The following is taken from the chapter about James Duncan's promotion from troop sergeant-major, to cornet and acting-adjutant, of the 17th Lancers. Which happened in January 1855, in the midst of the of the Crimean War's disastrous winter.
As an officer, Duncan now experienced some of the perks of his position. He was given an entire bell-tent to himself—possibly the first time he had ever slept in a room by himself—and he received his own ration of charcoal to heat it.29
According to the muster rolls, he never had any servants in the Crimea, even though as an adjutant he was entitled to draw two men from the ranks for that duty.30 (Just as many years ago he had been the batman of Captain Brett.)
But these perks were small compared to the heavy drain on his income. Life was never easy for a man promoted from the ranks, he found himself in a position designed for a gentleman with private income, buying his own uniforms and horses, keeping up with the expectations of the mess, food, wine, and gambling; the gentleman’s lifestyle. In the Crimea, Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling wrote, “making sergeants into officers is a mere absurdity… There have been a great many sergeants made officers lately in our army—men of thirty or forty, junior ensigns.”31 He was not opposed to the idea of promotion based on merit, but was dismayed at the idea of mature men put into a position designed for a wealthy youth of about twenty, where under the existing purchase system they stood little chance of further advancement.
Along with these financial concerns, there was also a large social divide for Duncan to cross. An anonymous officer, who had been commissioned from the ranks himself, wrote of how difficult it was to make this transition. “Old associations have to be given up, and you will find it difficult to form new ones; old habits which have fastened themselves on you with the growth of years, have to be thrown off, and replaced by others altogether new to you, and difficult of acquirement at first. The circle in which you are henceforth to move,—live,—eat,—drink; and even talk differently to what you have been used to. The very subjects on which you are most at home, will not often serve you in the mess, or ante-room, for they are seldom discussed there. You will hear conversations which will be as unintelligible to you as a Chinese sermon… I do not care how intelligent a man is, his entrance into an officer’s mess-room, and the company of gentlemen, direct from a soldier’s barrack-room, in which he has been living for the last twenty, fifteen, or even ten years, must be attended with great awkwardness and confusion to himself; and trifling as this may appear, it often has a great effect on the man’s future career.”32
As an indication of the company Duncan was now keeping, in January, 22 year old Lieutenant Wombwell learned of his father’s sudden death at home in Britain, and that as the eldest son he was now a baronet, taking on his father’s title of Sir George Wombell. Within a month he too was given leave to return to England and the family estate in Yorkshire.33
Duncan’s first obligation was to kit himself out in the appropriate uniform and equipments of a cavalry officer. His regulation officer’s uniform was very similar to his old sergeant’s one, just proportionately more decorative and expensive. It is most likely that he purchased his new equipments from the auction of some dead officers’ personal effects, or perhaps from officers who were returning home to Britain.
The most valuable items he had to purchase were his own horses. As an officer he was now required to provide his own, though they would be foraged at public expense. In the Crimea he would be entitled to have two horses and one baggage mule foraged this way.34 At the rate horses were dieing in the Crimea, they had become a prime commodity. So it is impossible to know where or by what means he acquired them, but according to the muster-rolls, on the 1st of February he purchased himself two horses.35 As a guide, the price limit for purchasing horses to remount troopers in the Crimea had been set at 40 pounds.
His next most important purchases were his weapons. As an officer, he no longer carried a lance, only a sabre and a pistol. As with his uniform, these were simply a more ornate pattern of what the men carried. In practice, it was not uncommon for officers to ignore regulations, and purchase the sabres and firearms of their own preference. Most had replaced their regulation single-shot pistols with revolvers. Mythologised by the Wild West, these new weapons were slow to load, and when fired from a moving horse, still only had an effective range of about ten yards—but loaded with five or six shots, they could prove a valuable weapon in the melee. After the Charge of the Light Brigade, Cornet Clevland, of the 17th Lancers, wrote home to his uncle, "my revolver was of great use to me." Private Robert Grant, of the 4th Light Dragoons, also noted that in the fray following the Charge of the Light Brigade, “our officers had revolvers, and they did great execution with them. The privates had not revolvers. Those revolvers did great service. In fact, the officers altogether did a great deal more service than the men, because of the revolvers. Many of the Cossacks got shot foolishly like, for after one discharge they thought it was all over, but the revolver had several barrels.”37
In practice, Duncan may have initially continued to use some of his sergeant’s equipments, but he would have been under pressure, both from other officers to conform, and from the men below him to distinguish himself as separate from the ranks he had just been elevated from. Fortunately, Duncan was eligible for a leg-up from the government, because according to 1848 regulations, “a Non-commissioned Officer, recommended by the Commander-in-Chief for the honourable distinction of a Commission without purchase, will be allowed, £150, if appointed to a Cavalry Regiment.”38 If he did receive this one-off grant, it was to help him get himself suitably accoutred for his new position, purchasing the appropriate uniform, horses, equipments, and weapons. The rest of his on-going expenses would have to be covered by his regimental income. As a Cornet his basic pay was 8 shillings per day. Although no order approving him for extra allowances has yet been found, he was technically eligible to receive an additional 2 shillings 6 pence for being an adjutant; and a 2 shilling extraordinary field allowance while on campaign. Making his full entitlement 12 shillings and 6 pence per day, which is roughly a ten-fold increase from what he had received as a private, but was pitiful compared to the large private incomes of his new peers.39
Fortunately, everyone had to admit a degree of pragmatism in the adversity of the Crimea; purchasing, importing, and foraging, whatever clothing could be acquired to stave-off the intense cold. The array of improvised winter clothing, and unshaven beards, gave even the cavalry officers a rather unmilitary appearance. A special correspondent to the Morning Herald feigned surprise that, “the mounted men who most resemble shipwrecked mariners, who have stranded somewhere on a mud bank and waded through it to the shore, are cavalry officers.”40
Mrs. Duberly thought, “the appearance of the officers very much resembles that of the horses; they all look equally thin, worn, ragged, and out of condition in every way.”41
While The Times reported that, “a young officer of cavalry, in a lively letter to his father admitting his severe privations, but undepressed by them, gives the following account of his clothing:— A pair of large sailor’s boots, a pair of coarse sailor’s trousers, a pea jacket with anchor buttons, and his own old foraging cap, the last remnant of his regimental rags.”42 Lord Cardigan, on his private yacht, had been the exception.
