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Dicky Bird – Ireland’s War Horse


Dicky Bird – Ireland’s War Horse  – In this article David Carr recants the strange story of an Irish Horse in the Crimea, Ireland’s War Horse.

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The Crimean War a mess of the modern and the antiquated 

The tale of Dickie Bird, Ireland’s very own war horse, brings us back to the mid 19th century, to Crimea and what was probably the first modern war. Russia, looking to control the Black Sea, moved south into what was the old Ottoman empire. Britain, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia countered and after some early success lay siege to the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Sea. There followed a bitter and cruel conflict that changed how wars were fought and how they came to be seen.

Take a stroll down to old Kilmainham today and just opposite the entrance to the Memorial Gardens you’ll find the new development of Clancy Quay. Among all the new apartments which face the Liffey are a handful of surviving buildings from what used to be the Royal Artillery Barracks. Up on the wall of one of these old houses sits a plaque which reads

 “Near this spot lies the remains of Dickie Bird B7, Troop Horse 5th Dragoon Guards. Which was foaled in 1850, joined the regiment in 1853 and served throughout the entire Crimean Campaign from May 1854 to Jun 1856. He was shot on the 21st November 1874 by special authority of the Horse Guards, to save him from being sold at auction”.

“Sold at auction” would have meant the company mascot would have been sold with the intention of rendering him.  In contrast a painting of Dickie was commissioned, a silver mounted trophy fashioned from one of his hoofs and the old war horse was given a full military funeral. Perhaps this grand send off, 18 years after the war ended, was a way for old solders to deal with what must have been painful memories of a harsh and cruel war.

Looking back today that conflict seems like a crazy mismatch of the old and the modern. Cavalry charges sat alongside exploding navel shells. The newly invented telegraph meant news from the front could be carried home at record speed. Those news reports were written by the first war correspondents’ such as the Irish man William Howard Russell. Their reports told stories of military incompetence, of poor sanitation and disease.

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“The Lady with the lamp” – Florence Nightingale, a great moderniser of medicine 

It was Florence Nightingale who noted that more solders lives were been taken away by typhus, cholera and dysentery then by the actual conflict. She was to employ a systematic and organised approach to nursing. In essence she used statistics to revolutionise medicine. Its testament to how the conflict came to be viewed that her name is now at least as well known as the charge of the light brigade or any other events on the field of battle. Early photography brought us the first images of war.  It was seen for what it was, where life was as Hobbes might describe “nasty, brutish and short”.

Today that pioneering work of Nightingale sits alongside the brave insanity of the light brigade as defining images of the Crimean War. But Dickie’s big part in the war came only hours earlier in one crucial part of what was to become known as the charge of the heavy brigade. Dickie rode out with a cavalry force of some three hundred, they charged uphill and cut into a Russian force three times their size. In 8 short minutes, sabre and lance tore from one Russian flank through to the other and sent their enemy to flight.

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Crimean War was arguably the first pan European War to be photographed

Crimea was a war known more for its bravery and its foolish defeats then any outright victories. Dickie’s charge was one part of a greater battle, Balaclava, a strategic victory for Russia. But what that action did that day was save the British and their allies from an even greater rout. In short, they held the line.

One wonders what Dickie made of all this. Can a cavalry horse really know he is at war? It’s difficult to say how an animal perceives the world around him but we can be sure it’s not in any sort of intellectual way. Perhaps, a cavalry horse has a sense there’s war all around him in the way of a very young child, a deeper sense that’s all heart and all feeling. Perhaps, he felt the dread, the constant fear, the unnatural state of life that persists in such conditions.

We as humans invest a great deal in our domestic animals. Our dogs, our cats and horses evolved right alongside us and have come to offer very real love and companionship. We can turn to them and be confident we won’t be judged in any sort of human way. We can be sure of the love and affection Dickie Bird was held in by the men of the 4th Dragoon. In a hardened military world, a horse must be something extra special. They know no rank and they never issue orders. 

Irish men and women served on all sides in the war. They laboured as nurses, as navies and as engineers. All told perhaps as many as a third of the entire British force came from these shores and seven thousand Irish men never came home from Crimea. For their surviving comrades Dickie must have carried the very memory of the fallen in a way a way no human ever could.

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Dickie “Standing in state” in the background his commissioned portrait in the National History Museum

(Omitted by technical error) There is, however a sorry footnote to this epic story. Upon being exhumed, an examination found the old war horse had not been shot but had died by a blow to the head. Can it be that whoever was charged with executing Dickie had wanted to save a bullet? It’s difficult to imagine the ordinary soldiers of the 5th Dragoons agreeing to this. It seems the contempt for the common serving men exposed by the very first war correspondents had survived the war.

Dickie Bird rode across a battlefield a century and a half ago in a war that changed so much. Early photography brought us many the first images of war. Rapid communication, the railway and repeater rifles intensified movements and battles. Modern medicine and perhaps the very way we view war today were born on that peninsular all those years ago. Today Dickie Birds bones and portrait sit on display in the national history museum just across the Liffey from his old parade ground in Clancy Barracks.

2 Responses

  1. Great story, thanks. Strange about the blow, although that method, like “poleaxing”, was common and I think is still used in some places.

    Quite some time back I read a couple of articles on Florence Nightingale which diverged significantly from the common view of her. These potrayed Nightingale as anti-Irish (or maybe anti-Irish Catholic) and far from the hygiene standards upheld by an Irish nursing order — I think the Sisters of Mercy.

  2. David Murphy says:

    With reference to the comment above, I believe this is correct. When putting down horses in a ceremonial fashion, it was traditional to do this using the spiked side of a farrier’s axe…essentially the poleaxe. The farriers of regiments such as the Lifeguards and the Blues and Royals still carry these on ceremonial occasions in London. Not disrespect. Quite the opposite.

    David Murphy, author of Ireland and the Crimean War (Four Courts Press, 2002)

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