No place for ladies: the untold story of women in the Crimean War
Florence Nightingale was not the only woman in the Crimea – a misnomer in itself as she spent most of the war at the British hospital at Scutari, 300 miles away from the Crimea. Here, Helen Rappaport sheds new light on the many unsung women who followed the British army on campaign – the last time they were allowed to do so. This was the first war in which women were officially organised as nurses, and Helen describes the work of some of the heroic nurses on Nightingale’s staff, and their French and Russian counterparts. Then there are the extraordinary exploits of the maverick Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole who came back a national heroine, and officers’ wives such as Fanny Duberly, French cantinières, and lady tourists who went to the Crimea to see things for themselves…
Helen Rappaport has written a number of historical books and biographies, including No Place for Ladies: the Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War (2007), Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs (2008) and Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009). Her latest venture is the Victorian true-crime story Beautiful for Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street – Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer.
The moving, tragic and in many ways pointless war, got me very interested in the Victorian period. And of course it’s a war full of mythology; I mean for example just here the myth of Florence Nightingale there with the lamp on the Balaclava Heights. And of course she was hardly ever in the Crimea, she made a couple of visits but basically she was stuck at Scutari.
There’s William Howard Russell the correspondent at The Times in his tent, slightly fanciful as well. But of course the two big iconic things we think of when we talk of the Crimean War are the Charge of the Light Brigade, very potent emotive subject. And of course another myth I have to dispel right from the start is, it wasn’t a gallant 600 according to our good Lord Tennyson, it was in fact 673 men who charged.
And the other image – if you say Crimean War is – Florence Nightingale whose name whether she liked it or not was forever after attached to that conflict.
Finally, and now, today, if we are going to be politically correct about it we of course also have to include this woman, Mary Seacole, the creole nurse from Jamaica who made her own way to the Crimea to help the wounded and do her bit for Queen and country.
Now what’s so interesting about this war to me as a historian but I think just socially, it was a war of so many Firsts And one of the most extraordinary Firsts of course, it was the first account of war written by a black woman. And its still, I think, is pretty much unique in those terms. Because of course after the war Mary Seacole published her wonderful adventures to get herself out of bankruptcy, and it sold very well.
It was also, as well, the first war to be extensively photographed. Famously by Roger Fenton, that’s his photographic fan that he took round the Crimea. He wasn’t the only photographer out there of course, there was a man called Robertson from Constantinople and two naval rating photographers but they sadly drowned in the hurricane. So it was the first real documentary record of war, although not corpses on the battlefield.
It was the first war to benefit from frontline war reporting, the legendary reports sent back to The Times by William Howard Russell. It was the first war where the old muskets were replaced with new breech-loading Minié rifles, much more efficient weapons.
The first war to introduce efficient army soup kitchens. The French chef Alexis Soyer famously went out there, that’s his sort of boiler that he invented to make soup, hot food, to the troops after they had suffered the most appalling privations in the Crimean winter of 54-55.
It was also, not many people realise this, the first war really to use trench siege warfare – the kind of trench warfare we actually saw 60 years later in the First World War with that year long siege of Sevastopol.
And finally, the other, important innovation after the war was, of course, it was, the first time, after that war, that humanitarian aid was properly organised in the form of, during the war, official nurses.
But also very significantly after the war the development of the Red Cross, which was founded in 1859. And of course then, that in turn lead straight, directly into the 1864 Geneva Convention on Treatment of Prisoners and War Wounded.
So finally the other big first was it was the first war in which women were properly organised as nurses to go out and serve the army on campaign and by the same token it was the last war in which women, ordinary rank and file wives, camp followers, were allowed to follow the army on campaign. So it’s a really significant historical, social, military watershed.
Now of course when the war broke out in February 1854, well rather British involvement began in 1854, it was a hugely popular war, the papers were absolutely full of jingoism and rebel rousing. You know the attitude was ‘we are going to go trounce those nasty Russians and teach them a lesson’. You know it was all going to be over by Christmas, that kind of attitude.
And the Scots Guards one of the Queen’s favourite regiments, here they are parading in front of the royal family who are up on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, were seen off, the very first troops to leave in February.
