Thursday, January 12, 2017

Woods v. Russell

Review of:
History of the late Campaign (by N.A. Woods, 1855).
History of the War (by William H. Russell, 1855).

The popular view of the campaign in the Crimea is summed up in the apophthegm attributed to—perhaps invented for— the Russians, about the arm of lions commanded by asses. Two great historians—Messrs. Woods and Russell—have favoured the world with a republication of the correspondence which originally produced this impression. The work of the gentleman first named has been made the subject of a vehement panegyric by the I, and his assertions have been triumphantly appealed to as confirming and bearing out the statements of the gentleman whose raise is in all the shop windows, and whom the Parthenon Club delights to honour. As we happen to feel some regard for the reputation of our country—as we cannot quite acquiesce in the doctrine that the inferiority of England to France, the miserable imbecility of our Government and our soldiers, the stupid pride of our aristocracy, the slavish toadyism of our middle classes, and the brutal stupidity and inveterate sottishness of the poor, are proper subjects for noisy rejoicing, public festivities, and after-dinner exultation—we have gone through the task (not a very light one) of examining some of the authorities upon which the opinions in question rest; and we cannot say that the result has been to impress us with any great reverence for the abilities or truthfulness of our self-chosen censors.

Of Mr. Russell we have spoken on former occasions. Our last new Thucydides is Mr. N.A. Woods, late Special Correspondent of the Morning Herald. This candid gentleman disclaims in his Preface all “pretentious to military criticism." In fact, he seems to think it unnecessary, because “public opinion on military matters, though sometimes hasty, is seldom very wrong"— which opinion, from a gentleman who, by his own account, knows nothing about strategy, is of course entitled to great weight. Nevertheless Mr. Woods “points to well known mistakes," and states “less generally known deficiencies," and his readers, at any rate, “cannot fail to see that" his “narrative is true, and therefore impartial." It is very characteristic of Mr. “Woods to appeal to his readers for the truth of his narrative; and it is a blessing that the public are endowed with this unerring power of distinguishing truth from falsehood. If it were not so, they might be rather at a loss for an opinion upon the subject, for the question is entirely one of detail, and of very dry detail too. The questions to be decided are such as these.  How many carts had the Commissariat at Varna? What was the evidence about the healthiness of the Camp there? How many surgeons were there at the Alma? What stores and other resources were at their disposal? What clothing was there at Balaklava? What was the morning state of the army on such a day? and so on. In fact, the questions upon which the whole inquiry hinges are as dry and as special as if they related to invoices, bills of exchange, dock warrants, and accounts current. It may, therefore, well be that Mr. Woods has drawn most lively pictures of the theatrical parts of the war, and at that he is utterly untrustworthy when he comes to facts. Indeed, no artist's “blood" is redder, no one’s "thunder" louder, no one's "wounds" more frightful, no one deals so well with “gangrene," "maggots," “the unutterable," and “festering masses of corruption;" but it does not follow that he is equally reliable when he says that such a regiment, on such a day, mustered only so many men, or that such a drug ran short in such an hospital. As upon these details everything depends, and as we have the advantage of being in a position to command the testimony of two such men as Messrs. Woods and Russell, we have compared some of their statements, acting upon the suggestion of the Times itself, which, whilst declining, with an engaging modesty, to execute the task on its own account, remarks that its readers will naturally make the comparison.

