On the Crimean War

No war in all the history of the British Army (or for that matter British Imperial History) managed to capture so much of what is best, of what is worst, what is intelligent, what is stupid, what is courageous and what is foolhardy, what is important and what is infinitely insignificant, than the extraordinary and downright bizarre military campaign which was the Crimean War, of October 1853 to February 1856.  It stands in history as a testament to British folly – and yet there was much learnt from the dire experience, and which led to the successful reshaping of Britain’s military organs, rendering them fit for the practice of Empire in its hayday between 1860 and 1914.  Indeed, the Crimean War still has lessons for us today.

I should tell you how it came to be that I developed an interest in the Crimean campaign.  As usual, the story begins in the ancient world, and this time with my reflecting on the extraordinary fact that one of the greatest poets of the late Roman Republican age, Publius Ovidius Naso, for reasons which have remained an entire mystery to posterity, was exiled in his fiftieth year from the splendour of Rome to the very fingertips of its dominions on the shores of the Black Sea, just south of where the mighty river Danube empties out into its waters.  For ten long years Ovid lived in piteous exile on that shore, in the town of ancient Tomis, now known as Constanza, in Romania.

While researching his exile, and in particular the ancient trade routes which were followed from Rome to Corinth and beyond (and which I hoped would have supplied the poor fellow with olives and dates), I discovered that ships would regularly sail from Greece through the Dardanelles, up the western shores of the Black Sea until they would reach the large peninsula at the north end of the Sea, which they knew as Taurica.  This peninsula, about half the size of Denmark, and which is very roughly a rhombus or sidelong four sided diamond in shape, had in ancient times a very large greek colony at its southern end, known as Chersonesos.  To this day, the ruins of Chersonesos are only marginally less extensive than those of Pompeii.

It was in the tenth century, however, and after the year 988 AD when Saint Vladimir of the Kievan Rus converted to Christianity, that this beautiful corner of Europe joined the Russian family, becoming known as the Crimea.

The Crimea then began a long and distinguished history in the life of greater Russia. It was a place of great churches, monasteries and cathedrals. It became a centre of Russian culture and learning. It became a summer resort to which the frozen citizens of St Petersburg and Moscow would flock every year. In 1783 the mighty harbour city of Sebastopol was founded by Admiral Thomas MacKenzie (of Scottish decent, of course, and a sailor in the service of Russia like his father before him). It quickly became the home port for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, established by Prince Potemkin in the same year. It remains to this day as Russia’s only ice-free harbour. In the aftermath of the Second world War, the Crimea was the location for the momentous Yalta conference of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, with dark and snowcapped mountains, cliff faces plunging to the coastal sea below and yet a number of sheltered and deep water bays.  It has, overall, a temperate, continental climate which is very pleasantly warm in the summer, but bitterly cold in the winter.

And so the Crimea has a claim to be one of the most historic and interesting parts of the continent of Europe, quite apart from being the amphitheatre for one of the most astonishing military campaigns in history.

No one ever seems, properly, to understand what the Crimean War was all about – suffice to say, that it involved an urgent need to remove the Russians from what was, on any view, one of the somewhat more Russian parts of the world, I hope you would agree from my simple summary.

By the beginning of the 1850s, Russia was extremely powerful and Turkey – or to give its proper title, The Ottoman Empire – was increasingly weak.  Russia was encroaching ever more onto Ottoman territory, and had even sought to extend its territories along the western Black Sea shores, lands which bordered those of Austro-Hungary.  In short, it was felt across Europe that Russia was ‘getting rather big for its boots’.

In an unrelated incident, there had, in June 1853, been a riot outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Catholic monks, who had been given a key to the church, placed a silver star over the Manger (but quite why this was happening in June always rather puzzles me – if anyone has an insight I’d be glad to hear from them).  Russian Orthodox monks tried to stop their Catholic brethren fixing it there, and a heated and then violent struggled quickly ensued. Some of the Orthodox monks were killed.  Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time. The Russian Tsar, enraged by the death of the Orthodox monks, hurled blame on Turkey for the death of his monks. The Tsar even went so far as to suggest that the Ottoman police in Jerusalem had been involved in the monks’ murder. Within days of the incident a Russian Army was marching towards the Danube on a crusade to protect the Holy Places from Islam. The situation was becoming very serious.

