A Witness to the Charge of the Light Brigade

3D front cover of Campaigning Experiences in Rajpootana and Central India by Frances Isabella DuberlyAnother account of the Crimean War from a non-combatant. But Frances Duberly came closer to the front than either Alexis Soyer, Florence Nightingale, William Howard Russell or Mary Seacole – indeed, she spent longer in the Crimea than any other British woman, and this in defiance of explicit commands from the high command.

Young Frances Locke was born in 1829, the youngest of eight children of a well-to-do Wiltshire banker. By the time she was eight, both her parents were dead, and her elder sister appears to have taken on responsibility for her upbringing, sending her to a boarding-school at which she absorbed (judging from her later writings) a great deal of English poetry. She also became an expert horsewoman, which was just as well, as things turned out.

At the age of twenty-one, she married a young army officer, Henry Duberly, but she did not settle down as a conventional army wife. When Henry’s regiment, the 8th Hussars, was ordered to Constantinople (as she refers to it) in April 1854 (one month after war was declared on Russia), Frances went too.  Her journal begins at Exeter, on the way to board a transport ship at Plymouth, ‘with sad heart and eyes full of tears’, overwhelmed at ‘the prospect of unknown trials and hardships to be endured for I know not how long’.

Things got worse almost immediately, with a gale which carried away two of the ship’s masts, injured members of the crew, and killed two of the regiment’s horses. It took eight days to reach Gibraltar, and another sixteen (during which her own riding horse was among the many equine casualties) to enter the Dardanelles. Frances was very unimpressed by Constantinople: ‘the dilapidation! the dirt! the rats! the fleas!!’ – and this was in the barracks assigned to the British troops.  Both the barracks and the rest of Constantinople looked much better from a distance, at sea, and she enjoyed the views of the city from the ship as it sailed under orders to Varna on the coast of Bulgaria.

Unfortunately, the voyage to Varna was an omen of the incompetence, disorganisation and waste that Frances was later to witness. Orders and counter-orders about what should be taken as cargo and what left behind had the fleet in a state of confusion. At last, she noted that in about an hour they would be under way – two days later, they still had not sailed, largely because of worn and faulty anchor cables.

When the troops and their horses arrived at Varna, the pattern of disorganisation was repeated: the tented camp had no shade, no clean water sources, and no rations except bread either for the men or for the horses, who were expected to eat the dry straw from old Turkish mattresses.  Moving the camp up the coast had the result that the 8th Hussars were a mile from the nearest water source: ‘whereas, by a different disposition of the troops, all might have been equally near the river bank’.

The heat of summer and the lack of clean water led almost inexorably to cholera: ‘Hospital marquees were shifted to fresh ground, as it was observed that men put into them almost invariably died’, many of the doctors were themselves ill, ‘scanty stores, and no sick diet – we must feed our dying on rations and rum!’  At the end of August, the order came to return to Varna and re-embark for the Crimea. There was no enthusiasm among the troops: ‘we have waited in inaction too long. Sickness and death are uppermost in our thoughts just now’ – and the march back was made harrowing by the sight of the inadequately buried bodies of cholera victims from other regiments.

The fleet had arrived on the coast of the Crimea when news of the battle of the Alma arrived – ‘2090 English killed and wounded; the 7th and the 23rd Fusiliers almost destroyed…’. They sailed south to the port of Balaklava, then recently captured from the Russians and used as the allied base against the fortress city of Sebastopol. It now seems extraordinary that Frances was summoned by her husband to take a ringside seat for the fighting: on 25 October, she was too close for comfort, as a band of Cossacks pursuing fleeing Turks hurtled straight towards her. Hiding in a vineyard, she saw the Russian cavalry charge down on the ‘thin red line’ of the Highlanders, and then ‘the disaster of the day’ – the charge of the Light Brigade. ‘How we watched them! They are out of sight; but presently a few horsemen, straggling, galloping back’ – all that was left of the brigade.  That night, ‘I slept, but even my closed eyelids were filled with the ruddy glare of blood’.

And it continued. On 5 November, at least 5000 Russians, 2000 British and 3000 French were killed, and ‘lines upon lines of artillery horses’. By now it was winter, storms disrupted supplies brought in by sea, and even caused the loss of ships and crews inside the harbour, as they were crushed against the shore and each other. About eighty men were dying every day from cholera, as well as the losses from wounds, and Frances was appalled at the condition of the sick.

‘If any body should ever wish to erect a “Model Balaklava” in England, I will tell him the ingredients necessary. Take a village of ruined houses and hovels in the extremest state of all imaginable dirt; allow the rain to pour into and outside them, until the whole place is a swamp of filth ancle-deep; catch about, on an average, 1000 sick Turks with the plague, and cram them into the houses indiscriminately; kill about 100 a-day, and bury them so as to be scarcely covered with earth, leaving them to rot at leisure …’ The recipe continues with a collection of dead and dying horses and oxen, all the offal of the animals slaughtered for food, which was thrown into the harbour, along with the occasional floating dead body – ‘and stew them all up together in a narrow harbour, and you will have a tolerable imitation of the real essence of Balaklava’.

Frances’s journal was sent back in sections to her sister, and some passages were sent to The Times, which was already fiercely critical of the incompetence of the generals and regularly publishing despatches from its war correspondent, W.H. Russell. The success of the extracts led her to ask her brother-in-law to edit the whole journal, which concludes with the fall of Sebastopol to the allies, for publication. Rather like the earlier Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan by Lady Sale, it created a sensation in the winter of 1855, through the novelty of a woman at the front line, the vivid immediacy of the descriptions, and the depiction of appalling incompetence among the high command – though the latter apparently offended Queen Victoria, who refused to allow the book to be dedicated to her and later refused to meet Mrs Duberly when the returning regiment was reviewed by the Queen.

Two years later, Frances again accompanied the 8th Hussars, this time when they were sent to India after the outbreak of the Mutiny. This time, the book she published is not in journal form, and is more considered and less immediate, but the details of the daily life of the regiment, the continual marching and counter-marching in pursuit of an elusive and much nimbler enemy, and – again – the dithering and contradictory orders from on high, continue to be gripping.

After four years of continuous travel and considerable danger, Frances seems to have dwindled. The regiment returned from India in 1864, and the rest of Henry’s active service was carried out in England. He retired in 1881, and they moved to Cheltenham, where he died in 1891: his wife outlived him by eleven years, but published nothing more. The hope she expressed at Balaklava, that she would ‘wear out my life rather than rust it out’, seems not to have been fulfilled.


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3 Responses to A Witness to the Charge of the Light Brigade

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