The Rideau warriors: William Upton: unjustly held prisoner by the British during the Crimean War, William Upton witnessed the carnage of the Charge of the Light Brigade and helped Florence Nightingale deal with its aftermath. He eventually took solace along Canada's Rideau Canal.
Swords drawn and lances raised, the Light Brigade of the British cavalry had advanced full speed into the crosshairs of 20 Russian infantry battalions. Visible to Upton--but not the cavalry--were 50 hidden pieces of British artillery commandeered by the Russians. Within minutes, the mounts of the Hussars, Dragoons, Highlanders and Lancers were cut down and hundreds of men lay dead or wounded.
Looking up from the dust and smoke, Upton cast a disparaging glance towards Lord Lucan, the commanding officer who had just ordered his brother-in-law and rival Lord Cardigan to lead the ruinous charge. Cardigan somehow survived the barrage, and Lucan was wounded by a stray bullet.
In Upton's mind, the confusion of the Charge of the Light Brigade was but one of their many blunders. Along with Lord Raglan, he blamed them for the destruction of the Upton family Crimean estate and vineyards. He held them responsible for the Cossacks who destroyed many of his possessions, ransacked his property and stole his crops. He deplored their bombardment of the huge military works of
Sevastopol his father and him built in the 20 years since their arrival from England three decades earlier.
Most of all, Upton begrudged Raglan and his staff for holding him prisoner on the mistaken grounds that he was a Russian spy.
British by birth, the Uptons had lived and worked with Russians since 1827 and were warmly embraced by the local military and cultural elite. By 1854 William's loyalties were divided between his homeland and his adopted country. Sensing his unease, Raglan issued an order he be held captive as a 'prisoner of privilege.' William Upton was forced to supply the British officers with tactics and secret information based on his intimate knowledge of the Russian topography and defences. Raglan's promise of post-war compensation was broken upon Upton's return to England after the Crimean War.
War-weary and fed up with politics, the expatriate British military engineer trundled his family onboard a London steamship bound for Canada and spent the winter of 1857 in Montreal. The following spring they travelled to Bytown, the unlikely lumber town soon to be renamed Ottawa and the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria. He eventually found peace on a bucolic hilltop overlooking the Rideau Canal.
Upton's long journey to the Ridean began in 1827, after his father left England under mysterious circumstances. John Upton was a well-regarded engineer and surveyor of roads in northern Wales during the 1820s. However, according to reports published after his death, "he got into the course of expensive living unwarranted by his means, and was induced to commit many gross frauds." Ordered to appear before Birmingham court, Upton senior attended the first day of his hearing and discovered he was also to be charged with forgery, a crime punishable by hanging.
By all other accounts, Upton was an honourable man, but sensing conspiracy or a vendetta, he escaped to London the next morning. Within a few days he sailed to Russia where "... talents are much more highly prized ... than honesty," according to his obituary published years later by a bellicose Northampton newspaper on the eve of the Crimean War.
John Upton's wife had previously advertised his services in a Russian newspaper to take advantage of the foreign demand for experienced British engineers. The Russian government responded and, a month after John's departure, Mary Upton packed up her brood, including their 16-year-old son William, and sailed into the Baltic to join her husband in St. Petersburg for an audience with Czar Nicholas.
The young William Upton began a fairy-tale existence that was to include encounters with royalty, exotic cultures, international war, exposure to the apex of Russian and European cultures, and the devastation of tornados and plagues, all of which were meticulously chronicled in his 22-volume diary, which remains in the possession of his Canadian descendants.
Once his father found employment with the czar, the family left the town of Nicholaf, 1,000 kilometres to the south. They were heartily welcomed into an enclave of expatriate British architects, engineers and surveyors, all of whom lived comfortably on the shores of the Black Sea. The Uptons were attended to by servants and often hosted officers of the Russian army, navy and upper classes. Janet Moffatt, a collateral descendent of Upton's, wrote: "Life settled into (a) pleasant pattern ... in their new-found wealth and social position."
William Upton helped his father as he oversaw construction of many civil and military works as well as vanity projects for Russian aristocrats. One of note, Count Mikhail Semenovich Vorontsov had been raised in England where his father had been the Russian ambassador to the Court of King James. Count Vorontsov, an anglophile, went on to become a war hero and heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Russia. He befriended the Uptons, who oversaw construction of his majestic Black Sea palace and, as a result, had access to the professional and personal affairs of posh Russian society. John and William rubbed elbows with the likes of the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (who reportedly had an affair with the count's wife and wore her ring when he died in duel a few years later).
John Upton's impeccable conduct was in sharp contrast with the accusations of his fraudulence in England. As the "Fortifier of Sevastopol," John raised his son William to be a man of letters, reason and rectitude. Young William came to appreciate the theatrical arts, the proper conduct of a gentleman, and the mastery of linguistics. His aptitude for languages--he learned as many as seven (French, Russian German, Italian, and several Slavic languages)--would later serve him well in the Crimean War, translating the pleas of the wounded for the legendary Florence Nightingale.
But William Upton was no dilettante. He and his father built canals, tunnels, bridges, and fortifications, including the massive dry docks at Sevastopol, a 25-year project built at a cost 1.5 million pounds. At one point the Uptons had crews of 30,000 men under their command.
The port city on the Black Sea was of strategic military importance, thanks to its access to the Mediterranean. The British and French saw it as a threat to all those who feared Russian military expansionism. The new czar, Nicholas I, alarmed France and England and their respective leaders, Napolean III and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, in the early 1850s. Europe responded with the Royal Navy and La Marine Francaise fixing their gunsights on Sevastopol. Unfortunately for William Upton, his military works and personal estate were right in their bull's eye.
