The Lady with the Lamp

The eyes of the world are fixed on Crimea this weekend as its people get set to vote in a referendum on Sunday. Putin’s move into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has generated the greatest international crisis since the end of the Cold War. Some have even compared it in its potential for disaster to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. There’s little doubt as to how the people of Crimea will vote, given the ethnic make-up of the region. Many (and that would include me) have already determined that, when it comes to Ukraine’s hold on the peninsula, Crimea is ‘as good as gone’. More important than the referendum on Sunday, however, will be the response to it by Ukraine and its supporters.

With the crisis in Crimea in the news every day, one’s thoughts naturally go back to that earlier conflict in the region. It has been 161 years since Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia fought against Tsarist Russia in what has come to be known as the Crimean War (1853-56). It is estimated that 750,000 people lost their lives during the conflict. One particular battle in that war has been memorialized for all time by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. On 25 October 1854, during the Battle of Balaclava, a British light brigade, because of some miscommunication, was sent on a suicidal mission that had no chance of success. The assault ended badly, as one would expect. Of the 673 British men that rode into battle that day, 118 were killed, 127 were wounded, and 60 were taken prisoner. Six weeks after the event, Alfred Lord Tennyson made the tragic debacle the subject of a poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Who has not at one time or other heard recited these now-familiar lines from Tennyson’s poem:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Because of Tennyson’s poem, this sorry tale of military ineptness with its tragic consequences has been kept alive from generation to generation. In contrast, the story of a remarkable woman who saved the lives of countless British soldiers during the Crimean War is now largely forgotten.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was born into an affluent British family. From the age of sixteen, Nightingale knew that she wanted to be a nurse. At that time in Britain, no respectable woman would even have contemplated such a thing. Nursing sick men was seen as “unbecoming.” Only women of ill-repute were nurses. Even though her family recoiled in horror, Nightingale couldn’t be dissuaded from following what she viewed as her “calling.” She systematically prepared herself to be a nurse: She gathered information about hospitals, she studied reports on the sanitary conditions at home and abroad, and she nursed the poor in her village. Later, she spent three months working in Germany at the Kaiserwerth Institute for Nursing Deaconesses.

When the Crimean War broke out, the newly-invented telegraph and the presence of war reporters at the Front for the first time made the families back home acutely aware of the deplorable conditions in which their sick and wounded loved ones found themselves. Hard to believe now, but there were no nurses to carry out the surgeons’ instructions following surgery. The French made use of Catholic nuns but the British, not so. After a number of distressing dispatches sent from the Front made it into the press, the British Secretary of State Sidney Herbert wrote Nightingale and invited her to organize and lead an expedition of nurses to the Front. On 21 October 1854, Florence and a party of 38 nurses set sail for Scutari, Turkey where the British had requisitioned an army barracks from their Turkish ally and turned it a 1000-bed hospital.

The conditions in the barracks/hospital when Nightingale and her nurses arrived were appalling–and lethal. The wards were damp, unheated, and filthy. Many patients lay on the stone floors. Cavalry horses were stabled adjacent to the hospital. There was a dearth of drugs and little hospital equipment. Surgeons performed amputations on boards set up on trestles in the open wards within sight and earshot of the other patients. The number of men who died from diseases contracted in the hospital outnumbered those who died from wounds acquired by fighting the Russians.

Nightingale carried out a series of changes that improved things dramatically. The rate of mortality in the hospital at Scutari dropped from 42% to 2.2% of the cases treated. Part of Nurse Nightingale’s routine was to make a nightly round, lamp in hand, along the four-mile-long rows of beds. She thus came to be known as “the lady with the lamp.” Later, she carried out the same sort of improvements in the army hospital at Balaclava in the Crimea. At one point, she herself contracted a fever and almost died. No one will ever know how many soldiers’ lives this one determined woman saved. When the war ended, she returned to England where she continued her work to improve the lot of the British soldier and to firmly establish a role for women as military nurses.

A military blunder is set to verse, and it’s passed down generation to generation. A story like Florence Nightingale’s, on the other hand, rarely gets told. Not quite fair, is it.


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