Max reviews The Crimean War

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan Books)
The Crimean War In The British Imagination by Stefanie Markovits (Cambridge)

Considering the depth of mutual suspicion and animosity between Britain and Russia after 1815, it is astonishing that the lion and bear have fought each other only twice.  At Winston Churchill’s behest, British forces played a desultory role supporting the White interest in the 1919-21 Civil War.   The nations clashed much more fiercely between 1854 and 1856, when the Crimean War made a flagellatory impact on British society: it set a benchmark for political and military bungling, and public recrimination about it, which endures today.

A British officer wrote to me from Afghanistan last fall: ‘When the history of this war is written, almost everything we have done here until very recently will be discussed in the same breath as the Charge of the Light Brigade’.   Balaclava (named Bella Clava- Beautiful Port- by the Genoese who colonised it in the late Middle Ages) has provided synonyms for battlefield folly since Lucan’s cavalry entered the Valley of Death on 25 October 1854.

Most British children nowadays leave school ignorant of all historical events save the two world wars, but they acquire fragments of folklore about the Crimea, especially gratifying to teachers of leftist leanings.  They learn that stupid aristocrats launched a war with Russia during which even stupider ones in uniform then squandered thousands of soldiers’ lives on the battlefield; Florence Nightingale showed what an enlightened woman could achieve in transforming the care of the wounded, after men had grossly mismanaged the job; William Howard Russell was the first honourable journalist (cynics add ‘and the last’) to expose the madnesses of war, while highlighting the new power of the press.
Some of this is more or less true as Orlando Figes, following many other historians, acknowledges in his new study of the war.   More than half a century ago, in her magnificent tale The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham Smith described the chief British officers in the Crimea with a vividness and coruscating wit that remain unsurpassed.  Figes’s account of military operations is a trifle pedestrian by comparison, but freshly informed by Russian sources, of which he is a master.

Russian expansionism evolved in the late 18th century, with a southward advance to the Black Sea inspired by Catherine the Great.  The khanate of Crimea was annexed in 1783.  Russian armies conquered Bessarabia and the Caucasus, and thereafter engaged in frequent strife with their muslim inhabitants.

In the decades following Waterloo, both Britain and France became increasingly alarmed by Russian ambitions, especially towards the tottering Ottoman empire.  The Prince of Serbia told the British consul in Belgrade in 1838: ‘Turkey cannot stand, she is falling of herself; the revolt of her misgoverned provinces will destroy her’ (F p.29).  Tsar Nicholas I, whom Figes describes (p.36) as ‘the man responsible, more than anyone, for the Crimean War’, was of the same opinion.

Nicholas favoured partition of the Ottomans’ vast possessions between the Christian powers.  He was sincerely bewildered to find Christian solidarity eclipsed by European resistance to Russian imperialism.  In particular, Moscow’s brutal suppression of a Polish uprising in 1831, and subsequent mistreatment of the Poles and Hungarians, fired public opinion in London and Paris.

But the Tsar, a bold, impulsive and insensitive man, allowed himself to be deluded by royal courtesies on an 1844 visit to London that Britain would acquiesce in his designs.  He bullied the Turkish sultan into accepting the claims of the Orthodox church to control the Holy Places of Palestine- Figes emphasises religion, among the causes of the war, though he seems more persuasive when he writes (p.164): ‘By the time the war began, its origins in the Holly Lands had been forgotten and subsumed by the European war against Russia’.

In October 1853, Russian armies marched into Moldavia and Wallachia- modern Romania- and Nicholas’s warships destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope.  British opinion was appalled. ‘Sinope’, The Times editorialized (F p.144), ‘dispels the hope we have been led to entertain of pacification…We have thought it our duty to uphold and defend the cause of peace as long as peace was compatible with the honour and dignity of our country…But the Emperor of Russia has thrown down the gauntlet to the maritime Powers…and now war has begun in earnest’.

