October 1853 when Britain united with its traditional enemy France, as well as the Ottoman Turks and the Kingdom of Sardinia, against Tsarist Russia. The war was chiefly fought in the Crimea, the peninsula that is now the focus of a major, on-going territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

The causes were ostensibly connected to protecting Christian minorities in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land although the British and French were primarily motivated by a mutual determination to keep the land-hungry Russians in check.

All wars are horrific but the Crimean death toll of 650,000 was all the worse for the fact that a staggering two thirds of those who died succumbed to disease mostly cholera contracted from contaminated water and unsanitary conditions.

Over 7000 of those who died were Irish.

Ireland’s role in the Crimean War is greatly understated although David Murphy did much to correct this in his 2002 book. ‘Ireland and the Crimean War’.

A number of the incompetent military leaders had Irish connections, including Lords Lucan, Gough and Raglan, as well as General De Lacy Evans, but it was at troop level that the Irish really made an impact.

It is estimated that one third of the 111,000 men who served were Irish. Many fought with Irish regiments such as the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons (known as the Skins), the Connaught Rangers, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and the 18th Royal Irish Regiment of Foot.

There were at least 4000 Irish in the Royal Navy including Charles Lucas, a 20-year-old Mate on board HMS Hecla who heroically hurled a live Russian shell off the ship’s deck moments before it exploded. He duly became the first man to win a Victoria Cross.

The first soldier to win a VC was another Irishman, Sergeant (later General Sir) Luke O'Connor from Elphin, Co Roscommon. A further 26 Irishmen won VC’s in the Crimea.

Over 100 Irishmen served as British army surgeons, including Dr. Philip Cross, later destined to swing for murdering his wife. Thirty-three Irish Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity went out as nurses; some clashed with Florence Nightingale over how to treat the wounded. Eight Irish priests went as chaplains; three died.

The most famous war correspondent of the day was the pioneering London Times journalist William H Russell from Tallaght, south Dublin, while E. L. Godkin of Knockananna, Co. Wicklow, and James Carlisle McCoan of Co. Tyrone, would also become household names.

By the middle of October 1854, French and British forces had set up a beachhead of redoubts, gun batteries, and trenches around the port of Balaclava. This was part of a greater campaign to capture the port and fortress of Sevastopol, Russia's principal naval base on the Black Sea, which lay 50km to the north.

On October 25th, 1854, Russian infantry attacked the Franco-British force, overpowering their Turkish allies. As he watched the Russians swarm over the captured Turkish canons, Lord Raglan , the commander of the British forces in the Crimea, summoned his Monaghan-born aide-de-camp, Captain Thomas Leslie, and passed him a hand-written order. The message read, “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.”

Leslie was instructed to hand-deliver this fatally ambiguous message to Lord Lucan, the British cavalry commander. However, the 28-year-old Leslie had been shot in the thigh during the battle of the Alma River a month earlier - the doctor who plucked the musket ball out thoughtfully posted it on to his mother as a souvenir. As such, still recovering, he was unable to ride at any great pace.

His hobbling progress proved too much for the brilliant but impetuous Captain Louis Nolan who offered to deliver the orders himself, grabbing the note and galloping into the distance.

Nolan found Lucan at one end of a valley with the Russian artillery massed at the other, about one mile away. When Lucan read the order, he deduced – incorrectly - that he was to launch a straightforward charge at the Russian artillery. Nolan, who had also misinterpreted Raglan’s order, was unable to advise otherwise. Neither man realised the Russians had also set up artillery canons on either side of the valley.

Lucan then ordered Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade, to sound the charge with a bugle that, as it happens, was made in Capel Street, Dublin.

The next moments would be immortalized in verse just six weeks later by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with such epic lines as:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

It was an extraordinary charge. Of the 670 troopers who set off, 118 were killed - including Nolan who was among the first men shot – while 127 were wounded and about 60 taken prisoner. Some 375 horses were also killed in the charge, or destroyed afterwards.

Some men managed to make it through the gauntlet of the valley and did briefly scatter the Russian gunners before the Russian cavalry came out and the retreat was sounded.

The bravery of those who charged was applauded the world over but Raglan, Lucan and the unfortunate Nolan would all have their names dragged through the mud as people sought answers for the cause of the catastrophe.

Captain Leslie rather unreasonably blamed himself, holding that if he rather than Nolan had delivered the order to Lucan, the communications botch up would have been avoided. He later changed his surname to Slingsby, his wife’s family name, in order to spare his Leslie kinsmen’s blushes.

Sevastapol eventually fell in September 1856 to a French force commanded by General Patrice de Mac-Mahon, the descendant of one of the ‘wild geese’ who emigrated from County Limerick in the late 17th century. Its fall signalled the end of the Crimean War; the Russians glumly signed the Treaty of Paris, thereby opening the Danube to international trade.

The Irishmen who served in the Crimea were widely applauded by the citizens of Dublin. On 22nd October 1856, over 3500 bearded and battle-hardened war veterans marched into the tobacco warehouse on Dublin’s Custom House Quay - now known as the chq Building - where they were treated to a massive banquet, paid for by the citizens of Dublin.

The Crimean War Banquet was the brainchild of Fergus Farrell (*), the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and it proved a resounding success. Isaac Butt, secretary of the fund, was one of the key speakers, proudly applauding ‘the Crimean heroes’ and offering ‘a thousand welcomes with all the cordiality of the lush heart — to those who fought for us in far off lands.’ The Barton family hosted a similar banquet in Enniskillen for soldiers from who served.

Other monuments to Ireland’s Crimeann campaign can be found across Ireland from a stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, to at least 20 canons scattered around Ireland. However, perhaps the most lasting legacy was the military camp at the Curragh, which was established by the British Army in 1855 as a training camp for officers and soldiers bound for the Crimean War.


(*) Thanks to John Christopher Farrell for supplying this information about Fergus Farrell, the Lord Mayor who organized the Crimean War Banquet: "Fergus Farrell married Alicia Bourne in 1828. He was the son of James Jackson Caddell Farrell or Ferrall of Gibraltar House, Co Sligo and grandson of Fergus Farrell of Lackagh, Co Sligo. Fergus and Alicia lived at Newport Pratt, Co Mayo and 12 Richmond Ave., Fairview, Co Dublin. Alicia had a daughter Belinda from her first marriage to James Peter Rutledge and at least 2 daughters with Fergus Farrell. He was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1856 and died in 1858. He was Catholic and noted as a Seed merchant while holding considerable acreage in Co Sligo, partly his own and more for his wife."


With thanks to Ronan O Domhnaill, Sammy Leslie, David Murphy, Paul Groff and Brian Nolan.