Jumping the gun
When Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Crimean War scholars must have thought it was Groundhog Day. Commentators tried to establish a motive. Was it Putin’s response to the threat of NATO expansion along Russia’s western border? A possibility if Ukraine’s recently elected government joined NATO, and evicted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its long-standing base in Sevastopol. Or perhaps he was trying to recapture the former territories of the Soviet Union, having apparently never accepted the break up of the USSR following the end of the Cold War. His determination to expand Russia’s borders was looking very similar to that of Tsar Nicholas l.
One hundred and sixty years earlier, in 1854, Britain felt threatened by the possibility of an expanding Russian Empire. On February 27th of that year, Russian troops crossed the Danube into Turkey. Britain, as well as several other European countries had good reason to be concerned. If Russian troops took the Turkish capital, Constantinople – now Istanbul – Tsar Nicholas 1’s Black Sea Fleet could gain access to the Mediterranean, giving his warships an entrée into Europe and beyond; an intolerable situation, you will agree, for the expansionist British Empire. Britain’s ultimatum to the Tsar to exit Turkey was ignored, even though he knew his ignoring it would be interpreted as a declaration of war.
But let’s rewind a bit. As with so many wars, an act, no matter how bizarre, had to be the catalyst. In the case of the Crimean War the excuse was ‘defending the faith.’ In 1854 Palestine - or the Holy Land - was part of the Turkish Empire and the Church of the Nativity – named so because it was believed it was here that the baby Jesus was born - was guarded by Turkish troops for the safety – it was said – of pilgrims. The church was run as a joint venture between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks. At this juncture, please feel free to suspend belief and enter the world of Lewis Carroll. If ever there was an example of flailing around looking for an excuse to go to war with another country, here’s a good one. The Orthodox monks held the key to the main entrance of the church and this privilege, in the opinion of the Roman Catholic monks, made those Orthodox monks a bit too uppity for their own good; they were acting, it would seem, like they owned the place. Both sides had form though. Already, in 1847, the Orthodox monks had removed a silver star placed by the Roman Catholic monks, which supposedly marked the exact spot where baby Jesus’ manger had stood. They ignored demands to replace it and fought it out instead with candlesticks and crucifixes. In 1852 the Roman Catholic monks managed to get their hands on the key to the front door; let themselves in, and replaced the star. A big fight ensued in which several monks were killed. The Orthodox monks sought the help of the extremely devout Tsar Nicholas l, who had appointed himself as protector of the Orthodox Church worldwide. Nicholas blamed the Turks for not protecting the Orthodox monks and demanded that the keys be returned to them. While he was at it he demanded that the Sultan of Turkey recognise him as protector of all Christians living in the Turkish Empire.
The keys were returned but Tsar Nicholas did not get the official recognition he sought as protector of the Christians. As with so many ‘devout’ leaders throughout history, Nicholas took offence easily. He sent Russian troops into the Turkish provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia in ‘defence of the Orthodox religion.’ Tsar Nicholas l had found an excuse to go to war with Turkey; not invade it, mind you. Remember that the Turkish Empire had control over the narrow strait that linked the Black sea to the Mediterranean. Moldavia and Wallachia were coincidentally near that narrow strait. When diplomacy failed, fighting began between Russia and Turkey. Following a sea battle in which almost 4,000 Turkish sailors lost their lives Britain, with the popular support of its people, decided to come to Turkey’s aid. Diplomacy took a back seat as crowds bayed for revenge on Tsar Nicholas; and if we have learnt nothing else from history, we have learnt that action instigated by an angry mob is never, in retrospect, looked upon favourably. For Britain to declare it was defending a weak neighbour against a strong one was a bit of a stretch. But of course, from the British government’s point of view, it was not the outraged angry mob that propelled them into action; it was the thought of another power challenging their naval supremacy and consequently their lucrative trade routes. British trade was not, according to the Westminster Review, going to suffer as a result of Tsar Nicholas making a ‘Russian lake of the Mediterranean’. France, with her own colonies and trade routes, felt similarly threatened; as a fairly new republic, she was anxious to test her geo-political metal against the Russian Bear by throwing her lot in with the British Lion.
And so, it came to pass; Britain declared war on Russia; the war that we know as the Crimean War, because most of it played out in the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea – the most southerly part of the Russian Empire. In September 1854 a combination of British, French and Turkish troops invaded the Crimea. Their target was the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol; if this could be destroyed, the Mediterranean, which led to all quarters, and hence, the rest of the world, could rest easy. The yearlong siege of Sevastopol would be the final episode in the Crimean War.