Tension between Russia and Turkey escalated. Meanwhile diplomatic dispatches flew across Europe from St Petersburg to Paris, from Constantinople through Vienna to London, and even crackled across the new fangled electric telegraph wires.  The Tsar was hopeful of keeping Great Britain out of any war with the Turks, but the rumblings of war were growing louder.

By October 1853 Russia was at war with Turkey.  On St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1853 (Saint Andrew being the patron saint of the Russian Navy, under whose reversed saltire they sail) the Russian Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Nachimoff sailed out of Sebastopol. He encountered a Turkish flotilla on the south shore of the Black Sea at Sinope, and sank every single ship.  Nearly 4,000 Turkish sailors were lost and many of them, so it was widely reported in the press at the time, were shot by Russian gunners as the floundered in the water.

British opinion was outraged by the massacre. Driven on by the war bellowing of Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen (the Prime Minister) decided he had no choice but to recommend to Queen Victoria that war be declared upon Russia in order to defend the independence of the muslim Ottomans.  France declared war on Russia the day after Great Britain.

Now, the last successful war which Great Britain had waged had been the long and bitter Napoleonic campaign against France which culminated in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo.  Now, less than 30 years later, the British and French were waging war together, and this time against the Russians.  As the British were soon to discover to their cost, however, there had been a great deal of sitting on a large quantity of laurels since Wellington had trodden those glorious Belgian fields in victory.

At Waterloo, Wellington had a brave and distinguished aide de camp by the name of Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the youngest of the Duke of Beaufort’s eleven children.  Fitzroy was always a young man marked for greatness – and in the words of Crimea Historian Christopher Hibbert:

“Captain Lord Fitzroy Somerset… had the ability of preserving in the midst of confusion, irritation, danger or abuse a quite astonishing serenity.  He was also extremely tactful, industrious and discreet.  He promised, indeed, to be an ideal Military Secretary; and [Wellington] found him to be one.”

Fitzroy was at the Duke’s side on the field at Waterloo, but toward evening a musket ball from a sniper smashed his right elbow.  He walked to a forward hospital and showed his lacerated arm to the surgeon in charge.  The surgeon told him to lie down on the table and then he cut the arm off between the shoulder and the elbow.  Fitzroy did not so much as murmur; and The Prince of Orange, lying wounded in the same small room, was unaware that an operation had been performed until the remainder of the arm was tossed away by the surgeon and (by now, Colonel) Fitzroy called out – “Hey, bring my arm back.  There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger.”

After Waterloo there followed a brilliant military career, and in due course a peerage, which led to Fitzroy being ennobled with the title, Lord Raglan.

And it was Lord Raglan, in the years after the iron duke’s passing, it was the same dashing young Fitzroy who had been Johnny to Wellington, that took up the post of Commander in Chief of Her Majesty’s Brittanic forces.

There have been few commanders in chief who have been subjected to the levels of criticism which Lord Raglan has suffered at the hands of history – and in the opinion of this humble essayist, he has been very greatly maligned.

Imagine, if you will, the whole British army and navy departing from Plymouth: gunners rolling cannon, quartermasters counting stores of oats, thick woollen socks and worsted jackets, horses being led up gangplanks, Scotchmen with bagpipes, women and children waving frantically from the docks, and the glittering regalia of the officer class winking in the sunlight.  It was described as the largest army ever to leave our shores – but it was also an army of many regiments, each the self governing little entity of its colonel in chief (who had often literally bought his position) and egos the size of Bass Rock – all one needs to hear are the names of the army’s senior officers, in order to sympathise with Lord Raglan in his task of asking these men what to do (since Raglan would, at times, consider it rather un-gentlemanly to issue anything so crude as an ‘order’.)

