Friday 20 September 2013

'The Shame and the Glory' by A L Berridge

On Friday 13th September five people squeezed past an enclosure of roadworks and stood on a pedestrian island in Waterloo Place to conduct a Remembrance Service in the rain. Japanese tourists pointed and took photographs, cab-drivers slowed and stared out of their windows, but for the most part London only glanced and walked by.

Of course they did. It wasn’t November and this wasn’t the Cenotaph, and Remembrance stops at a hundred years. Who cares about the fallen of the Crimean War?

Well, I do actually, and I was one of the five. With me were Colonel Jeremy Burnell RM, Defence Attaché to Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, his fifteen year old son Charlie, Glenn Fisher from the Crimean War Research Society, and a former bugler of the Royal Artillery called Steve Fletcher. We were there to show we cared, and to mark the launch of an Appeal to build a proper war memorial to our war dead out in Crimea.

 I realize how fatuous that sounds – I can see it as I’m typing it. The Crimean War was 159 years ago, the men are long dead, and what possible good will it do them to stick up another chunk of stone? Perhaps the honest answer is ‘nothing’ – but in that case what’s the point of Remembrance Day? What’s the point of all the flags and ceremony at any military funeral? ‘When they’re dead they’re done with’ – is that it? Give them a decent grave, and that’s enough?

The British dead of the Crimean War don’t have decent graves. They don’t have graves at all. Many were buried in haste, but such military cemeteries as we did have were bulldozed on Khrushchev’s orders during the Cold War and nothing was left even to mark where they lay. Generals and common soldiers fared alike, and the fragments of bone still to be found scattered in the soil round Sevastopol might belong to General Cathcart (Wellington’s ADC at Waterloo), or to Captain Hedley Vicars at whose funeral an entire regiment wept, or perhaps just to a sixteen year old private who charged with the Light Brigade at Balaklava. They’re all there, lost in the dust, two thousand miles from home.

Original British cemetery at Cathcart's Hill 1855
They’re not alone, and the cemeteries of our French and Turkish allies suffered a similar fate in the dark years. But the Iron Curtain is down, Ukraine is independent and open, and everything should be different now. I knew memorials had been built and when I made a research trip to Crimea in 2011 I was very much looking forward to seeing ours. 

Here’s the Turkish memorial garden, beautifully tended by a local Crim-Tatar family employed by the Turkish government.

Here’s the French memorial complex, equally immaculately kept, and adorned with fresh flowers from the French government.

This is ours.

I probably don’t need to say how I felt when I saw it. As a historian I was shattered by the failure to honour men who had done and given so much, as a British woman I was sick with shame at this public display of my country’s neglect, but as a human being I felt I’d been kicked in the gut. I’d read these men’s letters and diaries, I’d studied their exploits and understood their privations, I’d even seen their paintings and photographs, and this was a desecration of the graves of men I knew.

I came back home with a mission, and I’ve been on it ever since. It’s been a long and frustrating journey, with door after official door slammed in my face. War dead since 1914 are properly looked after, and there is an entire Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ensure they’re respected abroad – but before 1914 is ‘history’ and nobody cares. Monuments in this country have a special War Memorials Trust to watch over them – but Ukraine is ‘foreign’ and not their concern. Military charities like the British Legion have the living to look after, and can’t be expected to extend their help to the dead. So many organizations, so many different responsibilities, but in each case there’s a loophole that allows the Crimean War to slip through. 

The only answer looked to be private enterprise, but that had been tried in the 1990s when a Colonel Ivanov of Sevastopol proposed a joint venture with donors in the UK to build the memorial I’d seen myself. Land for such a purpose is traditionally gifted to the country whose soldiers it honours, but in this case Colonel Ivanov promptly claimed it as his own, and proceeded to charge visitors even to view the monument their money had constructed. Legal wrangling dragged on for years without result, the deadlock was complete, and the cheaply built memorial had fallen inexorably into ruin. 

