Victorian Brothers in Arms… Contd.

Continuing the story of three brothers who all served in the Army in the 19th century.

Edward Herman Marsh

Edward Herman Marsh (odd middle name for which I have no explanation), was born in 1827 and although we know nothing of his education, we do know more of his military career.

He obtained a commission as Ensign by purchase on 23rd November 1849 in the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot. Ensign was the lowest officer rank and the purchase price in a regular foot regiment was £450, the equivalent today of about £60,000. So from being a civilian to being an officer in charge of a unit of soldiers was an overnight change with no previous experience necessary, simply a fat bank account.

Edward joined the 34th on the eve of their posting to Barbados in 1850. The West Indies were a notorious graveyard for European troops with little protection from tropical diseases. However, Edward survived and with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, the 34th was transferred there.

They arrived at the port of Balaklava on the 5th November 1854 on the same day as a combined British and French force defeated a Russian army in the hills outside Sevastopol.

The crowded port of Balaklava

In a letter that Edward wrote to his parents, the port was so crowded that it was nearly a week before the regiment could disembark into conditions Edward described as disgusting, with “mud up to one’s knees”, troops in the siege trenches in front of Sevastopol already on quarter rations due to supply problems and disease being rife… “The Turks are dying like rotten sheep. I saw more than a dozen carried away and heard that 300 died on one day last week.”

It was a sign of things to come. Ten days after the 34th arrived, a giant storm raged through the Black Sea, devastating the allied supply ships, sinking over thirty and taking to the bottom all of the army’s winter supplies.

Conditions rapidly deteriorated. With no fodder for the supply horses they quickly died and the commissariat in charge of logistics foundered completely. As winter set in the troops, with no winter clothes or equipment, were forced to trek 12 miles from the siege trenches to their port base to fetch their own supplies.  Losses from dysentery, cholera and typhus rocketed. The siege trench systems in front of Sevastopol became a vivid precursor to the conditions in WW1 sixty years later. Trench foot, a form of frost bite, rats, artillery shelling and enemy snipers became the daily life of the troops manning the front line.

Winter, outside Sevastopol

In a letter to his brother in January 1855, Edward described the constant sniping and the exhaustion from the night-time piquet duties. However, he also made reference to his servant coming to wake him when it was time to go on duty… rank has its privileges so they say. If it was hard for an officer with money, his own tent and a servant, think what it must have been like for the ordinary soldier sleeping rough in the freezing trenches.

The following month, in another letter home, Edward describes the landscape around Sevastopol as being utterly destroyed, again like WW1 and describes taking pot shots at dogs in no man’s land that were eating the dead horses and men that littered the battlefield. In a somewhat cynical turn, he goes on to describe a fellow officer having a near miss when out in the open, nearly being hit by two Russian shot. The only way an officer could be promoted was by purchase or by filling a dead man’s shoes, obviously the latter requiring no expenditure…  “It was rather a narrow escape [for the other officer] for both shot were within a foot and a half of him. I have been rather unfortunate about not getting one of these companies without purchase, but I hope to have a little luck yet, please God.”

By February 1855, Edward had also become totally disillusioned with the Army’s leadership and its overall commander, the elderly Lord Raglan who, amazingly, he all but insults in his letter home.

Evidently, there was no censoring of officers’ letters otherwise I think Edward would have been court-marshalled.

With the spring and better weather, conditions slowly began to improve for the British troops in the trenches around Sevastopol. The action of the siege began to hot up after stagnating through the winter. The Russians sortied out of the city and the British and French launched attacks on various strongholds surrounding the city from March through to June. Private William Coffey of the 34th Regiment won a Victoria Cross on 29th March 1855 when a live artillery shell landed in his unit’s trench and he rushed forward, picked it up and lobbed it out of the trench seconds before it exploded.

On the 18th June the 34th was part of the joint Anglo-French assault on the Malakoff and the Great Redan, the Russians’ two most powerful strongholds in the Sevastopol defences. The attacks were a disaster with both the French and British suffering great losses. The 34th’s second Victoria Cross winner, Private John Sims, won his award after the regiment had pulled back to its trenches following the failed attack when he repeatedly left cover to retrieve wounded soldiers and bring them back to the safety of the trenches.

Perhaps, in this disastrous attack Edward got his wish and was able to be promoted into a dead man’s shoes.

The siege ground on but with better weather much more artillery was brought up to the front line and the city was pounded almost to destruction. By mid-August the Russians were suffering 3000 casualties a day from the bombardment and by the end of the month their position was untenable and they abandoned their defences and retreated.

