“The Heights of Alma (I)”


The British and French land outside Alma. They attack and rout the Russians (most versions give the primary credit to the British,and especially the Scots), forcing them back to Sevastopol. Both sides suffer heavy casualties


The Crimean War probably doesn't set a record for strange beginnings (there was, after all, the War of Jenkins's Ear), but it came close: It started with a conflict over who had keys to which rooms in churches in the Holy Land (see Binkley, pp. 168-171; for references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note). But this involved politics in the Ottoman and Russian Empires plus the various Catholic states, and that meant Napoleon III was involved, and the British were trying to reform the Ottoman Empire, and mash it all up, and you ended up with a war.

A singlularly inefficient war. The Russians were fighting the Turks by 1853. Britain and France allied with the Turks in March 1854, and sent off their armies to the east. "An Anglo-French expeditionary force appeared at Varna in June to drive out the Russians, but the Russians had already gone. Without even seeing the enemy the expeditionary force lost a fourth of its numbers through sickness" (Binkley, p. 174).

Finally, in the fall of 1854, the allies managed to locate some real live Russians in the Crimea, and set out to attack them.

The English commander was Lord Raglan, who had fought against Napoleon forty years earlier (and had lost an arm; see Woodham-Smith, p. 131), but he was now 65 years old and perhaps lacking in initiative (Woodham-Smith, p. 156).

According to Hibbert, p. 2, he was so like the Duke of Wellington that they were sometimes thought to be father and son (they differed by about twenty years in age). After brief service as a very junior officer, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, as he was then known, joined Wellington's staff, and served on it for some forty years, until Wellington died.

His life was amazingly limited. Hibbert, pp. 4-5, reports these traits: "His private life... was happy and successful, He was devoted to his wife and to his four young chldren. He was not rich, but had enough to spend between three and four thousand a year... He loved hunting and shooting and good food and the company of good-looking women and the pleasures of society. And like so many members of that society he cared little for the changing world outside it. Science and mechanics, which were beginning already to change the whole life of Europe [and the weapons their armies used, and hence military tactics] meant nothing to him. Nor did painting, nor music; nor did books. In fact in the great mass of his private correspondence only once does he mention having read one.... Even politics interested him only when they impinged upon the Army. In the six years that he sat as a High Tory Member for Truro he never once spoke in the House. He nonetheless was made the first Lord Raglan in 1852 (Hibbert, p. 6).

The British didn't really have much choice about picking such inferior commander; all their officers were either ancient or inexperienced or both -- or had earned their experience in India, which made them socially inferior; see Farwell, p. 69. Plus the British still followed the rule of commission by purchase (Hibbert, p. 8), which was to foist upon then such fools as Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan of Light Brigade infamy. This lack of competent officers was to cost them dearly in the course of the war. Hibbert, p. 16, says that four officers were considered for command of the expeditionary force -- and that only Raglan was under seventy. Compared to the alternatives, he may actually have been a good choice.

Give Raglan this much credit, at least: It was he who pushed the British army to adopt rifle muskets rather than smoothbores (Hibbert, pp. 18-19). These would utterly change the nature of war, and Raglan probably didn't understand them -- but they were a big advantage to the side that had them, since they had a much greater range than smoothbores, and they could actually hit a target.

To add to Raglan's age and conservatism, and the general incompetence of the British staff system, was the fact that Raglan was sick. Heat and dysentery affected him no less than his men (Hibbert, p. 21) -- and he was older and permanently crippled.

At the beginning of the war, Raglan's failings didn't matter. His stubbornness was important to getting the British and French to actually take action (Hibbert, p. 21), which had the secondary benefit of getting them out of the disease pits of their first landing place near Varna (Hibbert, pp. 29-31). Sadly, that didn't really get the armies to do anything useful; British forces had not coordinated their plans with that of the French under Saint Arnaud. (Liaison between the two forces was terrible -- indeed, even within the armies, commanders were hardly willing to work together. Part of it was political, but most of it was sheer personal jealousy.) This was one of the reasons it took so many months to get the forces actually on their way to the Crimea. To add to the absurdity of it all, the time spent in Bulgaria was completely wasted; no one used the time to gather useful intelligence. The Allies would be going into the Crimea blind (Hibbert, p. 33).

