A Winter’s Tale: The Last Stand of the Decembrists.

Tsar Alexander I was dead to begin with, dead since 1 December in fact. Soldiers of the garrison of St Petersburg and the Imperial Guard had sworn allegiance to his brother Grand Duke Konstantin. However the Grand Duke had never wanted to be Tsar and abdicated in accordance with a secret manifesto signed by the dead emperor that transferred the succession. Into the gap stepped his younger brother Nicholas. Reluctantly at first because he didn’t know about the manifesto and then becasue he wouldn’t accept it.

Continue reading “A Winter’s Tale: The Last Stand of the Decembrists.”

Messages from the Alamo.

How the Texas Revolution was reported in Britain.

The first page of Travis' famous letter from the Alamo to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world. Little did he know his words would actually reach the world.
The first page of Travis’ famous letter from the Alamo to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world. Little did he know his words would actually reach the world.

Messages from the Alamo.

In the days before overseas telegraph, international news travelled as fast as the fastest ship. Although special correspondents and reporters played a part, unexpected stories required newspaper agents to gather the latest papers tie them up and send them home, where editors would either print verbatim or amalgamate stories to make up a column.

Delays in the relay of information, which filtered north and south through Texas into the United States, Mexico and then across the sea, meant that by the time some British readers heard about the fall of the Alamo, the defenders had been dead for nearly two months. Continue reading “Messages from the Alamo.”

Was the Duke of Wellington Multilingual?

Waterloo Dispatch, Wilkie, (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Waterloo Dispatch, Wilkie, (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Duke of Wellington was famed for being able to assimilate and process large amounts of complex information in a relatively short space of time. His ability to communicate clear, concise orders based thereon were key to his effectiveness as a commander in chief. However a little investigated facet of his communication skills has been taken for granted.

It is a given that because the Duke was part of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy; lived in Brussels for a few years and attended the military college at Angers, he could speak French. And indeed he could, though one critic commented that he spoke French like he fought them, Wellington could read, write, speak and understand the language of his enemy. He could do this because French was an international second language for most European nations. It was a language of refinement, art and breeding, and up to a point was practically a necessity for aristocrats to know.

Ironically, because most gentlemen could speak French, and at this point in history most officers were always gentlemen, his knowledge of the language would prove an effective conduit for Wellington to communicate with foreign allies. Essentially making the very language of the Napoleonic empire a weapon of its destruction. No one can doubt the Duke’s fluency in Europe’s most fashionable common language. What has been doubted by many respected biographers is his familiarity with the Spanish language.

Even the most accomplished biographies of the last century have paid scant attention to his language skills, dismissing it with the sure knowledge that he merely spoke a French to his Spanish allies. And it is true he preferred to use his second language to convey ideas and important decisions to allies and diplomats who spoke no English. At the battle of Salamanca he even spoke to his good friend General Miguel Alava in French before racing off to set the army in motion.

However recent evidence shows that Wellington had been applying himself since 1808, and at a stretch possibly beforehand, to learning Spanish. To begin with he had originally been slated for the command of an expeditionary force to South America and had therefore been in contact with the fiery expatriate, General Miranda, who was negotiating for military aid against Spain. With the prospect of becoming immersed in the Hispanic speaking hinterland of Venezuela, it would be entirely fitting if the young General had begun to acquire a base in Spanish.

Certainly by the time he was redirected towards Portugal in 1808, a parting gift from the Ladies of Llangollen had afforded him the means to achieve an understanding of the Spanish language. (Why he did not choose Portuguese is anyone’s guess.) The two spinsters presented Sir Arthur with a Spanish translation of the prayer book published in 1707. The inscription in the book, which survives in the family archive of Baron de Ross, reads:

“This book was given to Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, before he went to command the Armies in the Peninsula in 1808, by Lady Elinor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, better known as the Ladies of Llangollen. He had it in his possession and with him during the whole of the war; and learnt from the perusal thereof what he knows of the Spanish language.”

