Sebastopol to Dagenham: ‘Shells bursting all around me’

This is the first of a series of blogs we will be posting over the coming months to highlight the letters of Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe, who served with the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment in the Crimean War.

Captain Fanshawe (1829-1905), known to his family as Basil, was the second son of the Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe, vicar of Dagenham and his wife Catherine. The family owned Parsloes Manor but lived at the vicarage in Dagenham Village.

Page one of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1885
Page one of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1885

Basil arrived at Sebastopol in the summer of 1855. On the voyage aboard the S.S. Andes from Malta to Constantinople, he began writing about his experiences to his parents and siblings living at Dagenham Vicarage. He kept up this correspondence until his return home on the H.M.S. London in 1856.

He vividly describes being under fire in the trenches in one of the very first letters sent home to his mother dated 13 July 1855:

‘You ask me what I think of active service? If the trenches come under that denomination, where you have to remain close under the parapet with round shot and shell coming over you, and not certain of your life for a moment together, unable to do anything in way of retaliation – I tell you plainly I detest it’.

This description is startlingly reminiscent of the trenches we identify with the First World War.

Warfare became mechanised for the first time during the conflict in the Crimea. Military forces were armed with mass-produced rifles, exploding shells, sea mines and armored coastal assault vessels with long-range cannons. This meant that opposing infantry no longer lined up in formation to be cut down by cavalry or artillery as they had in the war against Napoleon.

Page two and three of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1885
Page two and three of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1885

Basil goes on to give details of the camp where he and his men were staying outside Sebastopol:

‘The camp looks more like a large fair than anything else and if it was not for the reports of the gun, one could hardly fancy one was in an enemy’s country’

Everyday camp life was recorded thanks to the innovation of photography. Roger Fenton, one of the first wartime photographer captured not only camp life but military routine and portraits of soldiers and men in uniform and at leisure. He even photographed the tents of the 33rd Regiment before Mackenzies Heights (See below). One of these tents may well have belonged to Basil Fanshawe.

Photograph of camp by Roger Fenton
Looking towards Mackenzies Heights and tents of the 33rd Regiment by Roger Fenton

There is also an interesting reference to anti-cholera pills in his letter dated 13 July. These pills were frequently advertised in national and local newspapers of the period. Basil says the pills are ‘most useful’. In reality they would not have done him any good as cholera inoculation was only successfully introduced in 1885, and the the first vaccine was not developed until 1892.

Page four of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1855
Page four of a letter written by Captain Thomas Basil Fanshawe dated 13 July 1855

See below for a full transcription of this letter:

 

Camp before Sebastopol

Saturday July 13th 1855

Written by Thomas Basil Fanshawe – to his mother

 

My dearest Mother,

Yesterday I got your letter of 26th of last month and one from John of the 28th. Many thanks for yours & am glad to find that the Governor is so well, and as you do not mention yourself I conclude that you are quite right. I presume that long ere this you received my letter of about 19th June telling you that I am out of the Redan business all right.  Certainly I had great good luck in escaping so well.  My arm, as I told you was only bruised a bit, which got all right in two of three days. I might just as well returned myself wounded as Rogers & Mundy of ours, but I am glad I did not for your sakes.  I have been down to the Trenches three times since & have not been touched although I must have had some near things together with the rest of the men who were down particularly during the night as then you cannot see the bits of the shell when they land.  I was down last Monday at Balaclava being told that I should not be wanted that afternoon, fancy my disgust, just as I was leaving the town, meeting one of our doctors who told me I was for trenches.

I got down to the trenches about 10 o/c and had about two hours of them, but it was rather a sell, on getting down I found all my men engaged at working on a new battery in one of the xxxx trenches & congratulated myself I should get home for one or two o/c a.m. but found myself sold as our mortars were to open fire on the Redan about 4 o/c which they did in great style & I hear knocked it about. The Russians replied gun for gun nearly & dismounted 4 of ours. I got quite out of the line of fire with the men and could not see what injury the Redan suffered from where I was.  I did not get home to camp until 9¼ pm Tuesday night very sleepy & tired as you may imagine, not having been able to go to sleep except for a couple of hours by fits and starts in the trenches. Our guns fired away from 4 ‘til 10 o/c & again all afternoon & there has been a good deal of firing every night since on both sides.

