The forgotten nurse of the Crimean War

By Alan Brown

Martha Clough served as a ‘lady volunteer’ nurse in the Crimean War.  Her date of birth is unknown, but she died after a long illness on 21 September 1855, probably of cholera.  What makes her history so special is that she had no medical experience before reaching the Crimea but went on to be the only nurse in a front-line hospital which tended to the needs of more than forty men at a time, earning her the love, respect and gratitude of the Army high command in that most challenging of battlefields.

Little is known of ‘Miss Clough’, as she liked to sign herself.  Most of what we do know comes from the work of Sir Ronald Roxburgh (1889-1981), the eminent judge and legal historian who, in 1969, published Miss Nightingale and Miss Clough in the journal Victorian Studies.  Through a series of letters sent by Miss Clough to his grandmother, Sir Ronald brought to light the story of an indefatigable woman whose original quest to the Crimea turned from one of personal fulfilment to a year of great sacrifice and devotion on behalf of others.

In the early autumn of 1854, while still in Britain, Martha Clough received some devastating news. She heard of the death of a man to whom she was deeply attached, Lieutenant Colonel Lauderdale Maule, who had succumbed to cholera at Devyna, Bulgaria, in the camp of the Highland Brigade.  A former Deputy-Lieutenant of Forfarshire and Member of Parliament, he had officially retired from the Army in 1852 but was coaxed back into service as Surveyor-General of the Ordnance; in effect, the man responsible for Army logistics.  It was in this post that he travelled East.  Some sources like to portray Clough as Maule’s fiancée, but this has never been firmly established.  In her own words, he was a man “whom I had loved, honoured and appreciated for nearly twenty long years.”  As Maule died when he was only 47, this would imply that they had been close friends at least since his middle twenties when he was a Captain in the 79th Highland Regiment.  “My sorrow is deep and lasting”, she wrote, “no object can fill that void.”

Using her society connections, she joined the second party of nurses to sail to the Crimea, led by Mary Stanley, the first wave having been selected and led by Florence Nightingale.  The Nightingale group landed at Scutari in November 1854, followed by Stanley’s party which landed in Turkey six weeks later.  But Clough primary ambition was to lay flowers on the grave of Lauderdale Maule, and her secondary aim was to nurse his colleagues.  Believing that they would soon be working alongside Nightingale, the women waited for an invitation that never came.  Nightingale’s rivalry with Mary Stanley is well documented, and she raised stiff objections against this group serving with her at Scutari, claiming that she did not have the accommodation or the means to host more nurses.  More likely, she was highly aggrieved that Stanley’s party had been sent without consultation with her. 

Lord Raglan
Lord Raglan

For several weeks the Stanley group spent their time in lesser duties, but then Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief of the Army in the East, suggested that some should work in the Crimean peninsula itself, close to the front line.  Eight women were selected for this duty, three ‘lady volunteers’, Clough among them, and five working nurses.  Nightingale’s anger was raised again by this decision, and she had already taken against Clough in person because tales had reached her that Clough had taken nurses out drinking “in a spirit shop” upon her arrival in Turkey, and neither would this be the only time that Clough tipped a glass of welcome respite.  Nightingale’s puritanical zeal frequently smothered strictly pragmatic considerations, and she tried to bring Clough to heel by forbidding her to go to Balaklava to which Clough replied in no uncertain terms that was no longer under Nightingale’s authority and would, effectively, do what she pleased.

General Sir Richard Airey

Such impertinence was bound to lift Nightingale’s ire to fever pitch and she denounced Clough as “a mad freak” for having the temerity not to fall into line when commanded.  But Clough had made far more powerful friends than even Nightingale could boast.  Within days of her arrival in Balaklava, she had been visited by the Quartermaster General (Sir Richard Airey), the Commander of the Highland Brigade (Sir Colin Campbell, he of the ‘Thin Red Line’) and eventually Lord Raglan himself who sent the women food parcels from his own private store. 

