The Crimean War: The Truth behind the Myth 
by Clive Ponting.
Chatto, 379 pp., £20, March 2004, 0 7011 7390 4
Show More
Show More

In his tactless German way, Prince Albert pulled no punches: ‘We have no general staff or staff corps, no field commissariat, no field army department; no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans; no practice or possibility of acquiring it, in the combined use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry and artillery.’ The merest subaltern at the front could see what was wrong. Lieutenant Fred Dallas of the South Devonshires: ‘What kills us out here is the utter want of system and arrangement in every department.’

Was it the advanced age of the British commanders that left them so stuck in the Crimean mud? In the army there was only one divisional commander under the age of sixty and that was the 34-year-old Duke of Cambridge, who had never seen active service and had been chosen only because he was the queen’s cousin. For the navy it was a choice between the 79-year-old Lord Dundonald, who was tottering on the verge of insanity, and Sir William Parker, who himself thought he was a fraction past it at 73. Which left only Sir Charles Napier, a mere 67 but a hopeless alcoholic with a vile temper.

The commander-in-chief was the 66-year-old Lord Raglan, who had lost an arm at Waterloo but had never commanded so much as a battalion in the field. He was selected partly because he could speak French, just as his French opposite Saint-Arnaud had been chosen by Napoleon III because he had fluent English. Unfortunately, Saint-Arnaud also had terminal cancer, which was to bring his colourful life to an end shortly after the Battle of the Alma. He had worked in London as a dancing and fencing master, fled England to escape his debts, then worked as a comedian in Belgium under the name of Floridor, one of his numerous aliases, before popping up in Paris in time to assist in the coup which brought Louis Napoleon to power.

As these two accomplished linguists cruised across the Black Sea towards the Crimea, initial contact between them was hampered by the fact that Saint-Arnaud was too ill to leave his cabin and Lord Raglan with his one arm was unable to climb down the side of the ship. In any case, for all his fabled courtesy and charm, Raglan was not well suited for such a collaboration, since he invariably said ‘the French’ when he meant ‘the enemy’. He was not alone in this hangover from the Napoleonic Wars (half the full colonels had joined up in the 18th century). The otherwise tolerably rational ” Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty, thought fighting alongside the French was ‘unnatural’ and refused to allow British ships to carry French troops. The prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, had expected war with France rather than Russia. Neither he nor Gladstone had much relish for coming to the aid of the Turks against the Russians, who were ostensibly only protecting the rights of their fellow Christians in the Holy Land – the original casus belli.

Above all, the higher levels of the British army were crippled by snobbery. The system of commission by purchase allowed the sons of peers and plutocrats to skip from one rank to the next by a series of large payments. More pernicious still, having achieved the promotion, they could switch over to half-pay the next day and swan off to amuse themselves, thus avoiding the inconvenience of actual military experience. Meanwhile, the professional soldier slogged away in India with little hope of promotion beyond the rank of captain, to be sneered at on his return to England by aristocratic cavalrymen such as the Earl of Cardigan. When Cardigan bought command of the 11th Light Dragoons for around £40,000, he tried to remove any officers who had served in the benighted subcontinent as being unworthy to wear the glorious royal blue jackets edged with gold, the furred pelisses and the tight cherry-coloured pants he had designed at his own expense for his new regiment. The OED’s first citation for ‘pants’ in England is to Cardigan’s cherry-coloured ones, thus immortalising that umbrageous dandy in garments for both the upper and lower limbs.

At the time of the war, Lord Cardigan, like his immediate superior the Earl of Lucan, was already in his mid-fifties. The two men were without doubt the most unpopular officers in the army, both notorious for their arrogance, relentless nitpicking and foul temper. Lucan (the great-great-grandfather of the missing murderer) was also the most unpopular man in the West of Ireland, having evicted thousands of his starving tenants and destroyed their cabins in the wastelands of Mayo. Cardigan was booed whenever he showed his face at the theatre, especially after the ‘black bottle’ incident when he accused a respected ‘Indian’ officer, Captain John Reynolds, of ordering a bottle of porter at the mess table of the 11th, where only champagne was allowed. Reynolds protested that he had in fact ordered Moselle, which came in a similar black bottle. Cardigan refused to accept this as an excuse, since gentlemen had their wine decanted. There was a sulphurous row, Reynolds was arrested and ‘black bottle’ became the cry of the town.

