In 1954, as the centenary of the end of the Crimean War approached,
my uncle John Alldridge produced a series of articles for the
Manchester Evening News which vividly described that campaign.
In this article, the words are his; the choice of illustrations is mine.
Inkerman: Victory by bayonet, rifle-butt and stones
“What a way to remember the fifth of November!” wrote Sergeant Tom Gowing, of the Royal Fusiliers, to his parents in Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester.
“We entered into battle as sheep without a shepherd, and had to take a hand where we could,” recalled Corporal William Colcutt, of the 30th Foot – now the East Lancashire Regiment – years afterwards.
“Our army was never commanded throughout the day,” a Warrant Officer of the Loyals noted bitterly.
The voice of the rank and file again. But angry now, shamed, growling with discontent.
The voice of an army dying on its feet, worn out with fatigue, half-starved on an everlasting diet of pork and biscuits and green coffee and rotten vegetables.
A soldier was found standing asleep at his post. In his defence, he proved that he had been on duty night and day for a week, and fell asleep as he walked about. He received 50 lashes.
Yet it was this army of scarecrows which on November 3, 1854, threw back a determined enemy twice its number, fought him off with bayonet and rifle butt and stones, and won a victory which in the history books is known as Inkerman from the rocky, wooded ridge on which it was fought, but which to the British Army will always be remembered as “The Soldier’s Battle.”
It seems incredible that after the shock of Balaclava only 10 days before, when the Russians had cut the one serviceable road to his base, the British commander-in-chief still remained blissfully unaware of his danger.
His vulnerable right flank near the so-called Inkerman Ridge remained wide open, protected only by a small, incomplete battery intended for two guns: an isolated rampart of stones and earth barring the road which wound up from the valley to the plateau, and a feeble line of earthworks never more than two feet high in front of the 2nd Division.
There was no intensified vigilance, no extended patrolling or scouting.
All through October, the Russians had been building up an offensive behind their stout Sebastopol defence line.
The plan was simple but irreproachable. A sortie from the town would pin down Forey’s division on the French front.
At the same time, 22,000 men under Gortchakoff on the extreme left of the Russian attack would engage Bosquet’s division and keep him occupied.
Then the main attack – 40,000 men coming in from opposite directions – would go for that fatally weak Inkerman Ridge.
On the afternoon of November 4, a grey afternoon of dismal rain, the Russians were ready. Though masses of troops were forming up only two miles from the British front, the British Army, blinded by a blanket of damp mist, could see – and apparently hear – nothing.
The sentries of the British Second Division huddled under their sodden blankets suspected nothing.
Day came slowly that morning. The rain had stopped and given place to a dank, cold fog.
Then out of the fog and uncertainty came the quick, stabbing noise of rifle fire.
“At once there was shouting and alarm in the camp lines. The servants hurriedly ran to the tents calling their masters. Grooms flung the wet harness over the shivering backs of chargers, and were soon holding the stirrup while half-awake staff officers floundered into the saddle. The British Army was taken by surprise.”
From the beginning the battle deteriorated into a bitter, bloody, hand-to-hand struggle. British and Russians stumbling against each other in the mist, stabbing, punching, kicking. And since each army’s infantry wore long grey greatcoats friend was often killed in mistake for foe.
The brunt of the attack had to be borne by the unlucky 2nd Division.
A thin rain was falling, trickling down the barrels of muskets and rifles piled unprotected in the open following strict drill-book procedure.
At that desperate moment, a young Irish lieutenant of the 30th (East Lancs) showed a resource that was to win him a Victoria Cross.
“The men were ordered to open fire,” reads the official citation. It was the custom in those days to pile arms at night in front of the tents or bivouacs. But the stoppers had been lost, and the rifles were therefore wet and useless.
“Lieutenant Walker, fearing the men would get nervous, jumped the wall and told the men to follow him with the bayonet, which they did with a cheer.”
It is good to know that Lieutenant Walker, the only regimental officer to come through the battle unwounded, survived to become a major-general.
But V.C.s came as thick as blackberries that day. Two were earned by the Loyals in the first critical minutes when two privates, Kelly and McDermond, and Captain Rowlands rescued their wounded colonel from under the very bayonets of the enemy.
In the confusion – made even more desperate when Russian guns mounted behind them poured down on them from the rear – men got hopelessly lost.
Corporal Colcutt, of the 30th, found himself fighting far away with the Middlesex, who won for themselves that day their proud title “The Diehards.”
