Little War, Big Mess

Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854–1856

Trevor Royle
St. Martin’s, 564 pp., $35.00

The Crimean War left the world a curious jumble of bequests: trench warfare, war correspondents, power to the press to mobilize public opinion for or against fighting, Florence Nightingale, the Victoria Cross, two garments of doubtful sartorial value (the balaclava helmet—much favored by late-twentieth-century terrorists—and the rather more domestic cardigan), the most famous and futile cavalry charge in British history, and a very famous, very bad, and very inaccurate commemorative poem, Alfred Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson may have been handicapped by being in England and by his ignorance of warfare (watching the navy sail from Hampshire was his closest battle experience), but his belief that charging horsemen remain undismayed while enemy artillery fires volleys at them from three sides is still wonderfully naive. A later imperial bard, Rudyard Kipling, would have known better because he knew soldiers, knew how they thought and spoke, knew that the cavalrymen would have been swearing the whole way down the valley, cursing the Russians, cursing their commanders, praying to God and making pacts with Him to preserve themselves for the benefit of their girlfriends, wives, and mothers. But it needed the experience of World War I before the “Charge” was “brought up to date” by Ewart Alan MacKintosh:

Was there a man dismayed?
Yes, they were damned afraid,
Loathing both shot and shell,
Into the mouth of Hell.
Sticking it pretty well,
Slouched the six hundred.

The Crimean War, the only war Britain fought against a European power in the century between Waterloo and World War I, does not provide historians with a chance to assess multitudes of causes. There was really only one, the Eastern Question, a question that hovered unanswered over most of the nineteenth century, which received an unsatisfactory reply after 1918 and which in various ways is still with us. Unresolved conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East today are consequences of failures to provide the right answer.

The question itself was simple: What would happen to the territories of the Ottoman Empire after the collapse of Turkey, memorably dubbed the “sick man” of Europe by Tsar Nicholas I? Could they be peacefully distributed among the powers claiming direct “interests” in them—Russia, France, Britain, and Austria? Or would the scramble for the pieces provoke a general European war?

The Russians were keen to hurry the sick man to his deathbed so that they could continue that expansionism in all directions which for three and a half centuries had been gaining them territory at an annual average rate of 20,000 square miles. In 1829 they had acquired Ottoman lands in Bessarabia and the Caucasus and, although the tsar, a relentless and reactionary autocrat, disclaimed any intention of grabbing another inch of Turkish territory, he was in fact eager to become the “protector” (if not the official owner) of most of Ottoman Europe—not only Serbia (where he had already established a strong position) but also Bulgaria and the Danubian principalities (much of modern Romania). Above all he wanted the city of Constantinople (“temporarily,” he told the British, but temporary Russian occupations tended to last at least a century). Possession of the Ottoman capital would make his empire a Mediterranean power.

Unlike Russia, Britain saw the sick man’s collapse not as an opportunity but as a reason for persistent anxiety. Already nervous about Russian expansion in Central Asia, which was perceived as a threat to the Indian Empire, British politicians were alarmed at the prospect of the Russians in the Mediterranean, where they would be in a position to block the route to India, which, even before the Suez Canal, went through Egypt. Britain’s prognosis, therefore, was that the sick man’s sickness was not terminal and that he could be helped to recover through internal reform and friendly external pressure. Whether they really believed this or merely pretended to believe it, the politicians in London were desperate to keep the sultan in Constantinople.

The position of France, which saw Ottoman ill health as both an opportunity and a danger, was more ambivalent. The new emperor, Napoleon III, was anxious to restore his country’s former prestige, which Britain and Russia had so drastically reduced by dethroning his uncle in 1814 and again a year later; and he believed the best way to do this was to pursue a loud and colorful foreign policy. French interests in the Middle East, more proclaimed than exercised though they were, had a long ancestry.1 It was believed that Charlemagne had been granted the protectorate of the Holy Places in Palestine by Haroun al-Raschid and, although this claim was probably bogus and would anyway have been shattered by the Crusades, agreements with the Ottomans in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries enabled the French to acquire considerable influence over the Christians of the Levant. The Maronite Catholics of Lebanon regarded France as their protector, their umm al hannoune, or “nourishing mother,” and claimed that the first Napoleon had recognized them as being French “from time immemorial.”

