In the last month or so the Crimea has been very much in the news.
It’s an odd-shaped peninsular dangling like an ear-ring from the south of the Ukraine out into the Black Sea. Historically it is part of Russia but for some obscure reason it was awarded to the Ukraine back in the Fifties when the latter was part of the USSR and seemed destined to be forever that way, in thrall to Moscow.
Times changed and the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine became independent and looked to the West for economic succour. But those parts of the country that have Russian-speaking majorities and strong ethnic ties to Russia prefer to look East. Being part of Eurasia and not Europe is their dream. End of modern (and still unfolding) history lesson. Start of 19th Century history lesson.
Go back 160 years and you find Britain very much mixed up in a conflict in the Crimea. Together with the French we had gone to the region to help defend the tottering Turkish Ottoman empire from a Tsarist Russia looking to usurp Constantinople’s dominance of the Dardenelles, the narrow strait that linked the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The Med was where the Royal Navy ruled the waves and Britannia wanted no rivals.
The resulting Crimean War was a complete shambles for all the nations involved, including Britain, the only exception being the supposedly weak Turkish army who bested the Russians in the Balkans forcing them into a meek retreat back to their Motherland. Even the famous Charge of the Light Brigade was in reality a stupendous military blunder but it is the sheer bravery of the British cavalrymen in charging regardless of danger into the ‘valley of death’ we remember and not the actions of their imbecilic (and sometimes senile) commanders.
There are plenty of places, pubs and street names commemorating our victories over Napoleon but it’s small wonder we don’t have very many eulogising the achievements of Earl Cardigan or Lord Raglan in the Crimea. Pioneer nurse Florence Nightingale comes out of it all with enormous credit but that’s about it.
In Sussex we do have some Crimean War connections. There’s the Alma Arms in Uckfield, named after the scene of a heroic charge by British soldiers up a steep slope beside a river to storm a position the Russian defenders considered impregnable. A veteran of the Alma battle, George Johnson, is buried in West Chiltington. In Hove cemetery there is the grave of Martin Leonard Landfried. On 25th October 1854 he was the young trumpeter who sounded the signal that sent the 600-strong Light Brigade on their ill-fated ride into the ‘jaws of death, into the mouth of hell’.
Lewes has enduring links to the conflict. There’s a Russian cannon from that period on display in Lewes Castle’s Gun Garden. It’s been there since 1858 and is a smooth-bored cast-iron siege piece most likely captured at Sevastopol. It bears the arms of Imperial Russia on the barrel and was presented to Lewes in recognition of the 300 or so Russian POWs held in the town’s Naval Prison. Mainly Finnish (Finland was then part of Russia) they were captured in the Baltic at the siege of Bomarsund in 1854. Given parole access to the town, they became a popular part of the Lewes social scene. Allowed home in 1856, they were marched to the railway station accompanied by the town band.
Around 20 of them never left but died in Lewes from their wounds or natural causes. There’s an impressive monument to them in the churchyard of St John sub Castro. Even though Finland has not been a Russian domain for many, many years, it is Russia that pays for the upkeep of the monument; maybe a part of the never ending ‘Great Game’ between the British and the Russians is still being played out in the heart of Sussex?
Astonishingly, just a couple of years ago it was established that a participant in the Charge of the Light Brigade is buried in the very same churchyard. Richard Davis was born in London in 1827 and was a corporal in the 11th Hussars who were part of the Light Brigade at the time of the action. He survived the charge unscathed and lived at 9 Park Cottages, New Road, Lewes, until he died in 1897.