THE current political situation in Crimea is unstable.
Powers around the world turned their eyes to the peninsula which juts from the south-east of Ukraine into the Black Sea after Russia’s military forces seized control of the area.
So far, no Western states have committed to intervene in the crisis.
Ukraine’s interim President Olexander Turchynov says he has ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from Crimea.
The decision was taken because of Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families, the president announced.
Russian troops have seized most of Ukraine’s bases in the peninsula, including the naval base at Feodosia.
Earlier this month, Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum which Ukraine and the West considered illegal.
The conflict has echoes of the Crimean War in the 1850s, which saw thousands of troops from the UK perish more than half a continent from home.
The three-year-war, which ended when Russia surrendered to an alliance of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, France and Sardinia in 1856, left two abiding marks on our culture.
Few will be unfamiliar with the work of battlefield nurse Florence Nightingale, or the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which includes the lines ‘Into the valley of death rode the 600’.
It may surprise some residents of Wrexham that they share their home-town with the last survivor of that desperate foray.
Edwin “Balaclava Ned” Hughes was born at 2 Mount Street on December 12, 1830.
The son of a tin-plate worker, he became a career soldier and not only survived the charge of the Light Brigade, but went on to climb the ranks of the army and outlive his comrades.
Peter Knox, a military historian and Crimean War expert living in Cadole, admired Ned.
He said: “He would have been a very tough man.
“He was 24 when he went to the Crimea, so he wouldn’t have been the youngest serving there. But the conditions were tough, as the supply systems broke down, leaving parts of the army without basic things like food.
“It’s a different kind of country now, but back then it was pretty bleak.”
Peter himself regularly visited the Crimea as a tour guide for those interested in military history.
He said: “It’s a quite lovely part of the world now, with orchards and fields. It’s very different. Back then they wouldn’t have had many trees, so the soldiers would have risked exposure.
“The campaign started when the British Army landed in 1854, and they finally captured the city of Sevastopol in 1855.
“Initially, the war was a popular one. There are pictures of the troops marching across Westminster Bridge with crowds around them cheering and waving their handkerchiefs.
“Everyone thought it would be a bit of a pushover, but the army had been run down. The last big battle had been at Waterloo.
“It wasn’t the quality of troops like Ned Hughes who failed – they were let down.”
As a working-class soldier, Ned would have borne the brunt of supply failures.
Peter said: “Salt pork was a staple of their diet, which must have been disgusting.
There were odd ideas about. To save weight, they sent the troops out with green coffee beans and expected them to roast, dry and blend them while on the march.
“Of course, they didn’t have much in the way of fuel, so that didn’t work.
“Hughes would have been right at the bottom. Officers with their own means might have been able to arrange food parcels or buy any surplus. That would have been well beyond Hughes.”
The order that led to the charge itself is hotly disputed by historians, but it is widely remembered as a disastrous military blunder.
As one of the “Gallant 600” (actually closer to 700), Hughes would have joined the British light cavalry on 25 October 1854, led by Lord Cardigan at the battle of Balaclava.
Reputedly, Lord Raglan, commander of the British Forces, had meant for the Light Brigade to chase down a retreating artillery battery, but instead they were sent into a full-frontal attack against a well-established section of the Russian forces, riding into heavy defensive fire.
Of the 670 soldiers sent into the breach, 118 men were killed, 127 wounded and about 60 taken prisoner.
Ned Hughes’ horse was actually shot from under him, leaving him on the battlefield.
He later said: “I was on duty that day from four o’clock in the morning until after the charge in the afternoon. We rode out at the command straight for the Russian lines.
Before we reached them, my horse was shot, and in falling on its side I got partially pinned underneath, injuring my leg. I was assisted away.”
Peter Knox’s assertion that Ned must have been a tough character was borne out by later press interviews, when he shrugged off his injuries.
He said he was “damaged about the face and left leg but not seriously” and added: “We just did our duty without any thought of glory, and, of course, as in all wars, many of our lot paid the supreme price.”
Ned went on to serve with the army for another 21 years, rising to the role of Troop Sergeant Major.
He retired from the army aged 42, and became an instructor for the Worcestershire Yeomanry.
In 1923, he became the last survivor of the Light Brigade, and died on May 18, 1927, aged 96.
Peter said: “He has a plaque in Wrexham on Mount Street. There was some controversy a number of years ago when the building became an adult shop.
“To be honest, he was a career soldier, so he was probably a bit of a boy. I suspect he would have seen the funny side.”
For now, the situation in Crimea means that Peter has had to suspend his tours in the region.
He said: “I can’t foresee a return any time soon.
“It’s a real shame. It’s a beautiful place, and they were gearing up for a buoyant tourist industry, particularly from people with an interest in military history and the lives of men like Hughes.”
l For the second installment see Wednesday’s Leader.