Military history


Letters from Camp

The maladministration of the British army sent to the Crimea caused one of the great political scandals of the Victorian age. The arrangements for the supply, accommodation and welfare, particularly the medical welfare, of the expeditionary force broke down quickly and almost completely. While the French army, commanded by generals with recent experience of military reality gained in the conquest of Algeria, was excellently provisioned and maintained, the British froze and nearly starved in its entrenchments outside Sebastopol, while its wounded died in thousands of infection and lack of the simplest medical care. The wounded evacuated to the barracks at Scutari, the Turkish military base opposite Constantinople, were eventually taken into the care of Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing technique. Her example, and her relentless harrying of the government at home, by private letter and public exposure of inefficiency, saved thousands of lives. Meanwhile the army left in the Crimea, entrenched around Sebastopol, continued to undergo a dreadful ordeal, ill supplied with necessities and exposed to the hardships of the Russian winter.


Jan. 17. [1855]

Still waiting for cattle at Koolalee, the snow having been so deep on the hills that very few have been able to get down. I quite dread to hear what will be the condition of the army when we get back to Balaclava. When I left the men were suffering terribly, and many had been frostbitten. There is a very prevalent impression in the army (which I share) that Lord Raglan does not hear the truth, and that those about him are in the habit of making things pleasant to him; but as Commander-in-Chief he should see into such matters himself, and know the state the army is in. The want of transport has destroyed more lives and caused more misery than all other mistakes put together. I have seen our men after having come back from the trenches, and having barely time to eat some biscuit and coffee, sent off to Balaclava to bring up rations, warm clothing, blankets, etc. They would return at night after their fourteen-mile tramp through the mud, and throw themselves down on the floor of their tents as if they were dead, so exhausted, that even if their dinners had been got ready for them, many of them could not have eaten a morsel. Next morning probably one third of them would be in hospital, and the remainder for the trenches the following evening.

The day after the battle of Inkerman, and even before it, every man with one grain of sense could foresee that Sebastopol would not fall for two or three months and that we must spend part of the winter, at least, there. Notwithstanding this! as far as I can see, not one single preparation was made for it. If each regiment had been furnished with two or three hundred short poles and a few entrenching tools, they could have hutted themselves in a week. The proper hut for this country is merely a long narrow hole about eight feet deep and eight feet broad, and merely wants wall enough above the surface to be able to form eaves to the roof to let the water run off.

I do not think a single mule was bought, although even in the fine weather we were very insufficiently supplied, and lived as it were from hand to mouth, never being able to bring up more than one day’s rations. Yet with the whole coast of Asia Minor teeming with ponies and barley, within forty-eight hours’ sail of us, and such vessels as the Jason and Simla(which could bring over 300 at each trip) lying in the harbour of Balaclava, it is scarcely credible that not one single animal was brought. Somewhere about the beginning of December 250 mules arrived, being a totally insufficient number. Our cavalry, with their dying horses, were then set to work to carry biscuit, an occupation which killed them (the horses) at the rate of about twenty a day. When one sees our commissariat mules one sees a set of half-starved dying animals savagely thrashed along by Poles, Bulgarians, Tartars, and every sort of blackguard. What a contrast in the French animals! They pass our camp in long lines of hundreds daily, they walk in a row, every mule as fat and sleek as if he were a pet, and stepping along cheerfully with a quick and rapid step. To every three mules there is a workmanlike, well-appointed Frenchman, a soldier who, when he has nothing else to do, chats to his mules as if they were his friends. This is only one of the points in which they beat us; it is the same in everything.

You will perhaps be rather surprised when I give you my opinion that the English army is virtually destroyed. They can stand behind trenches and pull a trigger, or they could again muster up endurance to fight a second battle of Inkerman; but for anything like a campaign they are utterly useless. We have not a battery of artillery in the army that could bring its guns into action. I am certain that I am not exaggerating when I say that 400 of the London mounted police would utterly overthrow our whole cavalry force. Our only stand-by is the French; they are still an army, and in first-rate order; their cavalry officers’ horses have, of course, suffered greatly, as all civilized horses must do in this country; but their 2,000 Chasseurs d’Afrique are in as fine order as if they had never left Algeria. I wonder what Lord Raglan thinks when he contrasts the two armies.

If I were to set to work and try to write about all the mistakes and blunders made in our different departments here, I should fill a tolerable volume. They are endless. Those in the medical department, though not worse than others, are more dreadful in their consequences. Doctors will tell you how they have been suddenly ordered on board a ship to take charge of 300 men across the Black Sea; how the men would lie on the hard boards in every form of cholera, dysentery, and fever, with not one atom of medicine to give them, and two or three drunken pensioners to attend on them. In the morning the doctors and the pensioners would go round picking out the dead from the living, and throwing them overboard. It is not one man will tell you this story, but twenty.

If you fancy horrors, I will give you a little story about Russian prisoners, which may give you some idea of the horrors of war. I will give it to you as I heard it from Dr Franklyn as near as possible in his own words.

‘I was sitting in my room one afternoon, having had rather a hard morning’s work, and thinking I had now time to write a letter, when an orderly came in and said:

“‘Sir, there’s 168 wounded Rooshians down below, and I was to tell you you is to take care of ’em.” I said, “Oh, very well;” and the orderly went away. I scratched my head a little, and at last I thought it was no use doing that, so I walked down to see the Russians. I found 168 men in a sort of team, lying like sandwiches. There were men with their legs lying across their chests, and their hands forced into their bodies and shot through the lungs, and, in fact, every mutilation of the human form you can conceive. Well, I scratched my head again, and then I went up to the invalid battalion and got a fatigue party, and we carried about half of them up to the Greek Church and laid them out there, and we got the others into some sort of a row. There were eight young surgeons landed that day from the Prince and put under my orders, so I sent for them. Well, they did well, those youngsters. They worked away and their knives got blunt, and they worked away all the harder, and they performed hipjoint operations, and cut out bullets a foot deep, and there weren’t as many dead as you’d have thought. Well, after this there was nothing for these wretches to lie on and nothing to give them to eat, and so they died very fast; and the gangrene broke out among those in the barn, and they all died but some five-and-forty in the Greek Church pulled through, and we sent them away yesterday, and on the whole I think we did pretty well.’

I have shortened this story as much as possible, in order to get it within the bounds of a letter; but do you not think that there is material in it for the Invalide Russe to write a pretty strong article touching English barbarians, etc.?

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