A first for Gentlemen and Tarpaulins this week, as I welcome my first ever guest blogger! I’m delighted that bestselling novelist Louise Berridge has provided this post about the Crimean War and the campaign for a new memorial to those who fought and died in it. More guest bloggers to come later in the year, but in the shorter term, there won’t be a post next week as we’ll be away on holiday. (To be exact, we’ll in a Scottish castle which featured as the backdrop in the original video to Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, and which is also very close to the setting for the climactic scenes of Gentleman Captain!). The blog will return on Monday 21st October, Trafalgar Day, with my report on the Cardiff conference of Morol, the Welsh Institute of Maritime Historical Studies, which I’m speaking at.
In the meantime, over to Louise!
Worthy Causes of the Crimean Kind
The words ‘worthy cause’ and ‘Crimean War’ don’t feel a very good fit. The Crimean was a war of imperial expansionism, in which Russia sought to fight a last crusade against the ‘heathen Turks’, and the Allies pretended a humanitarian intervention to protect their own interests. It was a war characterised by arrogance and stupidity on both sides, and when Sergeant Timothy Gowing of the Royal Fusiliers wrote that ours was ‘a rotten cause’ there were few who could disagree. What on earth could be worthy in all that?
Just one thing, in my opinion. The men who were sent to fight it.
Crimean veterans visited by Queen Victoria in 1858
It’s natural for novelists to believe there’s something special about the soldiers and sailors they write about. I can certainly be incurably sentimental about mine, if only because I’ve read their letters and diaries and have the spurious feeling I ‘know’ them. Yet the men in Crimea were certainly the first of a new kind of soldier, and I doubt we’ll ever see their like again.
The Duke of Wellington knew soldiers, and famously described his own as ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.’ Maybe they were, but by 1854 the army had changed, and ‘Queen Victoria’s soldiers’ were a different breed of men. Many were literate, most were patriotic, and an astonishing number openly and sincerely Christian. After nearly 40 years of the ‘Long Peace’, they were also largely new to war, and the innocent enthusiasm of their early letters can only be compared to the mood of England in the summer of 1914. ‘Hurrah for the Crimea!’ wrote Cornet Edward Fisher of the 4th Dragoon Guards. ‘We are off tomorrow… Take Sebastopol in a week or so, then into winter quarters!’
There were to be no winter quarters for anyone, and nearly 23,000 of them never came home.
The odds were against them from the start. They’d already spent months in the cholera-ravaged camps in Bulgaria before disembarking in Crimea without adequate shelter, transport or supplies – and with commanders soon to become notorious for incompetence. Yet still it survived, this extraordinary and sometimes almost childlike innocence that makes their exploits read like an incredible Boy’s Own Annual. Adversity only hardened it into the courage that sent the Light Brigade charging into almost certain death – and made them afterwards tell Lord Cardigan they were ‘ready to go again.’
Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville
We see it first at the Battle of Alma – where infantry who had never before heard a gun fired in anger were commanded to lie down in the open and be hammered by the artillery of the incredulous Russians. For over an hour they lay there, choking with smoke, and spattered by the blood of the men smashed to pieces beside them – but it was in that hour that the legend was born. Frightened they may have been, and Timothy Gowing reported that ‘he felt horribly sick’, but eyewitnesses record how they laughed and joked under fire, how they gave the different guns names, and speculated on which would speak next, Jane or Mary. Some did indeed break ranks – but only to pounce on the hares that were dashing crazily round the field, and stash them safely under their coats for a supper that might never come.
And when it was over, the fear was burned out of them. The order to advance sent them scorching forward through a hail of shot, shell and canister, splashing through the river under the very muzzles of the Russian sharpshooters, and all but running up the steep heights on the other side in their eagerness to reach the enemy and hit back. Colonel Lacy Yea of the Royal Fusiliers even shouted the unheard of order, ‘Come on – never mind forming! Come on anyhow!’ at which Wellington would undoubtedly have had a fit.
But come on they did, and in the front was the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Alexander Kinglake, official chronicler to the expedition, has left us this little vignette of their last mad rush for the biggest Russian position, the so-called Greater Redoubt. The panicked enemy were already limbering up their guns, and the panting 23rd climbed harder and faster with joyous cries of ‘Stole away! Stole away!’
‘Then a small, child-like youth ran before the throng, carrying a colour. This was young Anstruther. He carried the Queen’s colour of the Royal Welch. Fresh from the games of English school-life, he ran fast; for, heading all who would strive to keep up with him, he gained the redoubt and dug the butt-end of the flagstaff into the parapet; and there for a moment he stood, holding it tight and taking breath. Then he was shot dead; but his small hands, still clasping the flagstaff, drew it down along with him, and the crimson silk lay covering the boy with its folds.’
A Private William Evans jumped to rescue the colour, but it was promptly snatched from him by Colour-Sergeant Luke O’Connor, who’d been shot in the same moment as Anstruther but still insisted on his right to carry it himself. It was the badly wounded O’Connor who planted it in the Greater Redoubt and kept it safe throughout the battle, an action for which he was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
Sergeant Luke O’Connor saving the colours at the Battle of the Alma
It seems almost ludicrous to us now – the colour-sergeant more worried about losing his ‘rights’ than being killed by the enemy – yet in Crimea such priorities seem normal. Six weeks later the Light Brigade charged through devastating cannonfire on three sides, and as the 17th Lancers picked up speed, Captain Tremayne of the 13th Light Dragoons heard one of his own men shouting, ‘Come on, don’t let those bastards get ahead of us!’
