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The Russian War

Debacle in the Crimea

Britain and France entered the Crimean War in 1854 in order to prevent the mighty Russian Empire from crushing Turkey, and thus altering the balance of power in the East. The Anglo-French plan involved the capture of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol. The war is famed for the epic degree of incompetence shown by the British military authorities, which was only surpassed by the tenacity of the ordinary British soldier. Poorly equipped, and in clothing unsuited for the climate, the 17th Regiment was in the thick of the fighting, in the Battle of the Quarries, the attack on the Great Redan, and the final assault on Sebastopol.

Corporal Philip Smith of the 17th Regiment wins the Victoria Cross for heroism at Sebastopol

Thomas Faughnan served with the 17th Regiment in the Crimea, and left a harrowing account of the assault on the Redan at Sebastopol on 17 June 1855: “The Russians, having the exact range, threw the shells right among our men … A shell struck Sergeant Connell of the Grenadier company, tearing him to shreds, and throwing one of his legs fifty yards off; which was found afterwards and known by the regimental number on his sock. That leg was all of him that could ever be seen afterwards.

Right: Crimea medal with bar ‘Sebastopol’ awarded to ‘3496 G.Hayter 17th Regt’. Crimea medals to the 17th are almost invariably found officially impressed. Occasionally, as in this case, the service number has been depot impressed later

Left: Captain David La T. Colthurst served in the Crimea with the 17th Regiment. He was later MP for Cork.

Far Left: A pewter button, found recently on the site of the 17th Regiment’s camp at Sebastopol.

Left: A brass cap numeral, found at the same location

In the attack the 17th Regiment, upon emerging from the network of trenches in front of the Redan were met with a hurricane of fire. In the confined space they could achieve little by way of formation and their progress was impeded by the dead and wounded of previous attempts. One officer, Captain J.L.Croker, was killed along with thirteen other ranks. 32 other ranks were wounded. Great bravery was shown by a number of men who went back to bring in the body of Captain Croker, and by Corporal Philip Smith who several times brought in wounded men under fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.


Afghan Summer

The storming of the fortress of Ghuznee in July 1839 was the last major setpiece battle of the First Afghan War. The war was fought by the army of the Honourable East India Company and by the forces of the British crown to restore the pro-British ruler of Afghanistan, Shah Soojah, who had been deposed by the pro-Russian Dost Mohamed. Dost Mohamed’s forces occupying Ghuznee were the final obstacle on the road to Kabul.

Above: British troops storm Ghuznee, after the Kabul Gate is blown up by the Bengal Sappers & Miners

The attacking force had no heavy artillery with which to subdue Ghuznee, and so it was left with no option but to storm the fortress. After the main gates were blown up with explosives placed by the Bengal Sappers & Miners, two British infantry regiments, HM’s 2nd & 17th, rushed through the smoking gap into the citadel, whose garrison they quickly subdued.

The Ghuznee Medal (left) was originally commissioned by Shah Soojah, but he died before it could be struck. The medal was subsequently awarded to all ranks who took part in the battle by the Honourable East India Company. It was issued unnamed but many were named by the recipient

Above: Soldiers of the 17th Regiment fight their way into Ghuznee

Ensign John Croker (above) was among the officers who took part in the storming of Ghuznee. His father, Lieutenant Colonel Croker, was in command of the regiment at the time. John Croker reached the rank of Captain and went on to serve in the Crimean War with the 17th Regiment. He was killed in action at Sebastopol.

Raising of the Regiment

Early Days

The Royal Leicestershire Regiment was raised in 1688, as a Regiment of Foot, to be commanded by Colonel Solomon Richards. This was during the troubled last days of the reign of James II. After the Glorious Revolution, which placed William III, Prince of Orange, on the throne, the regiment pledged allegiance to the new monarch. It did not formally gain the title 17th until 1751.

In 1695 the regiment was in action in the Netherlands and took part in the Siege of Namur, for which it gained its first battle honour (though this was not awarded until 1880). Colonel Courthorpe, commanding officer of the regiment, was killed in action at Namur and His Majesty King William III was pleased to appoint Courthorpe’s subordinate Sir Matthew Bridges (right) who had shown great bravery in the storming of the fortress to command the regiment in his stead. In 1703 the regiment returned to the Netherlands again, this time as part of the force commanded by the Duke of Marlborough.

Left: A medal awarded to some officers of the 17th Regiment for the capture of Louisberg

In 1751 the regiment journeyed to Canada, as part of the brigade commanded by General Wolfe. It took part in the capture of the French fortress of Louisberg on the St Lawrence River. Later, the Grenadier Company of the regiment was with Wolfe when he led the attack at Quebec, and fell mortally wounded.

The memory of Wolfe was kept alive through the black stripe in the regimental ribbon, and the tables were trimmed with black at regimental dinners for many years in mourning for him.

