BATTLE OF THE ALMA
20 SEPTEMBER 1854
"THE 95TH BAPTISM OF FIRE"
The basic cause of the Crimean War was the designs of Russia on Constantinople. The Czar of Russia, by diplomatic means, had managed to establish a claim to a protectorate over the Christians in Europe of the Sultan of Turkey - (something like 3/5 of the population of European Turkey). In 1853 the Czar put forward claims which would have meant the virtual disappearance of Turkey as an independent state. So Great Britain and France agreed to support Turkey and declared war on Russia on 28th March 1853. (Sardinia later joined the Western alliance in 1855).
In March 1854, the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment (in 1881 this became the 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters) received orders to be prepared to leave England as part of the Expeditionary Force to Turkey. This force was composed of five Infantry Divisions, each containing two Brigades. The strength of each Division being about "5,000 bayonets". Also a cavalry Division of one heavy and one light Brigade. Finally three troops of Horse Artillery and eight Field Batteries. The Regiment finally collected itself at Portsmouth on April 4th eight companies strong. The 95th had been brought up to strength by volunteers from the 6th, 36th, 48th and 82nd Regiments of Foot and were, according to their officers 'a magnificent body of men'. The Regiment sailed on the "S.S. Medway" for Turkey on the 6th April. The "Medway" put in for coal at Gibraltar on the 14th and Malta on the 19th April. On the 23rd she arrived at Gallipoli for orders and the troops finally landed at Scutari on the 24th April (where they were re-equipped with Minie rifles). It was the first Regiment of it's Brigade to land, the other two Regiments, the 30th of Foot (The Cambridgeshire Regiment) and the 55th of Foot (The Westmoreland Regiment) were not finally on the ground until 21st May.
It is interesting to note that at this time the 95th wore - the Albert Shako - a scarlet, swallow-tailed coatee with yellow facings, white leather cross- belts and in winter, black trousers with a red stripe, while in summer- trousers of blue serge.
Before the remainder of the Brigade had arrived the 95th were moved into a Turkish barracks which were "incredibly sub-standard". Very soon the 1st Brigade became known as the "Flea Bitten Brigade", for obvious reasons. By mid-June all of the 2nd Division had landed and had in fact moved quite a way inland into Bulgaria. On July 22nd a draft from England of one Ensign and one hundred other ranks joined the Regiment and soon after cholera broke out amongst the ranks of the Expeditionary Force. This spread very rapidly throughout the Army, one of the main reasons being that few Regiments were adequately acclimatised. Notably, the 30th and 55th who had both been serving in Gibraltar, suffered very few casualties, whilst the 95th straight from England lost two Sergeants and eighteen Privates in Bulgaria. Between April and September the total deaths from cholera were 29 of all ranks. These summer months were a period of fairly slack activity except for the continual moving of camps to try and prevent cholera and other epidemics taking hold.
Finally, towards the end of August the action for which they had been waiting so long seemed imminent. On 30th August the 95th embarked on six different ships and then when the whole Army was ready to move, sailed on the 7th September for the Crimea. On the morning of September the 14th Expeditionary Force began disembarking in Kalamita Bay. Because of poor transport and general lack of facilities the troops were only able to land in their marching order. All heavier kit was left on board the ships.
The Army then moved four miles inland to a bivouac area where, first of all, everyone had to marry up again. This being accomplished it then began to pour with rain and as it was also dark by then the chaos that ensued must have been considerable. The rain continued all night and only eased off with day-break. So the cold wet tentless night was hardly the best of introductions to the Crimea. They remained in this area until 19th September when the march towards Sevastopol was begun. The Army marched solidly all that day in 'searing' heat with hardly any water. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, while briefly halting by a small stream, several small skirmishes took place with Cossacks and some Russian Artillery. By night fall they had reached the banks of a river called the Bulganak, and stopped here for the night. This was in fact the eve of the Battle of the Alma and the news spread through the ranks like a ripple through water.