A striking instance of Mr. Woods's “union" with Mr. Russell is, according to their common patron, to be found in their accounts of the mismanagement of the Government, and especially of the commissariat, at Varna. Mr. Woods says—
‘If ever the English were to have had good commissariat arrangements, they should have been at Verna; yet the very reverse was the case. Almost daily service letters went in to the heads of the commissariat departments from assistant commissaries in charge of divisions, stating that they were unable to provide the requisite amount of bread and meat or the support of the troops.’ (i. 86.)
Mr. Russell says (June 9)—
‘Altogether the station seems excellent, and as the commissariat is not deficient in supplies of all the essentials of bread and beef, there is no cause for complaint.’ (83, 84.)
And again, June 26—
‘The commissariat are doing their duty manfully. The quality of the meat is really very good.’
On July 21, we are told—
‘The meat furnished by the commissariat is excellent. Some of the surgeons think the ration is not large enough, as the meat is lean and deficient in nutritive quality, when compared with English beef and mutton; but it should be state that, in order to compensate for that deficiency, the weight of the ration has been increased from three-quarters of a pound to one pound per day.’ (p. 103.)
Mr. Woods and Mr. Russell agree in thinking that it was on account of deficiency in the means of land transport that Silistria was not relieved. Upon whom did the blame rest? Mr. Woods, writing of the middle of June, says—
‘It was plain to every one at Vania that the French were not numerous enough to advance alone to its (Silistria's) help, and that, under any circumstances, the English were not able to advance at all.’ (i. 83.)
There was one person at Verna to whom this was not so obvious. A month later (July 21) Mr. Russell writes thus—
‘They (the French) are not in a better condition to march into the interior than we are. . . . They are obliged . . . to send on the general staff of the administration some sixteen days or a fortnight before they move. . . . We, on the contrary, carry our stores with us, and are at this moment, as I have said, better able to march en masse than they are.’ (p. 124.)
Nor do Messrs. Woods and Russell agree upon the question of military luxuries. In a passage which the Times quotes with curious exultation, Mr. Woods says:—
‘Only 800lbs. of tea had been sent out by the Government, and this absurdly small stock was expended a few days after our landing. The men seldom got their full rations, that is to say, either the sugar, coffee, or meat were deficient, and on very many occasions they had only bread and water for breakfast. Even such a simple article as rice was not to be had on any terms.’ (i. 86, 87.)
Writing on the 14th of June, Mr. Russell says:—
‘Sorry am I to say that the men are dissatisfied, because the store of sugar is run out, and follows who never were accustomed, before they enlisted, to anything better than a drink of buttermilk and a potato, declare they cannot take their tea or coffee without sugar. (p. 91.)
On the 20th of June, he writes:—
‘I regret very much to have to state that for several days last week there was neither rice, nor sugar, nor preserved potatoes, nor tea. The men then to make their breakfast simply on ration brown bread and water. . . . . Within these last three or four days, a little rice has again been served out, and small quantities of tea. (p. 96.)
And writing on the 21st July, he tells us that the quantity of food issued by the commissariat seems almost fabulous. In addition to 110,000 lbs. of corn, &c., issued for the horses, 27,000 lbs. of meat, 27,000 rations of bread, and “the same quantity of rice, tea, coffee, sugar, &c.," were issued daily. (p. 123.)

