The Crimean War: Europe sits down at a wobbly table

The problem with  history is that everything depends on everything else. The 1800s depend on the 1600s, which depend on–oh, hell, my math is terrible–whatever came before them, and so on until you fall off the edge of history and find you’ve been dumped in archeology and geology and anything else that might fill in a few blanks.

And it doesn’t just work backwards. It works sideways. British history depends on Irish history, on Kenyan history, on U.S. history, on Maori history, on French history, and on every other history you can think of. But I’ve been writing about British history here as if we could separate it from everyone else’s. We can’t, and at the same time if we don’t it’ll all get so convoluted that we–or at least I–will end up curled in the corner and gibbering to myself.

Still, let’s pick up a bit of European history, since somewhere along the line we lost track of it. Which bit? The Crimean War, where Britain and bits of Europe collided conveniently. It’s improbable enough to be a nice fit here.

Marginally relevant photo: Re-enactors, out for an evening’s practice. Whatever battle they were re-enacting took place well before the Crimean War. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the guy carrying two genuine Dark Age (I’m guessing at the era) plastic bags. but two bags of whatever for eight people means these folks were better supplied than the soldiers who fought in Crimea.

We’re looking at a moment when Victoria was on the throne. Britain had an empire and was feeling very pleased with itself, thanks. The only problem was that other European countries were out there maneuvering for–well, stuff. Power. Colonies. Raw materials. Markets. Empire, in fact, because running an empire’s a lucrative business. They wanted the same kind of stuff that Britain had, or even the exact same stuff that Britain wanted to keep to itself. Or if possible, get more of.

Europe had already fought a series of wars. One group of countries would fight some other group of countries and a bunch of people would die for, oh, you know, glory and marching tunes and shiny buttons on their uniforms, and then all the countries would get together and sign a treaty and got things settled down into a delicate balance of power for a while.

Until some heavy-elbowed country leaned on the table and all the drinks spilled because one leg was always shorter than the other three, so everyone started fighting again.

The trouble started this time when France and Russia decided they had to defend the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Which was Muslim.

Russia took the side of the Orthodox believers and France of the Catholic. Then France got bored but Russia didn’t and in 1853, it marched into a bit of Ottoman territory, the Danubian Principalities, and the Empire Struck Back, declaring war.

At this point we’d probably be safe to forget about the Christian minorities in Palestine, because they weren’t the point anymore–if they ever had been–and taking a different bit of Ottoman territory wasn’t going to do them any good. This wasn’t entirely–or even mostly, or possibly at all–about religion or the people who believed in the various religions. Russia looked at the Ottoman Empire, which had been around for a long time and was past its peak, and thought, Yum, I could have part of that. And Britain and France looked at the Ottoman Empire and thought, Oh, shit, if Russia gets part of that, it’ll control the Dardanelles, which is the passage from the Black Sea (and just incidentally the site of Russia’s only warm water port) to the Mediterranean.

Think of the Ottoman Empire as the cork for the bottle where Russia’s fleet was moored.

Russia did have northern ports, but the thing about the north is that it’s cold up there. Russia’s northern ports iced over all winter. That’s a problem for ships, which are designed for water.

So Britain wanted to keep the Ottoman cork on hand to bottle up Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Plus the Ottoman Empire was a good trading partner. It exported raw materials to Britain and imported manufactured goods from Britain, which was just the kind of relationship Britain had gotten rich on. Or one of the kinds, but let’s keep this simple.

In case that wasn’t enough by way of reasons, if Russia expanded in an Ottoman-ward direction, it could hippity hop through Afghanistan–which we all know is hospitable to invaders–and into British India. Which would not be good for Britain.

So when Russia seized Ottoman territory and the Ottomans declared war, Britain and France came in on the Ottoman side. Before long, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia were all fighting Russia and everyone was cranking up a patriotic frenzy at home.

France and Sardinia had their own reasons. Never mind them. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The allied plan was to seize the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, on the (you knew this word would come up eventually) Crimean Peninsula, and be home in three months–long before the good folks there ran out of frenzy.

You know how that sort of prediction works out.

After a glorious first battle, the attack bogged down and the allies laid siege to Sevastopol. On two sides. Or possibly on one side. It depends where you want to draw the line between one and two, since they weren’t working with a square. The allies were to the south. That meant the Russians could come and go from the north and east.