Next morning - the 20th of September, both the French and British armies were on the move soon after day-break. The French Army was to take the right and the British the left. Within the British Army, the 2nd Division was on the right, the Light Division on the left, with the 3rd and 1st Divisions following behind. These were again followed by the 4th Division which wasn't quite complete at that stage. The French right was covered by the sea and guns of the combined allied Fleet, while the left of the two armies was covered by elements of the British Cavalry - the only mounted body that had at that time been landed. The British Army under Lord Raglan consisted of 28,000 men and 60 guns and was confronted by a Russian Army of 26,000 men and 80 guns. The French under Marshal St Arnuaud, of 37,000 men and 68 guns supported by fire from nine warships was to oppose a Russian Army on 13,000 men and 36 guns. The ground on the French side was very difficult, but not strongly defended. In front of the British the ground sloped gently down to the River Alma which proved to be a great natural obstacle. The ground was also entrenched and provided a marvellous field of fire for the Russian Artillery on the high ground on the other side of the river.
In fact all the ranges were already worked out and recorded beforehand. From where the Army was forming up on the one side of the Alma it was possible to see the great "Redoubts" or earthwork defences of the Russians on the other side of the valley. Also the big columns and squares of massed Russian troops.
The plan of battle was for the French to advance first on the right and to try and turn the Russians left. Then the British would do a frontal assault. The French advance began and the British halted in "open columns" and fell out for a couple of hours! The French soon got into difficulties and sent to Raglan asking for support. So at last the order came: Major Lysops of the 23rd Fusiliers brought the order to the 2nd Division "The Line will advance". At this order the two leading Divisions, the 2nd and Light, attempted to deploy into line. There was not enough room across the divisional frontage and this resulted in much bunching and when the movement was completed one and a half regiments of the Light Division were 'double-banked'. However the advance continued and about noon the French became heavily engaged. Also at about this time the Regiment was approximately 300 yards from the Alma and the Russians seemed to get the range exactly. They also changed from 'shot' to Grapeshot and Canister and inflicted heavy casualties. The other two Regiments were also subjected to this intense fire and were all forced to take cover in one form or another. The 95th tried to lie down, all the time being pounded and they did actually endure this for three-quarters of an hour. The Russian fire lessened slightly as more of our own guns were brought into action and again the advance continued. Soon after this the advance was checked by a burning village. The 95th were ordered "to take ground two or three times to the left". This was the village of Bourliouk which Russian sharpshooters and snipers had set on fire as they were driven back. The move "left" was carried out, but the Russian guns once more began inflicting heavy casualties, the grapeshot and cannister having tremendous effect and officers and men were falling fast.
It was at this stage that the 95th became split into two parts. The 30th and 55th had continued to advance straight ahead, and now the 95th found itself with its right astride the road leading to the bridge over the Alma, from Bourliouk, and with the 7th Fusiliers (the right hand Regiment of the Light Division on the left) coming up in line behind. The 95th now advanced again and came up behind some farm walls where General Pennefeather (1st Brigade Comd) ordered them to take cover. The 7th Fusiliers then passed through them and went on and lay down ahead of them. The 95th then advanced again and passed in turn through the Fusiliers. Both Regiments were now close to a vineyard on the left of the road and both now found temporary shelter behind the walls and steps of the vineyard, as the Russian fire was still heavy. The advance was soon continued, but the original line was now non-existent. Except for the part of the Grenadier Company which crossed the Alma via a shallow ford below the Bridge, the great majority of the Regiment forded the river above the bridge. Several, weighed down with equipment and ammunition were drowned, some were shot while in the water and many had their ammunition damaged by water. It is an indication of the intenseness of the Russian fire, that by the time they had reached the river every officer of No 3 company had been wounded or killed. One Colour Sergeant Sexton was an extremely lucky man when a round shot struck his haversack, tearing it off his back and throwing him over into the water. However he recovered from the shock and continued with the attack.