Amidst the hardships and discomfort, Duncan had a demanding job to perform. Acting as adjutant gave him a lot of paperwork to carryout in his sodden tent, but it also required him to actively oversee all orders that Major Benson issued to the officers and men, to ensure that they were implemented correctly. As Adjutant Godman was finding, his adjutancy of the 5th Dragoon Guards was causing him, “more trouble and responsibility than for other subalterns.”43 But the advantage of this heavy workload was that adjutants were relieved from outpost and transport duties, which in the miserable weather of the Crimean winter could be a blessing. As Adjutant Godman said, “I get off much unpleasant and hard duty which saves me many a wetting, and as we have only three subalterns now for duty, it comes very often, still I have much bother and many annoyances as adjutant.”44 But this did mean that Duncan was virtually confined to camp, and would have had little time to roam and view the other parts of the siege operations. Even Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling, who was Adjutant-General of the Highland Brigade, described himself as, “a small bit of the great machine, I revolve on my own pivot, and cannot see very far from it. The people about head-quarters alone have unlimited powers of inspecting. I cannot go to see what is doing in the front, nor where the French are; all is hearsay. The guns, however, go on booming occasionally, telling me that the roar will begin again some day.”45
The only place that Duncan was likely to have visited with any regularity was nearby Balaklava, where he could purchase personal supplies, and possibly carry on regimental business. An anonymous officer described the bustling activity of the port that winter. “The two principal thoroughfares in Balaklava (although at the present time the term is a misnomer) are the wharf and the main street. In both the mud is knee-deep ; the ruts are unfathomable by horses’ legs… Yet here are the Ordnance and Commissariat stores, the military chest, and all the public offices ; here comes every one to pay or receive money, to fetch a truss of hay, a bale of blankets, a great gun, or a tent pole. Here the ambulance wagons draw up with their wretched inmates, and here lie the ship’s boats, into which they are transferred for Embarcation in the hospital ships.
In the main street almost every house is now a shop or store; a morsel of board, 12 inches by 4, announces that some Jew, Greek, or Maltese rascal supplies spirits, beer, groceries, &c,; an unbroken string of carts, wagons, arabas with dromedaries, and pack ponies, fills the centre of the street, while under the projecting eaves of the shops is a crowd of officers and men, mingled with saddlehorses. The men are drinking ale and porter at 1s. 6d. or 2s. a-bottle, and the generality have a thick biscuit, with a lump of butter or cheese on it, in their fist. The officers are bawling for tea, hams, jam, pickles, candles, ‘gregos,’ American chairs, brandy, tobacco, or butter, and cramming them into holsters and saddlebags, or securing them as best they can for transit to camp… Whether it be mail day or not, I would not think of leaving Balaklava without a call at the Post-office, for there is always the chance of a letter or a paper having been overlooked.”46
At the beginning of 1855, as the 17th Lancer’s new acting-adjutant sat down to his paperwork or trudged about the lines, if he paused from his duties to observe the view from their camp, Duncan would have gazed upon a scene very similar to the following one, that William Russell described for The Times. “The scenery of our camping ground and of the adjacent country has now assumed a true wintry aspect. The lofty abrupt peaks and sharp ridges of the mountains which close up the valley of Balaklava are covered with snow, which gives them an appearance of great height and ruggedness, and the valley and plateau are of a blanched white, seamed and marked by lines of men and horses carrying up provisions. On the tops of the distant mounds black figures, which look of enormous size, denote the stations of the enemy’s pickets and advance posts.”47
The Crimea winter had set-in, and was about to enter its most severe period.