 But I wasn’t the only person who cared. While I was firing off letters as ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, our Embassy at Kyiv was busy coming up with an answer. The Ukrainian government had already given us a new obelisk at nearby Dergachi, and the plan now was to expand this into a proper memorial, with a new and simple ‘Place of Contemplation’ at the original site of Cathcart’s Hill. Defence Attaché Colonel Jeremy Burnell was determined to make this happen, and was already working on the official permissions that would prevent anything like the Ivanov debacle ever happening again.

Colonel Jeremy Burnell, Royal Marines

What he didn’t have was money. Embassies have a small fund for maintenance of war graves, but nothing that could possibly allow them to build one. Jeremy could commission plans, he could work with Colonel Peter Knox of the Crimean War Research Society to obtain details of all the regiments that needed to be honoured, but beyond that he could not go.

In 2012 Major Colin Robins of the CWRS brought the two of us together. He introduced me to Peter Knox, Peter introduced me to Jeremy, and something in the air went ‘click’. Jeremy would pursue his plan through all the administrative and legal barriers - and I would raise the money.

It hasn’t been easy even getting to the starting line. This time the fundraising had to be clearly organized and funneled through official channels, but I couldn’t find a single organized body to host the Appeal. It was the same old story, that the Crimean War was in nobody’s remit, and even the very willing National Army Museum couldn’t help. The CWRS would have liked to, but their members had already lost a lot of money through the Ivanov disaster and it wasn’t right to expect them to shoulder it alone.

 It was History Girl Michelle Lovric who broke the deadlock. Sitting calmly on her balcony overlooking the Thames, she said to me gently, ‘You’re not the only writer who cares about history, you know. Why don’t you try the Historical Writers’ Association?’

Ding! I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before, but I went straight to the HWA Committee and of course Michelle was right. Robert Low, Manda Scott, Anthony Riches, Robyn Young, Michael Jecks, Ben Kane and Lloyd Shepherd – every of them offered promotion and support.

Their official involvement broadened the affair into a national appeal, and now it became possible for the CWRS to sponsor it as the designated registered charity. It’s the CWRS who have provided the bank account, their volunteers who’ve built the Appeal website and are informing every step we take, but it was still the little HWA who made the first move. Writers and lovers of history – people like us. 

I should have known. In my very first post for the History Girls I questioned the integrity of making a living by ‘digging up the dead’, and justified it to myself by arguing that we did it out of love. Now I know I was right, and we’re going to prove it by honouring the memory of those we are laying to rest.

That’s what I was doing last Friday. The 13th September was the anniversary of the British Fleet’s arrival in Crimea, and we chose it as the day not only to launch our Appeal, but also to pay tribute to the men whose London memorial lies bare even on Remembrance Day. 

We did it all. Jeremy laid a wreath for the British Embassy, Glenn laid one for the CWRS, and I laid one for the HWA. We read aloud a poem by a Red Army soldier who’d been stationed at Cathcart’s Hill in 1939, and performed Binion’s Act Of Remembrance. Steve Fletcher stood in the rain and played ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ for men whose memorials are silent in November.

There were many years’ neglect to make up for, but when I laid the flowers on the stone it felt as if I were back in Crimea and tending those forgotten graves.

Next time I hope I will be. We’ve only just started and there’s a long way to go, but if people are kind, then one day our new memorial will be built, and we will have a full and proper service for those men whose glory Tennyson promised would never fade. 

Please, let it be so. It’s in our hands now, and in those of everyone who cares about people who lived a long time ago. Our great great grandfathers are out there – men our own grandmothers might have known, and without whom many of us wouldn’t exist. Our history is out there – a war that was futile imperial folly, but for which men fought with such courage that the Victoria Cross was struck in their honour. It’s all out there, everything that defines us. Our pride, our glory – and our shame.

You can donate to the Crimea Appeal here.
Photographs of wreath-laying by Shen Drew, whose site is here.
Steve Fletcher can be found here.
A L Berridge can be found just about anywhere except here.


Mary Hoffman said...

I'm not sure about the wedding venues but will leave them for the moment,though there is a distinct whiff of Spam.

I want to support Louise's Appeal and to tell all our HG readers that if you read her marvellous novel, Into the Valley of Death, you will want to as well.

