The Crimean War is fated to be forever remembered for the infamous charge of the Light Brigade. Yet, as this book by Trevor Royle hows, the Crimean War itself was a result of much larger and extremely complex machinations in European diplomacy.
Ostensibly, the conflict was fought by Britain and France in order to limit Russia’s expansion, including – but not solely – the Black Sea. A large part of this campaign involved shoring up the wobbling Ottoman Empire, and it was this aim that led the allies to land in the Crimea and beseige the great Naval fortress of Sevastapol. Yet, as Royle shows, fighting also took place in the Baltic, and in other parts of Asia Minor. The war was certainly part of the ‘great game’ between Russia and Britain for dominance in the East, and also Napoleon III’s desire to overcome the limits imposed on France after 1815.
From a British point of view, the Crimea seems to be one of those landmark wars that highlight the shortcomings of the Army. The Army had changed very little since Waterloo – the uniforms were the same, and the commanders were very much disciples of Wellington. Its something of a paradox, however, that these fans of the Iron Duke failed to understand one of his key strength – his command of the importance of logistics. The Crimea found the Army’s support services – medical and supply in particular – seriously defficient. Its a pity that it always takes a war to show failings. Not only that, but it is sad that just as the Army had triumphed in 1918 but rested on its laurels until 1939, the British Army had effectively gone backwards since 1815. However the Crimea did show that the Army had to change, and slowly but surely changes were made, such as the eventual abolishing of the purchase of commissions.
Aside from the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale was perhaps the other significant legacy of the Crimea. After the appalling conditions in the Hospitals were uncovered, it would never again be good enough to leave the care of the wounded as an afterthought. A series of typically Victorian Commissions after the war laid the groundwork for a much improved system. This desire to improve sanitation and conditions mirrored society in general. In terms of the Crimea Generals, Raglan is portrayed as a well-meaning officer who was ultimately out of his depth, while Lucan and Cardigan bear the bulk of the blame for the Light Brigade debacle.
This is by no means an easy read – to cover military history, politics and diplomacy in one book is always going to be a tall order. I must confess to being a bit lost amongst the tales of intrigue and maneouvring between European diplomats, and this side of the book did overshadow the experiences of the men fighting in the Crimea, which I would have liked to have read more about. One glaring error is Royle’s description of ‘Picton’s Union Brigade’ breaking D’Erlon’s infantry at Waterloo – Picton in fact commanded the 5th Infantry Division.
One anecdote that I did very much enjoy was reading about a ‘fine specimen of a British Bluejacket’ showing a French soldier how to beat a Turkish porter, with the memorable phrase ‘here French, let me show you’, followed afterwards by ‘There you blooming lubber, thats the way to hit him’. Apparently the Frenchman could only repy ‘mon dieu’!
But as someone who knew virtually nothing about the Crimean War, it is none the less illuminating.