At this crossing point on the river, the opposite or "Russian" bank was quite steep and so provided some protection to people who managed to get under its lee. From the river the ground rose steeply to one of the big earthwork defences - the Great Redoubt. As more men got across the river and gathered on the bank so the advance went on. The 95th and 23rd of Foot (The Royal Welsh Fusiliers) had now become very mixed up, so together men of both Regiments mounted the steep river bank with some difficulty and continued on up the steep hills beyond. The colour party and Colonel of the 95th were now across the river and up the bank and provided some sort of rallying point. A Russian counter attack then took place with Russians charging downhill at the British. At this, a shout of "Show them the way 95th" was heard and instead of waiting the 95th rushed up at the enemy through a withering fire from the Russians. Here the Colonel was wounded and also most of the Colour party either killed or wounded. The losses among the Colour Party, both officers and sergeants had been most severe, almost every ensign in succession, several other officers and five sergeants falling under the Colours. Ensign Braybrooke and two other subalterns were severely wounded when carrying the Queens Colour , which had then been taken by Private James Keenan, who planted it triumphantly on the earthwork of the Great Redoubt. (Private James Keenan was subsequently awarded the "Al Valore Militaire" by the Sardinian Government for his actions. It was the only Sardinian Medal given to a private soldier of the Regiment in the Crimean War and is held in the Regimental museum).
This was a highly critical point in the battle because as the 95th gained a few yards, they took a Russian Battery position, the enemy being driven from it. A line of between 300 and 400 men was formed, the Colours taken up again and some semblance of order restored. The 23rd were now on the right and the 7th Fusiliers on the left. Odd men joined these other two Regiments and fought on with them. At this point the British line was confronted by the Russian 31st Imperial Guard and volley after volley were exchanged. The Russian 32nd Regiment then managed to take them in the flank and this crossfire inflicted heavy casualties on the 23rd and 95th. No support was immediately at hand and the moment was highly critical. The 1st Division on the left now began pressing forward and the Russians started to fall back all along the front. At this the British advance started again with renewed vigour and Horse Artillery really came into its own now, creating havoc with the retreating Russians.
It was now obvious that the battle of the Alma was over, but with a loss to the 95th which Lord Raglan described in his despatches as "immense". The Regiment had gone into action with 29 officers and 788 other ranks. Two thirds of the officers and well over a quarter of all other ranks were killed. The Colonel and Junior Major were wounded, the Senior Major badly bruised by shell fragments. Of seven Captains, two were killed and four were wounded. Four subalterns were killed and six wounded. Even the surgeon was wounded. Four Sergeants were killed, twelve wounded and six missing presumably killed, and of the ranks forty-two were killed, one hundred and fifty-six were wounded and six were missing. In its first battle the total casualties amongst all ranks of the 95th Regiment amounted to 238.
After the battle General Sir de Lacy Evans published a divisional order and in it published the names of three officers and twenty-six other ranks for their distinguished fighting, many after being wounded, during the battle. Major H. Hume was recommended by Lieutenant General Sir de Lacy Evans for the Victoria Cross. In Field Marshal Raglan's despatch of the 23rd September, he wrote - "The 95th Regiment, immediately on the right of the Royal Fusiliers in the Advance, suffered equally with that corps in an immense loss". The 95th had certainly come through its "baptism of fire" very well and this battle has traditionally been celebrated since as one of its greatest Battle Honours, by the Trooping of the Queens Colour through the ranks of the Regiment to commemorate both Keenan's gallantry and the steadiness of all soldiers, at this, the Regiment's first battle.
Another "tradition" that was gained at the Alma is from when some Russian drums were captured. These were painted in a black and white "dicing" pattern round the edges and this pattern can still be seen on the side drums of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment.
One of the original drums can be seen in the Regimental Museum.
After the battle of Alma, the 95th continued to fight throughout the Crimean campaign, being present at the Battle of Balaklava, The Russian Sortie, the Battle of Inkerman and the Fall of Sevastopol.