Oh yes, the names, a role call of the British aristocracy:  the 7th Earl of Cardigan, commander in chief of the Light Brigade, surely one of the most courageous and yet difficult men ever to sit a saddle; the 3rd Lord Lucan, who bought his command of the 17th Lancers regiment for the princely sum of £25,000, and was the father in law of Cardigan with whom he was barely on speaking terms through the entire campaign; General Richard Airey, who rarely left Raglan’s side but whose personality seems to have been a perfect match for his surname; the magisterial and mutton chopped Glaswegian General Sir Colin Campbell (later the first Lord Clyde), commander in chief of the terrifying Highland Brigade; the Duke of Cambridge (grandson of George III), Sir George De Lacy Evans, Sir Richard England (that last two both Irishmen, as is of course obvious from their surnames) and a sprinkling of other knights and Lords completed the top table of command.  In short this was at its inception less a military campaign and more, an enormous outing for overgrown schoolboys to practice using their pea shooters.

After some weeks voyaging around Spain and through the Mediterranean, the British met up with their French counterparts, and this enormous joint armada reached Constantinople – like some vast Crusade in reverse, defending, not fighting the Turks.  The soldiers were universally greeted as heroes by the citizenry and their leader Omar Pasha, with the usual decline in popular feeling after about a week, by which time the local populace were no doubt royally sick of finding Scotsmen dead drunk in their latrines.  The vast caravan moved up the Western Black Sea coast, ever closer to the Crimea.

But why?  The short answer to that question is that he who controlled the Crimea, and in particular the harbour city of Sebastopol, could control the entire Black Sea Fleet and thus in one fell swoop disable the naval power of Russia throughout the Black and Mediterranean Seas.  Russia would be dealt a short, swift smack on the nose, and firmly reminded that it should stick to playing within its own front and back gardens, rather than gallivanting around Europe and the middle east.  And as we all know from our history books, that is of course a tactic which tends to work quite well with the Russians… and in no way reflects an attitude among the British Officer Class – which some inferior minded and hyper-critical people might suggest – that was somewhat out of touch with reality…

By this time, as our gallant troops tramp north from Constantinople, their woollen socks and heavy jackets cooking them in the mid day sun – the enemy was fast becoming Cholera, not Russia:

“It was reported that men began to suffer from diarrheoea, and a feeling of constant lassitude and nausea, and there were occasional cases of cholera.  The camp was moved, but the sickness increased.  A hot wind blew almost daily from the west, covering the grass and the tents and the food with a white limestone powder and a clutter of dead flies.  And then it became known that a serious epidemic of cholera, prevalent all over the south of Europe that summer, had broken out in the French camp.  Three days later the British camps were infected.  Once more the tents were moved, but the sickness followed.”

Thousands died, and it was not until Raglan once again had all the men aboard ships and set sail across the Black Sea heading into the lion’s jaws of the Crimean peninsula itself, that the winds changed and fresh air filled the lungs of the troops.

I need hardly add, of course at this point, that every history of the Crimea records that the French troops were better equipped with lighter and more modern kit, that their supplies and rations were better and that their officers made swifter and more co-ordinated decisions – each time the French and British, for example would dismantle a camp, march and then pitch camp again, invariably the French were hours ahead with the British watching their dust in the distance.  And this superiority, as we shall soon see, was to be replicated on the field of battle.

The key to understanding the Crimean War, in the opinion of this essayist, is to understand that the next two years essentially involved the British and French forces making repeated, unsuccessful attempts to capture the city of Sebastopol, whose determined and astoundingly courageous Russian inhabitants held out valiantly against one of the most determined sieges in military history.  Together with the Siege of Sebastopol, all of the major battles of the Crimean War took place within an approximate radius of twenty five miles of that city – including the Battle of the Alma, fought en route from the Allied landing site at Eupatoria, the Battle of Balaclava (and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place the same day) and the Battle of Inkerman.

