British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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Voice from the Ranks: In Hospital

Sergeant Timothy Gowing, Royal Fusiliers

. Taken from Timothy Gowing's Voice from the Ranks: a personal narrative of the Crimean Campaign (Nottingham: 1895). This document has been copied from its primary location on The Victorian Web

As soon as it came to my turn I was attended to, and my wounds dressed and bandaged. I remained for two days, and then a number of us were sent to Scutari. We were taken down to Balaclava on mules, some of them lent by our chivalrous allies the French.

We got a good shaking, but eventually found ourselves on board an old steamer. It was a horrible scene - poor fellows having every description of wound; and many died before we left the harbour. We were packed on board anyhow - to live or die - and away we went. The sea was rather boisterous, and I was not very comfortable with poor fellows dying fast all around me. There were not sufficient medical officers to look after fifty men, much less three or four hundred.

Picture a ship rolling and tossing about at sea with such a freight! The sight was heart-rending; many of our poor fellows had had not the slightest thing done for them since they were wounded on that bloody field. They had fought and helped to uphold the honour of their country and were now left to die in agony, their poor mangled bodies infested with vermin.

I could give particulars that would cause the blood to curdle and shock credulity, but I forbear; enough has been said to afford a sufficient condemnation of British management. Yet in spite of these facts - which were too patent to be kept from them - thousands upon thousands of the youth of the three kingdoms were burning to join their countrymen at the seat of war.

On behalf of the British Army I demand fair treatment for the men who are willing to risk their lives in the service of their country. Horses, and even dogs, received far more attention and better treatment during that trying campaign than the poor sick and wounded men. I say that what is needed is some system of organization that shall render impossible the repetition of such inhumanities as disgraced the Crimean campaign. Let men of brains, and with human hearts in their bosoms, be appointed to devise such a system, and I am certain my fellow-countrymen will grudge no expense in making it effective. Our doctors worked like horses, but they could not do impossibilities - six times the number could not have done the work; the fault did not rest with them.

After being tossed about for some four or five days we reached Scutari, to find it so full of sick and wounded that we were not allowed to land; and on we had to go to Malta. Describe the scene between decks I could not. Men were on all sides shrieking with pain; some were lying in a state of putrefaction, others in a morbid state; and some were being carried on deck to be consigned, wrapped in a blanket, to a watery grave.

At last we reached our desired haven, Malta, and were taken ashore as quickly as possible. Many an eye was wet with tears; the good people did all that lay in their power for us, and we could see pity beaming upon every countenance. We found the Maltese a kind-hearted people. On to the hospital we went, were at once put to bed and attended to by kind, motherly hands that did all that was possible to soothe us. Nothing could exceed the kindness of all those who had anything to do with us.

I wrote to my parents from Malta,

December 21st, 1854

Once more a line from your rough but affectionate son. Your letters have all reached me. I am happy to inform you that I am getting on capitally. I have the best of attention and, what's more, a pretty young lady for my nurse, You know, father, that soldiers have an eye to pretty girls; but woe be to the man who would attempt to molest one of these dear creatures, for they are worth their weight in gold. I am able to stand up, I am happy to inform you - but I must not let my nurse see me, or the doctor would eat me!

In one month I was on my feet again, convalescent; and with plenty of good nourishment I soon began to gather strength, and in the early part of January, 1855, wanted to be off again, to have a little satisfaction - but I had to remain another month.

We found that the nation's heart was bleeding for her soldiers and sailors; a grateful country was roused by the before-unheard-of privations and sufferings, and the heroic stand that her sons were making. All - even our enemies - were compelled to admire the daring devotion, and courage, displayed by a mere handful of men at the Heights of Alma; all were compelled to applaud the conduct of our soldiers on the plains of Balaclava; and the stand made at Inkerman will be the theme of admiration for ages to come. England, and the world, admitted that every man had nobly done his duty, and that the conquerors on Inkerman's Heights had every whit the courage and daring of their forefathers.

I was now well able to take my walks abroad and have a good look at all the sights and scenes of Malta - and there are some grand sights to be seen; the Church of St. John, I suppose, is one of the grandest in the world. Then I used to wander around the vast fortifications, day after day.

Accounts kept coming in from the seat of war. We heard that our poor fellows were dying fast of starvation and cold; death was, in fact, raging through the camp at a fearful pace, and yet our men stuck to it. From letters I received from the front, it appeared the storm that had struck the Crimea had swept away nearly all our poor fellows' tents; they had to get into caves in the rocks and do the best they could on that terrible 14th November, 1854.