No one had even managed to gather decent information on a landing site; in the end, Raglan and his staff cruised the shoreline north of Sebastopol and simply picked a likely-looking spot (Hibbert, pp. 37-38).

Even the landing was a botch, despite being unopposed; although a buoy had been set out to delimit the British and French landing areas, the buoy somehow moved in the night before the landing, so the French had the entire beach and the British had to take their landing craft and hunt for a new spot to go ashore (Hibbert, p. 40). The landing took place September 14, 1854. By the time the rains began that afternoon, men were already collapsing -- some of them dying -- on the beach due to the stress of trying to travel while sick (Hibbert, p. 41).

When the song says the British troops spent the first night on the "cold, cold ground," it is no less than the truth; their tents had been sent back aboard ship after the landing (Hibbert, p. 42, attributes this to the impossibility of the weary troops to carry them, though I wouldn't be surprised if the staff botched things up again).

The British were so disorganized that it took them four days to get moving; the French had been ready two days earlier. Even after all that waiting, most men were not supplied with water for their canteens -- worsening their problems with the day's heat (Hibbert, p. 45). They also did not have time to cook their rations.

After a cavalry mix-up, the Russians settled in to their position of "enormous strength" on the Alma River. "...the Russsians withdrew from the ridges of Bulganak, and the British army came up on them to advance to bivouac for the night in order of battle. When darkness came the men, most of them too exhausted even to eat, fell to the ground, permitted at last to sleep.... Beyond the river, on steep ridges with rise to a formidable height, an untouched Russian army lay encamped" (Hibbert, p. 51). The troops would also have to cross the Alma, but at this time of the year, the water was low and it was a relatively minor obstacle; there were many fords (Hibbert, p. 54).

It is estimated that the 38,000 Russians faced 65,000 Allies (30,000 French, 26,000 British, and 9,000 Turks fought at the Alma, although both sides were starting to suffer severely from disease, and the European allies didn't let the Turks do much). The allies also had an advantage in armaments: The British forces, as noted, had rifle muskets, while almost all of the Russians still had the old smoothbore muskets, which couldn't hit anything beyond a few dozen yards (Wawro, p. 10).

The battle of Alma took place on September 20, 1854. The Russians occupied a position they thought impregnable, but they left parts of it essentially unoccupied (Woodham-Smith, pp. 180-182; Hibbert, p. 54). The allies marched south toward them; with the French on the right (east), with the sea guarding their flank; the British were on the left, with their left flank in the air (not that the Russians were going to leave their strong position to attack it).

According to Hibbert, pp. 56-57, the French commander St. Arnaud, apparently proposed that the French attack on the seaward side while the British tried to outflank the Russians on the landward side. Lord Raglan did not bother arguing with the sick man, but he didn't exactly do as planned, either.

By good luck rather than coordination, the French and British managed a sort of an attack en echelon (Hibbert, pp. 58-59, blames it on the nearsightedness of a British division commander, who couldn't see what he was doing and drifted off-line). The Russians could have made the British pay by attacking their flank -- but they made no move. Instead, the British advance -- though it stalled for some time, forcing the soldiers to face artillery fire they could not answer (Hibbert, p. 61) -- progressively involved the Russian forces and at last brought extra force into play on the Russian flank, causing it to break. (I'm vastly oversimplifying here, but the see-saw battle that actually happened really requires a map to explain.) Raglan's oblique movement had cost heavy casualties, but had -- potentially -- won the war. (Only to have the victory dissolve in more failure of coordination.)

Casualties figures at Alma are uncertain, particularly since many men were dying of cholera all the while. Initial reports had 1755 Russians killed, 362 British, and 60 French (!). Of these, only the Russian figure is possible. Warner, p. 33, gives figures of 6000 Russians, 2000 British, and French negligible -- though he also quotes a contemporary officer's letter claiming 2000 British and 5000 French casualties (Warner, p. 39), while on p. 40 he lists 342 British soldiers killed while noting that conditions for the injured were so bad that most of them would die and on p. 44 quotes a contemporary as saying there were 1400 French losses including those from disease.

After this much time, no reliable figures will ever be known, but it is a reasonable guess that at least 5000 men died. In any case, battle casualties in the Crimea were a joke; men were dying of disease so fast that many formations just melted away. Disease casualties far outnumbered those caused by fighting.

