Crimean War – Early Moves II


Raglan insisted on sending British soldiers into battle in tight-fitting tunics and tall shakos that might have made them look spectacular when marched in strict formation on the parade ground but which in a battle were quite impractical. When Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War, wrote to him in May suggesting that the dress code ought to be relaxed and that perhaps the men might be excused from shaving every day, Raglan replied:

I view your proposition for the introduction of beards in somewhat a different light, and it cannot be necessary to adopt it at present. I am somewhat old-fashioned in my ideas, and I cling to the desire that an Englishman should look like an Englishman, notwithstanding that the French are endeavouring to make themselves appear as Africans, Turks, and Infidels. I have always remarked in the lower orders in England, that their first notion of cleanliness is shaving, and I dare say this feeling prevails in a great deal in our ranks, though some of our officers may envy the hairy men amongst our Allies. However, if when we come to march and are exposed to great heat and dirt, I remark that the sun makes inroads on the faces of the men, I will consider whether it be desirable to relax or not, but let us appear as Englishmen.

The sanction against beards did not last beyond the July heat, but the British soldier was still ridiculously overdressed compared to the light and simple uniforms of the Russians and the French, as Lieutenant Colonel George Bell of the 1st (Royal) Regiment complained:

A suit on his back & a change in his pack is all the men require but still he is loaded like a donkey – Great coat & blanket, tight … belts that cling to his lungs like death, his arms and accoutrements, 60 rounds of Minié ammunition, pack & contents. The stiff leather choker we have abolished thanks to ‘Punch’ and the ‘Times’. The reasoning of 40 years experience would not move the military authorities to let the soldier go into the field until he was half strangled & unable to move under his load until public opinion and the Newspapers came in to relieve him. The next thing I want to pitch aside is the abominable Albert,u as it is called, whereon a man may fry his ration beef at mid-day in this climate, the top being patent leather to attract a 10 fold more portion of the sun’s rays to madden his brain.

Encamped on the plains around Varna, with nothing much to do but wait for news from the fighting at Silistria, the British and French troops sought out entertainments in the drinking-places and brothels of the town. The hot weather and warnings not to drink the local water resulted in a monstrous drinking binge, especially of the local raki, which was very cheap and strong. ‘Thousands of Englishmen and Frenchmen thronged together in the improvised taverns,’ wrote Paul de Molènes, ‘where all the wines and liquors of our countries poured out into noisy drunkenness … The Turks stood outside their doors and watched without emotion or surprise these strange defenders that Providence had sent to them.’ Drunken fighting between the men was a daily problem in the town. Hugh Fitzhardinge Drummond, an adjutant of the Scots Fusilier Guards, wrote to his father from Varna:

Our friends, the Highlanders, drink like fishes, and our men … drink more than they did at Scutari. The Zouaves are the most ill-behaved and lawless miscreants you can imagine; they commit every crime. They executed another man the day before yesterday. Last week a Chasseur de Vincennes was nearly cut in half by one of these ruffians, with a short sword, in a fit of mad drunkenness. The French drink a great deal – I think as much as our men – and when drunk are more insubordinate.

Complaints from the residents of Varna multiplied. The town was populated mainly by Bulgarians, but there was a sizeable Turkish minority. They were irritated by soldiers demanding alcohol from Muslim-owned cafés and becoming violent when they were told that it was not sold. They might have been excused for wondering whether their defenders were a greater danger to them than the menace of Russia, as British naval officer Adolphus Slade observed from his vantage point in Constantinople:

French soldiers lounged in the mosques during prayers, ogled licentiously the veiled ladies, poisoned the street dogs … shot the gulls in the harbour and the pigeons in the streets, mocked the muezzins chanting ezzan from the minarets, and jocosely broke up carved tombstones for pavement … The Turks had heard of civilization: they now saw it, as they thought, with amazement. Robbery, drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution revelled under the glare of an eastern sun.

The British quickly formed an ill opinion of the Turkish soldiers, who set up camp beside them on the plains around Varna. ‘The little I have seen of the Turks makes me think they are very poor allies,’ Raglan’s aide-de-camp Kingscote wrote to his father. ‘I am certain they are the greatest liars on the face of the earth. If they say they have 150,000 men you will find that on enquiry there are only 30,000. Everything in the same proportion, and from all I hear, I cannot make out why the Russians have not walked over them.’ The French also did not think much of the Turkish troops, although the Zouaves, who contained a large contingent of Algerians, established good relations with the Turks. Louis Noir thought the British soldiers had a racist and imperial attitude towards the Turks that made them widely hated by the Sultan’s troops.

The English soldiers believed they had come to Turkey, not to save it, but to conquer it. At Gallipoli they would often have their fun by accosting a Turkish gentleman along the beach; they would draw a circle around him and tell him that this circle was Turkey; then they would make him leave the circle and cut it into two, naming one half ‘England’ and the other ‘France’, before pushing the Turk away into something which they called ‘Asia’.

Colonial prejudice limited the use the Western powers were prepared to make of the Turkish troops. Napoleon III thought the Turks were lazy and corrupt while Lord Cowley, the British ambassador in Paris, advised Raglan that ‘no Turk was to be trusted’ with any military responsibility essential to national security. The Anglo-French commanders thought the Turks were only good at fighting behind fortifications. They were ready to use them for auxiliary tasks such as digging trenches, but assumed they lacked the discipline or courage to fight alongside European troops on the open battlefield.25 The success of the Turks in holding off the Russians at Silistria (which was largely put down to the British officers) did not change these racist attitudes, which would become even more pronounced when the campaign shifted to the Crimea.

As it was, the Turks were doing more than hold their own against the Russians, who launched one last assault against Silistria on 22 June. On the morning of the 21st, Gorchakov went with his staff to inspect the trenches before the Arab Tabia, where the attack would begin. Tolstoy was impressed by Gorchakov (he would later draw on him for his portrait of General Kutuzov in War and Peace). ‘I saw him under fire for the first time that morning,’ he wrote to his brother Nikolai. ‘You can see he’s so engrossed in the general course of events that he simply doesn’t notice the bullets and cannon-balls.’ Throughout that day, to weaken the resistance of the Turks, 500 Russian guns bombarded their fortifications; the firing continued late into the night. The assault was set for three in the morning. ‘There we all were,’ Tolstoy wrote, and, ‘as always on the eve of a battle, we were all pretending not to think of the following day as anything more than an ordinary day, while all of us, I’m quite sure, at the bottom of our hearts felt a slight pang (and not even slight, but pronounced) at the thought of the assault’.

As you know, Nikolai, the period that precedes an engagement is the most unpleasant – it’s the only period when you have the time to be afraid, and fear is one of the most unpleasant feelings. Towards morning, the nearer the moment came, the more this feeling diminished, and towards 3 o’clock, when we were all waiting to see the shower of rockets let off as the signal for the attack, I was in such a good humour that I would have been very upset if someone had come to tell me that the assault wouldn’t take place.

What he feared most happened. At two o’clock in the morning, an aide-de-camp brought Gorchakov a message, ordering him to raise the siege. ‘I can say without fear of error’, Tolstoy told his brother,

that this news was received by all – soldiers, officers and generals – as a real misfortune, all the more so since we knew through spies who came to us very often from Silistria, and with whom I very often had occasion to talk myself, that once this fort was taken – something of which nobody had any doubt – Silistria couldn’t hold out for more than two or three days.

What Tolstoy did not know, or refused to take into account, was that by this stage there were 30,000 French, 20,000 British and 20,000 Turkish troops ready to reinforce the defence of Silistria, and that Austria, which had massed 100,000 troops along the Serbian frontier, had served an ultimatum to the Tsar to withdraw from the Danubian principalities. Austria had effectively adopted a policy of armed neutrality in favour of the allies, mobilizing Habsburg troops to force the Russians to withdraw from the Danube. Fearful of uprisings among their own Slavs, the Austrians were worried by the Russian presence in the principalities, which looked more like annexation every day. If the Austrians attacked the Russians from the west, there was a real possibility that they would cut them off from their lines of supply on the Danube and block their main path of retreat, leaving them exposed to the allied armies attacking from the south. The Tsar had no choice but to retreat before his army was destroyed.

Nicholas felt a deep sense of betrayal by the Austrians, whose empire he had saved from the Hungarians in 1849. He had developed a paternal affection for the Emperor Franz Joseph, more than thirty years his junior, and felt that he deserved his gratitude. Visibly saddened and shaken by the news of the ultimatum, he turned Franz Joseph’s portrait to the wall and wrote on the back of it in his own hand: ‘Du Undankbarer!’ (You ungrateful man!) He told the Austrian envoy Count Esterhazy in July that Franz Joseph had completely forgotten what he had done for him and that ‘because the confidence which had existed until now between the two sovereigns for the happiness of their empires was destroyed, the same intimate relations could not exist between them any more’

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