Why couldn’t the Russians come and go from the west? It’s a good question. I’ve looked at maps of the siege and I’m prepared to testify that west was present throughout and located roughly where it is to this very day. Never mind. We don’t do military detail here. What matters is that this was a leaky siege, and even someone who knows nothing more about military strategy than how to spell it–and I offer myself as an excellent example of the species–could have told the allies they’d built a problem into the plan.

So everything bogged down and eventually the Battle of Balaclava took place, which included the Charge of the Light Brigade–a maneuver so disastrous that it’s celebrated in national memory and was awarded capital letters and a Tennyson poem full of thumping repetition and lead-footed rhymes glorifying if not exactly the charge’s stupidity, at least the soldiers’ suicidal obedience:  

Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.

What happened was that the Light Brigade was given an ambiguous order, did what they may or may not have been meant to do even though it was clearly nuts, and got shot at from both sides of a valley as they charged through it. In twenty minutes, forty percent were killed or wounded.

The Russians declared the battle a victory because they’d killed a lot of people and gained positions that seemed to matter. The British claimed a moral victory because they were so damn brave.

Tennyson also wrote a poem about the Heavy Brigade–the Light Brigade’s big brother. It was a flop and their more successful battle is mostly forgotten. I mention that in part because when I was a kid I thought the Light Brigade carried torches. So everybody could see their way, I guess. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but mine not to reason why. I couldn’t quite put a question together. 

So what, other than the fact that it happened and that I wanted to write about something in the nineteenth century, makes the Crimean War worth spending time on?

First, the telegraph was up and running, making it was the first war to receive on-the-spot coverage, notably from W.H. Russell, writing for the Times. At an early stage of the war, he wrote, “The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.”

The Turks, by the way, were the Ottomans. You can call them either one and be reasonably right.  

The allies’ planning was stunningly bad. What they did have in plentiful supply was contaminated water. The causes of cholera weren’t yet known for certain, but the planners created perfect conditions for it. Disease–not just cholera, but a basketful of them plus badly treated or untreated wounds and malnutrition–killed four times as many soldiers as battle wounds did. Or ten times. It depends–as it often does–on who you ask, and probably which army or armies they’re counting. Four may be the more reliable number, since it comes up more often. Either way, though, many more soldiers died of illness than in battle.

Russell’s reports, along with the sketches of William Simpson, dragged the brutal reality–as opposed to the patriotic glory–of the war into the news, which pissed off Prince Albert, who didn’t think the general public should be in on this sort of thing. They also brought down a government. 

This is not unconnected to the second reason the war’s worth our time: The government got desperate enough about the public uproar to send women to the Crimea as nurses. The situation they found was beyond grim. In the hospitals, soldiers lay on bare floors and got no more than one meal a day–which is to say, there would have been times when they got less than one. Some were left to die with no medical attention and no painkillers. Others had their wounds bandaged once and were then put aside and forgotten. Sanitation was nonexistent. So were toilets.  

Into this mess waded the celebrated Florence Nightingale, the nurses under her leadership, and the until recently widely forgotten Mary Seacole, bringing order, compassion, medical treatment, and food–not to mention basic sanitation.

They were anything but welcome. The doctors wanted no part of Nightingale and her nurses. Sent by the government or not, they were women, for the love of Mike. What did women know? This was a place for men by men who were out there being men. And if there’s one thing men don’t need it’s sanitation and being fussed over. 

And Seacole? She wasn’t just a woman, she was a black woman. She’d had to pay her own way to the Crimea, because the British government refused to send her, and once she got there she had to elbow her way into a position where she could do essentially the same work as Nightingale but separately, since the sainted Flo didn’t welcome her help either.

Yeah, life’s an ironic s.o.b.

Their lasting legacy was the professionalization of nursing and the introduction of basic sanitation to hospitals.

And the legacy of the war? In 1855, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol. Eventually everyone negotiated yet another treaty and went home. But the table still had one short leg. The countries of Europe (which included Britain, even then) still had heavy elbows. 

World War I spilled even more drinks. And more blood. And prepared the ground for facism and World War II.

Don’t you just love history? It makes a person feel so optimistic.

67 thoughts on “The Crimean War: Europe sits down at a wobbly table

  1. A while ago I heard a discussion of the Crimean War on the radio. One of the pundits said that the Crimean would have turned into a world war, had the participants not had the wisdom to back away from it. They might have been stupid enough to waltz into the war, but they weren’t stupid enough to make it worse than it was.

