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.

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