The ship Prince, with winter clothing for the whole army, had gone down just outside the harbour of Balaclava - all hands perished - and a number of other ships shared the same fate. The cold was something terrible; men were frost-bitten, daily losing fingers and toes, and undergoing such sufferings as no tongue or pen can describe.

In December, 1854, and January and February, 1855, our poor fellows were dying like rotten sheep for want of the common necessaries of life - they had little or no food, hardly sufficient clothing to cover their nakedness, the tents were full of holes, and they had nothing but mud to lay their weary bones in, with the thermometer far below freezing-point. Then, too, they often had to fight with desperation to hold their own. So, upon the whole, there was not a very bright prospect before me.

Regiments and drafts kept passing on for the front, and I was longing to have a slap at them once more, just by way of getting out of debt. So, towards the end of February, 1855 - after I had made some splendid purchases in the way of good blankets, two dozen good flannel shirts, two dozen ditto drawers, two dozen warm gloves for my comrades, a good supply of flannels for myself, and a brace of revolvers - off I went once more to fight for Old England, home and glory. These facts were communicated to my parents in the following letter:

Malta, Feb. 11th, 1855

My Dear Parents,

I do not think I shall be here much longer. A number of us are ready for them again, and I have a debt to pay off. But, at your request, I will not run my head into danger more than I can avoid; but I hope the Lord will give me strength of mind and body to do MY duty, for, father, I do believe I am a true-born Suffolk man, for I could not bear the thought of skulking. If ever I fall, I hope it Will be with my face to the foe - and that after I have got out of debt, for I should not like to owe them anything.

I never yet told you that two of them came at me at Inkerman, and that was not fair, taking into consideration they could see that I was engaged at the time with a huge monster. Never mind; thank God I have got over that and am ready for them again! I hope my next letter will be from the interior of Sevastopol.

The French appear to mean business; hardly a day passes but ships laden with them put in here for coal. A number of their Imperial Guards landed here a few days ago. There were four or five of us out for a walk, and when it was explained to them that we had all been at the Alma, and were wounded at Inkerman, you would have thought they had gone mad; they embraced and kissed us over and over again, and shouted, 'Bon Anglais, bon Anglais!' and 'Vive 1'Empereur!' until further orders.

I thought it was a great pity we did not understand each other - we had two interpreters, and I can tell you that they had quite enough of it! But, as far as I could see, the very name of Inkerman was enough for three or four cuddles; and although I did not like to be kissed by a man, I had to put up with it.

They are fine-looking men - a great many of them are much taller than I am (six feet) and, if they get a chance, will most likely leave their mark upon the Russians. At all events, they will soon have a peep at them, and will find them ugly customers to deal with. Well, we parted with our friends on the best of terms - but we had to put up with another good squeeze.

I must tell you I have been marketing. I have bought all sorts of warm clothing for my comrades, for I find it is needed; they found the cash. I have got a good revolver for myself, and am off tomorrow. I do not wish to boast; but, come what will, I will never bring disgrace upon our old country - dear old Suffolk, that gave me birth - or upon Norfolk, that brought me up. Remember, dear father, Norfolk can boast of Nelson!

Keep up your spirits, dear Parents; all's well that ends well. Will write as soon as I can. Goodbye, and God bless you.

Believe me, as ever,
Your affectionate son,
T. GOWING, Sergeant, Royal Fusiliers

We had a jolly time of it all the way up - plenty of the good things of this life on board. What a difference - what a contrast - to the voyage down! We had forgotten all our pains and sorrows, and we were once more on the way to assist our comrades in subduing the haughty Muscovites. We knew well that, in all probability, few of us would ever see our dear old homes again, or those who were near and dear to us; but we had to look stern necessity in the face.

It was a call to duty that we were obeying, and for 'England, home, and beauty' we would go forward, let the consequences be what they might. Many an aching mother's heart was following our every movement. The scenes that we had already passed through were enough to melt more than one Absalom's heart and set him thinking, first of an endless Eternity, and then of a fond and almost broken-hearted mother at home. But duty - stern duty - must be done, and done well, for England expects that every man will in the hour of need do his duty.

It was still very cold, but we had plenty of clothing and wanted for nothing. We had some splendid sights going through the Dardanelles. Constantinople looked grand, but we were not allowed to disembark, though we stayed there for a time to take in coal - then away we went. We met some of our poor fellows coming from the front. We found the Black Sea very rough - in fact, rolling mountains high - but our gallant old ship dashed on. We had another in tow, but lost her; the cable broke in the night, and she had to look out for herself. We reached the snug little harbour of Balaclava on the morning of the 8th March, and, as usual, found it crammed with shipping.