So that whilst Mr. Woods implies that the whole time spent at Varna was a time of hardship, Mr. Russell's only grievance is that between the i4th and 16th or 17th of June, t e troops had no tea for breakfast; nor are the differences between the two correspondents at an end when they leave Varna. As our object at present is only to com are our two authorities, we will pass over various points which might require notice in narrating, and confine ourselves to a single point in which they are curiously at issue. Speaking of alleged irregularities in the disembarkation, Mr. Russell says:—
‘The greatest offender against the prescribed order or disembarkation was the Admiral himself, who, instead of filling the place assigned to him in the centre of his fleet, anchored four miles from the shore.’ (p. 160)
And again:—
‘In our fleet, the whole labour and responsibility of the disembarkation rested with Sir E. Lyons.  The Admiral remained, as I have said, aloof, and took no share in the proceedings of the day.’ (p. 161)
Mr. Woods says:—
Admiral Dondas was in his place in the center of the line-of-battle ships, which were moored about three miles off the shore, outside the transports, to protect them in case of the Russian fleet making any desperate attempt in the night.’
Speaking of a village near the English position, Mr. Woods says—
‘The outskirts were crowded with stacks of hay and barley, and large flock! of sheep and cattle. These, though we wanted fresh meat and forage, their owners declined to sell at any price. They had evidently been cautioned by the Russians against affording us any assistance. As strict orders had been issued that the property of the natives was to be respected, and as in nearly every instance, they refused to sell, the English did without their supplies as they best could. Such was not the case with our allies. They fixed a fair price on the articles they wanted, gave the money, and took the goods, and the people seemed very well content to have a market thus thrust upon them.’
Mr. Russell, speaking apparently of the same place (though we cannot be quite sure of this), says that it “was sacked by some French marauders, with every excess of brutal cruelty and ferocity. I need not repeat the details, indeed they are too shocking to humanity." Not one word of this—wherever it happened—docs Mr. Woods mention. Mr. Russell proceeds, “They (the French razzias) frighten them from our markets, and will soon deprive us of the vast supplies to be obtained from the natives. (p. 170.) Some more minute discrepancies are very instructive, because they show how little these gentlemen are to be depended upon in matters of detail. Mr. Woods says “it will be scarcely credited that nearly 1200 sick” were placed on board the Kangaroo on a particular occasion. (i. 30.) Mr. Russell says, of the same occasion, that there were “about 1500." Where accuracy in number is the one thing needful, these gentlemen seem to make mere guesses. So, in speaking of the skirmish at Bouljanak, Mr. Woods says that "we had only six-pounders," that our artillery could not effect much, that the Russians continued steady under fire, and then wheeled off and slowly retired. (i. 324.) Mr. Russell states that our cannon “ploughed up the columns of the cavalry, who speedily dispersed into broken lines, wheeling round and round with great adroitness, to escape the six and nine pound balls.” (p. 175).

Perhaps as curious a contradiction m any is one which relates to the battle of Balaklava. In a page of which the running title is “Bravo, Highlanders! well done!" Mr. Russell tells a most picturesque story of how the Russian horse charged the 93rd, the ground flying under their feet, and the assailants gathering speed at every stride—how the Highlanders fired two volleys at them, one at 600 yards, which had no effect, and one at 150 yards, which “carried death and terror into the Russians"—and how Sir Colin Campbell said, “I did not think it worth while to form them even four deep.” According to Mr. Woods, this is a mere theatrical romance. His statement is that, at from 700 to 800 yards, a volley was fired at the Russians without effect—that then the Turks ran away—that the Russians advanced at a trot to within 400 or 500 yards—that the Highlanders then fired a second volley also wit out effect—and that the Russians slowly retired. (Mr. Russell says, “they wheel about, open files right and left, and fly back faster than they came.")—(Woods, ii. 70-1, Russell, 227.) As to Sir Colin Campbell’s alleged speech, Mr. Woods declares that he never made any such “absurd remark," adding that, if the Highlanders had been charged, Sir Colin would have ordered them to form square. Though both these gentlemen were eye-witnesses, both at Bouljanak and at Balaklava, they are in direct contradiction; and if Mr. Russell really made up this romantic story to flatter the public, what reliance can be placed on any statement he makes?

These are some of the discrepancies between these gentlemen's accounts which we have met with in a not very elaborate examination of their books. They bear a larger proportion to the total number of facts stated than our readers would suppose; for the mass of verbiage which is introduced into each book is not only surprising, but wearisome. We do not by any means wish it to be inferred from the above comparison that Mr. Russell is always in the wrong. He seems to us to be at times more reasonable than Mr. Woods, and indeed it must be allowed that Mr. Woods is about the lowest authority in matters of fact—perhaps we may except Mr. Russell—that we ever happened to meet with. We will not tire our readers with a criticism of the miserably inconclusive evidence on which he impugns the conduct of the war. “I hear," “It is said," “I am told," is all he knows about it. He is, by his own confession, avowed nearly as often as he has occasion to make a statement, a mere retailer of gossip the correctness of which it is generally impossible to check. We will therefore confine ourselves to two or three flagrant instances of carelessness, which, upon such an occasion, is neither more nor less than dishonesty. Curiously enough, two of the statements to which we refer are clamorously and joyously adopted, and reiterated by the reviewer in the Times on the 9th inst. When the army arrived at Sebastopol, “the English," says Mr. Woods, “had no theodolites with them.” A negative assertion like this is rather a wide one to receive, on the authority of a single person. It is curious that Mr. Woods should have said—carried away by love of picturesqueness and alliteration—that amongst the shops established at arms were some in which you might buy anything “from a theodolite to a toothpick." (i. 151.) Of course Mr. Woods was only looking out for something large which began with a t, but if we are to believe that theodolites were in such demand at Varna that private speculators brought them to the camp for sale, it is quite incredible that there should have been none at Sebastopol. This is a small matter, though characteristic, but what follows is of very different importance. We request our readers' attention to the following comparison:

WOODS, vol. ii. p. 253.  -- On the 8th of January, of the 63rd Regiment, only seven remained fit for duty. On the same day the 46th, which had landed on the 8th Nov., just two months before, mustered only sixty serviceable men.  The 90th, a strong and healthy regiment, buried fifty men in eleven days; and one full company, during the same time, had only seventeen men out of hospital.  The three batallions of Guards were mere names.  Out of 1562 men sent out to the Scots Fusiliers, from first to last, only 210 remained. RUSSELL, p. 303. Jan. 8. -- The 63rd Regiment had only seven men fit for duty yesterday.   The 46th had only thirty men fit for duty at the same date.  A strong company of the 90th have been reduced, by the last week’s severity, to fourteen file, in a few days; and that regiment, though considered very healthy, lost fifty men by death in a fortnight.  The Scots Fusilier Guards, who have had out from beginning to end, 1562 men, now muster, including servants and corporals, 210 men on parade.

Our readers see how exactly, almost verbally, these accounts tally. The sentences are sometimes clause for clause the same, and the regiments are referred to in the same order. Mr. Russell’s statement purports to be a republication of his letter of the 8th January, and we suppose it is so; but Mr. Woods’s statement does not purport to be taken from Mr. Russell, but from his own observation. In referring, however, to Mr. Woods's letters, in the Morning Herald, dated on the 8th, the 15th, the 20th, and the 27th of January, and on the 10th of February, and published on the 29th of Juan ,and on the 3rd, 14th, and 27th of February—in which the sufferings of the army are dwelt upon at great length—we find that there is no reference whatever to the 90th Regiment or to the Scots Fusiliers, except in so far as the latter are comprehended under the general description of the losses of the Guards. The 46th Regiment are described as having, on the 8th of January, mustered seventy, not sixty, men; and the 63rd as having been reduced, not to seven on the 7th of January, but to ten on the 11th. The differences are unimportant in themselves; but the alteration in the case of the 63rd shows that Mr. Woods prefers Mr. Russell's authority to his own, and that which applies to the 46th shows that he will go as far to meet him as he can. The alteration must have been purposely made, for, on the 8th of January, Mr. Woods mentions tie fact that the 46th had landed just two months, which Mr. Russell omits, but which is mentioned in Mr. Woods's letter to the Morning Herald of that date. The statements about the Fusiliers and the 90th Regiment appear to be copied straight out of Mr. Russell’s work, with slight alterations—we fear, to disguise the adoption. Yet this statement was paraded by the Times last Wednesday week as a confirmation of its own assertions, and Mr. Woods is complimented for his “unalterable fidelity." After this, it is, perhaps, superfluous to notice that, in his letter of the 8th of January Mr. Woods put the original force of the 40th at 850, whilst in his letter of the 20th he rates it at 1100. The Times, which mutilates its “Own Correspondent‘s" despatches to suit its leading articles, must feel that Mr. Woods, who adapts his statements to Mr. Russell’s, is a congenial spirit.

