• The Crimea




    If anyone ever mentions “The Crimea”, our brains instantaneously switch to: ” Where in blazes is The Crimea?” Somewhere in India, Manchuria, Turkey, Pakistan, Inner Mongolia, China, or even farther afield.  Maybe in our recollections something about The Crimean War – and somewhere faint memories of Florence Nightingale, Sevastopol, Balaclava, Yalta, the Black Sea, the Ottoman Empire and most memorable of all, Tennyson’s heroic poem,” The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  “Half a league, Half a league, Half a league onward, All in the Valley of Death, Rode the six hundred.”


    To get our minds untangled a bit, here is a little information about The Crimea, an area about the size of Switzerland.

    The Crimea is a major landmass on the northern coast of the Black Sea – almost completely surrounded by water. The peninsula fronts two seas: the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov to the northeast.  Russia is to the east, the Ukraine to the north, Bulgaria and Romania to the west, and Turkey to the south.


    Occupiers have included the Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, the Byzantines, and the Ottoman Empire to name just a few.  “Why would anyone want this huge island poking out into Black Sea? Because it has a very long (1571 mile) strategic military coastline with deep harbors that foster both legal and illegal (smuggling) enterprises. It has the soil (thirty-two percent of the worlds black loam) and climate to grow many crops – wheat, sugar beets, barley, tobacco, soybeans, and fruits and vegetables.  The Crimea is often referred to as the breadbasket of the Ukraine and many of its crops are exported to Europe.


    From 1853 to 1855, the peninsula was the site of the principal engagements of the Crimean War, a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of France, Britain, and the remains of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).  These Allies had watched Russia cross the Danube and occupy part of Romania; then begin to march south.  In order to stop the advance, the Ottoman Empire and Britain declared war on Russia.  Most of the campaign was fought on the Crimean Peninsula or on the Black Sea. Sevastopol became famous because of an eleven-month siege laid by the British, French and Turkish troupes.  Eventually the Russians retreated and escaped to the north. But they destroyed the city and sunk the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet in the harbor. Though the war went on for another year, with drum beating on both sides, the Russian escape from The Crimea effectively ended the war, and the massive island was returned to the Ottoman Empire.

    At sixteen Florence Nightingale received a spiritual awakening – that her calling in life was to nurse and comfort the suffering.  In 1844 she enrolled as a student at the Lutheran Hospital in Kaiserwerth, Germany, even though she was an English citizen.  She quickly found that her specific mission was to improve hygiene practices in hospitals.  In 1854 she was asked by the British government to form a corps to nurse soldiers wounded in the Crimean war.  Within weeks she had assembled a professional group of nurses from religious orders, who then sailed for Sutari, the base hospital for the allies in Constantinople.  The hospital had cockroaches, rats and other vermin running about, had never been cleaned, and was built over a large sewage reservoir.  Florence immediately had her charges scrub the hospital top to bottom and within a month had reduced the death rate by two thirds.  Before she arrived ten men were dying from infection, disease and poor hygiene for every one killed in battle.  She changed all aspects of nursing, from the laundry, to food preparation, to cleaning instruments – at night she would visit the wounded with a lamp held high.  She became know as the “Lady of the Lamp”.  When she came home eighteen months after the war, she received $250,000 from a grateful government, which she used to promptly start a hospital and nursing school.  She had suitors, but never married, stating that her calling came first.

    In modern times, February 4 -11, 1944, the Yalta/Crimean Conference between the three allied powers took place on the southeastern coast of The Crimea, in the resort town of Yalta.  The three leaders met to discuss the dispossession of eastern European countries after World War II was concluded.  Stalin gave assurances that he would allow Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania to have free elections. He followed through with none of these promises, which led to Roosevelt being accused of selling out to the dictator.  Churchill lost his Prime Minstership to Clement Attlee only months after the meeting.  Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.  Stalin lasted to March 5, 1953, his death grip never released from the countries he promised to free.


    Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote the “Charge of the Light Brigade” only six weeks after the actual event, which took place on October 25th, 1854.  It was a clear, warm day, the sun shining down on all.  The charge of 670 men and their horses took place at Balaclava, just five miles from the port of Sevastopol and was part of that overall city’s battle.  Light Brigade means light cavalry – small quick horses, no armament other than lances and curved sabers for slashing.  In comparison, a Heavy Brigade had large chargers with some armament and broad swords for stabbing; the riders usually wore metal helmets.


