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THE DURHAMS IN THE CRIMEA

On the night of 14 November 1854, a hurricane struck the Allied armies besieging Sevastopol in Southern Russia. Tents, stores and the shipping in Balaklava harbour were whirled away to destruction. Col. Henry Smyth, commanding the 68th Durham Light Infantry, wrote in his diary:

Such a scene of confusion. Caps flying away and in the middle of the storm the big drum of some other regiment came rolling through our lines. It was impossible to stop it.

During that winter and the two that followed, the Durham's fought, froze and died of cholera in their Crimean trenches, and it was the brinkmanship of Tsar Nicholas I that had landed them there.

The once mighty Turkish Empire had fallen into a decline and Nicholas, the Russian Emperor, saw no reason why its ailing body should not be dissected there and then and a slice handed to any country willing to wield the knife—in particular, of course, Russia, who had long yearned for a southern seaboard and a right of way through the Dardanelles. Other imperial powers, however, were unwilling to brook of a Russian sphere of influence so near the Mediterranean; Anglo-French concern gave the Sultan of Turkey—"the sick man of Europe," as Nicholas had cuttingly described him—a transfusion of vigour. When Nicholas took his ambitions a stage further and invaded the provinces of Moldavia and Walachia, in modern Rumania, claiming the right to do so by virtue of an 80 year old treaty, the Sultan's armies moved to the Danube and repulsed the trespassers.

Russian retaliation was total and ruthless. Nicholas annihilated the Turkish navy at Sinope on 30 November 1853, under the noses of the Anglo-French fleets then patrolling the Sea of Marmora by Turkish invitation.

Angry and humiliated, the Imperial Allies demanded a Russian evacuation of the Danube provinces by 30 April 1854, but Nicholas was in no mood to heed the ultimatum. Before the end of March, Britain and France had declared war on Russia, in support of Turkey, intending to administer a short, sharp lesson in a campaign which they were convinced, with that perennial optimism which opens all great conflicts, would be over by Christmas. Germans, Italians, Sardinians, Swiss— even a handful of American volunteers—joined them.

The Allied invasion fleet, a ponderous armada with 56,000 troops aboard, set sail in a blaze of secrecy—its target was the Russian naval base at Sevastopol—and landed in September 1854 some 25 miles north of the fortress, ironically enough at Calamita Bay. Already, in a brief stop at Varna, in Bulgaria, cholera had flitted through the ranks. Worse was to come.

All too soon it became apparent that the lessons so painfully learned by the British Army many years before in America, at Walcheren and in the Peninsula, had been forgotten. The Staff Corps had been disbanded; so had the Wagon Train. The Master General of the Ordnance, an MP, was responsible for supplying the Army at home; the Commissariat, a Treasury Department, fed the troops overseas. The Army Medical Board was a law unto itself. The support and supply services, already fragmented, disintegrated completely under the stresses of a combined operation and the unique rigours of Crimean campaigning.

The long peace after Waterloo had lasted more than 40 years and the Durham's spent but two of them in England. The regiment trotted the globe—Ireland, "The Canadas" and back to Ireland; Scotland, Gibraltar, Jamaica and back to Canada; then England, Ireland and Malta. An inspection report of 1848, when the 68th was put through its paces in Ireland could not "... say too much in praise of this beautiful regiment" and when it sailed from Malta for the Crimea in September 1854 on board the Cunarder s.s. Cambria, it was "... in the highest state of discipline and in ... excellent order." The regiment embarked 872 strong, including 29 officers and staff but before it ever landed in the Crimea four men were dead of cholera.

At the Battle of Alma, in September, the Russians tried without success to push the invaders unceremoniously back into the sea. The Durham’s were marginally involved in the action.

We were on the extreme left of the Allied Armies—wrote Lt. Battiscombe to his clergyman father—and were to have attacked the enemy's right flank. This however was rendered impracticable as they had an immense force of cavalry, which as soon as we advanced would have attacked us in rear. We were then inactive for some time, while the shot and shell were flying above. Several men were killed at this distance even . . .