Much of Napoleon III’s foreign policy was determined by his need for Catholic support in France, where he came to power in a coup in 1852. As president of the short-lived Second Republic in 1849, he had sent troops to overthrow the Roman Republic and restore the pope to his city; and three years later he decided to make an issue of the Holy Places in Palestine, demanding in particular that Catholics rather than Orthodox Christians should possess the keys of the Church of the Nativity and the grotto of the Holy Manger in Bethlehem.2 Much to the annoyance of the tsar, they were given them by the sultan in 1852.

Thousands of Russian pilgrims annually visited the Holy Places, and their rulers could also claim a long and rather more tangible role as protectors of the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Enraged by the assignment of the keys, Tsar Nicholas reasserted Russian claims to protect Christians under Turkish rule and sent Prince Menshikov to Constantinople to have them recognized. Unfortunately for Russia, Menshikov combined the defects of an inept and irresolute soldier with those of a tactless and hectoring diplomat. His failure to bully the Turks led to a Russian invasion of the Danubian principalities and, when the conflict widened to include Britain and France, he was made supreme commander of the tsarist forces in the Crimea. Menshikov can be reasonably if not entirely blamed for starting the Crimean War and subsequently for losing it.

As Trevor Royle makes clear in Crimea, most members of the British cabinet did not want a war but felt that something must be done to deter the Russians. They and the French government therefore sent out fleets in the hope that the presence of their ships in Turkish waters would persuade the tsar that they were serious about keeping the sick man alive. The prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, desperately hoped that this gesture would be sufficient. He despised the Turks and privately admitted that war would “not only be an act of insanity, but would be utterly disgraceful to all of us concerned.” His foreign secretary, Lord Clarendon, agreed, considering it “not only shocking but incredible” to fight a war “for such a cause as two sets of Barbarians quarreling over a form of words.”3 But they were opposed by two of the strongest ministers, Lord John Russell, who had headed the government for six years, until 1852, and Lord Palmerston, who had been foreign secretary under three prime ministers and was now badly miscast as home secretary. Convinced that “half civilized” governments should be given “a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order,” Palmerston urged belligerence and made provocative anti-Russian speeches.

The drift to war was largely directed by public opinion, especially in Russia and Britain. The tsar’s popularity with his subjects was considered insufficient to sustain a retreat or a humiliation, while in London Clarendon lamented that the government’s “pacific policy” would have to be changed because it was “at variance with public opinion.” Palmerston encouraged the bellicosity of the press and told Aberdeen that while peace was “an Excellent Thing, & war a great Misfortune,” there were “many Things More valuable than Peace, and many Things Much worse than war.”

Tennyson, naturally, was infected by battle fever, inserting large chunks into his favorite poem, “Maud,” hailing war and disparaging peace. Why, he demanded, “do they prate of the blessings of peace?” If the choice was between peace and war, “better, war! Loud war by land and by sea,/War with a thousand battles, and shaking a hundred thrones!” (though not, of course, Queen Victoria’s). Peace was “full of wrongs and shames,/Horrible, hateful, monstrous,” and it was a relief to his poetic soul when war finally came:

For the peace, that I deem’d no peace, is over and done,
And now by the side of the Black and the Baltic deep,
And deathful-grinning mouths of the fortress, flames
The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire.

British citizens had not cared very much about Turkey and many associated its inhabitants with stereotypical defects—idleness, vice, corruption, and cruelty. But stirred up by Palmerston and the press, the images changed: Turkey was now an innocent and defenseless bird in danger of being throttled by the Russian bear unless the British lion roused himself and intervened. In his wide-ranging book, which adeptly draws on a great many sources, Royle describes how the frenzy reached its crescendo at the end of 1853 when the London press fulminated against a “massacre” perpetrated by Russian ships against a Turkish flotilla at Sinope on the Black Sea coast. As Royle points out, it was actually “nothing of the sort” but a “tactically sound naval action, devised and executed by one country in a state of war with another.”