With the exception of Balaclava, the battles are unfortunately littered with examples of miscommunications, poorly worded or executed orders, bloody minded or arrogant decision making and stunning incompetence (on the British side).  Of course the responsibility for all of this must ultimately fall on the shoulders of Raglan (who had, incidentally, the charming habit of confusing the French with the Russians, and so for example would turn to General Airey, saying “Airey, present my compliments to Lord Lucan, and ask that he advance his regiment slowly along the Sandbag Battery, keeping the French on his right – what? Oh yes, the Russians of course, silly me, keep thinking we’re still against Boneparte, what?  Yes, Russians on the right, French on the left, of course…”

With hindsight, you perhaps wonder how they even made it to Plymouth to get on the ships!

Mention must be made, however, of the truly heroic actions of the Highland Brigade under Sir Colin Campbell at Balaclava, which was perhaps the high point of the campaign (among admittedly a number of very heroic moments in the War).

Balaclava was a small harbour about 20 miles south of Sebastopol, and had become the main supply route onto the peninsula for the British troops.  On 25 October 1854, fierce fighting was taking place involving the French, British and Russians in a valley plain no more than 3 miles to the north of the harbour (the very plain along which the Light Brigade charged – which is a story in itself for another day).  About a mile from Balaclava, along the only road from the harbour, were the men of the 93rd Highland Brigade, while Balaclava itself was held by only a handful of marines from the ships moored there.

Suddenly, a mile and a half in front of them, running pell mell, were hundred of fleeing Turks who had lost their nerve and were fleeing toward Balaclava shouting Ship! Ship! Johnny! Ship!  They dashed past the camp of the highlanders, the last line of defence above Balaclava, stopping on their way to pick up anything which looked inviting.

Stretching their gaze into the mid-distance, the Highlanders began to make out hundreds of Russian cavalrymen swarming down the sides of the hills to the south of the valley and forming themselves up on the Balaclava road.

Raglan and the rest of the army could only look on through their spyglasses, helpless, more than a mile and a half in the distance, as the powerful Russian cavalry began to quicken its pace in the direction of the Highlanders who were entirely outnumbered and completely off guard.  Raglan held his breath.

Sir Colin, in his rich Scots accent barked to his men – who, the Times correspondent noted “would gladly follow him into the jaws of hell.”

“Remember, there is no retreat from here men.  Remember, there is no retreat.  You must die where you stand.”

“Aye Aye! Sir Colin,” one man was heard to reply. “We’ll do that.”

Then suddenly a curious and oppressive silence which had been noted before the battle of the Alma once again settled across the field.  The Times correspondent reported:

“The silence is oppressive, one can hear the champing of bits, and the clink of sabres in the valley below.  The Russians on their left draw breath for a moment and then in one grand line dash at the Highlanders.  The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.”

Prevented by Sir Colin from charging (yes, astoundingly the Highlanders had wanted to charge the Russians, and had to be ordered down by him with the cry “93rd, 93rd! Damn all that eagerness!”) Prevented, the Highlanders fired their rifles instead.  No Russian rider fell from his saddle, but a few were wounded, and the leading squadron immediately wheeled to the left.  Sir Colin then reorganised his line to face the new direction of the Russian advance and again the Russians wheeled to the left.  Their determined stand alarmed the Russian commander, who then ordered his men to retire.  As they did so the Highlanders opened fire on them in retreat, and then the Highlanders began throwing their bonnets in the air, cheering excitedly.

At this point, I’m conscious that this essay could quickly descent into a kind of verbal parody of the worst kind of military bore – and, unless physically, restrained I might find myself resorting to the employment of various items of furniture in the recreation of graphic battle scenes.  And so it is at this point that I seek to judiciously withdraw from the smoke and cordite of the field, and return to the relative calm of the page.

In September of 1855, amid scenes of terrible confusion and panic, involving some of the most embarrassing and rank cowardice in the history of the British Army, the French succeeded in seizing the Malakoff Kurgan and Redan Heights, the main defensive positions of the Russian defenders of Sebastopol.  As the smoke cleared the Tricolor flew, and the War in the Crimea was all but over.  Just 3 months earlier, Lord Raglan, tired out, overworked and vexed from every side during the protracted campaign (and which had brought down Aberdeen’s government 8 months earlier, ushering in the bombastic Viscount Palmerston) had passed away in his field quarters.  It was the end of an era.

