‘Distinguished conduct in the field’

The 34th was later involved in the taking of certain rifle pits on 4 April 1855, and in the impressive capture of the Quarries defences before the Redan (which was itself part of the final defences of Sebastopol) on 7 June, after which several Russian counter-attacks were successfully repulsed in hand-to-hand fighting. The British even managed to pursue the Russians right into the Redan itself, though there was no possibility of keeping possession of it on account of Russian control of the Malakov Tower and its guns.

It was the Redan which then proved impossible to capture under fierce Russian fire on 18 June and then on 8 September. Soldiers described their advance as like running into a deadly hail storm or into the teeth of a living gale, and the British trenches were crowded with the dead and wounded. But when the French captured the Malakov, the key to the town, that was all that was required for the Russians to withdraw and Sebastopol to fall.

As for William Coffey, he emerged from the siege to become a decorated soldier. Pressure had been mounting during the course of the war for the institution of a decoration that could be awarded to corporals and privates, as none such yet existed. On 4 December 1854 each commanding officer had been ordered to select some men from among the NCOs and privates under his command to be recommended to the Queen for their ‘distinguished conduct in the field’. Shortly after the time Coffey threw the shell from his trench, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which had been struck at the Royal Mint, was already being awarded in the Crimea.

The later arrival of Coffey’s regiment in the Crimea meant that there was a delay in the process for their awards. However, on 5 October 1855 Coffey’s commanding officer made his first set of recommendations for the medal, a second list being recommended in the new year. Coffey’s name was included in the first list and, with the Queen’s Warrant read out, the DCM would have been presented to him before the whole regiment at their monthly parade. There are no surviving official records of service for these awards, but in Coffey’s case the principal reason, together with his irreproachable character and general good conduct, was surely his gallant and zealous service of 29 March 1855.

After the end of the siege, the men were entertained with race meetings and shows. Extra pay backdated to July provided them with spending money as well as money to send back home - for April to June Coffey had sent his wife £1 10s, but for the next two quarters he was able to increase his remittance to £2. But winter was now coming and in November the allied armies entered their winter quarters. And so the British settled down for a second winter in the Crimea, but one for which they were much better prepared than the last. Coffey would have been given a new uniform suited to the weather, consisting of two woollen jerseys, two pairs each of woollen drawers, woollen socks, long stockings and gloves, a cholera belt to protect the abdomen against damp, a comforter, a fur cap, greatcoat and waterproof cape. He would also have received a tin of Onion’s Drubbing to waterproof his boots.

During this time of waiting he and his comrades, though they knew that they were still at war, also knew that peace was a real possibility. Some at home wanted the war continued so that the British army could gain some glory after its failure to take the Redan, but finally on 28 February 1856 the troops learned by telegraph that an armistice had been agreed. A formal treaty would eventually be signed on 2 April.

In the meantime, Coffey continued to be recognised for his distinction. On 18 March 1856 there came his first promotion. A corporal who had proved unsatisfactory was reduced and Coffey promoted in his place. This promotion brought an increase in pay, a badge of rank and the first rung of responsibility. Then on 14 May Coffey was recommended by his commanding officer for the award of the Medaille Militaire - given for valeur et discipline - by the French Emperor, Napoleon III. The reason for the award was specified as ‘Throwing a live shell out of a trench on 29 March 1855’.

Of the sixteen NCOs and men of the regiment who were awarded the DCM, eight in all were awarded the Medaille Militaire. When their names were printed in the Parliamentary Papers for presentation to both Houses of Parliament, Coffey’s name was unfortunately misspelt as ‘Coffer’, a slip repeated in the Illustrated London News of 20 June 1857 and in T. Carter's Medals of the British Army, and how they were won (1861); it is perpetuated to this day in Spink’s British Battles and Medals (1988). In addition to his Crimean War Medal, Coffey in time also received the Turkish Crimea Medal, which was instituted by the Sultan for award to all troops of the allied armies.

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