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Canada and the Crimean War: a major turning point in our military history: the recent crisis in Ukraine has once again propelled the Crimea into Canadian media headlines ... 161 years after our first military involvement in the region.


A resurgent Russia's annexation of the Crimea this spring should call to mind, among other things, a major turning point in Canada's military history. It was the Crimean War of 1853-56, and the resulting realignment of British forces in North America, that forced the Province of Canada to establish, or perhaps it is more accurate to say "reorganize," its own military forces.


As Britain and France dispatched ships, troops and arms against Russia in aid of Ottoman Turkey, Canadians felt the impact in several ways. The war engaged the interest of the entire British Empire. It was the world's first "media war," with extensive reporting on the battles, and therefore quite interesting to follow in the newspapers.

Canadians felt a more direct impact when the British withdrew over 4,000 troops from the Province of Canada, leaving only 1,887 by 1855. In the Maritimes, 1,300 troops were pulled out, leaving a garrison of 1,397. To fill this comparative void in its defence preparedness, Canada in 1855 created a commission "for the purpose of investigating the state of the Militia of Canada" and "of re-organizing the said Militia."

Canada has been effectively self-governing in internal affairs since 1841. Thus in 1855 the Assembly in voted to establish 18 military districts of "Active Militia"--paid soldiers with uniforms --and, as George Stanley wrote in his book, Canada's Soldiers, "from 1855 we may date the beginning of the volunteer system" that was fundamental to Canadian defence policy until 1917.

The Act allowed for a maximum of 5,000 soldiers. But Canadian enthusiasm for the Crimean War ran so high, and so many Canadians put themselves forward for service, that in 1856 the Province amended the Militia Act to enable unpaid volunteers to form units too.

Canada's army was not the only beneficiary of the war's effects. It was in response to the high casualties from the Siege of Petropavlovsk (in the Pacific theatre of Kamchatka in 1854) that the Royal Navy enlarged its presence in Esquimalt, BC. They created the Esquimalt Royal Navy Dockyard, now officially Her Majesty's Canadian (HMC) Dockyard Esquimalt, and adding new hospital buildings to treat wounded soldiers evacuated to Vancouver Island.

The Crimean War was an economic boon to Canadians as it drove up the price of wheat. The British banned the import of Russian wheat and bought Canadian wheat at a higher price. "It was the time of the [Crimean] war," wrote Elizabeth Norrish of Nassagaweya Township, west of Toronto. "Wheat went up in price.... So we got a big price for our grain. This enabled us to pay all expenses, buy a good span of horses, harness, sleigh and a good many other things," Ms. Norrish wrote.

With the Baltic timber trade blocked by the Royal Navy during the war, Canadian timber exports and Maritime shipbuilding also got a boost. These added to the prosperity brought about by reciprocity (free trade) with the United States, negotiated by Canada's governor general, Lord Elgin, in 1849, and a contemporaneous boom in railway building.

In general, Canadians and Maritimers shared in the wider Imperial enthusiasm for the war. Their war was our war, as Sir Allan Napier MacNab, an 1812 veteran, implied when he moved in the Assembly in 1854 that in view of "a series of brilliant victories gained by the combined fleets and armies of England and France," the Assembly should "testify its high gratification" by adjourning for the day. Members were thus liberated to celebrate accordingly.

The war effort even "mustered some limited financial support among French-Canadian elites, anxious to convey 'the sympathies that our former colony conserves still towards France'," wrote historian Phillip Buckner.

As for Maritime sentiment, Sir Samuel Cunard, the Halifax-born shipping magnate, put his considerable fleet at the disposal of the war effort. Eleven of Cunard's ships served as troop transports and delivered horses and supplies, while two served as hospital ships. Cunard was knighted.

No Canadian military units participated. But Canadian volunteers served in British units. According to Toronto of Old, a collection of early history by Henry Scadding published in 1873, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wells, the son of an English settler at Davenport, "was highly distinguished in the Crimea" and "on revisiting Toronto after the peace with Russia, was publicly presented with a sword of honour." Augustus RM. Corbett, born in Kingston, attended the St. Lawrence School of Medicine in Montreal, graduated from McGill in 1854, and promptly volunteered for the Army Medical Department in which he "saw much service" in the Crimea, according to the Canadian Medical Record.


Canada's best-known volunteer was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn, born in York (Toronto) in 1833 and educated at Upper Canada College, who served in the 11th Hussars. He received the first Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian for his part in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. He was cited for having saved the life of a wounded straggler, Sergeant Robert Bentley, during the harrowing retreat--as the official citations says, "by cutting down two or three Russian Lancers who were attacking [Bentley] from the rear, and afterwards cutting down a Russian Hussar, who was attacking Private Levett."

