The “Turkish Contingent” in the Crimean War
– and the career of Captain George Pasley, R.A.
One sometimes sees medal groups to British officers (but rarely to NCOs and lower ranks) who served during the Crimean War in what is variously referred to as the Turkish Contingent, the Anglo-Turkish Contingent, the British-Turkish Contingent, the Ottoman Contingent or the Anglo-Ottoman Contingent.
During the course of Britain’s war against Russia, 1854-56, the Royal Navy dominated the various naval campaigns which were waged against Russia around the globe, with French, Ottoman and Sardinian naval forces very much playing a subordinate role. However, the land campaign in the Crimea was a different matter. Here, French and Ottoman forces provided the largest contingents fighting “before Sebastopol” and elsewhere with the smaller British army playing a more subordinate role.
It was widely felt amongst the military and political authorities in the UK that Britain needed to field larger land forces than she actually had available – both to be able to exert more power in the tactical management of the present campaign and a possible later move into southern Russia, and with an eye to the future, to secure a greater say for Britain in any post-war settlement.
So was born, in December 1854, the idea of raising an “Anglo-Turkish Contingent” as a supposedly simple and effective way to increase Britain’s land forces in the Crimea – just as Britain had raised Swiss mercenaries and a German Contingent for service there. This force – which one officer said was simply one of the pawns upon the board of a great campaign – would be raised from a combination of veteran Turkish Regular forces supplied by the Sultan, augmented by extensive conscription and recruitment from within the Ottoman Empire – Croats, Montenegrins, Albanians, Serbs etc. Most of the funding would come from Britain but some would also be provided by the Sultan – with whom the idea was not very popular, since it removed from his control and use some of his existing regiments and placed Ottoman personnel under foreign command. But under the circumstances, he could hardly refuse and the establishment of the Contingent was finalised in January 1855. Some elements of French opinion were less than enthusiastic: The Turkish Contingent is nothing else, according to [the influential newspaper] Le Nord, than a body of Spahis [Sepoys], by whose aid we intend make ourselves masters of Turkey.
One British officer who served in the Contingent, Luther Vaughan of the 5th Punjab Infantry, commented:
The idea of taking a large body of Turkish troops into our pay, and officering them with Englishmen, was excellent. It had begun to be recognized in England that the English and French commanders at Sebastopol had made a mistake, in that, instead of making the most of the fine fighting qualities of the Turkish soldiers (which they had well displayed in the Danube campaign), they had condemned those of them who were with the army of the Crimea to serve as beasts of burden to the rest of the army… the sturdy Turkish infantry, than which I venture to think there is not a better in Europe, had not been thought worthy to fight in their own quarrel alongside of French and English battalions.
The Contingent would be largely commanded by British officers, most noticeably those at higher levels but any “above the rank of Sergeant”. In May 1855, it was placed under Major General Robert Hussey Vivian (1802-1887), a respected Indian army officer who had seen extensive service in India and had been Adjutant General of the Madras Army. The Chief of the Staff was an officer of some mark — Major-General J. Michel, who had served with credit at the head of his regiment (the 6th Warwickshire) in our early South African wars. The duties of Chief of the Staff were not understood in those days as they are now and my recollection of General Michel is that he was rather in the position of a simple second in command to General Vivian. [Vaughan]
The Contingent infantry was divided into two Divisions – Major-General (afterwards Sir Arthur) Cuninghame, commanded the first Infantry division, while the second was commanded by General Neil, of the Madras Army, who went on to distinguish himself in the early days of the Indian Mutiny and was killed in Havelock’s attempt to relieve Lucknow in 1857. No more competent officer than … Colonel Edward Wetherall, could have been found for head of the Quarter-Master-General’s department; and indeed all the higher officers of the Contingent had been carefully selected. Of the English officers generally it may be said, that they threw themselves heartily into their work.
The majority of the officers had been chosen by March 1855. Most were drawn from volunteers in the East India Company’s army as it was widely (and wrongly) believed that, since they commanded Sepoys, they would be more effective in the management of “foreign” troops: such officers [on leave] in the United Kingdom of the Company’s service as are willing to act in command of the Turkish Contingent; the applications have been very numerous—something about 300. The number required for the present – about 120 – have been selected from the most intelligent [!!] A number of these, along with General Vivian, were presented to the Queen at a Levee on 14th March 1855 just before their departure for the East.
No fewer than eighty-eight British NCOs, all in the rank of Sergt. Major, were employed, largely as drill and musketry instructors, as were some civilian workers such as clerks, storekeepers, wheelwrights, smiths, farriers and medical staff.
Comparatively few officers were drawn from specifically British units. Of course, since the vast majority of the selected officers did not speak the language of their men, their military origin was not really very important and, as it turned out, command via interpreter was neither easy or efficient – and became next to impossible if the interpreters deserted!