The book itself was given as a gift to Lady Georgiana de Ross who recounted the story in her memoirs:

“One day, when we were at Stathfieldsaye, the Duke of Wellington was alluding to having learnt Spanish from a Spanish translation of the English Prayer-book, which was given to him when he was going to take command in Spain, by Lady Elinor Butler, the Duke, then Sir Arthur Wellesley, having visited her and Miss Ponsonby at their cottage at Llangollen, as he went through from Wales to Ireland. On my asking what had become of the Prayer-book, “Oh, it’s somewhere in the library here,” was the answer. Whereupon I searched until I found it, with no name, or anything to tell its history. He was very much pleased to see it again, and said he would give it to me as I had taken such pains to find it. I carried it off at once.”

The Duke remarked that it was such a faithful translation that he had been able to understand a speech made in his honour by a local official soon after arriving in Spain. Nevertheless hiw was a Yeoman’s Spanish and seemingly not at all reliable for important discussion. For when meeting General Cuesta in 1809 he had to rely on the English skills of Spanish General O’Donjou, who was a descendant of an Irish family, for Cuesta refused to speak the language of the French invaders on principle. Yet according to, Gonzalo Serrat, a relative of Geberal Alava, in other matters, such as correspondence with his friend, Alava, later in the war, Wellington was quite comfortable in his facility in Spanish to write at least 50 letters to him in that tongue.

All of which together gives a very different impression of how Wellington communicated to his allies. But then the Duke had a history of being able to pick up languages. He used Sea voyages to indulge in voracious reading, when he travelled to India as Colonel of the 33rd, he had taken witt him over 200 books, some of which were Persian Dictionaries and grammar books. Given this choice of reading it is impossible not to conclude that he did what other British officers did after arriving in India, hiring a Munshi to teach him the language; most likely Persian, which he could certainly converse in by the time of the Battle of Assaye, (if not before when he was commander at Seringapatam).

Havildar Syud Hussein of the 4th Native Cavalry had been right marker for his regiment during the first cavalry charge at Assaye, during the engagement he had observed an enemy standard escaping, accordingly he:

“dashed into the centre of a party of the enemies horse, and bore off their standard.”

After the battle his Colonel brought Hussein and the colour to the then Sir Arthur Wellesley. The weary commander heard the story, patted Hussein on the back and, so wrote Sir John Malcolm in 1818:

“eloquent and correct in the Native language for which you were celebrated, said ‘Acha havildar; Jemadar.”

Though it is hard to say if Sir John was being anything but overly flattering, there is little reason to think him completely wrong. To my mind it makes perfect sense that the Duke would have gained a working knowledge of at least one Indian language in the 8 years he spent in the country, where his French would get him nowhere.

Over the last few years, neglected evidence has been rediscovered that points to this hitherto overlooked facet of Wellington’s approach to command and communication. With three languages under his belt we can see that learning the tongue of the country he was going to fight in, was a top priority for Wellington and formed an important part of his preparation for a campaign.

Read more things you never knew about Wellington here.

The Duke. Phillip Guedella.
Wellington: The Years of the Sword. Elizabeth Longford.
Wellington: The Iron Duke. Richard Holmes.
Wellington: The Path to Victory. Rory Muir.
Wellington’s Dearest Georgy. Alice Marie Crossland.
Wellington in India. Jac Weller.
Talavera: Rene Chartrande.
Assaye 1803. Simon Millar.
http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/13th-december-1856/23/books https://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2016/july/wellington-letter-discovered


Mother Seacole: Why Mary Matters.

Mary Seacole.
Mary Seacole.

The rather distasteful controversy regarding Mary Seacole’s statue, recently installed at the Royal College of Nursing, should be put aside as quickly as possible. Simply put, she matters. Why?Because she mattered to the men who fought in the Crimean War.

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead” wrote Sir William Howard Russell, the Times War Correspondent in the Crimea. The Adjutant General of the army wrote that she “frequently exerted myself in the most praiseworthy manner in attending wounded men, even in positions of great danger.”

Sadly England did forget.

Nevertheless this kind faced, roly poly Jamaican woman of Scots-African descent, who to look at was almost the human embodiment of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, (though she was the farthest thing from prickly) was extremely important to the redcoats of the Crimean Army.

So much so that after the war when she was destitute, old friends and soldiers, happily contributed funds to keep “Mother” or “Mami” Seacole solvent, as any good son would. Their affection for her was demonstrated countless times during the war.

