Three Letters From Sebastopol

From the Archives of The Royal Irish Regiment
Sergeant Charles Calnan's letter from the Trenches Before Sebastopol, telling of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment's part in the Second Battle of the Great Redan

The Second Battle for the Great Redan was fought on 18 June 1855, the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It was the largest engagement fought by the British Army since Wellington's famous victory over Napoleon Bonaparte in Belgium. Overshadowed in modern memory by the earlier battles at Inkerman and The Alma, and even more so by the calamitous Charge of the Light Brigade, the battles to seize The Great Redan were launched from the trenches around Sebastopol and had much in common with the trench warfare that would prove typical of the Western Front 60 years later.

In his Regimental History of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment, published in 1911, Lieutenant Colonel Gretton provides an account of the Second Battle of the Great Redan. While the main British effort to break in to the outskirts of Sebastopol was repulsed, the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment managed to seize a foothold in the area of the Woronzoff Road and cemetery.

While he was able to draw on the acclaimed Irish war correspondent William Russell's dispatch written two days after the battle, Gretton laments the loss of all contemporary accounts written by the men of the 18th who took part in the battle. 'Thus,' he writes, 'the only accounts of the exploits of the Royal Irish on the 18th of June are to be found in a few statements, contributed by officers many years after the war was over, and in the dry official words announcing the bestowal of decorations.'

This is no longer the case; In May 2021 today's Royal Irish Regiment acquired three letters written from the trenches before Sebastopol by Sergeant Charles Calnan of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment, including a first hand account written the day after the Second Battle of The Great Redan. This letter provides us with a vivid and absolutely contemporaneous account.

Charles Calnan was born in 1822 at Kinsale, County Cork. A clerk by trade - and hence a literate soldier - he enlisted in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot at Cork on 15 November 1841, serving 21 years and 6 days with the Regiment - of this, 17 years and 79 days were spent on overseas service campaigning in China, Bengal, Burma, the Crimea and Bombay and Madras during the Indian Mutiny. Calnan was a sergeant at the time of the Crimea, but was promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant by the end of that campaign. He was discharged on 29 November 1862, thereafter residing at 24 Stafford Row, Bow, London.

The three letters are marked as having been found in 'Aunt Hetty's belongings in 1961'.