Lucan and Cardigan were brothers-in-law and naturally hated each other. Throughout the campaign, Cardigan refused to take orders from Lucan, who boiled with fury when Cardigan usurped his prerogatives. Any sensible C-in-C would have removed one or the other, or better still both, but Raglan tried to charm them out of their animosity. As a result, the quarrel continued, with fatal results for the cavalry and the Light Brigade in particular, whose charge remains the most catastrophic single episode in a dismal war which achieved nothing and should never have been fought, and in which four men died of cholera, dysentery or typhoid for every one who was killed in battle.

Such is the familiar story and Clive Ponting tells it with verve and clarity. The Crimean War may lack the exuberance and wit of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1954), but instead it puts the war in its geopolitical context, reminding us not only that this was the largest and costliest conflict between 1815 and 1914 (the casualties slightly higher even than those of the American Civil War) but also that the war was not confined to the Crimea, there being mostly naval and mostly inconclusive engagements in the Baltic, the Caucasus and the Far East.

Yet the book presents an underlying difficulty. There is an uneasy tone to it which never quite disappears, even in Ponting’s fine descriptions of the campaign. This difficulty springs, I think, from the author’s personal history or, to put it vulgarly, his selling quality. Ponting first came to notice as a fearless whistleblower in the Ministry of Defence who exposed Michael Heseltine’s dodgy behaviour during the inquiry into the sinking of the Belgrano. As a historian he has made effective use of this reputation as the man they dare not gag. His writings tend to present themselves as ‘revisionist’ (his book on Churchill), as offering ‘a new perspective’ or, more ambitious still, as a new (green) ‘history of the world’. So here, in the case of the Crimean War, we are to have ‘the truth behind the myth’. One more corpus of conventional wisdom is to be exploded, another gaff is to be blown.

But are there any myths about the Crimean War in the sense that Ponting means, any economies with the truth that the establishment has deluded the masses with? Is it really true, as Ponting claims, that after the war the small governing group in Britain preferred to let the troublesome questions fade into oblivion, that in retrospect ‘the Crimean War settled into the comforting mythology of the heroism of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the self-sacrifice of Florence Nightingale’? Surely the whole point of the Light Brigade story is that ‘someone had blundered.’ I can detect little eagerness to cover up the extent of the failures either then or now. As early as 23 December 1854 – before the terrible losses of the first winter – the Times was thundering in terms which make today’s criticism of the war in Iraq seem anaemic: ‘The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness and stupidity reign.’

In reality, what Ponting gives us from first to last is the conventional wisdom. Every schoolboy knows, or used to know, that Lord Raglan was the worst commander in the history of modern warfare; that all his commanders had advised him to wait until spring before besieging Sevastopol; that his orders at the Alma were culpably vague and at Balaklava hopelessly ambiguous. If there was a strategic piece of ground, he invariably failed to occupy it – at Inkerman Ridge, for example. If the enemy was fleeing, he failed to give orders for pursuit. In the appalling winter of 1854-55 he scarcely visited the troops. He would arrive late for every battle, though not as late as Lord Cardigan, who had to be rowed ashore from his yacht out in the bay. When the British had stretchers, which was not often, they employed Chelsea pensioners as stretcher-bearers, who not surprisingly dropped in droves and were soon occupying the stretchers themselves. The hospital ships were commandeered as troop transports and half the medical supplies were left behind.

