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A visit to the Russian Prisoners at Lewes

This is a shortened version of an anonymous article printed in the 'Leisure Hour' magazine of 1855 and was recently included in 'Foreign Correspondent ', the journal of the Continental Wars Society. It is reproduced here by kind permission of their editor, Ralph Weaver, and Mick Yarrow who discovered it. Readers are strongly recommended to the Continental Wars Society if they are interested in the many diverse armies of the various European countries, especially in the 19th Century.

At the foot and on the Eastern slope of one of those chalk hills stands Lewes, the county town of Sussex. A new object of interest springing out of the war in which we are engaged, has recently attracted much attention and many visitors. The county Gaol of the place - a large airy, and commodious building, situated not far from the High Street.

Those of our readers, from whose minds the deeper interest excited by the mournful details from the Crimea has not effaced the recollections of the comparatively bloodless struggle in the Baltic, will remember that early in the morning of the 16th of last August, the fortress of Bomarsund on the rocky island of Aland, surrendered to the allied forces of England and France. Upwards of two thousand prisoners laid down their arms and were immediately embarked. Of these about four hundred are now at Lewes. They belonged to the Regular Russian army and formed part of a regiment of Finnish grenadier rifles; being what are generally termed sharp shooters. Among them, or were recently, nine officers, who were placed on their parole and allowed to live in private lodgings in the town. Two of them are accompanied by wives. There are also two civilians. The majority, however, of the prisoners within the walls of the gaol are of course, soldiers of the same social rank as the ordinary privates of our army. There are likewise some cadets, as well as persons serving as volunteers, and drawn from the higher grades of society. Upon these the evils of imprisonment however mitigated by kindness and abundant ratios, fall heavily. Two of the privates have their wives with them. These are lodged in the married wards, and the women are allowed to go into town to make purchases, everything they bring back being strictly examined.

The officers are all of German or French extraction. Their manners and habits of course resemble those which are usual among the upper classes of society on the continent of Europe. It is whispered that they are inveterate smokers, not even desisting of their repasts. They receive much attention and many invitations from the gentry of the neighbourhood. The tedium of some of them also has been cheered by tidings of promotions granted them by the Tsar, who has also liberally provided them with funds - a circumstance which is not belied by the apparent state of their expenditure. The wife of one of these officers we may observe has given birth to an infant, considerable discussion has been held in the neighbourhood as to the nationality of the little stranger, and the circumstance that the mother is free and a voluntary resident amongst us, has been thought to turn the scale in favour of its being an English subject.

The privates with the exception of three or four Russians sent to Lewes from Portsmouth for a change of air, are Finns. As regard personal appearance, they are almost all short men, the average height being five feet five inches, while their age, generally speaking seems to be about twenty-five years. They all have round heads and now they have lost the underfed and squalid look that many of them had on first arrival, their faces are plump and full. Their hair is light and bristling, standing back so far as impart to them a character of baldness. A sandy complexion with large grey eyes completes their portrait. Although they have a heavy and unprepossessing appearance, on further inspection their countenances are not found wanting in intelligence, and there is nothing which conveys an impression of brutality or cunning. The bulk of them entering the Tsar's army, it appears about four years ago, their regiment having then been fresh raised. The prisoners are said to be gentle and tractable as well as kind and courteous to each other. When seen in the discharge of different household employments allotted to them, and in the works voluntarily undertaken, they appear active, industrious and methodical. But that which particularly interest every one who has the opportunity of witnessing it, is the apparently devout manner in which they chant their hymn of grace at meals. The accuracy of ear evidenced by them, as well as the propriety of the custom, dispels any unfavourable impressions to which the heaviness of their countenances might otherwise give rise. Most, if not all of the prisoners can read and are fond of doing so. About one eighth of the Finnish prisoners can speak Swedish in addition to their own language; while only one-third of them use the Russian tongue.

