Odessa 1854 – the loss of HMS Tiger
The Crimea Medal with clasps Inkermann and Sebastopol shown here was awarded to A.B. John Harfield and is named to him aboard HMS Britannia. The medal is officially impressed, a circumstance explained by the entry on the roll that a duplicate was awarded to him in 1903. Presumably, the original issue was unnamed. Harfield, who in later life achieved some local renown as “Bognor’s Crimea Veteran”, later explained that he had lost his medals “in a shipwreck” and that thanks to the intervention of the MP, Sir Edmund Talbot, and Lord Lansdowne at the Foreign Office, was given replacements by the British and Ottoman authorities.
Harfield was born in Bognor in 1832 and served in the Royal Navy from 1847 to 1856 when he was discharged as Leading Seaman from HMS Victory. At the beginning of the Russian War of 1854-56, he was one of the crew of the 2nd class frigate HMS Tiger, a powerful new 16-gun paddle-steamer which had an interesting if tragic career – she became the largest British warship lost during the Russian War and one of only two lost in in total, the other being HMS Jasper, lost in the Sea of Azoff when she ran aground on 24th July 1855 and had to be abandoned and destroyed.
Despite international treaties, and the fact that no state of war existed with Russia, there was a steady build-up of Anglo-French naval forces around Constantinople and in the Black Sea following the devastating and unexpected Russian attack on the Ottoman navy at Sinope on 30th November 1853.
As an actual war with Russia began, HMS Furious was sent to Odessa on 6th April 1854 to take away the British consul. Her cutter, flying a flag of truce, was fired on by the harbour defences and this “insult” to the flag was used to justify a naval attack on the city for breach of international law. This was, of course, just an excuse – Odessa, as a major Russian port and military depot, was an obvious military target and would no doubt have come under attack anyway.
On 22nd April, a powerful Anglo-French squadron, comprising eight steam paddle-wheel frigates (the British Furious, Retribution, Sampson, Terrible and Tiger and the French Descartes, Mogador and Vauban) supported by the British screw frigate Highflyer, the sailing frigate Arethusa and steam ship Sans Pareil, with the French screw corvette Caton, bombarded the port. There were also six boats armed with 24-pounder rockets, two from Britannia and one each from Agamemnon, Trafalgar, Sans Pareil and Highflyer. They struck in particular at the harbours, causing significant damage and at one stage the magazine on the Imperial Mole exploded, to spectacular effect.
Thereafter, British ships of the Black Sea fleet “watched” Odessa, with warships regularly patrolling the coast nearby and observing the comings and goings of ships and troops. Early in May, the warships Tiger, Niger and Vesuvius were detached on this duty but lost contact in a dense fog. Tiger continued more or less blindly towards Odessa, but at 6.00 a.m. on 12th May 1854 she struck the rocky coast a few miles south west of the city and became firmly grounded. All attempts to get her off the rocks failed – just about everything was cast overboard, including the guns, and attempts were made to drag her backwards off the rocks and by using her engines at full reverse power.
As the fog began to lift, a lone Cossack scout on the cliffs had the startling sight of a British warship stuck on the rocks in front of him. He quickly brought up reinforcements and Tiger was soon under a hail of musketry at close range. Very soon, artillery was brought into action and began to pounded the warship, causing two fires to break out and doing great damage. The ship’s captain, the highly-regarded Henry Giffard, was seriously wounded by shrapnel and had to have his leg amputated during the action. But there really was no choice for the ship – her 1st Lieut., Alfred Royer, was ordered to go ashore and make arrangements for the surrender of the ship and its crew. This was accordingly done. The ship proved to be immovable even to the Russians and was simply stripped of anything worth having – it is said that in Odessa in the coming months souvenirs of all sorts (like snuff boxes) made from the materials of the ship were on widespread sale in the town. Later, British warships drew up to the wreck and blew up its remains. One of its recovered guns is still displayed in Odessa.
The officers and crew, including a number of wounded, were marched off through the city of Odessa, watched by huge crowds – since nothing like this had been seen before. According to the strict quarantine regulations then in force, they were all sent to an old building on the outskirts of the port to be isolated for a month before being moved to other quarters. Harfield later referred to it as “sixty-three days as the guest of the Emperor of Russia in his mansion, unfurnished”.
What is remarkable about this time of imprisonment is the kindness and generosity of spirit shown to the prisoners by their captors and by the people of Odessa. Given that the British navy – including Tiger – had just caused untold damage to the city, their treatment of the prisoners was remarkably kind. They were given adequate food, drink and clothing and once the four-week quarantine period was over, the officers were allowed to mix with the locals and attend the opera and theatre and accept invitations to dinner parties (where they were much in demand as novel guests!); the ratings were also allowed some liberty to roam around – and get very drunk. Lt. Royer was ordered to St. Petersburg, where he had a grand time and met the Tsar, before making his own way home on parole, and, remarkably, the young Midshipmen of the Tiger were ordered by the Tsar to go to Moscow University “to continue their studies”. At the same time, again with great generosity, the governor of Odessa, Lieut. General Osten-Sacken, allowed HMS Vesuvius to visit regularly and bring in extra food and clothing, along with the crew’s back pay. Most remarkably, the widow of Captain Giffard (who had died of his wounds and was buried with full military honours) was allowed to come ashore and visit her husband’s grave. In fact, the prisoners were treated rather more as guests than as hated enemies.