Both Figes and Stefanie Markovits, in her collection of essays on the cultural impact of the war, emphasise that in the middle 19th Century, many nations- and especially the British- were astonishingly insouciant about making war, and indeed enthusiastic about the manly virtues it was alleged to inculcate.  They notice the notorious passage in praise of strife in Thomas Hughes’s immensely influential novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857 (F p.473): ‘From the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the business, the real highest, honestest business of every son of man.  Every one who is worth his salt has his enemies, who must be beaten, be they evil thoughts and habits in himself, or spiritual wickednesses in high places, or Russians, or Border Ruffians, or Bill, Tom or Harry, who will not let him live his life in quiet till he has thrashed them’.

Hughes’s prose echoes the robust views of Palmerston- the politician who did most to promote British engagement in the Crimea- about war in general and that war in particular.  The great exponent of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ said in 1848 (F p.78): ‘I hold that the real policy of England…is to be the champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done’.

Seven years later, when he had become prime minister amid the Crimean struggle, Palmerston frankly avowed: ‘the main and real object of the war was to curb the aggressive ambition of Russia.  We went to war not so much to keep the Sultan and the Muslims in Turkey as to keep the Russians out of it’.   But from the outset, the British lacked any clear notion of how to translate this purpose into attainable war aims or a coherent war plan.

Lord Aberdeen, prime minister in 1854, was unwilling to fight, but popular bellicosity, powerfully stimulated by the press, was too much for him.  In March 1854, the British government issued an ultimatum to Moscow- which the Tsar first read in the columns of The Times, then rejected.  A military expedition was dispatched to the Black Sea before Aberdeen and his colleagues had plausibly answered the question of whether its purpose was to restore Turkey’s sovereignty or to roll back Russia in the Near East.  Stratford Canning, for instance, wanted a wider war with the Tsar (F p.160), ‘for the benefit of Poland and other spoliated neighbours to the lasting delivery of Europe from Russian dictation’.

The British still see the Crimea as ‘their’ war, but the Emperor Louis Napoleon dispatched a larger contingent, eventually 310,000 men, which conducted itself more effectively on the battlefield, and suffered five times as many casualties as did the 98,000 British troops who served in the East.  The French Emperor’s unworthy purpose was to ease his domestic political difficulties through the diversionary excitements of a foreign adventure.  At first, this enjoyed considerable popular support, because his people,  influenced by the Marquis de Custine’s bestselling traveller’s portrait of a threatening bear La Russie en 1839, were almost as hostile to Russia as the British.

Karl Marx wrote (M p.2): ‘All great historical movements appear to the superficial observer finally to subside into farce, or at least the commonplace.  But to commence with this is a feature peculiar to the tragedy entitled ‘War With Russia’ ‘.    The allied armies landed and established a base at Varna on the Black Sea.  The Turks were already fighting in Wallachia where, says Figes, they inflicted more damage on the Russians than most European historians acknowledge.  The Sultan’s forces also conducted some impressive massacres of local Christians before cholera crippled all the combatants, and persuaded the Russians to retreat.

The author emphasises that the Turkish army, though savage and ill-disciplined, played an important part in the war.  It was a colourful body, led by such generals as Omar Pasha, a Croatian Serb who travelled on campaign with his private harem and German orchestra, which later serenaded him in the Crimea with Verdi’s fashionable hit from Il Trovatore, ‘Ah !  Che La Morte’.

Russian sympathisers were probably responsible for starting a huge fire at Varna which destroyed most of the allies’ supplies before they had fired a shot or even seized the opportunity to pursue the Tsar’s retreating forces into Bessarabia- Raglan and his French counterpart Saint-Arnaud were fearful of cholera inland.  Figes suggests convincingly that the British government should then have declared victory and summoned its troops home.  Instead, it instructed Raglan to invade the Crimea, which seemed the handiest accessible Russian real estate on which to teach the Tsar a lesson.  On 14 September 1854, the allied army began to disembark at Kalamita Bay.

The principal events of the war thereafter are familiar.  The battle of the Alma took place on 20 September, Balaclava on 25 October, Inkerman on 5 November.  On 14 November, a storm in the Black Sea sank twenty-one transport ships, precipitating a shortage of winter equipment and stores which intensified the miseries of the troops ashore.  Sevastapol was thereafter besieged, though the Russians always kept open a northward line of communication.  Successive allied assaults were repulsed, those of the British being characterised by familiar command incompetence.