The privates continue to wear the dress in which they were captured. The coat is made of greenish grey felt and looks very much like a rough dressing gown. It is long, and buttons down the front. The back is set into the collar in plaits, which are confined at the waist by lapels fastened to the side and buttoned in the middle of the back. On the shoulder are blue cloth lapels with the letters T.C. in white. On the rim of the plain cloth cap is a number. The trousers are of course blue cloth, the legs of which are stuffed into large loose boots reaching nearly to the knee. Some, however, have followed the English fashion since their arrival in Lewes, and draw on their boots beneath their trousers. Certainly nothing could look less animating, and attractive on a parade than this ugly dress, and a recruiting sergeant in our streets would have poor success if he made his rounds in such costume. But on the other hand it seems to us that few modes of attire could be more easy to the wearer, or better suited to the sharp frosts and midnight exposure of a northern winter. At all events, it has the recommendation of inexpensiveness and none could be less likely to attract notice of the enemy, or excite the cupidity of the plunderer. It is calculated for the business, not the prestige of a military life.

The two women whom we saw appeared very gentile, and were both good looking. Their dress was pretty. It consisted of a long waisted gown with an open bodice, the space between being filled and a dark cotton handkerchief, crossed beneath their chin, covered the head. Their hair was dressed in the same way as that which is usual in England.

The prisoners sleep in stone wards, warmed by hot water pipes. Great cleanliness pervades the whole establishment. There is a large kitchen in which you may see them employed in preparing food and in clearing away after dinner. All seems to go forward with greatest order and regularity. At one o'clock the prisoners enter the part of the building which serves as both chapel and dining-room. The Governor Lieutenant Mann at the same time enters the pulpit gallery, his secretary taking his place beside him. On the day we saw them, when all was arranged, they chanted a hymn in a standing posture, the effect of which was very beautiful. At a signal from the secretary, they then sat down, and the business of dinner commenced with great activity. Each had a plate, basin, knife, fork and spoon. Cans of soup were placed at regular intervals. Then came dishes of beef and potatoes. While some carved the others helped themselves to salt on a scale somewhat unusual to English eyes. We could not help feeling astonished at the enormous quantities of this article which they prepared to consume. The prisoners we may add are said to be well satisfied with their food, which indeed is wholesome and ample.

There is in the establishment, we are happy to find, a large reading room for the use of the prisoners, with desks, forms and shelves. There are also baths and workshops. On the door of the latter are names inscribed, marking the calling carried on within, such as hairdresser, shoemaker, tailor etc. In an open shed attached to one of the prison yards we found a large number of men busy in carving small pieces of deal. These they transformed into playthings and rude ornaments, but chiefly into a variety of ingenious puzzles, in the form of crosses, towers, wreaths and eagles. Another covered shed is arranged as a bazaar for the sale of these goods. The well-known skill of the Russian peasants in making articles by the aid of a knife, has been greatly developed since their captivity.

The profits derived from the sale of these objects has hitherto been large, the influx of visitors, especially from Brighton, having been very great. On one day indeed the visitors amounted to fifteen hundred and the proportion of purchasers was considerable. The prisoners have thus been enabled to provide themselves with many comforts.

The prisoners are in general strictly confined within the prison walls, but on occasion they were indulged with a walk on the hills, to enjoy the fine breeze in which the South Downs are almost unrivalled. On first receiving an intimation that they were to be taken out, they wept and wrung their hands, supposing that they were to be led to execution; so little did they understand the disposition of Englishmen.

The prisoners, we were glad to find appeared to be happy; their health having much improved since they came to Lewes. The officers maintain a strict reserve on the subject of war and some of them appeared much depressed. They occasionally wear dark blue uniforms with silver decorations; but they are in general in undress and look much like other gentlemen. An excellent state of feeling pervades the town and nothing is done that could pain them. Even the boys who, on the 5th of November, hold a sort of carnival in the usually quiet streets of Lewes, out of respect to their captive guests abstains from burning, among the effigies of other objects of their dislike, that of the emperor of Russia.

Efforts have been made to communicate to the prisoners with spiritual instruction; and let us hope that when permitted, by the return of peace, to depart to their native land, the recollections of English kindness and the impressions made by English manners, may serve as seeds which shall develop themselves at some future day, and ripen in blessings to that country with whose ruler we are now at war.

The above article appeared in The War Correspondent, the Journal of the Crimean War Research Society, Volume 23 Number 2, July 2005
Author Mick Yarrow

The above article has been published with restricted access to protect the author's copyright.