Sir Colin Campbell
Sir Colin Campbell

Clough was more than a little smitten by Campbell whom she described as “a straightforward, frank, open, gentle, manly fellow” and confessed in a letter that, had she been capable of love again, “it would be him.”  In February 1855, Campbell, by now a Lieutenant General, invited Clough to serve in a new hospital on the Inkerman Heights, an offer which she accepted with enthusiasm.  She was warned that she would be in range of the Russian guns, but she waved such dangers away.  By late March she was the only female medic in the Highland Hospital, in fact the only woman apart from a soldier’s wife she retained as a servant, and she was in complete control with the full, unconditional support of the men whose soldiers she nursed.

None of the senior officers had a good word to say about Nightingale the woman, though they respectfully acknowledged her work in Scutari.  All of them understood that Nightingale’s fabulous reputation at home as the semi-divine ‘Lady with the Lamp’ was largely a confection of the press and certainly not one which reflected her true nature.  Widely regarded as a bullying, ill-tempered micro-manager, Clough wrote that Nightingale “would not dared to have meddled with me had she thought the poor, humble Miss C could raise so much support.”  Clough was the polar opposite to Nightingale “the martinet”.  She drank deeply, laughed loud, ate heartily and made everyone feel at ease in her company.  She cooked more than 120 meals a day; she bathed and dressed the men; she comforted the dying and the sick; she arranged funerals and repatriated their belongings.  When Nightingale visited Balaklava in May 1855 to inspect hospital provision, she made a point of not calling upon Clough in the Highlanders’ hospital, a snub that was denounced privately by Clough’s plumed and braided friends but who dare not speak out.  The Chief Medical Officer, Sir John Hall, summed up the situation neatly: “Miss Nightingale queens it with absolute power; all of the authorities being afraid of the newspapers.”  By contrast, the senior commanders adored and respected Martha Clough, frequently lamenting that she too deserved to be lauded in the press for her superb service on the Heights of Inkerman.

The end when it came was drawn out and miserable.  She first took ill in mid-June 1855.  It was probably cholera, and she knew she faced death but was unafraid, perhaps even welcoming the chance to be with her beloved Colonel once again.  She rallied and sickened by turns, and in a letter of July she reflected upon her work.  “I know I have done good – I have been told I have saved lives.  What prouder satisfaction could I have?”  Eventually, having lost half her body weight and with rallies coming further apart, she was persuaded to return to Britain.  She died of an epileptic fit on September 21 while aboard the Orinoco.  It fell to Nightingale to preserve her remains for burial in Scutari and send her effects home.  “Poor Miss Clough!” wrote Nightingale.  “I little thought that the first time I should see her face would be in death.”

Martha Clough went to her death with a sketched image of her lover’s grave by her bed.  She never made it to the grave itself.  Sir Ronald Roxburgh quite rightly speculated that Clough was the most feared rival that Nightingale ever had, a serious contender for the throne.  She was so very different from other nurses and ladies in the Crimea.  She was melancholy, yes, but she loved the pleasures of life and never once stood on her dignity to denounce others for their faults and failings.  That is why the military men loved her, and also why they gave Nightingale a wide berth if they could. For a long time this remarkable and supremely humane woman has been exiled to the footnotes of history. 

Not anymore.

Useful sources:

Sir Ronald Roxburgh: Miss Nightingale and Miss Clough: Letters from the Crimea.  (Victorian Studies: September 1969)

Sir Ronald Roxburgh:  Miss Nightingale and the Highland Brigade.

(Victorian Studies: September 1971)

Anne Summers: Pride and Prejudice: Ladies and Nurses in the Crimean War.

History Workshop Journal (October 1983)

Carol Helmstadter and Judith Godden:  Nursing before Nightingale (Ashgate 2011)

Sir Anthony Sterling:  The Story of the Highland Brigade in the Crimea (1897)

Featured image:  ‘Cared For’ by Wellcome Images

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