extract from the QRIH Journal 1978

In any attempt, as brief as this one, to sketch a character full of life and colour, secondary sources, the product of a greater depth of research, have to be leaned on to some degree.

The elegantly bound copy of ‘Mrs Duberly’s Campaigns’, written by E.E.P. Tisdall and presented to the Regiment by Christopher Pope provides much valuable detail of the characters and circumstances intrinsic to Mrs Duberly’s campaigning accounts.

One particularly timeless gem is a brief description of Lord Lucan

‘. . . a most officious man in his late forties brimming over with that spurious brand of military energy which drives subordinates almost mad. His one virtue in the reckoning of those whom he commanded was that carried away in the torrent of orders and instructions he daily poured out in happy gusts, he usually forgot in the days following to ensure that his directions had been obeyed, being so busily employed in inventing new ones.’

Tisdall explains the contrast between the, at times, rather stark nature of the journal and the effervescent character of their author, which only occasionally shines through, by revealing that the journals were edited by that most unfortunate of agents, an interfering relative.

How much of the rather bare reporting in the journal is due to necessary restraint and how much to the blue pencil of Mrs Duberly’s brother-in-law Francis Marx, is not clear. Certainly, there is a contrast between the account of events in the journal and the same events reported in Mrs Duberly’s letter to her sister. Reference to an early patrol mounted by the Light Brigade in the Journal and the sorry plight in which it returned is restrained.

‘I was out riding in the evening when the stragglers came in and a piteous sight it was . . . there seems to have been much unnecessary suffering, a cruel parade of death, more pain inflicted than good derived.’

Mrs Duberly’s letter on the subject makes more of the matter of Cardigan’s leadership.

‘During the march when twenty horses were being led with frightful sores on their backs, the men staggering under saddles and kit, he (Lord Cardigan) met a part of French officers and immediately ordered the patrol to mount. Lockwood said “he had the greatest difficulty to induce the men to put saddles on the backs of their horses.”‘

To obtain a fair picture of Mrs Duberly through her journals the factor of editing is important. Notwithstanding the editing, however, the journals ruminate their author’s boldness. Mrs Duberly stands out from her female contemporaries as an example of what could be achieved by her sex despite the attitudes and restrictions, the emphasis on ‘respectability’ of the Victorian era.

To have done so there can be no doubt that she was an exceptional individual. The hardships she endured are at times quite startling.

On leaving the S.S. Great Britain 19th December 1857 at Bombay with the rest of the 8th Hussars, in her second Indian journal Mrs Duberly, mentions her first reactions to the common vehicle of conveyance a Palanquin.

‘The motion was easy and the attitude luxurious but the idea of transforming my fellow-creatures into beasts of burden was repugnant to me.’

By June of the next year, however, affected by the rigours of the columns long progress through central India such scruples have long since been forgotten.

‘How vain is all human strength and courage when in a moment and in the very midst of our self-reliant pride, the will of God can cast us down and leave us to be helplessly carried hither and thither at the will of others . . . through the kindness of the Brigadier . . . my dooley was allowed to be carried near the head of the column. It was many days before I was able to sit in my saddle and on the first attempt I fainted from sheer pain.’

Despite physical discomfort from Mrs Duberly’s journal comes alive with every report of action.

‘When we took up our positions for the night the evening was drawing in but not sufficiently to prevent the enemy, who occupied the opposite heights, from annoying us with their shot. I could not help laughing at the effects of the first one that came. It hurt nobody but pitched in the middle of a cluster of camels and their drivers, causing the most direful confusion and dismay. One fled one way, another ran another. The dooley wallahs seized their loads and ran for their lives.’

When in health, however, Mrs Duberly was seldom far away from any encounter with the rebels. On the 12th November 1858, her journal reports a clash with Maun Sing, one of the major war leaders of the rebellion.

‘I was riding with my husband amongst the advanced guard and could therefore note how silently the men marched.’

