South African Military History Society


That quintessential Victorian heroine Florence Nightingale, whose early fame derived from her pioneering nursing work among the British sick and wounded of the Crimean War, was the subject of the curtain-raiser at the 12th October meeting.

Our first woman speaker this year, committee member Elizabeth Leaver, explained how Florence, although born into wealth and privilege, was possessed by a determination and sense of vocation uncommon among females of her social class. She also commented with regret on how this remarkable woman's record of achievement has been deliberately diminished by current fashions in the writing of British history.

Florence was born in 1820 in the Italian city of that name. From her earliest years she showed a highly developed social conscience, and a hunger for "some real occupation, something worthwhile, instead of frittering time away on useless trifles". She was particularly attracted to nursing, then mainly the resort of drunks and prostitutes, and sought training in that developing profession in both Germany and France.

The opportunity to implement her ideas as to the need for order and cleanliness in the care of the sick came when, in 1854, she was invited to head a team of nurses of her own choosing to work at the British military hospital at Scrutari on the shores of the Bosphorus. There, against the entrenched military and masculine prejudices of the British Army's medical establishment, she transformed a filthy, damp and unsanitary charnel house into a relatively clean and orderly hospital.

During her time at Scutari the mortality rate in the Crimea, where she never in fact set foot, dropped from 42 percent to 2,2 per cent. In achieving this miracle Florence not only gained the heartfelt gratitude of the soldiers she nursed, to whom she became known as the "Lady with the Lamp", but also her country and her Queen. She was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.

Florence began a process of reform in British medical care, and in the nursing profession, which has benefited countless soldiers and civilians of all nations. She returned from Scrutari with her health permanently broken, but remained active in advising on hospital and nursing reform until her death in 1910.

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In the main talk of the evening, committee member Terry Leaver, husband of Elizabeth, explained the causes and various actions of the Crimean War.

Terry placed the events in the Crimea in the context of the decline of that "Sick Man of Europe", the Ottoman Empire, the expansionism of Tsarist Russia, and the concern of Britain and France at the growing Russian threat to their own imperial interests. In addition, a great squabble had arisen over which religious leader should hold the key to the Church of Bethlehem.

The Tsar's invasion of Moldova and Walachia, and the defeat of a defending Turkish Army in July 1853, prompted the declaration of war between Turkey and Russia in October of that year. When the Russian Black Sea fleet destroyed a Turkish fleet off Sinope in the November, Britain and France began moving naval units to the Mediterranean. In January 1854, the allied fleets entered the Black Sea, and a month later the first troops sailed from Britain for Varna in Bulgaria.

At this stage the allied plan was to assist the Turks in regaining the Danube Principalities and checking Russian naval aggression. But Russian intransigence led to an allied declaration of war in the March. A month later, when the Russians fired on ships evacuating the French and British consuls from Odessa, 17 British warships delivered a week-long, punitive bombardment that left Odessa harbour in ruins. This was followed in June 1854 by the Turks regaining the Danube Principalities at the battle of Silistra. The allies then decided on a new plan -- that of invading the Crimea and destroying the naval base of Sevastopol.

In September 1854, allied forces landed at Kalamita Bay on the west coast of the peninsula south of Eupatoria, which had already been subdued the previous day. The first contact with Russian forces occurred on the banks of the River Bulganek, after which the Russians fell back to strong, but hastily prepared defences on the south bank of the River Alma. The subsequent battle was an allied victory, and as the advance on Sevastopol continued the Russian C-in-C, Prince Menshikov, rather than have his main force trapped in the city, moved it into the eastern uplands of the Crimea from where he could threaten the allies' eastern flank.

It had orginally been planned to attack Sevastopol from the north, but the strength and disposition of the defences prompted a change of plan and an approach from the south-east was decided on.

The British were to use the port of Balaclava for re-supply, and the French Kamiesh. A concerted attack by Menshikovs army aimed at taking Balaclava was successfully beaten off by Sir Cohn Campbell's 93rd Highlanders, a feat which earned them the accolade "the thin red line". The Charge of the Light Brigade was another immortal feature of the Battle of Balaclava, which the allies eventually won.

Menshikov launched one more attack, this time at Inkerman on the western flank of the allied positions south-east of Sevastopol. Great courage on the part of the allies, coupled with the boldness of British Major General Pennefather, resulted in yet another allied victory.

From that point the war settled down to nearly 18 months of seige and attrition, during which many allied lives were lost in attacks on the various redoubts -- Redan, Malakov, Quarries, Mamelon -- which defended Sevastopol. The Russians evacuated the city in September 1855, and the Crimean War, which had also involved numerous naval actions in both the Baltic and Pacific, ended the following March with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

The allied forces suffered immense hardships in the Crimea, particularly the British, whose medical facilities were scandalously inadequate. The cruel extremes of the climate, together with the recurrent outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, resulted in deaths from these causes being five times greater than battle casualties. The French C-in-C, Marshal Arnaud, died of cholera.

However, on the British side the war led to a number of "firsts", including the advent of the Victoria Cross, made from captured Russian guns, as is still the case today; the Enfield rifle; and new battle uniforms. Public outrage, stirred by the first newspaper and photographic reports from a battlefront, led to the overhaul of the British Army's medical and supply services, all of which did much to prepare it for its forthcoming campaigns in Afghanistan, Sudan and South Africa.

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The talks list for 1996 is now being compiled. Anybody who would like to give a talk next year, or has a good idea for a talk, should please contact Terry Leaver on (011) 782-4298 (H) or (011) 456-2021 (0), or society chairman Kemsley Couldridge on (011) 440-5686.

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9th November
CR - Felix Mechanik - Chainmail armour
ML - George Barrell - Operation Pedestal: The Malta convoy of August 1942


9th November
Lt-Col. J J Hulme - Moorosi's War. The seige of Mt. Moorosi in Lesotho

Cape Town

9th November
Video of the Battle of Arnhem, September 1944

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George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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