As for Florence Nightingale, according to Ponting, she was a bad-tempered, scheming, egotistical hypochondriac, and the death rate at Scutari was far higher than at the hospitals run by the unassuming Sisters of Mercy who had none of Nightingale’s high social connections. Here, too, Ponting follows the now established picture etched by F.B. Smith’s hostile biography of 1982. Like Smith, Ponting fails to grasp both how witty and how self-mocking Nightingale could be, and how purposefully she undertook the manipulation of the elite in order to bring about systematic reform of the nursing profession. For all his reputation as a debunker, Lytton Strachey fully understood her mastery of PR and appreciated the concrete results she achieved. In fact, it sometimes seems that it was not the 1920s and 1930s but the 1970s and 1980s that witnessed the most virulent attacks on the Victorians. Nightingale has been accused in recent years of being a drug addict, a rabid Tory, a diehard opponent of women’s suffrage. The first volumes of Lynn McDonald’s edition of her collected works (2001-) establish easily enough that she was none of these things, but the denigration will, I’m sure, carry on regardless. The levelling, rancorous eye never closes.

Nursing was not the only occupation to be put on a new professional basis as a result of the shortcomings exposed in the Crimea. The Hospital and Sanitary Commissions had reported while the war was still in progress, and the death rate fell rapidly both at Scutari and in the Crimea. A full-scale Royal Sanitary Commission was set up under Sidney Herbert in 1857 to investigate conditions in army barracks and hospitals. Ventilation, sanitation, diet and leisure facilities were all improved as a result. The performance of the army commissariat was fiercely criticised by another commission. A staff college was set up at Camberley to transform the training of officers. The purchase of officers’ commissions was at long last phased out in 1871. Not everything the prince consort had complained of was remedied, and reactionaries in the army continued to resist overdue reforms, but the public mood was anything but complacent. The general view, in the phrase coined by Punch in this context (and not, as usually thought, in relation to the First World War), was that the troops had been ‘lions led by donkeys’. All this is clearly set out in other recent books on the subject, such as Trevor Royle’s Crimea (1999). None of it is to be found in Ponting.

A truly revisionist account of the Crimea might venture even further to consider whether the conduct of the war was so uniquely lamentable. Was the diplomacy quite so misguided, were the logistics so irremediably flawed, the military tactics always so cackhanded? Raglan’s tactic of advancing in long lines only two men deep up the precipitous slopes the far side of the Alma river to attack the Russians on the heights might appear suicidal. Yet it gave the British infantry room to aim their modern high-velocity Minié rifles and resulted in a startling victory. If the ‘thin red line’ of the 93rd had not stood firm against overwhelming Russian forces at Balaklava and blocked the road to the harbour, the entire British expeditionary force might have been cut off and destroyed. This episode is dismissed by Ponting in a few, thin-spirited lines, as is the Charge of the Heavy Brigade later that morning, which put to flight a force of Russian cavalry three times its size. Throughout the war there were episodes not only of remarkable bravery but of skill and improvisation which suggest that the British army was not entirely officered by titled ninnies. Philip Warner argues in The Crimean War: A Reappraisal (1972) that ‘ultimately the British expeditionary force numbered close on a hundred thousand and was an efficient, balanced, well-supported command . . . The great achievement of the war was the rapid and miraculous transformation of an obsolete system, which had not been used for forty years, into a highly efficient up-to-date force while at the same time not losing any battles, as the Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman showed.’ We need not go quite that far in ‘rebunking’ the British military performance to recognise that a supposedly fossilised system was quick and candid in acknowledging its shortcomings and energetic in tackling them.

Ponting rightly emphasises the contribution of the French, with their superior numbers and organisation. Yet that did not prevent them losing up to 40,000 men from disease in the second winter of the war, by which time the British had learned from their logistical mistakes. And Warner asserts that the French were much less self-critical about their Crimean performance and thus slower to learn the lessons.

