An eye witness account of the war in Crimea, 1853-1856

In the 1850s, the balance of power in eastern Europe was shifting. The Ottoman Empire was in decline and Russia, seeing an opportunity to extend its power, was on the offensive. In 1853, Russian forces occupied Ottoman territory in the Danubian principalities (modern day Romania) and attacked the Turkish fleet at Sinope. France and England, eager to prevent Russian dominance on the Black Sea, entered the conflict and sent troops to the Crimea in an attempt to seize the strategic port of Sevastopol.

Major battles were fought at the Alma River (20 September), Balaklava (25 October) and at Inkerman on 5 November 1854. Sardinia-Piedmont joined the allies in January 1855, sending an extra 10,000 troops, and the Russians evacuated Sevastopol in September that year. Some 1.65 million men fought in the Crimean War. By the time the Treaty of Paris – which curtailed Russian power and made the Black Sea a neutral region – was signed on 30 March 1856 around 900,000 of them had died, most from diseases which spread rapidly due to the appalling conditions on the front.

Among those who fought was Henry Hugh Clifford, who joined the campaign as aide-de-camp to General George Buller and went on to become a decorated Major General. He won the Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth forces – for his role in the Battle of Inkerman. Throughout the war, Clifford recorded his experiences in watercolour paintings, journal entries and letters home, offering honest and often shocking insights into the harsh realities of life on the front. We’ve reproduced a few of his paintings of the Battle of Inkerman (some of them graphic) below, along with extracts from a letter he addressed to his friends and relations the following day. You can see more of Henry Hugh Clifford’s paintings from the Crimea here.

On the morning of 5 November 1854, Russia launched a heavy attack on allied forces at Inkerman. Despite being heavily outnumbered and fighting in heavy fog, the allies managed to hold their ground and forced a Russian retreat by the evening. This picture shows the commanders of the British and French armies – Lord Raglan and General Canrobert – on the day of the battle.

Henry Hugh Clifford was serving as aide-de-camp to General George Buller, who led the 77th and 88th regiments against the Russians, driving them back from a rise known as Home Ridge. In his account, Clifford recalls his arrival at the scene of the battle, and the charge for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:

On reaching the left brow of the hill, I saw the enemy in great numbers in our front, about 15 yards, from us; it was a moment or two before I could make General Buller believe that they were Russians. ‘In God’s name,’ I said, ‘fix bayonets and charge.’ He gave the order and in another moment we were hand to hand with them. Our line was not long enough to prevent the Russians out-flanking our left, which was unperceived by the 77th, who rushed on, with the exception of about a dozen, who, struck by the force on the left and who saw me taking out my revolver, halted with me.

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘my lads!’ and the brave fellows dashed in amongst the astonished Russians, bayoneting them in every direction. One of the bullets in my revolver had partly come out and prevented it revolving and I could not get it off. The Russians fired their pieces off within a few yards of my head, but none touched me. I drew my sword and cut off one man’s arm who was in the act of bayoneting me and a second seeing it, turned round and was in the act of running out of my way, when I hit him over the back of the neck and laid him dead at my feet. About 15 of them threw down their arms and gave themselves up and the remainder ran back and fell into the hands of the 77th returning from the splendid charge they had made and were killed or taken prisoners.

Out of the small party with me (12), 6 men were killed and 3 wounded, so my escape was wonderful.

Both of General Buller’s horses were killed during the battle, forcing him to leave the field with Clifford’s assistance:

Shortly after the cannon opened on us, General Buller’s horse was struck with round shot in the chest. I rode off to Camp and got his other horse, which he mounted under a tremendous fire of shell, cannon and grape shot; he was hardly in the saddle when I saw a cannon ball strike some yards in front of him. I called out, but he could not see it and fortunately did not move, for the cannon ball struck his horse in the chest, a little higher up than the first, and remained in the poor animal’s side, giving the General a severe contusion upon the left knee. Was it not providential? Two horses killed by a cannon shot and he not hurt!

Glyn put the two poor animals out of their misery, and I got the General on my horse and took him off the field, and when I had given him over to the care of his servant, seeing he was not much hurt, returned to the fight and put myself under the orders of General Pennefather, who was giving orders in the absence of poor Sir George Brown (who was shot through the arm, bone not broken) and General Buller, to the remains of our Brigade.

Horses were used – and killed – in great numbers during the Crimean War, and Clifford frequently painted the animals in action or wounded and dead on the battlefields.

The Russian army lost around 12,000 men at the Battle of Inkerman, while the British and French casualties numbered more than 3,000 combined. Clifford did not shy away from describing the horrific injuries suffered by the troops on both sides.

I rode over the field of battle after it was over and the sight was truly heart-rending. The Russians lay in such heaps, it was quite impossible to form any idea of their numbers. It is said they lost 10,000, but I will not answer for the truth of this report. All I can say is that they were driven back with very much greater loss than ourselves, and never for a moment got possession of any part of our positions. I thought the wounds I saw at Alma were so dreadful I could never see worse, but some of the bayonet wounds and round shot yesterday were far worse.

Clifford was awarded the Victoria Cross on 24 February 1857, ‘For conspicuous courage at the Battle of Inkerman in leading a charge and killing one of the enemy with his sword, disabling another and saving the life of a soldier.’ But while his bravery in the face of ‘the enemy’ was celebrated at home, Clifford’s own account provides a more nuanced and human perspective. Towards the end of his letter, he describes the psychological intensity of battle and his subsequent, moving encounter with the Russian man he ‘disabled’ in the skirmish.

The excitement certainly was tremendous while it lasted, and it is well perhaps it is so, for I am sure in cold blood I never could strike at a man as I did then and if I had not, in all probability, those with me would not have charged and we should have lost our lives. This morning as I passed the Russians, prisoners and wounded, a man amongst them ran up and called out to me and pointed to his shoulder bound up. It was the poor fellow whose arm I had cut off yesterday; he laughed and said ‘Bono Johnny.’ I took his hand and shook it heartily and the tears came in my eyes. I had not a shilling in my pocket; had I a bag of gold he should have had it. I enquired if he had been cared for and the Doctor told me he had and was doing well.

The extracts in this article are taken from pages 88-91 of Henry Hugh Clifford V.C.: His Letters and Sketches from the Crimea, 11 November 2016 (first published 1956), Henry Hugh Clifford.