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Chapter XXII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8


Changed Position of the Allies - Tempest of the 14th of November - Great Loss of Ships and Stores - The Climax of our Misfortunes - Beginning of Winter Agonies - Lord Raglan's Heroic Firmness - It is misunderstood at Home - Why - Retrospective - The Ministry - Its Sins of Omission - Position of the Duke of Newcastle - Lord Aberdeen - Mr. Gladstone - Great Public Outcry - Popular Feeling inflamed by False Statements - Meeting of Parliament in December - Short Session - Recess - Meeting of Parliament in January (1855) - Mr. Roebuck's Motion for Inquiry - Lord John Russell resigns - His Conduct - Defeat of Ministers - Lord Aberdeen resigns - Lord Palmerston forms a Cabinet - Mr. Roebuck persists - And the Peelites quit the Cabinet- Lord Palmerston forms a Second - War Policy unchanged.
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We have already stated that after the battle of Inkermann the British general found himself compelled, with diminished forces, to maintain a purely defensive attitude in the face of a weakened, but still numerous and vigilant enemy. The character of the expedition had wholly changed. It was intended to be a temporary operation, swift and complete. It became a permanent invasion. Not only the enemy, but the winter had to be fronted. The Czar counted on his generals, January and February, as well as his Todlebens and Gortschakoffs. He trusted to rain, mud, and snow, to weaken the forces, and wear out the hardihood of the English, and exhaust the spirit of the French. Like many others he cradled himself in delusions. For, whatever may have been the effect of suspense on the French soldier, the French Emperor could not afford to fail; and it so happened that the British nation, with astonishing unanimity, had set its heart upon the destruction of Sebastopol; and rarely in history can you find an instance of failure to accomplish a settled purpose really formed by the British nation.

In this present case they were severely tried; but, though they were truculent, and angry, and irrational, because Sebastopol had not been taken in October; though they turned furiously upon the Government at home and the General in the Crimea; yet, not for one moment did they relent or shrink back from their fixed resolve; rather did they insist, with a vehemence without parallel, on the full achievement of the main object, until the phrase - "vigorous prosecution of the war," heard on every lip, became a tedious but still vital commonplace.

The general and the troops who were working out their resolve in the Crimea were tried more severely than they. With November had come, not only a bloody battle, but a painful change in the climate. The soft, calm, sunny days of October faded away. The Black Sea began to show the appropriateness of the name it bore. Thick mists covered the surface of its dark grey waters; heavy clouds overspread the clear blue sky. Rain fell, sometimes in drenching showers, sometimes in thick, small drops; and the earth absorbing the moisture, began to change into mud. Then, with a fierceness gathered from a triumphant rush over the whole breadth of the Black Sea, there came swooping upon the southern shores of the Crimea a tempest memorable for its potency and destructiveness - the famous storm of the 14th of November.

The wind came from the south. On the night of the 13th a storm burst over Constantinople, tore off the roofs of many buildings, and broke down six of the splendid minarets of the Grand Mosque of the Sultan Achmet. Then, accumulating its force, in a long career over the Black Sea, it raged like a thousand demons all around Sebastopol. First came heavy squalls and pelting rain; then the wind became more continuous and stronger, and the rain thicker, beating on the earth with a hoarse sound, and forcing its way through the canvas of the tents. It was early morning, and weary sleepers were awakened by the uproar. Some lay awake and listened to the awful sounds; others woke, and, shielding their faces from the rain, went to sleep again; some did not wake. Soon the hurricane raged with all its force. The canvas flapped, the poles trembled or bent like a salmon- rod, the tent-ropes strained, and the tent-pegs rocked in the earth. Officers were awakened by their servants, who told them they must rise, for the wind was rending up the whole encampment; and in some cases the warning had hardly been given ere the pegs gave way, the pole snapped like a twig, and the dripping canvas fell with a crash. In a few minutes nearly every tent on the plateau was down. The inmates crept out, some half-clothed, others nearly naked; and they were seen flying through the mud, chasing their effects, which the tempest picked up and flung hither and thither and bore away. " All round me," says one sufferer, " were figures like my own, of half-clad men sitting amid the ruins of their beds, and watching with intense interest the dispersion of their property." Another " saw a great quantity of what appeared, at first sight, to be pieces of paper; but during a momentary lull, these came flop to the ground, and proved to be canvas tents." "Great barrels bounded along like cricket-balls." " The air," says Dr. Russell, "was filled with blankets, hats, great coats, little coats, and even tables and chairs! Mackintoshes, quilts, india-rubber tubs, bedclothes, sheets of tent-canvas, went whirling like leaves in the gale towards Sebastopol." Large laden arabas were overturned; horses rolled over and over, even the heavy ambulance wagons were turned upside down. Immense trusses of hay were lifted bodily from the ground. The wide and barren undulations of black tenacious mud were covered with horses which had broken from their pickets, soldiers of all kinds rushing for any shelter, however poor, and heaps of bemired canvas. But most of our men, "more sullen and resolute" than their allies, "stood in front of their levelled tents, while wind and rain tore over them, or collected in groups before their late camps." No fires could be lighted, no food cooked. All around was one common desolation; for the hospital tents had shared the fate of the others, and the sick lay exposed to all the violence of the tempest. The wooden structures erected by the French for their sick went down before the gale, and only a few planks remained. Generals, officers, soldiers, sick and wounded, hale and well, were in a like predicament. " Lord Lucan was seen for hours sitting up to his knees in sludge, amid the wreck of his establishment, meditative as Marius amid the ruins of Carthage." And when the wind fell a little - that is, became a little less violent - the air became colder, and the rain became sleet and snow. All day long, with now and then a delusive lull, this sublime tempest vexed the invaders of the Crimea; and all day long the pickets kept their ground, the Guards lay or crouched in the mud and water of the trenches, the sentries kept a keen look out; for at any time the foe - who, spite of wind and rain, now and again fired a gun - might try to surprise the allied camp. They bore up with a sober resolution and without complaining, these noble soldiers of England; and their fortitude was as conspicuous as was their steadfast bearing on the field of Inkermann. Even late in the afternoon, when the first rough vigour of the tempest had abated, and its horrible screaming voice had sunk to a sullen roar, neither man, nor horse could face its fury on the exposed plains, and two orderlies, sent towards Balaclava, were forced to return. The French had suffered misfortunes similar to ours, and in the night, the Russians, opening fire, pushed a reconnaissance towards the trenches; but the rolling musketry of the watchful defenders soon forced the enemy back to his walls. Even in Sebastopol, the storm did much damage to roofs, and buildings, and earthworks.

