The First New War

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

  • Crimea: The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes
    Penguin, 575 pp, £12.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 14 101350 3

At its high tide under Suleiman the Magnificent and his immediate successors, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf in the south to the Balkans in the north and reached the gates of Vienna in 1683. Then came the long ebb, as the Turks retreated from Europe and others competed to replace them. One power in particular had grown rapidly in importance. The small medieval principality of Muscovy had expanded hugely: Russia reached the Black Sea in the 18th century, picked up the larger portion of Poland when it was partitioned, and was soon standing on the Ottoman border, casting a hungry eye over what are today Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia.

Although the Habsburgs had all but come to the end of their own long centuries of territorial acquisition, Vienna was determined that Russia should not take over in the Balkans where the Ottomans left off – and London felt the same. Britain was in the curious position of being the one great power which could in no possible circumstance acquire European territory by war, but it still did not want Russia to do so, and it became a cardinal point of British policy that Turkey should be protected for as long as possible, which plainly made Russia a potential antagonist.

Shortly after the defeat of Napoleon, the young Grand Duke Nicholas had come to England. Lady Charlotte Campbell found him ‘devilish handsome’, while others, less frivolously, thought that he might one day put Russia on the Western path of enlightenment. Alas, when Nicholas succeeded as tsar in 1825, he dashed liberal hopes, hanging the Decembrist rebels, crushing the 1830 rebellion in Poland, and ruling in a spirit of high autocracy and theocracy. He aspired to lead all Orthodox Christians, and dreamed of ultimately redeeming Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia, the St Peter’s of Eastern Christianity until the city fell to the Turks in 1453 and the great church became a mosque.

The city now known as Istanbul sits on the straits joining the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, a vitally important route for both Russia and Austria, whose economic lifeline was the Danube. In 1841, the London Convention – concluded between Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria and Prussia – closed the straits to all warships except those of Turkey’s allies in wartime. The Russians intended this as a concession to the Royal Navy, but they also meant to use it to drive a wedge between London and Paris. Knowing that London feared French ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, Nicholas hoped for an understanding with the British. Returning to London in 1844, he tried to play on his hosts’ anxieties: ‘Turkey is a dying man. We may endeavour to keep him alive but we shall not succeed … I fear only France.’ He believed he had secured an agreement with the prime minister, Robert Peel, and Lord Aberdeen, his foreign secretary; they thought there had been merely a friendly discussion.

All this was the background to the Crimean War of 1853-55, the subject of Orlando Figes’s admirable book. The war was at once the most dramatic episode in the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the bloodiest war waged between European powers in what was a largely peaceful century after 1815, and the only time during that century when British troops fought on European soil, albeit in its most distant corner, the lozenge-shaped Crimean peninsula dangling into the Black Sea. A Russian possession only since the late 18th century, the Crimea was inhabited largely by Tatars and other Muslim peoples, though there had been Greek settlements there since antiquity, and Genoese since the Middle Ages.

When the war came it brought some startling realignments. England and France had been enemies since the Hundred Years War, and after Napoleon marched on Moscow, Russia had played a large part in his defeat, before forming an alliance with Austria. Now France was ruled by the emperor’s nephew, the soi-disant Napoleon III, otherwise the Louis Bonaparte whose opéra bouffe coup in December 1851 inspired Marx’s phrase about history repeating itself as farce. And yet the Crimean War saw Russia and Austria estranged, while the British and French armies fought Russia together. (Lord Raglan, the British commander in the Crimea, who had lost an arm 40 years earlier at Waterloo, absent-mindedly referred to his French allies as the enemy.) In an even more dramatic turn, with profound implications, the French and British were fighting on behalf of Muslim Turkey.

Few wars have acquired such a bad reputation. The Crimean War was conspicuous for military incompetence and for terrible suffering, and even those who could barely find the Crimea on a map, let alone explain the causes of the war (that included many Englishmen at the time, let alone now), heard about the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Lady with the Lamp tending wounded soldiers at Scutari. A belief has persisted that the war was more than usually senseless and inconsequential, but Figes rejects this, seeing it as a turning point in the history of Europe, of Russia and of the Middle East.