“I’ll see you tonight at Mother Seacole’s” officers used to say to each other before parting. Mother Seacole’s was her store, eatery and bunkhouse on Spring Hill where the main British Field Hospital was to be found, two miles from the siege batteries opposing Sevastopol, and three miles from the port of Balaclava, where the British supply base was.

Here officers had made a sort of informal club were they could relax, eat “comfort food” and buy little luxuries. Soldiers frequented the place as well and stopped in for a drink when they passed, rooms could be rented for functions and it was patronised by General’s, prince’s and humble line officers alike.

Finding it was no problem, everyone knew were the “British Hotel” was. A straight shot up the muddy road from Kadikoi, a small village a mile north of Balaclava. Described as a metal shed with wooden huts attached, sitting dominant amongst the ramshackle habitations and tents, with smoke slowly rising from the kitchen stove and a Union Jack flying from a flagpole outside. No one could miss it.

From the port the ground rises in a series of rolling hills which flatten into a plateau before dropping back down to Sevastopol. A grey brown landscape of grass, scrub and rock devoid of tree’s and rugged in its desolate beauty, which turned into a sea of mud and snow in winter. The collection of buildings on this exposed high point naturally drew the eye.

Here Mother Seacole spent her days, cooking, cleaning and visiting wounded soldiers in the field. Her cooking was legendary throughout the army, her hospitality was second to none, her home cures were more reliable that those of the army doctors, and no one could help the soldiers forget their troubles like her.

Mary had been born to a Scottish soldier and a free African mother in Jamaica and had once been married to a short lived English merchant. When she was young, her mother ran a boarding house for sick soldiers, something there was no shortage of in the West Indies. She had studied conventional and traditional medicine, learning nursing from her mother and at the local army hospitals. She had a natural affinity towards soldiers and an adventurous spirit. She always “turned a bold front to fortune”.

One day in 1855 an officer came in with a familiar request that sums up the relationship between Mary and those whom she called her “Sons”.
“You see, Mrs. Seacole, I can’t say good-bye to the dear ones at home, so I’ll bid you good-bye for them. Perhaps you’ll see them some day, and if the Russians should knock me over, mother, just tell them I thought of them all—will you?”

There was no request too great that Mary would not grant her boys, she took his hand and told him to trust in God’s providence, then let him go. So many men would be sure to pay her a visit and shake her hand before going into the lines and she made so many friends that she was constantly grieving for those who never came back.

To the men of the varying regiments of the army, Mary, was mother, wife, sister and sweetheart. The surrogate woman in their lives, the phantasm of the girl they left behind them, who they might never see again.

The British Hotel, by Blackwood.

She wrote “I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.” One day news came that a young gunner, whom she had nursed through a long sickness, had been killed at his post. Mary had come to see the boy almost as her own flesh and blood, and his death nearly broke her heart. She saw him buried soon afterwards:

“It was a long time before I could banish from my mind the thought of him as I saw him last, the yellow hair, stiff and stained with his life-blood, and the blue eyes closed in the sleep of death.”

The death of friends would haunt her for many years, one was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and when she heard he had been killed she became fairly ill with grief for a whole day. “Mind you” Mary noted ominously “a day was a long time to give to sorrow in the Crimea.”

Yet as a private, volunteer battlefield nurse, this was the job she had chosen. No one else was doing this on the front, except for the regimental women, To be where the need was greatest, to try to alleviate pain and, when she could, to give respite to the mind for an hour or two, which all too often proving to be the last hours of a man’s life. Nowhere was too dangerous for Mother Seacole.

The 17th of June 1855 was spent making sandwiches, loading up mules and packing her bag full of necessities in preparation to go up to the line. She would be needed the next morning when the Allies attempted to storm Sevastopol.

Setting out, no doubt dressed in her usual bold tones she reached the Cavalry screen keeping out spectators. Some soldiers recognised her approaching and called her forwards, she was allowed to pass. From there Mary was let into the temporary hospital on the right flank. The sandwiches soon disappeared, but her oversized bag was passport enough to get her to where she was needed. Gunfire was thundering away from the port, high shots from the Russian guns were flying through the air as she arrived.