On 9 September 1855 the city belatedly fell to the French, after a new British attack had been thrown back.  Queen Victoria found it unbearable to think that (M p.10) ‘the failure on the Redan should be our last fait d’armes’.  Palmerston, who succeeded to the premiership when the Aberdeen government fell in consequence of its bungling of the campaign, had sufficient wit to refuse to order the church bells rung to celebrate victory.  He knew the nation saw nothing in the Crimea to rejoice about.  The peace treaty signed in Paris in February 1856 yielded no prize of substance, save a face-saving agreement about shared custody of Jerusalem’s holy places and demilitarisation of the Black Sea.   Moscow shifted the focus of its territorial ambitions further eastwards, to khanates about which the western Europeans were less sensitive.  To secure this peace with supposed honour, the British had lost 20,813 men, 80% of them to disease, and the French around 100,000.

The Russians lost 127,583 killed and dead of disease defending Sevastapol, and far more in Wallachia and other Crimean battles.  The Turks also suffered heavily- for instance, half of their 4,000 men who fought at Balaclava subsequently perished of malnutrition- their British and French allies refused to feed them, and treated them with shocking contempt.  One of Leech’s most famous, or notorious, Punch drawings depicts a cheery pipe-smoking sailor riding on the back of a hapless fezzed figure, above the caption (M p.170): ‘How Jack made the Turk useful at Balaclava’.

Figes is on familiar territory when he describes the incompetence with which the British conducted the Crimean campaign.  Until its coming, they had enjoyed almost 40 years of peace and hemispheric superiority.  Markovits notes a complacent line in Thackeray’s The Newcomes, where a character advises on the young hero’s future (M p.95): ‘I think I should send him into the army, that’s the best place for him- there’s the least to do and the handsomest clothes to wear’.

In the Crimea, however, the fops and fools who commanded, together with the dross of society who served under them, found themselves not merely in mortal peril, but fitted only by brutish courage to face it.  Captain Blakeley, special correspondent of the Morning Chronicle, marvelled at the conduct of some British troops during the murderous crossing of the Alma (M p.27):
‘The men here gave one of those surprising examples of coolness and contempt of danger which forms one of our national characteristics.  In the midst of the most tremendous fire which an army has ever encountered, with comrades falling around them, the men commenced seeking for and plucking the half-ripe grapes, which were hanging temptingly on the hewn vines’.  In truth, of course, far from demonstrating pluck, this was a sample of the imbecility which sometimes characterised the conduct of British soldiers until modern times.

Captain Fred Dallas wrote home from the Crimea in the same spirit as many other officers and men, heaping scorn on ‘the clever way in which everything connected with the Army is done’ (M p.12).  When sorely-needed replacements arrived for his battalion’s boots, which were falling to pieces, these were found to be hopelessly undersized. ‘How curiously the vein of Incapacity seems to wind about thro’ everything…With endless wealth, great popular enthusiasm, numberless ships, the best material for Soldiers in the World, we are certainly the worst clad, worst fed, worst housed Army that ever was read of’.

Markovits emphasises the last words of this passage: Dallas was powerfully aware of the fact that the army’s privations were known to every middle-class household in Britain, through reports in the press.   Of these, then as now The Times dispatches of William Howard Russell were the most celebrated.

Russell was the first war correspondent, and one of the first journalists in history, himself to become recognised as a protagonist in, and hero of, the events he described.  In the eyes of the public as well as those of many soldiers in the Crimea- though emphatically not those of their commanders- his pen became the sharpest sword on the battlefield, slashing out at generals and government on behalf of their hapless victims of the Crimean army.

He writes of the scene after the Alma (M p.31): ‘It was a sad sight to see the litters borne in from all quarters hour after hour- to watch the working parties as they wandered about the plain turning down the blankets which had been stretched over the wounded to behold if they were yet alive, or were food for the worms, and then adding many a habitant to the yawning pits which lay with insatiable mouths gaping on the hillside, or covering up the poor sufferers destined to pass another night of indescribable agony.  The thirst of the wounded seemed intolerable, and our men- all honour to the noble fellows !- went about relieving the wants of the miserable creatures as far as they could’.