Unknown said...

Thank you Louise, for such a moving post. I will definitely support this appeal - in fact I'm off to do so now!

Penny Dolan said...

Wishing you and everyone else involved in this campaign every success, Louisa.

We seem to have such a limited concept of our history and war - especially when it becomes complex or too "foreign" and that decrepit British monument that one must pay to view seems to be a very shabby affair compared to the others you show.

I do hope that your passionate novel awakens more interest in commemorating the fallen of the Crimea.

Rosemary Hayes said...

Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Louise. It is, as you say, shocking that they have been forgotten and I'll certainly support the appeal.

Laurie said...

Well said, Louise. I regret to say the words Crimean War mean nothing to my children. Which I will now put right.

H.M. Castor said...

"We did it out of love" - absolutely. This post is so moving, Louise. The link your work has brought you with the men whose lives you've researched has such life and warmth and, yes, love in it - human being to human being - that it touches on something very profound about the connectedness of all life. I will support your appeal & I hope many, many others will too. And bravo to the HWA!

Leslie Wilson said...

A very moving blog. I can't totally remember, from my history at school, the causes of the Crimean War, which is a reason to immediately get your book. Whatever happens about a monument in the Crimea, to use your imagination to bring the dead to life, and commemorate them in fiction, is a fitting memorial in itself!

alberridge said...

And bravo to the History Girls! It's daft, but when I've had to write about this for money-raising purposes I've been careful to explain every reaction and all the good nationalistic reasons why it matters - but here I can just say 'LOOK AT THIS' and know you'll understand.
Michelle was right to reprove me for not realizing the true history lover doesn't limit their concern just to their own period. Thank you, Mary, Lucy, Penny, Rosemary, Laurie and Harriet for teaching me something I damn well ought to have known in the first place.
Thank you all.

Sue Purkiss said...

A few months ago I visited several war grave cemeteries in Flanders, and was deeply impressed by the care with which they are tended in memory of the dead. I really admire your determination and drive to do something, and I'll support it.

michelle lovric said...

What you are doing is amazing, Louise. And Into the Valley of Death is such a wonderful book.

alberridge said...

And thank you, Leslie. The problem with the Crimean War is that virtually no-one ever understood the purpose of it even at the time - but we still sent men to die for it anyway.
It was imperialistic posturing,and about the only thing to be said for it is that it's the one time in our history when we defended innocent Muslims against the Christian Crusaders of the Russians.
I can't glorify it, and it would be wrong to even try, but neither did the men we sent to fight it. I just don't see why they should be punished and abandoned for the crimes of a government they could no more control than we can ours now.
Nothing ever changes...

Imogen said...

An excellent post and a great campaign. Count me in.

Clare Mulley said...

For the last two years I have been honoured to be asked to lay flowers on 11 Nov for the Polish resistance in WWII, many of whom trained at Audley End house near where I live in Saffron Walden. It is unfailingly moving. I am so pleased that the fallen of the Crimea have you as their ambassador, and the support of the excellent HWA and so many others.

Celia Rees said...

I've donated! Thanks for the post, Louise. I was shocked to see the state of the memorials to the Crimean soldiers, especially when 20th Century British War Graves are so meticulously maintained.

Theresa Breslin said...

I too was taught about the Crimean War at school, but it was tinged with Empire-building and triumphalism and I wonder if that's why it's less commemorated. Nevertheless, we shouldn't forget those who died. Well spoken, Louise! A huge amount of the work done to commemorate the fallen of WW1 was due to the efforts of Rudyard Kipling - that lets us know what one determined person can do.

Tom Muir said...

Brilliant, Louise. Perfectly put. I look forward to being there in the crowd when you lay that wreath on the new memorial!

alberridge said...

Thank you so much, everyone - it's really heartening to see such a fantastic response. And, Michelle - if it weren't for your wise advice, I'd never even have got this Appeal off the ground.

Claire - that's so lovely about the flowers at Saffron Walden. The war(s) may be over, but the sacrifice can't be undone - 'they gave their tomorrows for our today'.