Upton's world collapsed as war tensions between Europe and Russia rose. He had become a Russian subject prior to his father's death in 1851, after which he was bequeathed the august Russian title of Knight in the Order of St. Anne. According to his biographer, Janet Moffatt, Upton entered 1854, the decisive year of the war, showing little concern for mounting hostilities around him other than casually observing, "A boom was thrown across the roads. The town (Sevastopol) is in a state of siege in anticipation of an invasion." He was right: 60,000 British and French troops arrived just north of Sevastopol and from the windows of his grand house he and his family saw their hostile fleets come into view.
He also underestimated the effect the war would have on his family and estate. When marauding Russian Cossacks encamped on his estate, the hungry soldiers killed his livestock, depleted his vineyards, and rifled through his stores. Upon hearing a commotion in his kitchen, the unarmed Upton confronted the Russian soldiers who had forced their way in and demanded food and wine. He was saved only by the quick work of an officer who surrounded the house and had one of the soldiers shot.
Four days later, the allied armies of Britain and France descended into the Inkerman Valley and Upton realized the escape route planned for his family had been cut off, squeezed by the two allied land armies and the battleships in the port. British officers soon arrived on horseback and demanded he leave his family behind and accompany them to Lord Raglan's quarters in Balaclava.
In a tense meeting, Upton was unable to convince Raglan and his staff that he was loyal to Britain. Aware that he had no choice but to co-operate, he managed to negotiate compensation for his losses and the assurance of his family's safety. Raglan had the family moved to Balaclava just as warship shells began pummelling the Upton house from Sevastopol's harbour.
Upton eventually returned to find the remnants of his estate emptied of his family and commandeered by French officers as their headquarters. The French refused to allow him to protect his possessions and even denied him his horse, forcing him to march back to Balaclava to be held under house arrest.
Every morning an orderly would take Upton to meet with the British command. He would explain the Russian fortifications, recommend tactics and often lead dangerous reconnoitring expeditions, frequently under fire of infantry and heavy artillery. At night he would collapse in a spare bunk in the room he shared with Captain Nolan, the highly regarded officer who was to play an infamous role in the imminent Charge of the Light Brigade.
One morning Upton awoke and sensed a major engagement was underway. He could hear cannonades in the distance and noticed the captain's boots had been hurriedly tossed in the middle of the floor, indicating he had rushed to meet his brigade. Upton quickly mounted his horse and galloped to the hilltop where the British command was stationed. Nolan had left moments before to deliver Lucan's dispatch to Cardigan, who was stationed with his men in the valley below.
The befuddled Cardigan asked Nolan, "Where is the enemy?" Nolan, turned to the valley, pointed and said, "There, there is the enemy sir."
Cardigan, replied, "Very good, sir. The brigade will advance." As the light brigade began its charge Nolan darted wildly to the lead waving his sword and calling to Cardigan. In all likelihood Nolan had realized the order had been misunderstood.
Undaunted, the light brigade charged into what Alfred Lord Tennyson would immortalize as "the valley of the shadow of death." Nolan was the first to be killed, his head blown off in the initial cannonade. Upton reached the plateau where Raglan and his staff stood in disbelief at their loss of half of the 'noble six hundred.' Upton first looked upon the carnage and then at Raglan and his staff. Their shaken appearance told him they held partial responsibility for the deadly charge.
Within 10 days Upton was obliged to accompany highly regarded General George de Lacy Evans to Inkerman and advise him on possible provisioning routes. There he met General Adams, a friend who had been helpful in convincing the French to let the Uptons take their remaining possessions to Balaclava. On November 5th Adams was one of the 30,000 British men killed in the Battle of Inkerman, a number matched by Russian losses.
Adams's body, along with thousands of allied dead and wounded, had been carried to the overcrowded hospital in Scutari, Turkey, where Upton was asked to read the service for his dead chum. Florence Nightingale arrived later that day with 38 nurses from England in response to horrifying British newspaper dispatches that had described the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions of British medical facilities. Though fluent in Latin and classical languages, the 'Lady with the Lamp' was at a loss to understand the different languages spoken by the sick and dying soldiers. She relied on Upton for translation and, after making drastic changes to the conditions of the hospital, embarked on a path that led to a 60 per cent reduction in the fatality rate of Crimean wounded.
According to Janet Moffat, Upton wryly diarized the hurricanes and tornados that followed only days later, destroying many of the Russian and allied instruments of war, including all battleships, save one, in the Sevastopol harbour. The storms also damaged the docks and fortifications he and his father had devoted their lives towards building.
Despondent and discouraged, the Upton family returned to Britain to shabby treatment by Lords Raglan and Palmerston, and were granted a mere 500 pounds--less than 10 per cent of his losses--as compensation. Ignoring letters of support from men of high standing such as Gcneral de Lacy Evans, British politicians impugned Upton's honour beyond repair.
Unable to find work, William Upton and his family left Britain and Europe forever and travelled to Canada in search of quietude. He built a homestead and farm along the Rideau Canal, which, ironically, had been built by British engineers 25 years earlier to protect Canada in the event of war with the United States. William Upton's farm is now host to Ottawa's international airport. His grave is found in a peaceful corner of the Long Island Lock Station.
Upton might have diarized that the canal's highly competent overseer and engineer, Colonel John By of England, had his reputation sullied--just as John and William Upton's had--at the hands of Fleet Street and the British establishment.
In commemoration of the Rideau Canal's 175th anniversary, this is the third in a series detailing the rich military history of those who settled the Rideau Corridor. Mark Jodoin is an Ottawa-based executive and, writer and President of the Rideau Township Historical Society. Additional research for this article was provided by Rideau historian Coral Linsay and descendants of the Upton Family, Janet Moffatt and Pat Hill in particular.