Other star correspondents found their own scoops elsewhere in the theatre: Thomas Chenery, The Times’s Constantinople correspondent, exposed the horrors of medical facilities at Scutari, which prompted the descent of Florence Nightingale and her nurses.   Nightingale wrote in her journal in 1850 (p.106): ‘I had 3 paths from which to choose.  I might have been a married woman, a literary woman or a Hospital Sister’.   The world knows the career she adopted, though for all her noble efforts 52% of patients at Scutari died in February 1855 alone.  No better than the army doctors did Nightingale understand the hazards of polluted water and poor hygiene.

The Russians found their own Nightingale in 18 year-old laundress Daria Mikhailova, whom Figes describing caring for wounded men after the Alma with a cart and supplies purchased from her own pocket.  As for surgery, the Russian Nikokai Pirogvov, operating in Sevastapol, achieved a higher survival rate for amputees than did his British and French confreres- up to 65% for arms, 25% for thighs.  Those who claim that the French displayed greater administrative competence than the British in the Crimea should notice that 40,000 of Louis Napoleon’s soldiers died of disease in the second winter of the war.

Beyond Russell and other professional reporters, letters home written by scores of officers and men such as Fred Dallas were soon being offered for publication by families at home- outraged by the mismanagement of the campaign which they revealed- and eagerly accepted by newspapers.  This was unprecedented.  Some 40 years earlier, Private William Wheeler was the finest correspondent in Wellington’s army, who described to his family the experience of the Napoleonic wars.  Yet his letters achieved publication and celebrity only in 1950, when they were rediscovered and published in The Strand magazine.

Some of the most senior commanders in the Crimea, including Lord Raglan, as young men had fought Bonaparte.   In the interim their national culture had been transformed by railways, the growth of newspapers- by 1855 The Times had a print order of 61,000- and the electric telegraph.  Contemporaries observed with fascination and amazement the phenomenon of almost instant press coverage and literary responses to military events two thousand miles away.  E.B.Hamley, who served in the Crimea, wrote in a review of newly-published war poetry (M p.3.): ‘Fancy…the white-haired Nestor, and the sage Ulysses, reading, towards the close of the first year of their sojourn before Troy, the first book of the Iliad, to be continued in parts as a serial’.

There was no censorship of allied correspondents’ reports, and it was some time before commanders began to grasp the assistance press coverage provided to the enemy: within a week or two of publication, the Russians in Sevastapol were reading The Times, with its detailed reports on allied operations, logistical problems and morale; some of Russell’s dispatches ran to over 10,000 words.

Some allied soldiers and civilians remained sceptical about the merits of eye-witness reportage on its own terms. ‘How utterly valueless history, tho’ written by the most eloquent and truthful men, will always seem to me’, wrote Fred Dallas (M p.37), ‘when on the spot where events daily are taking place, I can’t tell you the whole truth of them’.   Carlyle reflected (M p.139): ‘I am very sad, in thinking of the general matter:  a War undertaken to please Able Editors and the windy part of the population…carried on amid…The unmelodious rumour of ‘Own Correspondents’ at every step’.

Markovits, who addesses the relationship between the Crimea and the press, the contemporary novel, poetry and visual art, argues that the war had a greater cultural influence than has been generally recognised.   She writes of Tennyson’s poem on Balaclava’s gravest blunder (M p.125): ‘ “The Charge” in which “All the world wondered” seems to offer the unifying and heroic voice expected of martial and chivalric song…(M p.142) Meaning had to be constructed out of something so apparently meaningless’.   The poem, she says (p.156) ‘can also be considered as an essay in madness’.   Within weeks of its publication, soldiers were enjoying singing- rather than reciting- Tennyson’s tale of folly at their Crimean campfires.

Markovits notes(p.189) ‘the cult of masculinity that came out of the war’.  In her discussion of visual art prompted by the Crimea, she has an excellent passage on John Leech’s Punch cartoon captioned ‘Enthusiasm of Paterfamilias, On Reading the Report of the Grand Charge of British Cavalry on the 25th’.   A family surrounds an exuberant father, brandishing his cane in emulation of a sabre as he reads The Times- presumably the issue which includes Russell’s immortal account of the Light Brigade’s sally.  While Leech’s man and boys visibly exult in the saga, the family’s women react conspicuously more equivocally, obviously grieving at the carnage. The author quotes Trudi Tate (p.188): ‘The cartoon suggests, characteristically, that men and women occupy completely different imaginative realms.  What delights father is painful to mother’.

