Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkessen.

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Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkessen.

Postby Josh&Historyland » 16 Dec 2017 15:00

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 202
ISBN: 9781473866805
Published: 12th June 2017

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Valentine-Bakers-Heroic-Stand-At-Tashkessen-1877-Hardback/p/13481

In 1880 there were probably two popular military hero’s in Britain, Chinese Gordon and Valentine Baker, both would die associated with the epithet “Pasha” after their names, and both would die in North Africa.
Like his contemporary of greater fame and less infamy (not that people haven't tried), Baker was a thinking officer. A scientific cavalryman, an adventurer and a taciturn observer. Not just an armchair general, he was familiar with active service, particularly in the east and he had a precise understanding of Russian and Turkish military thinking, vital to the interpretation of this elder eastern crisis. It might be said all of the above was everything that would set him up for disaster against a desert foe like the Mahdi, but made him excellently suited to opposing a regular, backward thinking military machine like the Russian army of 1877.

The life of the intelligent and brave Baker is covered by the Frank Jastrzembski in glowing terms, he is not sparing when it comes to sprinkling phrases such as brilliant, or genius on his subject. Nevertheless, Baker was praised in equally gilded language in his own time. Though perhaps we should note, many of Baker’s contemporaries showed just as much care and skill in their operations. Wether he was the best soldier of his generation or not, Baker Pasha’s military career up until 1888 give no indication that he would be responsible for one of the most embarrassing defeats associated with a British officer.

Was it as much to do with the inadequacy of Baker’s opponents as his own talent? That can be said of any General, and in sum this book looks to present us with a military career that fairly glitters and so successfully poses the question where did all go so wrong?

Actually that can be pinpointed with precision. It went wrong in a railway carriage with a young lady who accused him of attempted rape. An allegation that no man of note survives, justly in the case of the guilty but sad in the case of those whose guilt cannot be adequately proved. The character of Baker plays a large part in how he is presented. In the summary of his trial, where he was acquitted of attempted rape but convicted of assault, the author remains quietly insistent that Baker was innocent. The trial itself was mishandled by Baker, refusing to allow the lady to be cross examined in an apparent show of chivalry, but it left the jury with only one course. In order to get this across he presents some psychohistory, in which several medical sources are offered to indicate that Baker’s subsequent attitude and actions were that of a wrongly condemned man.

However lack of evidence one way or another is what it is, and as far as the cold light of history is concerned, Baker was convicted and disgraced in a trial that appalled the top echelons of society. The Queen would never forgive him for shaming the uniform. And for what it’s worth, although it does seem baffling that such a man would ruin himself in such a random way for such a small prize, whatever occurred in that train carriage was bad. Wether it was as bad as it was made out to be will likely never be known and is not resolved in this book. As is right, and perhaps courageous, the author gives his subject the benefit of the doubt and so the stage is set for Baker’s great quest to expunge his soiled record and recover his honour in the highest tradition of Victorian melodrama. The author shrewdly observes this classic novelistic element, very reminiscent of The Four Feathers or indeed Beau Geste, etc, and one can only surmise how much the story of Baker informed these famous stories of disgrace and redemption.

The text is easy to read, although populated with a few missed grammatical issues, of which I myself am by no means worthy to point out given my own lack on that score. Doubtless many will observe this lack in this very post. Nevertheless, whereas I can instantly fix them, it is sad for the author of a print book, and he must cringe to read back and see that there are definite grammatical glitches that have not been caught, most notably a curious type setting issue that runs throughout in words beginning with Fi.

I’m very happy to report that very few things bothered me as regards to content. Yes, a pedantic voice in my head compelled me to note that there was a discrepancy regarding classes of ship early on, and that Hougoumont isn’t really a farm and Lord Lucan did not “Issue” the order for the light brigade to charge at Balaclava, Lord Raglan did, Lord Lucan gave the operational command resulting from that communique to set the charge in motion but that is as much a matter of phrasing as anything, which indeed contributed to the ill fated charge of the 600.

In construct the book is simple to follow and fast paced. Baker’s background, rise and disgrace are in the first few chapters. The war in the east and a sweeping chapter on the histories of the Ottoman and Tsarist armies occupies the middle, with a modest but interesting picture section with some important maps. It was interesting to see that both Ottoman and Russian armies were both quite alike. Both having excellent manpower, bad planning and bad officers with the Turks having the edge in equipment. The war in those parts we can see, demonstrate that either side was perfectly capable of holding ground against superior numbers, with the Russians much preferring to attack and take extortionate losses (perhaps explaining their general success here). Perhaps the reason this war is somewhat neglected is because of this depressing aspect, when a war is fought in which the casualties outnumber the benefits, either political or military by such a high ratio, and when it produces few heroes on which a story can be hung upon it is bound to fade. Nevertheless we can note that there is quite a rich font of Russian Battle painting that focuses on this war, and so perhaps we should say the subject is neglected in Western European literature rather than Eastern.