Any historian is tempted to invest his subject with special importance, but Figes makes a convincing case. The conservative alliance of Russia and Austria, which had effectively suppressed nascent European liberalism and nationalism, was ended by the Crimean War, and Russia was further angered by the sight of two Christian powers fighting alongside a Muslim ally. Lingering Russian resentment was one cause of the disruption of international relations and the destabilisation in the Balkans that ultimately led to the Great War. And the participation of the greatest Muslim power in a European war opened the Muslim world to Western arms and technology, ‘accelerated its integration into the global capitalist economy, and sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day’: large consequences indeed.

As his subtitle suggests, Figes sees it as a religious war, which it doubtless was for many Russians, but this applies much less obviously to the other powers. It’s no bad thing that the book is to some degree Russocentric: the Russian perspective is Figes’s particular strength. And yet it may also distort his picture. If he gives the best account of the war from the other side that there has been in English, he neglects its significance in British political history.

First blood was shed over a religious conflict, but far from the Black Sea. Ancient rivalries between eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics vying to control the holy places in Jerusalem erupted again in 1846, when an arcane liturgical dispute at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre turned into a riot and left more than 40 dead. Such matters were usually settled ‘by the one giving a larger bribe to the Turkish authorities than the other’, as the British consul in Palestine wrote cynically to Lord Palmerston, who was then foreign secretary. But on this occasion two of the great European powers, Russia and France, staked claims to protect Orthodox and Catholics respectively. The schism which had divided Eastern and Western Christendom since the 11th century mattered little in Protestant England, but the English had other concerns, which were beyond the comprehension of the autocrat Nicholas. Figes stresses the importance of opinion and publicity, favourable or hostile, which played a much more important part in the Crimea than in any previous war. Although the process of democratisation had barely begun with the Reform Act of 1832, there was at least a form of representative government at Westminster, and newspapers had for the first time a voice that had to be listened to, reaching well beyond the patrician elite which alone had dictated the course of the Napoleonic Wars 40 years earlier.

As the names of cabinet members at the time show, that elite was still in power, and was much exercised by Russian aggression. But a new factor was middle-class England, industrious, serious, evangelical. These burghers had been taught to hate Russia by – to use a word we owe to a later crisis – a jingo press, as well as by preachers and publicists. Less impressed than Lady Charlotte by Nicholas’s good looks, the newspaper-reading public thought him merely devilish, the incarnation of cruel despotism. No publicist was more prominent, or bizarre, than David Urquhart, the crackpot Scottish agitator who sat for some years in Parliament. He developed a passion for all things Turkish (including Turkish baths, which he introduced to London), denounced Russia in apocalyptic terms, and maintained that Palmerston was a paid Russian agent – an odd conspiracy theory considering the enthusiasm with which Palmerston waged war on Russia. And so realpolitikers apprehensive about Muscovite territorial designs were joined by liberals who disliked Russian oppression: a combination that could be heard again during the Cold War, as Figes points out, and indeed more recently than that.

In France, Russophobia was even more acute. Polish patriots had found refuge in Paris after the November Uprising of 1830, and the Marquis de Custine’s La Russie en 1839 was one of the most influential travel books of its age. ‘Everything about it filled the Frenchman with contempt and dread,’ Figes writes: ‘the despotism of the tsar; the servility of the aristocracy, who were themselves no more than slaves; their pretentious European manners, a thin veneer of civilisation to hide their Asiatic barbarism from the West; the lack of individual liberty and dignity; the pretence and contempt for truth that seemed to pervade society.’