The charge of the Light Brigade was a fiasco. "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" said General Bosquet. But rescuing wounded men in the scramble of a frantic retreat made Lt. Dunn the only officer honoured that day with a VC.

Canada's own Victoria Cross, established in 1993 and unveiled by Governor General Michaelle Jean in 2008, includes metal from three sources: an original Confederation medal, ore from each region of Canada, and bronze from the original Russian cannons captured in the Siege of Sebastopol in 1855.

Among the settlers who built the nascent Dominion in the 19th century, a lengthy roster of Crimean War veterans could be compiled. James Baker, who played a major role in the development of the B.C. interior in the 1880s, was a veteran. Born in England, he retired from the British Army and settled in Skookumchuck and later Cranbrook, served in the B.C. Legislature, and helped extend the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Crowsnest Pass.

Major A.F. Welsford and Captain W.B.C.A. Parker of Halifax were killed in the battle of the Great Redan, part of the Siege of Sebastopol in 1855. A monument to them in Halifax, inscribed "SEBASTOPOL," was built in 1860 and restored in 1989. It is described as the only Crimean War monument in North America, and this is true if one is referring only to stone monuments.


Numerous other monuments include the names of towns in Ontario such as Inkerman, an allied victory in 1854 prior to the Siege of Sebastopol; and Kars, where the Russians in 1855 besieged the British garrison under the command of General Sir William Fenwick Williams, born in Nova Scotia. Many cites and towns in Canada are named or have streets named Varna, Odessa, Kertch, Alma, Sebastopol, Balaclava, etc. Numerous places are named after the commander, Lord Raglan, who died at Sebastopol. B.C. even boasts a Balaklava Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island. Florenceville, New Brunswick is named after Florence Nightingale, whose legendary battlefield nursing inspired the Canadian nursing sisters who travelled with Gen. Middleton's expeditionary force in the Canadian North West in 1885.

A significant number of Crimean War veterans settled on land grants in such disparate places as Cornwall, Ont., and New Westminster, B.C. Roderick Campbell received a land grant near Berwick, northwest of Cornwall. Corporal Peter John Leech worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, became a city engineer in Victoria, discovered gold at Leechtown, and settled in New Westminster. Sapper Henry Bruce, a Crimean War veteran, had a photographic business in London, England, but settled in B.C. in 1870 as a carpenter.

This is not to inflate Canada's role in the Crimean War, as some have done. "Many Canadians were not aware that Canada sent a contingent to fight with Britain in the Crimean War of 1854." This sentence appears on page 95 of a book called Lords of the North, by James K. McDonnell and Robert B. Campbell, published in 1997 by General House in Burnstown, Ont. And it is complete nonsense.

Canada's military forces played no direct role in Crimea in the 1850s. But it is a fact that the Militia Act of 1855--establishing the voluntary "Active Militia" that is the direct ancestor of the present-day Canadian Army--came about, as historian John Castell Hopkins put it, "as a result of the feeling aroused by the Crimean War."

Caption: Illustration of the October 25, 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War. Of the 673 men sent down what Tennyson called "The Valley of Death, " only a third returned unscathed. Claiming a great victory, Britain had entered the war--which was fought by Russia against Turkey, Britain and France --because Russia sought to control the Dardanelles, which would have threatened British sea routes. Many in the West best know of this war today because of Florence Nightingale, who trained and led nurses aiding the wounded during the war in a manner innovative for those times. The war was also noteworthy as an early example of the work of modern war correspondents. (TIME LIFE PICTURES)

Caption: "Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan, " by William Simpson. This print shows Lord Cardigan leading the charge of the light brigade toward Russian artillery on the left. In the foreground, Russian artillery fire on the left flank of the charging light brigade, as artillery on the hills (in the background) fire on the right flank; Russian cavalry wait in readiness to engage the British or to counterattack.

Caption: On the chilly, gray morning of October 25, 1854, a swashbuckling cavalry officer, Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn of the 11th Hussars, so distinguished himself during the Charge of the Light Brigade that he became the first of 96 Canadians to receive the Victoria Cross medal, the British Empire's highest military honour for valour. Tall, six-foot-three, high in the saddle, blond-headed and handsome with a drooping moustache, Dunn not only cut a glamorous, romantic figure, he also proved to be an outstanding cavalry officer.

Caption: The Russian strongpoint of the Grand Redan after the siege. The metal from these Russian canons is melted down to make Victoria Crosses --the highest military decoration for valour in many Commonwealth countries, including Canada. (LIBRARIE DU MUSEE DE L'ARMEE, PARIS)
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Author:Champion, C.P.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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