But it was quite a different experience of course for the army wives. Now at that time the rank and file were discouraged actually from ever getting married because their commanding officers thought women got in the way and they certainly didn’t want them trailing around the Army with lots of children.
And they didn’t even have married quarters I mean this is a slightly anachronistic image, this is Aldershot barracks after the Crimean War where they made very sort of ropey married quarter huts. But as such at the time women all lived in these very crude barracks; the married women, with the men, the single men, and the married men all crammed in together. It was pretty awful army life for the wives.
When the men were called to the east the old on the strengths rules were still in operation. Which meant technically a proportion of the army wives, the legally married wives, now a lot of the men never married their women, they had common law wives, but on the strength rules allowed six women for every company of 100 men to go out to the Crimea on campaign, or rather to go on campaign they didn’t specify, they didn’t even know at that point that they were going to the Crimea.
Now of course the Army started doing its sums and realised because they were sending an expeditionary force of about 25,000 men in the end they couldn’t possibly cope with all these women trailing along. So very quickly that was reduced down to four women a company, and in order to prevent possible desertions, because a lot of men did not want to leave their wives and families behind.
A lot of those women had followed their husbands to Canada, to India to other parts of the Empire, they were used, you know there was a culture of staying with your men, being back up and support. So there was a high risk of people deserting or even women trying to get smuggled on to the troop ships, which in fact did happen.
So the night before, literally, the men were sent, there was a ballot and literally drawing the short straw or black and white pebbles or whatever but the decision of who could go was made at very short notice. And all over England February, March there were scenes of really heart-breaking farewells; wives and children on the quayside at Southampton, at Portsmouth, at least in Scotland, at Liverpool, I think some sailed from Northern Ireland, Irish ports as well.
And the attitude of the Army of taking women with them was very interesting because as I said they were technically allowed four women for every 100 men. But what actually happened in the end was that some commanding officers in certain regiments, absolutely, totally, disapproved of taking women with them at all and reduced the numbers below that or just virtually refused to take any women.
But other regiments the officers knew the value of the women; women had always been a traditional back-up in the Army on campaign. You know washing the shirts, unofficial nurses in the field, cooking, you know, the sort of daily duties that women did at that time. A lot of officers wanted women with them and turned a blind eye, and what happened was, as I said, women got on board those ships by fair means and foul, smuggled on.
One wonderful story of a wife of a rifleman who actually disguised herself in her husband’s uniform, spare uniform, and cut her hair and managed to get herself on the ship; and when she was discovered literally begged to be allowed to go.
So there were these heart-breaking farewells. Very similar really to this image, which in fact, was painted, it’s called ‘Eastward Ho’ painted in 1857 when the troops went off to the Indian mutiny, but it’s so close to the Crimean campaign that the scene would have been very, very close to that.
But the minute those men left, we have an enormous social problem created in England. It is one that the traditional military histories of the campaign completely overlook or just haven’t noticed. What happened to all the army wives, the dependants, the children, the common law wives left behind when the army went on campaign?
There were no barracks for them to live in, there were no provisions whatsoever made for the wives and children. The minute the army left the army schools were closed down, even the women who had been living legitimately in the barracks were thrown out. And it was really, really terrible, the number of destitute women now left abandoned.
For example the Rifle Brigade had been in Canada and they had 200 women that they’d married there, Canadian wives. Now those women had no home parish to fall back on they couldn’t even apply for relief. What happened was the people of Portsmouth actually rallied around and fundraised to take care of those women and their children, because they would have been literally destitute. The way the workhouse system worked then of course was, you know, if you needed parish relief you had to go back to your home parish and there are stories of women walking with children up to 200 miles back to their home parishes begging for some help, some support.
It was really bad because what the army didn’t do, it didn’t make provision for the men to arrange for a proportion of their pay to be sent home to their wives and children until months into the campaign, six months later. So there was a huge public outcry about this. A huge amount of public philanthropy, fundraising, right from the start went on in Britain to help the wives and the children long before the wounded started coming back, for whom there was of course even more fundraising.
So what really, tragically, I think, comes through when you look at the history of this campaign is that the army had these army wives that they were taking on campaign with them, didn’t organise them, didn’t take provisions for them of course and didn’t make proper use of the women in the back up lines on campaign.
