Book Review: Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand and Tashkessen 1877. Frank Jastrzembski.

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 202
ISBN: 9781473866805
Published: 12th June 2017

In 1880 there were probably two popular military hero’s in Britain, Chinese Gordon and Valentine Baker, both would die associated with the epithet “Pasha” after their names, and both would die in North Africa.
Like his contemporary of greater fame and less infamy, Baker was a thinking officer. A scientific cavalryman, an adventurer and a, taciturn observer. Not just an armchair general, he was familiar with active service, particularly in the east and he had a precise understanding of Russian and Turkish military thinking, vital to the interpretation of this elder eastern crisis. It might be said all of the above was everything that would set him up for disaster against a desert foe like the Mahdi, but made him excellently suited to opposing a regular, backward thinking military machine like the Russian army of 1877.

The life of the intelligent and brave Baker is covered by the author in glowing terms, he is not sparing when it comes to sprinkling phrases such as brilliant, or genius on his subject. Nevertheless, Baker was praised in equally gilded language in his own time. Though perhaps we should note, many of Baker’s contemporaries showed just as much care and skill in their operations. Wether he was the best soldier of his generation or not, Baker Pasha’s military career up until 1888 give no indication that he would be responsible for one of the most embarrassing defeats associated with a British officer.

Was it as much to do with the inadequacy of Baker’s opponents as his own talent? That can be said of any General, and in sum this book looks to present us with a military career, that fairly glitters and so successfully poses the question where did all go so wrong?

Actually that can be pinpointed with precision. It went wrong in a railway carriage with a young lady who accused him of attempted rape. An allegation that no man of note survives, justly in the case of the guilty but sad in the case of those whose guilt cannot be adequately proved. The character of Baker plays a large part in how he is presented. In the summary of his trial, where he was acquitted of attempted rape but convicted of assault, the author remains quietly insistent that Baker was innocent. The trial itself was mishandled by baker, refusing to allow the lady to be cross examined in an apparent show of chivalry, but it left the jury with only one course. In order to get this across he presents some psychohistory, in which several medical sources are offered to indicate that Baker’s subsequent attitude and actions were that of a wrongly condemned man.

However lack of evidence one way or another is what it is, and as far as the cold light of history is concerned, Baker was convicted and disgraced in a trial that appalled the top echelons of society. The Queen would never forgive him for shaming he uniform. And for what it’s worth, although it does seem baffling that such a man would ruin himself in such a random way for such a small prize, whatever occurred in that train carriage was bad. Wether it was as bad as it was made out to be will likely never be known and is not resolved in this book. As is right, and perhaps courageous, the author gives his subject the benefit of the doubt and so the stage is set for Baker’s great quest to expunge his soiled record and recover his honour in the highest tradition of Victorian melodrama. The author shrewdly observes this classic novelistic element, very reminiscent of The Four Feathers or indeed Beau Geste, etc, and one can only surmise how much the story of Baker informed these famous stories of disgrace and redemption.

The text is easy to read, although populated with a few missed grammatical issues, of which I myself am by no means worthy to point out given my own lack on that score. Doubtless many will observe this lack in this very post. Nevertheless, whereas I can instantly fix them, it is sad for the author of a print book, and he must cringe to read back and see that there are definite grammatical glitches that have not been caught, most notably a curious type setting issue that runs throughout in words beginning with Fi.

I’m very happy to report that very few things bothered me as regards to content. Yes, a pedantic voice in my head compelled me to note that there was a discrepancy regarding classes of ship early on, and that Hougoumont isn’t really a farm and Lord Lucan did not “Issue” the order for the light brigade to charge at Balaclava, Lord Raglan did, Lord Lucan gave the operational command resulting from that communique to set the charge in motion but that is as much a matter of phrasing as anything, which indeed contributed to the ill fated charge of the 600.

In construct the book is simple to follow and fast paced. Baker’s background, rise and disgrace are in the first few chapters. The war in the east and a sweeping chapter on the histories of the Ottoman and Tsarist armies occupies the middle, with a modest but interesting picture section with some important maps. It was interesting to see that both Ottoman and Russian armies were both quite alike. Both having excellent manpower, bad planning and bad officers with the Turks having the edge in equipment. The war in those parts we can see, demonstrate that either side was perfectly capable of holding ground against superior numbers, with the Russians much preferring to attack and take extortionate losses (perhaps explaining their general success here). Perhaps the reason this war is somewhat neglected is because of this depressing aspect, when a war is fought in which the casualties outnumber the benefits, either political or military by such a high ratio, and when it produces few heroes on which a story can be hung upon it is bound to fade. Nevertheless we can note that there is quite a rich font of Russian Battle painting that focuses on this war, and so perhaps we should say the subject is neglected in Western European literature rather than Eastern.

