The Crimean War: A History

By Orlando Figes. London: Henry Holt, 2010

By Mel Watkins | 2012-04-01 12:00:00

People who have hardly heard of the Crimean War (1853-1856)—pitting Britain, France and Turkey on the winning side against Russia as loser with disproportionate casualties—often know two things about it, and some a third.

First, they know of the slaughter of British cavalry in the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” as immortalized in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, with the terrible message of the lines: “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.”

Second, they know of Florence Nightingale, famous as “The Lady with the Lamp” who nursed the British wounded in the war.

Peace activists will know the third, that the great Tolstoy served as an officer in the Russian army and was powerfully affected for the good. Indeed, that may be the only truly good thing that came out of the killing fields of this war.

The famous poem and the celebrity nurse were both products of what came to be called “the media,” so our remembering them is no accident. The telegraph created the journalist as war correspondent who could file stories back to the daily papers at home. The photograph, with the new power of the image, gave readers the illusion that they were there, getting the real story.

The Crimean War was the first war to be fought in this double glare. Figes, known for his work in Russian history, in this excellent book, documents (particularly for Britain with the most developed media) how the press affects politics, the conduct of the war, and how it would be remembered.

Figes argues that the Crimean War is the first war in history “to be brought about by the pressure of the press and by public opinion.” Queen Victoria wrote in her journal as the war was beginning that Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary, “had become more warlike than he was, from fear of the newspapers.” Figes shows how the press promoted “liberal interventionism abroad” so as to export the Western way of life “to those less fortunate,” setting a precedent that persists down to today. Figes is quite aware that all of this helped sell newspapers.

While clearly promoting war, the press, by describing the conditions in which the men lived, their treatment by their officers who flogged them, and the incompetence of geriatric generals who had bought their command, led to changes which improved the lot of the soldiers and their prospects for survival. It may also have made war more tolerable for the public.

We owe Tennyson’s stirring poem—“Into the Valley of Death/Rode the six hundred”—to the despatches from the front that he read in the Times.

The British press, with its focus on the ordinary soldier, “democratized” war. Tolstoy, in his writing about the war, was to play the same role in Russia.

What was truly new were the visual images of the war. “Photographs roused the public more than anything.” So roused, in fact, that death and destruction were not shown “for commercial reasons” rather than censorship.

There is an extensive discussion of medical care at the front for the sick and the wounded. As for Florence Nightingale, Figes thinks her achievements have received too much attention, in particular relative to those of the Russian surgeon Nikolia Pirogov who pioneered a system of field surgery that other countries didn’t match until World War I. But as Figes himself notes, being a man and a surgeon gave Pirogov an authority denied to Nightingale as a woman and a nurse. He calls Nightingale a “cult” figure but seems not to understand that the media he credits for doing so much also creates celebrities and their followers.

Figes masterfully weaves his way through the enormous complexity of the war with its interplay of religions (Protestant, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Muslim, with their competing claims to the Holy Land) and geopolitics (the Ottoman, Russian, British and French Empires and their rivalries), of new nations emerging, of improvements in gunnery.

Oddly, of the four belligerent states, the war is still commemorated only in Russia. In 2006 a conference was organized on the Crimean War by the Centre of National Glory of Russia and supported by President Putin. A press release issued at the end of the conference concluded, writes Figes, “that the war should be seen not as a defeat for Russia, but as a moral and religious victory, a national act of sacrifice in a just victory.” Don’t tell Mr. Harper or he may steal that last phrase to celebrate Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Reviewed by Mel Watkins, a retired University of Toronto professor.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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