My Heroines: Women and the Crimean War

by Major Frank Clark

Wonderful Adventures of Mary SeacoleAs a military historian, my research often uncovers stories with a high impact, drawn from violence and the suffering of not only men, but women, too. My favourite period in which many of my heroines dwell is the Crimean War.

Mary Seacole is an outstanding example, and did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamp lady, except that, dark skinned, she could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle. History has not been kind to Mary, the Jamaican nurse and entrepreneur who became celebrated in London in the 1850s for her service to British soldiers during the Crimean War.

At the Siege of Sevastopol, Mrs Elizabeth Evans was allowed to travel with her husband’s regiment. She supported him in the trenches, shared a tent with her husband and several men. She repaired the Colours damaged at Alma. When the Battle of Inkerman began Mrs Evans was left in camp, with the drummer-boys, in charge of the sacred Colours. After Inkerman, violent winds tore down the tents, whirled away blankets, and flattened the hospital marquees. Domestic camp furniture from the officers’ tents was carried into the air, and the bass drum of the King’s Own was blown into the Russian lines nearly two miles away. Mrs Evans, who was sitting in her tent making a new bonnet, was knocked over, her tent disappeared, and her bonnet with it. During the dreadful winter that followed she had a beautiful Scotch plaid shawl and shared her husband’s greatcoat to keep warm. She writes how, “Time after time I would remove his boots and rub his feet, which were utterly numb, and likely to come off from frostbite.”

Lady Alicia Blackwood, the wife of the Chaplin General, offered her help, and Miss Nightingale explained that, if she really wanted to help, in the barrack were “located some two hundred poor women in the most abject misery. They are the wives of the soldiers who were allowed to accompany their husbands … they are in rags, covered with vermin. My heart bleeds for them … If you will take the women as your charge, I will send an orderly who will show you their haunts.”

Lady Alicia was given the disagreeable task of dealing with the cellars beneath the hospital into which the sewers drained and where the discarded wives and children of the army lived in appalling squalor. Emaciated children scampered like rats in the shadows and women in labour lay on piles of rags, rotten with damp and dirt. Lady Alicia also discovered a dead baby wedged in a pipe to halt the flow of effluent from above.

The early days on campaign were not without humour. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots were ordered to throw up earthworks when the alarm was sounded that the Russians were coming. As the words “Loose ammunition!” were shouted out by Captain Neville, ordering the men to prepare their guns, Mrs Frances Driscoll rushed from her tent and grabbed her husband Patrick by the swallow-tails of his coat:

“Arrah, Patsy, you’re going to be shot,” she screamed “and what shall I do, at all, at all.”

“Get out of that,” shouted Driscoll, as he struggled for his ammunition.

“Will you keep quiet, Driscoll, or I’ll put you in the guard room,” called out Captain   Neville.

The laughter provoked by the anxious Irish wife defused the panic of the moment, which turned out to be a false alarm.

What amazes me is how these wonderful and heroic women haven’t featured more in historical fiction, but hopefully someone will champion their cause!

References:

1. Lady Alicia Blackwood, A Narrative of Personal Experiences and Impressions during a Residence on the Bosphorus throughout the Crimean War, London: Hatchard, 1881.

2. Major Frank Clark, Through Hell to Immortality.

3. Helen Rappaport, No Place for Ladies. The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, Aurum Press, 2007.

4. Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, London: James Blackwood, 1857.

About the contributor: MAJOR FRANK A. O. CLARK is a military historian, who has researched and published works on subjects such as the Crimean War and jungle warfare.

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Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 63, February 2013


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