In Markovits’s chapter on the war’s visual art, she notes that some of the most celebrated representations of the Crimea were composed only a generation after the event, by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler.  Her ‘Calling The Roll after an Engagement, Crimea’, became the star of the Royal Academy’s 1874 exhibition.  The artist, then 27, wrote (p.210): ‘I may say that I woke this morning and found myself famous’.

A critic described the painting as (p.214) ‘a picture of the battlefield, neither ridiculous, nor offensive, nor improbable, nor exaggerated, in which there is neither swagger, nor sentimentalism, but plain, manly, pathetic, heroic truth, and this is the work of a young woman’.   Butler was compared to Kipling, and during the years that followed became Queen Victoria’s favourite portraitist of climactic battlefield moments.  The artist contributed much to the new cult of the working-class hero, though her popularity was later surpassed by that of such unabashed jingoes as Richard Caton Woodville.

When Markovits turns to the influence of the war on contemporary literature, she quotes Thackeray who observed wonderingly, and perhaps part-ironically (p.63): ‘What can any novelist write so interesting as our own correspondent ?’.   It is undoubtedly true that, while the Crimea prompted some of the greatest journalism of all time, it inspired much less memorable fiction.

George Whyte-Melville, best-known as an author of foxhunting novels, served as a volunteer major in the Turkish cavalry, and published The Interpreter: A Tale of The War.  The prolific children’s author G.A.Henty long afterwards drew on his own memories of service in the Crimean hospital commissariat for Jack Archer, or, The Fall of Sebastopol (1883).   I come from the last generation of young Englishmen to have read Henty’s novels with avid enthusiasm, though I never shared what Markovits categorises as the author’s belief in boyhood as ‘a blessed state’.

Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho !, published in 1855, professes to be a tale of the 1588 Spanish Armada, but is heavily redolent of the Crimea.   Its hero, Amyas Leigh, is (M p.71) ‘a symbol, though he knows it not, of brave young England longing to wing its way out of its island prison’.   Kingsley, like Henty and many other contemporaries, believed that the foremost purpose of education was to promote ‘manliness’ and the warrior ethic.  Even Trollope, a far more sophisticated and sensible writer, often uses ‘manly’ as a term of high praise for a character or his conduct.

By contrast, a disgusted contemporary reviewer of Westward Ho !, W.E.Aytoun, observed (M p.72) that ‘lust for blood and plunder are expressed in almost every page’.  In one passage, Amyas Leigh’s brother Frank exults: ‘There is nothing more noble and blessed than to fight in behalf of those we love’.   Charles Kingsley’s brother Henry wrote Ravenshoe, a tale of a disinherited heir who fills a billet as servant to a young army swell posted to the Crimea.  This story adopted a more equivocal view of the virtues of war- the hero returns shell-shocked from his Eastern experiences.

Markovits notes that, while soldiers avidly consumed press reports of their own doings, the most requested book in Crimean military hospitals was Charlotte Yonge’s 1853 morality tale The Heir Of Radclyffe Hall, while another of Yonge’s works, Heartease, was the last work read by Britain’s egregious commander, Lord Raglan, before his death in the Crimea- of a broken heart, some said.

The Crimean poets were not, like the bards of the First World War, themselves soldiers, participants, eye-witnesses of the struggle.  They wrote from the comfortable eminence of home.  Thackeray reflected (M p.127):
I sit beside my peaceful hearth,
With curtains drawn and lamp trimmed bright;
I watch my children’s noisy mirth;
I drink in home, and its delight.
I sip my tea, and criticise
The war, from flying rumours caught;
Trace on the map, to curious eyes,
How here they marched, and there they fought.
In intervals of household chat,
I lay down strategic laws;
Why this manoeuvre, and not that;
Shape the event, or show the cause.
Or, in smooth dinner-table phrase,
Twixt soup and fish, discuss the fight;
Give to each chief his blame or praise;
Say who was wrong and who was right.
Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody plain
The scathe of battle has toiled by-
The wounded writhe and groan- the slain
Lie naked staring to the sky.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among those who not merely deplored the Crimean war and its follies, but even the role of Florence Nightingale and her fellow-nurses, a theme she pursued in her 1856 novel Aurora Leigh.   Browning wrote after hearing Tennyson read his dramatic monologue Maud, heavy with Crimean allusions, in October 1855: ‘War, war !  It is terrible certainly.  But there are worse plagues, deeper griefs, dreader wounds than the physical.  What of the forty thousand wretched [presumably fallen] women in this city ?  The silent writhing of them is to me more appalling than the roar of the cannons’ (M p.115).

