The Franco-British Expedition to break Russian power in the Black Sea.
Individual members of the Diehard Company have re-created the uniform and accoutrements of the soldiers of the early period of this war. Scroll down to learn more about British infantry in the first year of the Crimean War.
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by Graham Gillmore
In 1854 religious and diplomatic tension between Russia and Turkey had turned into open warfare, Great Britain declared war on Russia in March and on 11th April signed a treaty with France allying them with Turkey. At first there was no obvious geographical focal point so regiments were concentrated at Malta in a show of force, some came from abroad but most were from the home army.
The Brigade of Guards, consisting of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, were reviewed on the 23rd March on Floriana Parade with a total strength of 94 Officers, 107 Sergeants, 52 Drummers, and 2,314 Rank and File. The next day the 77th (East Middlesex) Regiment arrived from England with 28 Officers, 816 men, 17 women, and 5 children. When the 88th Regiment (Connaught Rangers) landed on 13th April it was composed of 32 Officers, 46 Sergeants, 15 Drummers, and 849 Rank and File.
The army was in good condition, the regiments were up to strength and the men were mature old soldiers experienced in the rigours of army life. Prior to 1847 recruits joined for life or until discharged as medically unfit, in that year new terms of service were introduced which allowed men to join the infantry for ten years, and the cavalry and artillery for twelve years, they could then leave without a pension or re-engage for a total of twenty one years with pension in the infantry, and twenty four years in the cavalry and artillery. Each of the three Guards battalions were formed with drafts from their other battalions remaining at home so that they initially had an effective strength of 800 men in eight companies, each man had more than seven, and less than eighteen years service. They did however have boys serving in the corps of drums. Unlike line regiments who had a band on the strength of every battalion, the Guards only had one band for each regiment, and they had remained in London. By the time of embarkation the Grenadier battalion numbered 949 men.
The Army of the East in Malta moved to Turkey and was for a couple of months camped in and around Scutari. Then in June the army deployed to Varna in Bulgaria in support of Turkish operations on the Danube, here the French General Vanson made many meticulous sketches of our troops. It is these drawings together with Roger Fenton’s photographs that are our best visual source of uniform detail. The army remained in Bulgaria for three months or so before embarking for the Crimea.
Most of the men came from rural backgrounds, but changes in the social make up of Britain meant that recruits were becoming more urban in origin. The country recruit was still preferred because it was considered that his stronger physique and slower turn of mind were more in keeping with the requirements of the private soldier. The amount of Irishmen serving in the army was diminishing but their number still exceeded their proportion of the population; indeed, mostly Irishmen manned the 77th Regiment despite its Middlesex connection. In a country with no free education system overwhelmingly the men were under-educated with one in five illiterate and unable even to sign his name. Some Gaelic speaking Scotsmen and Irishmen could not even understand English before enlisting.
Low pay meant that after stoppages the private soldier only had sufficient money left for his beer, beer sometimes led to drunkenness and indiscipline, which led to arrest, fines, imprisonment or flogging. Following the death after punishment of Private Frederick White of the 7th Hussars1, the army gave way to reformers and in 1847 reduced the maximum number of strokes to fifty. Whilst in Turkey newly promoted Lance Corporal William McMillan aged 29 of the Coldstream Guards recorded in his diary, 1st June,
Whilst at Varna the army was caught in the great and terrible cholera outbreak. It was no respecter of health or wealth, and officers and men went down to the disease by the hundreds, with only basic medical knowledge and facilities it was left to nature to decide the fate of the victims. The 97th (Earl of Ulster’s) Regiment had not yet joined the Army of the East, it had been camped in Greece for two months when Captain Hedley Vicars (OC the Light Company) wrote in a letter dated 26th August,
Many men recovered from the disease but were left enfeebled for some time afterwards. It should have been a time of despair in the regimental camps with so many of their comrades carried off, but sport, music and other activities were encouraged along with training on the new Pattern ’51 minie rifle2, these succeeded in keeping up the men’s spirits, in fact they were as enthusiastic as ever to get to grips with the ‘Rooshuns’, and when Sevastopol in the Crimea was announced as their destination the three hundred mile journey away from the cholera was greatly welcomed. In fact the infection followed them.
The men were not incapable of making their own amusement, and the soldier’s ability of drinking to excess was not hindered by being on campaign. Lance Corporal McMillan recorded in his diary a night out with his friend Curtis McCaul,
This experience did not hold back his career; in two further months he had achieved full corporal.
The want of extra or replacement clothing and equipment was already being felt. George Higginson the Adjutant of the Grenadier Guards wrote after the war,
The army had changed little since the Napoleonic wars; in fact the thirty-nine years of peace had left it unprepared for large-scale operations. The command and logistic failures are well known and I only refer to them here because of the direct detrimental effect it had on the welfare of the men during the campaign.
Prior to the landing in the Crimea the regiments set up their camps in bell tents, each weighed about 70 lbs and was 10 feet high and 18 feet in external diameter; they were arranged in company lines. The men would sleep with their feet next to the central pole, their bodies radiating out like the spokes of a wheel, and there was just enough room between their heads and the tent wall for the storage of their knapsack and personal kit. As many as fifteen men could be so accommodated, the old soldiers at the very back and the newest soldiers sleeping by the door flap in the draught and trodden on during the night time comings and goings. Ration meat was issued raw to be cooked by the men at the start of the day, a cooking pot was issued to one man in ten for this purpose, and for collecting firewood a billhook was also issued to every tenth man. The few wives that accompanied the regiments did the men’s laundry.
In September the Army of the East arrived in the Crimea and by that time the men had spent five months living in the clothes they stood up in. Lance Corporal McMillan had earlier recorded in his diary,
McMillan was down to one pair of socks prior to the Alma, then they were stolen and he spent the winter without any.
On being sent abroad each of the regiments would have left two of their ten companies behind to act as a depot, these recruited and trained the men who would form the drafts of reinforcements needed to keep the regiment up to strength in the field. The company was the basic fighting sub unit of the battalion, but for control each company was divided into four sections commanded by sergeants. The most important symbols of the regiment, both on and off the battlefield were its colours, the Queen’s Colour and the Regimental Colour, carried by the most junior officers and guarded by sergeants or picked steady men. Their purpose was to indicate the centre of the regiment and so mark the rallying point for the men in the confusion of battle. The fiercest fighting and the most gallant acts of bravery occurred during the defence of these treasured items. With the exception the Guards all other regiment had their bands present, they provided valuable morale raising entertainment for the men during their breaks from duty, and served as stretcher-bearers during action. Bandsmen’s uniforms were white instead of red, and they carried a sword for their personal defence.
Some thought had gone into the welfare of the men, on 23rd June when the army was still at Varna it was ordered that the leather stocks worn around the men’s necks were no longer to be worn at any time. In July the rule requiring them to be clean-shaven was relaxed, allowing them to grow beards. Because of the weakened state of so many men Lord Raglan ordered that the knapsacks were not to be taken on the landing, instead the few necessaries3 required for their immediate use would be folded into the buff coloured blanket and with the greatcoat worn on the back using the knapsack carrying straps. However there was no transport to carry the remaining kit, nor their tents, so the men had to go without what few spare items they did have and sleep in the open, on the first night ashore it rained.
The army advanced towards Sevastopol and on the 20th September at the River Alma fought their first battle, in a magnificent display of determined fighting they showed that they still had reserves of toughness when it mattered. With our French and Turkish allies the siege of the city commenced, all future battles would be fought within a short distance from camp so the men were not hampered by heavy kit, only their bayonet, ammunition pouch, water bottle and haversack containing the day’s rations. McMillan, now promoted to Corporal, recorded the arrival of the tents on 14th October,
He mentioned how dirty they all were living and sleeping in their clothes with no water to wash anything. He described their rations,
The coatees, scarlet for officers and sergeants, red for the other ranks, would by now be a range of reddish hues. The woollen material goes pink after long exposure to the sun and takes on a purple colour after getting wet in the rain, and these uniforms had experienced plenty of both. A fast red dye has never been found so the white lace and piping would also very quickly turn pink. After the Alma bits of enemy uniform were taken into use,
A similar experience was described by Private Edward Hyde of the 49th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s Hertfordshire) Regiment in an article written for Young England. He had been a soldier for thirteen years.
On the 20th November the 97th Regiment arrived in the Crimea and joined the army besieging Sevastopol, Captain Hedley Vicars was shocked by what he found
This, of course, was after the battle of Inkerman (5th November) where the Guards distinguished themselves so decisively.
Day and night the regiments took their turn at the siege works, either as fatigue parties digging the trenches on the approach to the city walls, or in defence of the works. Captain Hedley’s high sense of duty was demonstrated in a letter sent early in December,
On the 12th January he was able to report the good news that warm clothing had arrived, however the bad news was that there was no more firewood to be had, it was snowing, and the strain of duties in the trenches was now very severe due to their rapidly decreasing numbers.
At home recruitment was accelerated to provide the extra manpower needed but these inexperienced young soldiers were no substitute for the mature veterans whose numbers had so dwindled, indeed, Lord Raglan rejected one draft of 2,000 for being too young. That they were not up to the rigors of winter campaigning became quickly apparent, Corporal McMillan wrote in December ‘All the recruits went sick and died poor fellows. We have found men dead in their tents in the morning. Perished with the cold and starved to death.’ In an account of the campaign written in 1888 by Colonel H.F. Eaton, he gives an idea of the attrition suffered by the Guards at that time. On the 2nd February 1855 The Brigade paraded with a strength of approximately 450 men (196 Grenadiers, 128 Coldstreams, and 120 Scots Fusiliers), all that were left fit for duty out of the 4.000 Guardsmen who left England on the initial embarkation and subsequent drafts. Debilitated by cholera, dysentery, and battle casualties, and ill equipped to survive the winter the Army of the East almost ceased to exist.
Casualties had reduced regimental strengths to dangerously low levels, yet the demand for manpower in the siege trenches remained undiminished, the men having to contend with the winter weather on top of their already miserable conditions. Captain Vicars recorded one such duty,
The men had no waterproof clothing only their ineffectual greatcoats made of thin grey woollen material.
Subaltern Henry Malet described their dress,
Captain Goodlake who famously commanded a company of volunteer sharpshooters perpetually skirmished forward of the British lines, during one Russian sortie in force the captain and a sergeant found themselves cut off and surrounded, but owing to their greatcoats and forage caps being similar to the enemy’s they were not identified. They advanced with the attacking Russians until an opportunity presented itself for them to slip away.
It did not mean rest for the men not detailed for duty in the trenches, Private Edward Hyde of the 49th Regiment explained,
During the second year of the war the conditions of the British forces improved substantially with the arrival of huts and war supplies of every type. Reinforcements brought the regiments back up to strength although the rawness of the recruits was still a cause of concern. The siege of Sevastopol lasted until September 1855 when the French successfully stormed the Malakoff Tower causing the Russians to retreat.
It might come as a note of satisfaction (or despair) that while the army concentrated on the destruction of the common enemy inter-regimental rivalries continued as in peacetime. Writing in 1888 ex-Quartermaster Sergeant Peter Hawthorn recorded violent confrontation,
So, at last, normality had returned to the men’s lives.
I wish to thank the members of the Diehard Company for their never ending enthusiasm for all things Victorian and military, and to acknowledge the work of Michael Barthorp whose detailed books and articles on the war are an inspiration.
Brigade of Guards Magazine. Various letters and articles from 1888 and 1889 issues.
The Diary of Sgt. W. McMillan. Editor Keith Hingle.
Memorials of Capt. Hedley Vicars, 97th Regt.
The British Soldier. J. M. Brereton.
The Army in Victorian Society. Gwyn Harries-Jenkins.
The Victorian Army at Home. Alan Ramsey Skelly.
The Crimean War, A Reappraisal, Philip Warner.
The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment). C.L. Kingsford.
A History of the Army in Hounslow. Barry Raymond.
Young England, An Illustrated Magazine for Boys. Various articles from the 1880s.
The Thin Red Line. John Selby.
1 In June 1846 689 Private Frederick White aged 27 was Court Marshalled for insubordination, the punishment of 150 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails was carried out by farriers at Hounslow Cavalry Barracks. He later died and was buried in St Leonard’s Church, Heston, Middlesex. His original gravestone exists along with a newer one erected in 1977 by the officers of the regiment; they can be seen just to the left of the church entrance behind the War Memorial.
2 The Pattern ’51 minie rifle, the first rifled percussion musket in general issue, so improved shooting performance that for the first time a proper course of instruction in marksmanship skills was introduced. The School of Musketry at Hythe in Kent was founded to train instructors. The minie was soon replaced by the Pattern ’53 Enfield rifle that was hurriedly issued to the army in the Crimea. All photographs show the Pattern ’53 rifle.
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