In 1854 the Crimean War broke out, and an expedition was assembled to be sent to the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. After some weeks in Malta, the First Guards (3rd Battalion) sailed as part of a Guards Brigade for the Dardenelles. Three months, from June to September, were spent at Varna on the Black Sea, and on 14 September the Army landed on the Crimean Peninsula, and within days fought the Battle of Alma, crossed the river and drove the Russians back to the fortress of Sevastapol, which became the object of a long siege. On the heights of Inkerman on the morning of 5 November 1854, a huge RussiaJ1 column emerged from Sevastopol to break into and outflank the British right, and to break up the organised siege. The battle which ensued was fought in a mist, which made cohesion and control difficult for both sides. It was a day of regimental officers and for soldiers rather than for manoeuvres of High Command; and it was one of the hardest and most gruelling battles the Regiment has ever fought.
Desperate fighting dominated by the bayonets of the Grenadiers centred round the taking and retaking of the Sandbag Battery, from which the Russians had driven a British picquet at the start of the engagement.
The only Colours in the Army carried that day were those of the 3rd Battalion. Passed from hand to hand, regardless of rank, they were the rallying point for a part of the battalion cut off in the Sandbag Battery and isolated from the rest of their Division. The detachment, about a hundred Grenadiers, fought their way back through a mass of Russians, all bent on the capture of the precious symbols of a British Regiment’s life. The Adjutant, Captain Higginson, later General Sir George Higginson, described the scene:
‘Clustered round the Colours, with scarcely a round of ammunition left, the men pressed slowly backwards, keeping their front full towards the enemy, their bayonets ready at the “charge”. As a comrade fell, wounded or dead, his fellow took his place and maintained the compactness of the gradually diminishing group that held on with unflinching stubbornness in protecting the flags. More than once from the lips of this devoted band of noncommissioned officers and rank-and-file came the shout, “Hold up the Colours!” fearing, no doubt, that in the mist and smoke they might lose sight or touch of those honoured emblems, which they were determined to preserve, or in their defence to die. The two young officers, Verschoyle and Turner, raised them well above their heads, half unfurled, and in this order we moved slowly back, exposed to fire, fortunately desultory and ill-aimed, from front, rear, and left flank. Happily the ground on our right was so precipitous as to deter the enemy from attempting to outflank us on that side. As from time to time some Russian soldiers, more adventurous than their fellows, sprang forward towards our compact group, two or three of our Grenadiers would dash out with the bayonet and compel speedy retreat. Nevertheless, our position was critical. By the time, however, we had traversed half the distance to the breastworks of the Second Division (which I proved by subsequent measurement to be 700 yards distant from the Sandbag Battery), the pressure on our rear and left was relaxed, the Russian column having been sternly repulsed by the force occupying the ridge; while our men welcomed with a cheer a company of Zouaves bringing up at last on our right the timely aid which General Bosquet had, no doubt for sufficient reasons, been prevented from sending earlier. The enemy on our immediate front soon realised the danger of a further advance and fell back. Free at length to rejoin our main body, we hastened our pace, and soon descried the Duke of Cambridge and the rest of our Brigade on the crest of the ridge. I shall never forget the cheer with which the returning Colours were welcomed by all ranks; HRH being almost moved to tears for, as they all aid, “We had given you up for lost.” Many a time have my thoughts flown back over the waste ofyears to this stirring episode; many a time 1 have told the story among friends; never until now have I ventured to commit it to writing; for, indeed, my pen would have failed at any time in an attempt to impress a reader with the varying emotion which filled my mind while the safety of our Colours was in jeopardy. The mere possibility of the Colours of the First Regiment of our Sovereign’s Guards being laid as a trophy at the feet of the Czar had to be faced, and 1 believe that a prayer went up from all of us that such dishonour might be averted at all costs. Certainly the grave faces and resolute attitude of our Grenadiers made me realise that there was no exaggeration in the language used by Sir William Napier in his well-known description of the behaviour of the 1500 British soldiers, all who remained to stand triumphant on the fatal hill at Albuera -” one know with what majesty the British soldier fights.”
‘Time has not served to dim my respect and admiration for the bravery and devotion of this little group of Grenadiers in the defence of their Colours on the day of Inkerman. The tattered fragments of those Colours have found their final resting place on the walls of the Guards’ Chapel. I feel confident that none of my readers is so cynical as to smile if I admit that I never enter that treasure house of memorials, so dear to every member of the Brigade of Guards, and feel able to gaze without emotion on the Colours which served as our rallying point on the dark upland of lnkerman.’
At dawn ·on 5th November, routine was rudely disturbed when the Russians attacked, achieving almost complete surprise. Heavy snow lay everywhere and there was a thick mist when the enemy came on in dense columns. The greatest weight of the offensive fell on a thin line of British troops on Inkerman Ridge. To the rear of the ridge lay the Coldstream Guards in a support position. The storm of the attack fell first on several British line regiments; guns were lost and retaken, but in less than three-quarters of an hour the enemy had been forced back. The Coldstream Guards took advantage of a short lull to move up into the line, but simultaneously the Russians launched a second attack and gained a hold on the plateau forming the main Inkerman Ridge. So as the Guards came up they immediately counter-attacked against deadly enemy fire. With a storm of musket balls smashing into the British ranks, the men of the Guards regiments lost touch with their commanders, and without battalion or company control fought in small isolated groups under subalterns or sergeants. They were greatly outnumbered and, as one officer said later, the struggle was ‘hand to hand, foot to foot, muzzle to muzzle, butt end to butt end’. Further confusion to both sides was caused by the fog, and often pursuers of broken enemy units would run into point-blank fire from reinforcements which seemed to appear from nowhere.