Nobody had thought very much about where this conflict should take place except to reject the idea of repeating the first Napoleon’s mistake of invading the Russian heartland and capturing Moscow. Eventually it was decided to attack the fortress of Sebastopol on the Crimean peninsula in the north of the Black Sea. It seemed an appropriate goal: Turkish territory until the previous century, it was quite near the invaded principalities and a sensible target for those determined to prevent the Russians from entering the Mediterranean. But subsidiary military campaigns were organized in the Caucasus, where Turkish troops would fight with British help, and the Baltic, where a British fleet was expected to capture the naval fortress at Kronstadt.

The armed forces of Russia and their three allied opponents were badly led, badly armed, and badly supplied, but the British had some problems peculiar to themselves. British armies had not fought a war for forty years except in Afghanistan (where one of them had been wiped out) and India, but the advantage of Indian experience was nullified by a snobbish prejudice at headquarters against those who possessed it. It was thought better to employ officers who either had no experience at all or had fought as very young men four decades earlier under the Duke of Wellington. The commander in chief, Lord Raglan, was one of the latter, a brave, charming, dignified old man who spoke French well but—coming from a nation that had been fighting the French for over five hundred years—had difficulty in remembering that they were no longer the enemy. Since he had been aide-de-camp and military secretary to Wellington, it was hoped that a little strategic genius might have rubbed off on him. But this was optimistic. The poor man had had no experience of even commanding a battalion and, temperamentally unsuited to giving orders, he preferred, fatally, to make suggestions and requests.

Raglan’s limitations as a general were exceeded by the incapacities of his most senior cavalry officers, the Earl of Lucan, commander of the Cavalry Division, and the Earl of Cardigan, who led the Light Brigade. Brothers-in-law who detested each other, they were despised by their officers, who referred to Lucan as “the cautious ass” and to Cardigan as “the dangerous ass.” One captain alleged that “two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command. But they are Earls!”

The brothers-in-law were beneficiaries of the system of purchasing commissions whereby, in deference to the belief that men of property would be more loyal to the Constitution than professional soldiers, military efficiency was often sacrificed. Both of them had literally bought their regiments—twice in Cardigan’s case because he had had to buy his way back into the army after being dismissed for the vindictive and tyrannical methods with which he persecuted the 15th Hussars. Lucan was arrogant and bad-tempered but he had some intelligence and at least he shared the deprivations of his soldiers by living in a tent among them. Cardigan was one of the most unsuitable men ever to command troops. Vain, stupid, and cantankerous, with no experience of warfare beyond fighting a duel on Wimbledon Common, he persuaded Raglan that his health required him to sleep on his yacht in Balaclava harbor.

Problems of command were exacerbated by inadequacies of supply and transport. The French, who had campaigned in Algeria, knew about these things: they brought with them adequate medical supplies and they fed their men well. The British did not. As the correspondent of The Times noted of the landings in the Crimea,

The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.

The government in London might bewail the arrival of war correspondents whose dispatches kept the Russians well informed of the state of chaos, morale, disease, and inefficiency in the British camp. But the journalists also inspired the public at home to demand improvements in the soldiers’ living conditions, especially in the hospitals: it was after reading of the appalling sufferings of the sick and wounded that Florence Nightingale set out on her mission, and a great many lives were saved in consequence. After a terrible start, the British supply system improved, but calamities recurred: as the army shivered in its first winter on the peninsula, a steamship carrying 40,000 winter uniforms and boots sank in Balaclava harbor.

In September 1854 the French and British armies landed in the Crimea, defeated the Russians at the Battle of the Alma, and settled down to besiege Sebastopol. The following month, on the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the famous charge took place, yet even if the two actions can be regarded as equally “glorious,” nobody could claim that the military skill displayed during the great medieval victory was reproduced in the later blunder, just as no one would compare Shakespeare’s immortal evocation in Henry V with Tennyson’s rhapsody on blood and glory:

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

The four horsemen of this particular apocalypse were Lord Raglan, Lord Lucan, Lord Cardigan, and an impetuous and insolent ADC, Captain Nolan. Had Raglan been able to give a clear order regarding artillery captured by the Russians, the other three might have understood it. Had Nolan been less arrogant, he might have been able to explain the order instead of screaming at Lucan and pointing in the wrong direction: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!” And had the surly brothers-in-law been more friendly and more sensible, they might have had a chat and queried an apparently nonsensical order. But they weren’t and they didn’t. The Light Brigade charged the wrong way against the wrong guns, and nearly half of it was blasted into bardic history—killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The survivors, however, captured the battery and pushed back superior numbers of Russian cavalry, their bravery earning them the famous encomium of a French general: “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” The only happy sight must have been that of a rough-haired terrier, the regimental pet of the 8th Hussars, who ran yapping down the valley after the regiment, reached the Russian guns, and then ran all the way back without suffering more than a scratch.