Well as with all things in this war no accounts were kept of the women, no records were kept; how many women actually went, because as I said there were so many discrepancies about how many each regiment took and a lot of course got smuggled on and were never recorded. But we certainly think it somewhere between 1,200 women and 750 women actually went on those troop ships heading out east.
Now of course the other problem we have with the war, is, although for me as a historian, it’s one of the most brilliantly heart-breaking records of a campaign I have ever read because the letters, the journals, the diaries, written in the Crimea are so powerful, so angry, so passionate, about all the neglect all the, you know, military mismanagement that went on. There is a wonderful archive, a wonderful archive material and in fact I will come onto one aspect of it that is actually here at Kew.
But of course the women, the rank and file the ordinary soldiers, most of them were illiterate so they didn’t keep diaries, they didn’t send letters home. So we have only a small oral history of what happened but what there is, is wonderful. It took a lot of winkling out when I was researching this book. But it is truly wonderful, and I found some heroic women. I’m sorry this is such poor quality, but this is taken from a newspaper obituary of Noel Butler of the 95th Foot, typical stalwart wife who went all the way right through to the trenches in the Crimea and a personal favourite the wonderfully redoubtable Elizabeth Evans of the 4th Kings Own proudly wearing her dead husband’s medals there.
Now when it comes to sailing, of course, where were the women on the ship? Well the men luckily had reasonable accommodation up on the troop decks they had, in the main, hammocks to sleep in. The women were shoved right down in the orlop which is just above the bilges. Now the orlop had no windows, it had no ventilation those women were shoved down there, virtually locked down there, in this dark airless cramped orlop…with very primitive sanitation I should imagine and no fresh air and of course the minute they left they started falling sick; with sea sickness, with food poisoning all sorts of things.
And of course the other unknown quantity the obvious thing that comes through interestingly on this campaign is that many were already pregnant and you know they were giving birth down on the orlop. So it was absolute hell for those women, on top of which there they are down in the dark, they don’t even know where they’re going.
So let’s take a look, because, certainly when the troops got on the ships in the main all they knew were that were going in the east somewhere towards the Balkans, which is where the original initial fighting had taken place between the Turks and the Russians there. But they did know that they were going to go down through the Straits of Gibraltar and the plan was the army privately had decided that they were going to dump the woman at Malta and send them all home from there. They weren’t going to take the women any further.
But of course by the time they got to Malta anyway, a lot of the women, this is between four to ten days at sea, but it depended on the weather, by the time they got to Malta quite a lot of the women were already so ill, so frightened, that they begged to be sent home, so some of the women got off at Malta. But the tougher ones went on from Malta, round and up to the Dardanelles.
Now here was another major important stopping off point which was of course at Gallipoli. Now we’ve heard about Gallipoli in the First World War but in the Crimean War that was another big staging post where the British fleet met up with their Turkish allies. And again the plan was that the women they hadn’t got rid of at Malta they would dump them at Gallipoli. And of course by the time they got to Gallipoli not just the women were falling sick and dying the men were too. Conditions on the ships were pretty terrible. And a lot of the women and the sick were just left there abandoned when the orders came to carry on up the Dardanelles to the Bosporus.
And so there are some wonderful accounts by a woman called Mary Ann Young who is the wife of a surgeon, in one of the regiments. Talking about women being left like sheep on the Turkish hills, totally abandoned. But of course at Gallipoli we do get an injection of humour into the story which is the advent of the wonderful French cantinières.
Now when the Brits arrived they were absolutely, well, gobsmacked to see the French had proper organised women, in uniform attached to their regiments the cantinières were sort of successors to the earlier 18th century vivandières, combination of subtler and sort of very amateur first aider. But they were terrific women they were actually respected and paid and part of the official army, you know, part of the campaign.
And of course the British officers took one look at these women in their very snappy outfits and then they looked at their own poor bedraggled women who had already you know suffered two or three weeks at sea in their old pope bonnets and their big heavy skirts looking absolutely drab and exhausted and there was much laughter made of…how sexy and attractive the cantinières were. They did get a reputation of being rather fast and loose in the Crimea. There’s this one wonderful joke William Howard Russell repeated, and I just got to give you this.