In the aftermath of the War, when the Allied forces had finally limped home, a number of changes were brought about in the order and regulation of the Army.  The common practice of purchasing commissions was abolished.  The chain of command structure was reformed.  The kit of the standard infantryman was entirely reviewed and updated, as was that of the cavalry and others.  It was firmly resolved that lessons would be learned.

Much of this was driven by the fact that the Crimean was really the first War in which the public at home, and the government, were kept appraised of developments on a daily basis – mainly through the Times Correspondent.  This ushered in a new era of instant critical appraisal of a kind previously unheard of, and during the Crimea on a number of occasions nationwide campaigns were taken up “to provide our ill-supplied soldiers with hats, coats and scarfs”, and other campaigns of that kind – at relatively short notice – and of course Florence Nightingale became the famous ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – and while her field hospitals (which were in fact at Scutari on the western Black Sea shore, with patients shipped there mainly from Balaclava) had appalingly low survival rates, it was in the hospitals back home in England and the improvements there where she really went on to make her mark upon the page of history.

25,000 soliders are estimated to have lost their lives during the Crimean, a tiny figure compared to the Great War, but significant for the times – as was the estimated cost to the exchequer, a sum of about £70 million.  Sebastapol which had been so hard fought for and wrestled from the hands of the Russians, was promptly handed back to the Tsar less than a year later after the Congress of Paris – however the balance of power shifted in Europe, in a manner which would lead inexorably to the conflict of 1914 and beyond.

As we bid farewell to the Crimean War, the swirling Victorian Fog closing in around, and as we move forward again, far forward almost one hundred and fifty years, we see that little has really changed.

The army continues to be engaged abroad in controversial and at times poorly thought out campaigns, in circumstances where the common soldiery are ill supplied – and the very reasons why the campaign was begun have become a little befuddled.  We must always be vigilant, and prepared to change.

Europe is still torn, and the slightest shifting in the balance of power can potentially have enormous implications.  There still remains the haunting feeling with this continent that War lies at the base of a greasy pole which we all valiantly scramble to keep climbing.

And Russia, always Russia.

Flash Fiction and Hibbert’s Histories

The Flashman Novels, by George Macdonald Fraser (published in paperback by HarperCollins), and the historical works of Christopher Hibbert (various)

Spring is very obviously in the air here in Edinburgh, the rain is unmistakably getting warmer and even the snowfall halts occasionally to give the hailstones a chance!  Here and there crocuses and daffodils brave the elements however, and so all in all there are signs that this particular corner of the great orb is gently moving away from winter towards summer…

Today is a good day for a book by the fireside (or perhaps even a Kindle, Sony Digital, Nook, iPad, or Barnes & Noble for the digitally minded), so here are a number that I’ve been plodding through over the past few weeks.

Thanks to my good friend Alastair Stewart who knows a thing or two about books, I finally conquered my preconceptions and decided to read the first three Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, which he very kindly passed on to me.  The first thing to say is that these books should come with a health warning, because politically correct in any shape or form they certainly are not.  Flashman is the very picture of a cad, coward and gadabout, whose nineteenth century life and adventures are recounted in his own frank terms, as an old man looking back.  Perhaps like Fleming’s Bond stories, they are the kind of books that people could read in the 1970s without batting an eyelid, whereas to our more socially conscious twenty first century minds it all seems rather outrageous, scandalous even!  I genuinely wonder whether a publisher would even agree to print them in this day and age, if Macdonald Fraser were to wander in with his battered manuscripts.

Flashman With a sense of shame almost, I have to state honestly nonetheless that the Flashman books are brilliantly written and researched, easy to read, extremely funny and in many ways as good an education as anyone might require in British Imperial history.  The first book, Flashman, recounts the cowardly hero’s experiences in the disastrous First Afghan War of 1839-42, including the famous retreat from Kabul under the leadership of Lord Elphinstone, descendant of the Bishop of the same name who founded Aberdeen University; the second book, Royal Flash, sees Flashy dabbling in the world of European politics and coming head to head with Germany’s Otto Von Bismark, with all kinds of outrageous consequences too numerous to go into here; and the third book, Flash for Freedom, sees him sail the Atlantic on a slave ship in 1848 before criss-crossing pre-civil war America, where he has numerous run-ins with slavers and abolitionists alike (including the up and coming Abraham Lincoln).  Shockingly and even distastefully frank at times, the books are nonetheless brilliantly reconstructed pictures of the pre and early Victorian world, not as some would perhaps like to see it, but undoubtedly as it actually was.