Once all this exposition is out of the way we get to the heart of the matter, Baker’s service as a Pasha in the Ottoman army during a moment of dire crisis. In fact there are so many British officers to be found amongst the Ottoman ranks, and on Baker’s staff, so many foreign Pasha’s that another book about these men might be in order. The book does demonstrate that Baker was a talented and courageous officer, well suited to command and cool in his actions. Demonstrated many times during the first months of the war.

The battle itself is Tashkessen, a pass, surmounted by a ridge of high ground with constricted space and good fields of fire. The objective of the book is to bring Baker and this battle to the fore and indeed the action displayed an admirable use of ground and resources. There are definite cinematic opportunities in the narrative, visually stimulating scenes of dark Russian masses trudging, exhausted after a superhuman march down from the mountains, over the undulating plain, blanketed with snow. The small band of Turkish troops repelling the massed attacks with artillery fire and taking heart from an ancient battle cry. The crisis of the fight when the Russians seemed set to seize the high ground, and with the possibility of being left isolated, Baker determined to stand and die.

Why then did the event fade from memory? Probably for a few reasons. Although the odds here were indeed quite surprisingly immense, and Baker’s deft use of his force proved decisive, it was no great surprise in this war for the defender to win. Add to that the controversy of Baker’s past and his subsequent further shame in Egypt and it is unfortunatly clear why this action, which though tactically successful forms part of that unfairly slighted family of battles known as rearguard actions and thus was strategically part of a retreat.
The author’s knowledge of the American civil war allows allusions to tactics used by American commanders and actions, which happily I was familiar enough with to understand, though it’s hard to say if everyone reading this will get them or not.

The Russians are compared with the Turkish as broadly similar in their structure, and given their performance in his battle one might be tempted to ask how it was that the Turkish lost the war? After reading this book, I might be tempted to suggest an edge the Russians had over their enemy. While it is true there had been no Cardwell reform in either nation, the Turkish commanders were by and large hopeless, bar a few, whereas at least when fighting in the east, the Russians knew exactly what they needed to do. The days of being able to steamroll a Turkish position by sheer force, it is true, were drawing to a close, but the Tsar’s commanders still knew that victory could be won if only they delivered a few good blows to Turkish morale. Another thing is that the officer corps of the Russian army had one element the Turkish did not have, and that was a professional military tradition (and certainly for the artillery a post Napoleonic academic tradition as well) dating back to the early 18th century, a model which had defeated the Ottoman’s early in the Russo Turkish wars, prompting subsequent Sultans to bring in western style reforms that by 1870 were only just beginning to gel.

This officer tradition indeed was what had set the largely aristocratic or gentry based, purchase driven (mostly untutored) British officers of the 18th and early 19th century apart from others. It is true that many Russian officers didn’t have marshal’s batons in their knapsacks, and that most Russian General’s were still looking too much at Suvarov, but they wore the Tsar’s badge, and knew not only their regiment’s and army lineage but their own. Perhaps a poor officer by French or British standards but a deal better overall than the Turkish, and this is demonstrated in the book when everything goes to pot for the Ottomans in 1878. And it is here that we also discover why this war was such a big deal back then, the balance of power was set to shift, another Crimean War scenario loomed and European diplomats had to do some fast talking to save the sick man of Europe for the second time in about 37 years.

The book is written to fill, or flesh out a gap in the Baker Canon. Thus we don’t quite get to see the full story of the man because the book is about the man who fought the battle, rather than the life in general.
At the end, the battle which is the prime reason for this book, is set up against several other rearguards of the 19th century to gauge wether or not it was indeed as brilliant an action as contemporaries thought. All of the selections were successful to some degree or another, except for Peacock Hill which although fulfilling the objective of covering a retreat, resulted in the breaking and almost annihilation of the force in question. Tashkessen was wholly successful as a separate battle as well as a rearguard because in fact it was both, for the battle began as a delaying action and ended as a rearguard.

In sum this is a fast paced, well researched, and thought provoking book about war, tactics and a man seeking redemption. What begins as an almost Flashman like story turns into the vindication of a tarnished and forgotten soldier and opens a window on a fascinating and tragic conflict. Though unlike Harry Flashman, Val Baker had much worse luck, except at Tashkessen.
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Mark A. Reid » 16 Dec 2017 19:38

Hello Josh&Historyland;

Congratulations on offering such an informative and entertaining review of this book. On a personal note, I will now be buying a copy, too late for Christmas perhaps but a good evening read for those long winter nights ahead. ( It was - 33 degrees C. wind chill here yesterday. ) I think you deserve a sales commission from Pen & Sword!

