The following article was published in the Journal of the Crimean War Research Society, the "War Correspondent"; Volume 29, Number 3, October 2011.
A Professional Soldier.
Adjutant James Duncan of the 17th Lancers.
By Matthew Perry.
In the 19th century, for a private soldier to receive a commission as an officer, he had to be good; for James Duncan to rise from the ranks all the way to Honorary Colonel, he had to be very good.
Quartermaster-Sergeant Fletcher, of the 59th Regiment, said that soldiering was a “profession”. In 1839 he wrote that, “the same rule, however, which holds good in other professions, holds good in reference to the army. No person can hope for success in any walk of life who is not anxious to make himself acquainted with his duties, careful, when he knows these duties to discharge them faithfully.” [i] James Duncan seems living proof of the success this advice could bring.
Born in Renfewshire, Scotland, on the 5th of January 1823, Duncan had a humble upbringing. [ii] One of his grandfathers was an agricultural labourer, and the other a forester. His father George was a gardener, employed first at Scotstoun House, then Levenside House. By the time James was 18, he was working under his father as a journeyman gardener, but within a year he had left home to join the army. [iii]
Duncan’s military career had a rocky beginning. He enlisted in the 17th Lancers, at their Regimental Headquarters in Edinburgh, on the 23rd of March 1842. (When he was recorded as being 5 feet 9⅜ inches tall.) [iv] But he hadn’t been with the regiment a full year before he deserted on the 20th of January 1843. He was a fugitive for one month, before he returned to face a court-martial, and was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wakefield Gaol for his crime. [v]
After this experience he must have knuckled down, because he was never in trouble again, and he began volunteering for special duties. Over the next decade he; attended the riding establishment in Maidstone, spending seven months learning advanced equine skills [vi]; was employed as a batman to Captain Brett [vii]; and Mounted Orderly to Sir Charles O’Donnell in Ireland [viii]; and was also a rough rider for many years. [ix]
He must have shown alacrity in these duties, as he was promoted, first to Corporal, then Sergeant. [x] [xi] Also, in 1852 he, Captain White, Lieutenant Thomson, Corporal Nunnerly, and five privates of the regiment, were selected for the honour of viewing the Duke of Wellington’s lying in state, and marching in his funeral procession.[xii] [xiii] [xiv]
Prior to the Crimean War, James Duncan was with the 17th Lancers in Leeds during the Plug Plot Riots, in Ireland during the Potato Famine (and Smith O’Brien’s ill-fated rising of August 1848), and London for the Great Exhibition.
In 1854 war was declared with Russia, and Duncan embarked for the east with his regiment. Passing through Constantinople and Bulgaria, they disembarked in the Crimea on the 15th of September 1854. Duncan was present at the battles of Bulganek, Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman. He is a confirmed charger in the Charge of the Light Brigade, where he had his horse shot from under him, and he had a second horse shot from under him while under bombardment at the battle of Inkerman. [xv]
But it was as the winter set in, and the English cavalry were famously degraded to commissariat duties, that Duncan’s fortunes began rising.
On the 10th of November 1854 he was promoted to Troop Sergeant-Major (vice Abraham
Ranson, who was court-martialled and reduced to private.) [xvi] Then on the 28th of December 1854, an order from Horse Guards arrived in the Crimea, which stated that every regiment in the Crimea should select a sergeant for a free commission. [xvii] Duncan was the sergeant from the 17th Lancers selected for this honour, and the muster rolls show he began drawing rations as an officer on the 1st January 1855. [xviii] He became the 17th Lancer’s ‘acting adjutant’, in the absence of Adjutant John Chadwick (who had been taken prisoner during the Charge of the Light Brigade), and was given temporary command of Troop 2. [xix]
After Sebastopol fell, the 17th Lancers wintered in Ismid, in Turkey, where the 17th Lancer’s commanding officer, Major H. R. Benson, sent a letter to the Cavalry commander recommending Duncan for a medal, stating, “In compliance with the confidential letter… directing me to send to the Brigadier General Comg. the Cavalry the name of that person in this Regiment… whom I consider most entitled to distinction for ‘distinguished prowess in conjunction with our Allies,’ I have the honour to bring to your notice Cornet James Duncan who was present at the Alma, Balaclava (horse killed) and Inkerman (horse killed) also at the Tchernya. This Officer has never been absent from the Regt. Since it landed in the Crimea.” [xx]
It is unknown which ‘distinction’ Duncan is being recommended for here, but he eventually received: the Sardinian War Medal, the 5th Class of the Order of the Medjide, the Turkish War Medal, and the British Crimean War Medal with all 4 clasps. 14
At this time, Corporal Nunnerly, of the 17th Lancers, records that, “when peace was proclaimed, the 17th Lancers were staying at Ismaid, in Turkey, where an order was given for all the soldiers who had been out on duty during the whole time of the campaign to parade in the square. Out of the 300 men of the 17th Lancers who left England, only 25 non-commissioned officers and men answered to the muster call, together with Adjutant Duncan, who was the only officer of the regiment out during the whole of the time.” [xxi] Unfortunately this statement isn’t quite correct; Paymaster Stephenson, Quartermaster O’Hara, and Regimental-Surgeon Massey all shared Duncan’s honour of serving with the regiment for the entire campaign.
