In 1954, as the centenary of the end of the Crimean War approached,
my uncle John Alldridge produced a series of articles for the
Manchester Evening News which vividly described that campaign.
In this article, the words are his; the choice of illustrations is mine.
Inkerman: Crimea heroines and the horrors of the men in hospital
The Battle of Inkerman – that heroic “Soldier’s Battle” – was probably one of the most costly victories ever won by a British army.
The loss in life alone was heavy enough. The unlucky 2nd Division, which had taken the worst of it, had 2,357 killed and wounded. Every regimental commanding officer in the division became a casualty.
The 30th (East Lancashire) Regiment lost their colonel, their adjutant, 10 other officers, and 99 rank-and-file.
In the 4th Division, the 20th (Lancashire Fusiliers), with nine officers and 165 other ranks killed, had a death-roll exceeded only by the Guards.
But worse still was the damage to morale. Inkerman seemed to have drained the life out of the British Army of the Crimea. When called upon afterwards the British soldier still fought bravely enough; but with a listlessness that showed only too clearly that he had no confidence in himself or his leaders.
By now the war had completely lost its purpose. The final objective, the grim fortress of Sebastopol, though only a few miles away, seemed actually as far off as ever.
The British Army, now doomed to sit it out in the trenches ringing three sides of the city, could see no sign of anything happening before the spring.
Ten days after Inkerman a storm, carried in across the Euxine Sea at hurricane force, smashed down on the base camp at Balaclava.
Twenty supply ships disappeared that awful morning, among them the Prince, one of the largest and finest screw ships of her day.
With the Prince vanished a crew of 150 and most of the winter clothing for the Army of the Crimea.
Now the soldier, going wearily forward into the trenches, was in a desperate plight.
For a description of life in those trenches before Sebastopol – trenches always half full of slush and water and constantly exposed to enemy fire – we turn to a remarkable woman, one of many unrecorded heroines of that campaign.
Her name was Mrs. Elizabeth Evans. Her husband was a private in the King’s Own Royal Regiment. And she had been with the regiment since the beginning.
Now other women had followed the army, but these were mostly officers’ ladies, privileged hangers-on, who picnicked on the battlefield, chaperoned by an elegant staff and hustled away when the grim business began.
But Elizabeth Evans had marched with her husband all the way. At the Alma she had seen something no other woman had ever seen before – a British army drawn up for battle.
At Inkerman she was left behind with the drummer boys and the sick to guard the Colours.
Now, before Sebastopol, she was sharing a tent with her husband and eight other men listening to the roar of the Russian artillery.
When Private Evans and his platoon went up to the trenches she followed with what food she could cook out there in the open.
Sometimes she took a friend with her, another soldier’s wife, Mrs. Box – known affectionately as “Becky” to the men of the Royals – a huge woman, “so strong that she could pick up a 6ft man and carry him on her shoulder.”
Long before Florence Nightingale arrived at Scutari, Mrs. Box, that muscular Irish woman, was running her own private hospital.
And it is recorded that many times she crossed the Valley of Death under fire to the French lines to fetch brandy and other comforts for her “boys.”
So for many weeks Elizabeth Evans watched her man sitting in the trench, “his back to the parapet, his feet drawn up close under his chin, so that others could pass. In that trench, barely 4ft wide, if not detailed for picquet, he lay down and rested, snatched ‘dog’s sleep’, four hours out of six, while the picquets kept watch.”
She heard of “one company going into the trenches 14 men strong; all the rest dead, sick, broken. One night lately 45 men went into the trenches, of whom 19 were sent out during the night. Nine died . . . I hear of men on their knees crying with pain.”
By the end of January, 1855, half the Army of the Crimea were sick.
The 46th Regiment were dying at the rate of three a day. Out of the 706 who had landed in November only 327 were fit for duty. As for the 63rd (The Manchesters), they could muster only seven on parade.
And for the sick and wounded, the prospect was even more frightful. To be “evacuated sick” meant first a painful journey of several miles on horseback – sometimes men had to be tied upright in the saddle – to the “wharf” at Balaclava.
There were as yet no stretchers, since the canvas for them had been sent on one supply ship and the wooden frames on another.
There followed hours waiting in the open, lying on the ground.
And this was as far as many of them ever got. Their bodies were tipped in the harbour to make room for the living.
The next stage was by sea to Constantinople and the dreaded Barrack Hospital at Scutari – a 300-mile journey that usually took from four to six days.
One trip in the ill-named Shooting Star lasted nearly three weeks. By which time 47 out of the 177 sick on board were dead.
Sergeant Gowing, of Chorlton-on-Medlock, was wounded at Inkerman. Like most wounded soldiers his first reaction was one of keen relief. “I am wounded – not seriously. And I shall soon be out of this,” he wrote to his mother.
Some days later, when he had experienced the horrors of a hospital ship, relief had turned to despair.
“At sea. This is horrible . . . Men on all sides shrieking with pain . . . Some left to die in agony, their poor mangled bodies infested with vermin. Many had not had the slightest thing done for them since they were wounded.”
So heavy was the traffic at Constantinople that Gowing’s ship could not unload there. He was carried to Malta. Though he could not know it then, he was in luck.
For every 10 men who were landed there and carried up the hill to that ill-omened Barrack Hospital at Scutari in the month of February, 1855, seven died, neglected and forgotten in that grim hopeless labyrinth of a building with its four miles of beds.
Once a man had entered this infernal place, we are told, “all cheerfulness disappeared – he drew his blanket over his head and waited in silence for the end.”
For the sick, doomed to find their way to Scutari, death alone was merciful. From their own kind they could expect only ignorance, neglect, or downright cruelty.
It was a surgeon-general of the British Army who discouraged the use of chloroform on the grounds that, “The smart use of the knife is a powerful stimulant, and it is much better to hear a man bawl lustily than to see him sink silently into the grave.”
This intolerable place was soon to be swept clean by the vigorous new broom of an obdurate, implacable woman; an astounding woman, who with terrible insistence defied and defeated regulations and imbecility and roguery.
Her name, of course, was Florence Nightingale.
Next Episode: The End
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Jerry F 2022