It has never ceased to amaze me at how many folk cling to the belief that Baker was somehow " wrongfully convicted." Anyone reading the evidence presented should be in no doubt as to his guilt. Without veering too far from the focus of the book, the arresting officer, Sergeant Hatter, recorded that Baker stated " I am sorry I did it. I don't know what possessed me to do it, I being a married man. " Two other male witnesses also stated, as did the policeman, that Baker's trousers were unbuttoned when arrested. Nor was he very severely punished, even by Victorian standards. The judge exempted him from hard labour and he spent his sentence in two rooms outfitted with his own food, books, etc. able to receive visitors anytime between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. When one considers that convicted felons from other backgrounds would likely have spent their sentence breaking stones in a Portland quarry or keeping fit on the treadmill for so many hours each day, I'd venture to say that Baker came off remarkably lightly!

I agree with you that the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78 has elicited little attention from scholars, modellers and writers. As you say, both sides exhibited incredible courage, frequently resulting in casualty rates of over 30%, but these desperate actions have been overshadowed by the American Civil War and even more accounts of Rorke's Drift and studies on the precise shade of grey frock worn by the Heavy Camel Regiment. Perhaps it is because most first-hand accounts were written in foreign languages or that events were overshadowed by the Anglo-Boer War and, eventually, the Great War?

Commemoration of the battles in modern-day Bulgaria is still maintained to a lesser degree but the memorials and museums originally funded by Czarist Russia and the Soviets have begun to wither and may eventually disappear. When I visited Plevna two months ago their main museum was starting to crumble and when I explored Grivitsa the museum and chapel were heavily padlocked. Thankfully, an observant neighbour alerted the local curator who came trotting out with a key ring that looked like a relic of the Bastille! Apparently, visitors are seldom seen except on the annual anniversary of Plevna's surrender. Sadly, recognition is focused exclusively on the accomplishments of the Russian and Bulgarian forces and I could find not a single memorial to the gallant Ottoman defenders. The fact that the town of 15,000 once boasted ten mosques but now, with a larger population, only has one, may partially explain the collective memory loss.

Thanks again for bringing this book to my attention, I hope it encourages others to learn about the Russo-Turkish War, from both perspectives!

All the Best,

Mark
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Josh&Historyland » 16 Dec 2017 22:12

Thanks for the kind words, Mark. I think you'll enjoy the book, lots of excellent coverage, especially of the Ottoman perspective, this is the first work I've read about Baker so I've not heard the details of the "prosecution" regarding the railway affair but what you say about it does support the "no smoke without fire" argument. As I said in the review, whatever happened it was a bad business!

If P&S ever institute a commission scheme I'd be more than fine with that, but for now I'm happy with a gratis copy. :)

The Russo - Turkish wars are indeed very interesting. The language barrier I think is indeed an important issue, I myself got put onto the later RT Wars through art I discovered online depicting the struggles of the 1850s-70's. Being rather interested in that which is off the beaten track, and the other side of the coin, (The Russian side of the Crimean War is quite fascinating and indeed under-served in English) I'm skirmishing with memorising the Cyrillic alphabet at the moment in a long term plan to broaden my horizons.

Happy Reading,
Josh.
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby mike snook » 17 Dec 2017 03:46

Mark,

I am interested that you are so hard over Mark and keen to know more. The statement from Sergeant Hatter as you cite it does not to my mind constitute a confession in respect of any particular statutory crime, such as attempted rape or indecent assault, though it is certainly an expression of regret at something 'untoward' shall we call it. (One of the versions I have seen offered is that it was all about a 'stolen kiss', with which scenario the words recorded by Hatter would not be inconsistent). I have not seen a court transcript, but it is my understanding that the testimony of the two gentlemen was to the effect that Baker's clothing was disheveled, not specifically to the effect, as you have it, that his 'trousers were unbuttoned'. Could you please tell me where I can see what you have seen - a transcript of court proceedings presumably?

Yours as ever

Mike
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Mark A. Reid » 17 Dec 2017 05:09

Hello Josh;

Glad you liked my comments, and good luck with the Cyrillic alphabet! Like all things worthwhile it will probably take some application, and perhaps a week in Sofia, to fully grasp the new system but it might open up a whole new field of potential research.