Death just didn’t seem to matter much in Crimea. When Sir Colin Campbell told the 93rd Highlanders of the famous Thin Red Line that they must die where they stood, more than one witness records the answer as a cheery, ‘Aye, aye, Sir Colin, we’ll do that.’ When Captain Tipping led his Grenadier Guards in the rush for the Alma, a dying infantryman who had lost both legs actually cheered them and cried out, ‘Go it, Beauty Guards! Go in and win!’
‘The Thin Red Line’ by Robert Gibb
For some, it was perhaps their faith that sustained them – and gave them a fear greater than death. Private James Wightman of the Lancers recorded a conversation between his neighbours as the Light Brigade first came in range of the deadly artillery:
‘The explosion of a shell had swept down four or five men on Dudley’s left, and I heard him ask Marsh if he had noticed “what a hole that bloody shell had made” on his left front. “Hold your foul-mouthed tongue,” answered Peter, “swearing like a blackguard when you may be knocked into eternity next minute.”’
All this seems faintly ridiculous now, but acknowledged faith was simply part of the reality of Victorian Britain. These men certainly weren’t saints – many lied, stole and got drunk just as cheerfully as they faced the cannon – but what they did have was an exuberance that made even the most senior sometimes appear as young as poor Anstruther, ‘fresh from the games of English school-life.’
But it couldn’t last, and dreams of glory soon turned into the nightmare of a long siege. Sick, starving, and shivering in rags, the men the Times had called ‘the finest army ever to leave these shores’ endured the Crimean winter without even the most basic of supplies, and learned the horrors of trench warfare more than sixty years before WWI. In the end there was little left but stoicism, and a grim determination to see the thing through.
1855 cartoon in ‘Punch’
It was still heroic. Here’s just one example from the Naval Brigade, which contributed eighteen officers and a thousand seamen to the siege. Midshipman (later General) Evelyn Wood described an incident in his battery during the Bombardment of April 1855, when a roundshot crashed in and took the head clean off a ship’s boy who was just standing to drink his rum:
‘At this moment Michael Hardy, having just fired his gun, was serving the vent…. His face, neck and clothes were covered with the contents of the boy’s head; to lift his thumb from the vent might occasion the death of the Loader and Sponger who were then ramming home, but he never flinched. Without moving his right thumb from the vent, with the left hand he wiped the boy’s brains from his face and eyes as he looked round on us. Those sitting near me were speechless, as indeed was I, for not only was the boy a shipmate, but I had felt the wind of the shot which passed within six inches of my face, when we were awakened to a sense of the situation by Hardy’s somewhat contemptuous exhortation as he thus addressed the men:
“You bloody fools, what the hell are you looking at? Is the man dead – take his carcase away; isn’t he dead – take him to the doctor. Jim, are you home?” – this was said to the Loader, who was in the act of giving the final tap on ramming home the fresh charge, and on getting the answer “Yes”, without bestowing another look on us, Hardy gave the order to his gun’s crew, “Run out. Ready.”
William Simpson ‘A Quiet Day’ in one of the Naval Brigade Batteries
This anecdote could have come from the First World War, or indeed from any war at all. A veteran friend tells me this kind of stoicism is part of any soldier’s method of coping with horror that would otherwise destroy his mind – which means that perhaps my Crimean soldiers weren’t so unique after all. Whatever they might have been in the beginning, in the end they were just men, like any others in any war.
But that’s actually my whole point – and why I’m writing this post. Our forces in Crimea were men, they were individuals, and they were real. They had personalities, they had homes and lives and mothers and sisters and sometimes even children. And where are they now?
These people I’ve been talking about don’t even have graves. Many were buried in haste, but such military cemeteries as we did have were bulldozed on Khrushchev’s orders during the Cold War and nothing was left even to mark where they lay.
1910 The original ‘Graveyard of the Generals’ in Crimea
Generals and common soldiers fared alike, and the fragments of bone still to be found scattered in the soil round Sevastopol might belong to Colonel Lacy Yea who gave that order to ‘Come on anyhow!’, or to young Anstruther who ran with the colour like a schoolboy, or to an ordinary seaman called Michael Hardy who died two months after the roundshot incident in the failed assault on the Redan. They’re all there, lost in the dust, two thousand miles from home.
They’re not alone, and the cemeteries of our French and Turkish allies suffered a similar fate in the dark years. But the Iron Curtain is down, Ukraine is open, and new memorials have been built to honour the fallen of the Crimean War. The French have a magnificent complex with marble plaques, and the Turkish a beautiful memorial garden tended by local gardeners.
That’s how much we care. All those flags and bugles and speeches about sacrifice – out of sight is out of mind, and this is all we really care. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is concerned only with the World Wars, the War Memorials Trust only with monuments in the UK, and the British Legion only with the living. Nowhere anywhere is there an organization that cares for our fallen of the Crimean War.
But some do care all the same. Colonel Jeremy Burnell, RM, Defence Attaché to Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, is spearheading an attempt by the British Embassy, Kyiv, to build us a new memorial around an obelisk which has been gifted us by the Ukrainian government itself. The Embassy has obtained local permission, had plans drawn up, and is all ready to proceed.
Colonel Burnell with flowers by the new British obelisk
What they don’t have is money – and no public body whose business it is to provide it.
That’s my ‘worthy cause’. I was physically sick when I saw that obscene memorial in Crimea, and to me it’s like a desecration of the graves of men I knew. It’s too late to give them graves now, too late to make up for the neglect they suffered in their lifetimes, but there’s still this one thing we can do to show our respect and gratitude for all they went through. We can help find the money to build them a memorial.
We’re only amateurs who are doing this so far – people from the Crimean War Research Society and the Historical Writers’ Association, people who are passionate about history. If anything I’ve written here has helped you appreciate the men who fought in Crimea, then please visit us here – and show you care too.