Unmolested, the defeated Russians fell back towards Sevastopol. Had the Allies followed up their advantage the town might well have fallen, but the Russian army was allowed to retreat into the interior and there, incongruously, it remained throughout the campaign, a constant hazard to the forces besieging Sevastopol. The town was left with a garrison commanded by the brilliant young Engineer Colonel Todleben, whose fortifications and tenacity kept the Allies at bay for well nigh a year.

In October, the Allied guns pounded Sevastopol continuously for a week and a patty of Durham’s under Capts. Stephen Croft and Charles Ughtred Shuttleworth doubled as artillerymen in the batteries. The Russians retaliated and Sgt. Henry Sladden earned the DCM for his sangfroid during the fire fight, "voluntarily carrying loose charges of ammunition from a magazine to the battery under heavy fire." The regiment lost four men in the exchange. No sooner had the bombardment ceased than the roving Russian field army attacked the Allied lines at Balaclava. Elements of the 68th arrived on the scene late in the action as the Russians were reeling back and the regiment lost a man killed and one wounded. Most of the unit remained on duty in the trenches while the Highlanders' "thin red line" stood firm, while Scarlett's sabres hacked at the Russian cavalry and while Cardigan led his Light Brigade into the cannon's mouth.

On 5 November the Russian field army flung itself against the weakest sector of the Allied lines, near Inkerman. Two companies of the 68th had just returned from the trenches and two others were on their way to relieve them. These four companies, together with an equivalent force of the 20th and two companies of the 46th Regiments were rushed up the line.

The morning was cold and damp and the 68th wore their grey greatcoats as they marched forward. One of their officers told Kinglake in 1870:

The 68th at guard-mounting used to wear the greatcoat over accoutrements, and this was the manner in which the 68th marched down to the great fight on the morning of Inkerman; of course, it was soon found necessary to halt the regiment in order that the men might throw off their greatcoats to get more easily at their ammunition on the field of battle.

So the Durhams, and the Durham's alone, fought in red on Inkerman Day—a distinction jealously prized by regimental tradition. Capt. Henry Torrens, of the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers, who served as ADC to his father, Gen. Torrens, throughout the fight, unequivocally—and literally— underlines the fact:

The 68th were in red, being the only troops engaged at Inkerman, who had not the greatcoat on. The small detachments of the 46th were in their greatcoats.

By now the Guards and Russian infantry were locked in a savage hand to hand struggle for the possession of Sandbag Battery, on the edge of the plateau commanding Sevastopol. The point had already changed hands several times when a Russian relief column—three battalions of the Selinghinsk Regiment—appeared, climbing up to attack the Guards' flank; a "dark mass of long brown and grey coats, flat caps and blue steel" was how Capt. Torrens saw them. The Divisional Commander, Lt. Gen. Sir George Cathcart, directing operations, rode to the head of the 68th and the 46th and ordered them to charge the Selinghinsk. Down the hillside, through the scrub, dashed the British troops. The impetus and ferocity of the charge exploded into the Russian ranks and hurled them in headlong flight into a ravine below. Col. Smyth had his horse shot from under him; Torrens, the Brigade Commander fell wounded, but outnumbered six to one the British had swept the Selinghinsk from the field.

During the action, the Russian Yakutsk Regiment had been clambering unobserved up the nearby Quarry Ravine and now they took a hand, pouring a withering fire on the rout below. The 68th in their red coats were already a mark for every Russian gun in the vicinity—" . . . our ranks were fearfully ploughed ..." wrote Lt. Battiscombe. Gen. Cathcart and several of his staff were struck down in an instant—his last words were, "Well done, 68th!"—and the regiment retired under the covering fire of a French battalion. Sgt Daniel Dwyer and Pte. John Byrne dashed back into the maelstrom of shot and shell to rescue wounded comrades.

The 68th marched back to camp to refill their ammunition pouches, and then returned to the line. There, with elements of the 20th, the 46th, riflemen and guardsmen they held Quarry Ravine against massive odds until French reinforcements came up and the Russians withdrew. 243 Durham's fought at Inkerman; 69 of them were killed, wounded or captured. Among the dead was Brevet Lt. Col. Harry Smyth, whose son, a lieutenant with the regiment, was to die of disease later in the campaign. Torrens died of his wounds some months later; Gen. Goldie, his fellow Brigade Commander in the 4th Division, had been killed with Cathcart. There was no-one left to give the regiment due credit for its conduct that day.

