The flickering light that emanated from Florence Nightingale’s lamp penetrated more darkness than she or anyone else of her time will have imagined. It illuminated the appalling deficiencies in the care of wounded and sick British servicemen on campaign during the Victorian era and it propelled ‘the lady with the lamp’ to well deserved fame in her own time and ever afterwards. It is therefore unfortunate that this same light blinded the public consciousness to many other extraordinary people who also worked tirelessly to assist neglected British soldiers and sailors in the middle of the 19th century. Florence Nightingale, despite her many virtues, was a woman not entirely divorced from the ‘moral standards’ of her time and this bore significantly on the subject of this book, Mary Seacole, because Nightingale rejected her as a nurse on her own staff. Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 and was of mixed race. Her mother had cared for sick servicemen and Mary continued that humanitarian tradition in Panama before borrowing money to make the 4,000 mile journey to the war against the Russians being fought in the Crimea. There she treated the wounded of both sides of the conflict, both on the field of battle and in her own ‘hotel.’ This book is ‘Mother Seacole’s’ (as she was known to the British soldiers) own account of her extraordinary life. It tells of a remarkable woman, who possessed astonishing determination and great humanity—which is all the more incredible since she was hampered by the bigotry and prejudice that were common against coloured people and women in general. At the end of hostilities she returned to England all but destitute and had to be assisted by those who remembered her great kindness during the war. This is a remarkable story and is highly recommended.
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As the summer wore on, busily passed by all of us at the British Hotel, rumours stronger than ever were heard of a great battle soon to be fought by the reinforcements which were known to have joined the Russian army. And I think that no one was much surprised when one pleasant August morning, at early dawn, heavy firing was heard towards the French position on the right, by the Tchernaya, and the stream of troops and onlookers poured from all quarters in that direction. Prepared and loaded as usual, I was soon riding in the same direction, and saw the chief part of the morning’s battle. I saw the Russians cross and recross the river. I saw their officers cheer and wave them on in the coolest, bravest manner, until they were shot down by scores.<br>
I was near enough to hear at times, in the lull of artillery, and above the rattle of the musketry, the excited cheers which told of a daring attack or a successful repulse; and beneath where I stood I could see—what the Russians could not—steadily drawn up, quiet and expectant, the squadrons of English and French cavalry, calmly yet impatiently waiting until the Russians’ partial success should bring their sabres into play. But the contingency never happened; and we saw the Russians fall slowly back in good order, while the dark-plumed Sardinians and red-pantalooned French spread out in pursuit, and formed a picture so excitingly beautiful that we forgot the suffering and death they left behind. And then I descended with the rest into the field of battle.<br>
It was a fearful scene; but why repeat this remark. All death is trying to witness—even that of the good man who lays down his life hopefully and peacefully; but on the battlefield, when the poor body is torn and rent in hideous ways, and the scared spirit struggles to loose itself from the still strong frame that holds it tightly to the last, death is fearful indeed. It had come peacefully enough to some. They lay with half-opened eyes, and a quiet smile about the lips that showed their end to have been painless; others it had arrested in the heat of passion, and frozen on their pallid faces a glare of hatred and defiance that made your warm blood run cold.<br>
But little time had we to think of the dead, whose business it was to see after the dying, who might yet be saved. The ground was thickly cumbered with the wounded, some of them calm and resigned, others impatient and restless, a few filling the air with their cries of pain—all wanting water, and grateful to those who administered it, and more substantial comforts. You might see officers and strangers, visitors to the camp, riding about the field on this errand of mercy. And this, although—surely it could not have been intentional—Russian guns still played upon the scene of action. There were many others there, bent on a more selfish task. The plunderers were busy everywhere. It was marvellous to see how eagerly the French stripped the dead of what was valuable, not always, in their brutal work, paying much regard to the presence of a lady. Some of the officers, when I complained rather angrily, laughed, and said it was spoiling the Egyptians; but I do think the Israelites spared their enemies those garments, which, perhaps, were not so unmentionable in those days as they have since become.<br>
I attended to the wounds of many French and Sardinians, and helped to lift them into the ambulances, which came tearing up to the scene of action. I derived no little gratification from being able to dress the wounds of several Russians; indeed, they were as kindly treated as the others. One of them was badly shot in the lower jaw, and was beyond my or any human skill. Incautiously I inserted my finger into his mouth to feel where the ball had lodged, and his teeth closed upon it, in the agonies of death, so tightly that I had to call to those around to release it, which was not done until it had been bitten so deeply that I shall carry the scar with me to my grave. Poor fellow, he meant me no harm, for, as the near approach of death softened his features, a smile spread over his rough inexpressive face, and so he died.<br>
I attended another Russian, a handsome fellow, and an officer, shot in the side, who bore his cruel suffering with a firmness that was very noble. In return for the little use I was to him, he took a ring off his finger and gave it to me, and after I had helped to lift him into the ambulance he kissed my hand and smiled far more thanks than I had earned. I do not know whether he survived his wounds, but I fear not. Many others, on that day, gave me thanks in words the meaning of which was lost upon me, and all of them in that one common language of the whole world—smiles.<br>
I carried two patients off the field; one a French officer wounded on the hip, who chose to go back to Spring Hill and be attended by me there, and who, on leaving, told us that he was a relative of the Marshal (Pelissier); the other, a poor Cossack colt I found running round its dam, which lay beside its Cossack master dead, with its tongue hanging from its mouth. The colt was already wounded in the ears and fore-foot, and I was only just in time to prevent a French corporal who, perhaps for pity’s sake, was preparing to give it it’s coup de grace. I saved the poor thing by promising to give the Frenchman ten shillings if he would bring it down to the British Hotel, which he did that same evening. I attended to its hurts, and succeeded in rearing it, and it became a great pet at Spring Hill, and accompanied me to England.<br>
I picked up some trophies from the battlefield, but not many, and those of little value. I cannot bear the idea of plundering either the living or the dead; but I picked up a Russian metal cross, and took from the bodies of some of the poor fellows nothing of more value than a few buttons, which I severed from their coarse grey coats.<br>
So end my reminiscences of the Battle of the Tchernaya, fought, as all the world knows, on the 16th of August, 1855.