The English Grave

In Finland (and Sweden) All Saint’s Day is celebrated on the first Saturday in November each year. While sharing its roots with Halloween, it is a markedly different holiday, still retaining its Christian importance and celebrated mainly by remembering the deceased by lighting candles at the graves of relatives. One of the graves in Kokkola, however, has a very different story.

When the (first) Crimean War broke out in 1854, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. As such, a joint British-French squadron was quickly sent to the Baltic Sea to open up a second front by conducting raiding. Receiving basing rights from neutral Sweden, they quickly overran the Russian fortifications in Åland (giving the war its Finnish name: the ‘Åland War’), before starting to methodically raid Finnish ports. The weak defenses made it possible for the raiders to simply send detachments ashore and inform the local population that their merchant ships would be sunk and their stores burnt, after which this was carried out.

While this kind of warfighting certainly was fit for a gentleman and resulted in very little bloodshed, it did cause significant economic damages to the coastal communities hit, many of which relied heavily on foreign trade using ships owned and crewed by local merchants.

In Kokkola, the squadron was first sighted when it passed by in the early summer of 1854. The ships were heading north, and stayed well clear of the rocky shores of the city. News from the northern parts of Ostrobothnia soon confirmed that the Englishmen were making short work of any port they entered, and that they had turned around and were heading south, slowly pillaging their way home again.

The leading merchant families of the city did not look happily upon the prospects of having the port, including considerable stocks of tar, burnt. It also seems like a feeling of being treated unjustly had spread throughout the town. Much of the trade from Kokkola was with English ports, and many ships from the town had been interned with their crews being held in poor conditions in the UK. This was hard for the local inhabitants to accept, that their sons, fathers, and husbands were being held as prisoners of war by their trading partners, due to some unrelated quarrel in the Black Sea!

Regardless of the exact reasoning, the citizens of Kokkola decided to fight back, and sent a message to the Russian authorities that they were forming a militia, and now requested support from the Russian army. The Russian forces in the area were weak and spread out, but a small number of soldiers and a few light guns were sent to Kokkola.

On the 7 June, HMS Odin and HMS Vulture were again sighted outside of the city. The large vessels held considerable firepower compared to what the defenders could muster, but due to the cluttered archipelago, they were unable to find the sea lane leading into the port, meaning they had to be anchored outside of firing range. Instead, a number of launches were sent in, the first of which carried a delegation under parliamentary flag, which came ashore with the usual set of demands. They were greeted by the city mayor and the leading merchant, who refused to accept the British terms. The officers then got back to their boat, and everyone prepared for battle.

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The captured launch today in the English Park in Kokkola. Locally it is often said to be the only Royal Navy vessel still in ‘enemy’ hands, a notion that is false. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Jukka Kolppanen
The skirmish which followed was decidedly one-sided. The Finns had built a fake wall between some of the warehouses at the waterfront, and when the British vessels came close enough, this fell down and a hail of gunfire met the approaching boats. Out in the open, the British soldiers started to suffer losses, and eventually had to pull back before reaching shore. While retreating, one of the vessels got stuck on a rock, and was forced to surrender to the Finnish forces. The sole loss on the Finnish-Russian side was a dead horse and some material damage. It is my understanding that the British casualties came from both the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Some were on the boats retrieved by the steam frigates, and at least one of the POW’s later died in captivity. But some found their final resting place in Kokkola.

Next to one of the rear gates in the local cemetery today a tall stone can be found. Local stories tell that the British Admiralty still pay a small annual sum for the upkeep of the grave, though I am not certain if that claim would survive a closer inspection. The stone feature a long text in golden letters, written in Swedish, with the last part in verse.

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Here rests nine of the Englishmen fallen in battle at Halkokari and Beckbruket on the 7 June 1854. Namely

NATHANAEL MORPHY, Officer

ROBERT THUELL, WILLIAM COLLINS

GEORGE WILSON, WILLIAM WEDGE

JAMES WESTAKE, WALTER CRUB

ROBERT RUNDELL, JAMES HIGGINS

Pray for the fallen! Humans they were

Friend or foe, is not asked here

Away from the battle and alarm they went

A foreign land carved them a memorial

5 thoughts on “The English Grave

  1. Hi Robin
    I found your blog while looking for the grave of one of my wife’s ancestors who was killed in the skirmish of Halkokari. His name was Nathaniel Morphy, which I think is the name on the memorial and not Murphy. The name Morphy is often mistaken for Murphy and some computers will change Morphy to Murphy without asking permission.

    Can you confirm that the headstone marks the graves of those men and is not just a memorial.

    The action at Gamla Carleby was very widely reported in the English press at the time.

    I will refer family members to your blog when I write to them, probably next week.

    Best wishes

    Steve Athey
    (York UK)

    1. Hello
      The stone does say Morphy, however I made the mistake of assuming that it was ‘lost in translation’ when the locals made the stone. Apologies for that, I will correct it! I have asked a friend who is a professional historian at the local museum, and he promised to check. I will get back to you as soon as I know something.
      Regards,
      Robin

    2. I can now confirm that the stone indeed marks the grave of the nine fallen (lot 34 a on the cemetery). The stone itself was ordered by John Good & Co and erected in 1898, and 1903 the British Admiralty confirmed that they will provide an annual amount for the upkeep of the grave, to be invoice 1 October each year. This agreement is still in place. The stone was restored in 1991, at which point the UK ambassador also visited the grave and laid down a wreath.

      Hope this information is of use to you!

      Best regards,
      Robin

  2. Pingback: Nathaniel Morphy and the Skirmish at Halkokari – pilgrimspriestsandperfidy

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