The Drake Letters
It has been established that there was a breakdown of Commissariat services during the Crimean War, especially during the winter of 1854-55. As a result, thousands of soldiers and animals died. Lord Panmure, Secretary of State for War, stated there had been over 19,000 deaths, of which over 15,000 were due to disease rather than wounds. 1 For an Army with a standing force of around 30,000, 2 this proportion was sizeable. 3 Mortality among the transport animals had also been high - reaching nearly 40 percent. 4
There were various reasons for the breakdown in supplies to the Crimea. Some of these were covered in the three Commissions of Inquiry held - chaired by Roebuck; 5 Commissioners McNeill and Tulloch; 6 and held by the Board of General Officers. 7 Some conclusions were shared by all three inquiries. They all felt that the terrain occupied by the Army was barren and inhospitable, and that Balaklava harbour was unsuitable. It was well recognised that there was a shortage of transport, as well as adequately trained commissaries, and that the lack of a proper road between Balaklava and the front posed an almost insurmountable problem. Raglan’s tardiness in deciding where the Army would winter also contributed to problems of supply, as the Army and Commissariat were therefore unprepared for the winter, which came on suddenly, and with devastating effect, on 14 November 1854, with the hurricane.
Both the Roebuck inquiry and that of the Board of General Officers felt that “the system”, rather than individuals, were to blame. Commissioners McNeill and Tulloch, however, were critical of Commissary-General Filder, suggesting he was not as resourceful as he might have been, and did not adapt his approach to overcome the problems. 8 They also felt that the situation was exacerbated by the Commissariat’s lack of knowledge of the area and its people and language. 9
Commissariat officers themselves blamed the Staff of the Army, saying they were too old and lacked intelligence. The Army itself was blamed for not seizing their advantage and attacking Sebastopol before the winter. The Treasury was blamed for trying to cut costs by not organising a proper waggon corps before they embarked for the Crimea, thereby causing insufficient transport, and for insufficient staffing in the Commissariat Department. The road should have been constructed by the Quartermaster-General’s Department, and the Commissariat should have been allowed to set up depots closer to the front. 10
Some of these and other failures were systemic or caused by those outside the Commissariat. The decision to leave so many transport animals behind when the Army embarked for the Crimea from Varna was not made by the Commissariat. The decision that the troops should leave their knapsacks behind on the transports when they disembarked in the Crimea, was also outside the Commissariat’s sphere of influence. The decision to use Balaklava and its inadequate harbour was made by Raglan, not by Filder or other Commissariat officers. The road from Balaklava to the front should have been constructed by the Quartermaster-General’s Department at an early stage of the occupation. The decision to winter in the Crimea could possibly have been made or communicated earlier, and given later intelligence, Sebastopol could have been attacked and secured before the winter of 1854-55. The Treasury could have responded more quickly to demands for supply from the Crimea. 11 All these things compounded the problems of the Commissariat, and pushed up demand for supply. The Crimean expedition was also struck by sheer bad luck. The hurricane of 14 November 1854 could not have been foreseen or planned for, catching everyone off guard and destroying much of the accumulated supplies at a critical time, just as winter was setting in. All these things were essentially out of the control of the Commissariat and its officers. Maybe it was also easier to blame the Commissariat, who lacked standing in the community, rather than aristocratic army officers with the force of the establishment behind them.
Despite his evidence before McNeill and Tulloch and his wholehearted support of the Commissariat in his letter to The Times, 12 Drake also suggested that Filder contributed to the administrative disasters by his incompetence - he delayed mails, and therefore requisitions, to the Treasury. He suggested that Filder and some other Commissariat officers lacked efficiency - sticking rigidly to the regulations while soldiers and animals were dying of starvation and exposure. Though, due to his loyalty to the Commissariat and his desire to protect his position within the Department, Drake probably would have had difficulty admitting that, in essence, he agreed with the conclusions of Commissioners McNeill and Tulloch,
Drake also predicted some of the proven problems, particularly relating to the lack of adequate transport. 13 Given Drake’s seniority and proven competency, his allegations were serious indeed. Drake, however, obviously felt that his confessions about Commissariat mismanagement would not be made public - and yet he and his family decided to keep his papers, and possibly hoped that, like so many others before him, these would eventually be published. No other private papers of a senior Commissariat officer who served in the Crimea, survive, and Drake’s views, therefore, add to the telling of the Crimean story. Drake’s evidence casts new light on the disasters in the Crimea and suggests, that though there were unavoidable problems, such as the calamitous hurricane of 14 November 1854, and problems caused by factors from outside the Commissariat, the Commissariat did indeed share in the blame for what happened.