What strikes one is the degree of civilian initiative during the war. Samuel Peto, the great railway contractor, badgered the Duke of Newcastle to let him build a railway to move supplies up to the front from Balaklava harbour. In no time, rails, points and sleepers were on their way to the Crimea. Within a couple of months, specially recruited navvies had laid seven miles of double track. Joseph Paxton, the creator of the Crystal Palace, recruited a works corps to build a metalled road and to fortify the British lines, ensuring that the army was well supplied and in good condition throughout the second winter while the French were suffering so badly. Alexis Soyer, the great chef of the Reform Club, travelled at his own expense to improve the kitchens, first at the Scutari hospitals and then in the Crimea itself. He invented an efficient camp stove (four hundred of them were shipped out to Balaklava), and he taught the camp cooks to use the water in which they had boiled beef to make a nutritious soup. And then of course there was the unstoppable Miss Nightingale. Throughout Ponting’s pages (and possibly somewhat contrary to his intentions), you get the sense of an innovative and energetic people responding with a fertile impatience to the intolerable failures of the first few months.

It is conventional in accounts of the Crimean War, including this one, to characterise it as the first war in which the press played a really influential role, notably thanks to the brilliant reports of William Howard Russell of the Times, which read as vividly today as when they were written. As with Vietnam, these accounts, carried so swiftly to the suburban breakfast table, are supposed to have accelerated public disgust with the war and to have fuelled a demand for quick results.

So they did, though I question quite how new this was, since news of defeats in earlier wars seems to have percolated through quickly enough. What was new about the reports from the Crimea was their precision and detail. Russell was providing compendious feedback, to which institutions and individuals, both private and public, responded in all sorts of practical ways.

More important, all the forces involved in the war had been neglected during the forty years of peace that followed Waterloo. It wasn’t only the logistical sinews that had gone slack from long disuse. Diplomacy, too, was waking up in a confused and disoriented state. The Concert of Europe had worked so effectively that, when it began to break up, political leaders in all countries were at something of a loss, just as they would be at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the ground rules of the two arrangements were not unalike: in the Cold War the idea was to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out; in the years between 1815 and 1855 Britain had to be kept in, France down and liberalism out. But suddenly those rules no longer seemed to work. How to engage a newly assertive France, with Napoleon III itching to prove himself a true successor to his uncle, how to contain Russia’s ambitions to take advantage of the Ottoman decline: these were teasing questions which were answered sometimes by making fresh treaties and alliances, sometimes by warlike manoeuvres, sometimes by both at the same time (negotiations continued in Vienna through most of the Crimean War). Would it prove possible to lock new combinations into place, as Aberdeen and Gladstone hoped? Or did Britain’s security lie in asserting her self-sufficiency and her imperial destiny, as Palmerston and Disraeli trumpeted – although their positions, too, shifted under the pressure of events? And then there was Prussia: scarcely visible in this conflict but soon to become the dominant factor in all calculations.

There were good Concert-of-Europe reasons for making an alliance to counter Russian ambitions and prop up the Ottomans. If Lord Raglan had pursued the Russians directly to Sevastopol when they were at their weakest after the Alma, or alternatively, if he had waited until the spring, then we might now be remembering the war in the Crimea as a relatively small-scale containing action with modest casualties on both sides. But as so often, General January intervened, and the horrors multiplied.

Even so, it should not be thought that the governing elite in Britain entered the war in a gung-ho spirit. On the contrary, the anti-war party was large and included influential voices, from the queen and prime minister downwards. As a young man on his way to represent Castlereagh at the peace negotiations with the three emperors, Aberdeen had wandered into the tail-end of the horrendously bloody Battle of Leipzig. He was in fact the only prime minister between Wellington and Churchill to have seen corpses on a battlefield. His despair at the outbreak of the Crimean War was grounded in an acute understanding of the way wars escalated, an apprehension not much entertained by his old rival and schoolmate Palmerston. In old age, Aberdeen was more melancholy still at the thought of all the slaughter he had failed to avert. The intensity of his repentance remains, I think, unique among British prime ministers.

Even with the unbounded condescension of posterity, it is surely unfair to condemn the Victorians as incapable either of foresight or of contrition. They got things wrong, but when they did they did not pretend they had got them right.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences