Read The Crimean War Online

Authors: Orlando Figes

Tags: #History, #Military, #General, #Europe, #Other, #Russia & the Former Soviet Union, #Crimean War; 1853-1856

The Crimean War

BOOK: The Crimean War
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For Seren
In the parish church of Witchampton in Dorset there is a memorial to commemorate five soldiers from this peaceful little village who fought and died in the Crimean War. The inscription reads:
In the communal cemetery of Héricourt in south-eastern France, there is a gravestone with the names of the nine men from the area who died in the Crimea:
At the base of the memorial somebody has placed two cannonballs, one with the name of the ‘Malakoff’ (Malakhov) Bastion, captured by the French during the siege of Sevastopol, the Russian naval base in the Crimea, the other with the name ‘Sebastopol’. Thousands of French and British soldiers lie in unmarked and long-neglected graves in the Crimea.
In Sevastopol itself there are hundreds of memorials, many of them in the military cemetery (
bratskoe kladbishche
), one of three huge burial grounds established by the Russians during the siege, where a staggering 127,583 men killed in the defence of the town lie buried. The officers have individual graves with their names and regiments but the ordinary soldiers are buried in mass graves of fifty or a hundred men. Among the Russians there are soldiers who had come from Serbia, Bulgaria or Greece, their co-religionists in the Eastern Church, in response to the Tsar’s call for the Orthodox to defend their faith. One small plaque, barely visible in the long grass where fifteen sailors lie underground, commemorates their ‘heroic sacrifice during the defence of Sevastopol in 1854-5’:
The Héricourt Memorial
Elsewhere in Sevastopol there are ‘eternal flames’ and monuments to the unknown and uncounted soldiers who died fighting for the town. It is estimated that a quarter of a million Russian soldiers, sailors and civilians are buried in mass graves in Sevastopol’s three military cemeteries.
Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it seems to us a relatively minor war; it is almost forgotten, like the plaques and gravestones in those churchyards. Even in the countries that took part in it (Russia, Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, including those territories that would later make up Romania and Bulgaria) there are not many people today who could say what the Crimean War was all about. But for our ancestors before the First World War the Crimea was the major conflict of the nineteenth century, the most important war of their lifetimes, just as the world wars of the twentieth century are the dominant historical landmarks of our lives.
The losses were immense – at least three-quarters of a million soldiers killed in battle or lost through illness and disease, two-thirds of them Russian. The French lost around 100,000 men, the British a small fraction of that number, about 20,000, because they sent far fewer troops (98,000 British soldiers and sailors were involved in the Crimea compared to 310,000 French). But even so, for a small agricultural community such as Witchampton the loss of five able-bodied men was felt as a heavy blow. In the parishes of Whitegate, Aghada and Farsid in County Cork in Ireland, where the British army recruited heavily, almost one-third of the male population died in the Crimean War.
Nobody has counted the civilian casualties: victims of the shelling; people starved to death in besieged towns; populations devastated by disease spread by the armies; entire communities wiped out in the massacres and organized campaigns of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the fighting in the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Crimea. This was the first ‘total war’, a nineteenth-century version of the wars of our own age, involving civilians and humanitarian crises.
It was also the earliest example of a truly modern war – fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine, and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet at the same time it was the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with ‘parliamentaries’ and truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields. The early battles in the Crimea, on the River Alma and at Balaklava, where the famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place, were not so very different from the sort of fighting that went on during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the siege of Sevastopol, the longest and most crucial phase of the Crimean War, was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare of 1914–18. During the eleven and a half months of the siege, 120 kilometres of trenches were dug by the Russians, the British and the French; 150 million gunshots and 5 million bombs and shells of various calibre were exchanged between the two sides.
The name of the Crimean War does not reflect its global scale and huge significance for Europe, Russia and that area of the world – stretching from the Balkans to Jerusalem, from Constantinople to the Caucasus – that came to be defined by the Eastern Question, the great international problem posed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps it would be better to adopt the Russian name for the Crimean War, the ‘Eastern War’ (
Vostochnaia voina
), which at least has the merit of connecting it to the Eastern Question, or even the ‘Turco-Russian War’, the name for it in many Turkish sources, which places it in the longer-term historical context of centuries of warfare between the Russians and the Ottomans, although this omits the crucial factor of Western intervention in the war.
The war began in 1853 between Ottoman and Russian forces in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the territory of today’s Romania, and spread to the Caucasus, where the Turks and the British encouraged and supported the struggle of the Muslim tribes against Russia, and from there to other areas of the Black Sea. By 1854, with the intervention of the British and the French on Turkey’s side and the Austrians threatening to join this anti-Russian alliance, the Tsar withdrew his forces from the principalities, and the fighting shifted to the Crimea. But there were several other theatres of the war in 1854–5: in the Baltic Sea, where the Royal Navy planned to attack St Petersburg, the Russian capital; on the White Sea, where it bombarded the Solovetsky Monastery in July 1854; and even on the Pacific coastline of Siberia.