We had to remain outside until our Captain obtained permission to enter, in then we went and landed, at once marching to the front to the old Light Division, and I again found myself in the midst of old chums - but what an alteration! Poor half,starved, miserable-looking creatures, mere wrecks of humanity - but still with that unconquerable look about them, so that it was a pleasure to do anything for them.

I had a treat in store for my company. I asked, and obtained, leave to go to Balaclava the following day, telling the captain what I had brought for the men. I took six men with me and loaded them with some of the good things I had purchased, and away we went back again. We had to plough through mud up to our ankles nearly all the way; and when I came to open the packages and distribute the goods I got many a 'God bless you, Sergeant!'

A flannel shirt and drawers were worth their weight in gold; I did not lose a man out of my tent after I rejoined, except from the enemy's fire - the flannel kept the cold out. The men were always cheerful and I could do anything I liked with them; they were a brave set of fellows. Let our men but have fair treatment, and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that they would, if well officered, shake the biggest bullies on the Continent out of their boots and chase them off any field.

The loss of the Prince, on the evening of the 14th November, 1854, just outside the harbour of Balaclava, was the cause of thousands of poor fellows coming to an untimely end; for, in addition to an enormous supply of everything that could be thought of to combat the foe (such as small-arm ammunition, shot, and shell of all sizes, &c.), she had on board for the army:

Woollen coats or frocks
Pairs of worsted socks or stockings
Pairs of lamb's wool socks or stocking
Pairs of drawers - lamb's wool
Good blankets (single)
palliasses (single, for hospitals)
rugs (single)
cloaks, well lined with flannel
Pairs of boots (ankle)
Pairs of shoes, for hospitals

Eight other ships were lost, with nearly all hands on board, that night. The value of their freights has been estimated at £1,500,000. But the value of the stores and outfits for the army was incalculable; from that date the deplorable condition of the army commences.

Yet there were thousands of tons of stores lying at Balaclava, rotting. The Commissariat had completely broken down. All that was wanting, was someone with a head on to put things straight - all was higgledy-piggledy and confusion. The cavalry horses, that had cost an enormous amount, sank up to their knees in mud at every step, until they dropped exhausted; and all the way from the camp to Balaclava were to be seen dead horses, mules, and bullocks, in every stage of decomposition. And our poor fellows - who had fought so well at the Alma, Balaclava, and the two Inkermans - were now dying by hundreds daily.

The army was put upon half rations - half a pound of mouldy biscuit and half a pound of salt junk (beef or pork); coffee was served out, but in its raw green state, with no means of roasting it. No wood or firing was to be had, except a few roots that were dug up. Men would come staggering into the camp from the trenches soaked to the skin and ravenously hungry, when a half-pound of mouldy biscuit would be issued, with the same quantity of salt junk, so hard that one almost wanted a good hatchet to break it. The scenes were heart-rending.

The whole camp was one vast sheet of mud, the trenches in many places knee deep; men died at their posts from sheer exhaustion or starvation rather than complain, for if they reported themselves sick the medical chests were empty. And amidst all these privations the enemy kept peppering away at them. A bright but melancholy proof was then given of what Britons will endure before they give up. But, perhaps, one of the most mortifying pills that our poor fellows had to swallow was the knowledge that although they were dying by wholesale for want of shelter, clothing, and food, the huts had arrived in safety at Balaclava, or were floating about the harbour and being stolen by those handy little fellows the Zouaves, to make firewood of; the overcoats lay in lighters; while food and nourishment, and every comfort that could be thought of by kind-hearted people - such as potted meats of all descriptions, ground coffee, preserved soups, good thick, warm, flannel shirts, comforters knitted by ladies at home, flannel drawers, and good fustian jackets, waterproof coats and leggings, and tobacco in tons - were rotting in the harbour or stacked up upon the shore. A few men who were stationed at or near Balaclava got the lion's share.

The Guards had not much to complain of, for they were in clover - little or nothing to do, and if they did not exactly live upon the fat of the land, they ought to have done so. As for the unfortunate divisions that had, day after day and night after night, to face the foe in the trenches, hardly an officer or man but was suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery and, to make things worse, medicine was not to be had. Some of our regimental doctors actually begged the chief medical authorities, for humanity's sake, to let them have some medicine for diarrhoea or fever; but no - the answer was, 'We have none'.

'Have you any medicine for rheumatism?'
'No, we have none.'

Thus our fellow-countrymen were left to die, whilst tons of medicines of all descriptions were close at hand, floating in the harbour of Balaclava!

