British Foreign Policy 1815-65
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Taken from 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.
[The events described are in and after March 1855 following Gowing's return from hospital in Malta]
Our heavy guns still kept at it. I soon found my way into the trenches again and had a very narrow escape, not of being wounded, but of being 'taken in and done for', or killed on the spot.
In the dark, after posting some sentries, I took a wrong turn and went almost into the midst of the enemy. They could have shot me; but just then, I am sorry to say, we had a number of men deserting to the enemy, and I believe they thought I was one of that class. They soon found out their mistake, for I was off as fast as my legs could carry me in the opposite direction. As need scarcely be remarked, I did not wait to look behind me until I got close up to our own people, then I turned about and faced them.
That night I met for the first time that noble minded man, Captain Hedley Vicars. He and I had a long chat in the trench. Although I had heard of him, I had not until then known him personally. He was under the impression this was my first time in front of the enemy, as I told him I was nearly taken prisoner; but when I informed him I had been present at the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, and was wounded in the latter battle, he was quite astonished. He was very affable and kind, and his men seemed to be very fond of him. He appeared to be one of those cool, determined men that are sure to win the respect of all classes and will lead men at anything. As far as I could see, he had not a bit of pride about him. I told him about my comrade at the Alma.
'Well, Sergeant,' he said, 'the Lord's time is the right time; who is the best off now, you or he?'
He then asked me a number of questions about better things; I do not think I ever met such a man. His men seemed to be devotedly fond of him. Some of his sergeants told me he had used his good sword the night previous about some of the enemy, and they did not think the doctors would be of much use after he had done with them.
I spent some time with him next day, as the 97th touched our right, the left of their detachment meeting the right of ours. He invited me to his tent that night for prayer, as he told me a few who loved the Lord met there as often as they could. I did not profess anything at the time, but was going against light and knowledge. I went once, and only once, before he was killed. He was a Christian, and was not ashamed of his Master, but yet a most determined soldier for his country.
I was with Captain Vicars once more in the trenches before that miserable night, the 22nd March - mud! mud!! mud!! We had a lot of sickness in the camp and duty was very heavy for those who could do it. The old Light Division had been strengthened by the 34th to the First Brigade, and the 90th and 97th to the Second Brigade; but with sickness and hardships they (like ourselves) were not very strong - except in the head.
A good strong party of us, under the command of Captain the Hon. C. Brown, went into the trenches on the 22nd. It blew a perfect hurricane, with rain and sleet; it came down just anyhow. We were standing up to our ankles in mud and water, like a lot of half frozen, half drowned rats, when, about 10 30 p.m., the enemy attacked our allies. It was dark as the grave and, in fact, we could not see one yard in front of us. We had strong parties of the Light Division in our advanced works.
Our plight was, I suppose, not bad enough; the enemy came out and attacked us in both flanks and front. They came on pretending that they were French, and in the dark we could not see them. The enemy got right in the midst of us before we know anything of their whereabouts, and then we set to work with the bayonet. Talk about hard knocks - they were served out that night as freely as ever they were! It was foot and fist, butt and bayonet, as hard as we could go at it; in fact they could have it any way they liked: the fighting was desperate.
It was charge and recharge, officers shouting to their men:
'This way, this way, Fusiliers!'
'Come on, 90th!'
'Now at them, 97th!'
We had to grope for them the best way we could, stumbling over friend and foe. Up and at them again. Officers fighting with desperation, shouting all the time, 'Come on, my lads, stick to them!'
The enemy came on in overwhelming numbers - there were enough to eat us - but we stuck to them with a death like grip until they were driven back. We lost both our officers that night. Our Captain was killed and one of our lieutenants dangerously wounded - a Mr. Henry, who was a fine specimen of a British soldier; he was a man of about six feet two and a half inches, and before he fell he let the enemy know what metal he was made of. Captain Vicars received his death wound while nobly leading the 97th and us, shouting with all his might, 'This way, 97th! Come on, Fusiliers!'
The news flew that Captain Vicars had fallen, and the men rushed in the direction in which it was said he was and literally lifted the enemy from the field with the bayonet. The 97th were brought up to a state of madness to think that so kind and good an officer should fall by the hands of such fiends.