I was expecting some sort of response from you, Mike. Regarding my comments, I have relied on articles in " The Times " in late June and early July 1875 for details of the event and the trial's outcome. Certainly Baker's comments do not constitute a confession to attempted rape or sexual assault but Miss Dickinson's statement of Baker's hand being " ... underneath my dress " suggest that the incident involved more than a mere stolen kiss. As you say, the two witnesses stated that Baker's " ... dress was unfastened " and, of course this does not specifically mean that his trousers were undone but I will leave anyone to draw their own conclusion under the circumstances.

I didn't think that I was too hard on Baker, in fact, I just have faith in a Victorian jury of twelve men " good and true " to reach a fair verdict based on the evidence presented. I would presume that a transcript of the trial exists for the County Court in Guildford? That's a 3,000 mile trip for me so the bus fare would be prohibitive but maybe someone closer could have a look?

Cheers,

Mark
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Josh&Historyland » 17 Dec 2017 12:24

And indeed while I will remain uncommitted in terms of Baker, as I know only what I've read in one book, we should, while giving him the benefit of the doubt also be as generous to the lady in not believing her a charlatan willing to ruin a man over a mistake.

Josh.
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby mike snook » 17 Dec 2017 13:43

Good day again Mark,

It should be clearly understood that my observations here are in no sense to be counted a vindication of Baker's conduct, which was manifestly deplorable. It is rather an attempt to state the truth of the matter as clearly as I can comprehend it empirically, and as far as I can interpret it from the historian's perspective.

Baker was charged and tried in the Crown Court with an attempt to ravish which implies attempted rape. He was acquitted on this count, from which it might reasonably be inferred that the jury concluded that he did not intend to press his advances to the point of rape. Baker was also charged with indecent assault. He was convicted on this count. The reason he was convicted is because his victim did indeed say that his hand was under her dress, which the judge suggested to the jury any person in their right mind (or words to that effect) would consider to constitute indecency. She was not cross-examined on this point in either hearing.

There was no evidence offered to say that Baker's trousers were unbuttoned, as you have asserted very plainly Mark, which is where to my mind you have indeed been unfair to him. Genitalia have absolutely no part in this affair - Miss Dickinson gave not the merest hint that they had - which I think is an important point. The evidence was merely that his clothes were disarranged when the train stopped. This was not a euphemism. Victorian society was not so prim and proper that its courts did not deal in close specifics. It is true that newspapers used euphemisms, but this isn't one. Reporters had a way of making quite clear what they actually meant. Miss Dickinson had for some minutes been standing on the running board of the train and holding on to Baker in the near certainty of death or serious injury if she fell. This is a very obvious explanation for why Baker's clothes would be disarranged when the train stopped. I am inclined to infer that this is a reference to his morning coat and waistcoat, not to his flies.

Having re-read the court reporting of both the magistrate's hearing and the Crown Court trial only this morning I conclude that Baker made a pathetic and lecherous advance on a woman many years his junior. After lengthy and seemingly cordial conversation, which gave no hint of what was to come, he moved his seat in the carriage from opposite her to beside her. He kissed her against her will and placed his arms around her. He continued to attempt to kiss her and, as might be anticipated in such circumstances, he was certainly bodily pressed against her. Whether or not he actually placed a hand as improperly as might be inferred I do not think we will ever know given the absence of cross-examination. There is to my mind a hint of inconsistency in that Miss Dickinson's evidence would suggest that she was pretty damned quick to the door and out through it onto the running board of the carriage, so unless Baker made an offensive move with his hand simultaneously with stealing a kiss against the lady's will, (which, it would have to be allowed, is possible), there is at least some doubt surrounding the matter. At the station she declined the opportunity to press charges and it is commonly held that she was pressed to do so by her family. There is of course much discussion of the courage necessary to speak out in contemporary society.

Baker was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and fined £500, a very considerable sum of money. He was also cashiered and discharged the service. Naturally he lost his place in society, where he had formerly been a friend of the Prince of Wales and of the Duke of Cambridge to name but two of his prominent friends. I would agree Mark that the jury got it right. This was sex-pesting, of which Baker was certainly guilty, but it was not sex-pesting amounting to rape or even attempted rape. I think it is necessary to own both these things to be true in order genuinely to be fair to Baker. He was more than amply punished in civil law, but as is usual for officers the penalty in his service life was positively and rightly ruinous.