Their fierce old colonel, Egerton, a gallant, swearing commander, was driving off stragglers, eager to protect the glory of his own regiment. But Colcutt was allowed to remain.
“You stay, Corporal. You’ve done well.”
Sergeant Gowing, of Chorlton-on-Medlock, was trapped in a thicket, wounded in both thighs. But if he could no longer fight he had a ringside seat.
“Revolvers and bayonets told heavy that foggy morning, and when the men ran short of ammunition they started pitching stones at the enemy.”
The heaviest fighting swirled around that unfinished two-gun battery, known to the British infantry ever afterwards as “The Sandbag.”
Defended desperately by the Guards and the 47th (Loyals), it was taken and retaken again and again; men died where they fell despite the gallant efforts of an assistant surgeon of the 20th (Lancashire Fusiliers), Richard Wolseley who set up a temporary dressing station in that awful place.
Sergeant Gowing has left us a harrowing description:
“In and around the Two-Gun Battery the sights were sickening. Our men lay locked in arms of the enemy with their bayonets through each other – dead. Some of the officers and men found dead carried no fewer than 12 or 15 bayonet wounds.”
But the fog was lifting and the British, fighting back stubbornly, were getting the measure of their enemy. The first Russian wave was already ebbing downhill, driven on by British guns which had been manhandled into position.
The Guards – Grenadiers leading, Scots Fusiliers in support and Coldstreams in rear – were going forward.
Cathcart’s 4th Division – bringing with it the 63rd (Manchester Regiment) and what was left of the 20th (Lancashire Fusiliers) – were on their way up.
Cathcart, an impetuous commander, immediately ran into trouble, he led his leading brigade down a forward slope and straight into the fire of Russian artillery.
“I fear,” said the unhappy general, “that we are in a mess.” They were famous last words. He had hardly spoken them when he was killed by musket ball.
The general was dead. But for his men it was kill or be killed. The Russians still had 10,000 men on the hill below. The British numbered barely 2,000.
The French commander, Bosquet, over on the left, generously offered to switch half his force to the outnumbered British – a gallant gesture that was contemptuously refused.
So the British infantry fought on, on Inkerman Ridge alone – in some cases back to back.
The 63rd (Manchesters) found themselves up against that ragged rampart of stones and earth that barred the road into the valley, known afterwards as The Barrier.
With the 21st on their left, they were to hold that vital rampart against ceaseless attacks until the tide turned at about three in the afternoon.
Defending it, the Manchesters lost their colonel, their adjutant, and three company commanders.
The two ensigns who carried respectively the Queen’s and the regimental colours, Clutterbuck and Twysden, were struck down, one killed, the other mortally wounded.
But the precious trophies were immediately snatched up by Colour-Sergeant Brophy and Sergeant Roberts.
Ensign Clutterbuck’s sword and the shaft of the Colour he carried that day have a place of honour in the Regimental Museum at Ladysmith Barracks, Ashton-under-Lyne.
But if the clearing air gave advantage to the hard-pressed British infantry it was helping the Russian gunners too.
The sight of his cherished Guards being smashed to pulp where they stood was too appalling even for the phlegmatic Raglan.
A staff officer was sent galloping off to Bosquet’s headquarters to ask for the help so haughtily rejected only a few hours before.
And presently the cheerful bugle call of “Pere Casquette” was heard above the tumult on the ridge. Bosquet’s crack Zouaves, fierce, tawny little men in baggy red breeches and turbans like badly rolled bath towels, were coming to the rescue.
And even those stern, emotionless Guardsmen broke into a cheer as they saw the irrepressible Zouaves catching the Russians in the embrasures of “The Sandbag” – stabbing, clubbing, slaughtering methodically with a sort of dreadful rhythm, and all the time uttering shrill cries of delight.
And so Bosquet’s battalions, launched at the perfect psychological moment, decided the battle. Three times they charged with red and level bayonets, and once the Coldstreams and Zouaves ran forward together.
And after the last of these charges, the Russians were pushed over the edge of the hills, tumbling, falling down the rocks and among the brushwood.
The battle of Inkerman was over. But the agony had only just begun.
For the survivors there was little comfort; for the wounded, left to lie out there on those sodden, blood-soaked hills, there was none at all.
“For days men lay dying in those dark ravines; for more than a year grim, tattered skeletons waited for burial,” writes a commentator.
“Throughout the appalling winter that followed men who needed a pair of boots, a coat, or a blanket dug them out of the soil on the ridges of Inkerman.”
Next Episode: The aftermath
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