As so often, war began in confusion and inadvertence. In June 1853, having made demands on the Porte which were designed to be rejected, Russia attacked the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Nicholas’s worst miscalculation was his assumption that Austria would support him. Only a few years had passed since 1849, when Russian troops had invaded from the east to crush the Hungarian patriotic rising – an event unforgotten in 1956 – and restore the country to Habsburg rule. But Nicholas should have remembered the celebrated mot of the Austrian statesman Prince Schwarzenberg after that intervention: ‘They will be astonished by our ingratitude.’ So it proved: in 1853, Austria stood aside.

If Nicholas wanted a war with Turkey, he certainly didn’t want one with France and Great Britain, and they didn’t much want one with Russia, however little they wished to see Nicholas dismember Turkey. Napoleon III was cynical and corrupt; he preferred war waged in the manner prescribed by Lord Copper: ‘a few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery’. He had no idea what he was in for – and the British government had even less. At Westminster it was a time of political turbulence and rootless party allegiance; since December 1852 the country had been governed by an uneasy coalition led by Lord Aberdeen. He hated war and felt morally tainted by the Crimea ever after, but he was as indecisive as he was honourable, and over the winter of 1853-54 his cabinet drifted towards war without desiring it.

The fleet was ordered to the Bosphorus in response to Russian aggression, and to act as a deterrent. In February 1854, London and Paris gave Russia an ultimatum to withdraw from Moldavia and Wallachia, and when Russia ignored it found themselves at war, though it was far from clear what they were fighting for: ‘Like so many wars,’ Figes says with only a touch of exaggeration, ‘the allied expedition to the East began with no one really knowing what it was about.’

Quite apart from the political confusion, much about the war seemed inexplicable in military terms. If Anglo-French armies had to fight Russia at all, there was an obvious case for doing so on the Danube. Soon after the declaration of war, British troops did land at Varna in what is now Bulgaria, and were forthwith laid low by cholera. But those in charge of what passed for allied strategy decided to invade the Crimean peninsula and storm the great fortress-port of Sevastopol. It soon became all too clear that ‘the Crimean campaign was not only wrongly conceived but also badly planned and prepared.’ Sevastopol was initially almost defenceless, and could have been taken quickly had the British shown any initiative – but initiative was in very short supply.

Thus began the protracted series of battles still commemorated in the names of pubs and woolly headgear – Alma, Inkerman, Balaklava – as the allies edged their way laboriously and bloodily towards their goal. Figes is good at battle scenes, and it’s hard to imagine that this book will be surpassed as a military account. What makes the Crimea so fascinating as well as so harrowing is that it was at once the last old and the first new war. It saw the final outing of the unreformed British army, whose soldiers were still Wellington’s ‘scum of the earth’, or at least the most wretched and poverty-stricken men who could be found in England and, disproportionately, in Ireland, and whose officers were an unintelligent sampling of the landed class, their commissions and then promotions acquired by purchase. Lord Cardigan was an extreme case. In the course of what one biographer calls ‘a life of adultery and bravado’, he bought command of the 15th Hussars at the age of 34 for £35,000, something like £2 million today, and then rose after a fashion to command the Light Brigade. Such officers were expected to look good on the parade ground, but they regarded the serious study of tactics as beneath a gentleman’s dignity.

Few senior officers emerge with credit from Figes’s account, least of all Raglan. Some might bridle at the description of him as ‘near-geriatric’ – he was 65 when his forces sailed – but he was certainly indolent and ineffectual. His French opposite number was Jacques de Saint-Arnaud, a mere 52 but already terminally ill with stomach cancer. Both men would die before the war ended, and neither should have been in command in the first place. From the beginning the war seemed a competition in incompetence, sometimes between the Russians and their foes, but often among the allies – and it was a competition the British usually won. Their initial landing was a shambles when compared with the French, ‘a contrast that would become all too familiar’.

