MPs in the Crimean War, 1853-56

With the help of research undertaken by the Victorian Commons, today’s blog takes a look at MPs who fought during the Crimean War…

The current crisis in Crimea has left some asking whether Russia’s intervention in the peninsula will lead to a new Crimean War. The 19th century conflict was, however, very different to the situation today. With its origins in the decline of the Ottoman Empire, war erupted after Britain, France and Sardinia opposed Tsar Nicholas I of Russia’s attempt to control the European part of the empire.

In Britain, the war is chiefly remembered for the Charge of the Light Brigade, made famous by Tennyson’s poem, and for the outrage caused at home due to the awful conditions faced by British troops. The Times journalist, William Howard Russell, regarded as ‘the father of war reporting’, described ill-equipped and badly neglected soldiers, and revealed that the high casualty rates were largely caused by disease. The outrage led to the pioneering work in nursing undertaken by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, and the downfall of Aberdeen’s government in 1855. (For more on the war, see here.)

A number of serving and former MPs fought in the campaign, and six died (including four sitting MPs). James Bucknall Bucknall Estcourt had been Conservative MP for Devizes (1848-52). As Adjutant-General in the Crimea, he came under huge pressure from the authorities in England during the row over conditions. However, the Commander of British Forces, Lord Raglan, defended Estcourt and refused to blame him for the situation. Estcourt himself died of cholera on 24 June 1855.

Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lauderdale Maule (1807-54) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lauderdale Maule (1807-54) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Lauderdale Maule was Liberal MP for Forfarshire and had just been appointed Surveyor-general of the Ordnance, the government body responsible for supplying the armed forces, when the Crimean War broke out. After a long career in the army, he was a highly regarded officer, ‘adored’ by his men [Morning Chronicle, 14 Feb. 1855]. He made just one speech in parliament before joining the campaign, serving as Adjutant-General in the second division camp near Varna, Bulgaria. He too fell ill with cholera and died on 1 August, 1854. Unfortunately his death was followed by another tragedy as Martha Clough, a woman ‘devoted’ to Maude (although their exact relationship is unclear), became a nurse in Balaklava after his death and also died of cholera on her way to visit his grave in the Black Sea in September 1855.

Others who served in the Crimea later became MPs, and several of them spoke in the Commons on military matters. For example, John William Fane, Conservative MP for Oxfordshire, used his experience commanding a militia regiment of 600 volunteers to oppose a clause in the militia bill which would allow commanding officers to suspend volunteers. Not all who served had done so in the army. Lord John Hay, who later sat for Wick Burghs and for Ripon, was a naval officer and commander of the Wasp, which was stationed in the Black Sea during the war. He was apparently the first commanding officer to allow his crew to wear beards and moustaches. As well as his services afloat, he served ashore with the naval brigade at Sebastopol. He was slightly injured in April 1855, after debris thrown up by cannon fire ‘cut his mouth, and knocked two of his teeth down his throat, besides wounding him in the shoulder’. He drew on his Crimea experiences some years later when he denied allegations in the Commons that British gunboats were ‘the most miserable specimens of naval architecture… ever constructed’, insisting that they ‘had rendered the greatest service during the Russian war’.

Some of the MPs who had served had to live with the physical and mental effects of war. Lord Henry Percy, MP for Northumberland North, suffered with chronic neuralgia after his service in the Crimea. Yet his war record was extremely distinguished; he was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Légion d’Honneur after rescuing, whilst himself wounded, fifty men at the battle of Inkerman in November 1854. They had run out of ammunition and were nearly surrounded by the Russians at the time. Percy later impressed Queen Victoria with his tale. Lord Adolphus Vane served ‘with distinction’ with the Scots Fusiliers in the conflict, but unfortunately his experiences led to severe mental health problems. He was admitted to a private asylum in March 1861, after an incident where he was found in a ‘very excited’ state throwing cigars and money to a crowd in Coventry Street, London. His health improved a little and he continued to sit as an MP, although it deteriorated again before he died in 1864.

The personal experiences of these MPs, as well as the reporting of W.H.Russell, ensured that the conflict had a lasting resonance with parliamentarians.


Many thanks to Kathryn Rix, Stephen Lees, Philip Salmon and James Owen for their contributions to this post. You can access many of the biographies on the Victorian Commons preview website, to find out how to do so click here.


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