The Street Philosopher - By Matthew Plampin

Crimean Peninsula

September 1854


Kitson’s well-worn boots crunched through the shingle as he walked down towards the shore. It was a cold, unwelcoming afternoon. The sky was low and slate-grey, and the waters of the bay churned with a heavy swell. Sea birds croaked dismally as they hung, wings outstretched, on the brisk wind. Most of the men who filled the landing zone were in uniform, but there were enough ragged-looking civilians among them for Kitson to stride past without remark. Reaching a small rise in the stony beach, he paused to scratch his beard and take stock of the scene around him.

On this, the third day of the invasion, it was the turn of the Earl of Cardigan’s Light Brigade to disembark. Kitson pulled a pocketbook and pencil from his shabby, faded frock-coat. Squinting, he peered out at the rows of troop transports and frigates anchored in the deeper waters, and attempted to make out their names, jotting down those he could see. There were so many vessels in the bay that the horizon was obscured by a dense forest of masts, funnels and rigging. The echoing blasts of their steam horns drifted over to where he stood scribbling intently into his book.

Flotillas of long rowing boats were ferrying soldiers from the transport ships. Teams of blue-jacketed sailors, seemingly impervious to the cold, waded out into the surf to drag the boats’ prows up onto the beach. Landing planks were thrown down, and hussars poured out, their scabbards held over their heads to avoid any chance of a freak spray or splash rusting the blades within. Against the dull, washed-out tones of the afternoon, their uniforms seemed intensely colourful, a vivid combination of rich blacks, glowing reds and acid yellows. The blue-jackets stared as the cavalrymen calmly returned their sabres to their belts and strolled slowly inland as if the Crimea were already theirs. Kitson scanned the crowds of plush busbies and brocade-encrusted jackets, noting the regiments for his report.

The breeze changed direction, and a faint, inhuman shrieking reached the correspondent’s ears. He stopped writing mid sentence. A bone-white horse was dangling over the side of one of the larger iron-screw steamers, suspended from a small crane. Leather straps were fastened around the creature’s torso, its legs hanging limply down as it cried out in terror. Beneath it, rocking precariously on the waves, was a crude raft, made from several rowing boats lashed together. The squat black form of an artillery piece already sat awkwardly upon it, tied down with rope; the makeshift platform was unbalanced by its weight, and tipped drunkenly with the rise and fall of the sea.

After a short, tense descent, the horse’s hooves touched the raft. Several sailors reached out at once, unfastening the straps and patting the beast’s neck and muzzle reassuringly. The horse slipped on the shining planks, but was quickly on its feet again, nostrils flaring as it snorted with distress. Already, the next was on its way down, a chestnut this time, whinnying loudly as it came; and before long, three warhorses stood upon the raft as it floated unsteadily beneath the overcast sky.

Disaster was so inevitable, and so familiar, that the blue-jackets greeted it with weariness rather than alarm. One of the horses became tangled up in the cords holding down the gun and, immediately panicking, started to kick and flounder, screaming as it did so. The others promptly reared up, shaking off the men who tried to settle them, adding their voices to what was soon a piercing chorus. With a sharp whipping sound, straining ropes started to snap. A second later the gun toppled overboard, pulling the horse caught up in the ropes after it. Both vanished instantly into the murky brown-green water. The raft lurched upwards on the side where the lost gun had stood, causing the two remaining horses to fall, and then slide off messily into the sea.

Back on the beach, Kitson winced and made a quick entry in his pocketbook.

A few other rafts, similarly troubled, bobbed and span among the looming iron-clads. Some of the transport captains, seeing the mayhem below, had decided to dispense with any attempt at conveying the horses to shore and were simply having them pushed from the deck, leaving it to the beasts themselves to find their way to the beach. Kitson watched them tumble down the sides of the tall ships into the waves, legs kicking wildly, landing in an explosion of foam. He tried to trace the dots of