Inkerman was the last great Crimean battle, and while naval operations were vigorously prosecuted in the Baltic and the Sea of Azov and British troops fought in the heroic defence of Kars on the Russo-Turkish border, the Durham's manned the trenches round Sevastopol.

Throughout the first winter their discomfort was intense. Their uniforms, issued in Malta, crumbled and decayed long before "Robinson Crusoe" sheepskin anoraks arrived from home. The troops grew their hair and beards long as protection against the bitter cold, breaking with contemporary military tradition through sheer necessity. When fuel ran out, brave spirits would raid the suburbs of Sevastopol and drag furniture back to camp for firewood. To add to the soldiers' misery, the Commissariat's ration supply arrangements collapsed; on 20 November 1854 Col. Smyth lunched on "... bread and cheese, and gin and water ..." Lt. Battiscombe wrote to his father just before Christmas:

Last night and yesterday it rained and snowed incessantly. I never saw such continued heavy rain in my life, our tent however stood it well but one side of our hut fell in ... The whole camp is in a fearful mess with the snow and rain and the men are in a terrible state from damp and cold, most of them were down in the trenches last night and had an awful night of it ... The sick are increasing rapidly on account of the terrible weather and work that they have to encounter. We have sunk our tent inside about three feet; it is a great improvement as it makes it much larger and warmer. I have not yet received the parcel neither shall I be able to find it out unless I know by what ship you sent it.

Officers and other ranks went hungry, patched their moldering uniforms and shuddered with cold in a democracy of privation outside the experience even of veteran campaigners. Yet British Army esprit had never been stouter, morale never higher. The soldiers saw that only gold braid and a sword belt set officer and man apart—dubious distinctions at that, which served to attract Russian sharpshooters. Capt. Torrens observed that his father, shot down as he fought beside the 68th at Inkerman, wore:

... a gold laced staff forage cap, and his coat was the old regulation undress coat for the Guards in Canada—with fur collar and cuffs.

In the winter, when sheepskins were order of the day, such insignia were discarded as irrelevant.

King Cholera claimed more Durhams' lives than did Tsar Nicholas. 45 soldiers died in battle during the campaign—disease killed 243. In the first quarter of 1855, 119 perished through illness and that January 327 went sick. At the end of the month only 150 men were fit for trench duty, not taking into account two companies acting as escort to Lord Raglan, the British Commander.

At home, an insensate and increasingly literate public, goaded by that novel phenomenon, the war correspondent, howled for logistic reform. Appropriately, almost melodramatically, Victorian technology came to the rescue in the shape of Thomas Brassey's navvies, who clumped ashore looking for "... Rooshians" and laid the railroad from Balaclava to Sevastopol. With a resilience perennially overlooked by critics of its mismanagement, the British Crimean Army transformed itself into a fit and highly efficient fighting body. As the campaign ended, deaths from disease had fallen to four per quarter in the 68th; in May 1856, only 54 soldiers went sick.

Florence Nightingale's appearance at the war shocked the antediluvian medical service into cleansing its Augean wards. Lt. Battiscombe, wounded in a trench raid and arriving at Scutari in charge of a consignment of warm clothing for his Division's sick, found the hospital

. . . very comfortable and clean. The patients have everything they wish for and really their dinners are capital, they have soup, fresh meat and vegetables, at least those who are on a full diet, others who are not able to eat meat have arrowroot and puddings and any little thing they fancy . .

Pte. 3308 Robert Robinson of the 68th became "Miss Nightingale's man"—as he himself termed the appointment—her personal attendant, in fact. When he left the army and returned to England in 1856 she "... took steps to have his education improved, obtained employment for him, and continued in after years to be his benefactor."

Battiscombe reported back to Sevastopol in March after a well earned round of Opera and Bal Masque in Constantinople.

I never saw a place so much improved as Balaclava. The railway is nearly finished and they are working a part of it. There is plenty of grub and plenty of everything now. The men have most wonderfully improved both in appearance and spirits, they get capital rations and the Crimean fund has contributed wonderfully to the comfort both of officers and men. They have given a number of things to both and amongst others some very good beer . . .

The troops drank prodigious quantities of bottled ale and actually constructed serviceable huts out of heaps of empties.

