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Crimean War Research Society - History of the War

All the Movies about The Charge of the Light Brigade

Military Operations of the Crimean War
by Michael Hargreave Mawson

A Brief Summary

A joint invasion force, over 60,000 strong, comprising British, French and Turkish elements landed in Calamita Bay, south of Eupatoria, on the 14th September 1854; on the 19th the three armies marched south along the coast in the direction of Sebastopol, 30 miles away. In their path were a number of small streams, flowing from the interior of the Crimea westwards to the coast. On the heights to the south of one of these, the River Alma, the Russian General Prince Menschikoff had prepared his defences. He had boasted that his troops would be able to hold their positions for at least three weeks, and the ladies of Sebastopol travelled to the Alma to enjoy both a picnic and the spectacle of the repulse of the invaders.

On 20th September 1854 the Allies, under the joint commands of General Lord Raglan, Marshal St. Arnaud and General Omar Pasha, reached the Alma and met the Russians in battle. A somewhat simplistic battle-plan was adopted, with the French being responsible for turning the left (or seaward) flank of the defenders, at which point the British were to make a frontal assault (through a burning village, across a stream and then uphill in the face of withering fire from Russian infantry and artillery). Due to the first of the catalogue of misunderstandings and misapprehensions which characterised this war, the British were forced to assault before the French had fulfilled their objective, with consequent slaughter. Lord Raglan (who was fighting his first battle since Waterloo, when he had been on the Staff of the Duke of Wellington, and had lost an arm) moved so far in advance of his troops that he was actually directing the battle from behind the Russian front line. In approximately three hours, the Russians were completely routed, and fled from the field in indisciplined retreat.

The Alma clasp was not only awarded to those who had fought in the battle, but also to the Cavalry and the 4th Infantry Division who had been in support - indeed one brigade of the 4th Division did not even reach the battlefield until after the battle was over, but still received the clasp.

Lord Raglan wished to pursue the fleeing Russians, but his colleague, Marshal St. Arnaud, refused. The Russian Army was allowed to regain Sebastopol, and a young genius of a military engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Todleben, began to prepare Sebastopol's defences.

The Allied armies, deciding not to attack Sebastopol from the North, marched South East, skirting the city, towards Balaklava harbour which was captured without bloodshed. The British took Balaklava as their supply base, the French taking the undefended harbour of Kamiesch to the West. Siege weapons and ammunition began to be landed.

The French took the left of the siege lines; the English the right. The Allies opened up their bombardment of Sebastopol on the 17th October 1854, and continued it for the next two days without noticeable success.

On the 25th October 1854, Menschikoff made a major assault on the right of the besieging armies, whose forward defence works were a few half- hearted gun emplacements along the line of the road from Sebastopol to Prince Worontzoff's hunting lodge, manned by Turkish militia. Although the Turks fought bravely for over two hours, they were driven back as Lord Raglan arrived at his vantage point on the Sapoune Ridge.

The fleeing Turks reformed on either side of the four companies of the 93rd Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell, which were the only troops between the oncoming Russians and the British base at Balaklava. Shortly afterwards a further two companies of the Highlanders, and a rag-tag of men from the port (including invalids from the hospital) joined this last line of defence, and these men came under Russian artillery fire. Campbell withdrew them a few yards to the comparative safety of the dead ground behind a low bank. A strong force of Russian cavalry moved in their direction. Campbell formed his men into line (not square, which was the accepted way for infantry to face a cavalry charge), and the probing Russian advance was driven off with volleys of musket fire. This action became known as "the thin red line," from the report of W. H. Russell to his readers wherein he described "a thin red streak, tipped with a line of steel."

Another strong force of Russian cavalry was moving towards British forces, this time the Heavy Cavalry Brigade was the focus of its attention. General Sir James Yorke Scarlett led the men of the Heavy Brigade in a gallant uphill charge, and drove the Cossacks off.

Whilst these actions were taking place, the Russians were calmly removing the British guns from the redoubts along the Causeway Heights which had been abandoned by the Turks, and Lord Raglan was desperately sending orders to his Light Cavalry Brigade and to his infantry to take action to prevent this. Finally, one of his orders was acted upon, and the Charge of the Light Brigade (in completely the wrong direction) began.

From Raglan's viewpoint on the Sapoune Ridge it was possible to watch the vainglorious disaster unfold. Over 650 men charged; well over a hundred of them died within the next few minutes.

As the Light Brigade went in, Raglan's infantry finally arrived on the battlefield, but their only success was the recapture of the westernmost redoubts on the Causeway Heights. The British had lost possession of a considerable amount of ground, including the majority of their forward defences, as well as the only metalled road in the area.

The Balaklava clasp was awarded to those soldiers who had taken part in any of the actions described above, and to a number of those also present but not engaged (collectors should particularly note that there were far more Balaklava clasps awarded to men of the Light Brigade than there were Chargers). The Balaklava clasp is unique in being the only clasp ever awarded by the British Government for what was technically a defeat.

Ten days later the Russians attacked again, in what came to be known as the Battle of Inkermann, or "the Soldier's Battle". The battle raged for almost the whole day, and was prosecuted in thick fog, heavy undergrowth, and with little if any generalship being shown on either side. As dusk fell, the British held the field (having received useful, if belated, help from the French). The numbers of the Russian dead left on the field exceeded the numbers of Allied troops that had been attacked.