The most unblushing piece of impudence in Mr. Woods’s book is to be found in a note in vol. ii. 206-7. In this passage Mr. Woods, after bitter complaints of the inefficiency of everything and everybody, gives for once an authority for his statements. “All the facts I have mentioned in this chapter," he says, “with others still more important which afterwards occurred, are detailed at 1ength"—where does the reader suppose?—in an unpublished report in the possession of Government. Unless Mr. Woods has seen the report in question, his assertion is a simple guess, which, in such a case, is very like a simple untruth. What he says may be true or not, but he has no possible means of knowing whether it is so. He has the naiveté to add that the House of Commons' Report “elicited nothing to criminate an one very deeply." Surely the fact that such evidence as has been published exculpates the accused is a curious reason for saying that evidence given in a private inquiry criminates him.

Mr. Woods is, if his treatment of his own nest is any evidence, one of the least cleanly of all bipeds. Wherever he compares the English and French, it is to our disadvantage. A few phrases occur, no doubt, in which he says that it is painful and humiliating to do so, but Mr. Woods is a perfect ascetic in his passion for such humiliation. We will only notice two out of very many instances of this. In his account of the naval attack on Sebastopol, “The French fleet," he says, “was in long before the English. They came on in magnificent style, in two long lines." The English, he says, came in an hour after, and Admiral Dundas anchored with several ships about 2000 yards from the forts, “from which safe range" they kept up an incessant fire. He does not speak of the French as firing from “a safe range." Yet according to his own account, they were as far from the batteries as Admiral Dundas. Another most striking instance is the manner in which he hurries over the French expedition into the Dobrudscha. It is passed over in two or three pages, concluding with a notice of the “most searching investigation" to which the general in command was subjected, and which terminated in his acquittal. If an English general had lost one-third of his men by sickness in twelve days, no language would have been strong enough to describe his wickedness, and any investigation which stopped short of shooting or breaking all concerned would have been denounced as a delusion.

Of Mr. Woods’s style we need not speak. It is familiar enough to all readers, showy, noisy, clever, and picturesque, but essentially vulgar and impudent. A dead dog is “a decayed specimen of canine mortality." He sees at sea “a phenomena." “Bosquet" and “Canrobert," “Lucan" and “Cardigan," lose their several titles. Statements of the most vehement kind are made upon any or no authority. For example, Mr. Woods was on his way from Constantinople during the great storm of the 14th November; he arrived after it was over. Yet, in his letter to the Morning Herald, “two or three days after the gale,"--i.e., immediately on his arrival, he says, “I most decidedly charge the whole of the deplorable results of the late gale on the gross and culpable mismanagement of the naval authorities out here."—(ii. 189). And he reprints this astonishing piece of impertinence, although he states (p. 171) that Admiral Lyons approved of the conduct of those who kept the transports out of Balaklava Harbour, either because he thought the anchorage a safe one, or because he was aware of reasons which justified the measure. We should never have done if we pointed out all the follies and impudence which disgrace this book. After all, who are Messrs. Woods and Russell? They have assumed a censorship over our affairs, which, if it were a public trust, would not be granted to any one who had not some of the very highest mental qualifications which men can possess. The sternest impartiality, judicial habits of mind, the highest personal character, are some of the qualifications which, if united with profound knowledge, might give a man a right to pronounce ex cathedra upon the conduct of such an undertaking. Messrs. Woods and Russell may be the most sober, the most moral, the most upright of men, inaccessible to flattery, or to those delicate attentions which are a sort of indirect bribery; but the mere fact that they represent certain London papers in the Crimea proves nothing as to their respectability or their authority. There is a class of gentlemen of their profession whose business it is to describe processions, reviews, lord mayors' feasts, and executions; to tell how at an early hour the culprit partook of tea, and asked for broiled ham, which was supplied him; how the worthy sheriff and excellent chaplain arrived at seven; how, soon afterwards, Calcraft was in attendance; and how the procession was formed, and as the bells of a neighbouring church tolled eight, the culprit was launched into eternity. We do not deny to these gentlemen plenty of fluency, picturesque eyes, and language to match; but when we come to look at their treatment of facts, and at the effect which their statements produce, we had rather have them confine themselves to the humbler vocation of the hangman's historians, than hold up our name and nation to the contempt of all Europe.

Saturday Review, January 19, 1856.

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