As conditions improved, the Divisions took turns at promoting race meetings—some of the printed race cards still exist.

There were flat races and hurdle races, they really are capital fun—wrote Battiscombe in March 1855—champagne and sandwiches, and in fact if it had not been for the booming of the guns, you might have fancied yourself at Newmarket.

Neither Crimean tempest nor the ennui of trench life could dampen the 68th's fighting spirit. On the night of 12 January 1855, as bonfires blazed in Sevastopol to celebrate the Russian New Year, an enemy patrol attacked the Durhams' sector of the line. A sergeant and a dozen men on picquet returned the fire, and then scrambled from their rifle pits into the forward trenches. In a brisk fire fight, some 180 British troops beat off their assailants. The Russians carried a sergeant and 14 Durhams back as prisoners; ten died in capitivity.

On a black night in May, 2000 Russian infantry flung themselves against the British positions manned, that night, by two 68th companies under Brevet Lt. Col. Macbeath, not long returned from escort duty at Headquarters. For an hour they were fended off at bayonet point— Pte. Byrne, who had distinguished himself at Inkerman, killed a Russian soldier in a vicious hand to hand duel on the trench parapet. A group of some 30 Russians, led by two officers, clawed their way into the trenches and had spiked a British gun before Capt. T. de Courcey Hamilton, with Col. Sgt. Sladden and a desperate handful of volunteers dislodged them, killing both officers and several soldiers. Reinforcements, rushed up the line, found the trenches cleared of the enemy.

This was one of the bloodiest repulses suffered by the garrison during the whole siege, but not for the first time the Durhams received scant credit. The weather had deterred the sector commander, an old Peninsular veteran, from putting in an appearance that night. Neither were there any war correspondents in attendance; they were covering the Allied expedition to Kerch on the Sea of Azov.

Hamilton and Byrne did subsequently receive the VC for their courage. Sladden was recommended for the Cross but instead received the Legion of Honour, Class 5—as did Col. Smyth, Capt. Hamilton and three other Durhams, who distinguished themselves in the Crimea. Furthermore, nine of the regiment—including Smyth and Macbeath—were awarded the French Crimea medal and six the Sardinian medal during the campaign. For they were now imperturbable veterans, inured to tempest, tedium and Russian bombardment alike. Col. Sgt. M. Foster wrote to his mother:

They send shells very near us but do no harm in fact I am so used to them that I stand up quite unconcerned when they burst about 50 yards from me. Strangers that visit Sebastopol run about in all directions when they hear a shell whistling through the air.

The Durhams lost an officer and an OR storming the Quarries in June, but took no part in the abortive British attack on the Redan in August 1855.

I am grateful that the 68th, being in reserve, did not suffer—a selfish feeling—but taking it all in all it has given me a feeling of disgust at the whole business . . . We mismanaged somehow. Lord Raglan's plans were good but the Russians' better! wrote Col. Smyth. Lt. Battiscombe's chagrin was scarcely less intense.

Everyone is paralysed at the recent failure . . . now another dreary winter is before us, more trenches, more waiting.

The Russians, as it happened, evacuated Sevastopol in September and from the Allies' point of view, the war was won, but sure enough the Durhams had to endure another Crimean winter.

Peace talks began and in anticlimatic inactivity the Army sat them out. The 68th finally embarked in May 1856 for Corfu, a plum Mediterranean posting.

I really think we ought to be very thankful we have dropped on our legs here . . .remarked Col. Smyth.

Nearly all the older officers had seen service in the Crimea—wrote a young subaltern who joined the 68th after the campaign was over—the majority of them were splendid fellows: that long siege had been a wonderful school for the forming of manly characters. Their hair was not cut short, as in the present day, but was worn long over the ears; and they had large fuzzy whiskers with moustaches that went straight into them. They smoked much and some of them drank a good deal, but they carried their liquor well.

A respectful description, suitably tinged with awe, and one his seniors would doubtless have appreciated.

It is worthy of record, by way of postscript, that the Durhams were to see service in Russia again. The 2/7th Territorial Battalion D.L.I., raised in Sunderland at the outset of the GreatWar disembarked near Archangel in October 1918 for a tour of garrison duty during the Allied intervention. It was, by all accounts, a depressing sojourn.

 

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