    Also, did you know that Florence Nightingale (sort of) invented the pie chart?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Enjoyed your historical romp, thank you. Cause and effect – which makes history so fascinating, a never-ending story (which includes bits you don’t like, or which make you feel uncomfortable). I have heard it said that Ms Nightingale was, ironically, a hypochondriac. She lived until she was 90. I didn’t know about the pie chart… ABAB features one of the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Trooper Pearson – http://bitaboutbritain.com/trooper-pearson-and-the-charge-of-the-light-brigade/ if anyone’s interested. The last survivor died in 1927.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the link. I’ll have to check it out later, when life settles down around here.

      I hadn’t heard about her being a hypochondriac. It makes an odd sort of sense if you imagine working in the sort of filth that they waded into at the beginning. Fifty years of hand washing wouldn’t be enough to convince me that I wasn’t catching some leftover infection.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Be happy that you never had a real war in England in the last thousand years or so. We had ocupants like Napoleon, later the Red Army and today it is McDonalds, now awaiting the Chinese. But your sentence at the very end about WW I and WW II is really very true. One of the ugliest wars in Central-Europe, the Thirty Years war (1618-1648) till today is visible and virulent in towns or landscapes and still influencing minds and spirits.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m told that the World War I battlefields in France are so full of bodies that the soil has still not been able to break them down. It’s impossible to match one horror against another–they all (and I guess I’m paraphrasing Tolstoy here) have their own way of being horrible. World War I is horrifying for its sheer pointless, almost unimaginable slaughter. But then, I know very little about the Thirty Years War. In fact, beyond its name, I know nothing. I should do something about that.

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  4. Thanks for the information. I recall that poem as we had to memorize it even in Canada. But of course, knew very little about what it was all about. Even as a child I thought war was futile and a waste of human resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I first heard of it from my father, who probably had to memorize it in school. He presented it as the height of military insanityo–theirs not to reason why, etc. I didn’t quite get what he was talking about at the time, but it stayed with me and I sort of grew into the discussion long after it was over.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So much detail! My head is spinning and, to be perfectly honest, my eyes glazed over part way through. And that speaks to my inability to focus, not to the quality of your writing.

    I realized something as I was reading this post – I want to be on the “right” side, so I look for details that will clearly identify who is the good guy and who is the bad. HA! such a naive impulse, yes?

    One’s villain could be another’s victor. So even though we can read the story, or watch the reenactment, we must be aware of the filters that have been applied.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I remember doing a similar thing as a kid–taking the standards I’d learned in the modern world and trying to understand the past by measuring against them. It was equally useful. And of course I added an overlay of the good guys / bad guys search. It must be a common impulse.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Looking at map…

    “Look, if we go here, they go there and then where will we be?”
    “You know how far it between here to there?”
    “About three inches on the map.”
    “No, it’s three thousand miles of steppe, desert, mountains and fever swamps. You don’t want to go there.”
    “But what if they go there?”
    “They would be silly to.”
    “Maybe so, but we have to be silly first.”

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  7. What! No mention of the’ thin red line’?
    As a child I came across a picture of Nightingale, carrying a lamp through lines of wounded soldiers lying on straw bedding. Having been warned of the dangers of fire in barns I thought she was an incendiarist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For no reason I can quite explain, I hate the image of her as the lady with the lamp, so your association with it gave me a good laugh. My thanks.

      The thin red line didn’t come up in my reading, although I have no idea why.

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    • She’s been in the news lately–a resurrection of her memory. She’s well worth learning more about. I couldn’t manage to say much more about either her or Nightingale without the whole post getting thrown off balance.

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  8. Ellen, I do love history! And the way you tell it! I never paid much attention to history before forced to writing a historical fiction book. It’s finally on the end side after 3 years of “research.” Germany & Ukraine from 1879. The US from 1903. Wars and pogroms, Jewish history, and music in the 50s. Just as complex as wars. Reading your post gave me some ideas about style, writing long sections of history with personal side comments. I need more of those. Info dumps kill a story! Thanks! 📚🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    • Forced to write historical fiction? How does that work?

