I’ve been wandering around the Crimean steppe these past few weeks, not literally but in my research library. The Crimean War has been described variously as ‘the real First World War’ and ‘a pointless, minor conflict in a far off place no one ever heard of over a cause no-one can remember.’ Whatever position you take the human cost was very great.
I started off investigating Soyer’s field kitchen, which was a very clever portable stove. Alexis Soyer was the Frenchman who transformed catering on the battlefield from a wasteful abomination into simple nourishing sustenance. Of course if Joe Soap of Peckham had offered to go to Crimea and improve the soldiers’ food he’d have been sent away with a flea in his ear, but Soyer was very well, even Royally connected. He’d cooked for Dolly, Duke of Cambridge and many of the army’s senior officers knew him from the Reform Club. But anyway, as always happens with research, way led on to way.
The Crimean War and its participants have given us a number of words. Lord Cardigan didn’t invent the garment that bears his name but he allowed his men to wear a collarless knitted vest under their battledress and probably wore one himself. The Crimean winters were bitterly cold. Lord Raglan, who had lost his right arm at Waterloo, gave us a style of sleeve, designed for his greater comfort by his tailor and later taken up by the world of fashion. And then there was the Balaklava helmet.
The balaklava, a staple of every pre-1960 schoolboy’s winter wardrobe, didn’t get its name until some years after the war. In the Crimea it seems to have been called a Templar hood or simply a helmet-liner. It was warm, versatile, eminently transportable, and an easy item for the ladies back home to knit. Knitting for the men at the front became the thing to do because the Queen was doing it. Queen Victoria was an avid knitter and in that respect quite a ground breaker because knitting had always been a traditionally male skill. She knitted mittens and socks for the troops and, who knows, maybe even balaklavas. In later years she made special scarves for soldiers who had been decorated for gallantry. Not woolly mufflers, but rather fine knitted lace emblems, for Boer War heroes. And with the Boer War I’ve almost reached today’s destination. Lord Kitchener.