It was evident that the men placed under the command of General Vivian were old soldiers and that, if our Englishmen could but understand one word they said, the most perfect friendship and cordiality would exist between them. On parade, however, it was obvious from the first that considerable obstacles must be got over. The Interpreter could not give the British word of command its equivalent signification in Turkish and when the order “left shoulder forward” was to be performed, the result did not answer expectation …. All these inconveniences may, however, be overcome, but it will require great care and no little prudence to obtain a satisfactory result. Much, no doubt, may be expected from regular pay, food and clothing, attentions to which the regular Turkish soldiers are by no means accustomed. The siege of Silistria [Danubian Provinces] has shown how well the Ottoman will fight when led by British officers. These soldiers will fight when they are brought face to face with the enemy. But the real difficulty lies not there, but in bringing Turks to obedience of daily orders issued by men whom they have not been accustomed to reverence.
The exact number of troops which eventually formed the Contingent (with artillery and cavalry – including the Osmanli artillery and the already-established “Osmanli Irregular Cavalry” or “Beatson’s Horse” and the “Polish Cossacks”) is difficult to establish, but 20,000 – 25,000 men is often suggested and 20,000 was quoted at the time of formation; one report suggests that 30,000 men, including its artillery and cavalry arms, were actually deployed on active service late in 1855.
The whole project was difficult from the start. Many of the Regular Turkish troops ordered into the Contingent (15,000 men) were by no means happy with their transfer, despite more regular pay and rations, and coming under the control of foreign officers and they frequently proved to be reluctant and recalcitrant. Discipline and commitment were initially major problems, not at all helped by the fact that many of the conscripts and reservists drawn from various parts of the Ottoman Empire (about 5,000) were at unhappy to be in service in the first place and placed under foreign command. But as one British officer remarked:
The [Turkish troops] had not the smart appearance of which Western nations think so much, but their physique was excellent, being for the most part that of healthy agricultural peasants. We found them simple, docile, and patient under hardship in a high degree. Our excellent and plentiful rations delighted them, and they appreciated the regular receipt of their pay without any of the petty pilferings from which they had suffered at the hands of their Turkish paymasters. With these advantages it is not wonderful if they soon fell into habits of respect and obedience to their English officers. The English commandants, on their part, were content, in the best-commanded regiments, to waive a too minute interference with the drill and discipline of their regiments, which, as said above, they left as far as possible in the hands of the ” Bimbashees,” or Turkish commandants, and the inferior Turkish officers.
Having set up the Contingent at the behest of the British, the Ottoman authorities and the British high command seem to have had no clear idea of what to do with it and one gains the impression that their use was proposed from place to place in some sort of effort to find them a role. It was at first suggested that they should be deployed en masse to the Danubian provinces (Moldavia and Wallachia) where the Turks were fighting a major campaign against the Russians, or at Eupatoria, north of Sebastopol, as part of the Ottoman force which was eventually in garrison there, or even sent to the Turkish eastern front at Kars, but nothing came of these understandable suggestions. Then there were proposals to send part of the Contingent to the Gallipoli peninsula on garrison duty and some elements of the Contingent, largely the Osmanli irregular cavalry, were indeed sent to Cannakale – and then back.
It was even suggested by The Times, reflecting the well-known antagonism between the British and the Indian service, that “the truth is, as I have good grounds for believing, that there are persons in high places at Headquarters who do all in their power to deprive the Contingent of opportunities of distinction because it is commanded by an Indian officer; also, perhaps in a less degree, because numerous Indian officers hold appointments in it – some of them on the Staff.
For most of the time, the Contingent lingered more or less unemployed in its main base near Büyükdere, on the European side of the Bosphorus.
At one side of a pleasant town overlooking the Black Sea, at no great distance from the mouth of the Bosphorus, the camp of the Turkish Contingent, under General Vivian’s command, has been pitched. Rows of white and glistening tents extend in sharp and dazzling lines in the midst of a green landscape. Stray patches of barley grow scantily upon a somewhat arid and parched ground. A Turkish village, with its little minaret darting out of a grove of trees, nestles in a quiet nook and pretty woods afford shelter to the horses of officers and sutlers, after they have braved the noontide heat and the fierce rays of a perpendicular sun. The camp of the Turkish Contingent lies six miles distant from Büyükdere and about fifteen miles distant from Constantinople.... General Vivian’s quarters there are beautifully situated in a palace overlooking Beicos Bay. His presence is fenced around by the numerous protections usual amongst Eastern nations. There were double sentries everywhere, much clattering of flintlocks as I went in and curiosity insatiable apparently, since it seems not to have been met by our eighteen months’ occupation. [Illus. Lond. News 7.7.55]
Not until September 1855 was the Contingent transferred to Varna on the Black Sea and from there at last went on active service, with a role found for it to play. Its stated destination was the important advanced base at Eupatoria, north of Sebastopol, where a large Turkish force under Omar Pasha had been in garrison for some time, part of which was now to be relieved and replaced by the Contingent. However, its destination was quickly altered and it was dispatched finally, as late as October 1855, to the Kertchine Peninsula.