“Lie down, mother, lie down!” The soldiers yelled at her, prompting Mary to “embrace the earth” with indecent haste. She was quite used to artillery fire but heeded the advice nonetheless. Someone or other always helped her up again, and she stayed at the field hospital with her bag of bandages and flasks of cold drinks for most of the day, serving as a nurse to wounded men awaiting the tender mercies of the doctors, who she perhaps unkindly said looked more like “murderers”.

Mary returned to the centre of the position at Cathcart’s hill, with a dislocated thumb from a hasty dive for cover. Her hands were stained and smelling of the sherry she had used to clean wounds. Collecting her mules from the errant boy who had absconded with them earlier she then rode to the extreme left flank in the gathering twilight, were she was able to help some men of General Eyre’s Division before heading back to Spring Hill.

The outposts told her the attack had failed with huge losses, although she had been as close as one might get to the action she had been so busy with the wounded, she had no clue as to the outcome of the attack. The next day an armistice was put in force and Mary rushed to the scene.

“That battle-field was a fearful sight for a woman to witness”, more death, more friends lost, another funeral to attend. In addition to her everyday jobs in the rear of the lines, where she viewed the war like any other combatant did, Mary was witness to the last field battle of the war.

From a spot on a hill, just above the allied cavalry, with her laden mules she watched the Battle of the Tchernaya play out on 16th August 1855. “I was near enough to hear at times, in the lull of artillery, and above the rattle of the musketry, the excited cheers which told of a daring attack or a successful repulse”

French and Russian Dead, by Cadogan.
French and Russian Dead, by Cadogan.

After the Russians were repelled, she and the ambulances descended onto the field and helped to evacuate the wounded French, Sardinians and Russians. While probing a wound that hit a Russian soldiers jaw, his dying spasm caused his mouth to shut over her finger and left a scar she carried for the rest of her life.

Despite this all the Russians she met and cared for were deeply grateful. A wounded officer remained prominently in her memory “In return for the little use I was to him, he took a ring off his finger and gave it to me, and after I had helped to lift him into the ambulance he kissed my hand and smiled far more thanks than I had earned.”

She returned to England in 1856 and began a lifelong struggle to pay off debtors as the war had bankrupted her. After her death in 1885 all but a few forgot about her, although between 1857 and 1867 efforts had been made to keep her solvent and commemorate her service, earning her some celebrity, but it would be Florence Nightingale who survived into legend not Mother Seacole.

Mary matters most of all because she mattered to the redcoats in the Crimea. She matters because she is an example of self sacrifice and she should remain an inspiration to all today. Denied by the war office, the medical board and Florence Nightingale herself the chance to be an official nurse, she went on with her own money, helped by a business parter Mr. Day.

23,000 British soldiers died during the Crimean war. None are yet remembered on a memorial in the Crimea, were they lie. So it is only right that the woman who held so many hands, and closed so many eyes on the very fields they now reside in should have one. Some see her as a challenge or threat to Nightingale’s legacy, but since when did it become a crime to acknowledge a worthy soul, who only wished to “to be useful all my life”.


Distinguished Conduct.

Dedicated to the Officers and Men of the British West India Regiment and their descendants.

There is a resonance in some of what follows, as the action about to be described was caused by an outside war prompting a migration of refugees into a territory. This broadly mirrors a current issue today, the lessons of the caste war of Yucatan however are not properly studied outside of Central America. What is certain is that the influx of new inhabitants brought both instability and growth to the colony of British Honduras.
However there would not have been such trouble had not the logging industry been strongly entrenched. If we look today at South America, especially the central sweep between Brazil and Peru, we find that the harvesting of natural resources from the rain forests brings conflict. Today small tribal groups are finding themselves pushed into contact with small rural communities by loggers, provoking violence from and against both loggers and villagers. Very often troops and Police are needed to stabilise the situation, sometimes with fatal results.

Northern Frontier British Honduras, 8am Sunday 1st September 1872 Continue reading “Distinguished Conduct.”

The Heavy Battery.

This is a brief overview of the formation and history of the Heavy (Elephant) battery that was formed by the British in India. Sorry it’s just a link, but it was written for Britannia Magazine on Facebook, and I hope to expand it and post additional stuff here in the future.