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Eyewitness in the Crimea - the letters of George Frederick Dallas

George Frederick Dallas (edited by Michael Hargreave Mawson)
George Frederick Dallas purchased an Ensign’s commission in the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment of Foot in May 1845. Almost a decade later he embarked for the Crimean War as a Lieutenant. He was among the first ashore and the last to leave in 1856. He was involved at Balaclava, fought at Inkerman and endured the siege of Sevastopol, remaining in location throughout the war. He eventually became ADC to General Garrett and ended the war as a major. He was well placed to observe most of the war and to meet many of the protagonists.

He was also a great letter writer and the Dallas family has managed to preserve 137 of them which form the majority of the content of this book. Fred’s style is easy to read some 150 years later, and his arid sense of humour shines off the page. It is important to remember that the majority of the letters are written to his mother and sister and that they may be more sanitised than a diary would be. But by the same token they are also wittier and more readable than a diary might be.

What emerges is a full and frank account of his actions and experience. The appalling lack of preparation of the expedition is clear, as is the dreadful potency of massed rifle fire and the dire attrition caused by trench warfare. Clearly Fred was a conscientious and diligent Regimental Officer and he notes the adverse effects of the loss of the regiment’s experienced soldiers early in the campaign, creating a greater burden for sergeants to deal with and limiting tactical options. There is seldom despair, but the loss of so many of his soldiers and colleagues clearly told on him. His care for wounded sergeants (one of whom Fred gave an introduction to his mother when he was shipped out) is touching, and would no doubt surprise some social commentators. Many of Fred’s themes, (poor administration, poor battle procedure, weak command, abuse of promotions, inter regimental rivalry, differing aims of coalition members and the challenges of advancement) would all strike a chord today. Indeed many of the problems of 1914 are foreshadowed.

His lot improved after the first winter, when he became an ADC. This saved him from death in the attrition of the trenches and gave him a wider view. His wit comes to the fore in describing the French (the dominant partner in the war) and other foreign armies as well as many of the more senior commanders – as an ADC he met most of them. He is also interesting on Russell, whom he accuses of frequently getting his facts wrong. There was an outcry about the drunkenness of the British soldiery in the second year. Fred ascribes it largely to paying soldiers an extra 6d per day but providing nothing for them to spend it on other than alcohol. Plus ca change…

This is an almost excellent book. The foot notes are good and Fred’s writing flows well. It is not always clear whom he is writing to. An introduction covering the causes and progress of the war would have been helpful. Unfortunately the maps are simply awful, which is really inexcusable and detracts from the reading pleasure. Had it not been for that idleness I would have rated this five, as it is it scrapes in with four mushroom heads.
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