Before I left the Crimea to return to England, the Adjutant-General of the British Army gave me a testimonial, which the reader has already read in Chapter XIV., in which he stated that I had “frequently exerted myself in the most praiseworthy manner in attending wounded men, even in positions of great danger.” The simple meaning of this sentence is that, in the discharge of what I conceived to be my duty, I was frequently “under fire.” Now I am far from wishing to speak of this fact with any vanity or pride, because, after all, one soon gets accustomed to it, and it fails at last to create more than temporary uneasiness. Indeed, after Sebastopol was ours, you might often see officers and men strolling coolly, even leisurely, across [Pg 155]and along those streets, exposed to the enemy’s fire, when a little haste would have carried them beyond the reach of danger. The truth was, I believe, they had grown so habituated to being in peril from shot or shell, that they rather liked the sensation, and found it difficult to get on without a little gratuitous excitement and danger.
But putting aside the great engagements, where I underwent considerable peril, one could scarcely move about the various camps without some risk. The Russians had, it seemed, sunk great ships’ guns into the earth, from which they fired shot and shell at a very long range, which came tumbling and plunging between, and sometimes into the huts and tents, in a very unwieldy and generally harmless fashion. Once when I was riding through the camp of the Rifles, a round shot came plunging towards me, and before I or the horse had time to be much frightened, the ugly fellow buried itself in the earth, with a heavy “thud,” a little distance in front of us.
In the first week of June, the third bombardment of Sebastopol opened, and the Spring Hill visitors had plenty to talk about. Many were the surmises as to when the assault would take place, of the success of which nobody entertained a doubt. Somehow or other, important secrets oozed out in various parts of the camp, which the Russians would have given much to know, and one of these places was the British Hotel. Some such whispers were afloat on the evening of Sunday the 17th of June, and excited me strangely. Any stranger not in my secret would have considered that my conduct fully justified my partner, Mr. Day, in sending me home, as better fitted for a cell in Bedlam than the charge of an hotel in the Crimea. I [Pg 156]never remember feeling more excited or more restless than upon that day, and no sooner had night fairly closed in upon us than, instead of making preparations for bed, this same stranger would have seen me wrap up—the nights were still cold—and start off for a long walk to Cathcart’s Hill, three miles and a half away. I stayed there until past midnight, but when I returned home, there was no rest for me; for I had found out that, in the stillness of the night, many regiments were marching down to the trenches, and that the dawn of day would be the signal that should let them loose upon the Russians. The few hours still left before daybreak, were made the most of at Spring Hill. We were all busily occupied in cutting bread and cheese and sandwiches, packing up fowls, tongues, and ham, wine and spirits, while I carefully filled the large bag, which I always carried into the field slung across my shoulder, with lint, bandages, needles, thread, and medicines; and soon after daybreak everything was ready packed upon two mules, in charge of my steadiest lad, and, I leading the way on horseback, the little cavalcade left the British Hotel before the sun of the fatal 18th of June had been many hours old.
It was not long before our progress was arrested by the cavalry pickets closely stationed to stop all stragglers and spectators from reaching the scene of action. But after a Blight parley and when they found out who I was, and how I was prepared for the day’s work, the men raised a shout for me, and, with their officer’s sanction, allowed me to pass. So I reached Cathcart’s Hill crowded with non-combatants, and, leaving there the mules, loaded myself with what provisions I could carry, and—it was a work of [Pg 157]no little difficulty and danger—succeeded in reaching the reserves of Sir Henry Barnard’s division, which was to have stormed something, I forget what; but when they found the attack upon the Redan was a failure, very wisely abstained. Here I found plenty of officers who soon relieved me of my refreshments, and some wounded men who found the contents of my bag very useful. At length I made my way to the Woronzoff Road, where the temporary hospital had been erected, and there I found the doctors hard enough at work, and hastened to help them as best I could. I bound up the wounds and ministered to the wants of a good many, and stayed there some considerable time.
