How Lothian troops led the charge to glory at the Battle of Balaclava

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THE year is 1854. In the midst of a chaotic cavalry charge, a young British sergeant gallops through the battlefield, hacking down enemy troops with every stride. Swords clash amid the screams of soldiers, as metal slices flesh and gunshot smoke fills the air.

On the ground, a stranded private calls for help as seven enemy soldiers begin to surround him, pointing their sabres at him.

Escape looks impossible as the Russian horsemen close in for the kill, but in an instant the sergeant drives into their midst and repels them with a ferocious counter-attack.

The battle rages on. The Russians begin to flee and the sergeant spots a dismounted enemy soldier frantically trying to retreat with his comrades. Without a thought for his own safety, he jumps down from his horse and chases after the soldier before capturing him on the ground.

Another hour goes by. More British cavalry are sent and the battle looks set for a victory.

But suddenly the horsemen find themselves trapped and hopelessly outnumbered - and forced to retreat after sustaining heavy losses. The weary sergeant once more jumps on his horse and rides to the rescue of another wounded soldier about to be captured. Gunshots fly by their heads as the wounded man is lifted from the battlefield and taken back to the British camp, just moments before the Russian troops arrive on the scene.

It may sound like a scene from an episode of Sharpe, but this is in fact the tale of Edinburgh-born Henry Ramage - just one of the many soldiers from the Capital and the Lothians who were involved in the Battle of Balaclava, where the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade took place. Awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallantry in battle, Sergeant Ramage’s story is one of many that emerged from the conflict, which was fought during the Crimean War.

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Balaclava which took place in what is now Ukraine.

The battle was the second of the Crimean War, which had begun as a dispute between the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire and Russia over the protection of Orthodox Christians in several holy towns in what was then Palestine in late 1853.

Russian forces invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, both now in Romania, and the Turks declared war. Britain and France, allies of the Ottomans, sent naval fleets to support the Turks in 1854, and a formal pact between the three was made.

Much of the conflict took place on the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea and included battles at Alma and Sebastopol as well as Balaclava.

War ended in 1856 after Austria threatened to enter the conflict unless a peace proposal was accepted by the Russians. The peace pact was signed at the 1856 Treaty of Paris.

The war was also famous for the work of nurse Florence Nightingale, who was drawn into the conflict after reading horrific newspaper reports of the suffering of the Allied soldiers.

Balaclava is famous for not only the ill-advised cavalry charge - made famous by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade - but also for an outrageous, and successful, defensive formation carried out by a battalion of Scottish soldiers.

Hopelessly outnumbered, the 93rd Highlanders held fast in a line only two men deep, and fired wave upon wave of gunshot until the opposing Russian troops were dispelled. Watched by the Times’ famous war correspondent William H Russell, the fragile defence was hailed a triumph and became known as the "Thin Red Line" due to the colour of the Scottish troops’ jackets.

FOLLOWING the Highlanders’ stance, the British Army ordered an immediate cavalry charge against the enemy - which became known as the Charge of the Heavy Brigade. Waves of horsemen slammed into a Russian force that far outnumbered them, but through their ferocity and bravery they were able to brutally dispel their enemies.

It seemed that victory was imminent until a further order was made to follow the fleeing Russians through a canyon and finish them off. Known as the Charge of the Light Brigade, more than 670 horsemen sped after the enemy troops, but they soon found themselves trapped and outnumbered. Fewer than 180 came back from the battle still with their horses, whilst the rest were slain, wounded or captured.

However, the battle is also widely cited for producing some of the finest displays of soldiering of the Crimean War conflict. Although at first regarded as a failure by the British Army - who refused to give the soldiers any formal insignia for the conflict - veterans of Balaclava soon lobbied for recognition for their efforts and bravery.

Many English, Irish and Scottish troops were awarded medals for their role in the battle, but it was two soldiers from Edinburgh who were among the first recipients of the prestigious Victoria Cross for their valour and gallantry in the conflict.

Sergeant Ramage, who was born in Morningside in 1827 and served in the 2nd Dragoons, was rewarded with the medal for his bravery, but he was not the only soldier from the Lothians to have been decorated for his performance at Balaclava.

Sergeant-Major John Grieve, from Musselburgh, was also awarded the Victoria Cross. He, too, was a member of the 2nd Dragoons and was one of the cavalry troops who took part in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade against the Russian cavalry. He saved the life of one of his commanding officers who had been thrown from his horse and left to fend off eight Russian soldiers single-handedly. Spotting the officer in danger, Grieve rode through the thickest part of the battle and straight up to the Russian cavalry men - decapitating one and dispersing the others before leading the officer to safety.

After the war, he was presented with the medal at a parade in Hyde Park by Queen Victoria - making him and Ramage the first Scottish VC winners.

However, they were not the only Edinburgh-born soldiers to have taken part in the battle.

"Scots feature very heavily in the battle of Balaclava," says Alastair Mathie, curator and archivist from the National Army Museum in London. "After all, the whole of the 93rd who were involved in the ‘Thin Red Line’ were Highlanders from Scotland.

"You also have the 2nd Dragoons, who were in charge of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, who were from Scotland and there are a number of Edinburgh soldiers other than the VC winners Grieve and Ramage who were involved."

He continues: "For a start, there is Private Robert Shaw Farquharson, who was from the 4th Light Dragoons and stationed in the Light Brigade charge. For some reason he was demoted from his rank as trumpeter to a lowly private role, which meant he was in the thick of the cavalry charge.

"He ended up riding three different horses into battle, which were all shot down from underneath him, before he was captured by the Russians. They held him for a year. He later published an account of his ordeal, in which he reminisced about being a Crimean prisoner of war."

Mathie adds that other Edinburgh soldiers in the ill-fated charge include Private George Gibson, who is buried in Uphall and was wounded in the Light Brigade, and Private Thomas Sharp, of the 17th Lancers, who was captured and died in prison.

He adds: "Although most of the troops in the Light Brigade were actually Irish, a high proportion of the Scots that were deployed there were killed in the charge. However, most of the Scottish troops at Balaclava were either in the Heavy Brigade or the Thin Red Line - although there is occasionally some crossover, as in the case of Sergeant Ramage."

Stuart Allan, deputy curator at the National War Museum of Scotland, adds: "There was another soldier from the Lothians who was heavily involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

"His name was Charteris, he was from East Lothian, and he was the nephew of Lord Lucan [the military leader in charge of the British cavalry at Balaclava].

"He found himself at the front of the Light Brigade charge as an assistant to Lucan, but ended up getting his head blown clean off. His memorial plaque is now in Longniddry, but he didn’t receive any commemorative medals in the field."

AND the modern-day regiment will be remembering their forebears. Colonel Roger Binks, regimental secretary for the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, says: "Every year we try to commemorate the Battle of Balaclava, as it is one of about 90 battle honours that the regiment has.

"We are having a commemorative service at Inveresk Cemetery this Sunday to lay a wreath on John Grieve’s grave. There are also three members of the regiment going to Crimea alongside some of the other regiments who were involved.

"Whilst everyone remembers the Charge of the Light Brigade, not a lot of people remember the earlier Heavy Brigade charge, which the Royal Scots Dragoons were involved with."

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