The Inkermann clasp was awarded to all those who were present on the battlefield, including many who were never engaged. On hearing of the selection criteria for the various clasps, at least one infantry officer railed at the powers that be for granting him a Balaklava clasp, which he felt belonged to the cavalry alone, and granting the cavalry, who never came under fire at Inkermann, the clasp for the latter battle, in which over 17,500 men (mostly infantry, and mostly Russian) were killed or wounded.

After the battle of Inkermann, the weather deteriorated to such an extent that further action in the field was precluded, and the activities of the Allies were restricted to siege operations. During the winter of 1854/55 the shortcomings of the British military supply system were thrown into sharp focus, as thousands of men died from illness, exposure and malnutrition - four times as many died from disease as did from enemy action. One Regiment, nominally over a thousand men strong, was reduced to a total of seven men by January 1855.

With the arrival of Spring came the huts and winter clothing from England; too late to save the lives of the thousands who had died as a result of their absence. Military operations continued to be restricted to trench warfare until 7th June 1855 when the outer defences of Sebastopol were assaulted, with the British capturing the Quarries and the French the Mamelon. A coup de grace was planned for the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, 18th June, as a way of cementing the new friendship between the British and their French allies. The assaults on the Malakoff and the Redan failed, partly due to incompetence on the part of the general officers commanding, and Lord Raglan sank into a decline, dying on the 28th June 1855.

On the 16th August 1855, the Russian army under Prince Gortchakoff attempted to break through the Allied lines at the Traktir Bridge over the River Tchernaya, but was driven off by a combined French/Sardinian force a third its size. The Sardinians had joined the Allies in January 1855. Medals bearing the unofficial clasp "Traktir" or "Tchernaia" are occasionally found; these clasps are believed to have been added to their medals by those French military and naval personnel who were awarded the British medal.

On the 8th September 1855 the Allies again stormed Sebastopol, with the French successful this time at the Malakoff. The British attack on the Redan failed once more. The Malakoff, however, was the key to the town's defences, and at its loss the Russians evacuated Sebastopol, having made a spirited defence which had kept the best troops in the world at bay for over eleven months. Originally it was intended that the Sebastopol clasp should be awarded to those on active duty on the 8th/9th September, but reason prevailed, and it was awarded to all those who had been present before the town at any point prior to its fall. It naturally follows that a medal bearing a Balaklava or an Inkermann clasp will also bear that for Sebastopol.

After Sebastopol fell, the war in the Crimea was effectively at its end, although hostilities were not suspended until February 1856, and peace was not declared until the end of March.

Balaklava Detail from a wood-block engraving by W. Sheeres after J. H. Nicholson's "Scaling the Parapet of the Redan," originally published in the "Illustrated Times" of September 29th, 1855. It purports to show the assault of 8th September.

This glorious image of massed ranks of immaculately-uniformed infantry charging the Redan is wholly fictional. On the 8th September the majority of the bare-headed, shabby, and demoralised British troops refused to follow their officers into the Redan; they turned and ran.

Crimean War Medal

Crimean Medal The Crimean War Medal was sanctioned on the 15th December 1854 by order of Queen Victoria. Two clasps were also authorised at this time, for the battles of Alma (20th September 1854) and Inkermann (5th November 1854). The clasp for the battle of Balaklava (which took place before that of Inkermann, on 25th October 1854) was not authorised until 23rd February 1855. The clasp for the fall of Sebastopol (9th September 1855) was granted on 13th October 1855. A clasp was also awarded to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines for actions in the Sea of Azoff (25th May - 22nd September 1855), being announced in the "London Gazette" of 2nd May 1856. The clasps are worn in date order, with the clasp for Alma being closest to the medal.

The medal itself is a 36mm disc of sterling silver, bearing the diademed head of Queen Victoria on the obverse, together with the legend "VICTORIA REGINA" and the date "1854"; the reverse shows a Roman legionary (carrying a gladius and circular shield) being crowned with a laurel wreath by a winged figure of Victory; to the left is the legend "CRIMEA," which is written vertically. The suspension is an ornate floriated swivelling suspender unique to the Crimea Medal; the clasps are also unique, being in the form of an oak leaf with an acorn at each extremity. The ribbon is 27mm wide, pale blue with yellow edges.

275,000 un-named Crimea medals were awarded (at the time, the largest distribution ever made) to all those in the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Marines who took part in the campaign in the Crimean peninsula, or in related service afloat. Those who took part in the Baltic campaign or the actions in the Pacific were not entitled: the former received the Baltic Medal; the latter, nothing. Some civilians, most notably the reporter for "The Times," William Howard Russell, also received the medal. Medals could be returned to the Mint for naming (in a style known as "officially impressed"), but many were crudely stamped with names by recipients who were presented with their medals in the Crimea ("Depot impressed"), or were privately engraved by jewellers in England.

Copyright 1997 - Michael Hargreave Mawson
Print copyright Clive Farmer 1996, prints are available from the author.

If you would like to contact the author of this article, please feel free to email him.

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