The song is generally fairly accurate about details: There was a downpour on the night after the landing, the British troops were without tents (the French were better off), meaning that the men did sleep on the ground. They were hardly better off on the day before Alma: The day the men marched to the Alma was indeed very hot and dry (Woodham-Smith, p. 170). The dry ground above the Alma River was indeed very high and a potentially strong defensive position (I seem to recall reading that at some points it rose 300 feet above the river) -- though it was not fully fortified (Warner, p. 29). The song is wrong about one thing: the landing took place on September 14, not September 18 as found in several versions (the confusion probably came about because, while the army landed starting September 14, it just sat there for four days. The advance toward the Alma began September 18; Hibbert, pp. 44-45).

The comment, "Scottish lads in kilts and hose Were not the last, you may suppose" is nothing less than the truth; according to Alan Palmer, _The Crimean War_, Dorset, 1987 (originally published as _The Banner of Battle_), "To the Russians, Sir Colin Campbell's kilted Black Watch an Cameron Highlanders seemed an irresistable force, 'the savages without trousers,' as the mortally wounded General Karganov alled them with grudging admiration." According to Woodham-Smith, pp. 187-188, it was the Highlanders who won the battle, taking the redoubt that anchored the Russian line despite extremely heavy fire. It was the second time the British had taken the position (the Russians had weakened it by pulling out its artillery, according to Hibbert, p. 70; they had a very strong tradition of not allowing guns to fall into enemy hands), but they had been driven out the first time (due in part to mistaken orders and the almost-standard confusion of battle; Hibbert, p. 72). The Highlanders took it and held it.

The song also says "The shot it flew like wind and rain When we the battery strove to gain." Again, this may be based on an eyewitness report; while crossing the river, a sergeant said many men were "shot down with grape and cannister -- which came amongst us like hail -- while attempting to cross [the Alma]" (Hibbert, p. 66).

Versions of this song give chief credit to different regiments for the victory at Alma; Ford's and Henry's texts mentions the "Thirty-third and the Fusiliers," but chief credit is probably due (as even the Ford and Henry texts imply) to Sir Colin Campbell's Highland Brigade: 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch), 78th Highlanders (Seaforth, though this regiment was not given honours for Alma) and 93rd Highlanders (Sutherland).

The additional stanzas in some of the Sam Henry variants mention "Prince Metchnikoff"; this is General Prince Alexander Sergeievich Menshikov/Menschikov/Menschikoff (1789-1869; the variant spellings of course arise because his name is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but no source I've checked spells it the way Henry does). He was commander of Russian forces in the Crimea until his recall for reasons of health during the Sebastopol siege. Menshikov proved an utter disaster to the Russians (Warner, p. 42, says that "Raglan was inept, Menshikov was more so"); before the war, he had been sent to the Turks as an ambassador. His orders gave him little leeway to avoid war, but he did nothing to use what leeway he had.

The Henry text says that Menshikov left his coach at Alma. This is not true, but there was a Russian review before the battle, and many fine gentlemen and ladies turned out. Many of them fled, leaving coaches and picnic baskets behind.

Jacques Letoy de Saint Arnaud (1796-1854), who helped put Napoleon III on the French throne and was rewarded with a marshal's baton, was the overall commander of Allied forces in the battle, but this wasn't much to his credit; Raglan's movement, which was expensive but which won the battle, was against his orders.

Saint Arnaud did not die in combat at Alma, as the Henry text implies; instead, he was sick (one source suggests heart disease and cholera, another stomach cancer) at the time of the engagement, and died nine days later.

His timing was abominable. Had the allies moved straight on Sebastopol after winning at Alma, they might have taken it by siege -- but Saint Arnaud and others delayed things (Woodham-Smith, p. 191), and then wasn't around to straighten things out; the invaders instead tried a flank march around an army that was too disorganized even to have a flank at this time (Woodham-Smith, p. 192). The delay would cause great misery, at Balaclava, Inkerman, Sebastopol, and all the lands around, where men died of cholera, bad food, and all the other ills that plagued the ill-supplied Crimean armies.

Sam Henry twice credits this song to James Maxwell (fl. 1870), a schoolteacher from near Dungiven, to whom he credits several other songs. I'm not particularly confident of this; the other two Maxwell songs ("Adieu to the Banks of the Roe" and "Dungiven Priory Church") are poor pieces, different in style and quality, with no such historical allusions. I suppose Maxwell could have been a One Hit Wonder, but I'd like better proof of authorship.

