Considering the depth of mutual suspicion and animosity between Britain and Russia after they were allies in defeating Napoleon in 1815, it is astonishing that the lion and the bear have fought each other only twice. At Winston Churchill’s behest, British forces took desultory action supporting the Whites in the 1919–1921 civil war. The nations clashed much more fiercely between 1854 and 1856, when the Crimean War had a harsh impact on British society: it set a benchmark for political and military bungling, and for public recrimination about it, that 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.” The Battle of Balaclava, in which Lord Lucan’s cavalry entered the “Valley of Death” on October 25, 1854, has provided synonyms for battlefield folly ever since.
Most British children nowadays leave school ignorant of all historical events save the two world wars, but they acquire fragments of folklore about the Crimean War. They learn that stupid British aristocrats launched a war with Russia during which even stupider ones in uniform then squandered thousands of soldiers’ lives on the battlefield; that Florence Nightingale showed what an enlightened woman could achieve in transforming the care of the wounded, after men had grossly mismanaged the job; that William Howard Russell was the first honorable 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 The Reason Why (1953), 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 it is freshly informed by Russian sources, of which he is a master.
The important and impressive part of his book addresses the origins of the war, analyzing it in its international setting with authority and clarity. Russian expansionism evolved in the late eighteenth century, with a southward advance to the Black Sea inspired by Catherine the Great. The Ottoman khanate of Crimea, on the northern coast of the Black Sea (and now part of Ukraine), was annexed by Russia in 1783. In the early nineteenth century, Russian armies conquered Bessarabia and the Caucasus, and thereafter engaged in frequent strife with their Muslim inhabitants.
In the decades following Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815, both Britain and France became increasingly alarmed by Russian ambitions, especially toward 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.” Tsar Nicholas I, whom Figes describes as “the man responsible, more than anyone, for the Crimean War,” was of the same opinion.
Nicholas favored partition of the Ottomans’ vast possessions between the Christian powers. He was sincerely bewildered to find his hopes for 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; he believed 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 emphasizes religion among the causes of the war, though he seems more persuasive when he writes: “By the time the war began, its origins in the Holy Lands had been forgotten and subsumed by the European war against Russia.”
In October 1853, Russian armies marched into Ottoman-controlled Moldavia and Wallachia—modern Romania—and in November Nicholas’s warships destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. British opinion was appalled. The Times editorialized, “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, emphasize that in the mid-nineteenth 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 (1857):
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 Lord Palmerston, the politician who did most to promote British engagement in the Crimea. The great exponent of “gunboat diplomacy” said in 1848 that England must give “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 during 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 British 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 in Moldavia and Wallachia or to roll back Russia in the Near East. Stratford Canning, for instance, wanted a wider war with the Tsar, “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 French Emperor Napoleon III dispatched a larger contingent, eventually 310,000 men, which conducted itself more effectively on the battlefield, and suffered five times as many casualties as the 98,000 British troops who served in the East. The 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 best-selling traveler’s portrait of a threatening bear, La Russie en 1839, were almost as hostile to Russia as the British.
Karl Marx wrote: “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 alone to the tragedy entitled ‘War With Russia.’” The allied armies established a base at the Ottoman port of Varna on the western shore of 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.
Figes emphasizes that the Turkish army, though savage and ill-disciplined, had an important part in the war. It was a colorful body, led by such generals as Omar Pasha, a Croatian Serb who traveled 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 sympathizers were probably responsible for starting a huge fire at the port of Varna that 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 brought 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 September 14, 1854, the allied army began to disembark at Kalamita Bay in the southwestern Crimea.
The principal events of the war thereafter are familiar. The British and their allies won the battle of the Alma River on September 20, drew the battle at Balaclava on October 25, and won, with heavy losses, at Inkerman on November 5. On November 14, a storm in the Black Sea sank twenty-one British transport ships, causing a shortage of winter equipment and supplies that intensified the miseries of the troops ashore. The major Crimean port of Sevastapol was thereafter besieged by the British and French, though the Russians always kept open a northward line of communication. Successive allied assaults were repulsed, those of the British being characterized by command incompetence.
On September 9, 1855, Sevastapol belatedly fell to the French, after a new British attack had been thrown back. Queen Victoria found it unbearable to think that this failure “should be our last fait d’armes.” Palmerston, who succeeded to the premiership when the Aberdeen government fell as a result 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 March 1856 yielded no prize of substance, save a face-saving agreement about shared custody of Jerusalem’s holy places and demilitarization of the Black Sea. Moscow shifted the focus of its territorial ambitions further eastward, to khanates about which the Western Europeans were less sensitive. To secure this peace with supposed honor, the British had lost 20,813 men, 80 percent 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 John 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 “How Jack Makes the Turk Useful at Balaclava.”