“His career might have been among the most brilliant in our military services.” – London Times newspaper obituary, Nov. 1887.
Valentine Baker, born Apr.1, 1827 in Enfield, England. Son of successful businessman Samuel Baker, and brother to John, Samuel Jr. and James, the latter of whom became the town founder of Cranbrook B.C.
Valentine was named for his paternal grandfather, an English privateer – that is to say, licensed pirate – who invested wisely in the sugar trade in Jamaica. Valentine the younger, strongly-built with dark, piercing eyes, was raised among the upper class of England. As with his brothers, he received a rather scattered education. It mattered not. He was bright, inquisitive, talented and very good with horses. So too did he have a fine mind for things of a strategic nature. It was almost inevitable that he would choose to join the army in accordance with his father’s wishes.
In 1845 Val traveled with his two older brothers John and Sam to the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to aid in the establishment of an English colony at Nuwara Eliya. The life of the landed gentry held little attraction however and in 1852 he joined the Ceylon Rifles as a junior commissioned officer. Val was a cut above the majority of his barrack mates. He took army life very seriously, with both his talent as a horseman and his ability to inspire confidence and trust among his fellows readily apparent. Within a short time he left the regiment to join the 10th Hussars in Africa, then on to the 12th Lancers in the Crimea and, by 1860, a return to the 10th Hussars as commander, having seen much fighting along the way. He had only to serve to be advanced.
Then came the fateful day when things went very wrong. On the afternoon of June 17 1875, a train passed through Walton station at forty miles an hour with, most unusually, a young lady half hanging out of a carriage, grasping the outside door handle with one arm and the other in the grasp of someone inside the compartment. Apprised of the situation the stationmaster signaled ahead and brought the train to a halt. The woman, helped from the train by a number of men, pointed to the man inside her compartment and declared he had “insulted her” (a euphemism for sexual advances) and “would not leave her alone.” The man in question was Valentine Baker. Val had boarded the train on his way to dine with the Duke of Cambridge and found himself alone with Miss Kate Dickinson, age 21. During their ensuing conversation, according to Miss Dickinson, Val moved to sit beside her, “asked her for a kiss and touched her on the leg above the ankle.” Miss Dickinson attempted to ring the bell alarm in the carriage but it was broken. She then made to depart the moving compartment by way of the outside door (there were no connecting corridors on trains at the time) at which point she was restrained by Col. Baker. Upon descending the halted carriage it was observed by three men that Val’s clothing was disarranged – more to the point, his flies were undone. Valentine Baker, darling of the army, was duly charged with indecent assault and assault with attempt to ravage. The case became a “cause célèbre” with much debate among the populace as to the truth of the matter. It was, of course, her word against his, but Val refused to speak in his own defense, declaring that he would not impugn the honour of a lady by calling her a liar, if indeed that was the case.
He was found guilty of indecent assault and was fined five hundred pounds and sentenced to one year of imprisonment. He immediately wrote to the War Office to resign his commission only to discover he was already expelled, “the Queen having no further use of his services,” Despite pleas to the contrary from the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales and many others, his army career in England was effectively over.
Val served his sentence uncomplainingly and upon his release soon found himself in Turkey fighting against the Russians. As a general in the Turkish army he took part in numerous bloody actions in which he carried himself so admirably that he became a media hero to much of the British public. In 1882 he accepted an invitation to command a new Egyptian army to be formed under the command of occupying British officers. His appointment was blocked at the highest levels and instead he found himself the head of the ragtag Egyptian civilian police force known as “The Gendarmerie.” In 1884 Val and his troops were ambushed in the Sudan by Mahdist rebels. His army panicked and was completely routed at the cost more than 2300 men, over half of its strength. The following year Val’s eighteen year old daughter Hermione and his wife Fanny died from typhoid. He elected stayed on in Cairo as inspector-general of the gendarmerie.
Valentine Baker died of a heart attack near Tel el-Kebir on Nov.17 1887 while in the company of his surviving daughter Sybil and two of his brother Sam’s children. His death came at the very time that a movement was underway to reinstate him in the English army. He was buried with full military honours, described by the commander of the British army in Egypt as “the bravest soldier England ever had.” Val was one of the most remarkable cavalrymen of the age, a warrior whose star continually glittered but sadly, never fully glowed.