My sincere thanks to Helen, we hatched this special piece for you as we sat looking and talking about Mary Seacole's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery a few weeks ago and please do come back later for a rather special prize draw.
The Crimean plain in winter is a bare, windswept and utterly unforgiving place. For the British troops who had marched off to war so optimistically early in 1854, the prospect of Christmas in the trenches before Sevastopol was a desperately bleak and cheerless one. Those who had survived the three terrible battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman that autumn, or who had not by now succumbed to wounds, disease, hunger or frostbite had no respite from the cheerless environment they found themselves in.
Exposed to the elements on the bare hillsides, many of the rank and file had only the most makeshift of shelters, no proper winter clothing and what they did have was by now threadbare and thick with mud. Worse, they had very little food and no wood at all to make fires to warm themselves or roast the otherwise useless green coffee beans supplied by an incompetent Army Commissariat. On duty in the trenches, the men were perpetually and intensely cold. Yet the snow was more tolerable than the drenching rain that turned their camps into a quagmire and covered them in the grimmest, most tenacious mud any of them had ever known. Their pack animals and horses were as exhausted and starved as they were and lay dead and dying all around them, while food and essential supplies even now were rotting on the quayside five miles away at Balaclava.
On Christmas Eve 1854, as he watched his men brace themselves against the weather, George Bell – Colonel of the Royal Regiment and a veteran of the Peninsula Wars – expressed his outrage at their sufferings, in words that are endlessly echoed in the letters and diaries of many other Crimean soldiers. Nothing but rain, sleet and snow: ‘1,200 men going down on duty, wet to the skin … The young lads cannot endure the fatigue,’ he wrote, ‘they lie down wet on the wet sod, unattended and shiver away their young lives in silent sorrow.’ All around men were sickening with diarrhoea, frostbite, rheumatism and severe coughs.
There were no rations for Colonel Bell’s men that Christmas Day. ‘I kicked up a dust about this neglect,’ he tells us, but what little meat finally arrived, came too late: ‘no fires, or means of cooking’. With no sign to an end of the war Bell’s prognosis was grim: ‘another twelve months will pass away, and there will be more widows and fatherless children, and weeping and lamentation’.
Back home the women of England were rallying to the defence of what an enraged Frances Anne, Lady Londonderry had described to her friend Disraeli as the willful neglect of ‘this little heroic wreck of an army’. The Queen and her daughters headed an army of women who were turning out warm mittens, scarves, gloves and socks by the score. Even on Christmas Day the knitting needles were clacking at Windsor: ‘The whole female part of this Castle, beginning with the girls and myself … are all busily knitting for the army,’ Victoria wrote with pride.
The tragedy of that first Crimean winter of course is that all the warm clothing, the prefabricated huts and tents, the all-essential food parcels that would have given the starved rank and file some consolation so far from home that miserable Christmas all arrived too late, the following spring. But spring 1855 also brought an extraordinary woman to the Crimea who rapidly became legendary there and who with her warmth and humanity, her medical skills and good home cooking soon brought the kind of creature comforts to the beleaguered troops that ensured their second Christmas on campaign would be quite different.
Mary Seacole was a one-woman band: nurse, doctress, cook, shopkeeper, entrepreneur and – most important of all – consoling mother figure. She was the only black woman to witness the war in the Crimea, indeed the first and only black woman to describe any war of the nineteenth century. In her account she brought to life with vivid, idiosyncratic candour her lone mission to be of service to Queen and country, as well as to her ‘sons’ – the men of the British Army whom she had already so loyally served as hotelier and doctress in her home town of Kingston, Jamaica.
Mrs Seacole’s on a campaign map just above the Artillery Camp, bottom left
From her endearingly but absurdly named ‘British Hotel’ – a collection of ramshackle huts and outbuildings located about two miles inland from Balaclava towards the front lines – Mary Seacole set up a home-from-home offering general supplies, a range of alcohol (from beer to champagne) and hot dinners to both officers and the rank and file. Her establishment soon became known as ‘Mrs Seacole’s’ as word rapidly spread across the Crimea of the kindness and generosity of its energetic and enterprising proprietor. In addition to her culinary offerings Mary ran a daily surgery for the sick and wounded, where they could get free medical treatment (subsidised by the well-off officers who bought her champagne). As an accomplished and experienced nurse, Mary could deal with anything from cholera and diarrhoea, to frostbite, to extracting a bullet and stitching a wound.
The Crimea that Christmas was transformed: ‘I think there was something purely and essentially English in the determination of the camp to spend the Christmas-day of 1855 after the good old “home” fashion,’ Mary later wrote. All over the Crimea the food parcels were pouring in – Christmas cakes miraculously arrived unscathed all the way from doting families back home; officers with money could buy food hampers from Oppenheim’s and Fortnum’s who had by now set up shop in the Crimea.
Huts were festooned with artificial flowers and decorations made of coloured tissue paper, bows of bright calico and spruce and fir branches. Some soldiers rode out in search of mistletoe that grew in abundance on wild pear and apple trees. Across the tented camps of the peninsula there were parties and theatricals (with dresses loaned by Mrs Seacole for officers performing in drag) and even balls at which the few army wives in the Crimea took centre stage.
As for Christmas dinner – although wild turkeys were found in the Crimea, there was also an indigenous bird – the bustard (apparently a tasty cross between woodcock and wild duck) and hunting parties were out in the run up to the festival, bagging as many as possible for the occasion. Mary herself had one for sale – so the British press reported – weighing nineteen and a half pounds.
In the weeks before Christmas she was besieged with demands for festive fare – especially her plum puddings and mince pies – as she recalled in her 1857 memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands: ‘I can fancy that if returns could be got at of the flour, plums, currants, and eggs consumed on Christmas-day in the out-of-the-way Crimean peninsula, they would astonish us.’
In the days before Christmas Mary was found ‘deep in the mysteries of baking and boiling’ by one army chaplain. From early in the morning till long after nightfall, she and her two black cooks worked flat out to fulfill her many orders. And it didn’t stop there; on New Year’s Day she baked another large batch of puddings and mince pies and took them to the sick and wounded in the nearby hospital of the Land Transport Corps.
This was just one of many acts of kindness freely made by Mary Seacole that Christmas ‘to remind the patients of the home comforts they longed so much for.’ No wonder the men in the Crimea all loved her and spread the fame of her legendary good works when they returned home to England. At Christmas, of all times, Mary Seacole’s humanity and simple Christian charity shone through; they were – and remain – an example to us all.
My thanks to Lynne for inviting me to write this special Christmas blog, and to all dovegreyreader followers for their interest in and support for my work. Happy Christmas! Helen Rappaport