‘I suppose that you think that I am shot since you have not heard from me for so long but thank God I am not yet but I have had some near escapes.’
These are the words of Private Thomas Towner of the 95th Light Infantry taken from the first of two letters sent from the battlefront to his mother and father (NRO, BOL 4/28-31, 741X6). This letter is dated 21st or 22nd December 1854, after Thomas had already been in the Crimea for over three months. It hints at the difficulty ordinary soldiers had in getting letters to their loved ones from the arena of the Crimean war. He explains that he has not had ten minutes to himself since landing in Russia. This is not surprising since the allies had already been through the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and were now investing Sebastopol. At the end of his letter Thomas says that he hopes that his mother will keep writing to him because, although he has been a good while trying, he has not had the time to write to her.
In his second letter, dated 25th March 1855, he apologises to his mother again:
‘I dare say you think it very hard that I do not write oftener to you but really our time is so greatly taken up with Hard Duty that it is very seldom you get time to write.’
Bearing in mind the sporadic intensity of the fighting between the allies and the Russians at this stage of the siege, Private Towner will not have had much opportunity, let alone any leisure time, to write to his parents. The Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, produced eye-witness accounts of the conflict which kept the British public informed of the real conditions of the troops. He stated that towards the end of March 1855, because of the risk of Russian attack, the British were obliged to keep men in the trenches before Sebastopol for twenty-four hours at a time. This meant that the men had no more three nights out of seven in bed.[i]
In the letters of Daniel Anguish of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards (NRO, MC 20/40, 445X4) the problems of ordinary soldiers in communicating with their loved ones from the Crimea are eloquently represented. The first letter, dated 8th January 1855, is not from Private Anguish himself, but from an official of the Horse Guards (signature illegible). It reads:
In answer to your letter of the 2nd instant, I have to inform you that the name of Daniel Anguish, not having appeared in any of the lists of men killed or wounded or of men having died for any other cause, it is presumed that he is alive at the present time.’
The letter indicates that Daniel Anguish’s parents have not heard from him for some considerable time, if at all, since his arrival in the Crimea on the 14th September 1854. Some light is thrown on this in Daniel’s first letter dated 11th January 1855. He says that he has at last taken up his pen to write a few lines, and he explains that he is very unwell, but hopes to recover soon. He goes on to describe the difficulty he has had in writing to them, saying:
‘I have only been ill two or three days with Bad legs But I hope they will soon get better no dought But you will think it unkind of me not wrighting to you before now But it is such a burdon to get papper to wright with or I would of rote to you before this’ (sic).
This extract shows that over and above the conditions he has to endure, the practical difficulties of finding the materials to write with had prevented him from communicating with his family. He elaborates further on such difficulties, writing:
‘This Bit of Papper cost me a Shilling and a verrey ard job to get it atorl it would give me much pledger to wright to you as awfen as I could. I will wright to you as soon as you write to me if you will please to send me some papper and stamps so I can wright to you again’ (sic).
Two months later, in a letter to his brother, dated 10th March 1855 and sent from the ‘Camp before Sebastopol’, Daniel further emphasises the practical difficulties he faces in sending letters home from the Crimea. He writes:
‘I must now conclude with my love to father and mother Brothers and sisters you must wright and let me know how you all get on and send out some Stamps as I cannot get them out here for love or money.’ (sic)
In their letters home, both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish take the trouble to tell their parents if they have seen any fellow soldiers who are the sons of their and their parents’ acquaintances. Thomas Towner says to his mother at the end of his first letter (22nd December 1854) to be sure to tell ‘Mrs Boyce’ that he has seen her son recently and that he is alive and well. In the same way, Daniel Anguish, scribbles the following message in the top corner of one of his letters, presumably to be passed on to the soldier’s parents and family:
‘I have seen Steven Riches and he is quite well… was at our camp the other day.’
It may have been that one or both of these young men mentioned by Towner and Anguish in their letters were illiterate and not able to write home to their parents. In which case those messages will have been gladly received by their loved ones back in England.
However, one of the remarkable aspects of these letters is the fact that both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish are literate, despite being working-class and bottom of the pecking order in the ranks of the British army. This reflects the findings of surveys in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, which suggested a major growth in the literacy levels of the working classes.[ii] This contrasts starkly with the situation in the centuries preceding the nineteenth when illiteracy amongst common soldiers was more likely to have been the norm. [iii]
Compiled by NRO Researcher Bob Hanna
[i] Russell W.H., Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, p. 141
[ii] Wilson A. N., The Victorians, Arrow Books, 2003, p. 363
[iii] Keegan J., The Face of Battle, Pimlico, 2004,p. 32