Not to reason why . . .

Sandwell and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

We first posted this blog around international nursing day (12th May). It is more pertinent than most years for most of us given what nurses (and the rest of the NHS) are currently battling with. May 12th was chosen as it was Florence Nightingale’s birthday, and if she was alive today she would be 200!

But we are posting it again as part of Armed Forces Day celebrations, showing support for those serving or have recently served. We have other military objects in our collection but it seems appropriate that any museum objects showcased here should have a clear story of one individual’s experience attached to them. So, we are taking the opportunity to tell the story of one notable Wednesbury citizen who had a close encounter with Florence Nightingale and dined out on the story for many years – a story that also included an account of his close encounter with a Russian cannonball the day before!

Balaclava by, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler; 1863. She took the testimonies of survivors to ensure accuracy. Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/balaclava-204619

John Ashley Kilvert was born in 1833, the son of a Shropshire farmer. Initially apprenticed into the wine trade, by 1850 he had joined the 11th Hussars, a light cavalry regiment of the British Army nicknamed the ‘Cherrypickers’ on account of their tight scarlet trousers. In 1843 his regiment was sent to the Crimea, as part of an allied British French and Turkish army fighting the Russians.

Kilvert’s Sword – This is the 1853 pattern cavalry sword which is brand new latest army kit at the time of the Crimean war. In fact not all regiments had it at this point. These swords were typically made in Birmingham as this was a big industry in Birmingham at that time. It wasn’t typical for soldiers that weren’t officers to keep their swords as this was army property. However, it is possible that as those that survived the charge were held in high esteem and were almost celebrities, that they were given their swords- we know the bugler kept his bugle!

On October 25th a Russian army attacked the main British supply base, the small port of Balaclava. A series of engagements took place, culminating in the disastrous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ Shortly after 11.00am local time, confusion over orders led Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, to mistakenly attack a large force of Russian cavalry and artillery, with disastrous results. The ensuing battle was described by a survivor of the charge, Kilvert’s sergeant – major Loy Smith.

As we moved off the Russians opened fire from all their batteries, the round shot passed through us and amongst us, causing great havoc. The first man of my troop to be struck was Private Young, a cannon ball taking off his right arm, I being close in his right rear fancied I felt the wind from it as it passed me, I afterwards found I was bespattered with his flesh.

Kilvert in his uniform wearing his medals

Of the 143 men of the regiment who charged, only 63 returned to camp that night. Kilvert was not among them, although he had reached the Russian position and returned. He described what happened himself to a local newspaper many years later:

As to my injuries, I was shot by a musket ball through my right leg, and also received a slight cut on the head. My horse was shot under me, but although frightfully injured, bore me back to safety.

Kilvert was treated on the battlefield, but as there were no ambulances available to evacuate the wounded,

I lay in a ditch waiting to be removed . . . and had practically given up hope of ever being attended to, as darkness was setting in and I was nearly frozen. However by and by I heard an ambulance coming and, as the boys say, I hollered with all my might and very thankfully, I was picked up.

Kilvert was evacuated, first to Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari in Istanbul, (he relates seeing her in the wards on a number of occasions) and then to Malta, returning to England in 1855. He was lucky to not have had his wounded leg amputated as this was often the case. He was promoted to sergeant and served in a recruiting office in Bath until he was invalided out of the army in 1857.

John Ashley Kilvert in his civic robes; Sandwell Museums Service Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/alderman-john-ashley-kilvert-jp-18331920-20642

He moved to Wednesbury where he opened a pawn broker’s shop. In 1886 he stood for, and was elected to, the Wednesbury borough Council, remaining a councillor and subsequently Alderman until he retired in 1902, the year after he served as mayor. He died in 1920, bequeathing his medals and his sword to Wednesbury Museum.

Oh – and Private Young survived the battle as well. He last attended a survivors’ reunion dinner in London in 1890.

Kilvert’s medals. The medal on the top left is the Turkish Crimea medal as the original mission was to defend Turkey against Russian aggression. The medal on the top right is the Crimea medal, noting the battled he was present at. The smaller medals are for evening wear.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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