On the subject of history, one of the finest and most readable historians of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008), once described in The Times as probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific”.  My first encounter with Hibbert’s writing was The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), a mesmerizing account of the Crimean War which won him the Heinmann Award for Literature in 1962.  It was watching The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard) which led me to pick the book up.  It is a book I will never forget reading, so gripping are his descriptions of the folly and horrors of that tragic campaign (a subject I’ve attempted to summarise elsewhere in this blog – On the Crimean War).

Charge-Of-The-Light-Brigade DestructionRaglanI’ve since followed up that first experience of his writing with two other books, King Mob (Longmans, 1958), his account of London’s tumultuous Gordon Riots of 1780 led by that famous and very eccentric Scotsman Lord George Gordon, and The French Revolution (1980, Allen Lane).  What makes Hibbert’s historical prose so fascinating is his intense focus on the personalities of those involved.  With the Crimean the key is to understand Raglan himself, every facet of his character and personality: while with the Gordon Riots it’s Lord George “The Mad Scotchman” (which is the title of his opening chapter, beginning as follows):

‘They were, and are, all mad’, Walpole said of them, dismissing in a spasm of irritation all of the members of the Gordon family past and present.  The exasperated judgement was not entirely groundless.  The Gordons had for generations shown occasional signs of something more than eccentricity and at the time of Walpole’s verdict several members of the family were said to be extremely odd.”

And of course when it comes to the French Revolution, Hibbert spends time building in the reader’s mind a clear picture of King Louis XVI:

The new King was nineteen years old.  Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts.  His Keeper of the Seals had ‘never known anyone whose character was more contradicted by outward appearances’.  He was ‘really good and tender hearted’.  You could ‘never speak to him of disasters and accidents to people without seeing a look of compassion come over his face, yet his replies were often hard, his tone harsh, his manner unfeeling.’  Hesitant, reserved and ungainly, his appearance, too, was unprepossessing.  He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair, but his mouth was over flabby and his chin pale and fat.”

It is often said of Tolstoy, drawing from War and Peace, that his view of history demonstrated the ultimate insignificance of great men such as Tsar Alexander I, or Napoleon: that individuals great or small do not determine the course of events, and everyone is equally carried along by the epic tide.  If there is any truth in that resounding conclusion then it is a truth which Hibbert seems to contradict, since he portrays the chief persons in his histories in a way which shows it is their very own key strengths and weaknesses of character or disposition which ripple out, determining the outcomes when events teeter on a knife edge.  In the final analysis Hibbert’s is perhaps the more practical and realistic appraisal of history, no doubt born out of his own distinguished career as first an infantryman and then captain in the London Irish Rifles Regiment, fighting in Italy during the Second World War (for which he received the Military Cross).

George Macdonald Fraser and Christopher Hibbert are two of our finest and most prolific writers, united by their love of history.  One reveals it through fiction, the other non-fiction; but both paint unforgettable portraits of the characters who populate their pages.  Truly wonderful books.

The history of the Crippen case

LaurenticA long, long time ago, more than a hundred years ago now, on a cold winter’s morning on Wednesday 23 November 1910, and just over a year before the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic, an American homeopathist by the name of Hawley Henry Crippen was escorted to the grim gallows within London’s Pentonville Prison, and hanged.  History remembers him as ‘Doctor Crippen’, whereas in fact his American homeopathic qualifications had not entitled him to practice in England.

