There was something smelly going on in late January 1855, and it all seemed to originate from the foul stink permeating from the Crimea War. The Duke of Newcastle, Henry Pelham-Clinton, was the Secretary of War for the British Government from June 1854 but resigned over the Crimea War on 1st February 1855, and that was just days after Florence Nightingale was writing a personal letter to him from Italy, dated 30th January 1855, and no doubt by the time her letter arrived Pelham-Clinton’s successor, The Earl of Dalhousie, would have received it. Dalhousie was War Secretary throughout the concluding period of the Crimea War, and it was a responsibility he received much criticism for. He wasn’t the only one, as we are about to find out.
Our featured cover, which is available in our upcoming Rarities of the World auction, has a letter dated 30th January 1855 from Florence Nightingale’s protector Charles Bracebridge, who writes that ‘Florence is opposite me’ and he tells that she is writing said mentioned above letter to the War Secretary, and goes on to describe Lord Raglan, who was the Commander of the British Forces in Crimea at the time, as a modern day ‘Prometheus Vinctus’, which is a curious statement don’t you think? Given the ‘Romantic era’ these historical figures inhabited, it is presumably a prophetic utterance that played out in the coming six months. You see history isn’t exactly complimentary regarding Raglan’s latter actions in the Crimea War, viz between January 1855 and his death 28th June 1855, and notwithstanding some miserable outcomes from his military direction that year he did have some success prior and he wasn’t exactly saddled with a great commission if you care to look hard enough at the circumstances he faced.
For example, he wasn’t helped by the poor supply of essentials during the winter leading up to the Siege of Sevastopol. Which by that time the weather had deteriorated, there was a lack of food and warm clothing, and their camps were swamped with mud mixed with effluent. Many of the soldiers even if alive were not in fighting shape, and the ‘slime’ which is described in the featured letter that the soldiers waded up to their hips in, had killed all the horses, and if not sick this same ‘slime’ exhausted the men, the unlucky ones died of disease. And our correspondent Bracebridge details in this featured letter there really was a foul stench coming from the Crimea War, and the conditions, both for the British soldiers and sick and wounded, were nothing short of horrific.
The outcome certainly fits that Raglan our “modern day ‘Prometheus Vinctus’”, was viewed by Nightingale and Bracebridge as an imprisoned lone genius whose efforts to improve the soldiers existence was resulting in tragedy, which is in many ways historically accurate, and gives the impression Raglan’s hands were tied in relation to his war effort. Well, when I say hands, I mean one hand because Raglan’s right arm was amputated whilst serving alongside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Digressing a moment, Raglan apparently demanded his arm be returned to him immediately after it was amputated, so he could retrieve a ring that his wife had given him which he wore on his right hand. That anecdote and his continued military service thereafter would suggest he was no wimp or coward, and he had a great deal of experience by the time he got to the Crimea. Officially Raglan apparently died suffering from ‘dysentery and depression’ just 10 days after the failed assault on Sevastopol. Whereas the fortunes of Florence Nightingale following her activities in the Crimea war, propelled her fame and notoriety to celestial heights, mainly down to her nursing and care of the sick and wounded at the Selimiye Barracks, Scutari, where more soldiers died of infection and poor sanitation than from injuries received directly from the war.
In fact, Nightingale became an icon of Victorian culture following her involvement in that war which seemed to not only kill Raglan but destroy his reputation. Nightingales legendary night time rounds of the wounded soldiers with her candle earned her the name “The Lady with the Lamp” and others called her an ‘Angel of Mercy’. Raglan on the other hand was ridiculed and his reputation became a bad odour. Ironically Raglan suffered pretty much the same fate as most of the troops who passed away in the care of Nightingale – dysentery and the appalling conditions enough to depress even the toughest of soldiers. The official figures confirm the reality, because of the 40,462 British casualties a modest 2,755 were killed in action, and 1,847 died of their wounds, whereas a fetored 17,580 died of disease, with 18,280 recorded as wounded. Unlike the soldiers Nightingale sought to help and who gained her sympathy, Raglan didn’t seem to receive much for his efforts, and whether his decision making made things worse, or he could do nothing given the state of his men by June 1855, I guess we’ll never know for sure. But this letter is an important piece of historical detail which shines a different light on events and the characters involved. Mind you, it’s only a candle light, which for some in the Crimea War was enough to elevate one person to angelic proportions, for others I suspect like Raglan, it did little to brighten up their mood or take away the foul smell of war. Ultimately, like Prometheus, Raglan’s fate seemed to be very much in the hands of the gods, or as our correspondent points out, just a tragedy waiting to happen.