By late October though, not only was Sevastopol still holding out, but the Russian army was responding in kind against the British base at Balaklava. The 4th Division, under the command of Sir George Cathcart, could view the whole town of Sevastopol from a hill and could see that Russian defences were weak. Cathcart and Raglan, commander in chief of the British Army in the Crimea, wanted to attack immediately but were outnumbered by other officers who wanted to subdue Sevastopol with siege guns before launching an assault. But it took eighteen days to get the siege guns ready and this gave the Russians plenty of time to prepare their defences. The bombardment of Sevastopol started on October 16th. After surviving the first day of bombardment, the Russians decided to break the siege by attacking Balaklava and cutting off the British from their main supplies. With a change in strategy and amassing of troops the Russians were ready to attack at daybreak on October 25th. By now, Raglan had a bird’s eye view of events from the Sapoune Heights, and it was from this exalted position that he would witness one of the most catastrophic military blunders in the history of warfare. The single event that started the horrific series of events was Raglan’s witnessing Russian troops stealing British guns abandoned on the Causeway Heights in the heat of battle. As Orlando Figes reminds us in his wonderful book, Crimea, ‘The Duke of Wellington had never lost a gun, or so it was believed by the keepers of his cult in the British military establishment.’ Raglan would never countenance British guns being paraded as trophies in Sevastopol.
Raglan at once sent an order to Lord Lucan, commander of the Cavalry Division, to prevent the guns being carried away and assured him of infantry support. Lucan was perplexed; he could not see any supporting infantry, and did not believe that he was expected to pit his cavalry against Russian infantry and artillery. Obviously hoping for clarification, he did nothing for three-quarters of an hour. But Raglan was adamant, and sent a second order; ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.’ What Lucan could see was stanza three of Tennyson’s famous poem – ‘Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front of them…’ He was being asked to send his cavalry into a shooting gallery. If Raglan’s order had specified that it was the British guns on the Causeway Heights only that Lucan was to take, the charge would have progressed in a different direction; but the order was not clear about which guns to recover.
In this second order, there was no mention of advancing to the Causeway Heights in particular; the order simply referred to the front; and this time there was no mention of supporting infantry. From his position, Lucan could not see any guns being carried away. The order was carried by aide-de-camp, Captain Louis Nolan, who told Lucan he was to attack immediately. Here is the narrative account:
"Attack what? What guns, sir?"
"There, my Lord, is your enemy!" Nolan replied insolently as he vaguely waved his arm eastwards. "There are your guns!"
Nolan’s impatient, almost dismissive arm wave, looked like he was pointing to the Russian battery at the end of the valley. Despite his confusion, Lucan rode over to Cardigan with this latest order. When Cardigan learned what he had to do, he questioned the sanity of the order:
"… allow me to point out to you that there is a battery in front, battery on each flank, and the ground is covered with Russian riflemen."
"I know it," said Lucan. "But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey."
Because Nolan had just returned from Raglan's HQ, Cardigan assumed that Nolan knew what Raglan wanted. Also, Cardigan, wanting to save face in front of fellow officers, did not want to appear reluctant to carry out a risky command. Furthermore, Nolan was a highly experienced officer who had seen service in India; he had no respect for aristocrats like Lucan and Cardigan who could buy their way up the ranks and choose their wars. It did not help that Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan were brothers-in-law who despised each other. Both these English aristocrats, who suffered agonisingly from the sin of pride, and had bought their army commissions, had reputations for being cruel to officers and men, as well as being inept at the business of all things military. It would probably true to say that the rank and file had more time for the Russians than for their lordships Lucan and Cardigan.
As a little aside, some of you closet military historians might get some sneaky pleasure from this, courtesy of Terry Brighton, author of Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade. ‘…it was a maxim of the cavalry charge that enemy artillery on either flank had to be put out of action before the advance began.’ Cavalry always charged in a line, two deep, so the most that could be hit by oncoming roundshot was two men. But if roundshot was fired from the flanks – four, six or eight men could be hit, and this is exactly what happened in that famous charge. But by the time of the Crimean War, roundshot was being replaced by shell – a metal container packed with gunpowder fitted with a fuse preset to ignite the powder after between five and thirty seconds. So, the charging light cavalry would initially have faced roundshot and shell coming at them from three sides. Those lucky enough to have survived the charge closed in on their target only to be met with the final barrage in that trilogy of ammunition – canister - which literally sprayed pellets over men and horses.