‘Two sailors walking up to the camp met a French vivandière (cantinière), riding down. Hello Jack says one is that what they call a shedragoon oh no says the other that’s what they call their hors de compa’ [Laughter]
And there are lots of jokes about the cantinières but they were terrifically feisty women and saw their men…right through with as much devotion and loyalty as the British women.
Well there was huge consternation in the ranks in the British Army seeing these women in trousers. And actually many officers were horrified but one or two thought it was a jolly good idea. In fact one of the British officers said that he thought the British women should be bloomerised too, you know, made much more sense to have them better covered up for the kind of terrain they were in.
Anyway the next place the whole expeditionary force moves up to is Constantinople on top of Bosporus. And again this really almost is the last staging point; a lot of women were dropped off here at the guard’s camp at Scutari. This is outside Scutari barracks where Nightingale later arrived. Now interestingly this is an incredibly rare photo showing women actually in, well nearly in, the Crimea. And there in the left hand corner a group of women in their impossibly unsuitable clothing to be out in the boiling heat of Constantinople.
Anyway a lot of the women were left here as I said and ended up really virtually having to turn to prostitution to survive, because they were abandoned without any money.
But one of the wonderful colourful characters who comes through during this story is Lady Errol now she was a feisty lady. She was the wife of one of the commanders of the 60th Rifles and she followed her husband on campaign. Now the wives, the officer’s wives of course, were allowed to go without question, not many bothered but she did; wearing her wonderful plumed hat, a tail coat and a brace of pistols in her belt and, you know, loyally riding her horse right up through the Crimea, till her husband was actually wounded and invalided out.
And there was this lovely story that in her tent at night, Lady Errol inadvertently entertained all the in-camp troops because with the lantern on there was this wonderful shadow play of her disrobing for bed and that was all the talk of the camp.
Anyway in May, May 1854, order finally comes through all the allied forces; the Turks, the French, the Brits, were to assemble at Varna, in Bulgaria – a coastal resort in Bulgaria. So they all sail up and along to the coast of Bulgaria. Now Varna looked beautiful, it looked like paradise. There was fruit hanging of every tree, it was warm, it was sunny, it was verdant, and all these hungry tired men already probably suffering from scurvy. What did they do? They headed for all the fruit trees, gouged themselves senseless and of course all got very ill with stomach upsets.
Now they had to hang around at Varna for rather a long time and in the end tragedy struck. Cholera came into the camp through the French troops. And it was appalling 7,000 French soldiers died at Varna before they even got to the Crimea.
But finally, 3 September, orders come for them to sail. This enormous fleet of 760 ships just imagine that, I mean there are descriptions from Russell of this forest of masts sailing across the Black Sea. And now they finally know where they’re going. Now the women on these ships or still with the army had no idea where the Crimea was you know they thought they were going to the end of the world. But tragically as that expeditionary force set sail, within two months one sixth of the British force of 25,000 men would be dead. And again they set sail again leaving women behind on the sick. And they went across and landed at Calamita Bay 20 miles north of Sevastopol.
Now this is where the incompetence, the appalling incompetence, begins to come into play, now I remember reading stories not that long ago about ill equipped troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, not having the right desert routes, not having the right kind of transport, the right clothing. The same thing happened in the Crimea, partly I suppose, because Britain had been at peace and hadn’t had a big war since 1815 when they had finally beaten Napoleon at Waterloo.
And of course all of the equipment was outmoded; they had got rather complacent about needing to go on another military campaign, so they head off for the Crimea totally ill equipped with old bell tents, the very cumbersome ones. The men were told when they disembarked at Calamita Bay ‘oh leave your winter coats and your blankets behind you’re not going to need them this is all going to be over very quickly’. They took no transport animals with them, so they had to scrummage around when they got there and find bullocks and local peasants to hire. And of course the other tragedy on route; a huge, huge number of the cavalry fine bred cavalry horses had already died at sea; they lost a huge number of horses.
Now here is another point at which wrong decisions were made of course, instead of pressing on straight on south from Calamita Bay right down to Sevastopol while the going was good. Ragland decided no we got to go all the way down to Balaclava and set up a camp in which to besiege Sevastopol, that gave Russians time to entrench, and what could’ve been a quick campaign of course became a protracted one.
