Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

17/10/2005

How Colin Campbell rose to the big occasion— twice

“Damn that enthusiasm!”
With these words, uttered by Sir Cohn Campbell as he galloped his horse along a line of Highlanders at the battle of Balaclava, a legend was born in Victorian military folklore.

Sir Cohn’s angry words were to stop his men charging uphill against cavalry, a tactic which was against all the precepts of infantry training.
Minutes previously, he had told them merrily, “Well, lads, we’re all going to die!”
“Aye, aye, Sir Cohn they had cheered with broad grins.
But, instead of a slaughter, what followed was one of the most celebrated actions of the century.
The man at the centre of this drama had been born Cohn Mac in Glasgow on January 29th, 1792, the son of a carpenter. At the age of ten he moved to Gosport where he was brought up by his uncle and adopted his name, Campbell. Since playing with toy soldiers as a boy, young Cohn had always been fascinated with the army and in 1808 he joined the 9th Regiment of Foot (Royal Norfolk Regiment), serving under Wellington during the Peninsular War.
Fiery, courageous and daring to an almost foolhardy extent, Campbell was at the forefront of many a bloody fray as Napoleon’s occupying army was gradually kicked out of Spain.
In 1836 he was made a lieutenant colonel commanding the 98th Regiment and three ycars later saw action in Chusan during the Opium War of 1839.
He also did the statutory tours of duty in India expected of a top soldier in those days of the burgeoning British Empire.
When the Crimean War broke out, Campbell was appointed to command the Highland Brigade which comprised the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment, the 79th Cameron Highlanders and the 93rd (Highland) Regiment.
Campbell’s combination of inspiring leadership, fierce combativeness and strict discipline was judged ideal to keep his troops in place.
He and his men shone at the Battle of the River Alma as they stormed uphill against Russian guns, Campbell yelling at his kilted Jocks above the din of gunfire, “We’ll hae nane but Hielan’ bonnets here!” They stormed the heights, bagpipes play ing and flags waving, but their greatest moment came later during the siege of Sevastopol.

The allied French and British strategy centred on making safe the port of Balaclava where their supplies were unloaded. On October 25th, 1S54, a Russian force 24,000 strong attacked, intent on driving the British into the sea, and the 93rd Highlanders under Campbell’s leadership were ordered to hold at all costs a ridge one mile north of the port.
A Russian heavy cavalry unit 400 strong galloped down the slope to brush these kilted upstarts aside. It was then that Campbell lined up his men and told them cheerily that they were going to die, at the same time restraining their daring dash against the mounted enemy. Campbell ordered his men to hold their fire until the Russians were at a distance of 600 yards. They stood calm and still as the cavalry thundered down towards them and each soldier must have wondered if he was really facing complete annihilation as he looked up at the dark, dusty mass about to envelop the regiment. Then Campbell screamed, “Fire!” The first volley rattled out and brought down the leading horses but still the enemy came on. Then a second volley at a mere 200 yards plunged them into total confusion and the enemy retired amid the screams and bloody death throes of the dying horses and their riders.
The line had held and in the process had also saved the British army from being wiped out. Fortunately for Campbell, one of the world’s first — and best — war correspondents, William Howard Russell of the “The Times”, was on hand to record the event. Campbell informed Russell’s readers he had not thought it worthwhile to form his men into the traditional four deep ranks usually needed to repel charges and added that his Highlanders had presented to the enemy “a thin red streak tipped with steel!” This in time became the celebrated thin red line of military lore.
Back home in Britain, Campbell was hailed as a hero, the sort of figure looked up to in those days of imperial splendour. With his swagger, his disdain for death and his faithful followers, Campbell’s career had all the right ingredients.
Three years later during the Indian Mutiny his star rose even higher.
Moslem sepoys had rebelled because they were being asked to touch rifle cartridges greased with taboo animal but there was deep underlying resentment against the British conquest of India and this excuse served as the explosive fuse which blew the sub-continent into rebellion.
As law and order disintegrated in several major cities, Campbell was put in command of the army and told to quell the rioting and looting.
He arrived in Calcutta in August, 1857, and ruthlessly brought the situation under control, storming the mutineers’ bases and taking no prisoners.
Summary firing squads dealt out justice on the spot and the hung bodies of rebelious mutineers swung in the wind at cross roads.
Campbell heartily approved of the policy of his victorious troops which involved tying prisoners to the mouth of cannon and blowing them away.
Delhi was recaptured in September and Campbell’s reputation spread like wildfire, bringing terror to the mutinous troops. A month later he marched on Lucknow where the British population had barricaded themselves in the residency, turning it into an armed fortress.
A relief force had also ended up being besieged and the trapped people suffered from starvation, dysentery and scurvy. Rodents were caught and eaten but still the Union Jack flew from a tower and they refused to surrender.
But Campbell and a force of 4,500 were on the way and he managed to get a mes sage through to the residency, urging them to hold on. This message, written in Greek, was delivered by a red-haired Irish soldier, Henry Kavanagh, disguised as an Indian who swam a river and filtered through the lines at night to get to the beleaguered British who were on the point of surrender. Then early one November morning the desperate outpost heard it — the sound of bagpipes skirling in the misty distance.
The Highlanders stormed through to the residency, putting the surrounding mutineers to flight, pounding them with artillery and rifle fire, and the 2,000 survivors staggered out from what one of them termed “a season in hell’. Campbell could do no wrong after that and was duly given a peerage, taking the title of Baron Clyde of Clydesdale in commemoration of his Scottish roots. A statue was erected to him in his native city’s George Square, paid for by the “grateful citizens” and it still stares defiantly out towards the former post office building. He was appointed a colonel of the Coldstream Guards and promoted to the rank of Field Marshall.
Unfortunately, he did not have many years to enjoy his fame for, after a short illness, he died in August, 1863. Although he had risen from being a general officer to Field Marshall in only eight years, there was also a strong streak of modesty and genuine humility in Campbell which made this cantankerous old soldier more warm and human.
He had certainly lived up to a dictum he had penned in his diary years earlier, “By means of patience, common sense and time, impossibility becomes possibility”

(c) Scottish Memories

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