In May, a major Anglo-French-Turkish naval and military expedition had set out eastwards to seize the peninsula and straits of Kertch and its nearby towns, and especially to control the ports of Kertch and Yenikale. An Anglo-French fleet, which sailed on 22nd May, carried 3,800 British troops with artillery, 7,000 French infantry and artillery and 5,000 Ottoman troops. The occupation would be a preliminary to major naval operations in the Sea of Azoff, which ultimately turned out to be a staggering success. This powerful force, whose British element included the 42nd Highlanders, the 71st Highland Light Infantry, the 79th Highlanders, the 93rd Highlanders, some of the 8th Hussars, with artillery and engineer units, very quickly occupied the peninsula and the main ports (24th May) with no Russian resistance – the sizeable Russian forces which had garrisoned the region immediately retired, destroying stores, weapons and fortifications as they left.
There followed a disgraceful period of looting and pillaging all along the peninsula, but being particularly noted in what had been the beautiful and ancient city of Kertch. To be fair, even the inhabitants (or those who had not fled) said that it was nearby “Tartars” from outside the city who flocked into it when the Russian garrison left, who did most of the damage, but there is equally no doubt that French, Ottoman and British personnel were seriously involved in what was often not simply theft but wanton vandalism and attacks on the inhabitants, male and female.
After the successful occupation of the ports and the beginning of naval operations in the Sea of Azoff, it was understandably assumed that the British regiments on duty there were better employed back in the Crimea and the idea arose of replacing the main infantry garrison in the area and in the towns with the Turkish Contingent – a unified force which could be deployed along the whole of the peninsula and in the ports. It was duly agreed that the Turkish Contingent would be deployed to the Kertch peninsula and remain in garrison there, its headquarters initially at Yenikale but soon transferred to Kertch.
[Kertch], quite outside the real theatre of the war, had recently fallen, after a nominal resistance, before a mixed English and French force sent from Sebastopol. It was most unlikely that, whilst so fully occupied at Sebastopol, the Russians would make any great effort to retake the place, which at the moment had no military value. It really appeared as if the English and French commanders could not make up their minds to trust soldiers of whose fighting qualities such proof had been given the year before on the Danube, and had sent the Contingent where it would have the least possible chance of being useful.
At any rate, it remained in that area – patrolling, doing reconnaissance work (e.g. towards Arabat), constructing defences, road blocks and roadways. There was little to do of an active service kind, apart from a few skirmishes with more adventurous Russian cavalry forces at a distance, in which the few British Hussars were involved: whether the Russians ever seriously thought of attacking us at Kertch may be doubted; but taking advantage of our deficiency in Cavalry, they constantly menaced us with attack and on several occasions caused us to stand to our arms for some hours at a time expecting it.
The Contingent remained in this role until the conclusion of the war in in the Spring of 1856: In the winter of 1855 General Vivian was summoned to Sebastopol to confer with the allied Generals and our hopes of more active service rose to fever height; but to the best of my recollection the arrangements then discussed had reference to a possible campaign in the country to the north of Sebastopol, which never came off, but in which, if the war had gone on, the Contingent was to have played an important part.
After the fall of Sebastopol, further operations into southern Russia were contemplated – north from Eupatoria or along the Dnieper after the fall of Fort Kinburn. But in the end, the Russians chose to come to terms. Following the peace treaty at Paris, in March 1856, the Contingent was quickly sent back to Constantinople to be disbanded and dispersed. Vaughan remembered that the peace brought much disappointment to us of the Contingent, for it finally destroyed the hope of serving in the thick of the war which had led us to take service with the Osmanli troops.
Somewhat strangely, the influential and powerful British Ambassador at Constantinople, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, actually suggested that the Contingent (remaining under British officers) should be retained as a permanent part of the Ottoman Army after the war, but the Sultan understandably refused this suggestion.
Unless they served away from the Contingent at some time, none of the officers received the British Crimea Medal – they were only awarded the Turkish Crimea Medal; as late as August 1859, it was reported that Permission has been granted by Her Majesty to the officers and men of the Turkish Contingent wear the Crimean medal conferred the Sultan.
Quite a number of officers of the Contingent also received Ottoman awards like the Medjidieh (of which over 1,000 were conferred on British forces in general); the Illustrated London News on 12th September 1857 reported of the Medjidieh that: one hundred officers, besides the medical officers, of the Turkish Contingent, are also recommended by the Secretary of War for decorations, namely: one of the first class, five of the second, ten of the third, sixty-nine of the fourth [this report does not mention any 5th Class awards to the Contingent, though 10 awards of this class were given to officers serving on its medical staff ].