Now the women just imagine were trailing along all on the route march from Calamita Bay to Sevastopol, no transport, very few of them had transport, and no proper provisioning, no proper clothes or shoes. Some of them who had the foresight to take tin baths with them…wanted to work as laundresses, you know, and earn a bit of money, were seen walking with tin baths on their heads. This bedraggled convoy makes it way down to Balaclava and sets up and of course by then winter is setting in. And sickness is getting worse and worse, but of course is made much worse by lack of supplies and then on top of that we have the three major battles.
There’s no time I’m afraid for me to describe them, just merely to say first of all Alma, 20 September, there’s a rare illustration of a woman on the battlefield, one of the army wives.
Then there was Balaclava the big set piece, two big set pieces at Balaclava on the 25 October which of course where the Thin Red Line when the 93rd Highlanders stood their ground heroically and the Charge of the Light Brigade. And interestingly there’s a lot of revisionist thinking about the Charge of the Light Brigade, it wasn’t the debacle it’s been made out to be, it wasn’t a waste of effort, in fact 157 out of those 673 men were killed in action, but far more horses than men were killed. Huge number, 335 poor horses, and it wasn’t a total failure, and of course six VCs were later awarded.
So after that we have Inkerman…this of all of them is the real soldiers’ rank and file battle in thick fog. The news of Inkerman when it arrives back in England fills the British people with pride because it was really heroic, you know the hand to hand fighting in the fog.
But of course by then with no resolution of the conflict, winter is setting in and they’re all bedding down for a long siege of Sevastopol. Which began in October 1854 and now comes the horrifying, horrifying Crimean winter because the first dreadful devastating thing that happened was on the night of 14 November, all the ships were crammed into that little harbour. I’ve been to Balaclava there’s hardly room you know it’s a very tiny entrance into the harbour, all the ships that had been arriving with supplies for the Army were smashed to matchsticks, that night in the hurricane, sunk. The ships full of blankets, and food and coats, and everything the army, precisely the things the army needed to see through that winter siege were lost.
So the army settle in for a long hard cold winter and the accounts are heart-breaking, there is just some of the finest writing I have read, wonderful accounts in the letters and diaries of the suffering, not just of the men but the women; now these women were… right up there in the front lines with their men, women who had made it all the way.
Of course a lot of them had done it by fair means and foul but they were up there in the front lines absolutely invaluable to the troops. But of course there wasn’t enough supplies for them let alone the men, so they were all suffering scurvy, hypothermia, frostbite. And the worst of it was the whole of the Crimean peninsula had very few trees and a bit of scrub, that was all gone, there was no firewood.
So there they were with green coffee beans they couldn’t roast to eat. It was an appalling winter and during that winter women were giving birth right up in the front lines. And there’s an extraordinary story I just have to tell you this very quickly because we’re in the National Archives and a lot of you I’m sure follow Who Do You Think You Are.
You may remember, I don’t know how many seasons back, Rory Bremnar’s story where they discover his great-great-grandfather was an army surgeon called Captain John Ogle of the 33rd. Well in my book when I was doing the research I discovered this extraordinary story of a lady from that company giving birth in a muddy trench right up in the front lines, in January, in the dead of winter, in that snow, and who do they find to come and deliver the baby but Rory Bremnar’s ancestor. So it was wonderful, and they got in touch with me, they found the story in my book, but it’s just lovely to have a very personal link to it.
So extraordinary women, and of course we can’t forget her, Fanny Duberly. You may well have heard of her, she wrote the most superb account, also a woman’s account of the war, although with rather more an eye to posterity in her own rather grand sense of self. It’s very vivid and an absolute key resource on the war. But there are times I get very annoyed with Fanny Duberly because she talks about herself as ‘the only lady in the Crimea’.
Well what about the army wives? You know it’s as though they’re invisible. And the one thing that does get said by some of the officers writing home is they do champion their own women. For example this woman, Mrs Rogers, this is a very, very rare photograph by Fenton of a woman in the campaign. Mrs Rogers at the cookhouse of the 4th Dragoon Guards, her commanding officers said she was ten times more deserving…of a medal than many of the men in his company.
