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…

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