Just 30 days earlier, after the most sensational criminal trial in English history, he had been convicted of the murder of his American wife Cora. Despite the valiant defence advanced by Mr A.A. Tobin, KC** (later a judge), the trial judge Lord Alverston, the Chief Justice of England, had no alternative but to don the black cap and pronounce Crippen’s doom.  Before, during and after the trial Crippen repeatedly insisted that he was innocent: but all was now lost.  There was no appeal, that being a relatively novel concept at the time; and the case made the Crown’s star witness – the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury – a household name, and the cornerstone of many future convictions in England in the 20s and 30s.

Part of the reason why the case was so sensational was that Crippen had fled England for Canada on board the Montrose, in the company of his lover Ethel Neave: but the keen eyed ship’s captain Henry Kendall had spotted them, and famously sent a telegram to Scotland Yard which read:

“Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off. Growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of the Yard was promptly sent in hot pursuit on board the White Star line’s prize SS Laurentic* – a faster ship than the Montrose; and for days the newspapers kept the public on tenterhooks as the Laurentic, mile by nautical mile across the ocean,steadily closed in on the fugitives.

When both ships finally made their way into the St Lawrence River at Quebec, Chief Inspector Dew went aboard the Montrose in disguise.  He walked up to Crippen, and said:

“Good morning, Dr Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

To which, after a brief pause, Crippen famously replied:

“Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”  He then held out his wrists for the handcuffs, …and the rest is history.

Surely these were the words and actings of a guilty man?

And yet there are a number of things about the Crippen case which pose problems.

In contrast to her bespectacled little husband, Cora Crippen was a larger than life character who dressed extravagantly: she was a musical hall performer, first in America and then England, and went by the stage name Belle Elmore.  They had a difficult marriage and rumour was, among Cora’s many friends at the Music Hall Ladies Guild, that Cora was not very happy.  Then suddenly she disappeared, without a word.

Nothing happened until Crippen, 48, was spotted by Cora’s friends socialising with his 27 year old secretary Ethel.  Worse, Ethel was seen wearing items of Cora’s clothing and jewellery.  Rumour grew, and Scotland Yard were tipped off.

When questioned, Crippen admitted that he had been evasive about Cora’s whereabouts because the truth was that she had left him for another man and he had wanted to avoid any scandal.  The police listened politely, then released him without any charge; and it was only then, a few days later, that Crippen and Ethel made their futile bid for escape. A reward of £250 was offered for their capture: the equivalent of about £100,000 in today’s money.

But why did he flee if he was innocent?

Well, the simple and perhaps obvious conclusion is of course that he had indeed killed his wife: but the single most important piece of evidence relied on in the case may also point to his innocence.

This crucial evidence came in the form of a small quantity of human remains found in the soil, under a flagstone, in the basement of the Crippens’ terraced house in Camden Town, London.  It was skin, and in rather a poor state of decomposition: but on one part there appeared to have been a kind of crease, or fold of some sort.  Bernard Spilsbury – at that time still a fairly junior doctor – had a good look at it; and concluded that it was undoubtedly a surgical scar.  Now, it was known from Cora’s medical records that she had undergone an appendectomy in America; and with that, the Crown case seemed as safe as the Bank of England.  Case closed, I hear you say.

But Mr Tobin was of course not so easily daunted. An experienced defence pathologist was instructed, and rather interestingly gave the opinion that a hair follicle was clearly visible along the skin ‘fold’, something that is not normally found on scars.  He concluded that the fold was not a scar, but in fact just a result of the way the skin had been crumpled during decomposition in the ground.

The scene was set for a dramatic showdown and as the barristers assembled in wig and gown before a packed Court Number 1 at the Old Bailey, all eyes were on Spilsbury: how would he stand up against the withering cross examination of the brilliant Mr Tobin, King’s Counsel?

For two days Spilsbury stood up to everything that was hurled at him, and famously brought in his microscope on the second day to peer at the skin once again.  But Spilsbury wouldn’t be shifted; and as Tobin finally retired from battle the young doctor, in charcoal pinstripes and sporting a carnation in his buttonhole, stepped from the court to the front page adulation of the press.  The verdict was inevitable, and his future was made.

But there is a twist in this tale.