Upon the way, and even here, I was “under fire.” More frequently than was agreeable, a shot would come ploughing up the ground and raising clouds of dust, or a shell whizz above us. Upon these occasions those around would cry out, “Lie down, mother, lie down!” and with very undignified and unladylike haste I had to embrace the earth, and remain there until the same voices would laughingly assure me that the danger was over, or one, more thoughtful than the rest, would come to give me a helping hand, and hope that the old lady was neither hit nor frightened. Several times in my wanderings on that eventful day, of which I confess to have a most confused remembrance, only knowing that I looked after many wounded men, I was ordered back, but each time my bag of bandages and comforts for the wounded proved my passport. While at the hospital I was chiefly of use looking after those, who, either from lack of hands or because their hurts were less serious, had to wait, pained [Pg 158]and weary, until the kind-hearted doctors—who, however, looked more like murderers—could attend to them. And the grateful words and smile which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time. It was here that I received my only wound during the campaign. I threw myself too hastily on the ground, in obedience to the command of those around me, to escape a threatening shell, and fell heavily on the thumb of my right hand, dislocating it. It was bound up on the spot and did not inconvenience me much, but it has never returned to its proper shape.
After this, first washing my hands in some sherry from lack of water, I went back to Cathcart’s Hill, where I found my horse, and heard that the good-for-nothing lad, either frightened or tired of waiting, had gone away with the mules. I had to ride three miles after him, and then the only satisfaction I had arose from laying my horse-whip about his shoulders. After that, working my way round, how I can scarcely tell, I got to the extreme left attack, where General Eyre’s division had been hotly engaged all day, and had suffered severely. I left my horse in charge of some men, and with no little difficulty, and at no little risk, crept down to where some wounded men lay, with whom I left refreshments. And then—it was growing late—I started for Spring Hill, where I heard all about the events of the luckless day from those who had seen them from posts of safety, while I, who had been in the midst of it all day, knew so little.
On the following day some Irishmen of the 8th Royals brought me, in token of my having been among them, a Russian woman’s dress and a poor pigeon, which they had [Pg 159]brought away from one of the houses in the suburb where their regiment suffered so severely.
But that evening of the 18th of June was a sad one, and the news that came in of those that had fallen were most heartrending. Both the leaders, who fell so gloriously before the Redan, had been very good to the mistress of Spring Hill. But a few days before the 18th, Col. Y—— had merrily declared that I should have a silver salver to hand about things upon, instead of the poor shabby one I had been reduced to; while Sir John C—— had been my kind patron for some years. It was in my house in Jamaica that Lady C—— had once lodged when her husband was stationed in that island. And when the recall home came, Lady C——, who, had she been like most women, would have shrunk from any exertion, declared that she was a soldier’s wife and would accompany him. Fortunately the “Blenheim” was detained in the roads a few days after the time expected for her departure, and I put into its father’s arms a little Scotchman, born within sight of the blue hills of Jamaica. And yet with these at home, the brave general—as I read in the Times a few weeks later—displayed a courage amounting to rashness, and, sending away his aides-de-camp, rushed on to a certain death.
On the following day, directly I heard of the armistice, I hastened to the scene of action, anxious to see once more the faces of those who had been so kind to me in life. That battle-field was a fearful sight for a woman to witness, and if I do not pray God that I may never see its like again, it is because I wish to be useful all my life, and it is in scenes of horror and distress that a woman can do so much. It was late in the afternoon, not, I think, [Pg 160]until half-past four, that the Russians brought over the bodies of the two leaders of yesterday’s assault. They had stripped Sir John of epaulettes, sword, and boots. Ah! how my heart felt for those at home who would so soon hear of this day’s fatal work. It was on the following day, I think, that I saw them bury him near Cathcart’s Hill, where his tent had been pitched. If I had been in the least humour for what was ludicrous, the looks and curiosity of the Russians who saw me during the armistice would have afforded me considerable amusement. I wonder what rank they assigned me.
How true it is, as somebody has said, that misfortunes never come singly. N.B. Pleasures often do. For while we were dull enough at this great trouble, we had cholera raging around us, carrying off its victims of all ranks. There was great distress in the Sardinian camp on this account, and I soon lost another good customer, General E——, carried off by the same terrible plague. Before Mrs. E—— left the Crimea, she sent several useful things, kept back from the sale of the general’s effects. At this sale I wanted to buy a useful waggon, but did not like to bid against Lord W——, who purchased it; but (I tell this anecdote to show how kind they all were to me) when his lordship heard of this he sent it over to Spring Hill, with a message that it was mine for a far lower price than he had given for it. And since my return home I have had to thank the same nobleman for still greater favours. But who, indeed, has not been kind to me?
Within a week after General E——’s death, a still greater calamity happened. Lord Raglan died—that great soldier who had such iron courage, with the gentle smile [Pg 161]and kind word that always show the good man. I was familiar enough with his person; for, although people did not know it in England, he was continually in the saddle looking after his suffering men, and scheming plans for their benefit. And the humblest soldier will remember that, let who might look stern and distant, the first man in the British army ever had a kind word to give him.