But the horrors of that day were most horrible off Balaclava. There hundreds of lives were lost in a few hours. Outside the port, at anchor in deep water, were twenty- two ships. Among them were the four war-steamers, Retribution, Niger, Vulcan, and Vesuvius - four fine steam transports, including the Prince, whose hold was filled with warm clothing for the troops; ten sailing transports, and four freight ships. The weather for the previous week had been tempestuous, and every master was full of anxiety. The Prince, so precious at that time, had been refused admittance into the harbour. The Resolute, laden with hundreds of tons of ammunition, was also kept outside. When the gale had furrowed the sea with huge rolling waves, rushing with fierce shocks upon the deadly cliffs, it became evident that an unspeakable tempest was impending. Captain Cargill, of the City of London, turned his head to wind, and steamed out to sea, slowly but surely. He wished the Prince to follow his example. His warning was not heeded. The Prince remained, hanging by a single anchor on a lee shore. The gale became a hurricane, and the sea like a rolling prairie in motion. The waves leaped upon the cliffs, and their spray dashed in the faces of the hardy men who, leaving their camps, clung like insects to the rocks above, ready to help if help were possible. Soon the anchors of the sailing ships dragged, then parted, and, borne on the top of the billows, vessel after vessel dashed broadside on to the rocks, and with a loud crash splintered into fragments. One moment human forms were seen struggling in the waters, and in the next they had disappeared. All over the sea drove a blinding mist, and through the mist loomed that dreadful coast, vexed and beaten on by the howling sea. In the midst of this havoc the men on the cliffs, using ropes, snatched a few sailors from the engulfing waters. Four ships had split upon the senseless rocks in a brief space. A lull came. The wind caught up the mists, and hurried them away. It was but a momentary glimpse of safety. Out to seaward, in the cradle of the tempest, blacker mists and fiercer blasts were careering on. " A noise like a shrill shriek," " a harsh, screaming sound, increasing in vehemence as it approached," came rushing over the sea. It was the blast which ashore swept down the stoutest tents, and which at sea destroyed the strongest vessels. One of the freight ships instantly perished on the rocks, with all her crew. The Prince had been riding at single anchor, and trying to relieve the cables from the strain by steaming head to wind. This anchor loosened its clutch of the soft bottom; the ship began to drift, in spite of her steam power, then her crew began to fell the masts. It was an unhappy project. The mizen fell, and, fouling the screw, the doom of the Prince was sealed. The next wave carried her up to the cliffs. The shock was apparently slight, that is, she did not go to pieces. But in a moment a mighty wave caught her on its surging crest, and, with a hoarse roar, hurled her full on the rocks; she broke like glass, and all that was left of this fine ship and her crew were seven men snatched from the raging surf, and a few planks tossed helplessly to and fro. Three more vessels, including the Resolute, next went ashore, and every ship there looked upon wreck as certain. The Retribution war-steamer, having the Duke of Cambridge on board, had three anchors out; she lost two, and when destruction appeared inevitable, she was saved by sacrificing her guns, her coals, her shot and shell. In the midst of the turmoil, the master of the transport Avon, a powerful steamship, slipped the cables, and, braving the waves, ran dexterously into the harbour. No other ship s went ashore, but all those which rode out the gale lost their masts, and were seriously damaged.

