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Crimean War part II: Life in the upper ranks of the British Army

Published date: 26 March 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


 

YESTERDAY the Leader told the story of a working-class man’s journey to the Crimean War front and back to North Wales.

Now Archie Graham-Palmer, who lives in Cefn Park, a historic house near the outskirts of Wrexham, gives us a glimpse of the other side of the story.

Archie, 43, is the descendent of Sir Roger Palmer, who fought in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 as a member of the 11th Hussars regiment.

Lt General Roger Palmer only narrowly returned with his life after the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, which was immortalised by the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson.

Archie said: “It would have been a different world for the upper classes. While the men like Balaclava Ned (Edwin Hughes of Wrexham, a career soldier who also survived the charge) were shivering in their tents, the officers would have been having dances and parties.

“Lord Raglan (commander of the British forces) even brought a yacht.

“But they weren’t armchair generals. Sir Roger rode into battle with his men and he was among the first to reach the Russian lines."”

Archie recently discovered that Sir Roger escaped by the skin of his teeth after charging head-first into an artillery battery. He said: “The only reason he survived was because, once he got past the Russian guns, the Russian officer assumed it was all over and that the British had won.

“He handed Sir Roger his sword. In all the confusion of dust and gunfire, the officer hadn’t realised how badly the Light Brigade had come off, that so many of Sir Roger’s men were wounded or dead. Sir Roger realised, though, and he simply took the sword and slipped away.”

Intriguingly, if it hadn’t been for the Crimean conflict in the 1800s, Archie may never have been around to inherit Cefn Park.

His great-great grandmother, Ellen Palmer, sister of Sir Roger, insisted as a young woman that she be allowed to visit Crimea during the war.

Both she and Roger lived at Cefn Park during different times of their lives.

Archie said: “I think she was a character. She was bright, feisty and I think, extremely bored by the conventions of life in the 1800s – when women, basically, weren’t allowed to do much.

“She decided to go off to the Crimean War with her father and an entourage of butlers and several others.”

By sheer chance, Archie’s family found several of Ellen’s diaries, detailing the war from a unique perspective.

Archie said: “We moved a piece of furniture in the billiard room and we found these locked diaries had slipped out of sight. We had to break them open.

“They turned out to detail Ellen’s journey. I suspect she not only went out to Crimea to see her brother and to view the war, but also to find a husband.”

The diaries make for fascinating reading.

She painted a vivid picture of Balaclava and the city of Sevastopol, of the cavalry camps and the trenches. Her writings depicted a land bristling with the to-ings and fro-ings of war and trade.

She said the roads “are perfectly alive with extraordinary figures, sailors, civilians dressed in every imaginable garb, and carts, guns, dromedaries...”

Ellen’s view of the war was told with calm detachment, and her words give some insight into her priorities.

One entry read: “Tuesday (January) 9. A powder ship with 700 tons on board caught fire this morning and was very near exploding close to us, in which case every soul in the harbour would have been blown to pieces. Visitors all day. Lord F. Paulet, Major Taylor, Captain Peel and his cousin dined here.”

Two days later, she wrote that her clothes had somehow caught fire, leaving her with a dress “burnt in holes”.

In between accounts of dinners, dances and parties, Ellen also had an eye for the conflict going on around her, and she was not blind to the plight of the working class soldiers around her.

On one cold January day, she mentioned lunching in her brother’s tent, but commented: “It is still freezing hard and the ground is almost too slippery to walk upon. They are beginning to build wooden huts for the soldiers at last.”

She also visited several of the battlegrounds themselves, only a short time after the fighting had stopped, sometimes risking attack from Russian forces waiting to fire on their enemies.

She wrote: “We saw numbers of horses lying about both dead and dying, it is really heartbreaking to look at the poor brutes suffering such agonies.

“The men died of the cold in the trenches last night.”

Even if the Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster, Ellen’s own mission was a success. She met one Archibald Peel, nephew of Robert Peel who set up Britain’s first real police force, returned to Britain and married him.

She bore him four children before dying in childbirth, aged 34.

Archie, as her descendant, inherited Cefn Park four generations later. Intriguingly, another member of his family, who moved in “some pretty interesting circles” socialised with Tennyson – author of The Charge of the Light Brigade fame.

While Ellen’s diaries are in the process of being transcribed by Archie’s aunt who lives in London, Cefn Park house holds several pieces of other fascinating Crimean War memorabilia. The stables that once housed Bob, Sir Roger’s horse, who also survived the charge, still stand.

Bob’s own preserved hoof is displayed in the billiard room, alongside a Bible Sir Roger carried in his sabre-tache, a type of saddle-pouch, he would have taken to war. An inscription on it states that it was used during a court martial.

It reads: “This Bible was carried by Roger Palmer all through the Crimean War. A drum-head court martial was sworn on it (no other Bible could be found) to try a man for drinking all his comrade’s rum and getting drunk when the regiment was marching from the Alma to Sevastopol.

It is unknown whether the sword that Sir Roger escaped with from the battle field – as well as his life – is in the Palmer collection.”

Anyone curious about Cefn Park and its links with local and international history may be able to arrange a rare sneak-peak behind the impressive front door.

Although the house, which was built in the 1730s, is a private residence, the Palmer family have signed up to the Invitation to View scheme, which sets up tours of the premises.

To find out more, call 01206 573948 or visit www.invitationtoview.co.uk.

For more news from across the region visit newsnorthwales.co.uk

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