The fall of Sevastopol was the catalyst for negotiations that ended the war which formally ended the following year in 1856. Edward Marsh was awarded the Crime Medal with the Sebastopol (then the current spelling) clasp. Here is a picture of the medal and a photograph of Edward wearing it.

Although technically a victory, public opinion in Britain was outraged at the logistical and command failures of the war; the newspapers demanded drastic reforms, and parliamentary investigations demonstrated the multiple failures of the army.

However, before any reform could take place, mutiny broke out in India in 1857 and the 34th were sent there to help put down the revolt.

Within days of the Indian Mutiny erupting, major garrison towns in the north of the country were under siege… Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore and others.

The 34th Regiment were assigned to the force, led by Major-General Henry Havelock, that was hurriedly put together to relieve Cawnpore, a strategically important garrison town straddling the Ganges.

(As a side note… Henry Havelock was a Captain at the siege of Jalalabad in the First Afghan War in 1841 where Edward’s elder brother, Henry Godfrey Marsh served. Odd coincidence.)

The British at Cawnpore, about a thousand in total, half of whom were women and children, held out for three weeks, suffering increasing casualties from repeated attacks and losses from disease, surrendered on 27th June having been given assurance of safe passage across the Ganges and onward to Allahabad, the direction from which the relief force would approach. General Wheeler, in command at Cawnpore, led out a column of British survivors and headed to the Satichaura Ghat on the river bank where boats were waiting to ferry them across.

The British embarked on the boat but then, suddenly, the rebels opened fire on them. Boats collided in the chaos, overturning, then rebel cavalry rode into the river and systematically killed all the men in the British party with pistols and sabres.

The surviving British women and children were moved to a large villa complex at Bibighar where other European women captured elsewhere were already being held. In all there were about 200 women and children held captive.

Nana Sahib, the local rebel leader, intended to use the captives to bargain with the British, under General Havelock, approaching from Allahabad when they defeated another rebel force sent to try and stop them.  When it became clear to Nana Sahib that the British commander wasn’t going to negotiate, he ordered the women and children held at Bibighar to be killed.

Nana Sahib’s mistress, Begum Hussaini Khanum, was in charge at the villa but the rebel sepoys refused to obey her orders to kill the captives in cold blood. At this, she employed a group of butchers and slaughtermen from the town and they massacred the women and children with knives and cleavers, stripping them and throwing their bodies down a dry well.

There were no survivors. It was the 15th of July and Havelock’s force finally re-took Cawnpore the following day, to find a scene of utter carnage at Bibighar.

While Havelock set off with part of his force to try and break through to the besieged residency at Lucknow, 48 miles away, Brigadier General Neill, left in charge at Cawnpore, immediately began a program of swift and vicious retribution, executing any sepoy rebel captured from the city who was unable to prove he was not involved in the massacre.

The 34th Regiment was not part of Havelock’s relief force that set off for Lucknow so must have remained in Cawnpore during this period. Despite being so appalled and infuriated by the massacre, the horrific way in which many of the captive sepoys were executed was shameful and not an episode of which the British Army can be proud.

Meanwhile, Havelock fought his way into besieged Lucknow but his losses, through battle casualties and sickness were too great to enable the garrison to fight their way out again. So he took the decision to use his remaining troops to reinforce the Lucknow garrison and await a second relief.

That was led by the newly appointed overall commander in India, Sir Colin Campbell (he of the “thin red line” fame from Balaklava). The 34th Regiment was assigned to his column which, after much heavy fighting relieved Lucknow in November 1857.

The 34th remained in India, under Campbell fighting actions against various rebel units all through 1858 and 1859.

The 34th left India in 1868 and returned to England, based at their depot in Carlisle, but they sailed out to India again in 1875, returning to Bengal and proceeding to Burma when the Third Burma War started. They stayed until 1890.

Now, I’m not sure what service Edward Herman Marsh did during this later period. All I know was that he was in England for each census between 1861 and 1901 inclusive. In 1861 he was presumably at home on extended leave as the regiment was still in India. In the 1871 census he was staying at his sister’s house, again presumably on leave while the regiment was based in England.

I am guessing that he retired from the army some time before the regiment redeployed back to India in 1875, having been promoted to Major as his occupation entry on the 1891 census is “Major in the Army, on Retired List”.

Edward never married and never seems to have owned his own home. On each of the census returns he was living either in his father’s house or with one of his sisters.

Edward Herman Marsh died on 13th February 1808.

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