Right: A soldier of the Grenadier Company, 1751

In 1775 the American colonies rose in open revolt against Britain, and the 17th was again in the thick of the action. In April of that year it was one of those ordered to embark for North america to put down the uprising, landing at first in Boston. In 1777 it was the only regiment to break out of the encirclement at Princeton, thick fog having obscured the true numbers of enemy which the 17th faced.

November 1778 found the 17th Regiment in winter quarters at Kingsbridge, in what is now the heart of Manhattan Island. From the site of this camp, a number of relics of the regiment were recovered during construction work in the 1930s. In 1781, the 17th Regiment formed part of Lord Cornwallis’s army which entrenched itself at yorktown, and was subsequently besieged by a far superior force of colonials supported by regular French forces. The regiment was among those which surrendered to General Washington in October of that year.

Left: A petwer button of the 17th Regiment, recovered from the site of the camp at New York.
Far Left: The 17th breaks through the enemy line at Princeton

The regiment spent almost the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars in India, and thus took no part in either the battles in Spain at this time or Waterloo.

It was heavily engaged however in the early campaigns against the native states, in particular in the Nepal War of 1814-15. In one of the decisive actions of this campaign the 17th inflicted heavy casualties upon the Gurkhas, and is said to have captured a standard which bore the original green tiger.

Right: An officer’s shoulder belt plate, in
use from 1799 to 1825

The Militia

The Leicestershire Militia traced its roots back to the Middle Ages, to the days of ‘watch and ward’ when local notables were responsible for provision of men for defence in time of emergency. In the Napoleonic and Victorian eras, the force became more formalised, and was under the control of the Lord Lieutenant of the county. Finally, in 1881 the Militia and the Regular army were united. The Leicestershire Militia became the 3rd battalion of the regiment, with a role as a reserve force to train & supply recruits. The Leicestershire Regiment also acquired the Magazine, headquarters of the county militia.

Prior to the Boer War, the only active service wtnessed by the Leicestershire Militia had been a stint in Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars. For this reason, the Militia badge featured not a Tiger but a Harp.

In the days before the Welfare State, the Militia had a reputation as a safety net for the urban and rural poor. The retainer paid for part time service was useful in times of economic hardship or when harvests were bad. In time of war, a militia unit could be embodied (mobilised), but its members were not liable for overseas service unless they so wished.

Twice during the Boer War the Leicestershire Militia was embodied, and on both occasions its members offered their services overseas. On the first occasion this was declined, the battalion instead being posted to the Curragh Camp in Ireland. The second time the offer was accepted and the battalion was ordered to South Africa to take over blockhouse lines in the closing stages of the Boer War.

Corporal Thomas Faughnan

Corporal Thomas Faughnan (spelt Faughan in some sources) was born in County Leitrim, Ireland. In 1847, Ireland was in the grip of the Potato famine, its staple crop being ravaged by the blight. It is estimated that 2 million Irish people died as a result of starvation. Faughan’s sisters chose to emigrate to North America. Faughan himself took the other option favoured by young men in Ireland at this time. He enlisted in the British army, in Her Majesties’ 17th Regiment of Foot. With then he served in the Crimea, where he was wounded an sent to the infamous Scutari hospital. After the Crimea he transferred to the 6th Regt where he became a Colour Sergeant. In retirement in Canada he wrote his memoirs, the classic ‘Life of a British Soldier’. Faughan’s Crimea medal seen here has the bar Sebastopol. His name is officially impressed on the rim.

The Volunteer Company

The Volunteer Service Companies, raised by various regiments during the Boer War, were really the forerunners of Kitchener’s Army in the First World War. They were a patriotic response to a national emergency. There was great eagerness to enlist for the service company, among the men of the 1st Volunteer battalion Leicestershire Regiment. Many were bitterly disapointed to be turned down on grounds of age or medical condition. For many years members of the Volunteer Force had felt that the Regular Army looked down upon them as mere ‘pot hunters’ interested only in target shooting competitions. Here at last was a chance to show their true mettle.

The members of the Volunteer Company were led by Captain W.A.Harrison, with lieutenants W.A.Rowlatt and C.H.Jones. The senior NCO was Sergeant-Instructor James Bell, a Regular soldier, seconded to the Volunteer battalion for duty. The men of the Volunteer Company left England in March 1900 aboard the SS Guelph, travelling south via the Canary Islands to reach South Africa. They found the 1st battalion recovering on the banks of the Tugela River, gaunt and emaciated after the Siege of Ladysmith.


The Volunteer Company fought alongside the regulars for the next year, taking the war into the Transvaal and fighting battles at Laing’s Nek, Bergendaal (known to the British as Belfast) and Lydenburg. Four of its original members died on active service. Many members went on to join the Regular Army, having acquired a taste for soldiering. Others remained with the Volunteer Force, which eventually became the Territorial Force. Captain Harrison, as Lieutenant Colonel Harrison, took the 1st/4th Leicesters to France in 1915. Likewise, Lieutenant Jones rose to command the 1st/5th battalion, and took that unit to France at the same time.