09 October 2012

Under a fire that seemed pouring from all sides

The Duberlys & Bob (the horse)
Crimea, 1855, by Roger Fenton
Christine Kelly's 2007 second edition of the Crimean War diaries of Frances Duberly (1829-1903), Mrs Duberly's War, is a valuable insight into the bitterly-fought campaign between France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia. When it was first published in 1855 Mrs Duberly's journals were immediately lapped up by the British reading public, which was eager for first-hand accounts of the war. This was in part due to the obscure geographical setting that was unfamiliar to British readers, but also because of the wide-ranging controversies that emerged from the conduct of the war, with the British military's poor organisation and inadequate tactical ability causing much loss of life and prolonging the conflict unnecessarily. It was probably also the first major war to be waged under the inquiring eye of the press and press photographers, with the Times correspondent William Howard Russell becoming the first 'celebrity' war correspondent and helping to influence public opinion in Britain. Indeed, the bad news coming from the Crimea ultimately brought down the British government, with the Aberdeen ministry eventually resigning in February 1855 over the shoddy conduct of the war. The news reports also helped to cement the reputation of the nurse Florence Nightingale as a saviour of the troops and in turn revolutionised the nature of military medicine. (Aside from inventing modern nursing as we know it, Nightingale also invented the pie chart!)

Mrs Duberly wasn't a nurse and didn't meet Nightingale in the Crimea. But this seemingly horse-mad woman in her mid-twenties was far braver than most of her English female compatriots, in that her presence accompanying her paymaster husband Henry, who managed the funds for the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, was a considerable rarity in the Crimea. Fanny was the only British woman at the front lines. She wanted to share her husband's fate and make his military life somewhat more comfortable. She also craved her own fair share of adventure: in several places in her journal Fanny expresses a fervent wish that she had been born a man so she could go to war properly.

Her journal, accentuated by extracts from her personal correspondence, is a vivid glimpse into the drawn-out Crimean campaign, exposing the British Army's shoddy logistics, cruelly disinterested leadership and the privations endured by thousands in the bitterly cold Crimean winters and in the blasting heat of summer. She provides eye witness accounts of some of the war's most well-known moments, including the Battle of Balaklava, in which the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade occurred, which was later made famous by Tennyson's poetry and entered the folklore of Victorian military endeavour. Here, in the entry for 25 October 1854, Fanny describes her view of the battle and its famous conclusion:

The 93rd and 42nd were drawn up on an eminence before the village of Balaklava. Our Cavalry were all retiring when I arrived, to take up position in rear of their own lines.
Looking on the crest of the nearest hill, I saw it covered with running Turks, pursued by mounted Cossacks, who were all making straight for where I stood, superintending the striking of our tent and the packing of our valuables.
Henry flung me on the old horse; and seizing a pair of laden saddle-bags, a great coat, and a few other loose packages, I made the best of my way over a ditch into a vineyard, and awaited the event ... Presently came the Russian Cavalry charging, over the hill-side and across the valley, right against the little line of Highlanders. Ah, what a moment! Charging and surging onward, what could that little wall of men do against such numbers and such speed? There they stood. Sir Colin [Campbell] did not even form them into a square. They waited until the horsemen were within range, and then poured a volley which for a moment hid everything in smoke. The Scots Greys and Inniskillens then left the ranks of our Cavalry, and charged with all their weight and force upon them, cutting and hewing right and left.
Not a man stirred, they stood like rocks till the Russian horses came within about thirty yards - Then one terrific volley - a sudden wheel - a piece of ground strewed with men and horses - when the Scots Gs & Royals bounding from the ranks dashed with their heavy horses on the mounted foe & hewed them down. Ten minutes more and not a live Russian was seen on that side of the hill...
A few minutes - moments as it seemed to me - and all that occupied that lately crowded spot were men and horses, lying strewn upon the ground. One poor horse galloped up to where we stood; a round shot had taken him in the haunch, and a gaping wound it made. Another, struck by a shell in the nostrils, staggered feebly up to [Fanny's beloved horse] Bob, suffocating from inability to breathe. He soon fell down. About this time reinforcements of Infantry, French Cavalry, and Infantry and Artillery, came down from the front, and proceeded to form in the valley on the other side of the hill over which the Russian Cavalry had come.
Such a goodly army as they were lying beneath us in the sunshine - with the Russian force half hidden behind the hill. Some wounded French soldiers came to us - Henry helped one poor fellow from his horse who was shot in the arm and another thro the thigh.
Now came the disaster of the day - our glorious and fatal charge. But so sick at heart am I that I can barely write of it even now. It has become a matter of world history, deeply as at the time it was involved in mystery. I only know that I saw Captain Nolan galloping; that presently the Light Brigade, leaving their position, advanced by themselves, although in the face of the whole Russian force, and under a fire that seemed pouring from all sides, as though every bush was a musket, every stone in the hillside a gun. Faster and faster they rode. How we watched them! They are out of sight; but presently come a few horsemen, straggling, galloping back. 'What can those skirmishers be doing? See, they form up together again. Good God! it is the Light Brigade!'
- Frances (Fanny) Duberly, Journal Kept During the Russian War, 1855, published 2nd edn. as Mrs Duberly's War, Christine Kelly ed., 2007.
Henry Clifford, later Maj Gen Sir Henry Clifford VC, who won his Victoria Cross a month after Balaklava, also witnessed the catastrophic charge in his role as aide-de-camp to Sir George Brown, commander of the Light Division:

From the commanding position in which I stood by the side of General Brite we saw the Light Brigade of Cavalry moving forward at a trot, in face of the Russian Army. 'Mon Dieu!!' said the fine old French General, 'Que vont-ils faire?' They went steadily on, as Englishmen only go under heavy fire. Artillery in front, on the right and left. When some thousand yards from the foremost of the enemy, I saw shells bursting in the midst of the Squadrons and men and horses strewed the ground behind them; yet on they went, and the smoke of the murderous fire poured on them, hid them from my sight.
The tears ran down my face, and the din of musketry pouring in their murderous fire on the brave gallant fellows rang in my ears. 'Pauvre garcon,' said the old French General, patting me on the shoulder. 'Je suis vieux, j'ai vu des batailles, mais ceci est trop.' Then the smoke cleared away and I saw hundreds of our poor fellows lying on the ground, the Cossacks and Russian Cavalry running them through as they lay, with their swords and lances.
- Henry Clifford VC, His Letters & Sketches from the Crimea, London, 1956, p.73.

The journal of a soldier, Sgt Mitchell of the 13th Light Dragoons, provided an enlisted man's first-hand recollection of the charge:

As we drew nearer the guns from the front plied us liberally with grape and cannister, which brought down men and horses in heaps ... We were now very close to the guns, for we were entering the smoke which hung in clouds in front. I could see some of the gunners running from the guns to the rear, when just at that moment a shell from the battery on the right struck my horse carrying away the shoulder and part of the chest, and exploding a few yards off. Fortunately I was on the ground when it exploded, or some of the fragments would most likely have reached me ... I found my horse was lying on his near side, my left leg was beneath him ... I tried to move, but just at that moment I heard the second line come galloping on to where I lay, and fully expecting to be trampled on I looked up and saw it was the 4th Light Dragoons [in the third line] quite close. I called out "For God's sake, don't ride over me" ... After they had passed I ... stood up ... soon found there were numberless bullets flying around me ... our brigade had passed beyond the guns. The smoke had cleared, for the guns were silent enough now ... so that we could see a number of men making their way back ... The number of horses lying about was something fearful ... By this time the mounted were making their way back, as fast as they could, some singly, and some in parties of two or three ... There were several riderless horses galloping about the plain ... I was getting tired, for we had been out since 4 a.m. and had nothing to eat since the day before.
- Quoted in Clive Ponting, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth, London, 2004, p.136.

The Crimean War was the first major conflict to be recorded photographically. The photographs of Roger Fenton in particular have become iconic features of the campaign, illustrating the bleak, often treeless expanses of the peninsula. One can only imagine the grim conditions the armies - and chiefly the poorly-equipped British army - must have endured in the winter months, with precious little shelter from the elements. Fenton's most famous image is probably the cannonball-strewn dirt track that Victorians believed was the route of the famous charge - but the photographed valley was actually several miles closer to besieged Sebastopol and was taken in April 1855, many months after the charge, as film-maker Errol Morris has argued.  It remains unclear whether Fenton moved the cannonballs before he photographed them, but in any case, for many Victorians Fenton's image summed up the grim sacrifice and peril of the faraway Crimean campaign.

Roger Fenton's famous 'Valley of Death' photo, Crimea, April 1855
As for Mrs Duberly, both she and her husband survived the Crimean War. After years of postings in India and Ireland they eventually retired to Cheltenham, where Fanny later died, childless, at the age of 73.
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