British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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The Siege of Balaclava

Captain Colin Campbell to Francis Russell

This document has been shared, most graciously, with the Victorian Web by David Stewart of Hillsdale College, Michigan; it has been taken from the College's website. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr Stewart.This document has been taken from its primary location on The Victorian Web

17 November 1854

A deep gloom settled over the camp, partly caused by regret at the loss of so many brave fellows at the battle of Inkerman, and partly from the conviction that the siege must be raised. I find that this has spread even more amongst the men than among the officers. The thinking part of us look forward with alarm to the idea of spending a winter in this place, as our stores are already beginning to run short, and the roads are in such a state that the commissariat have the greatest difficulty in bringing our food from Balaclava. There is no blinking the fact that we who are besieging Sebastopol are ourselves a besieged army, and live in a constant state of alarm lest our rear should be attacked. The fire of the French and English batteries, which, when I came here, was kept up with great spirit has now dwindled away to almost nothing.

The work for the English troops here is dreadfully hard, and is killing the men; what is most trying is what are called covering parties - large bodies of men are marched down every night to the entrenchments and remain there 24 hours, to prevent the Russians from entering the batteries and spiking the guns. Whatever the weather may be there the men have to stay, and, as their clothing is very insufficient, the men are sometimes half dead with cold. Nothing like a fire can be lit, as it would immediately bring upon us the fire of the Russian batteries... The state of the trenches in rainy weather surpasses all description; the thick sticky mud is nearly a foot deep, and in it the men have to lie, as the sight of their heads above the parapet in daytime would be the signal for a shower of shot and shell... We are losing four or five a day by what is put down in the returns as cholera, but is nothing but cramps brought on by lying in the wet and cold.

As long as I live I shall never forget the day of that dreadful storm, which destroyed so much of our shipping. I was in the trenches, in charge of 150 men about five miles from our camp. At about eight o'clock at night, when it was my time to go home, having been there 24 hours, I found the men dreadfully exhausted, and began to have great doubts whether I should ever be able to get them home. The extreme violence of the wind had ceased, but it was snowing fast, as dark as pitch, and the road difficult to find. However, there was nothing for it but to try; we were four hours on the road, and nearly lost our way. The snow and wind were in our faces all the way, and at one time I had to halt the men and make them a short speech, in which I told them that anyone who fell out would have to lie and die as he fell, as I could not stop to assist anyone.

This roused them up to struggle on, and I got them all to the camp; I shall never forget the scene when I got there. The snow had ceased, but the wind was still blowing violently; every tent in the regiment (except about ten) was down, and the men endeavouring to shelter themselves under the wet canvas as it lay on the ground; 160 men had been taken sick that day, and were lying crowded in the hospital tents, the whole of which had been blown over, and the sick and dying were lying under them, with horses, that had broken loose during the storm, galloping about. Ten men of our regiment died on that night...

The perpetual talk amongst the men is, "Why do they not allow us to assault?" But an engineer officer told me the other day that three weeks ago we might have assaulted with success, but that we had not a sufficient number of men to do so, and now that reinforcements had come it was too late, as the streets were barricaded, the walls loop-holed, and such preparations made as would destroy an army. We might winter here if we got an immense supply of firewood and forage, but if circumstances turned out unfavourably the whole army might be annihilated. I wish we were all safe on the other side of the Black Sea, and that, I can assure you, is the general feeling in the camp...

22 December 1854

Our life is so dreary that I wonder sometimes that I am able to fill up a letter. We waddle down to the trenches every other day or night, and in the morning or evening waddle slowly back again with one or two wretched fellows killed or wounded. We acquire the gait I called waddling from the slipperiness of the ground and the quantity of clothes we have to carry.

17 January 1855

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 14-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 months, and that we must spend the winter there. Notwithstanding, not one single preparation was made. If each regiment had been furnished with 2-300 short poles and a few entrenching tools, they could have hutted themselves in a week.

I do not think a single mule was bought, although even in fine weather we were very insufficiently supplied, and lived 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 48 hours' sail of us, and vessels which could bring over 300 at each trip lying in the harbour, it is scarcely credible that not one single animal was brought. Our cavalry were set to work to carry biscuit, an occupation which killed the horses at the rate of about 20 a day. About the beginning of December 250 mules arrived, 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. To every three mules there is a French soldier who 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...

If I were to 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 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 pensioners would go round picking out the dead from the living, and throwing them overboard...

11 June 1855

Of all the dreadful places in the world, I think a battery under a hot sun and a heavy fire is the most dreadful. There is none of the excitement of personal conflict; you become blackened with smoke, and the heat and noise are almost unendurable. Then the nature of the wounds is so dreadful; you see men cut to pieces with a round shot, or blown up with a shell, so that there is no trace of there having been human beings left. I saw myself a sailor blown up by a 13-inch shell at least 40 feet high... I dare say you would like to know what my own sensations were when standing on the top of the parapet. I assure you I felt neither fear nor excitement; I had almost the same feelings as I have had when long-stopping to a swift bowler on bad ground, except that there my anxiety was to stop the balls, whilst here I had every wish to let them pass.

Taken from F.C.A. Stephenson, Letters from the Crimea (1915), pp. 15, 69, 87, 238.

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