William Russell and Florence Nightingale fought for truth during the Crimean War

Posted in Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Medicine, News, War on Thursday, 12 December 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the Crimean War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 493 published on 26 June 1971.

Attack on the Redan, picture, image, illustration

C L Doughty

The end of the Crimean War came quite unexpectedly. On 5th September, 1855, the allies began a crippling bombardment of Sebastopol which they kept up without pause for three days and nights, hurling more than 150,000 rounds of ammunition into the beleaguered stronghold in a single night.

There was panic, now, in the city. The Russians began strengthening their position on the north side – throwing up batteries, dragging guns into position, and preparing to defend themselves should they be forced to evacuate the garrison.

On the third day of the assault The Times’ distinguished war correspondent, Sir William Russell wrote: “A dull, strange silence, broken at distant intervals by the crash of citadels and palaces as they were blown to dust, succeeded to the incessant dialogue of the cannon which had spoken so loudly and so angrily throughout the entire year. . . .”

It was obviously the psychological moment for the allies to clinch their victory.

Again it was decided that the French should attack the Malakoff fortress, and the British the Redan. At mid-day on 8th September the French came out from their trenches close to the Malakoff, scrambled up its face and were through the embrasures in the twinkling of an eye.

But it was not the end of the action; the Russians fought back bravely, but finally, at considerable cost to both sides, the Malakoff was held.

Unbelievably, after so much experience of disaster, the British Generals sent fewer than 1,500 men into the attack on the Redan. To make matters worse, the Russians were expecting them.

The assault was a disaster. Bravely as the British soldiers fought, their leadership was so muddled, and so many of their officers were killed in the first moments, that communication ceased to exist and it was virtually every man for himself.

Under appalling fire from the Russian guns they pressed on, through the outer defences, into the ditch, over the parapet, through the embrasure – and into the salient. Here they were so crowded together, and pressed forward by those coming behind, that any attempt to organise broke down completely.

The struggle which followed was, according to Russell, “short, desperate and bloody.” Officers armed only with swords had little chance to use them in the confined space, and those with pistols were little better off. Men began to leap back into the ditch, and retreat down the parapet of the salient and through the embrasures, closely followed by bayonet-wielding Russians. Very soon, Russell wrote, “. . . the scene in the ditch was appalling. . . . The dead and dying and the wounded were all lying in piles together. The Russians came out of the embrasures, plied them with stones, grape-shot, and the bayonet. . . .”

All this time the Guards, and Highlanders, who had fought so courageously in earlier battles, were “standing by,” awaiting orders to back up the initial attack – which never came. Towards dusk they were marched off to their camp, frustrated and “unused.”

Humiliatingly, through breaks in the smoke of battle the tricolour could be seen “fluttering bravely over the inner parapet of the Malakoff.” Once more the French had triumphed, while the British had suffered a total and mortifying defeat.

A great pall of depression hung over the British camp that night. To the humiliation was added the terrible, and wasted, loss of life and injuries. The troops tried to comfort themselves with a half-hearted belief that tomorrow they would avenge themselves on the Russians. But even this chance of redemption was denied them. In the early hours of the morning it began to dawn, first on the look-outs, and later on everyone on the allied side of the lines, that the Russians were pulling out. Fires gleamed here and there in Sebastopol, followed by a series of explosions as they “scorched the earth” they were leaving behind.

By morning it was clear that the frightful defeat the British had suffered had come in the very hour of victory.

The war was not officially over for nearly six more months, but there were no more significant operations. The winter of 1855-56 passed quietly, and an Armistice was signed on 28th February, 1856. On 2nd April, peace was formally proclaimed.

Russell, who had gone out to the Crimea an unknown newspaper reporter, regarded with hostility and suspicion by many in authority, returned, still an object of resentment to some, but to the vast majority a hero.

The hostility arose not only because of his outspoken criticisms, but because many believed that the detail with which he wrote, especially about troop movements and the disposition of arms and ammunition, brought danger to the allies themselves. In fact his revelations gave the Russians little if any more information than their own spies; but it was now becoming clear that completely uncensored accounts of warfare, published in newspapers for all to read, could constitute a breach of security, and thereafter no war correspondent wrote with quite the same freedom as Russell had done.

Russell was, as he himself pointed out, unique in the annals of journalism. Writing about his own type of foreign correspondent he said: “I sat by his birth, and I followed him to his grave.” For not only were later correspondents restricted as to what they could write, but the increasingly widespread use of the telegraph, and impatience for “instant news,” meant that there was far less time for preparing the detailed and picture-painting reports with which he had brought the Crimean scene to the breakfast-tables and drawing-rooms of Victorian Britain.

Partly through his dispatches, and the reports of others such as Florence Nightingale, many valuable lessons were learned from the Crimean War. The multitude of overlapping departments which had controlled various parts of the military machine came together under one roof, to form the War Office. The clothing of the troops was no longer left to the whim of Regimental Colonels – a central depot supplied uniforms for all. The famous Enfield factory was established to produce small-arms. Training camps were set up for the ranks where all aspects of their profession, from barrack-square drill to gunnery and musketry, were taught by experts, under proper supervision. And there were reforms, too, in welfare, education, recreation and sports.

Camberley Staff College was built for the professional training of officers, and there were changes in the conditions under which commissions were granted, and promotion conferred.

In 1857, the year after the Crimean War ended, Florence Nightingale began her famous and far-reaching enquiry into the state of health in the British army. Three years later she opened her training school for nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Out of the evils of the Crimea, some good had come.

Comments are closed.