British Foreign Policy 1815-65
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Source: Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), used here with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr. Hibbert. This document has been copied from its primary location on The Victorian Web.
The British army had its headquarters at Balaclava from where supplies could be landed at the harbour for transportation to the troops at the front. There was an extreme lack of organisation, exacerbated by the great storm on 14 November 1854.
In Balaclava itself the chaos was utter and appalling. Admiral Boxer, then in charge of the transport arrangements at Constantinople, was quite incapable of reducing the muddle. Captain Shipley, in hospital there recovering from a wound received at the Alma, told his mother that he understood there was no 'Head' at Balaclava. There is, however,' he continued, 'a Head here, but such a thing. It is called Admiral Boxer, and they say he has never done anything properly in his life.' Ships arrived without notice in the congested harbour at Balaclava, and no one was quite sure what was in them. Sometimes they went all the way back across the Black Sea to Constantinople without being unloaded, and when they arrived there Boxer sent them back again. He seemed not to know how many ships he had available or even where they could refuel. He said no transport was available when ships were lying idle in his own docks. He kept no records. 'As regards Admiral Boxer,' wrote Lord Raglan in exasperation, 'I am powerless. No man can make him a man of arrangement.'
For days, for weeks on end, ships lay outside Balaclava waiting to come in and unload. And when they did so their crews, although well used to Eastern harbours, were appalled. Since the storm the ghastly pale-green waters were like a stagnant cesspool into which all imaginable refuse had been thrown. Dead men with white and swollen heads, dead camels, 'dead horses, dead mules, dead oxen, dead cats, dead dogs, the filth of an army with its hospitals', floated amidst the wreckage of spars, boxes, bales of hay, biscuits, smashed cases of medicines and surgical instruments, the decomposed offal and butchered carcasses of sheep thrown overboard by ship cooks.
On the quayside the muddle was grotesque. Heaps of charcoal were piled on top of split sacks from which the flour poured out in damp lumps; bales of clothing were used as stepping-stones through the mud; broken boxes, rotting meat, cases of ammunition, thousands of tent-pegs, bits of wooden huts, were dumped together higgledy-piggledy in stores or in the streets. Men sat smoking on powderbarrels. The stench was nauseating. Rats and pariah dogs scampered everywhere. Turkish soldiers, ill and starving, fell down and died in the street. 'I never saw people die,' Mrs. Duberly said, 'with such a dreary perseverance.' The hovels of the little town which they used as hospitals were crowded to the doors - or rather to the pieces of mud-covered rotting canvas hung across the doorways - through which the muffled sounds of weak groans came out from the fetid darkness inside to be ignored by the passers-by, inured to pain as to squalor and death. Inside these fearful hospitals the Turks died 'like flies', and all day long silent bearers could be seen coming out of them on their way to the burial-grounds, where gravediggers, gaunt and listless, scratched at the surface of the mud to scoop out a hollow for the daily consignment of dead. Around them limbs and bones and partially buried carcasses protruded from their shallow graves.
Into this nightmarish town officers and men came down to entreat and bully, threaten and plead with the commissariat officials, who, despite the vertiginous muddle into which they had been plunged, tried to deal with each request according to the regulations of the Service and the system in which they had been meticulously trained.
A typical exchange of argument and counter-argument has been preserved.
The Medical Officer of the Charity, an iron screw-steamer docked in Balaclava for the reception of the sick, went on shore to see the commissariat official in charge of the issue of stoves.
'Three of my men,' he told him, 'died last night from choleraic symptoms, brought
on in their present state from the extreme cold of the ship; and I fear more
will follow them from the same cause.'
'Oh! You must make your requisition in due form; send it up to H.Q. and get it signed properly!'
'But my men may die meantime!'
'I can't help that. I must have the requisition.'
'Another night will certainly kill my men.'
'I really can do nothing. I must have a requisition properly signed before I can give one of these stoves away!
'For God's sake, then lend me some. I'll be responsible for their safety.'
'I really can do nothing of the kind.'
And sincerely he believed that he could not. He was in an impossible situation. If he gave this doctor what he wanted, who could say what other doctors would come demanding a similar issue? He had a limited number of stoves in store. There might have been more in the holds of the ships; but the ships came in with their cargoes in a hopeless mess, and no one seemed to have much idea what was in them. It could take two days to unload the crates on top of the stoves, which might have been stored away in the bottom of the hold. And what was he to do with all the stuff on top of them? There was nowhere to put it. And, anyway, it did not come under his particular department.
It was not altogether stupidity that made men reason like this, although the newspapers said it was; it was not altogether indifference, although the regimental officers said it was; it was not altogether, as the commissariat officers themselves insisted it was, the necessity of compliance with rigid regulations. It was that the whole system of supply had collapsed in the presence of an emergency that no one had foreseen or provided for. And it would take not days or months, but years to revolutionise that system and make it work in an army that had been violently awakened from a dream of past glory into a modern world where heroism was not enough.
In the meantime, however, men were dying and something must be done.
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