Far from vacating this eminently suitable position of observation once contact was made, Mrs Duberly remained throughout the surprise and pursuit of the enemy right in the thickest throng.

‘The enemy awoke startled and confused. They turned and fled leaving not only the whole of their camp equipage but in some cases their very children . . . We pursued at a gallop, the guns getting into action whenever an opportunity offered.’

The Indian journal contains amongst many accounts of the 8th Hussars in action brief reference to the occasion of the Ranee of Jhansi’s death which casts some doubt on the tale that this valiant woman was in fact dispatched by the sword of an Irish Hussar’

‘. . . With regard to the Ranee of Jhansi, nothing is known with certainty, except that she was killed. Various stories got afloat, amongst others that she was run through the body by a private of the 8th Hussars . . . Another story had it that she died, not from a sword thrust, but from two-shot wounds. Sir Hugh Rose told me, that although mortally wounded she was not actually killed on the field but was carried off the ground, and ordered a funeral pile to be built, which she ascended and fired with her own hand while almost in the act of dying.’

Apart from accounts of actions during the campaign, the Indian journal is rich with bright passages bringing to life the country, the surroundings within which the campaign was taking place.

‘The Maharajah’s (of Gwalior) palace, when I first saw it, suggested two ideas, the first was an Italian palazzo, the second a feudal castle. Its graceful arches, pillars and flat-roofed verandahs rise round three sides of a large square. Windows it has none, the interior being screened from the sun by crimson satin purdahs trimmed with gold . . . The procession was headed by seven elephants. The first of these ‘huge, earth-shaking beasts’ was of unusual size, his housing consisting of a headpiece of crimson velvet, thickly embroidered with massive gold and edged with deep gold bullion fringe. Two small saddles of black velvet, very like regimental saddles were on his back and kept in their places by a crupper, ornamented with large round bosses of silver, each as large and heavy as a small shield. A sonorous bell hung on either side to give notice of his approach; an enormous cloth of green velvet covered him from head to tail while round his vast neck and ample throat were six or seven silver chains of necklaces, each big enough to hold a good-sized boat to his moorings. His huge unshapely fetlocks were adorned with bracelets and anklets which tinkled as he walked.’

In his wake followed six other elephants, all differently caparisoned but none of them so gorgeous as the first. After these came the led horses — the priceless horses of Cattawar. These animals in accordance with the ideas of an Indian state are fattened upon sugar, sheep’s head, spices and all sorts of food, to such an excess as to be incapable of any quicker pace than an ambling
shuffling walk — while their martingales of crimson and the severe bit make them arch their neck like a bended bow.’

The Maharajah of Gwalior, whose procession this was is reported in the journal as expressing a wish to decorate all members of the column Mrs Duberly accompanied including herself.

‘These words raised in me a world of busy thoughts. To have had the Crimean Medal almost within my grasp and not to have possessed it, after all, had been a disappointment the keenness and bitterness of which can be suspected only by a few. It is useless now to dwell upon that mortification. If the troops are permitted to wear the Maharajah’s decoration, and I should receive it, it will at least prove to me that the Indian Prince knows how to appreciate and how to reward a woman’s fortitude.’

This reference to her disappointment regarding the Crimean campaign medal is interesting for its veiled criticism of Mrs Duberly’s own monarch. Nowhere in the Crimean journal is any reference made the subject of decorations. From her letters, there is no doubt that she desperately wanted official recognition in some form for her great fortitude during the campaign.

“. . . in consequence of an application made by our colonel for the Balaklava clasp for me. There is no doubt as to my being entitled to it, as I was driven from my tent by Cossacks and under fire, repeatedly during the day.”

This and an application for Queen Victoria to accept the dedication of the Journal were both turned down.

“I have just read a well written little book, the Life of Napoleon III. What a life his has been. I should like mine to resemble it as far as the adventure, excitement and gratified ambition go. Talk of vultures gnawing at your heart — there’s no vulture whose beak is as sharp as that of an ambition that will be gratified and has no means of being so.”