Now of course we do have to come to the important thing, which is the nurses, because they are such an integral part of the story. Now in sense of Nursing, the French again stole a march on the British. You know they got their cantinières at Gallipoli first and why because they had their own order of Compagnie des Filles de la Charité de Saint Vincent de Paul which had been founded in the 17th century.
It was a philanthropic order of nuns who basically spent their time nursing the sick poor. And this order had convents all around Asia Minor, so the minute the French knew they were going out to Crimea they contacted the nuns at Smyrna, at Constantinople, at Pera, and those nuns were out there and some of them were actually…in the Crimea at the time nursing. Now of course meanwhile the British are struggling to get their act together. There had been an enormous outcry in the British press about the sufferings of the wounded with no organised medical care and finally, hearted nurses went out, 38 British nurses, went out to Scutari on 23 October led by Florence Nightingale.
Now Florence Nightingale was very, very clear about the kind of women she wanted to take to the Crimea as nurses or rather not to the Crimea, because as I said she was really stuck in Scutari barracks for most of the time. The first thing she said when asked to take on this role of Lady Superintendent was she wanted preferably married women or widows and they must be at least 24 years old, she didn’t want young inexperienced women.
Now before Nightingale instituted nurses training after the war of course there wasn’t any real discipline of nurses training. The hospital nurses in existence are rather that sort of vivid kind of stereotype of Mrs Gamp, the gin-swigging Mrs Gamp from Dickens. So they did have a reputation for drinking and not being tough and argumentative and they only really did very basic nursing.
The women who really were the good hands on nurses were of course the nuns. You can just see one here, Mother Claire Moore who was one of the nuns who went out with Florence Nightingale. Now the nuns were basically Catholic nuns, Catholic Irish nuns and also Anglican sellernites. There was a very good order led by Mother Claire, in that picture, a group of women from Bermondsey, they also went. Now Florence really wanted the nuns and the hospital nurses combined; the nuns to do the real bedside nursing, hospital nurses to empty the slop pails and fill the mattresses and just generally be dogs’ bodies.
But of course the other thing that happened, this is where you come to The National Archives, is there were calls obviously for volunteers and Florence was besieged with applicants. In fact she’d by then left for the Crimea and people carrying on recruiting for her in England.
There are still in existence, in the archives here, 617 letters from an extraordinary cross section of women, who wrote in begging to be allowed to go nurse in the Crimea. Everything from, you know, the daughters and wives of vicars and generals and headmasters and you know middle class well educated women. Often of course young unmarried women who had never seen a man’s naked body in their life, let alone a body full of maggots with hideous mutilations and wounds, which is what in fact these nurses were heading for.
So interestingly just two of the women who got turned down; one was Isabel Arundell, who later became wife of Sir Richard Burton the explorer, she applied three times and was turned down; and the poet Christina Rossetti was also turned down, though her aunt did get to go because she was a maiden aunt who had done a lot of domiciliary nursing.
Then there was the other brigade of women who later went out, later in the campaign, these were really lady scripture readers who went out to help the troops write letters home, to read the papers to them. They of course went out to read them the Bible. All the soldiers kept complaining ‘we don’t want the Bible, we want Punch and Illustrated News you know…we don’t want to be evangelised by the bedside’.
So anyway the women go out and this is of course where they arrive, the majority of them went to Scutari hospital which was an old Turkish barracks taken over for the use of Florence Nightingale. And this is one of the rather terrifying looking Irish Catholic nuns, Sister Aloeisha Stoyle, now Florence from the start had a lot of problems with the Irish Catholic nuns because they did have a habit of trying to convert the wounded at the bedside. There was a big clash that there were too many Irish Catholic nuns and not enough Protestant ones.
This is the kind of administrative headache Florence had to deal with. You know, the whole of Scutari, life in Scutari, was one enormous soap opera which she was trying to juggle. And really in the end she didn’t have very much time at all to do nursing during the war. Most of the time was spent with a desk of papers fighting the British commissariat to get the supplies she needed and fighting to deal with a very peculiar mix of nurses who were all at war with each other.
And one of the things I must dispel…the classic myth of course about Florence as the lady of the lamp, which of course had been popularised back at home with images of her and the poem.