Celia - you're absolutely right. No-one can grudge the decent graves of soldiers and sailors in later wars, but it seems so arbitrary to respect one group of war dead and not another.

Theresa - Right on all points, I think. We're ashamed of the Crimean War (and rightly) but that doesn't lessen the courage and sacrifice of those who served. What will happen to our war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan in the future, I wonder?

Tom - lovely to see you here. But you won't be in the crowd, mate, you'll be laying wreaths yourself. Let's just hope it happens!!

Unknown said...

Marvelous post. I'll be supporting the campaign. Apart from donations, do let me know how I can help x

Kate Lord Brown said...

Bravo, Louise and the HWA. Monuments matter (it was visiting Arnhem as an impressionable teenager that really brought home my grandfather's war to me). Glad to support in any way I can (and long to know more about Capt Hedley Vicars and why he was so loved).

Eleanor said...

Very interesting...
By chance, I was watching the film of the History BOYS on the iplayer last night. You may remember the scene where Hector (the lovely late Richard Griffiths) is explaining Thomas Hardy's Boer War poem, Drummer Hodge. He points out how recent the commemoration of the deaths of ordinary soldiers is.
Good luck with your campaign. Let's hope that the Crimean War doesn't get buried in the tsunami of WWI stuff that is about to hit us.

Mark Burgess said...

Excellent Louise, and the very best of luck with the campaign. I'm sure your book has made many more care about the Crimea and those that took part.

alberridge said...

Thank you so much, Re Vampd. I don't think I can contact you through blogger, but do say hello through the Appeal site form and I'd love to get in touch.

Thank you too, Kate - and I so agree about monuments. They're a link to the past in a form we can both read and touch.
Captain H-V - yes indeed. He's in my next book, but he really was a genuine hero. I've seen letters written by grieving private soldiers to his mother, and they're quite heartbreaking.

Eleanor - thank you, I'd completely forgotten that scene, and it's so apposite - as is 'Drummer Hodge'. But our cemeteries in Crimea were actually looked after relatively well until the end of the Second World War, and it's only the neglect that's recent.

Mark - lovely to see you,and thank you for commenting. I think a lot of people genuinely do care about the men of the Crimean War, but they don't necessarily know that action is required. Somehow I need to reach them, and I hope this post (and its many comments) will have helped.

Unknown said...

Thank you for that. I had no idea that this was the case. A 2nd great granduncle was killed carrying his regimental colours at the Battle of the Alma and I assumed that all the fallen were properly dealt with

alberridge said...

Patrick - thank you so much for sharing that. Your great great granduncle must have been a very brave man. Would you be willing to tell me his name and/or regiment so I can look him up?
Sudden thought - he wasn't 'young Anstruther', was he? Of the 23rd, the Royal Welch Fusiliers? He's one of the Alma's greatest heroes - and first man up on the Greater Redoubt. He was certainly killed carrying the colours, but I'm not sure if they were the Regimental or the Queen's.

The fallen at the Alma were indeed all buried after the battle, and if your gg granduncle was an ensign or lieutenant he would almost certainly have had a grave to himself. As far as I know there has been no bulldozing or vandalism at the site (the battlefield is still there) but none of the graves were marked, as the army had to press on urgently to Sevastopol. A few commemorative stones were laid later, but the only one I know of that's still there is to a member of the Guards' Brigade.

There is also a small memorial to the British fallen at the Alma, and the Embassy had the lettering redone earlier this year. In this respect our Alma fallen have fared better than the men who went on all the way to Sevastopol...

Stroppy Author said...

I'm late to this, but what a wonderful post, Louise! I can just remember visiting my grandmother's aunt (I think) when she was pretty old and her speaking about her grandfather telling her about his time in the Crimean. That tenuous link has always made it more than history, a story about real people.

alberridge said...

You're so right! It's so strange what a difference it makes, that person-to-person link that gives you an unbroken chain to the past.

It really isn't so long ago. Crimean veterans were interviewed about their experience at the outbreak of WWI, and that (to me) hardly even feels like 'history'.