The global scale of the fighting was matched by the diversity of people it involved. Readers will find here a broad canvas populated less than they might have hoped (or feared) by military types and more by kings and queens, princes, courtiers, diplomats, religious leaders, Polish and Hungarian revolutionaries, doctors, nurses, journalists, artists and photographers, pamphleteers and writers, none more central to the story from the Russian perspective than Leo Tolstoy, who served as an officer on three different fronts of the Crimean War (the Caucasus, the Danube and the Crimea). Above all, through their own words in letters and memoirs, the reader will find here the viewpoint of the serving officers and ordinary troops, from the British ‘Tommy’ to the French-Algerian Zouaves and the Russian serf soldiers.
There are many books in English on the Crimean War. But this is the first in any language to draw extensively from Russian, French and Ottoman as well as British sources to illuminate the geo-political, cultural and religious factors that shaped the involvement of each major power in the conflict. Because of this concentration on the historical context of the war, readers eager for the fighting to begin will need to be patient in the early chapters (or even skip over them). What I hope emerges from these pages is a new appreciation of the war’s importance as a major turning point in the history of Europe, Russia and the Middle East, the consequences of which are still felt today. There is no room here for the widespread British view that it was a ‘senseless’ and ‘unnecessary’ war – an idea going back to the public’s disappointment with the poorly managed military campaign and its limited achievements at the time – which has since had such a detrimental impact on the historical literature. Long neglected and often ridiculed as a serious subject by scholars, the Crimean War has been left mainly in the hands of British military historians, many of them amateur enthusiasts, who have constantly retold the same stories (the Charge of the Light Brigade, the bungling of the English commanders, Florence Nightingale) with little real discussion of the war’s religious origins, the complex politics of the Eastern Question, Christian-Muslim relations in the Black Sea region, or the influence of European Russophobia, without which it is difficult to grasp the conflict’s true significance.
The Crimean War was a crucial watershed. It broke the old conservative alliance between Russia and the Austrians that had upheld the existing order on the European continent, allowing the emergence of new nation states in Italy, Romania and Germany. It left the Russians with a deep sense of resentment of the West, a feeling of betrayal that the other Christian states had sided with the Turks, and with frustrated ambitions in the Balkans that would continue to destabilize relations between the powers in the 1870s and the crises leading to the outbreak of the First World War. It was the first major European conflict to involve the Turks, if we discount their brief participation in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It opened up the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire to Western armies and technologies, accelerated its integration into the global capitalist economy, and sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day.
Each power entered the Crimean War with its own motives. Nationalism and imperial rivalries combined with religious interests. For the Turks, it was a question of fighting for their crumbling empire in Europe, of defending their imperial sovereignty against Russia’s claims to represent the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire, and of averting the threat of an Islamic and nationalist revolution in the Turkish capital. The British claimed they went to war to defend the Turks against Russia’s bullying, but in fact they were more concerned to strike a blow against the Russian Empire, which they feared as a rival in Asia, and to use the war to advance their own free-trade and religious interests in the Ottoman Empire. For the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, the war was an opportunity to restore France to a position of respect and influence abroad, if not to the glory of his uncle’s reign, and perhaps to redraw the map of Europe as a family of liberal nation states along the lines envisaged by Napoleon I – though the influence of the Catholics on his weak regime also pushed him towards war against the Russians on religious grounds. For the British and the French, this was a crusade for the defence of liberty and European civilization against the barbaric and despotic menace of Russia, whose aggressive expansionism represented a real threat, not just to the West but to the whole of Christendom. As for the Tsar, Nicholas I, the man more than anyone responsible for the Crimean War, he was partly driven by inflated pride and arrogance, a result of having been tsar for twenty-seven years, partly by his sense of how a great power such as Russia should behave towards its weaker neighbours, and partly by a gross miscalculation about how the other powers would respond to his actions; but above all he believed that he was fighting a religious war, a crusade, to fulfil Russia’s mission to defend the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. The Tsar vowed to take on the whole world in accordance with what he believed was his holy mission to extend his empire of the Orthodox as far as Constantinople and Jerusalem.
Historians have tended to dismiss the religious motives of the war. Few devote more than a paragraph or two to the dispute in the Holy Land – the rivalry between the Catholics or Latins (backed by France) and the Greeks (supported by Russia) over who should have control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – even though it was the starting point (and for the Tsar a sufficient cause) of the Crimean War. Until the religious wars of our own age, it seemed implausible that a petty quarrel over some churchwarden’s keys should entangle the great powers in a major war. In some histories the Holy Lands dispute is used to illustrate the absurd nature of this ‘silly’ and ‘unnecessary war’. In others, it appears as no more than a trigger for the real cause of the war: the struggle of the European powers for influence in the Ottoman Empire. Wars are caused by imperial rivalries, it is argued in these histories, by competition over markets, or by the influence of nationalist opinions at home. While all this is true, it underestimates the importance of religion in the nineteenth century (if the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fuelling wars). All the powers used religion as a means of leverage in the Eastern Question, politics and faith were closely intertwined in this imperial rivalry, and every nation, none more so than Russia, went to war in the belief that God was on its side.
BOOK: The Crimean War
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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