The British army was ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-trained and ineptly led, most famously at Balaklava when the Light Brigade charged into heavy artillery fire; a series of misunderstandings had been made worse by the mutual detestation of Lord Lucan, who commanded the Cavalry Division, and Cardigan, his brother-in-law. After the Times reported that only 200 of 800 men had returned – in fact 113 of 661 were killed, and 45 taken prisoner – Tennyson wrote his dirge, thanks to which the charge entered the national myth of pointless sacrifice and heroic failure. Not quite in the spirit of Alan Bennett’s paradox-mongering media don in The History Boys (‘Those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbor were the Japanese’), Figes suggests that ‘the charge was in some ways a success’ and that Balaklava might even have been a British victory if the pursuit had been pressed home more resolutely. But then that was true of the campaign as a whole.

Either way, the cost was very high. At least three-quarters of a million men died in the war, perhaps half a million of them Russian, 100,000 French and 20,000 British, reflecting the difference in the size of their armies. Figes has found a monument in Witchampton in Dorset to five men from that little village who are buried in the Crimea, and some parishes in County Cork lost up to a third of such able-bodied men as had survived the Famine. All the armies enforced harsh discipline. The French were shocked by the flogging of British soldiers, but the British were shocked by the number of French miscreants who were shot, and the Russian army, then as later, was more savage still, sometimes shooting hundreds of men at a time.

But most fatalities in every army were a result of disease and neglected wounds. The great physician William Osler was a small boy in Canada at the time of the war, but he might well have had it in mind later when he used to say that a man was in much less danger of his life on a battlefield than in most hospitals. Nowhere was that truer than at Scutari, the hospital outside Constantinople where Florence Nightingale tended soldiers and became a heroine to an adoring public at home who had little idea of the reality. Many men ‘were landed dead, several died on the way to the hospitals, and the rest were all in a most pitiable condition’, the surgeon Walter Bellew recorded. Nightingale was well-intentioned but bossy and ignorant; the death rate at the hospital was 8 per cent in November 1854 when she arrived, 52 per cent in February 1855. Only later was it discovered that the hospital had been built on a cesspool, and that raw sewage had been leaking into the drinking water.

Others achieved more. Rejected as a nurse by Nightingale, no doubt because she was partly black, Mary Seacole set up a canteen and general store near Sevastopol, and called it the British Hotel. And Alexis Soyer, chef of the Reform Club and author of the Shilling Cookery Book, sailed to the Crimea, where he showed that it was possible to cook cheap, nourishing and palatable food for large numbers of men, inventing in the process the Soyer Stove, which the army used for generations. But perhaps the truest hero of the war was the Russian doctor Nikolai Pirogov. He pioneered field surgery, a technique other countries took many years to catch up with: he used ether to dull the pain, and introduced the system of triage which all armies would come to adopt. Pirogov worked in the Great Hall of the Assembly of Nobles at Sevastopol, where, the young artillery officer Leo Tolstoy recalled, you were ‘assailed without warning by the sight and smell of about 40 or 50 amputees … Now, if you have strong nerves, go through the doorway on the left: that is the room in which wounds are bandaged and operations performed.’ Tolstoy was plainly inspired by this experience when he came to write War and Peace, and Figes draws much telling detail from his account, not of ‘music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses’ but of ‘war in its authentic expression – as blood, suffering and death’.

A few years later, the American Civil War would see armies transported by rail, trenches, barbed wire, high-velocity rifles and huge casualties, but much of that had been anticipated in the Crimea. The new Minié rifle was far more deadly than muskets, and inflicted hideous wounds. Some of the entrenchments outside Balaklava looked like the Western Front 60 years later. Before the war ended there was even a primitive railway line laid for supplies. Communications, rudimentary and seaborne to begin with, were so quickly revolutionised that by the end, news came and went from Paris to the Crimea in a day, by telegram to Varna and then by underwater cable to Balaklava.

It was also the first ‘public war’, covered by correspondents and shot by photographers. William Howard Russell’s reports in the Times told the public the truth about the war, to the rage of the generals. This ‘vulgar low Irishman’, who ‘drinks anyone’s brandy and water, and smokes as many cigars as foolish young officers will let him’, was unfortunately ‘looked upon by most in camp as a “Jolly Good Fellow”. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.’ Then as now, the higher command did not like the public to know what they were up to; Raglan even accused Russell of treason.