War, Browning suggests, imposes a mere physical toll, where the plight of the women represents a deeper spiritual wound.  Aurora Leigh, says Markovits (p.115), proves that redemption must come not from the physical deeds of men, but from ‘the ideal labours of woman’.   Gladstone likewise hated (M p.150) the ‘war-spirit’ of Maud’.   Punch defined a hero (M p.159) as ‘A Fool who dies for his country, when he could stop at home perfectly safe’.

A central feature of the war, as both Figes and Markovits note and discuss, was the emergence of the ordinary British soldier as a focus of popular adulation, heedless of and partly because of the failures of those who sent him to war.  The Victoria Cross, Britain’s supreme military decoration, was introduced in 1857 as an award for courage open to officers and other ranks alike: the first sixty-two were presented to Crimean veterans.

Figes ends his own work with a discussion of the cultural legacy of the Crimea which is both more succinct and more lucid than that of Markovits.  In Turkey, he says, the war has been (F p.482) ‘obliterated from the nation’s historical memory’.  In Russia, it is a source of bitterness that Crimea is today part of Ukraine.  Vladimir Putin has promoted Tsar Nicholas I’s portrait to hang in a place of honour in the Kremlin.

In France, there are many memorials to the dead of Crimea, while the British naming thousands of pubs and streets for Sebastapol and the Redan, a host of children for Florence, Alma- even, poor little mites, for Balaclava and Inkerman.  The critical military legacy was the Cardwell reform programme of 1868-71, which reorganised the army and abolished the purchase of commissions which had allowed such pernicious boobies as Lucan and Cardigan to exercise commands.
Orlando Figes’s history does not alter our perception of the Crimea, but admirably sets the saga in its international and religious context.   Russia was indeed an aggressive tyranny which posed a threat to international stability, but it was hard for a naval power deficient in military strength and skills to do much effective about it within the compass of a limited war.

There are conspicuous parallels between the Crimea and the conflicts of our own times in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Just as in 1854-55, popular admiration and support for the ordinary soldiers of Britain and America persist, despite the obloquy heaped on most of the allied leadership, civilian and military.   In our modern wars as in the Crimea, though the West faces a real strategic threat, and has some virtue in its cause, it is difficult either to define attainable objectives, or to leverage NATO’s military capabilities to achieve them.

Charles Kingsley wrote ruefully in 1855 ‘Eastward Ho ! has never brought us luck’, a sentiment familiar in today’s editorial columns.  Consider the resonance of Godwin Smith’s words, reviewing the Crimean war passages in Maud (M p.126): ‘We do not, like the nations of antiquity…literally go to war.  We send our hired soldiers to attack a nation which may not be in need of the same regimen as ourselves’.  When histories of Bush’s wars are written a few years hence, some of their authors will hold up a mirror to the frustrations of Aberdeen and Palmerston.

Related book

Related author

Other Articles

The Kremlin always falls prey to pride and paranoia

       During the 1962 Missile Crisis, on the evening of 23 October a curious episode took place in Moscow.  A few hours after President Kennedy announced the discovery of nuclear weapons in Cuba, the Soviet leader or vozhd Nikita Khrushchev determined to show the world that he was unafraid.  He… Read More


First published in The Times on Saturday, 13 November 2021.Tomorrow the Queen will forsake her enforced rest to attend the annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph [this was published before her last-minute withdrawal].  It is an occasion that she views with a special sense of duty, because of her… Read More


The British people must accept that coronavirus is not going away any time soon and we shall just have to work with it. Read More