Nor had the shipping within the harbour escaped. The waters of the land-locked pool were hardly stirred; but the dreadful gale, rushing through the narrow gorges of the rocky hills, hurled the vessels one upon the other, tore them from their moorings, forced them over almost on to their beam ends, and snapped their masts. The Sanspareil was driven two feet up the steep shore. The paddle-boxes of three steamers were rent away. Boats were lifted up and carried inland. On shore the gale levelled the tents of the marines and riflemen. A fine old tree standing in the town was torn up, and in its fall, it crushed through the guardhouse. A row of acacia trees was blown down. The houses were unroofed, and their verandahs rent from them. Off the Katcha and the Balbek there was the same loss of shipping. Two French transports went down, with all on board. Six English transports and a Turkish frigate were wrecked. All the line-of-battle ships were more or less injured, and ran imminent risks of sinking. Off Eupatoria, a French 100- gun ship, the Henri IV., and a French frigate, the Fulton, went ashore, while a Turkish 90-gun liner sank in deep water, with all on board.

This terrible tempest was the climax of our misfortunes. The battle of Inkermann had proved that the army must winter on those desolate hills; the effects of the storm made it manifest that the troops would have to face the winter without adequate supplies. No fewer than 2,500 watch coats, 16,000 blankets, 3,700 rugs, 53,000 woollen frocks, 19,000 lamb's-wool drawers, 35,700 socks, 12,880 pair of boots, 1,800 pairs of shoes, and stores of drugs and other necessaries were lost in the Prince. Fourteen of the wrecked transports were laden with forage and provisions - namely, 359,714 pounds of biscuit, 74,880 pounds of salt meat, 157 head of cattle, 645 sheep, 8,000 gallons of rum, 73,986 pounds of rice, 11,200 pounds of green coffee, 1,116,172 pounds of forage corn, and 800,000 pounds of pressed hay. With the Resolute were engulfed several million rounds of ball cartridge, and the reserve ammunition for the artillery. Even these losses do not measure the extent of the calamity, for many ships were injured so much that the army was for a long time deficient in sea transport, and consequently in the means of repairing the ravages inflicted by the storm on stores of all kinds. Although the harbour of Balaclava was, after the 25th of October, in danger of being seized by the enemy, there seems to have been no good reason why that risk should not have been incurred, and the Prince and the Resolute allowed to anchor inside. The gales of the second week in November showed that the south-west winds in the Black Sea were quite as likely to be as formidable as the Russians. It is only fair to say that Captain Christie and Captain Dacres - the naval officers in charge of the harbour - were willing to permit the entrance of the ships, and that it was their superiors who kept the ill-fated vessels outside. Lord Raglan, immediately after the battle of Inkermann, had taken steps to obtain clothing and shelter and ample supplies of food. But in the interval the troops suffered greatly. " For the remainder of November," writes Captain Hamley, "it rained almost without cessation, and the plains became one vast quagmire. The soil is remarkably tenacious, and the feet both of men and horses were encumbered at every step with a load of clay. Not only all the interior of the camps was deep in mire, but the floors of the tents themselves grew muddy. It is difficult to imagine a more cheerless scene than that presented wherever you traversed the plains. The landscape, all lead-coloured above, was all mud-coloured below; the tents, wet and stained with mud, had become dreary spots on a dreary background. About them waded a few shivering men in greatcoats, trying to light fires behind small screens of mud or stones, or digging up the roots of the bushes, where the coppice had vanished from the surface. Rows of gaunt, rough horses, up to their fetlocks in the soft, drab-coloured soil, stood with drooping heads at the picket ropes, sheltered from wind and rain each by a dirty, ragged blanket - in which it would have been difficult for the keenest connoisseur in horseflesh to recognise the glossy, spirited, splendid teams that had drawn the artillery along the plains at Scutari." So with the Scots Greys. Their horses on landing, for shape, size, spirit, and condition were not to be surpassed» "When the winter began, the survivors of the Greys, long-haired, bony, spiritless, and soiled with mire, preserved no trace of their former beauty." One of the most painful spectacles was the dead and dying horses lying all over the plains. So the road to the camps became a track of liquid mud; the valley of Balaclava desolated and melancholy; the town as muddy as the plains, and the tideless harbour a common sewer. Imagination alone can picture to itself how it fared with human beings forced to winter in such a place in the face of a fierce and desperate enemy. A general of weak mind would have quailed and bent under the awful burden thrust upon him, and would, perhaps, have taken some half-measures, giving up this and that, and, losing his self-command from day to day, would at last have been swept away by his foes and execrated by his country. Lord Raglan did not lose his self-command; he did not forget his duty. Whatever the cost, he knew the best course was to maintain a bold, unbroken front, keep an unrelaxing grip on his enemy, until England and France had time to put forth their might, relieve him and his army from their heroic task, and enable them to act as well as endure. Yet Lord Raglan was subjected to almost as much censure as if he had been a weak man, and had deserted his trenches, his cannon, and his battle-fields, and had stained the flag and the military honour of his country by a dastardly submission. For the next two months it was his duty, and the duty of the British army, to endure; and although his firmness and heroism were not appreciated then, they are appreciated now.

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The principal fortress of Bomarsund
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