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The Reign of Queen Victoria by  M. B. Synge


 

 

WAR IN THE CRIMEA

[71] FOR forty years Britain had been at peace, and the children whose fathers had fought at Waterloo were growing up in the belief that war was a thing of the past. Such had been the hope of the Prince Consort at the Great Exhibition. But in 1854 trouble arose in the East.

Russia had been growing very powerful under the Tsar Nicholas, who regarded his neighbour, Turkey, with a jealous eye, and wanted Constantinople for his own. The ill-treatment of Christians by the Turks provided an excuse for going to war. One day in the autumn of 1853 the great Russian fleet sailed from the strongly fortified harbour of Sebastopol in the Crimea, and destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope, killing 400 Turks, and wounding 4,000, while Sinope itself was knocked to pieces by the Russian guns. When the tidings of this butchery reached Europe, a cry of wrath and vengeance arose.

Turkey was weak; a "sick man—a very sick man", the Tsar Nicholas had called him; there seemed little doubt that Russia would overwhelm the sick man. The other nations of Europe saw danger in the prospect, and in February 1854 news reached the Tsar that Britain and France intended to help Turkey.


[Illustration]

CONSTANTINOPLE.

[73] But after the long peace of forty years, Britain was totally unprepared for war. The arts of industry had flourished, and enthusiasm for military glory had cooled. True, the old Duke of Wellington had never ceased to impress on his country the danger of being thus unready for war, but Britain would not listen to the old soldier, though events in the Crimea were so soon to prove that he was right.

When war was declared there was not a single transport ship in the service. Since the days of Waterloo steam had been gradually superseding sail, but steam navigation was very expensive, so most of the transport to the Crimea was done by means of sailing vessels.


[Illustration]

THE TSAR, NICHOLAS I.

The Crimea, so well known to us to-day, was at this time merely a name. It was a Russian province, jutting out into the Black Sea, and contained the strong fortress of Sebastopol—a second Gibraltar, where all the military stores were collected, and where Russian ships lay at anchor under the protection of the great guns in the fort.

Thither in February 1354 both British and French sailed (for the old enemies were now allies), but it [74] was September before they actually landed on Russian soil The troops disembarked in a hurricane of wind and rain, thirty miles to the north of Sebastopol. The first night in the Crimea was but typical of the misery that was to follow. Drenched to the skin, officers and men huddled round the camp fires with no shelter from the pitiless storm.


[Illustration]

LORD RAGLAN.

On September 19 the allies were ready to advance. British and French together formed a formidable body. Picturesque they must also have been, with the red caps of the Turks in their midst. But they were not to arrive at Sebastopol without fighting. On September 20 they reached the river Alma, to find that the Russians had already taken up a strong position, and were in great force upon the hills that surmounted the opposite bank. To reach the fort the allies had to cross the river; to cross the Alma they must fight the whole Russian army in position. Heavy guns commanded the highest points, masses of infantry covered the plateau beyond. The Russian commander thought the position was unassailable, [75] and he allowed the allies to approach the river, which he thought would be their grave. But he was wrong. The river was crossed under deadly fire, and the opposite heights were climbed with magnificent courage and stubborn perseverance by British, French, and Turks.

At last the Russians fled, and the allies stood victorious on the heights.

The allies now marched on to Balaklava, to the south of Sebastopol, where early on the morning of October 25 they were attacked by the Russians. "Never did a day do more credit to British courage"; it will ever be memorable in British history for the famous charge of the Light Brigade, when, owing to a fatal mistake, 600 men charged the Russian army in position.


[Illustration]

LORD CARDIGAN.

"It was yet early on the morning of October 25. Fleecy clouds hung about the low mountain tops, the blue patch of sea beyond Balaklava shone in the morning sun, while flashes gleamed from the masses of armed men in the plains. At half-past ten, like a grey cloud, the Russian cavalry galloped to the brow of the hill that cut the plain in two. In all [76] their pride and glory, they swept along the heights, while the British waited breathlessly below.

"Lord Raglan, the commander-in-chief, stood on a hill overlooking the plain. The battle had already begun, when he sent down a young officer, named Nolan, with a message that the cavalry must attack at once. The order was given to Lord Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade. It was vaguely worded. Nolan had merely pointed to a line of Russians on the heights: There, my lord, are the Russians; there are your guns."

But never had such a thing been asked of soldiers before. Lord Cardigan knew there must be a blunder somewhere, but the discipline of the army forbade him to question.

'"The brigade will advance," he said, as he cast his eye over his splendid body of cavalry, so soon to perish. The men were startled by the order, but it was

"Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die."

They settled down in their saddles, and soon they were riding hard "into the Valley of Death ". They were mown down by a cross-fire from the enemy; men and horses fell thick, but the brigade never checked speed, never faltered.


[Illustration]

MILITARY UNIFORMS, 1850-60: 1, LANCERS; 2, HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY; 3, LIGHT DRAGOONS; 4, FOOT GUARDS; 5, INFANTRY OF THE LINE; 6, HIGHLANDERS; 7, HUSSARS.

With flashing steel above their heads and a British cheer that wrung the hearts of those who watched, they rode down that mile of valley to within eight yards of the Russian battery. Right under the [78] Russian guns they passed, cutting down the gunners as they stood.

Some twenty minutes later, through dense clouds of smoke, the few survivors made their way back across the plain. Over 600 had ridden forth in all their manhood's pride, under 200 of them returned.

Lord Raglan owned with pride, when the battle was won, that this incident in it was the finest thing ever attempted. Of world-wide fame are the words which fell from the lips of a French general who watched the charge: "It is magnificent, but it is not war."


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