No Place for Ladies by Helen Rappaport


This isn’t fiction either, but, again, I feel like writing about it, especially as Crimea (or “Krim”, as it prefers to be called) has been much in the news of late.

The author’s account of events leading up to the war wasn’t impressive at all – far too simplistic, and completely ignoring the fact that it was the French, not the Russians, who were to blame for the war and for Britain’s involvement in it. She also managed to mix up two of Queen Victoria’s daughters, which wasn’t impressive either. Admittedly, it wasn’t meant to be a book about either politics or the Royal Family, but it was still annoying!

However, the main content of the book was fascinating. The Crimean War made a huge impression on the British people. We still have streets all over the country called Inkerman Street, Balaclava Terrace and so on (incidentally, does anyone know why Coronation Street, named in honour of Edward VII’s coronation, has neighbouring streets named after battles which took place nearly half a century earlier?!), and most people are familiar with the “Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Also, of course, it was during the Crimean War that the Victoria Cross originated. My great-great-great-grandfather took part in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and I was lucky enough to visit Crimea in 2008, so it’s a subject I’ve got quite a personal interest in. It also prompted significant military reforms in Britain, and all sorts of reforms in Russia.

This, as the title, suggests, concentrated on the role of women in the war. The stories of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole are familiar, but always worth another read. One of the first history books I ever read was about Florence Nightingale – one of those little Ladybird books about famous people, when I was six. My grandfather was being treated in what was then the Florence Nightingale Hospital at the time, and even at the age of six I was a historian and wanted to find out about the lady behind the name . The author made a lot of interesting points about the effects of the very Victorian ideas of the “Lady With The Lamp” and the ministrating female angels whose task in life was to care for the menfolk, and argued that, without wanting to criticise the wonderful work done by the nurses of the Crimean War, it actually damaged the movement to increase respect for women’s abilities and to improve women’s rights.

She also made the point that no official recognition was given to British women who served in the Crimean War, although medals were awarded to Russian nurses and to some of the French female staff. The treatment of women by the British Army generally was poor – officers’ wives, of course, got to live it up, either staying on board ship in the best cabins or else living in luxury tents with servants to run after them, but almost no responsibility was taken for the wives of rank and file soldiers. Only a small number of soldiers were allowed to take their wives with them on campaign and, despite the awful conditions, going along was often seen as better than staying at home, because wives weren’t allowed to remain in army barracks whilst their husbands were away and often found it difficult to find work as they were looked down on by the middle and upper classes. Many of them died in Crimea, but some remained in good health and did important work as cooks and laundrywomen for the troops.

Bizarrely, there were also quite a lot of “battlefield tourists” – women (sorry, “ladies”) with more time and money than sense, who went out to watch the war! This seems to have happened during the American Civil War as well. Apparently they thought it was exciting.

Getting back to the nurses, there doesn’t seem to have been as much of a sense of camaraderie amongst them as you might have expected. There were serious sectarian issues (some of the nurses were Catholic nuns, and some of the Protestants appear to have decided that they’d try to convert Protestant soldiers!), racial issues, and very unpleasant class divisions. On the contrary, at home – the Crimean War seeing a revolution in war reporting – the whole country swung behind the troops, the troops’ dependants and the nurses: there were huge fundraising efforts, as there were during the Lancashire Cotton Famine (just had to mention that because it was my dissertation topic!) in the following decade, and so many hand-knitted socks and mittens were sent out to Crimea that the Army didn’t know what to do with them all!

All in all, an interesting read. Also a timely reminder that getting involved in Crimea is really not a very good idea.