If Jastrzembski has suggested baldly that Baker was innocent, without deploying any previously unseen evidence, as Josh implies, then I'm afraid he is wrong to do so. Baker was innocent of attempted rape, but not of indecency - or 'sex pesting' as I have characterized it. Baker was certainly not the best soldier of his generation as Josh has rightly hinted at. He was arguably the most professional of the cavalry colonels in his peer group. He was a good officer (or so it seemed) but he proved in the fullness of time that he was no sort of gentleman. As you well know one cannot be one without the other...so he is necessarily excluded from being considered the best of his generation.

As a matter of passing interest he is pertinent to research I currently have in hand on the Battle of Berea (Lesotho/Basotholand 1852), where he earned a mention in despatches for gallantry. I believe him to be the anonymous participant cited by Sir Arthur Cunynghame in My Command in South Africa , which was published in 1879, 4 years after the scandal. I cannot think of any reason why Cunynghame would decline to identify 'a friend' save that it was Baker. There are other circumstantial grounds to support the notion.

As ever

Mike
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Mark A. Reid » 17 Dec 2017 15:30

Good Morning;

Thanks for your as always erudite comments, Mike, I think we both agree that Baker was a cad. It would be interesting to have an expert in Victorian jurisprudence offer a professional assessment as I believe that we have examined the case entirely from Baker's perspective. A more balanced approach might present the scenario from the viewpoint of a young woman cornered in a confined railway carriage with a lecherous, pawing older man. I can't imagine what would happen to a man facing the same scenario in 2017!

As an aside, several years ago an RCAF colonel was convicted of a couple of sordid murders in central Canada. Not surprisingly he was immediately given a dishonourable discharge and the military police seized his uniforms, decorations, etc. His medals were destroyed and his name removed from the rolls of those honours which he had earned. Rather an over-reaction perhaps but intended to send a clear message that his assoxiation with the Canadian Forces was to be minimized.

Interesting speculation about the Cunynghame reference, your conclusion makes perfect sense.

Cheers,

Mark
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby mike snook » 17 Dec 2017 16:43

I have tried, Mark, to examine the matter from the point of view of justice, rather than narrowly from Baker's perspective, considering as I do that his chastisement was just in its clvil dimensions, and both necessary and inevitable in its military ones: you might recollect that I wrote that the Queen was right to object to his Khedival appointment as Sirdar, because it would necessarily mean British officers serving under a cashiered former officer who now enjoyed the same military standing as a dishonorably discharged private soldier. I certainly agree that he must ultimately be judged an unsavoury character. I wish I could be as sure as you that somebody guilty of broadly the same offence today would get at least a year to reflect on the error of his ways, but I have my doubts. Perhaps your courts are tougher than ours! I give Val Baker credit for at least being a brave man.

I am sure that notwithstanding the Baker affair, Frank J has produced an interesting work. I know nothing very much about the Russo-Turkish war and would be bound to learn something about it. I do worry that the ill-fated expedition to Trinkitat, more squarely in our mutual field of interest, might have been more about advancing Baker's own cause than Egypt's!

As ever,

Mike
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby mike snook » 17 Dec 2017 16:58

P.S. It occurs to me that Percy Barrow would run Baker at least a close second as the best of the cavalry colonels, if not indeed his superior. Of course that PB was not a cad puts the matter beyond doubt!
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Mark A. Reid » 17 Dec 2017 18:09

Hello again;

Colonel Percy Barrow would certainly elicit my vote, if only for his leadership from the front, exhibited at great personal cost.

If it will help " lure " you into studying the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78, I can but remind you that about 30,000 Egyptian troops served in the conflict and many of them went on to fight in the Sudan in later years. I attach a photo of Sol Talim Gangim Mohamed of the 3rd Egyptian Infantry Bn. You don't have to know the Ottoman rank system to recognise the face of a no-nonsense warrant officer in this image! In addition to battling the Muscovite hordes he also participated in the Nile Expedition, help defend the frontier against dervish incursions and went on to fight at the Battle of Gemaizah, all within an eleven year period.

Cheers,

Mark
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby Josh&Historyland » 17 Dec 2017 18:21

mike snook wrote:If Jastrzembski has suggested baldly that Baker was innocent, without deploying any previously unseen evidence, as Josh implies, then I'm afraid he is wrong to do so.


I can't speak specifically for him, Mike, but reading the book I was left with the impression that the author feels it was a case of wrongful conviction. The discussion took up about a chapter or two, as the book is specifically about the action at Tashkessen, but I'd say he mounts a quiet defence of a man who got a "bum rap". I wasn't particularly convinced to be honest, for the reasons you gentlemen have noted.

Josh,
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Re: Book Review: Valentine Baker's Heroic Stand at Tashkesse

Postby mike snook » 17 Dec 2017 19:58

Indeed Josh, roger to that. Good and interesting review on your part. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

As ever

Mike
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