The reason Florence patrolled the two miles of Scutari hospital every night before she retired was not really to check on the troops, actually it was check that the hospital nurses were not consorting with the soldiers. She was very worried about morality, and…she had reason to get worried about it because there were lots of problems with the hospital nurses. They got very bolshie, to put it bluntly, when they found out they weren’t going to be allowed to do proper nursing.
And interestingly I just want to give you this statistic; of 229 women nurses who went out there in ten groups, 11 died out there, 12 were discharged for incompetence (Florence very quickly sent them back if they weren’t good enough), 17 for misconduct, 37 were invalided home, 14 resigned, and 92 came home at the end of the armistice and saw the war through. The thing that amused me was that 18 women were discharged for intoxication, so much so that Florence had to lock up the medicine cupboard with the brandy in it because they were getting at it all the time.
I can’t not mention the Russian nurses because for me they were absolutely inspirational. They spent that entire war under constant bombardment inside Sevastopol in the most horrifying traumatic conditions. And they were truly heroic. These were a lay order called the Sisters of Mercy the Community of the Holy Cross.
Again they were middle class women, volunteered, but with the difference that they did get some rudimentary training before they left and they had a very, very powerful advocate, this wonderful man Nikolay Pirogov, pioneer of the use of ether; which he used at Sevastopol unlike the poor British troops who didn’t get any kind of anaesthesia. Now he passionately believed in women’s nursing, he insisted that he had women nurses with him and he also introduced a very efficient triage system for dealing with the wounded. So you know he was an extraordinary man and ensured that more people survived than otherwise would have.
And of course we got to now talk about Mary Seacole. Just briefly to say she became legendary, by the time the war was over there wasn’t anyone out on that peninsula who didn’t know Mrs Seacole and where Mrs Secole’s hut was. They knew if they went there they would get a warm welcome and hot dinner and if they had the money, and of course a lot of officers went there late and got very boozed up, they could get drunk on champagne, I mean there was nothing Mary couldn’t lay hands on if they wanted it.
But of course she became legendary across the Crimea for her doctoring. She… wasn’t a medic with a doctors bag going around, what she did was set up a kind of informal surgery, and every morning any rank and file soldiers who wanted to, who had dysentery or diarrhoea or the inerrant problems that were absolutely felling the troops in the Crimea. They go and she would give them medicine and talk to them and freely give of her own services as a kind of doctor. She could stitch a wound, she could pull out a bullet, she’d done it before, long before the Crimea and she was much loved by the troops.
Now one final interesting group of women arrived late in the war. Now as I said the siege of Sevastopol had started in the previous October by the spring of 1855 the bombardment was renewed with a vengeance. This was the final push on Sevastopol and of course all the major battles were over. What happens? You get war tourists.
It’s an astonishing thing to think but actually for £5 you can get a steam ship tour to Constantinople and the Crimea. So women start turning up in the cremelons and bringing their picnic baskets and their opera glasses and been taking for tours up at Cathcart’s Hill which was the vantage point from where the officers watch the siege lines. And literally could stand there and seeing men be blown up, it was astonishing.
Officers hated the lady tourists. They were called female amateurs by the way, you know what a morbid taste for horrors they displayed wanting to see this happen. But extraordinarily that summer the Crimea had its own little English social world, there were cricket matches, there were balls, amateur theatricals, they even had horse racing. It was like a little gentlemen’s country club while they were waiting to finish of the Russians and so all these lady tourists arrived and visited.
Back home, there’s Mrs Hancock, Mrs Hancock visiting her husband getting a grand tour of the battlements, about three days later he was killed sadly. But back home, the Queen was really doing her bit for the war effort, and I so admire Victoria, she was passionate about following the campaign, she read all the dispatches, she knew the maps inside out. She went right from February 1859 when the wounded started coming back to Fort Pitt in Chatham, she went with Albert and her elder children and visited the wounded.
But beyond that she took a very passionate interest in them. She commissioned photographers to take photographs of some of the much more seriously wounded, she asked for details of their wounds, their treatment, their recovery, their rehabilitation; were they found jobs, did they have enough money, were the families ok? She took a passionate care for the wounded.
