Express & Star

The Black Country hero who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade

Maybe if Vladimir Putin had heeded the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the world could have avoided a whole lot of bloodshed.

John Ashley Kilvert

And if he had listened to the former mayor of Wednesbury, he would definitely have thought twice before attacking the Ukraine.

Tennyson famously described the dreadful casualties inflicted on the British Army in the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

It was an episode of an attack that was ill thought out and not properly executed. The parallels with Russia's current attack on Ukraine are plain to see.

The former Poet Laureate wrote: "Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volley’d and thunder’d, Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of death, Into the mouth of hell, Rode the six hundred.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And Shropshire-born John Ashley Kilvert, who served as Mayor of Wednesbury in 1905, was a surviving hero of what is considered the bloodiest, bravest and most notorious blunder in British military history.

The charge by the 11th Hussars at Balaklava, Crimea, on October 25, 1854, was the result of a misunderstood order.

The British campaign in Crimea aimed to halt attempts by Czarist Russia to occupy areas of Europe.

Lord Raglan had intended to send the Light Brigade to prevent the Russians from removing captured guns from over-run Turkish positions, a task for which the light cavalry were well-suited. However, there was miscommunication in the chain of command and the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, which was well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire.

The Light Brigade reached the battery under ferocious direct fire and scattered some of the gunners, but was forced to retreat immediately.

The infamous Charge of the Light Brigade

The assault ended with huge British casualties and no decisive gains. Of the 676 troops sent into battle, less than half came through unscathed. The attack saw 107 killed, 187 wounded and 50 missing – mostly captured. There were 400 casualties among the horses.

West Midland historian Lawrence McGowan, says Kilvert's vivid account adds flesh to the bones of Tennyson's famous poem.

"Stationed in the second line of the charge it was impossible to avoid the fallen and he was forced to ride over them, dead or alive," says Lawrence, a retired former reporter on the Express & Star.

"Only 25 of the 110 men in his regiment returned to the British lines. Of the 14 men with whom he shared a tent only he and one other survived."

Historian Lawrence McGowan

Kilvert himself was hit by a musket ball that passed through his right leg, and received a slight sabre wound to the head, says Lawrence. His horse was shot, but although badly wounded, it carried him to safety.

"Kilvert lay in a ditch nearly frozen and had almost given up hope of help before he was found," says Lawrence, who lives in the Huntington area of Cannock.

"He was taken to Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari. Evacuated to Malta he eventually returned to England in February 1855."

Kilvert later recalled: "I was in the second line and as we careered down the valley and shot and shell were flying about like hailstones, it was only the pace of the horses, that carried us through at all. I don't think if it had been a body of infantry, that a single man could have reached the bottom of the valley.

"As we advanced, there was a hot fire from the Russian batteries on either side and we survived, rode over the prostrate bodies of those who preceded us. Horses were killed, others galloped about riderless and before long, order was abandoned and it was a desperate attempt to cut our way back through as best we could, as the Russians closed in on us. The Russian gunners were cut down and we started back to our own lines, but I do not know what would have happened had not one of the Russian flanking batteries been attacked and forced to retire.

"All day long neither horses nor men tasted food or water.

"I lay in a ditch waiting to be removed on an ambulance 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 hollowed with all my might and very thankful, I was picked up and taken aboard the steamer."

John Ashley Kilvert's medals

Kilvert was born on September 29, 1833, at High Ercall, Shropshire, the son of farmer George Kilvert, a farmer. He was educated at High Ercall Grammar School, and initially worked in the wine trade

He was promoted from corporal to sergeant the day after the Charge of the Light Brigade, and was awarded the British Crimea Medal with bars for Alma, Balaklava and Sebastapol. He received his medals from Queen Victoria in a ceremony on Horseguards Parade. He was also awarded the Turkish Crimea War Medal.

Kilvert ended his military career as a troop sergeant-major and went to live in Coventry where he married. When his first wife died he moved to Wednesbury and remarried.

Setting up business as a pawnbroker he lived above the shop in Union Street. He was elected to the town council in 1886 and mayor after 29 years of service. He was also a Justice of the Peace.

He later sold his business and bought a house in Pritchard Street, which he named Balaclava House.

Kilvert later lived in Pritchard Street, Wednesbury, in a property he named Balaclava House

Kilvert died in Wednesbury on October 17, 1920 and is buried at Wood Green Cemetery. He was the last but two of the British Charge of the Light Brigade participants to die, although his gravestone makes no mention of his role in the charge.

Upon his death his medals and sword were bequeathed to Wednesbury museum and art gallery. The medals were stolen from display in 1974 and were bought unwittingly by a medal collector in Walsall.

After the collector's death his collection was offered for sale and the missing medals were identified. The widow returned the Kilvert collection to the museum and art gallery.

Kilvert’s sword is in the possession of Sandwell College where a floor in the central campus is named after him.