Friday, March 14, 2014

The Connaught Rangers and the (First?) Crimean War

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Crimea is back in the news again. Vladimir Putin, with that gift that distinguishes all true bullies, senses a lack of conviction in the west. So he sends his troops into Crimea, just to see how high the dust will fly before putting his hands up, saying he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, he doesn’t want any trouble, and so on. This is what bullies do. They see how far they can go.

The fact that this is all going off in the Crimea has historical resonance for people in our part of the world. The Crimean War of the middle of the 19th Century is a war whose place in history is out of proportion with its impact on history. There were many more wars like it, both before and after, from which Crimea was no better or any worse.

But Crimea had features that caught the public imagination like no other war did. It was the first war to be reported as news, with regular updates from the front lines. It was the war where Florence Nightingale made her name as the ne plus ultra of the nursing profession. And it featured one of the most glorious failures in military history, the charge of the Light Brigade.

What makes it particularly interesting for us is that the Crimean War of 1854-1856 also featured the “Devil’s Own” Connaught Rangers, the line infantry division of the British army that featured soldiers from the West of Ireland. These were men who, perhaps, were not so much looking for fame, fortune or military glory but saw a world that offered them few choices. Soldiering, tough though it was, was the best of a bad lot.

There’s a marvellous painting called “Listed for the Connaught Rangers” by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, which gives a very vivid impression of what it was like to take the Queen’s shilling in 19th Century Ireland. The painting features two young men who have just joined up, walking up their country boreen and on into whatever theatre of war they would be sent (and the Connaught Rangers were sent to them all, in their day).

The recruits are accompanied by their recruiters, three boys and a man. One boy is carrying his tow-row-row drum over his shoulder. One is minding a mongrel dog, and the third is lighting a sneaky cigarette – he’ll regret that habit when he’s running to save his hide at Inkerman or Lucknow. The man is an NCO type, with a neatly done up tunic and a military moustache, and he’s keeping a keen eye on his two new recruits.

The recruits themselves are chalk and cheese. On the left, one unfortunate has his head nearly turned around on his shoulders, as he takes one last look at home. He’ll find life tough in the barracks.

His comrade won’t. He’s just the sort of man you need ‘midst shot and cannon’s roar. His hat his tipped back on his head, his hands are in his pockets, his shoulders are back and square, and his clay pipe is stuck in the corner of his mouth. He’ll make a good soldier – once the army finishes breaking him. They’ve broken tougher.

They all made good soldiers, really. The three famous battles of the Crimean War were at Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol, and the Connaught Rangers won honours at them all.

The siege of Sevastopol lasted a year of the Crimean War’s three, as it was in possession of that port that victory lay. The Battle of Balaclava happened during the first months of the siege, at which the Light Brigade made their glorious and doomed charge for some Russian guns at the end of a valley. It must have been quite some sight to see – in the age of the pre-industrial wars, a lot counted for show.

The correct deployment of cavalry as a military tactic dates back to the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, two hundred-odd years before the birth of Christ. The cavalry were not deployed correctly at Balaclava – frontal assaults were jobs for heavy brigades, not light.

The Light Brigade at Balaclava, for reasons no-one has ever settled definitively, charged the wrong guns. But what a sight they must have been, those six hundred mounted men charging into the valley, sabres pointing straight ahead, heading straight for the Russian guns. Death or glory.

It was more the former than the latter for the Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers, of course. There were no Irish peasants in the Light Brigade. They couldn’t even have afforded the tailoring to make the uniforms.

The Light Brigade were gentlemen, in the old sense of the world, which is perhaps why their slaughter came as such as shock to the folks back home. Normally, it isn’t the gentry that end up being cannon-fodder. That would be more a job for infantry, such as those Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. Always that little bit little more likely to be crushed under hooves than mounted in saddles.

Ninety years after the siege of Sevastopol, a town called Yalta, fifty miles or so east along the Crimean coast from Sevastopol, also got its name written into history. That was when the Allies met to decide how to divide up Europe after the defeat of Germany, and condemned Eastern Europe to exactly the same level of tyranny and oppression under Stalin as they would have got under The Fuhrer himself.

The next time someone bleats on about Irish neutrality during World War II, it might be no harm to remind them of that. Wars are fought over power. The victors write the morals of the story afterwards, not before.

The Connacht Rangers were long gone by the Yalta Conference. They mutinied in India in 1920 on hearing of the Black and Tan outrages at home, and all the Irish regiments were disbanded after the Treaty two years later. Were the Irishmen who fought under the crown right or wrong? Reader, look at the two men in Lady Butler’s painting, and calculate the odds of that landscape supporting them. You can decide for yourself.