James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea
Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque. It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854. A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”. Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?
James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop. He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.
He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons. In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.
Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation. Military hospitals were no exception. The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.
The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army. “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.
From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.
The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine. Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.
The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory. When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind. With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians. Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.
He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked. Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.
Sadly, he wasn’t immune. After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma. His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.
Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.
And back to Cromarty
The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial. In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.
And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres. He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site. So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.
The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.
It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”. That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.