And so, the most famous act of defending Balaklava would become known as the Charge of the Light Brigade, where a British Cavalry Division under the command of Lord Cardigan charged a battery of Russian artillery guns ranged at the opposite end of a mile-long valley – prosaically described as the ‘Valley of Death’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his iconic, if historically dubious, poem. The powers that be, viewing the action from their exalted heights, were surprised and horrified in equal measure when it looked to them like Cardigan was not following Raglan’s orders. They expected to see the charge inclining to the right towards the captured British guns on the Causeway Heights, but the Light Brigade charged straight ahead towards the Russian battery at the end of the valley. It was too late to do anything. This charge was a mistake, resulting in 278 casualties out of 673 men.
Nolan dashed forward ahead of Cardigan and there are two explanations for this; he was over enthusiastic and wanted to speed up the charge, or, probably more accurately, he suddenly realised the terrible mistake that was being made (perhaps guilty about his insolence towards Lucan when delivering the order) and was screaming at the brigade to execute a technically difficult turn and move in the direction of the Causeway Heights. Raglan thought that Nolan was trying to take command and lead the charge. Almost instantly, Nolan was killed by a shell that exploded above his head; he was the first person to be killed in the charge. So, the only person on the battle field who knew the mistake Cardigan was making was now dead. The charge was hopeless and could only result in the destruction of the Light Brigade.
The Charge of the Light Brigade went down in history because of its sheer recklessness. As those unfortunate cavalrymen picked up speed and galloped forth, not only were they hurtling straight into a firing range, but they were also facing enemy fire from both flanks. It was a massacre, and yet those who miraculously escaped instant death or horrific injury in the initial onslaught, galloped on towards the wrong target. Of course, the original intention of Lord Raglan, was not to send the Light Brigade on a suicide mission. Raglan did not have a good view of the battle field and consequently issued vague and ambiguous orders based on incomplete information. The needless death ride was the result of an unfortunate mix of pass the parcel and Chinese whispers. Raglan’s original written order was delivered by Captain Louis Nolan, to Lord Lucan. Lucan then gave the order orally to Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade. But somewhere between its instigation from Lord Raglan and its final receipt by Lord Cardigan, the line of communication became corrupted, and to this day, it’s hard to know who to blame.
Approximately ninety years later, on the other side of Europe, during the height of World War ll, another legendary attack took place, this time with aircraft rather than cavalry horse. The leading role in this attack was played by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde of the British Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, and his mission, if he chose to accept it, was to destroy three German battleships - 'Scharnhorst', 'Gneisenau', and 'Prinz Eugen'.
In the winter of 1941-42 the three German battleships were resting up in harbour at Brest in western France, protected by a wall of anti-aircraft guns. They had, after all, earned some time off after taking part in the invasion of Norway in 1940. Following this, they did a stint as commerce raiders, attacking enemy merchant ships, and consequently attracting the unwanted attention of the Royal Navy who relentlessly pursued them around the seas. Even in resting mode, these ships were a potential threat to Britain’s naval strategy in the Atlantic and northern waters. After Royal Air Force (RAF) raids on Brest had damaged 'Scharnhorst,' the German High Command decided to move all three ships back to safe home waters at Wilhelmshaven. They needed to move quickly and decisively though, to avoid having the ships being blown out of the water. February 12th, 1942 was fixed for what would become known as the 'Channel Dash'. The British plan to stop these ships getting safely home was code-named Operation Fuller, and it would be carried out by 825 Squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde. The squadron was equipped with six Fairey Swordfish planes which could only attain a top speed of 100 mph when carrying a torpedo. Eugene Esmonde's plan was for his six aircraft, in two sections, to launch their torpedoes at an altitude of 50 feet towards the German ships as they steamed through the English Channel.
Esmonde was promised an escort of six squadrons of Spitfires for the mission, but the decision on whether to attack or not was left to him; he decided to go ahead. This was just one day after Esmonde had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order at Buckingham Palace for his role in the sinking of the German warship Bismarck following the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Unfortunately, due to appalling weather and poor communications, only one squadron of Spitfires arrived to support the Swordfish. Despite this, Esmonde still decided to attack and the actions of him and his squadron passed into aviation history as extreme, even foolhardy, bravery in the face of hopeless odds. Esmonde’s friend, Wing Commander Tom Gleave, remembered Esmonde’s expression just before take-off. He described it as the look of a man who knew he was already dead.