      That’s the period when my grandparents left Russia for New York (my father–the first-born American child–was born in 1901) so it’s a time I resonate with strongly. It sounds rich and fascinating, but I do agree about info dumps. It’s a battle to wear the research lightly. One of the things I find happens to me sometimes is that I learn some bit (or huge chunk) of information and think I have to include it because–well, because I know it, I guess. And it’s throwing everything off kilter. Half the struggle is finding information and the other half is figuring out what part of it to throw out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ellen, you have a grandparents story there! I’d love to know more about it! The forced part? The historical fiction book is about my famous grandfather, who played primary trumpet for US symphonies (NY, Boston, Detroit, etc). He came to the US from Germany in 1903. Writing about him included his history in Germany. Family rumor had it he was “adopted” and his dying words were “no one is to look into my life, that history dies with me.” OMG…I was “forced” to find out why! An online professional researcher helped me for free. My grandfather’s interesting life “forced” him to search above and beyond reason! And I could not stop until I got answers. When some were left hanging, I made up scenes with real history included. That’s when I looked at the scenes and thought “info dump” what can I possibly cut. Much of the history I weaved into dialogue, but there’s still too much! I agree with everything you say, especially your last sentence. Thanks! 📚 Christine

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow, talk about calling attention to something you want to keep to yourself. I can’t help thinking that as much as he wanted it to die with him, he wanted someone to know what he was doing–if not necessarily the content at least his act of silencing. Have you found the secret–or the pain, or whatever he wanted to put an end to–or is it a blank you’re having to fill in?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sorry, my finger slipped and whoosh, unfinished. The Jew question I answered (made up). He was born in 1879) to a Jewish Ukrainian woman, a nurse, in Germany. Adopted by a German Lutheran couple. Told about this when he left for the US at age 24. His choice to decide if he wanted to be Jewish or not. I believe he hid it to fit in, a lot of immigrant Jews did that. But, there is a made up part that he had his birth mother’s picture in a pocket watch with a Yiddish inscription from his beloved mother under it. Before each symphony, he looked at her picture and dedicated his solo performance to her! He struggled with the conflict! And he also said someone will find you and tell your courageous story. He never counted on a granddaughter to tell it. She never knew him, he died 6 years before she was born. There’s so much more drama, tension, and twists in the story, all around how this affected the main character and her family! Phew! Strange to say I’m having so much fun writing this book! 📚🎶 Christine

            Liked by 1 person

            • Interesting. At 24, having been brought up Christian, it’s anybody’s guess how he’d have fit himself into any part of the Jewish culture–which was far from a single community, but a series of many groupings that didn’t necessarily like each other. There’s no single way to be Jewish. And it’s hardly a surprise that he didn’t choose to identify with a group he didn’t feel himself a part of and very likely grown up despising. It raises the question of what it means to be Jewish. If you weren’t brought up as part of the religion or culture but have a Jewish mother, are you Jewish? Why?

              None of which is the issue you’re dealing with, but what you said sparked it off.

              It’s true that some immigrant Jews left their Jewishness behind and hid it and also that many others didn’t deny it but didn’t call attention to it either. That’s how I got my last name–my father changed it. But it seems to me that what he was running from was something different. Anyway, it’s a fascinating story.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Thanks Ellen, for your perspective on Jewishness. It seems you can identify with some part of what the story is about. Your father changed your last name to not call attention to being Jewish, again to fit in. I’d say my grandfather wanted to do the same. In one instance, he wanted to identify with the German musicians, only allowed in a special meeting room at the NY Philharmonic Orchestra. When a Jewish student looked for him there, grandfather was rude to him, saying “if you ever come here again, I’ll knock your teeth out.” Again it seems a conflict. His Kezar Lake, ME, beachfront resort was filled with wealthy Jewish families from NYC & Boston! He put on musical venues, considered them friends, and took their money to stay there summer after summer! In the book, I developed this further. The main character convinced he hid being a Jew to fit in, he didn’t hate them. She (a nurse) fell in love with a Jewish doctor, gets engaged and the wedding date is set! She wants to change family history. Stand up for Jews! She fights the prejudice of some family members. It’s part of growth in her character arc. The nurse/doctor romance, the most fun to write! 📚🎶 Christine

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yep, and it’s great for tension and drama in the story. Thanks so much for spending time “talking” to me about the grandfather & Jewish subject. Much appreciated! 📚🎶 Christine

                Liked by 1 person

  9. Good post and history lesson. I remember wondering what a light brigade was also. I thought it as a depressing poem. What a waste.
    Don’t understand nineteenth century battle tactic. Charging back and forth. Charging army often was completely wiped out.
    That continued in WWI. They kept at it till both France and Germany started running out of troops.

