Sir Baker Creed Russell (1837–1911)
Russell was born in Maitland, New South Wales, Australia. He entered the British Army in 1855 as a cornet and was stationed at Meerut when the Indian Mutiny began in 1857 (as featured in the Big Action Library's In Times of Peril). He served right through the Mutiny with great distinction and his excellent record catapulted him to the rank of brevet majority. In 1862 he was transferred to the 13th Hussars, which he subsequently commanded. Under his leadership it became one of the smartest and best light cavalry regiments in the world.
Under Sir Garnet Wolseley, he organised the native levies in the Ashanti War of 1873–74, commanding the defending forces at Abrakrampa and the advance guard at the battle of Amoaful and the capture of Kumasi. Again with Wolseley, he distinguished himself in the 1879 Zulu War and three years later in Egypt during the Urabi Revolt.
So much, so dry, but Baker Russell was one of the great characters of the Victorian British Army, loved by the men under his command in spite of his less than textbook style of command. One officer who served under in the 13th Hussars him was Baden-Powell, who wrote at some length on his commanding officer’s character.
‘He was the ideal of a fighting leader. I know that if he had ordered me to walk over a cliff or into a fire I would have done so without hesitation, and I believe that officers and men would have followed him anywhere. He had a magnetic attraction which would have led men to do anything that he commanded. He had a fierce exterior, but a warm and kindly heart beneath it, and I never knew a better friend.’
Russell, however, was famed for his short fuse, as Baden-Powell recalled: ‘On parade, if his feelings got the better of him, over some error or stupidity on the part of an officer, he would look at him for a moment with withering glance, then invariably he would jam his helmet down on his head and ride for that officer as hard as he could go. If he had collided the results would have been disastrous to the man charged. It was therefore usual either to meet him or to evade him.
‘On one occasion I remember well his suddenly going for my comrade, “Ding” MacDougal, at full gallop. When he was within a yard, MacDougal jammed one spur into his horse and made it leap to one side, which resulted in the colonel missing him completely and charging into the ranks behind him. Here he knocked over a man and his horse, heavily shaking up the poor unfortunate rider. In a moment the colonel was off his horse, supporting the corporal across his knee and saying: “My poor, dear man, I am sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you.” Feeling rather pleased that his charge had not been altogether without success, he had lost his rage and, turning round (I can see him now), he shook his fist good humouredly at MacDougal, saying: “Ding, you devil, why did you get out of the way?”’
Much of Russell’s success as an army man was undoubtedly down to his quick thinking as much as to his knowing what he could get away with, especially when covering up his own gaffes. Baden-Powell recalled an incident when his Hussar regiment was supposed to parade before an inspecting general. Fortunately, given what followed, the general was an infantryman who knew little of cavalry matters.
‘Sir Baker hoped, in making the regiment march past, to impress him by its steadiness. Therefore when it came to our galloping by in a succession of squadrons he meant us to go at a steady canter, each squadron in rigid formation. So he turned to his trumpeter and cried: “Sound the canter”. Well, there is no trumpet call laid down for the canter, and the trumpeter therefore sounded the next best to it, which was the gallop. We in the regiment, anxious to make a good show, pressed forward at once at a sharp gallop. The colonel, seeing this from his post alongside the general, shouted to his trumpeter, “Sound the canter!”
'The trumpeter again sounded the gallop. Hearing the gallop repeated we imagined that it meant we were not going fast enough, and therefore we just let ourselves go, and by the time we reached the saluting point opposite the general and Sir Baker, the whole regiment was a rushing tornado of men and horses in a whirl of dust, and we dashed past in a dense, confused mob. The colonel, however, was not at a loss, and turned to the general with a well-assumed smile, and puffing out his chest, said: “There, sir! You never saw a regiment gallop past like that before. That is something like.” The general, being completely ignorant on the subject, took his cue from the colonel and said: “No, that is splendid; I never saw anything so good in my life.”
Unorthodox but successful: Sir Baker Creed Russell.
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Appears in Chapters 19, 20, 21, 22, 23