The six Fairey Swordfish persisted in what was effectively a suicide mission in the face of superior anti-aircraft fire and German fighters. They did not stand a chance and were decimated. Esmonde and his crew were amongst the first killed, and only five of the eighteen aviators survived. Esmonde’s posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions was the second for the Esmonde family. In 1855, at Sevastopol, his great-uncle, Thomas Esmonde, a captain in the 18th Regiment of Foot, received the Victoria Cross for rescuing wounded men from exposed situations and, on another occasion, extinguishing an enemy fireball before it could betray the position of his men, saving them from certain death.
Eugene Esmonde's ‘charge’ against the Schamhorst battleship was just as futile the charge of the Light Brigade. Although Esmonde's orders were not ambiguous, he did not wait for a fighter escort before making his attack, so there was an element of recklessness in his actions. An escort of fighters did eventually join up with Esmonde but they became separated after being attacked by German fighters. This did not stop Esmonde continuing with his futile attack. Like Louis Nolan in the Charge of the Light Brigade, Esmonde was the first person killed. The rest of the squadron was shot down without causing any damage to the German battleship.
So, the similarities are - both attacks were considered futile by those leading them; a lack of detailed knowledge by superior officers left the attacking soldiers extremely vulnerable; both the Light Brigade and 825 Squadron did not receive necessary and timely support; the people who could have aborted the attacks were the first to be killed. Such recklessness may be regarded by some as a sort of romantic unprofessionalism. They had not learned, as General Patton said in less parliamentary language in a speech delivered to the 6th Armoured division on 31 May, 1944, before the Normandy invasion - that you don't win a war by dying for your country; you win by making the enemy die for his country.
This excerpt from Esmonde’s Victoria Cross citation captures the futile and reckless bravery. ‘Soon after noon he and his squadron of six Swordfish set course for the Enemy, and after ten minutes flight were attacked by a strong force of Enemy fighters. Touch was lost with his fighter escort and in the action which followed all his aircraft were damaged. He flew on, cool and resolute, serenely challenging hopeless odds, to encounter the deadly fire of the Battle-Cruisers and their Escort, which shattered the port wing of his aircraft.
Undismayed, he led his Squadron on, straight through this inferno of fire, in steady flight towards their target. Almost at once he was shot down: but his Squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, in which at least one torpedo is believed to have struck the German Battle-Cruisers, and from which not one of the six aircraft returned.’
The Crimean War was the first war where journalists wrote first-hand reports from the battlefields for their readers back home. Reports from the London Times correspondent William Howard Russell, even if they were not always accurate or objective, kept the public informed about the realities of warfare; the dirt and disease, the slaughter of men and horses; the fear and the heroism. The recently invented electric telegraph enabled stories to be filed in hours rather than weeks, while the pioneering work of Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, brought the Crimean battlefields to life for newspaper readers.
J is for jumping the gun; Louis Nolan and Eugene Esmonde arguably jumped the gun. Esmonde’s futile action, may have lost that particular battle but it did help to win the war against the Nazis, so perhaps futile is the wrong description of Esmonde’s action. Nolan’s action, on the other hand, is not as clear cut. It could be described as a wasted sacrifice in a fight between greedy empires – much as was the case in World war l.
J is also for judging; something that’s easy to do when you were not there. J is for journalism; war reporting grew in stature after the Crimean War, informing us about mistakes, acts of heroism, war crimes, civilian casualties, massacres, and madness. J, it turns out, is the first letter of some very powerful words. It also turns out that one James Dwan, Private 1079 of the 8th Hussars charged into the Valley of Death with the Light Brigade and survived. My namesake was born in Donegal in 1834. Records that show he worked as a farrier in the 1870s and by the 1880s he was working as a doorman in Marchmont Street in London. I wonder what his version of the charge was?
 Figes, Orlando. Crimea. 2010. Penguin.
 Brighton, Terry. Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade. 2004. Penguin Viking.
 http://speakola.com/motivate/genreal-patton-1944. "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country"
 Dutton, Roy. Forgotten Heroes: The Charge of the Light Brigade. Infodial Ltd, 2007
 Top imahe: Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. [Public domain], <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharge_of_the_Light_Brigade.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>