In due course, the British warship Fury captured a Russian ship with 185 soldiers aboard and it was arranged to exchange an equal number of the Tiger‘s crew for the Russian prisoners; a few of higher rank were not released at that time because the numbers did not quite add up, but all were eventually exchanged. On release from captivity, the majority of the ex-Tiger crew were sent home on leave – probably deemed to have earned some rest – but they had gone only as far as Constantinople when most were suddenly ordered to join HMS Britannia, which had suffered major losses to her crew through cholera and was severely undermanned. Hence Harfield’s transfer to that ship, with which he served in the fairly disastrous naval bombardment of Sebastopol on October 1854 and then in the trenches with the Naval Brigade and at Inkermann. Given his experiences, it is hardly surprising that he chose to leave the navy at the end of the war in 1856. There is some evidence to suggest that he joined the naval packet (mail) service afterwards – which may have put him into the “shipwreck” in which he later lost his medals.
As stated above, Harfield left the navy just after the conclusion of the war. But that is not quite the end of his story with HMS Tiger. In 1899 – fully 45 years after the event – he sent from his home in Southampton an account of the grounding to Captain (later Admiral) George Giffard, the elder son of the Tiger’s captain, in which he put forward his recollection of events. Why he waited 45 years to do so is unknown; the event clearly stuck with him. This is his rather idiosyncratic letter, with spelling etc. as in original:
72, Park Rd.,
May 16th 1899
On the 12th [May 1899] was the 45th anniversary of the Loss of HMS Tiger, & as there are but very few of us that formed the crew left, & I doubt if one but your humble servant, heard the orders given by our much beloved Capt. before He left the Bridge, I was awaiting my relief at the wheel at midnight when I heard them, and you Sir, will see at a glance, if those orders had been carried out, the ship & all would not have suffered as all did.
The Capt. was suffering from a weakness of the chest & the Fog was very thick. He could not speak or breath properly, but as he stood by me looking in the Compass, he told the Officers of the watch he must go below it was Mr.Hamilton who had just come on the Bridge to keep a exteria good look out, to keep the Leads a going [taking depth soundings], & if they got Bottom, to stop her & call Him at once & Sir none of that was obeyed, I may say the Navigating officer was present also, at 6 a.m. I was washing clothes, the clothes was pined [pinned] up, whilst on the paddal box, hanging up my clothes, the man at the Lead, S. McConnall by name, called out by the mark 13, the 1st Leaut Mr. Rawyer [Royer], & the master as they were then called, came over & ask him what he was calling out for as there was no bottom there, at 13, & said you don’t know when you have bottom, & called out to Adams, the Basun’s Mate, to send a man to reliave him, the man went on hauling the line, they standing by, the next cast, deep 11, they still doubting, & Mr. Rawyer called him an ignorant fool, the man was Irish, & he replied that he know his duty as a Seaman &c (as he did, Sir, he was a good and very intelligent man). Mr. Rawyer was good at sarcasm and commenced on him, the ship going at the same speed all the time, the next cast, they were paying greater attention to the line, & saw he was right, it was mark 5, Mr. Rawyer did not then stop the ship, but rushed off to call the Capt., I was just then sent to wash down the after part of the main deck, as he Mr. Rawyer came out of the Capt. Cabin down she struck, going at the same speed, on Cape Fauntainia, throwing him and I on the deck.
As no opportunity was given to anyone to bring out those facts, at the Court Martial, I think but right, some member of your family aught to know the Truth before all of us that know the facts, are gone, to our Eternal Rest.
You can use this as you chuse later on, but at the present my chief support is a patereotic fund Pension of £13/12 per Annum, renewed every two years, I would not like it to be used to my hurt in that respect.
I have the Honour Dear Sir, to remain yrs. Respecfully, John Harfield.
He seems to be implying that if the officers on deck (especially Lt. Royer) had taken more notice of the depth soundings and reacted accordingly, the ship need not have gone aground and been lost. What Giffard made of this sudden correspondence so long after the death of his father and whether he responded is not known – but it clearly implies that this event, the grounding and loss of his ship, must have played on Harfield’s mind for all those years. Perhaps we might these days relate it to something like post-traumatic shock.
The inevitable court martial in April 1855 exonerated all the officers and crew except for Lt. Royer and the Master, Francis Edington, whose conduct came under deeper scrutiny. In the end Royer was acquitted of guilt on the grounds that he was acting under the Captain’s orders (which does not quite square with Harfield’s letter) and the poor Master “was to blame” for the grounding but was, because of his previous excellent service merely “severely reprimanded”. It is interesting that neither Royer or Edington were given significant naval positions after this.
Harfield, who married three times, lived for many years in his birthplace, Bognor – claiming his replacement Crimea medals in 1903 – and became something of a local celebrity in the area as he aged and the Crimean War drew further into the past, with numerous references in the local press. He died on 3rd April 1915 but because of the Great War, “prevailing circumstances prevented full-scale military honours being accorded to the grand old man”, so there was no public military funeral for Harfield, as was no doubt wished; his coffin was simply draped with the Union flag when he was buried in Bognor Regis general cemetery on 6th April 1915.
Lieut. Royer was very quick to cash in on the public interest in the incident and brought out “The English Prisoners in Russia. A Personal Narrative of the First Lieutenant of H.M.S. Tiger ….” – a detailed and readable account of the loss of the ship and (in more depth) his own journey through Russia, his meeting with the Tsar and his journey home “on parole”.
The whole book is available freely online on Google books.
from Saint James’s Chronicle 29 July 1854