“Baker intended to overcome this shame and humiliation by his achievements on the battlefield.”
By Frank Jastrzembski
COLONEL VALENTINE BAKER had few options after his release from prison in August 1876. Dishonourably discharged and banished from the British army following one of the most notorious sex scandals of the 19th Century, Baker journeyed 2,000 miles to the Ottoman Empire capital of Constantinople to organize and lead a military police force.
He had little choice but to accept the position. It was after all conveyed to him by one of his few enduring friends, the Prince of Wales, after Baker had been shunned by almost everybody in Great Britain, from the lowliest beggar up to Queen Victoria herself. He was determined to redeem his reputation and win reinstatement by serving British interests anywhere he could in whatever capacity.
A friend and fellow officer speaking of Baker’s scandal, prison sentence, and exile declared that, “an ordinary man would have succumbed to the blow; but he was not an ordinary man.”
Baker intended to overcome his shame and humiliation by his achievements on the battlefield. His opportunity came with the outbreak of war between the Ottomans and Russians in April 1877. The war is certainly one of the most significant, but overlooked, conflicts of the 19th Century. It shaped the political dynamics of the Balkans for years to come and introduced new technological advances in war over 20 years ahead of the major wars fought around the turn-of-the-century. The struggle between these Muslim and Christian rival empires led to the deaths of nearly 300,000 over the span of 10 months.
The exiled Englishman came into the Russo-Turkish War with a bang. The conflict had not been going well for the Ottomans before his arrival, whose cautious strategy allowed thousands of Tsar Alexander II’s soldiers to pour across the Danube River and establish a foothold in Bulgaria. In his first battle engaged as a subordinate commander, Baker threw himself in the thick of the action with a selfless disregard for his own safety, fuelled by a desire to be absolved of his shame, inspiring the Ottoman soldiers by his valor and repulsing a Russian assault to secure victory. He proved an able and resourceful officer time and time again, adopting an aggressive leadership style preaching offense rather than defense, dissimilar than most of his fellow Ottoman senior commanders.
Regular Ottoman soldiers under his command whispered among themselves that the “Inglese” and Christian outcast, whatever his misdoings, stood out. He broke the cultural barrier that existed with these religiously and ethnically dissimilar soldiers and won their affection, in large part due to looking after their general welfare and procuring the best medicine, equipment, and rations. During the brutal winter of 1877, he shared in their hardships and dangers, frequently strolling up and down the Kamarli entrenchments puffing away at his cigarettes, indifferent to the Russian shells exploding nearby.
Baker’s greatest victory came at Battle of Tashkessen in December 1877. In what would be his first independent command, his troops repulsed countless attempts by 25,000 Russian soldiers to drive his skeleton contingent of 3,000 men from the head of Tashkessen Pass. His men fought on for 10 hours until darkness, suffering a staggering 800 casualties. Their sacrifice allowed 12,000 soldiers of a sister Ottoman army to escape from being cut off and annihilated by this large Russian detachment. Baker continued to fight on with the Ottomans after this rearguard action, retreating with the last resistance to the Aegean Sea until the war terminated.
When news of his exploits reached Great Britain, Baker become a sort of Lawrence of Arabia-style folk hero. But his saga did not end there. Some still resisted his reinstatement into the British army. One of them was Queen Victoria herself. Despite his controversial status, Baker continued to serve British interests in unofficial capacities for a decade or so in the Sudan and Egypt in an effort to obtain his sought after pardon. He eventually received this reinstatement and redemption, but this outstanding news arrived days after his tragic death in 1887.
Frank Jastrzembski is the author of the upcoming book Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand At Tashkessen 1877. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife Asha, and loves to travel. He is a proud alumni of both John Carroll University and Cleveland State University. His passion is discovering and writing about forgotten events and individuals of the nineteenth century. A member of the Victorian Military Society, he was awarded the Browne Award for 2015. Visit www.frankjastrzembski.com to view a complete list of his publications.