Drake also sheds new light on when the transfer of the Commissariat from the Treasury to the War Department was actually decided. This transfer was clearly already in progress when the war broke out, though some current commentators on the Crimean War, such as Hew Strachan, seem to conclude that the difficulties in supply during the winter of 1854-55 hastened this event. 14 As illustrated, it seems this was not the case. Drake was aware that the transfer was imminent in August 1854, before the Army had even set foot in the Crimea. 15 Sweetman agrees with this assessment. 16
Further unanswered questions have been raised regarding the effect the transfer of the Commissariat from the Treasury to the War Department in December 1854 had on the staff in those departments. How much did this transfer distract the Treasury and the War Department from delivering efficient service to the Commissariat in the Crimea? The Treasury officials were obviously unhappy about the proposed transfer, and must have tried to stop it happening, thereby taking their minds off the task of responding to requests from the Commissariat in the area of operations. They must have wondered how this transfer would affect their own careers, rather than concentrating on the despatches about lack of supplies in the Crimea. Likewise, the War Department, politically speaking, would probably have preferred the transfer of an inefficient Commissariat from the Treasury, thereby illustrating the need for the transfer, and this possibly prevented them from developing a co-operative relationship with the Treasury. The question is therefore how much this political manoeuvring contributed to the failure of the Commissariat in the Crimea. 17
Despite the failings of the Commissariat, Drake’s career was very successful. It spanned a period of 44 years, covering the era of increasing professionalism in the Commissariat Department and its successors - from a time when the Commissariat had been “kept … down” and “out of sight”, 18 to one when the necessity for an properly organised logistical framework was recognised; from a time when the Commissary-General in the Crimea submitted “to any insult himself & never [tried] to support his Officers in any way”, 19 to one when the Government appointed what Drake called “a Chief recognized as … head man”, who would be able to inform the powers-that-be properly about Commissariat needs. 20 Drake himself performed well, and his excellence was recognised by being honoured with a KCB, and being promoted to the highest level, to Director of Supplies and Transports. Palmerston, and others, asserted that commissaries were not gentlemen, 21 but this is not the picture that emerges from the papers of Henry and Louisa Drake. Drake, and many of his colleagues, come across as civilised, well-educated, and competent gentlemen. Drake proved himself a member of “the Gentry of England”. 22 He embodied the characteristics of this class - the bourgeoisie - as described by Eric Hobsbawm. He was “‘someone’; a person who counted as an individual, because of his wealth, his capacity to command other men, or otherwise to influence them”. 23
Drake, it seems, was one of the more efficient commissaries, receiving many accolades regarding his ability, including from Lt.-Col. Anthony Sterling. 24 These opinions would have assisted him in his rise through the ranks of the Commissariat. Drake survived and prospered in a system different from that which he had entered. He weathered the changes, displaying a level of competency recognised and rewarded by those around him.
1. A. Palmer, The banner of battle: The story of the Crimean War, (London, 1987), p. 244.
2. William Henry Drake (Crimea) №8 - Louisa Drake (London), (15 September 1854).
3. A. Palmer, The banner of battle: The story of the Crimean War, (London, 1987), p. 244.
4. ‘Deputy Commissary-General Adams, examined’, in First and Second Reports of the Commission of Inquiry into the Supplies of the British Army in the Crimea, with the evidence annexed, (Constantinople, 1855); & (London, 1856), p. 133 (p. 69 of the Evidence). [Commissioners Sir John McNeill and Colonel Tulloch.] [Monash Microcard #5, Vol. 20.]
5. First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Reports from the Select Committee of the Army before Sebastopol; with the proceedings of the Committee, and an appendix, (London, 1855). [Chairman J. A. Roebuck.] [Monash Microcard #5, Vol. 9.]
6. First and Second Reports of the Commission of Inquiry into the Supplies of the British Army in the Crimea, (Constantinople, 1855); & (London, 1856).
7. Report of the Board of General Officers appointed to inquire into the statements contained in the reports of Sir John McNeill and Colonel Tulloch, and the evidence taken by them relative thereto, animadverting upon the conduct of certain officers on the General Staff, and others in the Army; together with the minutes of evidence taken by the Board, and an appendix, (London, 1856). [Monash University, Microcard #5, Vol. 21.]
8. First Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Supplies of the British Army in the Crimea, pp. 25-6 (pp. 21-2 of the Report).
9. Ibid, p. 25 (p. 21 of the Report).
10. An Officer of the Commissariat, ‘The camp before Sebastopol’, The Times, (London, 31 January 1855), p. 6:c.
11. Report of the Board of General Officers …, pp. XXVIII-XXX (pp. xxvi-xxviii of the Report).
12. Commissary, [Letter], The Times, (London, 26 Feb 1857), p. 10:4.
13. William Henry Drake (Varna) №1 - Louisa Drake (London), (4 August 1854).
14. H. Strachan, Wellington’s legacy: The reform of the British army 1830-54, (Manchester, 1984), p. 260.
15. William Henry Drake (Varna) №1 - Louisa Drake (London), (4 August 1854); & William Henry Drake (Varna) №2 - Louisa Drake (London), (10 August 1854).
16. J. Sweetman, War and administration, p. 50.
17. My thanks to Rodney Robinson of the Crimean War Research Society who raised these questions in an email dated 5 May 2000.
18. An officer of the Commissariat, ‘The Camp before Sebastopol’, The Times, (London, 31 January 1855) ,p. 6:c.
19. William Henry Drake (Balaklava) №19 - Louisa Drake (London), (2 November 1854).
20. William Henry Drake (Balaklava) №55 - Louisa Drake (London), (12 March 1855).
21. William Henry Drake (Balaklava) №55 - Louisa Drake (London), (12 March 1855); ‘Lord Palmerston’, The Times, (London, 20 February 1855), p. 5.
22. William Henry Drake (Balaklava) №55 - Louisa Drake (London), (12 March 1855).
23. E. Hobsbawm, The age of capital 1848-1875, (London, 1997), p. 286.
24. A. Sterling, The story of the Highland Brigade in the Crimea: Founded on letters written during the years 1854, 1855, and 1856, (Minneapolis, 1995), p. ix. [First published as The Highland Brigade in the Crimea, (London, 1895).]

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