And also out of her own money she sent the most extraordinary consignments of goods. She sent newspapers and books and Windsor soap and soda water and Cavendish tobacco and mock turtle soup; and even in August 1855 sent a ship load of ice to the Crimea. She and her daughters also knitted like crazy, the whole of Christmas 1854, she even wrote in her journal Christmas day 1854, she and her girls were knitting Balaclava helmets, and mufflers and mittens they sewed slings they made handkerchiefs, they made a whole variety of things.
Now this is a hilarious story I have to tell you this. When I was at the Royal Archives at Windsor there are these beautiful copper plate lists that were copied out for Queen Victoria. She liked to know who got her presents, so there would be ‘to Sergeant Smith one pair of mittens’, ‘to Captain so and so a handkerchief’. And this list comes back with, unfortunately, the gift of a handkerchief to a man who had both arms blown off [laughter] but he sent her a thank you letter. So there was a huge amount of campaigning. Also the Queen’s daughter, Vicky, Princess Royal, did this beautiful painting which was auctioned to raise money for the troops.
And finally, finally, of course the armistice does come 1 February 1856, and the army, this poor, tattered, bedraggled, exhausted, army start coming back. This is a very famous painting Joseph Noel painting, called ‘Home’. Now just a quick statistic before I finish. 21,182 men died in the war, of that only 4,600 actually were killed or died of wounds; 17,500 died of disease, mismanaged care, unnecessary starvation during that terrible winter, it was a catastrophe, you know complete waste of life.
Even worse than that, is we have no statistics for those women who followed the army, and effectively during the campaign helped unofficially as nurses in the front lines. We have no statistics for how many women died; it must definitely be in the hundreds.
But none of the memorials, you look at all the Crimean War memorials, and of course the medal giving, Queen Victoria handing out medals in Hyde Park 1857. 275,000 medals given out to men who served in the war, I had been, again I did a lot of research in the military documents to do with the award of medals trying to find evidence of the medals given to Mary Seacole because she did wear medals and you’ve seen them. But there is, I’m absolutely convinced, that she was given them unofficially by the back door because no women were given medals; even Florence Nightingale didn’t receive a medal, and refused all awards.
But this is the extraordinary thing Florence and Nightingale the two women now who really represent the war I suppose; certainly for our children in school, because they’re all doing Mary Seacole in Key Stage 2. Florence comes back you know lumbered with the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ image which she despised, she hated being called that. She goes back to Harley Street, her house in Harley Street, locks the door, has a massive nervous breakdown spends the next, I don’t know 50 years of her life, valetudinary, and writing thousands of letters, finally accepts the OM in 1908 two years before she died.
Now Mary Seacole was extraordinary because she comes back, oh here’s the Crimean War Memorial with famously Florence depicted and you know by the time of her death she is the iconic figure in British nursing. Mary Seacole comes back, now, the best allusion I can draw comparison with, the return of this extraordinary black woman from the Crimea is when Kelly Holmes came back with two gold medals from the Greek Olympics, because the accolades, the attention, the coverage from the press was absolutely extraordinary, she was fêted and celebrated, she was a national heroine. It was a fame that died very quickly; because the rank and file who knew her story, as they died the story didn’t really get passed down, although some of the officers had mentioned her. And then she got forgotten.
It was only finally in the 70s that her grave at Kensal Green was rediscovered and restored by a group of Jamaican nurses who knew she had died in London. So finally you know Mary has taken her place. I don’t like to talk of her as the black Florence Nightingale. She wasn’t. She and Florence Nightingale were very different women who achieved very different things in the Crimea. But it’s a wonderful story, that I find inspiring in many, many ways. I just wish we had more documentary evidence of the women, the ordinary army wives who died and suffered in the Crimea – and there were many.
And finally, I just wanted to put in a plug for the newly revamped Florence Nightingale Museum, which is superb [http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/]. They were very generously given a grant of £1 million by the Wellcome Trust, completely revamped, and it’s a lovely little exhibition. If you go there, there are modules on Florence and also one on the Crimea, I think I’m on the loop there talking about Mary Seacole (or I used to be). So I would urge you if you are interested in the War do please go and take a look at the Florence Nightingale Museum it’s just at the back of St Thomas’ Hospital.
Transcribed by Holly Christie as part of a volunteer project, May 2015