Our men took a terrible revenge for his death. A number of our bayonets were bent like reaping hooks next morning, and all around where that noble Christian fell the enemy lay thick, one on top of the other. They fought with desperation, but that never failing weapon, the bayonet, was too much for them.
The enemy were at last sent reeling from the field with our bayonets uncomfortably close to them. It was one of the most desperate attacks the Russians had made since the commencement of the siege, and the slaughter was in proportion. The bayonet was the chief weapon used and, after poor Captain Vicars fell, it was used with a will and with a vengeance.
One Russian was caught trying to walk off with one of our small mortars. He was a huge monster, but some ten inches of cold steel, from a man named Pat Martin, stopped his career. Another, a Greek priest, fired his revolver into our small arm magazine, but luckily no harm was done. He was at once bayoneted; next morning he was seen to be a powerful fellow.
Poor Captain Vicars was brought into the trench and placed upon a stretcher. He seemed quite cheerful, said he did not think it was much and hoped soon to be able to go at them again. These were not, perhaps, his exact words, but the substance of them, as nearly as I can remember. He was then sent home to camp, but before he reached it his spirit had fled. A noble and brave man, he did not know what fear was as far as the enemy was concerned, but he loved the Lord with all his heart and soul. Her Most Gracious Majesty had lost by that fatal bullet one of Britain's bravest sons; and all around the spot where poor Vicars had fallen it was evident that the bayonet had done terrible work.
The total force engaged that night was about 1,500 men against 15,000. The enemy let us alone for the remainder of the night, and next morning there was a flag of truce out. They had paid heavily for their intrusion, for in places they lay in heaps, one on top of the other. I do believe - for the time it lasted - it was worse than Inkerman. It was nothing but butt and bayonet, and some of our Lancashire boys did not forget to use their feet. Thank God, I got out of it without a scratch worth mentioning. I managed to lose my cap, a shot went through the collar of my coat, and one through my trousers.
We were relieved next morning; and in the evening poor Captain Vicars was laid in his cold grave, together with other officers. The 97th seemed to feel his loss keenly and over his grave strong men wept like a lot of children who had lost a fond father, and then vowed they would revenge him the first opportunity; that vow was kept not only by the 97th - the Captain was a general favourite throughout the Light Division.
One day in March I was one of the sergeants with a party of men that had been sent to Balaclava to bring up supplies in the way of biscuit and pork, or salt junk (salt beef). We had a young officer with us, well mounted, who had but little compassion for poor fellows who were doing their best, trudging through the mud up to their ankles, with a heavy load upon their backs. The party were not going fast enough to suit the whim of our young and inexperienced commander, who called out to the writer:
'Take this man's name, Sergeant, and make a prisoner of him when we get home.'
The unfortunate man was doing his best to keep up, and he gave our young officer such a contemptuous look as I shall not forget as long as I live. Throwing his load of biscuit down in the mud, he exclaimed:
'Man indade! Soger indade! I'm only a poor broken down commissariat mule!'
Here a light hearted fellow burst out with 'There's a good time coming, boys!'
The poor fellow was made a prisoner of at once, for insubordination. But when I explained the case to our Colonel he took quite a different view of the matter, forgave the man, and presented him with a pair of good warm socks and a pair of new boots; for the poor fellow had nothing but uppers and no soles for his old ones. And in order to teach our smart young officer how to respect men who were trying to do their duty sentenced him to three extra fatigues to Balaclava - and to walk it, the same as any other man.
Patient Heroes: a cartoon from Punch, 1856. Click on the image for a larger view.
On another occasion I had to take charge of a party of men (about forty), march them to Balaclava to bring up blankets. In due course, after trudging through the mud for nine miles, I presented my requisition to the Deputy Assistant-Quartermaster General, who informed me that it was not signed by the Quartermaster General of the Division, and that I should not have an article until it was duly signed. I informed him that the men were dying daily for the want of blankets. He ordered me to be silent and, with language that is not parliamentary, he informed me he did not care - a correct return, or no stores - shouting like a half mad man:
'Here, take this document back, and when it is correctly signed you can then have the blankets.'
I informed him that I had a party of forty men with me and that if he gave me the blankets the return should be sent back, correctly signed. But no; he had not the feelings of humanity in him. I was ordered out like a dog.
I at once handed my men over to another sergeant of ours (that was stationed at Balaclava to look after the interests of the regiment) and, with a little coaxing, managed to borrow a good strong mule. Away I went back to camp, as fast as the poor brute could move, straight to the Colonel's tent. The first salute I got from one that had the feelings of humanity and who had frequently proved himself as brave as a lion (Colonel L. W. Yea), was, 'What's up, Gowing?'
I at once explained all, handing the document to him. As quick as thought he called to his servant: 'Brock, get this sergeant something to eat and drink.'
Mounting his old cob, away he went, and in less than fifteen minutes was back again, Rushing into the tent he exclaimed,
'Well, Sergeant, what are you going to do now?'
'Go back, sir, and get the blankets, if you have got the signature of the Quartermaster General.'
'Here you are, then.'
I was up and out of camp before he had time to say more. I found my mule had a lot of pluck in him, so I gave him his head and let him go. We looked a pair of beauties when I pulled up at our young swell's hut and presented the signature. I at once got my stores of priceless blankets, and marched back.
I found that a number of my men had been taking water well diluted during my absence. A wild youth from the Green Isle said that that was the best fatigue he had had since he left ould Ireland - handing me a bottle to whet my eye with. I found that most of my party had something besides blankets to keep out the cold; but we got home all right, without any trouble.
In less than a month after, I had the pleasure of meeting our gallant Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General in the trenches, up to his knees in mud and water, like the remainder; he had been sent to his duty. I thought at once of his treatment of me and my party. He appeared such a shiftless creature, shrivelled up with cold, that I felt compelled to offer him my tin pot of hot coffee to revive him a little. He, poor lad, recognized me and apologized for his treatment, which I knew well arose from want of experience and thought.
We had now some hard hitting almost every day or night. We commenced gradually to creep up to the doomed city - here a bit and there a bit, shots being continuously exchanged. All the enemy's outworks had to be seized, and that was no child's play. The taking of their rifle pits was fearful work; it was all done in the darkness of night. Rifle pits are holes - large or small - constructed in various ways and manned by crack shots, who tormented us considerably by picking off our artillerymen, and the sailors manning our heavy guns; if anyone showed his head above the parapets of our trenches be was almost certain to have a hole made in it.
The taking of these pits was, as I have said, fearful work, and was all done with the bayonet, This work is generally undertaken by volunteers from the various regiments that happen to be in the trenches at the time. I volunteered to form one of these 'nice little evening parties' - but I wished to go no more! Yet, had I been ordered, I would have gone, for I had rather die a thousand deaths than be dishonoured.
About 100 or 150 (sometimes 300 or 400) men would be formed up at the point nearest to the pits to be assailed, all hands sometimes taking off their accoutrements. At a sign from the officers who are going to lead, the men creep over the top of the trench and steal up to the enemy on all fours. Not a word is spoken but, at a given signal, in they all go - and in less time than it takes me to write this, it is all over; the bayonet has done its work. The defenders are all utterly destroyed or taken prisoners, while the pits are at once turned and made to face the enemy, or are converted into a trench. Therefore, with this sort of work going on, I think I am justified in saying that hard knocks were given and taken almost every night.
As far as the camp was concerned, things began to look much brighter. Thanks to the kind hearted friends at home, we now had plenty of good food, and sickness was on the decrease. We had a few petty annoyances, such as being compelled to wear stocks and to pipe day our belts so as to make us conspicuous targets for the enemy. As for the fighting, we had plenty of that, but we managed to get over it, I think as well as our forefathers had done. It was give and take; but we generally contrived to let the enemy have excellent interest.
This map is taken from Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan, (Longmans, 1961), p. 94, with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr Hibbert.
Click on the image for a larger view
On the morning of Easter Monday [8 April] the camp was shaken by the commencement of the second bombardment. The French opened fire with some 350 heavy guns and our people with about 220 guns and mortars. The enemy returned the fire with spirit, with some 600 of the heaviest guns and mortars, exclusive of their shipping. It was something grand, but awful; the ground seemed to tremble beneath the terrible fire. I was in camp but felt compelled to go up to the Victoria Redoubt to have a look at it. The Russians frequently fired in salvoes, against both us and our allies.
This duel of the artillery went on day after day, but it all ended in nothing, the enemy's works appearing to be as strong after all this expense and loss of life as before the bombardment commenced. As Sir G. Brown once said, the longer we looked at the place the uglier it got, and it would have to be taken the old way, let the consequences be what they might; the bayonet must do what shot and shell could not. So our people set to work to creep up to the prize, that had baffled all our united fire of artillery, and try the effect of cold steel.
Every obstacle had to go down in order to enable us to get up to their works, and during the remainder of April and May we had some terrible fighting. More rifle pits had to be taken, and the old Light Division sustained another heavy loss in Colonel Egerton of the 77th, who had from the commencement of the campaign proved himself one of Britain's truest sons. He fell dead at the taking of the rifle pits that were afterwards named 'Egerton's Pits'; he was one of the biggest men I ever saw in uniform. The old Pot Hooks (the 77th) fought in a most dashing manner and, although they had lost their Colonel, their spirits were not damped, but they went at it with a will as conquerors.
The enemy tried hard that night to retake the pits, but it was no go. They were met with a fire that mowed them down by wholesale; they then got the bayonet. The 77th were backed up by a good strong party of the 33rd, and detachments of almost every regiment of the Light Division - the 97th could be heard distinctly shouting:
'Remember Captain Vicars, boys!'
'Stick to them!'
'Give it home, my lads!'
The fighting was of a most formidable and determined character but the pits remained in the hands of the conquerors of Alma, Balaclava, and the two Inkermans. It would be impossible for me to describe all the different combats, but every inch of ground up to the town had to be dearly purchased by blood.
An evening party at Sevastopol: Punch cartoon, 1856. Click on the image for a larger view
Punch might well put it that the Crimean army was an army of lions led by donkeys. More than half the officers did not know how to manoeuvre a company - all, or nearly so, had to be left to non commissioned officers - but it would be impossible to dispute their bravery, for they were brave unto madness. The writer has seen them lead at the deadly bayonet charges, and at the walls and bloodstained parapets of Sevastopol, as freely as they would have led off in a ballroom - and our officers at Inkerman let the enemy see that they knew how to fight as well as to dance; for there was no manoeuvring, nothing but plain hard hitting and fair English fighting (not cooking).
Nothing particular occurred to note, now, except that a steady stream of men kept joining us, particularly the French, and we now had a splendid army in front of the doomed city. Our men were burning to go at it and take it, or die in the attempt; but we had some more outworks yet to capture before we were let loose.
From the early morning on the 7th of June the French were passing through our camp on the way to the trenches. The Imperial Guards and Zouaves appeared in high spirits, and our men turned out and cheered them lustily. When their new chief, Pelissier, with General Bosquet, went by you would have thought our people had gone mad; General Bosquet was a great favourite with the entire army, and Pelissier was known to be a most resolute man. Our men cheered them heartily, throwing their caps into the air. The fire eating Bosquet and his chief seemed to appreciate the reception they got from the old Light Division, As soon as the cheering had subsided a little, the two leaders stopped, and Bosquet called out:
'Thank you, my men!' Then, with his hand up to stop us from shouting, 'We shall be at them before long, shoulder to shoulder - and then, my boys, stick to them!'
Our men cheered them until they were hoarse. Some of our officers turned out to see what was up, but the French had passed on.
We shortly afterwards fell in and marched into the trenches. We knew well that there was something to be done, but things were kept very quiet. We mustered pretty strongly in our old advanced works. The French went at the Mamelon in a masterly style, column after column, and as fast as one column melted away another took its place. We had a splendid view of it - it was grand - and we could distinctly see one of the vivandières, on horseback, moving with the throng, and then dismount. We cheered them most heartily.
In the afternoon I marched off with a strong party of our regiment; we had some wild spirits of officers with us that would lead men at anything. We soon found that they had a nice little job cut out for us: all their outworks had to be taken from them. We were told off to take the Quarries. We had strong parties of the Light and Second Divisions with us, and about 5.30 p.m. the 7th Royal Fusiliers and the 88th Connaught Rangers dashed at them. It was England and Ireland side by side; the enemy might well look astonished, for our bayonets were soon in the midst of them. It was rough hard hitting for about half an hour; it was a little piece of work well done.
They were routed out of the Quarries and our people set to work with pick and shovel as hard as men could work. But the enemy were no mean foe; they were armed with as good a weapon as ourselves and were not going to submit to being shut up in the town without giving some hard blows. They came on repeatedly with strong columns and tried to retake them from us. But the old Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers, assisted by detachments of various regiments of the Second and Light Divisions, on each occasion sent them reeling back.
The fighting then became desperate. The bayonet was freely used on both sides; but although the enemy were three or four to one they shrank back, and although their officers tried to lead them on they could not be brought to a determined rush. Thank God, I escaped once more, but it would be impossible for me to tell how.
We ran short of ammunition, and then we were in a nice mess. We used stones, as we did at Inkerman, and as soon as they came close enough we went at them with that ugly bit of cold steel; we proved them again to be cowardly beggars in the open field.
I am not altogether certain that some of the 88th did not use their teeth - all is fair in love and war. Both officers and men fought with desperation. It was resolved by all of us not to be beaten, but at times we were under such a fire of grape and musketry that it appeared impossible for anything to live. As far as I could see, all had made up their minds to die rather than turn their backs on the foe; and we had that night leaders who knew how to die but could hardly run. As far as the old 7th Fusiliers were concerned, we had some splendid officers: Mills, Turner, Waller, Jones, Fitzclarence - all courageous men, just the right sort to lead a storming party; Mr. Jones and Waller repeatedly led our men at the enemy during that sanguinary night.
At times, all was confusion, uproar, and smoke. Dust and showers of stones flew like hail. It was hot work all night, but we meant to win or die. The hurrahs of our follows told both friend and foe that our blood was up. If we were short of ammunition we had plenty of steel; we had a Wolseley with us, and others as good, but nearly all our commanders bit the dust, dead or wounded.
I had the honour of taking a man's name that evening for a most daring act: bringing up a barrel of ammunition on his head across the open field under a tremendous fire, throwing it at our feet, exclaiming:
'Here you are, my lads, fire away!'
I had the pleasure of meeting him afterwards in India, with the cross upon his noble breast - 'Gunner Arthur'. But Arthur was not alone; two of our men - Private Matthew Hughes and Corporal Gumley - did exactly the same. Hughes, smoking his old day pipe all the time, exclaimed:
'Keep it up, lads! Lend a hand, sir, to distribute these pills,' addressing a young officer.
The fighting all night was of a deadly character, but we had then got the Quarries and were not going to let the enemy have them again.
As for the Mamelon, it was ding-dong hard pounding. Five times the French went at it - the fifth column was blown into the air to a man, guns, platforms, and all - and then with maddening shouts the gallant sons of France went at the ruins and, in spite of the barbarous brutes, took them. The Zouaves followed them up and went right into the Malakoff, where a great number fell; but it was not the intention to take, or attempt to take, that work. Our hands were full - we had all we could do to maintain our position - but we found time to give our heroic allies three times three, for they richly deserved it.
All the enemy's attempts at retaking the Quarries were baffled, for some fourteen times they were hurled back with terrible slaughter; we were now under good cover, the pick and shovel having been at it all night.
Returning to camp next morning, we were thanked for our conduct by Lord Raglan, who promised to report all for the information of Her Most Gracious Majesty. We were heartily greeted by our comrades. Our loss had been very heavy - in killed and wounded, the Mamelon, Quarries, and Circular Trench, had cost the allies close upon 3,500 men - but yet our people were full of hope; the enemy had lost all their outworks, and every inch of ground was hotly disputed. The Quarries were afterwards well named 'The Shambles', for we daily, up to the 8th September, lost a number of men in them from the cross fires of the enemy.
We had now some rough work - from the 7th to the 17th June it was one continual fight. We had a magnificent army around or in front of the south side of the town, and our men were burning to go and take it. We had now been some nine months besieging the town, which had for that time defied the United powers of France, England, and Turkey, assisted by some 15,000 Sardinians. It is true the latter had nothing to do with the actual siege, but they took the place of our men or the French in guarding our communications.
One great battle - Alma - had been fought to get at it, and two others had been fought in order to prevent the raising of the siege - Balaclava and Inkerman - and the civilized world were again asking when the last great coup would be made.
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