In October 2010 David James Smith, author of ‘Supper With the Crippens’, brought the Crippen case back to Court 1.  Before the solemn audience, he opened his lecture as follows:

“The Crippen case held the entire Western world in its thrall for many months in 1910, and it has intrigued and fascinated lawyers, police officers and criminologists ever since. Until recently, Crippen’s guilt was rarely questioned but now, some people believe that he may have been wrongly convicted. This lecture, for which Court Number One is the ideal location, represents the perfect opportunity to review the evidence.”


Three things (why are there always three?)

Firstly, the famous piece of skin was preserved in the Museum Archives of the Royal London Hospital.  In 2007 working from a sample of that skin, a team of American forensic scientists from Michigan State University compared mitochondrial DNA from it with samples taken from Cora Crippen’s known surviving relatives.

The results were conclusive, said Dr David Foran, the head of the forensic science programme. “That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we’re certain of that,” he said.

Well,… perhaps Cora could have been adopted?  Unfortunately, however, the DNA sampling revealed that the material contained Y chromosomes, conclusively indicating that the skin was male.

There is always the possibility, however, that the sample had been mislabelled or mixed up in some way over the course of time – except the label seems clear enough:

The second thing is the suggestion – never verified, insofar as I can tell – that a witness statement was taken from a passer-by outside the Crippens’ home, from someone who described a woman very like Cora the day after she disappeared.  This witness apparently described her as standing on the pavement, with much luggage, about to get into a Hackney Cab.  What is known, however, is that there is a statement from a witness who described a woman bearing Cora’s description, who had tried to withdraw savings and arrange for the removal of large quantities of furniture and belongings from the house before her disappearance.

It is also now known that a woman with Cora’s stage name of Bella Elmore was living with Cora’s sister in New York many years later; and that when that woman’s history was traced, she was found to have entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1910, shortly after Cora disappeared.

There are a number of other issues and problems too numerous to go into here, but the third thing is this: if Crippen was innocent, why did he flee?

Well, the answer to that question may provide the key to the case.  Because of the fact that Crippen, despite his medical training, could not practice legally as a doctor in England, it is possible that he could have found other ways to earn a living.  A very obvious one, for the time, was as an abortionist.  This could explain the human remains in the basement, and could explain his decision to flee once he realised the police were taking an interest in him; after all, a conviction as an abortionist would, in 1910, have resulted in a significant prison sentence.  Furthermore, traces of the drug Scopolamine (also known as hyoscine) were found in the skin sample examined by Spilsbury, and it was the Crown case that this was the poison which Crippen had used on Cora; however Scopolamine had another use at the time, in the conduct of abortions.***

One problem with this theory, however, is that at the trial Crippen’s defence ran the line that the remains could have been in the house from before the Crippens moved there in 1905 – but if Crippen were truly an abortionist, one can see that it would perhaps not have helped his defence to bring that out, to put it mildly.

In the final analysis, therefore, it seems impossible now to say where the truth lies: but the case is of course now very firmly closed and really only a matter of interest to students of legal history…  and the famous waxwork of Doctor Crippen at Madam Tussauds’ in old London town, seems likely to remain very firmly in place.

*Just over six years later on 25 January 1917, the SS Laurentic sailed from the Royal Navy’s base in Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland, having been commissioned during the First World War.  At the mouth of the lough the great liner, which had successfully pursued Crippen across the Atlantic with Chief Inspector Dew on board, disastrously struck mines which had been laid off Fanad Head.  The mines had been laid by a German U-80 submarine a few days before.  The great ship sank within an hour, taking with her 354 men out of a crew of almost 470,… and 43 tons of gold bullion.

** Crippen’s solicitor Arthur Newton had originally wished to brief the greatest advocate of his age, F.E. Smith QC (later ennobled as Lord Birkenhead) – but ‘Effey’ declined, preferring to defend Ethel le Neve in the separate proceedings brought against her.

*** The presence of scopolamine fitted the Crown case that Crippen was known to have ordered, and then on 19 January 1910 collected from Lewis & Burrows’ pharmacy on New Oxford Street, five grains of hyoscin hydrobromide… a quantity so large it had to be ordered from the wholesalers…