What was life like for women during the Crimean War?

What was life like for women during the Crimean War?

On the 25th of October 1854 dozens of wives stood watching from a Crimean hillside as their husbands fought the Battle of Balaklava. What they witnessed would haunt them for the rest of their lives: following a misinterpreted order, the men of the Light Brigade rode into the wrong valley and were mown down by Russian guns. In the aftermath the womenfolk rushed down to search amongst the dead and wounded, each hoping and praying that her own loved one had been spared. It must have been horrifying beyond words, but it wasn’t by any means the worst that would befall the hundreds of Victorian women who accompanied their spouses to the Crimean War.

It seems incredible that only 160 years ago women were still allowed to follow troops to battle. It was a practice that had been common from the beginnings of organized warfare because women could be useful washing and sewing uniforms, bandaging wounds, foraging for food and cooking meals over a campfire in the years before there was a proper infrastructure for such things.

The class divide was firmly in place in the 1850s and women’s experiences were dictated entirely by their husband’s rank, with the soldiers’ wives having by far the worst time of it. Only four per company were chosen by ballot to ‘follow the colour’, and most immediately regretted it. First they were segregated from their husbands to a stinking lower deck on board ship, then around 260 of them were left behind in Constantinople, where they lived an animal-like existence in squalid cellars beneath the military hospital. No one provided for them so many turned to prostitution to survive – and turned to drink to cope. Babies were born and died in that dark, cramped, vermin-ridden place, where many spent as long as two years before the army saw fit to organise their transport home.

Those who travelled on with the troops found there weren’t enough tents at first so they slept in the open air in stifling summer heat and soon began to succumb to the cholera epidemic that swept the camp – “worse surely than battle itself”, said Elizabeth Evans, whose husband was in the 4th Kings Own. She fell ill with fever and when she saw men coming towards her with three planks she called out in terror “Don’t bury me. I’m not dead yet.”

The plan had been to take Sevastopol quickly and get home by Christmas but the generals dithered and it soon became clear that the troops and their wives would be stuck there through a freezing Crimean winter, without adequate shelter, food, winter clothing or medical supplies, because no one had thought they’d be needed. Soon the area round the British camp was stripped of firewood and every last edible plant had been dug up and boiled. The women huddled together in dirty wet blankets, weak with hunger, as temperatures plummeted. Mrs Burke, wife of a corporal, gave birth to a baby girl in a wet, muddy hole in the snow.

Meanwhile, the experience for officers’ wives could not have been more different. Mrs Fanny Duberly, wife of the 8th Hussars quartermaster, slept on a ship moored off the Crimean coast and rode ashore each day on her own horse, which had been shipped out from England. She ate well at the officers’ table, sometimes with commander Lord Raglan himself. After the war she published her memoirs, hoping to demonstrate how intrepid she had been, but she was much derided for appearing to care more for the horses than the men. Her account of the Battle of Balaklava focuses largely on equine casualties, such as “one poor cream-colour with a bullet through his flank [who] lay dying, so patiently”.

Mrs Duberly was irritated to be outranked in Crimea by Lady Erroll, wife of the Rifle Brigade’s commander, who had brought along her own ladies’ maid and cook. She was an ostentatiously dressed figure who carried a revolver and a long dagger in an embroidered holster attached to her horse’s saddle. After her husband lost a finger at the Battle of Alma, the couple sailed home, managing to avoid the winter cold.

With spring came parties of lady tourists. These were aristocratic women who sailed out from England to picnic on the battlefields and even venture up to the front-line trenches, where they called out to taunt Russian snipers surrounding the besieged city of Sevastopol. Seventeen-year-old Miss Canning wrote home describing “flowers now grown on the spot so lately strewed with corpses” and called the countryside “quite lovely”. Not everyone approved, and one officer of the Scots Fusilier Guards wrote that he found it “rather an odd place for ladies to make a party of pleasure when so many are dying every hour in the trenches.” The Russians had their own lady tourists: while searching amongst the Russian casualties after the Battle of Alma, British soldiers found the remains of a picnic of chicken and champagne, alongside ladies’ shawls, bonnets, parasols, and even a stray petticoat.

Perversely, some women later claimed to have enjoyed their experiences in Crimea. Mrs Duberly, the only officer’s wife to stay for the duration, feared that she would “suffocate” back home in conventional society after her adventures. Mary Ann Jones of Welshpool, who spent the war as a washerwoman, said she “hadn’t done so badly” because she left England with one sovereign and came back with seven as a result of the pay she received. But most were traumatised, especially those who had to bury their husbands and scrabble around for passage home. On her return to England Nell Butler fought for 39 years before receiving a widow’s pension although she found it hard to work because her right arm was withered from frostbite. And countless women were buried on the Crimean peninsula in simple graves that no longer survive, victims of illness, cold and starvation. Out of an estimated 750 to 1,200 women, only half returned.

It would be the last war in which wives accompanied the British army, because it was decided that the strain they placed on resources outweighed the benefits of their presence. Looking back you can’t help but admire those women in the Crimea who, along with the nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, showed the Victorians they were made of much tougher stuff than anyone had previously imagined.

Gill Paul’s novel No Place for a Lady tells of two sisters who find themselves at the front line of the Crimean War. It is published by Avon Books in paperback and ebook. Article photo taken by Roger Fenton, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


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