I had no idea what a way bits of shell when they burst fly about. Two or three burst some 4 or 500 yards behind me in & over the 21 gun battery & bits came back quite that distance to where I was. One bit came down close, about six inches from two men, 20 yards from where I was sitting.

You ask me what I think of active service? If trenches come under that denomination, where you have to remain close under the parapet with round shot & shell coming over & round you, and not certain of your life for a moment together, unable to do anything in way of retaliation – I tell you plainly I utterly detest it. In the morning of the 18th June I did not care a bit, but the trenches are the devil.  We now take the trenches by division instead of Regiment & Division. The Light Division finished the trenches last night but I got off as our Regt only has 1 Captain & I was last on the list for duty. I suppose I shall not be on again till Monday or Thursday next which is a great thing to look forward to.

There has been nothing doing since I wrote, except working at a new battery & firing at night and morning.  I hear there is a report that the Army is to make an assault on the 16th which I doubt.  I do not think that they will cram our Division in front again. All our wounded have left us for England & going on favourably.  I am sorry to hear such bad account of the Colonel, no one here thinks he will ever rejoin.  Gough arrived in harbour about two days back, but has not yet come to the front. It is much against his will I fancy that he came. Prescott & Montmorency  arrived yesterday, which is a good thing for the subalterns, for the last ten days we have only had 6 officers doing duty, 3 Captains & 3 Subs.  I wish they would send some other Captains up. Mundy’s  wound was very trifling.  I suppose you know who the new Commander in Chief out here is to be, we have only heard today that there is one coming out.  Corbett is the only officer of the 33rd Regt who has never left the Regt since it left Dublin in ’54 & about 27 men of over 1000 who left at the same time.

I got such a kind letter from Aunt Mary last mail, hoping if I was wounded, I would go straight to Malta. I should find my room ready, nothing could be kinder.  She says Malta is quite deserted. Eleanor has gone away for the summer, in some swells yacht and they do not expect back for some time, this I suppose you know.  They seem much pleased at Fanshawe having made Dagenham his abode & obliged for your kindness to him though nothing could be kinder than they were to me.  I am afraid I shall not have time to write to them this mail.  I was sure you would like Fan, give him my love if he is still with you.  I have written to John by this mail so you need not send him this. I wrote a line to Helen last week, a very stupid production, but it told you I was all right. Edward has I hope shook his cold off.

The camp looks to me more like a large fair than anything else and if it was not for the reports of the gun, one could hardly fancy one was in an enemy’s country.  Just before I arrived, the Russians took to throwing shot & shell into our camp, but that amusement since the Mamelon has been ours has stopped.

I am sorry that my using thick paper increased the postage but I was not aware of the fact. Pay your letters otherwise I shall not receive any, by the way I got hold of the papers you mentioned having despatches.  This last mail, John sent me one.

I hope you have settled that ruffian Roberts one way or the other by this time and will have no more trouble with him. How does the new man suit you – well I hope.

What a sell it will be for Tom Le Marchant  if he finds Sir Gaspard  starting for Gibraltar.  I hope he may get it, much better, I pray than Halifax in a pecuniary point of view.

I found the anti-cholera  pills you sent in the box most useful. The weather has been thundering hot & dust to any amount really stifling one, you could write your name with your finger inside my tent yesterday on anything that was there.  Today we have had a heavy thunder shower which has cooled the air & laid the dust, much to my comfort. The flies bother one considerable.

I must bring this to a close & I have been interrupted so often since I began that you will be clever to make something of this.

Best love to the Governor & all at home & believe ever dearest mother,

Your most affectionate son

Basil

This letter is just one of forty-four letters written by Captain Fanshawe, which were recently donated to the archive, and have now been transcribed by volunteers as part of the Sebastopol to Dagenham Project. They will feature in an exhibition at Valence House Museum from Saturday 30 July to Saturday 25 September. A book to accompany the exhibition will also be available to purchase from Saturday 30 July. Keep up to date with our project right here!