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The Committee of Inquiry

Karl Marx

London, March 28. The Committee of Inquiry of the Commons has now held more than a dozen meetings, and the results of its findings are in great part available to the public. Witnesses from the most divers walks of life have been heard, from the Duke of Cambridge to Mr. Macdonald of The Times, and rarely has a hearing of witnesses been distinguished by so much agreement of the testimony. The various branches of the administration have been reviewed and all have been found to be not only deficient but in an appallingly shocking state. The Army Staff, the Medical Department, the Board of Ordnance, the Commissariat, the Transport Service, the Hospital Administration, the Health Inspection, and the Harbour Police of Balaklava and Constantinople have all been condemned without any opposition. But bad as every department was shown to be on its own, the full glory of the system was displayed only in their contact and collaboration with each other. The regulations were so beautifully arranged that as soon as they came into force nobody knew where his authority began and ended, or to whom to turn. Read the descriptions of the condition of the hospitals, of the infamous brutalities committed through neglect or indolence on the sick and wounded in the transport ships and on arrival at their destination. Nothing more horrible occurred on the retreat from Moscow[a]. And these things happened in Scutari, opposite Constantinople, a big city with multifarious resources, not during a hasty retreat with Cossacks on the heels of the fleeing soldiers, cutting off their supplies but as a result of an up-till-then successful campaign, in a place secure from all hostile attack, in the big central depot where Great Britain stores its supplies for the army. And those who caused all these horrors were no barbarians but gentlemen belonging to the "Upper Ten Thousand", mild men in their way. Fiat the regulations, pereat the army![b] "Turn to another department, the matter is not our responsibility." "But to whom should we turn?" "It is no part of our responsibility to know which department is responsible, and even if it was, we would not be authorised to tell you." "But the sick need shirts, soap, bedding, housing, medicines, arrowroot[c], port. They are dying in their hundreds." "I am indeed very sorry to hear that the best blood of England is so rapidly ebbing away, but we are unable to help. We cannot provide anything, even if we have it, without the necessary requisitions, signed by half a dozen persons, of whom two-thirds are absent in the Crimea or elsewhere." And like Tantalus, the soldiers had to die in the face, even within smelling distance of the comforts which could have saved their lives. Not a single man there possessed the energy to break through the network of routine, to act on his own responsibility, as the needs of the moment demanded, and in defiance of the regulations. Only one person dared to do that, and that was a woman, Miss Nightingale. Once she had made sure that the things required were there, she chose a number of sturdy fellows and committed what amounted to burglary of Her Majesty's stores. She told the horror-stricken suppliers:

"Now I have got what I needed. Now go and report at home what you have seen. I take it all upon myself."

The old wives in authority in Constantinople and Scutari, far from being capable of such a bold enterprise, were cowards to a degree which would seem incredible if we did not have their own candid admissions. One of them, a certain Dr. Andrew Smith, for example, for a time chief of the hospitals, was asked by the Committee of Inquiry whether there were no funds available in Constantinople for purchases and no markets where the necessary commodities could be procured?

"Oh yes," he replied. "But after forty years of routine and drudgery at home I assure you that it was months before I could convince myself that such a power to spend money was vested in me."[d]

And it was to such old wives that the British Army was entrusted! Indeed, the most eloquent descriptions in the press and in Parliament seem colourless compared with the reality as it unfolds in the witnesses' evidence. And what shall we say of the Herberts, the Gladstones, the Newcastles and tutti quanti[e], of Peel's fashionable clerks[f] who in Parliament repeatedly denied all the facts that have now been proved, rejecting them with a passionate bitterness with which these "eminent" gentlemen had not hitherto been credited! These dandies of Exeter Hall, the elegant Puseyites, for whom the difference between "transubstantiation" and "real presence" is a life-and-death question[110], with their characteristically modest arrogance, undertook the conduct of the war and were so successful with the "transubstantiation'' of the British Army that its "real presence" was nowhere. "Yes, it is somewhere," Gladstone replied. "On January 1 the British Army in the Crimea amounted to 32,000 men." Unfortunately, we have the evidence of the Duke of Cambridge that on November 6, after the battle of Inkerman,[111] the British Army did not number 13,000 bayonets, and we know that since November and December it has lost about 3,000 men.

In the meantime the news of the uproar in the Commons against the Ministers, of Roebuck's Committee and of the popular indignation in England, has reached the Crimea. Welcomed by the soldiers with jubilation, it struck the generals and department heads with horror. A week later the news arrived that commissioners were on their way with authority to investigate and to negotiate. This had the effect of a galvanic battery on paralytics. Meanwhile the railway workers set to work unfettered by precedence, regulations or office habits. They secured a landing place, set shovels in motion, erected wharves, huts, dams, and before the quaint old gentlemen had any idea the first rail had been laid. Insignificant as the railway probably is for the siege—all its advantages could be obtained more cheaply and simply—it proved of the greatest use by the mere example, by the live contrast of modern industrial England to the helpless England of routine. The "Forward" operations of the railwaymen broke the spell which had held the whole British Army paralysed, the spell generated by an illusion of phantastic impossibilities which had brought British officers and men close to the stolid fatalism of the Turks, and induced them calmly to watch certain ruin as if it were an inescapable fate. With the railway workers the adage Aide-toi et le ciel t'aidera[g] revived in the army. Within six weeks everything took on a new look. Raglan and his staff, divisional and brigade generals are daily in the trenches, inspecting and giving orders. The Commissariat has discovered horses, carts and drivers, and t he troops have found means of bringing their sick under cover, and some of the troops as well. The medical staff has removed the most flagrant horrors from the hospital tents and barracks. Ammunition, clothing, even fresh meat and vegetables are beginning to be available. A certain degree of order has begun to prevail, and though a great deal of the old trouble still remains, the improvement in the conditions is indisputable and amazing.

Written on March 28, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 153, March 31, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] The retreat of Napoleon's army in 1812.—Ed.

[b] Let there be regulations, though the army perish—a paraphrase of the Latin saying, Fiat justitia—pereat mundus (Let justice be done though the world perish).—Ed.

[c] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[d] "The State of the Army before Sebastopol", The Times, No 22007, March 21, 1855.—Ed.

[e] The whole lot.—Ed.

[f] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[g] "God helps those who help themselves."—Ed.

[110] Exeter Hall—a building in London, meeting place of religious and philanthropic societies.

Puseyism—a trend within the Anglican Church between the 1830s and 1860s. It was named after the Oxford theologian E. B. Pusey, who called for the restoration of certain Catholic rites and dogmas. The Puseyites represented the interests of the aristocracy, which strove to retain its influence in opposition to the industrial bourgeoisie, which was on the whole Protestant. In particular, the Puseyites upheld the Catholic view of the Eucharist as the "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the true body and blood of Christ. In contrast to this, the other Anglican and Protestant trends regarded the bread and wine merely as symbols of the "true presence" of Christ's body and blood.

[111] In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.124-127), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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