Told from the Ranks Queen Victoria’s long reign encompassed the British Empire at its height. All over the world her soldiers in Red Coats and Khaki fought wars in mountains and jungles, deserts and forests against the armies of developed countries, mutineers, religious fanatics and fierce tribesmen. In these fourteen accounts we hear the authentic voice of the ordinary British Soldier - the famous Mr. Thomas Atkins - the man who was there!
On the 20th of November 1841, I joined the 49th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Hertfordshire) Regiment, now linked with the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment.
In 1850, or ‘51, six companies of the regiment went to Corfu in the Ionian Islands, and I was left in Ireland with four companies to form the depot.
At the end of two years our regiment embarked for Malta, where I joined them, and there we remained until orders were received to proceed to Scutari, opposite Constantinople, in preparation for the Crimean War. Here we saw many wounded Turks brought to hospital from the war, which was then in progress between them and the Russians. As soon as the sun sets at Scutari the darkness comes on rapidly, and as there is, therefore, no twilight, the nights seemed very long. However, we were always up for early morning drill about four, sometimes even before daybreak.
We left here for Varrna, and, having landed, we marched inland for about sixteen miles, and pitched our camp, but were soon attacked with cholera. The 30th Regiment suffered terribly, losing as many as twenty men a day, but in our regiment we only had nine cases. We shifted our ground farther up the country by the doctor’s orders.
At length we marched to Varna and embarked for the Crimea, landing at Old Fort, Eupatoria, on the 14th September. The scene was a very lively one, on account of the large number of ships and troops. We disembarked at once in flat-bottomed boats, which, I believe, belonged to the Turks. The weather was mild and fine, but at night we had rain till morning. The troops were formed into four divisions, of which mine was the second. As we marched along, three men of my company fell out of the ranks, and we never saw them again, and could not find out what became of them.
When we approached the Alma (river), we found the Russians had set fire to some stacks to windward of us, and the smoke nearly blinded us. Here we had to form fours and get through a narrow break in the underwood, then open out again and rush across the river, with the water in some places up to our waists. The nearer we got to the Russians the less danger we were in, on account of their not being able to sight, their guns upon us quickly.
We went up the hills without much difficulty, help ing ourselves up with the brushwood and branches of trees that grew on some parts of the heights where we were. We lost a good many men, the troops in the middle getting the worst of it. The Fusiliers and Guards suffered greatly. My division was next to the French, and some of us went up shoulder to shoulder, while the ships at the mouth of the river fired shot and shell over our heads upon the Russians on the heights above us.
Amongst the many wounded in the fight were three brothers, whom I knew intimately; one lost a leg, and another lost both; the third brother escaped at Alma, but met his death later on. The French, as we struggled upward, were continually calling out “Moscow!” and keeping up a rapid fire. The Zouaves, who are fine soldiers, picked from the French infantry regiments, behaved splendidly, and fought like lions. They wore scarlet knee-breeches, brown gaiters, and short blue jackets with yellow braid. The Algerian Zouaves were all blacks, commanded by French officers.
As we neared the top of the heights, the Russian infantry went off at the double towards Sebastopol, and we saw numbers of carriages going away with them. Perhaps they contained wounded officers, -- I can’t say, -- but some said they were ladies and gentlemen who had come out to witness our destruction, and had been disappointed.
We peppered after them till the bugles sounded “Cease firing’’; then we turned our attention to our wounded. This was my first battlefield, and I can’t very well describe my feelings; whether it was fear or excitement I don’t know, but I seemed dazed, and went wherever the others went, and did whatever they did; there was nothing to be gained by hanging back.
I saw some shocking sights, but we soon became accustomed to the smell of blood and the sight of carnage and butchery that surrounded us, and did the best we could to carry all the wounded to the beach, where the sailors took them on board ship in boats. There were in all about two thousand eight hundred wounded English and French.On arriving at the tableland above Sebastopol, the fourth division, under General Cathcart, flanked round to the right from Balaklava, and took up a position on the heights overlooking the town; while the second, third, and light divisions bivouacked in the valley of Balaklava.
It was nearly dark when we piled arms, and, with out taking off any accoutrements, a few of us looked about to find some wood, and managed to get a fire to boil some rice for supper.
While we were standing round, enjoying the warmth, the General came up and asked us for a light. One of the men answered, “Can’t you help yourself?” where upon the General lighted his cigar at the fire, and we saw then who our visitor was, and immediately stood at attention! He said, “I think you’ve got a hard cheek to give them a light to fire at; but go on with your cooking; if you’re not afraid, I’m not. If I have my will, those of us who are left will sup inside the town tomorrow night.”
Almost before he had finished speaking a shower of bullets struck the ground in front of us and rebounded over our heads, whereupon the order was to put out fires and move about three hundred yards to the right; and after that no one was allowed to strike a light, and we had a cold supper.
The following morning Sir George formed our division in battle array in front of the town, and sent an orderly to Lord Raglan, saying, “If you will show a front on top of the hill, I can take the town with my division.” The order came, “Fall back, pile arms, put outlying pickets, and wait for orders.”
Lieutenant Chapham of the 20th said that if it hadn’t been for that order we should have been home by Christmas. He was the man that built the half-moon battery which did so much execution in the town. He would never leave it, was in it night and day, and at last was killed in it.
A day or two after, I was sent with a large body of our men down the Woronzoff Road, to drive back some Cossacks who we heard were coming up. We remained out all day, and were about two hundred yards from the men who were raising the Malakhoff. Thousands of them were working with picks, shovels, and barrows, and as they had no arms or ammunition to protect themselves, and we had outflanked them, we could, if we had been allowed to fire a volley and then charge them, have driven them into our lines and taken them all prisoners. Our pickets always went within two hundred or three hundred yards of the Malakhoff and Redan, and yet we were never allowed to fire a shot. It almost makes me mad to think of it even now.
The three other divisions took up positions on our right, leaving the 93rd Highlanders at Balaklava to protect the cavalry, who were useless at the front except as orderlies.
I believe Lord Raglan’s reason for delay was that, in his opinion, we should be able to reduce the town to submission by starvation and bombardment, and thus save the slaughter which would occur in storming the town; but this idea turned out to be a fallacy, for we allowed them to throw up earthworks which were almost impregnable.
The siege-guns were disembarked in Balaklava Harbour, but unfortunately we had no horses to drag them up the steep slopes, on to the plateau between the two towns. The bluejackets made light of this difficulty, and I have seen eighty or a hundred harnessed to a Lancaster gun, a sixty-eight pounder, dragging and tugging away in the best of spirits, while one of their number sat on the muzzle of a gun scraping a fiddle or blowing a flute. They were the merriest fellows out.
It was, I believe, about the 27th or 28th of September that we began to throw up our breastworks and build Green Hill battery, under the direction of the sappers, while others were employed in making fascines to assist in the work. Everything was ready to commence action by the 14th of October; and the French were ready before us, having better ground to work on.
At a given signal the whole of the ships of the fleet, and all the guns in the trenches, opened fire upon Sebastopol; the English guns being principally directed on the Round Tower, which had caused us considerable annoyance during our work, and it was silenced in ten minutes.
The sailors worked the siege-guns, and without much delay managed to blow up a Russian magazine; while all the men not engaged in the trenches ran to the front of the heights and gave them a hearty cheer. About an hour later there was another explosion, and we ran forward and cheered again, but were surprised to learn that this time it was one of our own magazines, close by the windmill, that had exploded. Nevertheless the cheer had a good effect, for the Russians ceased firing for two or three hours, and we could never other wise account for it.