EYEWITNESS: James Olley kept a journal during the Crimean War

Wednesday November 5, 2008
By Martin Stote

HE was just 16, a young man of reckless bravery ordered into the “Valley of Death” in the notorious Charge of the Light Brigade.

Tomorrow the diary of Private James Olley goes under the hammer – a unique account of the most infamous episode
of the Crimean War in 1854.

His true-life account of the tragedy immortalised by Tennyson, is expected to fetch “thousands”.

Pte Olley was just feet away when the mistaken call to charge the Russian guns was given.

In the massacre that followed he was thrown from his horse, caught and mounted a stray one, charged the Russian guns, had part of his skull shattered and was shot in one eye.

Yet, he still managed to reach the Russian who had wounded him, and killed him with his sabre. He was one of 400 men who managed to leave the valley alive.

He writes: “After a time Captain Nolan brought orders to the Earl of Lucan. I was within 10 paces from the Earl when the order was brought in. ‘He may advance, but what can we do,’ said the Earl. ‘There is the enemy and there are the guns,’ replied Nolan, pointing to the Russian squadrons. The Earl of Lucan forwarded the Order to the Earl of Cardigan.”

The teenager describes the thick of the battle.

“We received the order to charge at the guns. About halfway down the man riding next to me was shot. A little further on my horse was shot. I caught one of the horses coming back without its rider who had been shot out of his saddle.

“I rode down to the guns, when I was attacked by a Russian gunner, who I cut down with my sword. I received a severe wound which went through the skull bone.

“We cleared the guns of the enemy. Just as we saw the Russians a bullet from the enemy took away my left eye.”

Mr Richard Westwood-Brookes, of Mullocks auctioneers in Ludlow, Shropshire, said: “What makes this manuscript so important is that Olley was present when those crucial orders were delivered.”

Sadly, on his return to Civvy Street, Pte Olley was reduced to begging with a placard round his neck. He was saved from a pauper’s death by the squire of Knapton Hall, Norfolk.

He lived out his life in better circumstances, dying aged 82.

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