‘It was a dreadful sight to see!’ Descriptions of the Crimean War

‘It was a dreadful sight to see! Both to my left and right men were cut away from me. I thought it would be my turn every minute but, thank God I have escaped as yet.’

These words were written by Private Thomas Towner (NRO, BOL 4/28-31) to describe the culmination of the Battle of Alma on 20th September 1854 only six days after the French and English forces had landed in the Crimea. The words appear in a copy of the first letter to his parents dated, 22nd December 1854. He describes how they came under Russian fire within three miles of Alma on 19th September, and having rested for the night, began their march one hour after daybreak the following day until they came in sight of the Russian forces. The letter eloquently conveys the esprit de corps of the British forces as they faced what appeared to be impossible odds. Thomas Towner says:

‘We got orders to load our muskets: we all seemed in good spirits and all gave three cheers as we rushed towards the Russians.’

Because of the amount of detail that he provides in his description of the battle, it is possible to understand what the British forces actually faced, along with their French and Turkish allies. For instance, he explains the dispositions of both sides in such a way that the ultimate victory of the allied forces in this battle seems miraculous. He says that, whilst the British forces were in an open plain the Russians were placed on top of a large mountain concealed behind bushes and rocks, and having opened fire with their cannon, they obliged the allies to lay down for some time. In addition to this, Towner says:

‘They set fire to the village because we should not see them for the smoke from the village, but we saw them and there seemed to be so many of them that we thought we should never take it.’

In his eyewitness account of the battle, William Howard Russell, the special correspondent for The Times, gave more detail of this particular incident. He said that the Cossacks, according to orders, had set fire to the haystacks in the Tartar village which caused a mass of black smoke and showers of sparks.[i]

Thomas Towner emphasizes that his regiment (The 95th Infantry) was particularly exposed as the battle moved towards its climax.

‘Our regiment was in front at this time and they were killing us very fast. The general commanding us said that it would take three days to take it but with God’s help we all rushed on them and drove them back with great loss and instead of being three days we took it in three hours and ten minutes but we lost a great number of men and officers.’

William Howard Russell in his account of the battle described how the 30th, 50th and 95th infantry slowly won their way to the Russian battery, and despite the odds, the steadiness of the infantry and the destructive effects of their musketry shook the confidence of the Russians. He added that the 95th, Thomas Towner’s regiment, in a short time lost six officers killed, the major, colonel and nine officers wounded and one hundred and seventy men killed. [ii]

In this letter, as a postscript to his account of the battle, Thomas Towner says matter-of-factly,

‘We were three days and nights burying the dead, and then we marched to Sebastopol.’

Towards the end of this first letter, Thomas Towner gives his first description of the Battle of Inkerman (5th November 1854). It is understandable that the actual numbers of the enemy must have been hard to calculate for those on the ground and in the teeth of battle. However, from his viewpoint, the Russian forces seemed overwhelming. He says:

‘They came on us in immense numbers. It was supposed that there was seventy thousand men. We commenced as soon as it was light and the battle lasted all day. We killed and wounded twenty thousand of them and we lost about three thousand and seven hundred French and English together.’

Thomas Towner’s calculation of the Russian forces’ numbers is a lot greater than the now accepted figure which is calculated as being nearer forty-two thousand.[iii] For his part William Howard Russell, in his eyewitness account of the battle, estimated that the Russian forces must have numbered between forty five to fifty thousand men[iv]

In his second letter to his parents, dated 2nd March 1855, Thomas Towner again describes his experiences during and after the Battle of Inkerman:

‘Their losses must be a great deal heavier than our own in fact some of them are not buried yet, neither will the Russians allow us to approach their lines to put them under the earth if they are afraid to advance to bury them.’

image for post 2- 2nd letter of Thrower

Letter by Thomas Towner, 2nd March 1855. NRO, BOL 28-31, 741×6


It is clear from this description that Thomas Towner and his fellow soldiers were engaged in burying both their own and the Russian dead, the Russians having been driven into retreat. In the circumstances, it is understandable that the Russians may have been reluctant to come and bury their dead in the midst of battle zone, but it seems curious that they would not allow the allies to conduct the burials when they were willing to do so.

William Howard Russell throws some light on this situation in his account of the closing stages of the battle. He relates that for about a mile and half’s length along the hillside, French and British burial parties were busy hunting for dead and dying and interring those who had been killed. This included upwards of two thousand Russians. He goes on to describe how Colonel Cunynghame and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilbraham of the Quarter-Master-General’s staff rode up with a view to superintending the burials. He explains that because their cocked hats were seen above the ridge, the Russians began firing shells into the hillside. Russell adds that this was surprising in view of the fact that Cunyghame had told him that Lord Raglan had sent a flag of truce to the Russians that morning to inform them that the parties on the hillside were burying the dead.[v]

Finally, in his last letter of 2nd March 1855, Thomas Towner reflects on his experiences thus far:

‘My Dear Mother, as I have been through the storm so far as I have been to think that the Almighty will spare me to return back to my native land in safety and then I will spin you a yarn that will reach a mile.’

Compiled by Bob Hanna, NRO Research Blogger.

[i] Russell W.H. Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, P.57

[ii] Russell W. H. Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, pp 38, 50

[iii] http://www.britishbattle.com/cimean-war/battle-of-inkerman/

[iv] Russell W.H. Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, p 100

[v] Russell W.H. Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, pp103-104

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