For an extremely talented woman such as Mrs Duberly undoubtedly was, the Victorian era must have represented an enormous obstacle that surmount it to some degree though she must have proved a trial. Some of Mrs Duberly’s remarks in the preface to the Indian journal as to what matters constituted a woman’s province.

“I trust that I shall be pardoned if occasionally I am tempted to touch upon points which may seem beyond a woman’s province.”

That she was talented there can be no doubt. An extremely literate person her choice of verse to precede each chapter adds to the journals. Apt quotations from Byron, Longfellow, Homer and others are studied not only at the beginning of but at frequent intervals throughout the chapters.

The dedication of the Indian journal is worth repeating here for its charm and suitability in commemorating the many friends of Mrs Duberly that she lost throughout the course of events described in her two journals.

‘As one who walking in the twilight gloom Hears around him voices as it darkens, And seeing not the forms from which they come Pauses from time to time and turns and So walking here in twilight, oh! my friends I hear your voices, softened by the distance And pause, and turn to listen as each sends His words of friendship, kindness and assistance.

Perhaps on earth, I never shall behold With eye of sense your outward form and semblance Therefore to me ye never will grow old But live for ever young in my remembrance. Never grow old, nor change, nor pass away! Your gentle voices will flow on for ever When life grows bare and leafless with decay As through a leafless landscape flows a river. Therefore I hope as no unwelcome guest At your warm firesides, when the lamps are lighted, To have my place reserved, among the rest Nor stand unsought, or uninvited.


Such a degree of literacy perhaps is unremarkable in a woman who had spent several years at boarding school near High Wycombe. It certainly sheds light on one facet of a mind which could equally well condense the boundless complaints of the British soldier in Crimea and India into several clear criticisms of their lot:

‘We have no ambulance wagon; they are nearly all broken down . . . why can we not tend our own sick, we are so helpless and so broken down . . . England! blot out the Lion and the Unicorn: let the supporters of your arms henceforth be imbecility and Death.’

‘The fatigue of walking in such heat is enormous, and when to that is added a close-fitting cloth dress, of course, it must be doubled. It seems to me most wanton to sacrifice life to appearance in such a way . . . I would myself on no account venture out in the sun with a forage cap and thin white cover on my head, such as the men wear; but when to that is added the dress made for and suited to an English climate, the want of common sense becomes still more apparent.’

Criticisms obviously toned down for the public eye duped by propaganda in the Crimean journal:

‘We are almost tempted to lose sight of the inefficient General, in the recollection of the kind he acted, gentlemanly man’

becomes bolder with the second volume.

‘As for civilising and educating and converting the natives of India, we must first set an example of consistent Christianity ourselves. We must show them that Englishmen, being Christians, cannot lie, deceive, bully, or oppress. And when we throw our Christianity, and consequent superiority (!) in their teeth on every occasion we must recollect that we are dealing with a people whose religious faith actuates their every hour of the day . . . it will not be enough to vindicate our mastership by force of arms: we must also prove our moral superiority, and make that superiority an evident and incontrovertible fact.’

The picture that emerges in Mrs Duberly’s journals is one of a strong, strong woman vitally interested in the many colourful sights afforded her by her travels, an individual of tenacity so equal to any discomfort, prepared to freely but fairly criticise. Determined to overcome the adverse circumstances of one of her sex in the society of which she was a part, she would have been less than human not to desire recognition of her achievement, not to encourage the romanticism of her image at home and give vanity-free play.

‘This is my chasseur d ‘Afrique habit — sky blue with black braid, precisely like the French uniform.’

It is (as you can imagine) — stunning — No saint then Mrs Duberly but a most impressive captivating character regarded in later years by the Duberlys as something of an heirloom.

She is indeed an heirloom for the Irish Hussars one of the important, faintly bizarre features of our many-hued history.

Related topics

  1. A short history of The 8th Hussars
  2. The Crimean War 1854-56