Irish MPs and the Crimean War 1853-1856

This week at the History of Parliament we are sharing the military history of Parliament through parliamentarians and their military careers in honour of Armed Forces Day this weekend (30 June). Today’s blog from Dr Stephen Ball of the Commons 1832-1868 Section outlines the contributions of former and serving nineteenth century MPs in the Crimean War…

The Crimean War, which was fought between Russia and Britain and its allies between 1853 and 1856, saw a significant number of former, sitting and future MPs take an important part. The commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, had sat in the Commons for Truro in the 1820s, and one of his successors, Colonel William John Codrington, secured a seat at Greenwich in 1857. Other senior officers, such as the commander of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, had once sat in the Commons, as did his successor, Lord George Paget, who represented Anglesey from 1847-57. The commander of the 2nd infantry division in the Crimea was the stalwart Sir George De Lacy Evans, an old campaigner and Russophobe, who after becoming immersed in radical politics in the 1820s was twice elected for Rye, and subsequently sat for Westminster for nearly 30 years.

In the British army’s first major engagement at the river Alma, 20 Sept. 1854, the Hon. Hugh Annesley, a younger son of the earl of Annesley and an ensign in the Scots Fusilier Guards, was severely wounded in an attack on a Russian stronghold. One of the nine Irish Conservative MPs returned between 1852 and 1868 who participated in the conflict, Annesley was shot through his left cheek, losing 23 teeth and ‘a good bit’ of his tongue. Undaunted, he cheerfully informed his mother the following day that the ‘summary dentist’ had still left him with ‘four grinders’, and that in spite of his injuries he would be able ‘to speak as plainly as ever, or at most only with a becoming lisp’. After receiving rudimentary medical treatment, he was transferred to the hospital ship London, on which his younger brother, Robert John Annesley, lay dying of cholera. Invalided home, Annesley soon recovered from his wounds, for which he was paid £100 in compensation (or £4 4s. 2d. per tooth). He left a valuable account of the attack on the Alma, and was elected for County Cavan in 1857. He succeeded his brother as 5th earl of Annesley in 1874.

Captain Edward William Pakenham, a nephew of the earl of Longford and MP for County Antrim since 1852, was also ‘in the thick of the fire’ at the Alma and experienced a lucky escape when one of his epaulettes was torn off by grapeshot. He was, however, mortally wounded while leading a battalion of the Grenadier Guards at the battle of Inkerman, 5 Nov. 1854, and died in his tent that night murmuring ‘how he had been basely stabbed after his fall’. One of Pakenham’s regimental colleagues, Sir Charles Russell, who later sat for Berkshire, won a Victoria Cross in the same battle, as did the future MP for Northumberland North, Lord Henry Percy. Pakenham was one of 104 officers and men of the Grenadiers killed that day, and he was buried on Cathcart’s Hill overlooking Sebastopol. His vacant seat was taken by his brother, Captain Thomas Henry Pakenham, who had been dangerously wounded at the battle of the Alma, and was one of 400 British officers and men to receive a medal for military valour from the king of Sardinia.

Altogether two former and four sitting MPs, two of whom caught cholera, died in the Crimean campaign, Edward Pakenham being just one of three killed in action at Inkerman. The Hon. Thomas Vesey Dawson, a son of Lord Cremorne who had represented counties Louth and Monaghan, fell while leading a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and Lieutenant-Colonel James Hunter Blair of the Scots Fusilier Guards was also mortally wounded. The young MP for Ayrshire had been a personal favourite of the Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli, who lamented in a letter to Sarah Brydges Williams that his friend had been ‘shot in the tenderest part & died in awful torments’. A regimental colleague of Blair’s, Lord Adolphus Vane-Tempest, a younger son of the Irish landed magnate, Lord Londonderry, and MP for Durham North, also fought at Inkerman and Sebastopol. However, the rigours of two Crimean winters seriously undermined his health and he suffered a mental breakdown in 1857. Although he retained his seat in the Commons he never fully recovered and died in 1864.

Sitting MPs like Blair and Vane-Tempest were not obliged to go to war and could have taken advantage of their place in the Commons to avoid service in the Crimea. Indeed, the Hon. William Stuart Knox, MP for Dungannon and a major in the 21st Foot, only managed to tear himself away from Westminster a few weeks before the war ended. Others, such as Colonel James Pierce Maxwell, MP for County Cavan, served for the greater part of the campaign. Having embarked for the east in March 1854, after first taking care to pair with a fellow MP in the same circumstances as himself, he saw action at the Alma and Balaclava before being wounded in the trenches at Sebastopol, 26 Oct. 1854. He came to grief when his breakfast was interrupted by a 36-pound cannon ball, which ‘hopped’ over the part of the parapet where he was sitting and grazed the top of his head. Maxwell subsequently explained in a letter to his brother that had his head been raised an ‘eighth of an inch more’ it ‘must have been taken off’. After lying for six days ‘in a miserable cold tent’, his face and head having swollen ‘fearfully’, he was evacuated home. Decorated for his war service, Maxwell remained in the Commons until 1865 and succeeded his brother as 9th Baron Farnham in 1884.

One future MP who fared rather better at Sebastopol was Lord Dunkellin. Taken prisoner in front of the trenches before daylight, 22 Oct. 1855, he was removed to St. Petersburg and exchanged for a Russian officer, his father, Lord Clanricarde, being well known to the Czar from having served for several years as British ambassador at the imperial court. Returned for Galway in 1859, Dunkellin played an instrumental part in bringing the Liberal ministry down in 1866 but, already plagued by ill health, he died the following year.

While MPs were well represented in the army, their service in the Royal Navy should not be overlooked. Admiral Houston Stewart, a former MP for Greenwich, was second in command of the fleet in the Baltic during the conflict, and in 1855 he took part in the capture of Kinburn, an action in which the Hon. Walter Cecil Talbot, a son of the earl of Shrewsbury and later MP for County Waterford, also participated.


Recommended reading:

  • Spilsbury, The Thin Red Line. An Eyewitness History of the Crimean War (2006).
  • Figes, Crimea. The Last Crusade (2010).
  • Murphy, Ireland and the Crimean War (2002).

Read more from Stephen and his colleagues from the 1832-1868 Section on the Victorian Commons blog and on Twitter.

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