Further British infantry regiments came up at length to assist the hard-pressed Guards, though some of these fresh troops advanced over-boldly and had to fight their way back to the ridge after being cut off. With the arrival of British and French reserve artillery the Russian attacks came to an end, although a number of eager Coldstreamers fell in on the right of some French infantry to join with them in a counter-attack. By 1.00 p. m. the enemy was in retreat. Fatigue and heavy losses prevented any pursuit and the British position remained on the Inkerman Ridge.
The losses of the Coldstream Guards had been the severest of any regiment. Only four unwounded officers answered roll call at the end of the battle, and the battalion’s total casualties were 84- killed and 123 wounded. The trials of the wounded had only just begun, for the congested and inefficient hospitals allowed many men to perish whose lives might have been saved by proper medical care.
Inkerman was the last major field engagement of the war, but throughout the appalling winter that followed the troops suffered almost as much as they had done in action. For months the Coldstream Guards were in the Sebastopol trenches before being moved out to rest and reorganize at Balaclava.
Scots Fusilier Guards
In 1854, the Crimean War began, which pitted the United Kingdom, France and the Ottoman Empire against the Russian Empire. The 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards Fusiliers were dispatched as part of the Guards Brigade to the East, being deployed to Malta, Bulgaria and Turkey, before, in September, the British finally landed in the Crimea, at a place called Calamity Bay. The British and their French allies then began the advance on Sevastopol, a Russian naval base, but was blocked at the River Alma by Russian forces. And here came the Battalion’s first engagement at the Battle of Alma, an action that saw chaotic and heavy hand-to-hand combat between the British and Russians. The road to Sevastopol runs through a gap between two hills, one to the east, known as Kourgane Hill and the other to the west, known as Telegraph Hill. On Kourgane Hill there consisted two earthworks, one known as the ‘Great Redoubt’ on the western side of the hill, while the other was on the eastern side, known as the ‘Lesser Redoubt’.
A British unit, known as the Light Division, made their advance, making steady progress on the Great Redoubt, and took it with very heavy casualties, however chaos soon set in, after, during a Russian counter-attack, a confusing order from an unknown officer was soon contradicted by other officers, and the British duly fell back. The Scots Fusilier Guards, in the center of the Guards Brigade, part of the 1st Division, were supporting the Light Division, though had only just crossed the River Alma by the time the Great Redoubt was taken. One brave group of Royal Welch Fusiliers had held their ground and were firing into the Russians until confronted by a mass of Russian soldiers, forcing them to retreat rapidly, and in the process, smashed straight into the formation of the advancing Scots Fusiliers Guards, causing immense chaos. The Russians seized their opportunity to strike, launching a large-scale bayonet charge on the regiment, resulting in brutal carnage, eventually forcing the regiment to reluctantly withdraw, and suffering over 150 casualties. During this chaos, the Colour party of the regiment, whose Colours had been shot through, held their ground against the overwhelming Russian force, and safeguarded the Colours from the Russians, as well as helping to rally the regiment. The Russians attempted to exploit the chaos when a large Russian force advanced on the Brigade of Guards, but the Guards poured a withering and accurate fire into the Russians, causing very heavy casualties. The British, including men of the battered Scots Fusilier Guards, subsequently advancing, causing the Russians to flee which allowed the British to re-take the Great Redoubt. Further heroics occurred on the right, with the Highland Brigade, just two lines deep, firing, while advancing, on the Russians who soon fled from the spirited Highland Brigade. The Battle had been bloody, with the British losing over 2,000 casualties while the Russians suffered 6,000. For their actions at Alma, the Scots Fusilier Guards won a battle honour and four men of the regiment would later win the Victoria Cross, an award created in 1856 to become the highest award for valour in the face of the enemy. These men were Captain Robert James Lindsay, Sergeants John Knox and James McKechnie, as well as Private William Reynolds.
In 1855, the regiment took part in another bloody engagement, at the Battle of Inkerman, at a place known to the British as Mount Inkerman. The British, and their French allies, were attacked by numerically superior Russian troops, hoping to break the Siege of Sevastopol. The attack happened in very thick mist and despite having weak defences and being outnumbered severely, the British defended stoutly against the Russians. The first Russian attacks was completely devastated by the accurate fire of the badly outnumbered British defenders. The Guards helped defend the right of the British defenders, and at Sandbag Battery, performed valiantly in the face of overwhelming Russian numbers, and despite the difficulties the Guards faced, they overcame them and devastated the Russian forces assaulting the Sandbag Battery. The Battle of Inkerman was a victory that had been filled with dreadfully brutal hand-to-hand combat that, at times, resembled the battles of a far more primitive age, and saw over 2,000 British soldiers killed or wounded out of over 8,000 that took part in the battle, with the Russians suffering over 11,000 casualties. The regiment won its thirteenth battle honour for their part at Inkerman.
The Scots Fusilier Guards also took part in the arduous Siege of Sevastopol, which lasted from September 1854 to September the following year, when it was captured by the British. The Crimean War would end in 1856 with the Treaty of Paris, with the Scots Fusilier Guards returning home to the UK that same year.