Friday, May 13, 2011

The Crimean War: A History by Orlando Figes

In the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe and her monarchs were attempting to do their best to keep the status quo, a balance of power, alive while aware that more often than not their own interests and citizens yearned for something more. Orlando Figes has created an enjoyable, readable, and highly valuable narrative that includes an in-depth look at European machinations on the eve of the Crimean War and showcases the importance of this often forgotten and/or overlooked encounter of east versus west. Overall, this text can be divided into three sections: the lead-up to the war, which includes a tremendous amount of detail on the role of religion in Western Europe, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire; the war itself, including grandiose battles ranging from the Balkans to the Crimea and the Caucasus; and the aftermath, which highlights the real importance of the Crimean War and its lasting effects on not only Europe, but the world.

While initially the Crimean War can be said to have begun due to religious undertones and what was happening in the Holy Land between the Muslims and their Christian (Eastern and Western) counterparts, all too soon religion was intermixing with a variety of other desires on the part of all the major players. France was looking for a new reorientation within European politics, they wanted the stigma of Napoleon’s rule to be done away with and for France to be considered a major contender in future European politics; England was eager to check Russian expansion into the Caucasus and the Balkans, as they feared for their interests in India; some within the Ottoman Empire were eager to institute reforms so as to give the Empire a fighting chance to survive in the coming years, while also looking to check Russian expansion and forcing its citizens to look the other way as Christians from the west came to help fight the Russian menace.

In numerous ways the Crimean War can be described as an event that witnessed a clash of ideas on warfare, with the Russians utilizing offensive weaponry and tactics belonging to the Napoleonic battlefield, while straddling new-age ideas in how they developed their defensive works and trench-lines. In essence, their efforts on the offensive lagged behind their eagerness to experiment with the newest ideas in defensive warfare. But such eagerness was not enough to offset the technological and industrial might that Britain and France brought with them to war. In more ways than one it would be safe to say that the reason, as many suspect, that Russia lost this war was due to her backwardness and conservative contempt for reform. Mistakes on the field of battle were made by both sides, which regularly witnessed friendly fire, delayed offensives which cost numerous casualties, lack of communication and coordination, and disorderly retreats by both sides that wound up costing more casualties than if these men stood their ground or at least retreated in order. As an example, during the battle at Alma, a bugle call to cease fire halted a British advance because ‘an unnamed officer had thought that the Russians were the French and had ordered his men to stop firing’ (213), his call was picked up by the other regiments and precious time was lost as the Russian Vladimirsky regiment gained the upper hand. Additionally, the Crimean War could be seen as a foreshadowing of the Russo-Japanese war. Both times the Russian Empire faced an enemy they regularly degraded and hardly considered a worthy challenge. And in both instances one of the main reasons for their eventual failure on the field of battle was that numerous (thousands for the Crimean War, tens of thousands for the Russo-Japanese war) soldiers were held in reserve, which would have been able to tip the balance in favor of the Russians if utilized at key points in the war by well trained commanders.

The majority, if not all, of the major actions that took place during the war involved British, French, and Russian troops. Turkish troops are at best a sideshow, a tangent, that gets mentioned every now and then. In truth, this war made little sense in the fact that British and French soldiers had more in common with their Russian enemies than their Ottoman allies. All too often Figes comments on the fact that fraternization occurred between the French/British and Russians, who exchanged alcohol, food, and trinkets in no-man's land (many Russian officers could speak French), and even visited each other's camps to talk, and more often than not complain about the Turks/Ottomans. Furthermore, British soldiers regularly treated Turkish troops in a degrading manner, assigning them do jobs fit for slaves, at best. While some Turks might have found this unbearable, their government routinely reminded them that the British and French were their allies and here to help them, so any contempt they might have felt for their Christian, European counterparts was curbed when reminded of the fact that these men were putting their lives on the line for the Ottoman Empire.

One of the more interesting aspects of the war period that Figes deals with is public opinion and newspapers and their impact on the home front. More than any other, the British were regularly aware of what harm newspaper articles could do to the war effort or, in turn, how helpful they could be in siding the public with the actions of the state. The Crimean War was the first war to be seen in pictures by the public as it was being fought, and for the British, it was the first time that a military award, the Victoria Cross, was issued to common soldiers for their courageous deeds on the field of battle (something other states were already doing).

In effect, the Crimean War holds an important place in European history as the antagonisms that resulted from the conflict led directly to the unification of Italy and Germany and most definitely to the Balkan crises that would usher in the First World War. France received its wish and a shift in the balance of power in Europe was underway soon after the end of hostilities. Austria had antagonised Russia for the last time and Russia was soon happy to see Austrian troops defeated by the French/Italians and soon after by the Prussians, leading the way to Italian and German unification. The French were happy to witness the breakup of the Holy Alliance, and after the creation of the Dual Alliance, the relationship between Prussia/Germany, Austria, and Russia would never be the same again; in the end this led to the Franco-Russian alliance that would become the Entente. Lastly, the changes made in the Balkans were never truly finalized as the needs/wants of the population in the Balkans was hardly taken into consideration. Thus, it was only a question of when rather than if a future war would break out in the powder keg of Europe. Additionally, Russia was forever changed as Alexander II took the throne in the midst of war, brought the war to an end, and freed the serfs, thereby changing the course of Russian history in the coming decades.

For all the strengths that Figes brought to this study of the Crimean War, and there were many, there were also a few weaknesses. They by no means take away from the numerous strengths, but they are worth mentioning as Figes is a historian new to military history and at times it seems he makes exaggerations and unfair criticisms without all the relevant/needed information at his disposal. Initially I was somewhat skeptical when the author claimed that the Crimean war was the “first ‘total war’” (xix). Considering the studies available on ‘total war’ I would say that’s very much stretching the definition. While both civilians and soldiers took part, and this was a war very much reliant on industry and, to an extent, the home front, claiming this to be a ‘total war’ is an exaggeration, at best. Figes also inserts a limited discussion of the Russian military, at one point concentrating on the fact that many casualties within the Russian army were a result of disease and death from wounds (due to lacking sanitary conditions). While such accusations are true, Figes makes it seem as if only the Russians suffered from such inadequacies on the field of battle. Yet, throughout the various battles that he discusses (Alma, Inkerman, Siege of Sevastopol) the French and British suffer just as much as the Russians from disease and unsanitary conditions for their wounded. Such initial descriptions of the Russian army are weak as there are no comparisons made and at best the analysis is superficial.


Keir said...

Perhaps Figes feels we've had enough focus on Nightingale and not on the other side which happens to be his expertise.
I recently finished A People’s Tragedy and found that Figes uses others' terms, ideas and plan as his own with slight changes but which my students would not get away with when submitting their works through I'd be curious to see this book sells given the strong feeling against him, especially after his phony Amazon reviews; will he manage to find reviewers, let alone those who would permit themselves to grace his back cover with acclamation?

T. Kunikov said...

Perhaps. I attempted to approach this work with an open mind, but it is a subject I am new to so I cannot comment how much original ideas were brought out by Figes on his own and how many can be traced to earlier studies. I'd recommend this book for what it is, an in-depth look at the Crimean campaign from multiple points of view, but a study not without its weaknesses.