Lord Cardigan, riding at the head of his brigade, also reached the guns, was briefly involved in a scuffle with Russian horsemen, and then—incredibly—rode back without making any effort to rally the survivors. He treated the whole thing as a horse race, being the first to reach the Russians and probably the first to get back to the British lines. Leaving Raglan and Lucan to argue whose fault it was (and refusing to accept any blame himself), the ineffable commander soon took sick leave to return to England and brag about his exploits.

A few weeks later the British army redeemed itself at the Battle of Inkerman, where outnumbered infantry repulsed a strong Russian offensive, but a year passed before Sebastopol fell, a victory achieved largely by French efforts. Peace negotiations were then delayed by Palmerston, who had become prime minister in February 1855 and who now insisted that Russian power must be crushed. His demands, which he claimed were “very moderate,” included Russian withdrawals from Bessarabia, the Caucasus, and the Crimea itself, which he wanted to give to Turkey.

For a while Napoleon was equally bellicose, believing that a continuation of the war and a humiliation for Russia would further increase French gloire and prestige. But some of his subjects were beginning to realize that the Russians were natural allies against both the British Empire and, more importantly for the future, Prussia. Many of them, including the foreign minister, Count Walewski (an illegitimate son of the first Napoleon), were reluctant to fight any longer. Their view prevailed. The peace treaty, signed in March 1856, exacted few major concessions from the Russians: they were forced to accept little more than the demilitarization of the Black Sea and to cede only that portion of Bessarabia controlling the mouths of the Danube.

Trevor Royle’s achievement is to have skillfully encompassed and explained the complexities of his subject in a single volume of no excessive length. A capable historian, if not an exciting writer, he has well understood the combined intricacies of politics, diplomacy, military campaigning, and changing public opinion. Moreover, he pays rightful attention to the minor and usually neglected theaters of the war, the naval campaigns in the Baltic and the Pacific, and the fighting in the Caucasus.

Royle also helpfully looks at the lessons and legacies of the conflict. The Treaty of Paris produced peace but no solution to the Eastern Question, above all in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire’s most troubled area at that time. The Russians were too powerful and too ambitious to let the sick man vegetate in peace. In 1870 they renounced their obligation to keep the Black Sea demilitarized and seven years later they again went to war against the Turks. The resultant Congress of Berlin was hailed by Britain’s prime minister, Disraeli, as “peace with honor.” But the division of the Balkans between Russia, Austria, and Turkey (however independent some states, such as Serbia, were in theory) led to a fermentation of nationalism and bad feeling that was ultimately a cause of both World War I and the “ethnic cleansing” of the 1990s.

Rivalry between the Crimean contestants in the Middle East produced no dramatic consequences until World War I. But in 1915 and 1916 Russia, France, and Britain made secret agreements giving dominance to Russia in Constantinople, to France in Syria and the Levant, and to Britain in Mesopotamia (later known as Iraq)—astonishing pacts that negated the whole point of the Crimean War. As it turned out, the agreements were nullified by the Bolshevik Revolution and replaced by a controversial system of mandates administered by Britain and France.

There may have been many reasons, good and bad, selfish and altruistic, strategic and political, both for the Balfour Declaration on Palestine and for France’s decision to separate Lebanon from Syria and give power to Lebanon’s Christian inhabitants. But neither of these could ever have brought peaceful futures to the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire. Like the war in Kosovo and the massacres in Bosnia, the Arab–Israeli conflict and the long saga of Syrian involvement in Lebanon are legacies of the failure to solve the Eastern Question.

  1. 1

    The Arab and Turkish lands fringing the eastern Mediterranean were known as the Near East in the nineteenth century.

  2. 2

    The possession of the keys was not an issue at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In order to avoid open rivalry between Christian sects, the guardians of the church were a Muslim family, the Nuseihbehs.

  3. 3

    He was referring to the Russians and the Turks, not the French.