The Crimean War

In July 1853 Russia occupied territories in the Crimea that had previously been controlled by Turkey. Britain and France was concerned about Russian expansion and attempted to achieve a negotiation withdrawal. Turkey, unwilling to grant concessions declared war on Russia.

After the Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope in the Black Sea in November 1853, Britain and France joined the war against Russia. On the 20th September 1854 the Allied army defeated the Russian army at the battle of Alma River (September 1854) but the battle of Balaklava (October 1854) was inconclusive.

John Thadeus Delane, the editor of The Times, sent William Howard Russell to cover the Crimean War. He left London on 23rd February 1854. After spending time with the army in Gallipoli and Varna, he reported the battles and the Siege of Sevastopol. He found Lord Raglan uncooperative and wrote to Delane alleging unfairly that "Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army".

Roger T. Stearn has argued: "Unwelcomed and obstructed by Lord Raglan, senior officers (except de Lacy Evans), and staff, yet neither banned, controlled, nor censored, Russell made friends with junior officers, and from them and other ranks, and by observation, gained his information. He wore quasi-military clothes and was armed, but did not fight. He was not a great writer but his reports were vivid, dramatic, interesting, and convincing.... His reports identified with the British forces and praised British heroism. He exposed logistic and medical bungling and failure, and the suffering of the troops."

His reports revealled the sufferings of the British Army during the winter of 1854-1855. These accounts upset Queen Victoria who described them as these "infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers". Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that "the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country." Lord Raglan complained that Russell had revealed military information potentially useful to the enemy.

William Howard Russell reported that British soldiers began going down with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases. When Mary Seacole heard about the cholera epidemic she travelled to London to offer her services to the British Army. There was considerable prejudice against women's involvement in medicine and her offer was rejected. When Russell publicised the fact that a large number of soldiers were dying of cholera there was a public outcry, and the government was forced to change its mind. Florence Nightingale volunteered her services and was eventually given permission to take a group of thirty-eight nurses to Turkey.

Russell's reports led to attacks on the government by the the Liberal M.P. John Roebuck. He claimed that the British contingent had 23,000 men unfit for duty due to ill health and only 9,000 fit for duty. When Roebuck proposal for an inquiry into the condition of the British Army, the government was passed by 305 to 148. As a result the Earl of Aberdeen, resigned in January 1855. The Duke of Newcastle told Russell " It was you who turned out the government".

Florence Nightingale found the conditions in the army hospital in Scutari appalling. The men were kept in rooms without blankets or decent food. Unwashed, they were still wearing their army uniforms that were "stiff with dirt and gore". In these conditions, it was not surprising that in army hospitals, war wounds only accounted for one death in six. Diseases such as typhus, cholera and dysentery were the main reasons why the death-rate was so high amongst wounded soldiers.

Military officers and doctors objected to Nightingale's views on reforming military hospitals. They interpreted her comments as an attack on their professionalism and she was made to feel unwelcome. Nightingale received very little help from the military until she used her contacts at The Times to report details of the way that the British Army treated its wounded soldiers. John Delane, the editor of newspaper took up her cause, and after a great deal of publicity, Nightingale was given the task of organizing the barracks hospital after the battle of Inkerman and by improving the quality of the sanitation she was able to dramatically reduce the death-rate of her patients.

Although Mary Seacole was an expert at dealing with cholera, her application to join Florence Nightingale's team was rejected. Mary, who had become a successful business woman in Jamaica, decided to travel to the Crimea at her own expense. She visited Nightingale at her hospital at Scutari but once again Mary's offer of help was refused.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Mary Seacole started up a business called the British Hotel, a few miles from the battlefront. Here she sold food and drink to the British soldiers. With the money she earned from her business Mary was able to finance the medical treatment she gave to the soldiers.

Whereas Florence Nightingale and her nurses were based in a hospital several miles from the front, Mary Seacole treated her patients on the battlefield. On several occasions she was found treating wounded soldiers from both sides while the battle was still going on.

Sevastopol fell to the Allied troops on 8th September 1855 and the new Russian Emperor, Alexander II, agreed to sign a peace treaty at the Congress of Paris in 1856.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Seacole wrote about the rejection of her offer of help during the Crimean War in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole (1857).

In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here (England) it was natural enough that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer... Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale's companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it... Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?

(2) The Morning Advertiser (19 January, 1855)

She (Mary Seacole) is often seen riding out to the front with baskets of medicines of her own preparation, and this is particularly the case after an engagement with the enemy.

(3) Letter written by Sir John Hall, Inspector-General of Hospitals (30 June, 1856)

She (Mary Seacole) not only, from the knowledge she had acquired in the West Indies, was enabled to administer appropriate remedies for their ailments, but, what was of as much importance, she charitably furnished them with proper nourishment, which they had no means of obtaining except in hospital, and most of that class had an objection to go into hospital.

(4) Illustrated London News (24th February, 1855)

Although the public have been presented with several portrait-sketches of the lady who has so generously left this country to attend to the sufferings of the sick and wounded at Constantinople, we have assurance that these pictures are "singularly and painfully unlike". We have, therefore, taken the most direct means of obtaining a sketch of this excellent lady, in the dress she now wears, in one of "the corridors of the sick".

(5) Letter in The Times on the activities of Florence Nightingale at Scutari (February, 1855)

Wherever there is disease in its most dangerous form, and the hand of the spoiler distressingly nigh, there is that incomparable woman sure to be seen; her benignant presence is an influence for good comfort even amid the struggles of expiring nature. She is a 'ministering angel' without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and, as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her.

(6) Lady Alicia Blackwood, A Narrative of Personal Experiences and Impressions during a Residence on the Bosphorous throughout the Crimean War (1881)

She (Mary Seacole) had, during the time of battle, and in the time of fearful distress, personally spared no pains and no exertion to visit the field of woe, and minister with her own hands such things as she could comfort, or alleviate the sufferings of those around her; freely giving to such as could not pay, and to many whose eyes were closing in death, from whom payment could never be expected.

(7) Report in The Times newspaper on the Royal Guards Regimental Dinner (26 August, 1856)

Among the visitors was Mrs Seacole, whose appearance awakened the most rapturous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her, but chaired her around the gardens, and she might have suffered from the oppressive attentions of her admirers, were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressure of the crowd. However, the excellent lady did not appear in the least alarmed, but, on the contrary, smiled most graciously and seemed highly gratified.