But I must be honest and say plainly that a vast deal of the sickness was brought on by the men themselves by excessive drinking. We were allowed three (and sometimes four) drams of the best rum daily, but from the manner in which it was issued it would not intoxicate the men, for it was divided into three or four parts, and in camp it was mixed with lime juice. But there were hundreds not satisfied with that, who would go anywhere, and do anything, to get more; and then - in all probability - fall down and, if not noticed by someone, the extreme cold soon settled up their account: frost-bitten, or frozen to death.

The whole army was in rags and filth, and half frozen in the trenches in front of the enemy. Not one, but hundreds, were stricken down by starvation; they were only about eight miles from plenty, and yet they were dying of hunger! There were clothing and medical stores in ship-loads, but no organization. Yet, with all this wretchedness, our men fought with undaunted bravery whenever the enemy attempted to trespass upon the ground they were told to hold,

In January, 1855, after thousands had died, the warm clothing was served out; but blankets were still short. And when men who had died in hospital were taken to their last abode, rolled up in a blanket, on arrival at the grave or pit the unfortunate dead - perhaps a loving son of some poor heart-broken mother - was rolled out of the blanket into his grave in a state of nudity and at once covered up with a few shovelfuls of earth - the blanket being brought back and washed, and becoming the property of one who had helped at the interment.

One of our sergeants had buried two poor fellows on a cold, bleak morning in January, but through some misunderstanding had left them in their blankets. On returning to camp, he met our Colonel, who enquired what he had been doing. When the poor fellow said that he was returning from the cemetery and that he had just interred two men, the Colonel roared out:

'Then where are the blankets, sir? Go back and get them and parade them before me, when washed!'

A kinder-hearted man, or a braver soldier, than our commander never faced the foe; but orders must be obeyed.

Some regiments were reduced to a single company and had to be sent out of the field, yet had not suffered much from the enemy. The Guards left home 2,500 strong, and reinforcements amounting to 1,500 had joined them; but by the end of 1854 they could only muster about 900 men fit for duty.

Lads were sent out and died almost as soon as they landed; one night in the trenches was quite enough for them - they either crawled back to camp and died, or were sent home again, or to Scutari, or Malta. A number of poor fellows were almost daily sent down to Balaclava on litters - one on either side of a mule. They formed a ghastly procession; many died before they reached the port.

Death was stalking all over our camp - on every side was cholera in its worst form, dysentery, diarrhoea, rheumatism, catarrh, and scurvy. Men were positively forbidden to take off their boots, as it was found impossible to get them on again; while some might be seen limping about the camp in the snow (two or three feet deep) with no boots of any sort; others with boots up to their knees, which they had borrowed from some dead Russian.

Some of our critics (newspaper correspondents) were at a loss to find out to what regiment a man really belonged, or even to what nation, as during the worst part of the winter no two men were dressed alike. Some had hay-bands bound round their legs, others had long stockings outside their rags or trousers; some had garters made from old knapsacks, others had leggings made from sheep skins, bullocks' hides, buffalo hides, horse hides - anything to keep out the extreme cold. Some had got hold of a Russian officer's overcoat, which was almost a load to carry. As for Joseph's coat of many colours, I do not think it would have taken a prize for patchwork by the side of some of our men's clothing! They say patch beside patch looks neighbourly; but our men's coats were nothing but rags tacked together. As for head dress, some had mess-tin covers that could be pulled down well over the ears; others had coverings for the head made out of old blankets, four or five times doubled.

Yet there was but little murmuring so long as the men could get sufficient to eat, and in the midst of all their troubles they were loyal to the backbone and would sing aloud 'God Save the Queen'. Some of their beards and moustaches were almost two feet long, and sometimes these were so frozen that they could not open their mouths until they could get to a fire to thaw them.

They were a queer-looking lot, but nothing but death could subdue them; they were not very 'illigant' [elegant] in their appearance, but one could read in their countenances that they meant death or victory.

During January, 1855, the men were informed that Her Most Gracious Majesty had been pleased to grant a medal with three clasps for the Crimean campaign - one for Alma, one for Balaclava, and one for Inkerman. Little Inkerman was not named, and some of the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, who had fought there were not satisfied. Some of our men enquired what we were to get for the town: 'Why, a star, of course! '

'A crack on the head, more likely!'

This was in January; we little dreamt then that we should have nine months' more continuous fighting before Sevastopol fell and that much more of the best blood of Britain was to be spilt long before then.

I have often thought since that my getting those two nasty pokes at Inkerman was the means, in the hands of God, of saving my life; for I thus escaped the hardships of the months of November and December, 1854, and January and February, 1855.

During my absence from the camp there was not much fighting going on, except at the 'Ovens' (as our men called them); for the enemy could not stand the intense cold any more than our men, though they had the best of us, as they had good shelter-huts until our guns knocked them about their ears.

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