During the time he was ill I was at head-quarters several times, and once his servants allowed me to peep into the room where their master lay. I do not think they knew that he was dying, but they seemed very sad and low—far more so than he for whom they feared. And on the day of his funeral I was there again. I never saw such heartfelt gloom as that which brooded on the faces of his attendants; but it was good to hear how they all, even the humblest, had some kind memory of the great general whom Providence had called from his post at such a season of danger and distress. And once again they let me into the room in which the coffin lay, and I timidly stretched out my hand and touched a corner of the union-jack which lay upon it; and then I watched it wind its way through the long lines of soldiery towards Kamiesch, while, ever and anon, the guns thundered forth in sorrow, not in anger. And for days after I could not help thinking of the “Caradoc,” which was ploughing its way through the sunny sea with its sad burden.
It was not in the nature of the British army to remain long dull, and before very long we went on gaily as ever, forgetting the terrible 18th of June, or only remembering it to look forward to the next assault compensating for all. And once more the British Hotel was filled with a busy [Pg 162]throng, and laughter and fun re-echoed through its iron rafters. Nothing of consequence was done in the front for weeks, possibly because Mr. Russell was taking holiday, and would not return until August.
About this time the stores of the British Hotel were well filled, not only with every conceivable necessary of life, but with many of its most expensive luxuries. It was at this period that you could have asked for few things that I could not have supplied you with on the spot, or obtained for you, if you had a little patience and did not mind a few weeks’ delay. Not only Spring Hill and Kadikoi, which—a poor place enough when we came—had grown into a town of stores, and had its market regulations and police, but the whole camp shared in this unusual plenty. Even the men could afford to despise salt meat and pork, and fed as well, if not better, than if they had been in quarters at home. And there were coffee-houses and places of amusement opened at Balaclava, and balls given in some of them, which raised my temper to an unwonted pitch, because I foresaw the dangers which they had for the young and impulsive; and sure enough they cost several officers their commissions. Right glad was I one day when the great purifier, Fire, burnt down the worst of these places and ruined its owner, a bad Frenchwoman. And the railway was in full work, and the great road nearly finished, and the old one passable, and the mules and horses looked in such fair condition, that you would scarcely have believed Farrier C——, of the Land Transport Corps, who would have told you then, and will tell you now, that he superintended, on one bleak morning of February, not six months agone, the task of throwing the [Pg 163]corpses of one hundred and eight mules over the cliffs at Karanyi into the Black Sea beneath.
Of course the summer introduced its own plagues, and among the worst of these were the flies. I shall never forget those Crimean flies, and most sincerely hope that, like the Patagonians, they are only to be found in one part of the world. Nature must surely have intended them for blackbeetles, and accidentally given them wings. There was no exterminating them—no thinning them—no escaping from them by night or by day. One of my boys confined himself almost entirely to laying baits and traps for their destruction, and used to boast that he destroyed them at the rate of a gallon a day; but I never noticed any perceptible decrease in their powers of mischief and annoyance. The officers in the front suffered terribly from them. One of my kindest customers, a lieutenant serving in the Royal Naval Brigade, who was a close relative of the Queen, whose uniform he wore, came to me in great perplexity. He evidently considered the fly nuisance the most trying portion of the campaign, and of far more consequence than the Russian shot and shell. “Mami,” he said (he had been in the West Indies, and so called me by the familiar term used by the Creole children), “Mami, these flies respect nothing. Not content with eating my prog, they set to at night and make a supper of me,” and his face showed traces of their attacks. “Confound them, they’ll kill me, mami; they’re everywhere, even in the trenches, and you’d suppose they wouldn’t care to go there from choice. What can you do for me, mami?”
Not much; but I rode down to Mr. B——’s store, at Kadikoi, where I was lucky in being able to procure a [Pg 164]piece of muslin, which I pinned up (time was too precious to allow me to use needle and thread) into a mosquito net, with which the prince was delighted. He fell ill later in the summer, when I went up to his quarters and did all I could for him.
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 on-lookers 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. 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. [Pg 165]And then I descended with the rest into the field of battle.
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 battle-field, 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. 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 [Pg 166]Israelites spared their enemies those garments, which, perhaps, were not so unmentionable in those days as they have since become.
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.
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.
I carried two patients off the field; one a French officer wounded on the hip, who chose to go back to Spring Hill [Pg 167]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.
I picked up some trophies from the battle-field, 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.
So end my reminiscences of the battle of the Tchernaya, fought, as all the world knows, on the 16th of August, 1855.