Private Alexander Wright - Ballymena VC

NOWADAYS, the Crimean War is mainly remembered for a bloody mistake and the humanitarian efforts of a caring woman.

The bloody mistake, was, of course, the charge of the light brigade when the cream of the British cavalry careered down a valley of death, flanked by Russian guns. Click on this link for more information.

The gallant 600, dressed in scarlet and blue, breastplates flashing in the sun, paid a heavy price for their death ride. They did, however, capture the imagination and a place in history.

Florence Nightengale's work amongst the wounded of the campaign was rightly praised and, it can be argued, altered nursing practices forever.

However, few know and even fewer care about the reasons for the war which saw Britain and France join with Ottoman Turkey in a bid to halt Russian Imperial expansionism in the Black Sea and the Balkans.

The war consisted of a series of 'soldier's battles', siege warfare in conditions not unlike those experienced on the Western Front in 1914-1918 and a constant battle against disease and dramatic climate change which saw men freeze in winter and die under a blazing sun in summer.

One of the men who fought in this campaign was a career soldier from Ballymena.

Alexander Wright

Alexander Wright was one of many thousands of Irishmen who plied their trade with the 19th century British army.

A private soldier, he had signed up with the 77th Foot (latterly the Middlesex Regt.) and it was with this unit that he served in the Crimea.

It was not unusual for Irishmen to fill the ranks of English and even Scottish regiments of the Victorian army.

Poverty at home drove many to the colours while others simply wanted to escape what they perceived to be a dreary life on the farm or in a soul destroying factory. Others, as they have always done, felt the need to test their courage in battle.

For whatever one of these reasons, Alexander Wright took the Queen's Shilling, possibly when the 77th were stationed in Ireland and recruited replacements locally.

Little is known in specific terms of his service prior to the events which saw him win one of the first VCs but we can say that he would have been paid the army's 'bob a day' wage which was a poor salary even by the standards of those times.

As an infantryman, he would have expected to spend a great deal of his service overseas, policing the sprawling British Empire. Most soldiers of the time were old India 'hands' where they policed the 'jewel in the crown' of Empire alongside the sepoys of the Indian Army.

The British had not fought against a major European power since the days of Napoleon and the redcoats were ill-prepared for battle against a well trained enemy equipped with modern weapons and as loyal to their Tsar as they were to their own almost legendary monarch, Queen Victoria.

One of the key objectives of the campaign was the capture of the city of Sebastopol, which gave Russia a warm water port and access to the Black Sea. At a time when Britannia really did rule the waves, the very thought of Russian fleets cruising the oceans was looked upon with horror in Whitehall.

Sebastopol was not an easy nut to crack. It was protected by a series of forts, or redans, on which heavy guns were mounted. These guns were themselves protected by riflemen in covered trenches with excellent fields of fire. Any advance in the open – and many were attempted – ended in slaughter. Thus the Crimean version of trench warfare began and it was in these circumstances that Wright proved himself worthy of the VC.

Richard Doherty and David Truesdale sum up the circumstances of Wright's award in their excellent volume, 'Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross'.

"The infantry decorations were won for acts typical of siege warfare: officers and soldiers involved in storming parties; who showed great presence of mind in hurling unexploded missiles from their positions; were outstanding in defensive actions against attacking enemy troops; or who rescued wounded comrades from under the guns of the Russians.

"Private Alexander Wright, Ballymena man, of the 77th Foot, fell into at least two of these categories. He displayed great courage throughout his service in the Crimea and his Victoria Cross was awarded for three particular feats of bravery, the first of which occurred on March 22, 1855, when he distinguished himself in repelling an enemy sortie against the regimental position. On April 19, he took part in the capture and defence of some Russian rifle pits (trenches) under very heavy fire, and on August 30 he again showed complete disregard for his own safety while in action with the enemy."

Alexander Wright was a 29-year-old when he performed these deeds. He had been born in Ballymena in 1826 but he never returned to live in his native town. He died in Calcutta, India on July 28, 1858.

His medal is held by the Princess of Wales' Own Regiment.