    The valley awaiting the Light Brigade was between two ridges – Causeway Heights on the left and Fedyukhin Heights on the right – each ridge line with imbedded artillery.  At the end of this mile long blind valley were heavy emplacements backed by Russian Calvary. The whole attack was a fiasco. The charge was to destroy a retreating Russian Artillery Battalion a half mile away on the right flank of Fedyukhin.  Somehow the verbal orders got confused, and this led to a charge up the treeless valley and a full frontal attack to break the stronghold at the end. The second stanza of Tennyson’s poem states “Not tho’ the soldier knew, someone had blunder’d”.  The blame was passed around, eventually landing on a Captain Edward Nolan who led the charge.   An artillery shell conveniently blew him to pieces in the first minute of battle.


    From the very first it was a massacre, as the charging troupes took grape, rounds and artillery shells from three sides.  Lord Cardigan was the general in charge and led his men into to the belching metal, flames and smoke, all coming from a Russian army in place.  He never looked back to see what was happening and when he got to the valley’s end, he made a few successful attempts to engage and slash at the Russian artillery gunners, then turned and rode back as fast as his steed would take him, never stopping to help the wounded or to arrange transport for the dead – not a whisker out of place, or a stain on his brilliant red uniform.  At the valley’s entrance he looked back, and decided there was nothing left to be done.  He retired from the field and went on board his yacht in the Balaclava Harbor, where he ate a champagne dinner. Two thirds of his men had been destroyed – 335 horses butchered.  Our story begins as the dead and wounded were collected on that October evening.


    Petre Strelnikov was born in 1831, in the Siberian town of Irkutsk, twenty-two years before the charge.  The town was on the shore of Lake Baikal, the seventh largest lake in the world, containing 20% of the earth’s fresh water, ice six feet thick in winter.  Petre’s father was a doctor and his mother a violin teacher, both trained in Moscow. In 1831 there was major conflict between the Irkutsk Jews and prominent political exiles who had been banished by Tsar Nicolas I for plotting against him in the December 14th Revolt.  While the Strelnikovs were not involved, this was an opportunity to banish some Moscow Jews to Siberia, including Petre’s parents.  Existence was rough at best with some of the worst winters in the world.  The Jewish community talked of one thing – escaping from this icebox.

    When Petre was eight his parents stole away one night to travel to Odessa where there was a large Jewish community and extended family.  It was a terrible journey of 3700 miles that took four and a half months.  Petre had been attending a Yeshiva school in Irkutsk, which emphasized languages – he was fairly fluent in English and French besides his native Russian and Hebrew.  A short, shy, withdrawn boy, he liked reading, and studying the Torah rather than playing outside.  The family moved because the father of one of Laura’s students, a local Commissar, claimed she owed him money, and was a Jewish Harlot. He physically attacked Laura and others took up the cry.

    The orthodox family got what they could out of their modest birch dacha and began traveling by coach and then horse and cart. After three years in Odessa they had a home about a mile from the city center and spoke Ukrainian, French, English, and Russian in their home. Petre became fluent in all four – no accent. He did well in regular school, but the wearing of the Yarmulke and the Tzitzit (the strings that hang loose from a man’s undergarment – 613 knots representing the 613 divine commandments of the Torah) brought the ire and ridicule of classmates.  He was thin and nervous, with curly black hair and a prominent nose, which didn’t help him hide his membership in the tribe of Israel.

    There was one boy, Bogdan, who with other gentiles, would waylay him on his way home and give him a beating, calling him Hebe, Kike and Jew Boy. One time they cornered him and made him strip, just to prove he was circumcised, then tossed his garments in the Dniester River.  At first his father told him to strike back, but that just made the beatings worse, so Petre usually curled into a ball when he was caught, suffering while they kicked and pummeled him.  His nose was broken twice, the second time his father could not straighten the break – the injury left Petre with a nose that had a cant to the left.

    After one exceptional bad beating, his father sat him down and retold some of the stories of the Old Testament.  “Our people have been persecuted for over 5800 years, it is our burden to bear – persevere and you will be victorious in the end – look at Joshua, David and Sampson.

    You are much smarter than any of those school oafs.”  Petre contracted the other Jewish boys in his neighborhood and they traveled to and from school together for protection.  The beatings diminished but occasionally he was caught alone.  He was very fleet of foot and could usually out run Bogdan’s gang..

    As he got older and stronger he began using his elbows, fingernails, and teeth if needed – now he could take Bogdan one on one, but the bully was always looking for an opportunity to come up behind and strike.  The brute swaggered up to him at the end of the school year and told him,

    “? ???? ????? ??????,”  (“I will kill you someday”).  Petre replied in Hebrew, “???? ??????? ???? ?????,”  (“The Lord’s vengeance will come upon you”).

    When he was fifteen, his father got an opportunity to study in London with a specialist in surgery. The family boarded a ship, crossed the Black Sea, went through the Dardenelles, then across the Mediteranean and up to Great Britain.  After two years, they were ready to return home to Odessa, but there was strife in the city – again directed against the Jews.  Their Rabbi suggested they stay until their safety could be secured.  There were many Jews in London who came to Dr. Strelnikov for treatment and for music lessons from his wife Laura – so they settled in to wait – The still thought of Russia as their home and they thought they wanted to return, perhaps even to Moscow.


    The years went by, and day-to-day life in the Ukraine for Jews got worse rather than better; the family decided to stay in London semi-permanently.  Dr. Strelnikov’s practice had increased until he had two doctors working for him. Petre had just finished his education at Cambridge and had started his medical training at King’s College in London.  Because of his languages, especially Ukrainian and Russian, and medical experience, he was recruited in 1853 to join the 17th Mounted Lancers as a leuitenant.  He wasn’t sure he was fit for the military, but his father encouraged him, saying it would be a grand adventure – perhaps he could see Odessa again.  A year later he was in Sevastopol just in time to be in the second wave of the Charge of the Light Brigade, saber in hand.  His main job was as a translator and he had been interviewing Russian prisoners. He had a good idea of what he was to face as he looked up the valley.  He knew some horrible mistake had been made, but who would believe him. Petre fully expected to die within the next half hour.  He wondered if anyone would say Kaddish for him.

    As he rode Fortune, his small Anglo-Norman gelding, on to the floor of the valley, he waved his saber above his head, the morning sun glinting off the blade. The signal for charge was given and with a shout the men raced forward, the shot whistling around them. Fortune was grazed on his left flank, but after jerking sideways, galloped on.  Petre saw whole sections of the first line go down, twenty or thirty horses at a time.  Two thirds of the way to the Russian batteries, the stallion stumbled, throwing Petre headlong.  The horse was mortally wounded – shot through the neck – pinning Petre underneath its withers.  But Petre didn’t know what had happened, the fall had rendered him senseless, broken his left arm, and to make matters worse he had taken a bullet in his right thigh, through and through. He awoke ten minutes later, his legs still under the horse. He was covered with blood from his waist down that still flowed from the horse’s neck and his own wound.  The smoke, bullets, and artillery shell bursts created a dense haze.  Half draped over him was a dead man in the garb of a Russian Sergeant  – Black cherkessdas, white beshmets, and red crowns on his fleece hat.  The man was terribly mangled, both legs blown away. Petre quickly pulled on the black tunic, put the fleece hat over his head, then draped his own red jacket over the remains of the corpse – his white pants so covered with his and the horses blood, they were dyed almost black.  Within the hour, stretcher-bearers moved among the fallen, the soldiers using pikes to kill any English who were mortally wounded.  When they came across Petre, they pulled him from under the horse, put him on a stretcher and took him to the field hospital at the end of the valley.  He spoke only a word or two – in Russian and feigned semi-consciousness, saying his name was Mikail.

    In the next three days, he began to talk more and more in flawless Russian, but supposedly had no memory of his unit or his past.  Eventually he was assigned to the Chevalier Guard Russian Regiment, as an infantry sergeant on light duty until his amnesia cleared and his wounds healed.  His memory loss was strictly due to not wanting to be found out, and he continued its practice, thinking he could perhaps become an informant for his British comrades and eventually return to the Lancers.  He and his family were now firmly loyal to Queen Victoria, not the despised Tsar Nicholas.  They would never return to mother Russia.

    It took three months to fully recover from his wounds and be returned to active duty, but he supposedly couldn’t remember his unit.  Since he was fleet of foot he was promoted to a Lieutenant over infantrymen whose duty it was to jog between the different battalions.  He got to see all of the entrenchments, number of troupes and artillery pieces, occasionally listening to the Generals’ plans.  The language used by the Russian Generals was French, which was spoken in the Tsar’s Royal Court.  Again his fluency allowed him to hear battle plans he wasn’t entitled too.  In two months he knew where the weak points were in the lines.  As winter came the war pretty much came to a halt.  Both side ceased their campaigns because of the snow and rain.  Food and medical treatment were scarce and winter clothing was only distributed to those the officers favored.

    During the spring and summer of 1855, Petre continued to make his maps and lists – of artillery, guns, troupes, powder and stores.  Day after day the artillery pieces would pound the trenches and revetments of the foe, then charges would be made – it was frontal attack warfare.  There were days where more than a thousand men were killed, but with little movement of the battle lines.  The Russians were supplied from the north, while the British had to bring virtually all of their food, weapons and even clothing in by sea.  The Russians had sunk the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet in the harbor at Balaclava, making sure that the Allies would struggle to get supplies and men to the front.  Petre watched every morning but found no chance to escape to the British or French lines.  It had been ten months since he had been “captured” and there was no more information to be gathered.  But security was too tight, anyone outside their assigned area could be shot, and several each month met that fate.


    He was now hoping for a day where his own battalion would be overrun, so he could feign unconsciousness once again and hide until the Allies charged by.  It was late evening when someone shouted his name – “Petre.” Forgetting that his new name was Mikal, he turned to see his old foe Bogdan, grinning at him. “What are you doing here, Jew Boy, I thought I recognized that nose I broke?”  “What,” Petre said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”  “Yes you do, and I’m going to turn you in as a spy, you are the enemy just as you were before, and this is my chance to see you executed.”  As he turned and ran, beginning to shout, Petre followed on his heels until they were passing the back of a supply tent.  He struck Bogdan, knocking him down, then struck again on the back of his head with his gunstock.  He knew he should just kill him while he had the chance, but as far as he knew he hadn’t killed anyone during the entire war.  But he had watched his father operate again and again. He rolled Bogdan over, opened his mouth very wide and with his bayonet nicked the two vocal cords, turning him back over so he wouldn’t choke on his own blood.  Based on what he had seen with other injuries like this, Bogdan would be moved to the rear and then to Russia to recover, if he didn’t die of infection. If he healed he would eventually speak again, but in a different voice.  Knowing that Bagdon would still be able to write, Petre smashed the  fingers of each hand.


    Three weeks later the Russian Generals planned a major attack with forty percent of the battalions’ on the line – thousands of soldiers. Petre decided to sneak toward the trenches and join the attack – It was the first day of September, 1955.   Each time he had tried to creep through the lines in the past, he had been stopped and questioned.  He left at 4:00 AM just before the morning barrage would begin.  Everyone was hunkered down in their trenches on the south side of Sebastopol. Then after the two-hour artillery barrage the bugles sounded and he jumped up with the others to charge – a sea of men running through the smoke, screaming at the top of their lungs.   He ran almost 600 yards before an exploding artillery shell knocked him sideways into a large hole, almost completely covering him with dirt and debris.  A body fell on top on him and he was grateful for its cover, but a large piece of shrapnel cut into his thigh. Worse luck, the metal shard had penetrated the same area as his earlier wound – he left it there, afraid to pull it out.  The French and English counterattack charged past him and he stripped off his black tunic and dragged himself up over the rim of the trench as the guns ceased.  Then as the French retreated, he spoke quickly with as much breathe as he could, “S’il vous plaît, pouvez-vous m’aider” (“Please, can you help me?”) in perfect French.  Surprised, an officer stopped. Petre said, “I’m a lieutenant in the British Army and I have information about the fortifications of Sebastopol.” The lieutenant raised his bayonet to spear him, but another officer said, “Wait, lets see if he is a liar like the rest,” Two soldiers dragged him along, leaving a trail of blood.  Within an hour he had turned over all of his drawings and detailed lists concealed in his clothing, plus all he had seen and remembered.


    The shrapnel was removed and his leg bandaged, but he was missing a large piece of flesh from his upper thigh.  After two days a captain from the 17th Lancers came to fetch him.  The leg was infected and he was sent to the hospital at Suctari, where he came close to dying.  He still had a limp years later. He did not remember, but one night, the Lady of the Lamp, Florence Nightingale, bent down, cleaned his wound and replaced his dressing, putting her hands on his head to gived him a blessing.  The information he turned over to the Allies changed the course of the war.  Now the British and French had exact information as to where to focus bombardments and their attacks.  On September 9th, 1855, eight days later, Sevastopol fell after 337 days of bombardment and suicidal charges. The Russians retreated north away from The Crimea – the war effectively over. Petre was in the Sutari hospital, unconscious, not knowing that he, a shy Yeshiva student from Siberia, with a gift for languages, had survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, had been ministered to by Florence Nightingale, and most important, had been a turning point in ending the Crimean War.


    Joseph Ollivier

    June 2016


    Postscript  – The war in The Crimea killed 22,000 thousand British, 96,000 French and 46,000 from the Ottoman Empire.  Russia lost 451,000 men. The wounded for all combatants was roughly double these numbers.


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