Irish soldiers and civilians played a significant role in the 1850s' war and were prominent at major battles like the Alma and Inkerman writes Dr David Murphy, Department of History

With depressing regularity, Crimea frequently features in current news media as one of the focal points of the ongoing war between Russia and the Ukraine. The location of the main naval base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, Crimea was invaded in 2014 and subsequently annexed by Russia. It has been the target for a succession of Ukrainian attacks since the outbreak of the current war in 2022, most notably the attack on the Crimean Bridge in October. In recent weeks, we have seen further attacks on oil infrastructure on the peninsula.

In the mid-1850s, the Crimea was equally well-known as the location of an ongoing war between Russia and the allied forces of Ottoman Turkey, Britain, France and Sardinia-Piedmont. In 1853, war had broken out between Russia and Turkey, ostensibly about the control of the significant sites in the Holy Land, which was then in Ottoman territory. Following a Russian invasion of Turkey's "Danubian Principalities" (in modern-day Romania and Bulgaria), Britain and France went to Turkey’s aid, sending an initial expedition to Bulgaria in 1854.

However, the focus of the war soon switched to the Crimean peninsula, which was Russian territory and also the site of a major naval base at Sevastopol. During the course of the next two years, the world’s attention focused on the military activities on the peninsula as the main area of operations for what came to be known as the Crimean War. It was a war that became synonymous with flawed strategy, military incompetence and, at the same time, the incredible resilience of the ordinary soldiers.

In total, Britain sent just over 111,300 soldiers to the Crimea during the course of the war and over 30,000 were Irish. They played a significant role and Irish soldiers were prominent at the major battles such as the Alma and Inkerman. In one of the war's more infamous events, over 100 Irish cavalry soldiers took part on the ill-fated 'Charge of the Light Brigade' in October 1854. It is also possible to identify Irish soldiers and sailors serving in the French, Turkish and the Russian services.

Due to the chronic shortage of just about all kinds of services within the British system, hundreds more Irishmen went to the Crimea to serve as surgeons, transport workers, engineers and railway navvies, while some went to serve as military police. Irish women served as nurses and these included Irish Sisters of Mercy who established a field hospital at Balaclava, which was more successful in the treatment of sick and wounded than Florence Nightingale's hospital at Scutari.

The war was widely reported in the newspapers of the time and it is generally acknowledged that the first war correspondent served in the Crimea. This was William Howard Russell of The Times, who had been born in Tallaght, Co. Dublin. The Crimea was the first war that was captured by photographers and images of bearded Crimean veterans became popular postcards. Indeed, the Crimean beard became a mid-19th century fashion statement, equated to Victorian ideas of masculinity.

After the initial battles in 1854, the war focused on the naval base at Sevastopol and a long drawn-out siege developed. With the increasing levels of literacy in Ireland, we see more first-hand accounts, letters, and memoirs emerging from this war and it is possible to find the voice of the Irish soldiers. A good example is the memoir of James O’Malley of the 17th Foot who later described the frightening combat during the siege of Sevastopol:

"They poured into our trenches but as they came on we gave them the bayonet after discharging the contents of our barrels in their faces. This was one of the bloodiest encounters ever since the earth was cursed by war and, as the enemy again and again charged us, we got so jammed up as to be quite unable to shorten arms and, as we pulled the bayonet out of one man, we dashed the brains out of another with the butt end and, when we could not reach their heads, we struck them on the shins. Some of the men got clinched with the Russians and fists were frequently in use. The Russians must have had frightful loss when we ultimately drove them back, as seventy-eight lay dead right in the trenches to say nothing of those who dropped outside or crawled away to die of their wounds elsewhere."

There are a number of monuments across Ireland associated with the Crimea and some include Russian "trophy guns". When Sevastopol was finally captured, hundreds of naval cannon were found in storage and these were sent to towns in Britain, Ireland, Canada and Australia. There are 22 of these Crimean trophy guns surviving in locations around Ireland, with pairs of guns in GalwayWaterfordLimerick and Tralee. The Tralee guns are incorporated into memorials naming the local men who died in the Crimean War and the later Indian Mutiny.

To be awarded trophy guns, a town's corporation or council had to formally request them. The Dublin City Corporation records, for example, record the request to the War Office for the six trophy guns that came to Dublin and which are now in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines.

While there was no single national memorial, there was a Grand Crimean Banquet in October 1856 in Stack A in the George’s Dock in Dublin (now the CHQ building). This was Ireland’s largest ever sit-down dinner, with 3,000 Crimean veterans and 2,000 members of the public consuming prodigious amounts of food. That this dinner came within a decade of the Great Famine seems to have inspired no adverse comment at the time.

There were still Crimean veterans living in Ireland into the early 20th century and there is evidence that it retained a place in popular memory. Crimea continued to be a focus for military activity throughout the 20th century. In 1914, Sevastopol was the target of a Turkish naval attack and in 1918, there was a combined German-Ukrainian offensive against Russian forces in the Crimea.

During WWII, the Crimea, and Sevastopol in particular, became a major objective following the German invasion of 1941. The current war is yet another unhappy episode in the history of the region. In its intensity and level of human loss, the war echoes the conflict of the 1850s, in which so many Irish soldiers perished.

Dr David Murphy is the author of Ireland and the Crimean War (Four Courts Press, Dublin)

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm.