This text has been taken, with the author's kind permission, from Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), p. 164. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr. Hibbert. Alvin Wee of the University Scholar's Programme, scanned the image, converting it to electronic format.

The British army suffered great privations during the Crimean War; men died from the cold, lack of food and the results of their injuries. No-one appeared able to alleviate the suffering of the troops. — Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.

Men were not encouraged to join an army which according to the newspapers was grossly mismanaged and dying on its feet, and which — and this was particularly discouraging — was so badly fed. It was, of course, only too painfully true. Queen's Regulations provided that each soldier should receive 1½ lb. of leaven bread or 1 lb. of biscuit and 1 lb. of fresh or salt meat a day. For this his pay was stopped 3½d. Anything else he needed he was expected to buy. Lord Raglan recognised that this system was unworkable in Turkey and the Crimea and had ordered that, for the stoppage of a further penny, each soldier should receive an ounce of coffee and 1¾ ounces of sugar. Later on he ordered that two ounces of rice or barley should be added to the daily ration, an extra half-pound of meat and a free issue of a quarter of a pint of spirits. But transport difficulties had made it impossible to get these rations up to the men. For three or four days at a time they sometimes had nothing to eat but biscuit. The fresh meat that came up perhaps once in ten days was 'seldom eatable'. On Christmas Day Colonel Bell's men got no rations at all. 'I kicked up a dust', he noted in his diary. 'At the close of the day the Commissary did serve out a small portion of fresh meat. Too late! no fires, or means of cooking!'

The men, in any event, had little appetite and often when the full rations did come they were too exhausted to collect them. They were more concerned in getting their coffee and rum than anything else; and they went to great trouble with their green coffee-berries, [1] using cannon-balls and shell-cases to grind them with, and anything they could lay their hands on to cook with. When only four bags of fuel were served out to the three thousand men of the 3rd Division's 1st Brigade, on 31 December, they were issued with one pound of coal each. A few days later they were using old broken boots instead.

'Well, my lads,' said their brigadier, 'this is a sort of fuel I never saw tried before.'
'Oh! indeed, sir, they burn very well. If only we had more of them and they were a bit drier.'

An officer of the 46th saw his men cutting up their dried meat into little strips and using that as fuel to cook their coffee with. Men pilfered bits of gabions and even pick and shovel handles and chopped them up before they could be recognised.

By the beginning of the second week of February scurvy was more or less prevalent in all regiments, and the men's teeth, loosened in their soft and spongy gums, could not eat their biscuit until it had been soaked in water. Scurvy also made salt meat taste revolting, and it was impossible to boil out the salt as nearly all the camp kettles had been thrown away before the army reached the Alma, and the mess-tins did not hold enough water. Ten weeks before three steamers had come into the harbour loaded with vegetables. But much of the cargo was already rotten on arrival, and there was no means of getting the remainder up to the camps. Three thousand pounds' worth of vegetables were thrown overboard. On another occasion a commissariat officer refused to accept a cargo of fresh vegetables as he 'had no power to purchase' them. On 19 December 20,000 lb. of lime juice arrived in the harbour, but it was not until Lord Raglan called for a return of goods in store that anyone in authority seemed aware of their arrival. On 29 January he ordered that lime-juice should form part of the soldiers' ration. But even this presented difficulties of transportation.

For the problem of supply had still not been solved, and now could not be solved. A day of biting, almost arctic cold would be followed by one of torrential rain; for days and nights on end the snow would fall through an icy wind, and then perhaps — and often suddenly — there would be a fine, quite pleasant day and then the rains would fall again. Men going down to Balaclava with hard, thick snow underfoot would return the following day up to their knees in slush and mud. Seeing the snow-covered slopes one day in early January, Colonel Bell suggested to a scornful commissariat officer that the country-carts should be turned into sledges, but a few days later, on either wheels or runners, the carts would have sunk into a bog of slush. In any case there was scarcely a single animal left strong enough to draw them.

What remained of the cavalry had been put to transport duty. The horses of the Royal Horse Artillery, whose officers were extremely proud of them and tended them devotedly, were handed over to the Commissariat. But weeks of under-nourishment had told upon them, and they were pitifully weak. 'My teams,' Captain Shakespear sadly told his mother, 'would disgrace a pedlar.' Fresh pack-horses sent over from Constantinople had arrived on 2 December but by 5 January they could be seen dying every day.

The track from Balaclava was, by the end of January, a 'positive charnel house'. Horse after horse had sunk down into the mud and quietly died. As soon as the British soldiers in charge of a dead horse and cart thus stranded had gone off for help, a group of enterprising Zouaves or starving Turks was as likely as not to fall upon the abandoned cargo and carry it off. When the soldiers returned everything had gone, including most of the cart. Lying in the snow or mud were a few splinters of wood, the rims of the wheels, and the skinless carcasses of the horses from which the hides and huge hunks of meat had been cut.

But despite their known depredations, for which indeed many of the British troops openly admired them, the French were becoming as respected as once they were despised. 'Our only stand-by is the French,' Captain Campbell thought. 'They are still an army.' He wondered what Lord Raglan thought when he contrasted his own men with theirs.

There was, of course, much sickness in the French army too, but their organisation for dealing with it was, compared with the British, exemplary. [2] At Kamiesch, Captain Robert Portal noticed, 'they have erected long huts and made quite a village... The wounded are carefully laid on beds in rows, then come the sick and so on; everything clean and nice; the man's name and complaint on a piece of paper over his bed, as if he was in a barrack hospital. Then they have huts in which all the medicines are arranged and everything got at, at a moment's notice. Then again, close to the hospital huts, are large cooking huts where soup is constantly made.'

Both sick and those on duty were kept warm in the 'most comfortable looking sheepskins'. They were well fed on good bread, peas and beans, rice, dandelions, coffee, sugar and 'bellyfulls of warm soup'. Their transport system was so well run that on Boxing Day they were able to lend the British army five hundred of their horses. And although their front line was much more frequently assaulted by raiding parties from Sebastopol than the British line was, on 27 December several hundred men were ordered to Balaclava to help in carrying up shot and provisions from the harbour. During the next few days more French troops came to the help of the British. They might have done more, Lord Raglan thought, but even a few hundred men were 'very welcome'.

An artillery officer, who had previously not 'reckoned much to them', now thought the French 'splendid fellows. Opinions had entirely changed'. They were, another officer considered, 'a very civil lot'. Their camps were filthy, but British soldiers were always sure of a welcome there, and an evening in a French canteen where brandy and wine were served by pretty vivandiéres was the greatest pleasure that life could then afford. [3] The Zouaves, who in spite of the filth around them always looked as smart and clean as if they had just left Paris, were admired above all. Their cheerful ruthlessness and zest for living and fighting were undimmed. When Lord Rokeby's Patent water-closet was stolen one night the whole British army was delighted. No one doubted that the Zouaves had taken it, perhaps to make soup in. For they, like all French soldiers — and unlike most English ones — were expert cooks, making delicious dishes from the most unpromising-looking rations — from tortoises, and even from rats, which they would politely ask permission to catch in Balaclava and take back to their camps impaled on long sticks. . . .

Through sheer necessity the most fastidious of the British troops began to acquire the Turks' indifference. When Midshipman Wood's boots gave out he gave a sailor ten shillings to find another pair in the Russian graves on Inkerman Ridge. Many other officers and men followed his example, and held on to the boots they found there, even when new ones arrived from England; for the new boots were not only of such shamefully bad quality that 'the soles dropped off after a week's wear', but many of them were also so small that 'women could scarcely have got them on'. 'They are far too small,' Lord Raglan told the Duke of Newcastle in an exasperated letter, 'and extremely ill made.' So ill-made, in fact, were some pairs issued to the 55th Regiment that on 1 February when, after a day or two of bitter cold, the weather became suddenly mild again, turning the plateau once more into 'one vast black dreary wilderness of mud', they sank into the thick and sticky slime, and the strain put upon them when they were lifted out again sucked their soles off. The men threw the rest of their boots away and marched on to the front in their stockings. For some of them it was their fifth night running in the trenches.

Winter in the Trenches: William Simpson, The Seat of War in the East, second series. I am grateful to John Sloan for permission to use this image, which appears on the Xenophongi web site and which graciously he has agreed to share with the Victorian Web. Copyright, of course, remains with him.

Click on image for a larger view.

Over long periods the men in many regiments had about three hours' sleep in twenty-four. So exhausted were they that punishments for sleeping on duty could no longer be enforced. Captain Campbell of the 46th noticed, as most fighting soldiers do, that when a man becomes excessively tired he can sleep through practically anything. He slept himself, half immersed in mud, through the noise of cannon-balls and Minié bullets hissing and whining over his head and even crashing and thudding into the parapet immediately above him. The challenge of a sentry, however, would make him spring to his feet, 'like an electric shock'. But sometimes even the sentry could not keep awake and slipped down into the mud. One night a major and twenty-seven men of the 50th Regiment were bayoneted in their deep, uncaring sleep.

Such a death was, for many, a welcome release from an existence which they felt no longer able to endure. Indeed, the sight of death and the smell of death were so familiar as to be scarcely noticed. Burial-parties walked through the camps, two men carrying a stretcher, two more with pick-axe and spade, and the sentries did not even look at them. The grisly cavalcades of dying men strapped to mules, borrowed from the well-equipped medical department of the French army, struggled through the slush to the hospitals at Balaclava in a never-ending procession. Russell one day passed such a file of mules jogging silently along and noticed that all the gaunt and ragged riders were close to death; their eyes were closed and only the thin streams of breath drifting into the cold air from their open mouths showed that they were alive. One man, strapped rigidly to his mule and swaying stiffly from side to side, like an effigy in a religious procession, was already a corpse. His eyes, wide open, stared in front of him; his teeth were set on his protruding tongue. A soldier, passing up the slope, saw this ghastly cadaver and, nodding towards it, remarked unconcernedly to his companion, 'Well, there's one poor fellow out of pain anyway.'

The familiarity of such horror and suffering had given to the army's existence the awful probability of a nightmare. Nothing was startling any more. Life was like this now. The whole ghastly scene was at once unreal and acceptable.

Vultures and ravens swooped over the camps 'with their ominous croak-croak', a man sat down in the snow and with calm deliberation blew his brains out, another slowly took his boot off to put a bullet through his foot; down the hill from the 1st Regiment's Camp a woman, one of ten or twelve 'who stuck to the Regiment throughout the winter', sat on her husband's grave. She was always there, shivering in the cold. Another woman lay on the wet ground suffering from fever. On 24 February she had been there twelve days with a few bits of food by her side in the mud. 'She having failed to make herself popular among the women during her health, was left by them when she was sick; and not one soul had offered to assist the poor helpless half delirious creature, except her husband and a former mate of his when he was a sailor.'

Over the whole plain, down in the ravines and along the crests above them, the carcasses of animals lay unburied and putrefying. Everywhere miserable, exhausted men could be seen digging graves, to the distant accompaniment of French bands playing with remorseless gaiety. But for every grave dug there were two corpses to fill it. Skeletons gnawed by dogs and picked clean by birds stuck out of the snow and mud like wrecked and broken hulks. Here and there a scattered line of graves showed where the men of a picket had run for camp and had been shot and buried where they fell. And in the air, cloying and constant, was the smell of the battleground, a smell of ordure and putrefaction and gun-smoke, curiously sweet and horribly distinctive, which those who have known it can never forget.

With this tainted air always in their lungs, with the weather changing from extreme cold to mild humidity, the men, badly fed and tired out, found it difficult to get well again once they fell ill, and many of them never did. Dr. Blake, surgeon of the 55th, kept a medical history of his regiment, whose average strength in 1854-5 was 818. He treated 640 men for fever including typhus, and of these 57 died; there were 368 cases of respiratory diseases including pneumonia and tuberculosis and 17 deaths; 1,256 cases of infections of the bowels and stomach including diarrhoea and dysentery and 76 deaths; 91 cases of cholera with 47 deaths; 6 deaths from frostbite, 3 from scurvy, 4 from diseases of the brain and 211 from 'unknown causes'. These figures were for the whole campaign in the Crimea down to the end of 1855, but the great majority of them referred to the months of December, January and February. He also treated 9 men for heart diseases, 290 for boils and ulcers, 90 for venereal diseases, 98 for diseases of the eyes and 41 (the greatest number of which were after Lord Raglan's death) for lacerations received in flogging. He treated a total of 3,025 cases of sickness as compared with 564 men treated for wounds; and his regiment was one of those most heavily engaged at Inkerman.

He treated them too in conditions of the most disgraceful squalor. 'The hospital accommodation through the greater part of the winter,' he wrote, 'was so limited that it was necessary to fill the few tents' allotted to him for his patients 'literally as full as they could hold'. There were 'no medicines, no medical comforts, no bedding... It was not uncommon for the only ration procurable for the sick to consist of rice and powdered biscuit boiled into a kind of soup.' Yet Dr. Blake was a conscientious, hard-working, enterprising surgeon whose hospital was considered one of the best-run in the Crimea.