In 1856 the 17th Lancers returned to Ireland, where Duncan was finally made the regiment’s permanent adjutant, and was promoted, without purchase, to Lieutenant on the 10th April 1857. [xxii]
That year the Indian Mutiny broke out, and the 17th Lancers and 8th Hussars were sent out on the ‘S.S. Great Britain’. The 17th Lancers joined the pursuit of rebel leader Tantia Topee in the Malwa region, where, by-in-large, they were broken up and attached to different columns, all working in coordination with each other. Too many exhausting marches and counter-marches ensued to recount here, but the battle of Zeerapoor was the only occasion that Duncan and the headquarters squad actually crossed swords with the rebels. 14
Once the mutiny was over, the 17th Lancers remained a further five years in India. This proved a boon for Duncan, who was again promoted without purchase; becoming a Captain, on the 28th of October 1859 (vice Seymour, who had died). [xxiii]
A photographic portrait of Duncan, taken by “Nicholas Bros & Coy, Madras & Ootacamund”, can be dated to this period by the peak-less lancer’s forage-cap he wears in it. Making him between 37 and 41 years old in the photo.
In 1865 the 17th Lancers returned to England, but Duncan was obviously attracted to the opportunities India offered to career soldiers like himself, because within 4 months of returning to England, he exchanged with Captain Sir John Hill of the 19th Hussars. [xxiv] So he re-embarked at Gravesend, on the 27th of September 1865, on the steamship ‘Pera’, and returned to India - travelling via Calcutta to join his new regiment at Meerut. [xxv]
Back in India he attended the Grand Durbar, held in Agra in 1866. Where the 19th Hussars formed escorts for the Viceroy Sir John Lawrence, took part in a large review on the grand esplanade of Agra, and lined the streets for various processions and ceremonies. [xxvi]
Duncan spent three years in India with the 19th Hussars, before he returned to England in 1868, to take command of the regiment’s depot, in Canterbury. [xxvii]
He had barely arrived there before he married Caroline Weller, in St. Nicholas’s Church, Brighton, on the 24th of October 1868. [xxviii] Then the following year the 19th Hussars returned from India, and on the 1st of April 1870, at the age of 47, Duncan was promoted to major and retired on half-pay. [xxix]
Initially he remained in Canterbury, before returning to Scotland to become the Fort Major of Edinburgh Castle on the 1st of July 1873. [xxx] In this position he was promoted first to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on the 1st of October 1877 [xxxi], then Honorary Colonel upon retirement on full pay, on the 15th of March 1879. [xxxii]
Once fully retired, he and Caroline moved to Redhill, in Surrey. [xxxiii] Where he was able to attend the 25th Anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade, at Banqueting House, London, in 1879. [xxxiv]
Finally, he was 60 years old when he died at home, of valvular heart disease, on the 28th of May 1883. [xxxv] He was buried at Reigate Cemetery, Chartlane, Reigate, in grave No. W8188. The day of the funeral, the following obituary appeared in the ‘Surrey News’, “Died on May 28th, at Earlswood Road, Reigate, Surrey, Colonel Duncan (late 19th Hussars) in his 60th year, of heart trouble. He leaves a widow to lament his loss. Friends will please accept this, the only intimation.” [xxxvi]
While Duncan had the good luck to be promoted during the Crimean winter, when officers were in short supply, he was not the regiment’s senior-most sergeant at the time, and his further promotions after the war, mark him as a man selected for distinction. He never performed any acts of conspicuous bravery, and he had no friends in influential places, so he must have achieved all he did simply because he was a good soldier. While Crimean mythology says that Queen Victoria’s army didn’t celebrate literate, hard-working, professional soldiers, Duncan’s story, of a man who enlisted in Edinburgh as a gardener, and retired there as Fort Major of the castle, proves this wasn’t always the case.