Once all this exposition is out of the way we get to the heart of the matter, Baker’s service as a Pasha in the Ottoman army during a moment of dire crisis. In fact there are so many British officers to be found amongst the Ottoman ranks, and on Baker’s staff, so many foreign Pasha’s that another book about these men might be in order. The book does demonstrate that Baker was a talented and courageous officer, well suited to command and cool in his actions. Demonstrated many times during the first months of the war.

The battle itself is Tashkessen, a pass, surmounted by a ridge of high ground with constricted space and good fields of fire. The objective of the book is to bring Baker and this battle to the fore and indeed the action displayed an admirable use of ground and resources. There are definite cinematic opportunities in the narrative, visually stimulating scenes of dark Russian masses trudging, exhausted after a superhuman march down from the mountains, over the undulating plain, blanketed with snow. The small band of Turkish troops repelling the massed attacks with artillery fire and taking heart from an ancient battle cry. The crisis of the fight when the Russians seemed set to seize the high ground, and with the possibility of being left isolated, Baker determined to stand and die.

Why then did the event fade from memory? Probably for a few reasons. Although the odds here were indeed quite surprisingly immense, and Baker’s deft use of his force proved decisive, it was no great surprise in this war for the defender to win. Add to that the controversy of Baker’s past and his subsequent further shame in Egypt and it is unfortunatly clear why this action, which though tactically successful forms part of that unfairly slighted family of battles known as rearguard actions and thus was strategically part of a retreat.
The author’s knowledge of the American civil war allows allusions to tactics used by American commanders and actions, which happily I was familiar enough with to understand, though it’s hard to say if everyone reading this will get them or not.

The Russians are compared with the Turkish as broadly similar in their structure, and given their performance in his battle one might be tempted to ask how it was that the Turkish lost the war? After reading this book, I might be tempted to suggest an edge the Russians had over their enemy. While it is true there had been no Cardwell reform in either nation, the Turkish commanders were by and large hopeless, bar a few, whereas at least when fighting in the east, the Russians knew exactly what they needed to do. The days of being able to steamroll a Turkish position by sheer force, it is true, were drawing to a close, but the Tsar’s commanders still knew that victory could be won if only they delivered a few good blows to Turkish morale. Another thing is that the officer corps of the Russian army had one element the Turkish did not have, and that was a professional military tradition (and certainly for the artillery a post Napoleonic academic tradition as well) dating back to the early 18th century, a model which had defeated the Ottoman’s early in the Russo Turkish wars, prompting subsequent Sultans to bring in western style reforms that by 1870 were only just beginning to gel.

This officer tradition indeed was what had set the largely aristocratic or gentry based, purchase driven (mostly untutored) British officers of the 18th and early 19th century apart from others. It is true that many Russian officers didn’t have marshal’s batons in their knapsacks, and that most Russian General’s were still looking too much at Suvarov, but they wore the Tsar’s badge, and knew not only their regiment’s and army lineage but their own. Perhaps a poor officer by French or British standards but a deal better overall than the Turkish, and this is demonstrated in the book when everything goes to pot for the Ottomans in 1878. And it is here that we also discover why this war was such a big deal back then, the balance of power was set to shift, another Crimean War scenario loomed and European diplomats had to do some fast talking to save the sick man of Europe for the second time in about 37 years.

The book is written to fill, or flesh out a gap in the Baker Canon. Thus we don’t quite get to see the full story of the man because the book is about the man who fought the battle, rather than the life in general.
At the end, the battle which is the prime reason for this book, is set up against several other rearguards of the 19th century to gauge wether or not it was indeed as brilliant an action as contemporaries thought. All of the selections were successful to some degree or another, except for Peacock Hill which although fulfilling the objective of covering a retreat, resulted in the breaking and almost annihilation of the force in question. Tashkessen was wholly successful as a separate battle as well as a rearguard because in fact it was both, for the battle began as a delaying action and ended as a rearguard.

In sum this is a fast paced, well researched, and thought provoking book about war, tactics and a man seeking redemption. What begins as an almost Flashman like story turns into the vindication of a tarnished and forgotten soldier and opens a window on a fascinating and tragic conflict. Though unlike Harry Flashman, Val Baker had much worse luck, except at Tashkessen.


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