In the trenches: Coffey’s act of valour

McCrery states that Coffey was present at the battles of Alma and Inkerman. This cannot have been the case because both these battles were fought before Coffey’s arrival in the Crimea. Coffey’s part was in the siege of Sebastopol, and it was the Sebastopol clasp that was attached to his Crimean War Medal, the campaign medal awarded to all those who took part in the war.

As the Allies made siege to the town by engineering a system of trenches towards it, the Russians responded by mounting sorties to smash up the siege guns in Allied trenches. Coffey’s regiment experienced such a Russian sortie late on 22 March 1855, when a large force was repelled after an hour’s hard fighting. Of the regiment one officer was killed, another captured, and two men were killed and six wounded. The British overall suffered the loss of 85 killed, wounded or missing, while the French suffered 642 losses, and 400 Russians were found dead on the field itself.

As well their sorties, the Russians would respond by shelling Allied positions, and it was in such conditions that Coffey’s signal act of valour took place a week later. The report in The Times for 30 March described how ‘[h]eavy guns, with small charges, are used to “lob” shot and shells into the advanced works ...’ On 31 March Captain Henry Clifford - who was himself to receive the VC - wrote in his diary: ‘Hardly a day passes that some five or six of our [Light] Division are not killed and wounded in the Batteries and Trenches. One man yesterday had his head taken off by a shell which struck him like a cannon ball before bursting. He was going down with the men’s breakfast.’ On the previous day, the day of Coffey’s act of valour, there had been no deaths among British troops, but three were slightly wounded and one severely. Coffey himself saved the lives of some dozen men that day, when a live shell fell into his trench on 29 March 1855.

The soldiers had then to face not only round shot and volleys of grape shrieking through the air towards them, but also lighted gun and mortar shell which on reaching their destinations possessed the added danger of bursting into pieces and scattering fragments of iron in every direction. In such circumstances soldiers had to throw themselves to the ground and take cover as best they could. This can be illustrated from an incident recounted by Major Whitworth Porter of the Royal Engineers, an incident which took place the very same day as Coffey’s valiant act.

Porter was returning from going over the works with his director when they passed by twenty-five men who were filling sandbags and had so far heaped up a pile about four feet in width and three in height. At the rear of the trench the ground rose up to a crest some forty yards away, and at that moment a lighted shell dropped on the other side, ‘lobbed’ over the crest and began to roll down the slope towards the trench, ‘its burning fuse hissing and fizzing’. Porter’s director was first on his face behind the sandbags, and within a few seconds all twenty-seven were on top of one another, striving for cover behind very little protection. In the event the shell burst in such a way that its fragments flew over their heads.

As with others of Porter’s stories this is all told for amusement, the only casualty in this case being Porter’s right shin at the mercy of his director’s spurs. However, it well illustrates the common reaction to a live shell landing in a trench, and contrasts in an illuminating way with Coffey, who the very same day when a lighted shell landed in his trench, without thought for his own safety in doing so, picked it up and then threw it over the parapet, and so saved the lives of the dozen or so men who were with him, the shell bursting just as it was cast out.

His action shows concern not simply for his own safety but rather for the safety of all in his trench, and it was a response that could only have been executed by someone unusually alert and possessed of extraordinary courage. It was for this, as with five others who performed similar feats, that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. J. E. Muddock, in his “For Valour”. The “V.C.” (1895), described it as a feat ‘of great risk, and requiring unusual nerve and presence of mind’. W. Knollys, in his The Victoria Cross in the Crimea (1877), judged that perhaps ‘the greatest proof of courage and presence of mind is to seize a shell with a burning fuze ... The hero of a third [such] feat was Private William Coffey ... Every one of these six heroes received the Victoria Cross, and none deserved it better.’