In September 1855, Sevastopol fell at last amid an orgy of looting and drunken disorder. It was actually a French victory, but there was now a new prime minister in Downing Street to take the credit. In January the government had been defeated on a parliamentary motion submitted by the Radical MP John Roebuck which called for an inquiry into the conduct or misconduct of the war. Aberdeen resigned and, to Queen Victoria’s understandable distaste, was replaced by Palmerston.

A traditional view of him as sabre-rattling John Bull has been qualified by David Brown in his new biography, but it was scarcely without foundation.[*] Three weeks after Palmerston became prime minister, Nicholas died. His successor, the far more liberal Alexander II, was eager for peace, but when talks began in Paris, Palmerston dragged them out for as long as he could in the hope of imposing the harshest terms on Russia. The other powers affected to deplore Palmerston while ruthlessly pursuing their own objectives.

Even so, it wasn’t the Russians who suffered most. During the war, Bulgar and Greek subjects of the sultan had collaborated with the Russians, while many Tatars had collaborated with the allies, providing them with supplies and spies. One clause in the treaty signed in Paris in March 1856 required the signatories ‘to give full pardon to those of their subjects who appeared guilty of actively participating in the military affairs of the enemy’, but this was a dead letter so far as Russia was concerned. The British characteristically abandoned the Tatars, despite their piteous pleas for help, and the Russians embarked on a vigorous campaign of ethnic cleansing, forcing more than 150,000 Tatars to leave for Ottoman lands (those still remaining were deported by Stalin).

Palmerston was bitterly hostile to Russia and may even have wanted to dismember it, as he claimed the Russians wanted to do to Turkey. He admitted that ‘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.’ And he succeeded. At the same time he clothed his ambitions in the doctrine we now know as liberal interventionism. In his demagogic 1850 speech on the Don Pacifico affair, he had said that ‘as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.’ By the time of the war, Palmerston had turned that into a rhetoric of universal justice.

By one of political life’s ironies, Palmerston was brought to power partly by the eloquence of the great pacificist critics of the war, Richard Cobden and John Bright, whom Figes mentions only in passing. A decade earlier they had achieved a huge political victory with the repeal of the Corn Laws. Now their opposition to the war saw them vilified. And yet, if Cobden and Bright lost the political war, they won the peace, or at any rate the argument. Setting out the case against the war, Bright gave what have been called the greatest speeches ever delivered in a parliamentary assembly. In December 1854 he described the cruel losses inflicted: ‘In every village cottages are to be found into which sorrow has entered,’ and spoke affectingly of two MPs who had already fallen in the war, Colonel Boyle and Colonel Blair. In February 1855 he told the Commons: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings.’ But it was as the war was beginning that Bright had made the non-interventionist case most cogently. Disraeli had called it a ‘just but unnecessary war’; Bright wondered ‘whether any war that is unnecessary can be deemed to be just’:

It is not a question of sympathy with any other state. I have sympathy with Turkey; I have sympathy with the serfs of Russia … but it is not on any question of sympathy that I dare involve this country, or any country, in a war which must cost an incalculable amount of treasure and of blood. It is not my duty to make this country the knight errant of the human race.

Although Bright failed to stop the war, its disasters and its horrors seemed to vindicate its critics. For years to come, Britain was notably chary about involving itself in any European war, standing aside from the conflicts between France and Austria in 1859 (when Piedmont reaped its reward for sending troops to the Crimea), Prussia and Denmark in 1864, and Prussia and France in 1870. No British soldiers set foot in Europe for nearly 60 years after the Crimean War. Only in 1914, and again in 1939, did we go to war out of sympathy with another state, thereby accumulating a stock of national virtue which has been entirely dissipated in recent years as a sham Palmerston cheered on by a jingo press and a new generation of Urquharts and Tennysons led us mendaciously to war.