‘A Valiant Little Band’: LDS Soldiers in the Crimean War

Hide Footnotes


“‘A Valiant Little Band’: LDS Soldiers in the Crimean War,” Ensign, Jan. 1981, 18

“A Valiant Little Band”:

LDS Soldiers in the Crimean War

Patrick Brodlie, a priest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a British soldier in the Crimean War (1854–55), has the melancholy distinction of being perhaps the first Latter-day Saint soldier to be killed in combat.1 The war in which he fell found England allied with France and Turkey against Russia. It was the first European war in nearly forty years, a war infamous for the waste of human life on the battlefields and even more wasteful behind the lines, where thousands died of disease and where Florence Nightingale first gained acclaim as a professional nurse.

A score of British Latter-day Saints were caught up in this tragic conflict and became the first known LDS soldiers to fight in an international war. Their letters to Elder Franklin D. Richards,2 then mission president in England, were published in the Millennial Star and tell of their determined efforts to hold religious services often and to preach the newly restored gospel to their soldier comrades. Elder Richards, in a letter to Brigham Young, described them as “a valiant little band making converts amid the din of war.”3

England and France declared war on Russia on 28 March 1854. Shortly thereafter an unsigned editorial in the Millennial Star warned that new weapons transported by the recently developed steam engine would cause so much death and destruction that “the operations of former general wars will not bear any comparison.” The editorial advised that should any members be required “to take an active part [in the war], … we hope that such will do their duty, and prove faithful to their country, for by so doing, they will be forwarding the best interests of the Kingdom of God.”4

Elder Richards explained to President Brigham Young that even the nations of Europe uninvolved in the fighting were increasing their standing armies by conscription. He advised the Church to send only American citizens as missionaries, since European-born missionaries might be drafted if they returned to their native lands. Britain, however, had an army of all-volunteers, among them a handful of Mormons.5

The Mediterranean island of Malta was a staging base for allied troops. Elder James F. Bell, a full-time missionary from the British Mission, had already been assigned to Malta. With off-duty Latter-day Saint soldiers, he proselyted among the military units. Initially their gospel lectures were “crowdedly attended,” especially by members of the forty-first, or Welsh, regiment to which Patrick Brodlie belonged.6 Later, however, response was poor. Elder Bell described, “we would enter the barracks, each one on a different side, leaving tracts and invitations and conversing, till sometimes forbidden to enter, or till policemen were called on us. … (Then) we proceeded through the streets … conversing with people also. Many promised to attend, but never did, some refused to even touch the papers, lest our heresy should infect them. Some cursed us, and some gave a vacant stare.”7

In April Henry Russell’s regiment arrived in Turkey from Malta. Brother Russell soon found four fellow Latter-day Saints, and they held religious services in an old Turkish graveyard. Using his knapsack for a desk, Brother Russell reported, “The brethren have had a great deal to suffer by their officers and comrades, but they all say, let what will come, they are determined to roll on the work of God.” The Latter-day Saint soldiers in Turkey organized the Expeditionary Force Branch of the Malta Conference on 18 May 1854 with John McLean its president, Alexander Ross, counselor, and Henry Russell, secretary. By the end of August Brother Russell reported the branch had baptized nine converts and numbered twenty-three members.8

Also in August, Alexander Ross wrote that during an outdoor service in Turkey, “some evil-minded individuals who were drinking at some distance, thought it fine sport to throw their empty bottle through the centre of our little band.” The missile slightly injured an investigator, and, Brother Ross reported, “the annoyance he has seen our meeting exposed to has tended to make him decide as much as anything he has heard.” Brother Ross requested a supply of LDS books and quipped, “We are quite in the dark for Star-light” (copies of the Millennial Star). He expected they were soon to embark for the capture of Sebastopol9 (Russia’s Black Sea naval base on the Crimean Peninsula).

On 14 September 1854, allied troops landed on Crimean shores and six days later defeated Russian troops near the Alma River. Many were killed, but there were no Mormon casualties here or five weeks later at Balaklava.10

There were Mormon losses, however, on November 5 at the Battle of Inkerman, a major engagement. John McLean’s division was first into action as the Russians attacked British positions early in the morning under cover of a cold, foggy rain. The battle line surged back and forth with fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The Russians were armed with antiquated muzzle-loader muskets, but used their bayonets effectively. Among the wounded and dying was Patrick Brodlie. Brother Russell praised him: “He fought as every soldier should—in the love and fear of God, and I feel to say, great will be his reward.” Later, Brother Russell again wrote of Brodlie, “He was noted for his calmness when dying on the field, by his comrades.”11

Peter Hay, another Latter-day Saint soldier, lost his right arm in this battle, and a Brother McDonald was wounded three times that day: First, his head was scraped by splinters from an exploding shell. He had the wound bound up in a handkerchief and had returned to the fight when another shell burst near him, “throwing clay and stones into his face and knocking him senseless.” Later in the same day a musket ball hit him in the palm. Brother McLean received a bayonet wound in his arm that kept him from duty for five days.12

Elder Richards wrote President Brigham Young of the Mormon casualties at Inkerman: “The brethren were in the left wing of the army, which experienced the severest part of the engagement of the memorable 5th of November. The horrors of the war are said to be past all description—the raging elements outvying, if possible, the deadly missiles in the number they deliver to the grave.”13

Ten days after the Battle of Inkerman, a fierce blizzard destroyed much of the allied camps and sank British supply ships in the harbor. The allied troops faced a winter siege in open trenches, quartered in poorly heated, tattered tents. For weeks the Mormon soldiers were unable to hold meetings or do missionary work. It was only by stealth that they could converse with one another. John McLean related that any mention of Church doctrines was answered with “vile abusive language” from soldiers in his tent. He also reported that the discomfort of the prevailing wet, cold weather was particularly disagreeable on picket duty, when his only covering was a dirty wet blanket, sometimes whitened by snow. He reminded Elder Richards, “Any information concerning the circumstances of the Latter-day Saints, or any new principles revealed, is received by us with the greatest satisfaction.”14

On December 21 Henry Russell wrote, “Many would be baptized if we had time and opportunity. Some who departed in the late engagements died believing the latter-day work.” He then added, “Being on outlying picket, ‘Mormonism’ was brought forward, and seeing an opportunity, I rose and testified to the work. … When I sat down, Satan sent his imps to play, and from the mouth of one there came nothing but swearing and cursing at God’s holy word and His servants. I told him that God made him, and had protected him so far, but if he tempted the Lord, His wrath would come on him before long. He kept on for some time. At two o’clock the next day this man was dead.”15

At the end of January, John McLean was still in the front lines before Sebastopol. The weather was bitter cold. McLean had not slept with his uniform off since mid-September, and few in his outfit had been able to wash a shirt or a pair of socks for more than two months. They lived “in a mess of filth and vermin” from which they could not rid themselves. Unable to adequately describe the horrors of his situation by letter, Brother McLean hoped that after the war he might be better able to tell friends of his ordeal when they could sit together by “a comfortable fireside.” He also longed to soon “traverse the prairies” to Utah.16

The cold and privations of the winter siege invited more disease, particularly cholera and typhus. The overcrowded army hospitals were unsanitary and badly managed. In one large hospital, over half the patients died during February 1855. In March, faithful Alexander Ross, counselor in the branch, died in Scutari, Turkey, apparently from cholera. He left a wife and children in England. Later John McLean sent President Richards two pounds for Sister Ross from the Latter-day Saint soldiers in the Crimea with the apologetic note, “There are very few here now who belong to the Church … or there should have been more sent to Sister Ross in her affliction.”17

The siege continued through the spring and summer. In May 1855, a Brother Valentine, who had been baptized in Turkey, died two days after he was wounded in the trenches. In June, a Brother W. Higgins wrote Elder Richards that he had been hit in the back by a spent musket ball and “nearly knocked … down” by the wind from a cannon ball. He closed with: “I hope the Lord in Heaven will spare me to see this [war] over, and that both myself and the remainder of the brethren up here may live to see Zion.”18

In July, Elder Franklin D. Richards wrote President Brigham Young, “Lord Raglan, Commander-in-chief of Her Majesty’s army in the Crimea, died of dysentery. It now happens that since the opening of this consumptive sanguinary war Russia has lost her Emperor, and France and England, their Commander-in-chief.”19 One night in September 1855 the Russian forces stealthily abandoned Sebastopol to the allied armies. In March 1856 the Treaty of Paris formally ended the conflict.

It had been a nasty and inconclusive campaign which produced little of political consequence. Britain lost one-third of her 96,000 Crimean soldiers, most to disease. France fared worse, and Russia had an estimated half million dead and maimed.

After the war, President Brigham Young continued to inquire about the LDS servicemen. Elder Orson Pratt, then mission president in England, responded as late as August of 1857 with the names and whereabouts of Mormon veterans known to the British Mission office. Some were then serving in India.20

Even though the Mormon Battalion had made its famous march in 1846, it fortunately did not see combat. Apparently the distinction of being the first LDS soldiers to fight in a full-scale war came eight years later to a few Mormon men serving England in the Crimean War. As they fought in the battles and endured the hardships of the trenches and the picket lines, they were sustained by their religious beliefs, by their brotherhood, and by the hope of emigrating to Utah after the war. In a similar spirit, they demonstrated a determined missionary zeal to share their faith whenever military duties permitted. Indeed, they were, as Elder Richards described, “a valiant little band making converts amid the din of war.”

The Charge of the Light Cavalry at Balaclava, by James Grant