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«Anti-Ice», Stephen Baxter

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My only regret is that I missed all the fun!

But, after victory at Alma, Raglan failed to follow up.

Perhaps we could have chased the Russkies there and then out of the Peninsula and been home by Christmas! But it wasn’t to be, and you know the rest of the story: the great battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, with, at Balaclava, the slaughter of the noble Light Brigade under the Earl of Cardigan. (Father, I might interject that early in May I had the opportunity to ride up that famous North valley, almost as far as the site of the Russian guns which had been the Brigade’s objective. The ground was gaudy with flowers, and warm and golden in the rays of the setting sun; six-point shot and pieces of shell lay strewn thickly enough on the ground, with flowers growing through the rusty fragments. I found a horse’s skull, quite clean of meat, pierced by a single bullet hole from left to right. We saw no traces of human bodies. But I heard tell of one fellow who found a jawbone—complete and blanched, with the most perfect, regular set of teeth.)

In any event the Russians survived, and—by Christmas—had holed up in their fortress of Sebastopol.

Now Sebastopol, Father, is the Russians’ key naval base here. If we could take that city the threat to Constantinople would evaporate, and the Czar’s Mediterranean ambitions would be as naught. And so we were drawn up here in great numbers with our trenches, earthworks and mines; and—since Christmas—besieged the town.

It was—or seemed to me—a farcical siege; the Russians were well enough supplied with ammo, and we had no way of imposing a sea blockade—and so the Czar’s ships supplied victuals to the besieged almost daily!

But Raglan would entertain no way of dislodging the Russians other than patient attrition. And, of course, he adamantly refused to have anything to do with suggestions of anti-ice weaponry; a man of his honor would have naught to do with such modern monstrosities.

And meanwhile we waited and waited…

I can only thank a too-benevolent Savior that I, unworthy as I am, arrived after the worst ravages of the winter here. The lads who survived all that have some tales to tell. The summer months had been benevolent, you see, with good foraging to be had, and even sufficient time for games of cricket, improvised but played strictly to the rules! But winter turned the roads and trenches to mud. There was only canvas cover—if that—and the men had to snatch what sleep was possible in knee-deep, freezing mud. Even the Officers suffered disgracefully; by all accounts they were forced to wear their swords in the trenches as the only means by which they might be distinguished from the common footsoldier! Father, this truly was soldiering without the gilding.

And, of course, there was Dame Cholera, brought to all quarters of the Peninsula from the landing station at Varna. A Cholera epidemic is no fun, Sir, for a man can turn from a healthy soldier into a gaunt and careworn shadow in a few hours, and next day he is dead. To maintain discipline and composure in such circumstances says much for the mettle of these fellows; and, dare I say it, the common English have acquitted themselves far better than the French, despite the rumors of our allies’ superior provisioning.

But I have my own ideas about the provision situation, Father. It is my judgment that the French starve better than the English! Deprive an Englishman of his roast beef and ale and he will growl, and lie down and die. But your Frenchman… One Captain Maude, a convivial fellow (who was later shipped home when a shell exploded inside his horse and lacerated his leg) told us of an occasion on which he was invited to supper with a lieutenant of the French army. Approaching the chap’s tent our Maude was greeted by the scents of fine cooking and snatches of opera, and inside the tent boards had been laid out and a clean cloth spread upon them, and a three course meal was served! And on complimenting his host, Maude was astonished to learn that the sole ingredients of all three courses had been beans, and a few local herbs!

So there you have it!

But I would not complain of the conditions endured by the ordinary Englishman here by the time of my arrival. I found a billet in a hut which had been constructed by a platoon of the Turks. We receive salt Beef and Biscuit daily now, poor rations indeed compared to the comfort of home, but more than sufficient to sustain life. And the degradation of alcohol is not unknown to us, Father. Beer is difficult to come by and quite expensive—but not so spirits. There is a species of poison called “raki,” for instance, which may be wheedled from the peasantry here. More than once I have seen men, Officers too, staggering drunk from the stuff; although such behavior, of course, is not condoned. I might relate the downfall of a splendidly made fellow in our company, a chap over six feet in height, a fine soldier but a devil with the drink inside him. Punishment parade is always held early in the morning, before the whole regiment; on this occasion the air was frost and a keen wind was blowing. Our soldier’s wrists and ankles were tied to a triangle of stretcher poles and his bare back exposed; and a drummer plied the cat o’ nine tails while the drum major counted the strokes. Father, the fellow took sixty lashes without a murmur, although the blood was flowing after a dozen strokes. When it was done he straightened up and saluted his Colonel. “That’s a warm breakfast you gave me, your honor, this morning,” he said; and he was walked away to hospital.

For what it is worth, Father, I can report that not a drop has passed my lips since the day I left your house in such unfortunate circumstances.

Now—at last, I almost hear you cry!—I shall describe to you the momentous events of the last few days; and, if you will indulge me so far, I will conclude with a report of my own disposition.

Sebastopol is a naval port on the Black Sea. Imagine if you will a wide bay running west, from the sea, to east; the town squats on the south side of this bay. And the town is riven in two by an inlet which extends south from the bay by some two miles.

The practical import of this, Father, is that two separate armies are required to invest the town; for a force attacking one side could not hope to offer support to a force attacking the other, because of the existence of the inlet. And therefore we and the French were drawn up on either side of the inlet—the French to the left, the British to the right.

The Russian defenses are—or were—slight in appearance, but occupied very commanding positions and were fortified strongly by nature herself. For example, I have already mentioned the earthen battery called the Redan, which was armed with seventeen heavy guns.

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