Another surgeon, who landed at the 'confused aggregation of wrecked houses, huts, stores, stables, tents, mud and dirt and slush' that was Balaclava on 2 February, found his regimental hospital in a 'fearful state'. Men were crammed side by side in small bell-tents, their heads towards the pole, on the bare ground and wrapped only in their threadbare greatcoats. An unqualified dispenser acted as surgeon; and this was not considered any great disadvantage as almost the only drug not in short supply was calomel, which was used for practically every purpose including the killing of maggots in the undressed wounds and sores.

'It is an extraordinary thing,' an officer of the 18th told his mother with a surprise that others may not have felt, 'that numbers of Doctors are going mad out here.'

The sick who were sent down to the hospital at Balaclava could expect little more comfort or care there than in the regimental hospitals. For appalling as the base hospitals at Scutari were, the Balaclava hospitals were worse.

Elizabeth Davis, a tough, bossy, masculine Welsh nurse, with the face and manner of a gruffly sympathetic sergeant-major, had quarrelled with Miss Nightingale at Scutari and had come to the General Hospital at Balaclava with ten other volunteers. She has described the terrible conditions she found there. Warned of what to expect by Miss Nightingale, who had not wanted any nurses to go to so filthy and inefficient a place, where the orderlies were undisciplined and the rooms crammed to suffocation with the sick, she discovered conditions were even worse than she had imagined.

'I shall never forget the sights as long as I live,' she wrote. Told by the superintendent of her party, a Sister of the Sellonites, not to speak to the patients, she could not resist asking the first man she attended how he was. The Superintendent

scolded me for doing so, and repeated her order that I should not speak to them. I began to open some of their wounds. The first that I touched was a case of frost bite. The toes of both the man's feet fell off with the bandages. The hand of another fell off at the wrist. It was a fortnight, or from that to six weeks, since the wounds of many of those men had been looked at and dressed.... One soldier had been wounded at Alma.... His wound had not been dressed for five weeks, and I took at least a quart of maggots from it. From many of the other patients I removed them in handfuls.

There were no beds; the men lay on boards with their greatcoats for pillows, 'The sick and the wounded were alike neglected, unclean, and covered with vermin.' There were only two surgeons in attendance.

Two days after the nurses' arrival Lord Raglan came to see how they were getting on. He felt a particular responsibility for them as he had asked for them against the wishes of the Medical Department who hated the idea of females in their hospital; and Miss Nightingale had only consented to send them because she did not want to oblige a man for whom she felt a great respect.

Miss Davis was delighted when he came in and she recognised him as a man she had often seen in London. She had been a maid with a family who had a house near Lord Raglan's, and he had frequently trotted past her in the early mornings when she was cleaning the steps. 'He never passed,' she remembered, 'without giving me a pleasant look and a civil word, such as "Cold morning" or "Fine morning" and once I heard him say to his groom, "That woman's always up."'

He recognised her too, and before he spoke to anyone else went up to her and said, 'I know you. Didn't you live in Stanhope Street?'

'Yes, my Lord.'

'Then you know me?'

'Yes, my Lord.'

'The best woman I ever saw for getting up in the morning.'

Then he spoke to the other nurses and said he already saw an improvement. He told them he was trying to organise a hospital nearer the front, as it distressed him so to see the men carried down to Balaclava. He was a frequent visitor, Miss Davis said, and visited the sick in that hospital alone three times a week.

He spoke to them with an intimate friendliness and sympathy, a lack of restraint which he found impossible when confronted by them healthy and en masse, an engrossed attention that they felt was quite, sincere.

He always behaved so. One day on his way to the headquarters of the 3rd Division he had visited the 1st Regiment, and had stopped to, admire the ring of cannon-balls and the mud-scraper outside the tent of the colonel who thought that he had 'never known a kinder heart, nor a more brave, cool decided, gallant soldier. He could not say an unkind word to anyone.... A better heart never breathed.'


[1] The coffee was sent out raw as it is not so much affected by damp when green as it is when roasted.

[2] Kinglake gives a horrifying picture of naked French corpses being tipped out of carts at dead of night. Certainly great efforts were made to conceal the sufferings of the army from the French public. A rigid censorship was enforced. But these sufferings were undoubtedly far less than those which the British endured. Despite a surprisingly high rate of scurvy the health of the army remained relatively good. (Rapport au Conseil de Santé des Armées.)

[3] The French, of course, made the most of the Englishman's full pockets. Five francs, Lieutenant Stacpoole complained to his brother, was the price charged 'for the very worst vin ordinaire that you could get for six sous in Paris'. Brown bread baked daily in the French army's ovens was 5s. a small loaf.

Last modified 16 May 2002