24 May 1855
The 24 May 1855 was a day the people of Kerch would never forget. The local population had begged general Sir George Brown, who was in command of a force of 15,000 British, French and Turkish soldiers which had captured the city, to protect them from the local Tatar population. Not only did he fail to prevent the subsequent slaughter and looting, but his men actively participated in the attacks, which as historian Orlando Figes comments, ‘soon descended into a drunken rampage, and some terrible atrocities by the allied troops.’
The highly decorated British general had given orders to destroy anything that might be of use to the Russian war effort, but the order, as historian Saul David observes, ‘was taken a little too literally, and hundreds of buildings were sacked and burned, including Kerch’s museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art.’ During this orgy of destruction, the soldiers were ‘completely out of control, looting homes, killing civilians and raping women.’1 A correspondent from The Times described how a ‘poor child’ was ‘hacked to pieces,’ and of other ‘horrible outrages’ and ‘atrocious crimes’ against men and women and of how the floor of the museum was ‘covered for several inches in depth with the debris of broken glass of vases, urns, statuary, the precious dust of their contents, and charred bits of wood and bone mingled with the fresh splinters of the shelves, desks and cases in which they had been preserved.’2
A journalist cited by the Illustrated London News, arrived in the port city to find that ‘wherever the eye turned, up or down the streets, men could be seen hurrying away with bundles under their arms, with furniture on their backs, or staggering under the influence of drink and bedding to the line of boats which were lying at the sea wall, laden to the thwarts with plunder. This kind of work is called “looting” from our Indian reminiscences. The fate of nearly every house of good condition was soon apparent. The windows were broken, the doors smashed open, and men went in and out like bees in a hive.’3
- Saul David, Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p. 261.
- The Times quoted in ‘The Expedition to Kertch,’ The Staffordshire Advertiser, 30 June 1855 p. 6 and ‘Horrible details of the sacking of Kertch,’ The Durham Chronicle 29 June 1855, p. 3.
- ‘The Burning of Kertch,’ The Illustrated London News, 7 July 1855, p. 9.
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