Whoever the author was, he appears to have had access to Raglan's remarks on the battle; Raglan spoke of "the hill opposite, over which the Russians fled, quite thick with dead and wounded... the work of the Highland Brigade."

For further information about the Crimean War and the Sebastopol campaign, see "The Famous Light Brigade."

We might also note that "Alma" gives strong evidence of being molded on some earlier piece, though I haven't managed to locate such an exemplar. Neither does Laws mention such a piece. But the fact that the Alma form was used for "The Victory Won at Richmond" (1860s) and "The Waggoner" (internally dated to some time prior to 1840) clearly implies the existence of a "proto-Alma" ballad.


Binkley: Robert G. Binkley, _Realism and Nationalism 1852-1871_ (Harper, 1935; I used the 1963 reissue)

Farwell: Byron Farwell, _Queen Victoria's Little Wars_ (1972; I used the 1985 Norton edition)

Hibbert: Christopher Hibbert, _The Destruction of Lord Raglan_, (1961; I used the 1999 Wordsworth edition)

Palmer: Alan Palmer, _The Crimean War_ (originally published as _The Banner of Battle_), Dorset, 1987

Warner: Philip Warner, _The Crimean War: A Reappraisal_ (1972; I used the 2001 Wordsworth edition)

Wawro: Geoffrey Wawro, _The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War with Prussia and Italy in 1866_ (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Woodham-Smith: Cecil Woodham-Smith, _The Reason Why_ (McGraw-Hill, 1954) - RBW

Bodleian Library site Ballads Catalogue has other broadsides about the battle:

Bodleian, 2806 c.14(62), "We'll Hae Nane but Hielan' Bonnets Here!" ("Alma field of heroes, hail!"), unknown, n.d.

Bodleian, Harding B 26(43), "Battle of Alma" ("Oh boys have you heard of the battle, the allies have gained on the shore"), J. Harkness (Preston), 1840-1866; Harding B 12(246), "Battle of Alma"

Bodleian, Harding B 26(42), "The Battle of Alma" ("Come all you true-bred Irishmen, and listen unto me"), unknown, n.d.

Manny/Wilson: "[This version] differs in words and tune from any published version we have seen. It may possibly have been altered by Jared MacLean [the singer] himself." This version does share two verses with Mackenzie 74; lacking Mackenzie's chorus it still has the same pattern and seems close enough to me for this to be considered Laws J10. - BS

Historical references

  • Sept 14, 1854 - Anglo-French landing near the mouth of the Alma
  • Sept 20, 1854 - Battle of Alma. The allies win an expensive victory over the Russians

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 2336, "The Battle of Alma" ("You loyal Britons pray draw near"), unknown, n.d.; also Harding B 26(41)[faded to almost total illegibility], Firth c.14(47)[faded to almost total illegibility], "The Battle of Alma"; Harding B 19(88), 2806 b.9(245), "Bloody Alma"
  • Murray, Mu23-y1:116, "The Battle of Alma," James Lindsay (Glasgow), 19C
  • NLScotland, RB.m.143(159), "The Battle of Alma," unknown, c.1854


  • O. J. Abbott, "The Heights of Alma" (on Abbott1)


  1. Laws J10, "The Heights of Alma"
  2. Ford-Vagabond, pp. 249-251, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. SHenry H123, p. 90, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text with variants, 1 tune)
  4. Gardner/Chickering 90, "The Heights at Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Peacock, pp. 1000-1001, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Creighton-NovaScotia 67, "Battle of Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Creighton-Maritime, pp. 148-149, "Battle of Alma" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  8. Leach-Labrador 55, "The Battle of Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Mackenzie 74, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text)
  10. Manny/Wilson 73, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Dean, pp. 40-41, "The Heights of Alma" (1 text)
  12. DT 394, HGHTALMA*
  13. Roud #830
  14. BI, LJ10


Author: James Maxwell?
Earliest date: 1904 (Ford); c.1854 (broadside, NLScotland RB.m.143(159))
Keywords: war battle patriotic
Found in: Britain(Scotland) US(MW) Canada(Mar,Newf,Ont) Ireland