    The Grand Game eith Russia seems to. E still going on. They have captured East Ukraine ho get their warm port back and and becoming influential in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Tried and failed again I. Afghanistan. When will other counties, like. us, learn yo stay out of Afghanistan? Never, it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know enough military history (or strategy) to know what the alternative to charging the enemy was, or if there was one given that they didn’t consider guerrilla warfare. (Far too ungentlemanly.) I agree, it does sound insane but I wonder if some necessity (or apparent necessity) didn’t lie behind it.

      Like

  10. I wish I had had access to this blog post and your potted history of the Crimean War back when I was forced to teach Tennyson one year. I managed to impart knowledge but not much enthusiasm for Sir Alf to my students.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Mary Seacole. That was MY history lesson for today ! Thank you for that. (“Ken Burns, if you’re listening, there seems to be a documentary here…”)

    Since Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg came less than ten years after The Light Brigade’s, it seems they didn’t learn from history much back then either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • History is endlessly fascinating, but do we learn from it? I am never sure. I guess the problem is it’s the times when we fail to learn from it that are noteworthy. It does often feel though that the ‘leaders’ decision-makers, would rather make their stamp, and this mistakes, than learn from the past.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Someone or other–I have no idea who–said that generals are always fighting the last war, not the current one. In other words, they learn from history but not necessarily the right things. It’s easy to read history with enough bias that you put together a story that reinforces your beliefs. Historians do it–some of them. Amateurs do it. And we all have it handed to us in the form of history lessons at school (hopefully college/university-level history is more open), which reinforce whatever the going national mythology is. So we learn, but not necessarily anything that challenges the accepted beliefs.

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  12. I enjoyed this because, well, because it’s enjoyable but also because I recently read a 853 page (but who’se counting?) biography of Florence Nightengale. She was brilliant, a polymath, a Christian mystic and very very difficult. The most interesting – to me – part of the story was her childhood and youth. She was educated very liberally by her father but then he wouldn’t let her do anything. She almost died, literally, of boredom. Finally the family let go of her and the rest is her strange history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My best guess is that if you want to get anything done, it helps to be very, very difficult. At least that’s my excuse–either for being difficult or for not getting much done. Take your pick.

      I’m surprised to find there’s an interesting human being behind the featureless icon. I’ve always been so put off–and bored–by the saintly image that I didn’t look beyond it to find out about the person.

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  13. I don’t know about loving history, but I absolutely adore the way you tell it! And it never occurred to me until just now that every time I thought about the Light Brigade, I pictured them on horses carrying torches too! I’ll probably continue to do that, since it’s much better than picturing them all dead:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right: much better image. But while we’re on the subject of absurd assumptions, I was reading up on the use of seals before signing documents became common and remembered that when I was a kid and first heard about sealing wax I assumed we were talking, for reasons I didn’t really qeustion, about ceiling wax. Maybe it speaks to how strange I found the world that I didn’t stop to ask what ceiling wax was for or why anyone needed it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think she waited for anyone to let her do anything. She had to make a space for herself. She beccame, at the time, well known and was much loved by the soldiers. Then she was more or less erased from history while ol’ Florence was put on her pedestal.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. What always intrigued me about the Crimean War was the way it was popularised through photographs at the time – deliberately, for commercial gain. I always figure that this helped open the door for the ‘social militarisation’ of later nineteenth century society, though there were lots of other reasons for that too (just speaking of connections). A decade or so back I wrote a book on how that particular social bubble was burst by the First World War (just speaking of more connections…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always assumed that the romanticization of the military has been around for a long time. All those flashy uniforms and the marching music and the illusion of power. I admit, I probaby gathered that from old(ish) folk songs. (“Oh, Mrs. McGrath! the sergeant said, / Would you like to make a soldier out of your son, Ted, / With a scarlet coat and a big cocked hat, / Now, Mrs. McGrath, wouldn’t you like that?”)

      I haven’t seen as much of the Crimean War photography as as I have the photos that came out of the American Civil War, but I know that photography was still a slow and static art form, so you can find lots of photos of soldiers posing stiffly in their uniforms–the kind of thing they’d send home to the family–and of the dead on the battlefield, who cooperated well with the long exposure times the camera needed. There are tales of photographers rearranging the corpses so they’d get a better shot.

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