Captain George Pasley R. A.
One of the officers chosen to work with the Turkish Contingent was Captain George Malcolm Pasley, Royal Artillery. Born in 1832, he was the son of a famous and highly-regarded Royal Engineer, Charles William Pasley (later General Sir, KCB, FRS, 1780-861). In 1839, at the age of only seven and a half, George Pasley fired the first submarine charge to be detonated by electricity, for the demolition of the remains of the Royal George which had foundered off Spithead in 1782 and whose substantial wreck formed a dangerous obstacle. When the charges were set, the officer who was tasked with firing them, Lieut. Symonds, in a very generous act turned to young George and asked if he’d like to do it. Since no seven year old boy known to science would turn down the chance to blow up a battleship, young George stepped forward and duly threw the switch, creating a satisfyingly loud and effective explosion before a large assembled audience of dignitaries and onlookers.
Turning to a military career in his own right, George Pasley might have gone to Addiscombe College to train for the East India Company’s Service – his father was deeply involved with its administration and teaching there – but instead in 1847 he became a Gentleman Cadet in the Royal Artillery and gained a commission in 1849. His first posting was to the Cape Colony and here he became involved in the Eighth Frontier War and the campaign against Sandili. Pasley received the 1853 medal for South Africa, though he is not found on the roll – not uncommon with that award. His medal exists (and is rare as an award to an Artillery officer for that campaign, of which less than a dozen were issued), perfectly correctly named, and his presence in the campaign is easily attested – various dispatches and accounts mention his presence, at one stage in command of a party of Sappers and Miners.
It looks very much as if Pasley struck up a good professional relationship with Lt. Col. John Michel (1804-86), who served in the frontier war in command of the 6th (Warwickshire) Regt. and also as a brigadier “serving as commander of independent columns”. Pasley is referred to in a number of Michel’s dispatches and at one time was clearly serving as his A.D.C.
This contact seems to be what led to Pasley being selected as A.D.C. to Col. Michel when he was as appointed deputy to General Vivian in the Turkish Contingent in 1855. Pasley served through the campaign with the Contingent at Kertch – indeed, he left some fine watercolours of the region and in due course he received the Turkish Crimea medal and was awarded the Order of the Medjidieh in the 4th Class.
Pasley next served with 6/14 RA during the Indian Mutiny, in the Central India campaign with the Saugor Field Force under Genl. Whitlock. His former associate, General Michel, also served as a column commander in the Central India Field Force but there is no direct evidence that the two officers worked together in India as they had in South Africa and the Crimea. His heavy battery, with 4 x 18 pdrs, 2 x 8″ guns drawn by elephants and 2 howitzers, had arrived in Madras in November 1857 and saw action in the skirmish at Nygoan, the capture of the Penghali Pass and in the more well-known action in the storming of the heights of Punwaree. He was “Mentioned” by General Whitlock for Punwari [Calcutta Gazette 9.2.59].
Pasley’s career then took a sudden plunge into tragedy. In 1860, a medical board in India declared that Pasley was no longer fit for service and he was sent home on leave and soon onto Half Pay. In fact, it turned out that Pasley had “lost his mind” – in the parlance of the time – falling into periods of what was called “religious monomania” and severe depression. His “illness” was widely stated to be caused by severe sunstroke experienced in India, but more dubious diseases may have been at work.
He ended up living briefly with his retired father, General Sir Charles Pasley, in Richmond, where he proved to be a trial to his aged father, who in fact died shortly afterwards. Sir Charles wrote to a family member that George was quite out of his mind and was determined to become a priest, constantly pestering local clergymen. In the end, he was sent into the expensive private mental asylum at Ticehurst in Sussex (which is still operating as an institution) which at that time was something of a “five star hotel” for members of the wealthy upper classes who suffered mental problems and offered humane treatment and professional attention, plenty of facilities and extensive grounds for exercise and visits.
Extensive case notes survive for Pasley in the records of Ticehurst and they show initially the sad decline of an active and intelligent mind into withdrawal and depression – though the religious impulses seem to have gone. Gradually, however, Pasley began to get better, took up watercolour painting and languages and wrote to his friends and family.
The saddest fact of all is that though by September 1863 Pasley was stated by his doctors to have regained his mental faculties and was actually ready for release, he began to fail physically. His last letter expresses the hope that he would soon be out and about and able to visit his friends in person but instead, he contracted severe bronchitis and died at Ticehurst on 27th September 1863. He was buried on 1st October 1863 in All Souls, Kensal Green, where his father and several members of the family lie.