Royal Collection/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/Bridgeman Art Library

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea, 1874

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.”

Mike King

Figes is on familiar territory when he describes the incompetence with which the British conducted the Crimean campaign. Until its coming, they had enjoyed almost forty years of peace and hemispheric superiority. Markovits notes a complacent line in Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1855), where a character advises on the young hero’s future: “I think I should send him into the army, that’s the best place for him—there’s the least to do, and the handsomest clothes to wear.”

In the Crimea, however, the fops and fools who commanded, together with the poorly trained men who served under them, found themselves not merely in mortal peril, but fitted only by brutish courage to face it. Captain Blakeley, special correspondent of the Morning Chronicle, marveled at the conduct of some British troops during the murderous crossing of the Alma River:

The men here gave one of those surprising examples of coolness and contempt of danger which forms one of our national characteristics. In the midst of the most tremendous fire which an army has ever encountered, with comrades falling around them, the men commenced seeking for and plucking the half-ripe grapes, which were hanging temptingly on the hewn vines.

In truth, of course, far from demonstrating pluck, this was a sample of the imbecility that sometimes characterized the conduct of British soldiers until modern times.

Captain Fred Dallas wrote home from the Crimea in the same spirit as many other officers and men, heaping scorn on “the clever way in which everything connected with the Army is done.” When sorely needed replacements arrived for his battalion’s boots, which were falling to pieces, these were found to be hopelessly undersized:

How curiously the vein of Incapacity seems to wind about thro’ everything…. With endless wealth, great popular enthusiasm, numberless ships, the best material for Soldiers in the World, we are certainly the worst clad, worst fed, worst housed Army that ever was read of.

Markovits emphasizes the last words of this passage: Captain Dallas was powerfully aware of the fact that the army’s privations were known to every middle-class household in Britain, through reports in the press. Of these, The Times dispatches of William Howard Russell were the most celebrated.

Russell was the first war correspondent, and one of the first journalists, in history to become recognized as a protagonist in, and hero of, the events he described. In the eyes of the public as well as those of many soldiers in the Crimea—though emphatically not those of their commanders—his pen became the sharpest sword on the battlefield, slashing out at generals and government on behalf of their hapless victims of the Crimean army. He writes of the scene after the Battle of the Alma:

It was a sad sight to see the litters borne in from all quarters hour after hour—to watch the working parties as they wandered about the plain turning down the blankets which had been stretched over the wounded to behold if they were yet alive, or were food for the worms, and then adding many a habitant to the yawning pits which lay with insatiable mouths gaping on the hillside, or covering up the poor sufferers destined to pass another night of indescribable agony.

Other star correspondents found their own scoops elsewhere: Thomas Chenery, The Times’s Constantinople correspondent, exposed the horrors of medical facilities in the Istanbul district of Scutari, which prompted the descent of Florence Nightingale and her nurses. For all her noble efforts, 52 percent of patients at Scutari died in February 1855 alone. No better than the army doctors did Nightingale understand the hazards of polluted water and poor hygiene.

Some of the most senior commanders in the Crimea, including Lord Raglan, as young men had fought Bonaparte. In the interim their national culture had been transformed by railways, the growth of newspapers—by 1855 The Times had a print order of 61,000—and the telegraph. Contemporaries observed with fascination and amazement the phenomenon of almost instant press coverage and literary responses to military events two thousand miles away. There was no censorship of allied correspondents’ reports, and it was some time before commanders began to grasp the assistance that press coverage provided to the enemy: within a week or two of publication, the Russians in Sevastapol were reading The Times, with its detailed reports on allied operations, logistical problems, and morale. Beyond Russell and other professional reporters, letters written by scores of officers and men such as Fred Dallas were soon being offered for publication by families at home—outraged by the mismanagement of the campaign that they revealed—and eagerly accepted by newspapers. This was unprecedented.

Markovits, who addesses the relationship between the Crimea and the press, the contemporary novel, poetry, and visual art, argues that the war had a greater cultural influence than has been generally recognized. She writes of Tennyson’s poem on Balaclava’s gravest blunder, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “in which ‘All the world wondered’ (line 31, 52) seems to offer the unifying and heroic voice expected of martial and chivalric song…. Meaning had to be constructed out of something so apparently meaningless.” Within weeks of its publication, soldiers were singing—rather than reciting—Tennyson’s tale of folly at their Crimean campfires.

Markovits notes “the culture of masculinity that came out of the war.” In her discussion of visual art prompted by the Crimea, she has an excellent passage on John Leech’s Punch cartoon captioned “Enthusiasm of Paterfamilias, On Reading the Report of the Grand Charge of British Cavalry on the 25th.” A family surrounds an exuberant father, brandishing his cane in emulation of a saber as he reads The Times—presumably the issue that includes Russell’s immortal account of the Light Brigade’s sally. While Leech’s man and boys visibly exult in the saga, the family’s women react more equivocally, visibly grieving at the carnage. The author quotes Trudi Tate: “What delights father is painful to mother.”

In Markovits’s chapter on the war’s visual art, she notes that some of the most celebrated representations of the Crimea were created only a generation after the event, by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. Her Calling The Roll after an Engagement, Crimea, became the star of the Royal Academy’s 1874 exhibition. A critic described the painting as “a picture of the battlefield, neither ridiculous, nor offensive, nor improbable, nor exaggerated, in which there is neither swagger, nor sentimentalism, but plain, manly, pathetic, heroic truth, and this is the work of a young woman.” Butler was compared to Kipling, and during the years that followed became Queen Victoria’s favorite portraitist of climactic battlefield moments.

When Markovits turns to the influence of the war on contemporary literature, she quotes Thackeray, who observed wonderingly, and perhaps part-ironically: “What can any novelist write so interesting as our own correspondent?” It is undoubtedly true that while the Crimea prompted some of the greatest journalism of all time, it inspired much less memorable fiction.

The prolific children’s author G.A. Henty long afterward drew on his own memories of service in the Crimean hospital commissariat for Jack Archer, Or, The Fall of Sebastopol (1883). I come from the last generation of young Englishmen to have read Henty’s novels with avid enthusiasm, though I never shared what Markovits categorizes as the author’s belief in boyhood as “a blessed state.”

Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, published in 1855, professes to be a tale of the 1588 Spanish Armada, but is heavily redolent of the Crimea. Its hero, Amyas Leigh, is described by Kingsley as “a symbol, though he knows it not, of brave young England longing to wing its way out of its island prison.” By contrast, a disgusted contemporary reviewer of Westward Ho!, W.E. Aytoun, observed that “lust for blood and plunder, are expressed in almost every page.” In one passage, Amyas Leigh’s brother Frank exults: “There is nothing more noble and blessed than to fight in behalf of those whom we love.” Charles Kingsley’s brother Henry wrote Ravenshoe (1862), a tale of a disinherited heir who fills a billet as servant to a young army swell posted to the Crimea. This story adopted a more equivocal view of the virtues of war—the hero returns shell-shocked from his Eastern experiences.

The Crimean poets were not, like the bards of World War I, themselves soldiers, participants, eyewitnesses of the struggle. They wrote from the comfortable eminence of home. Thackeray reflected:

I sit beside my peaceful hearth,
With curtains drawn and lamp
trimmed bright;
I watch my children’s noisy mirth;
I drink in home, and its

I sip my tea, and criticise
The war, from flying rumours
Trace on the map, to curious eyes,
How here they marched, and
there they fought….

Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody
The scathe of battle has rolled
The wounded writhe and groan—
the slain
Lie naked staring to the sky.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among those who not merely deplored the Crimean war and its follies, but even the role of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses, a theme she pursued in her 1856 verse novel Aurora Leigh. Browning wrote after hearing Tennyson read his dramatic monologue Maud, heavy with Crimean allusions, in October 1855:

War, war! It is terrible certainly. But there are worse plagues, deeper griefs, dreader wounds than the physical. What of the forty thousand wretched [presumably fallen] women in this city? The silent writhing of them is to me more appalling than the roar of the cannons.

War, Browning suggests, imposes a mere physical toll, where the plight of the women represents a deeper spiritual wound. Aurora Leigh, says Markovits, proves that redemption must come not from the physical deeds of men, but from “the ideal labors of woman.” Punch defined a hero as “A Fool who dies for his country, when he could stop at home perfectly safe.”

A central feature of the war, as both Figes and Markovits note and discuss, was the emergence of the ordinary British soldier as a focus of popular adulation, heedless of and partly because of the failures of those who sent him to war. The Victoria Cross, Britain’s supreme military decoration, was introduced in 1857 as an award for courage open to officers and other ranks alike: the first sixty-two were presented to Crimean veterans.

Orlando Figes’s history does not alter our perception of the Crimea, but admirably narrates the saga in its international and religious setting. Russia was indeed an aggressive tyranny that posed a threat to international stability, but it was hard for a naval power deficient in military strength and skills to do much about it within the compass of a limited war. Figes ends his work with a discussion of the cultural legacy of the Crimea that is both more succinct and more lucid than that of Markovits. In Turkey, he says, the war has been “obliterated from the nation’s historical memory.” In Russia, it is a source of bitterness that Crimea is today part of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has hung Tsar Nicholas I’s portrait in a place of honor in the Kremlin.

In France, there are many memorials to the dead of Crimea, while the British named thousands of pubs and streets for Sebastapol and the Redan, a host of children for Florence, Alma—even, poor little mites, for Balaclava and Inkerman. The critical military legacy was the Cardwell reform program of 1868–1871, reorganizing the army and abolishing the purchase of commissions, which had allowed such pernicious boobies as Lucan and Cardigan to exercise commands.

Stefanie Markovits’s essays reflect an impressive grasp of her theme; she is especially good on the war and the press. But her book is a less congenial read than Figes’s work. I must renew my oft-made plea that clever academics concede a higher priority to accessibility and not consider it essential to their intellectual reputations that their prose plow a flight path through cumulonimbus clouds. But I must not sound ungenerous: these are both good books by deeply informed authors, which anyone interested in nineteenth-century Europe will relish reading.

There are conspicuous parallels between the Crimea and the conflicts of our own times in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as in 1854–1855, popular admiration and support for the ordinary soldiers of Britain and America persist, despite the obloquy heaped on most of the allied leadership, civilian and military. In our modern wars as in the Crimea, though the West faces a real strategic threat and has some virtue in its cause, it is difficult either to define attainable objectives or to use NATO’s military resources to achieve them. There are already indications that Western operations in Libya are encountering the same difficulties.

Charles Kingsley wrote ruefully in 1855, “Eastward Ho! has never brought us luck,” a sentiment familiar in today’s editorial columns. Consider the resonance of Goldwin Smith’s words, reviewing the Crimean war passages in Maud: “We do not, like the nations of antiquity…literally go to war. We send our hired soldiers to attack a nation which may not be in need of the same regimen as ourselves.” When histories of Bush’s wars are written a few years hence, some of their authors will hold up a mirror to the frustrations of Aberdeen and Palmerston.