, , , , , , ,

In 1853 the United States was 8 years away from a civil war.  Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo only 38 years before. The Greeks had freed themselves of Ottoman rule 32 years earlier.   The Taiping Rebellion, which was to consume some 20 million lives, was three years into its 14 year life.  In the United States, wars against Native Americans were in full swing; the Battle of the Little Big Horn was 23 years in the future.

Nicholas I was the Tsar in Russia.  Queen Victoria ruled England with the virulently anti-Russian Lord Palmerston as her Foreign Secretary.  In France, Napoleon III, now Emperor, not content with the earlier conquest of Algeria,  hoped to restore France’s preeminence in Europe with some anti Russian saber rattling.  French Catholics were incensed about the barbarian Orthodox behavior in the “Holy Land” and demanded action.   The Ottoman Empire had long since passed its militant growth period.  Muhammad Ali in Egypt had taken Syria and was threatening  Istanbul itself.  Bulgaria, Serbia, Modavia and Wallachia were all bristling with new anti-Ottoman Slavic/Orthodox nationalism. Syria and Lebanon were anxious to escape the corrupt court in Istanbul.

From this combustible mix exploded the first modern war of the industrializing multi-national modern age.  Orlando Figes’ exemplary book,  The Crimean War: A History brings all these characters together, and the testimonials of dozens of ordinary citizens and soldiers to brightly illuminate the agony of the major battles, the 9 month siege of Sebastapol in the bitter cold, as well as the incompetence of the leading officers and the new, passionate pressures of public opinion.  The Crimean War was much more than The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Florence Nightingale, as valiant as they were.

Religious Nationalism, the most potent of all social explosives, was compressing and heating in the so-called Holy Lands.  Figes recounts that in 1846 Easter Sunday fell on the same day for both the Latin and Orthodox rites.

“The two religious communities had long been arguing about who should have first right to carry out their Good Friday rituals on the altar of Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where the cross of Jesus was supposed to have been inserted in the rock.

…A fight broke out between the priests, who were quickly joined by monks and pilgrims on either side. Soon the whole church was a battlefield. The rival groups of worshippers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines. The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshippers of either side. By the time the church was cleared by Mehmet Pasha’s guards, more than forty people lay dead on the floor.

Easterweek had become, over the early years of the 19th century, especially important for Russian pilgrims.  They poured by the thousands into Jerusalem, some of them walking for months, across the Caucasus, Anatolia and Syria to get there.  Both the Tsarist court and the Russian people had a notion of Russia not simply as a geographic territory, but a “virtual” nation:

The idea of ‘Holy Russia’ was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity and with the Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem] as its mother church.

As Russia pressed Sultan Abdülmecid, leader of of “the sick man of Europe” for recognition of its right to be the guardian of the Orthodox within Ottoman boundaries, England entered the fray  under the guise of aid their Muslim friends –whose sedate religious observances favorably impressed Anglicans and Unitarians over the exuberant displays of the Orthodox —   but actually concerned about the growth and power of Russia, particularly as it might affect British interests in the far East.  Napoleon, pressed by French Catholics pressed Abdülmecid to put France in charge of the Holy Land.

The heat of public opinion in Istanbul was no less.  Reforms pressed on the Porte by the western Christian nations to lift onerous tax burdens from non-Muslims, and guarantee more equality of treatment, had the religious community in a boil:

The war mood in the Turkish capital reached fever pitch during the second week of September (1853), when there was a series of pro-war demonstrations and a mass petition with 60,000 signatures calling on the government to launch a ‘holy war’ against Russia.

So, in the Crimean peninsula, jutting south into the Black Sea, exploded one of the several mid 19th century rehearsals for the War to End all Wars at the beginning of the 20th.  Though the Ottomans declared war against Russia on October 4, 1853  for incursions into the  Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, now Bulgaria and Romania, for several months this was something of a phony war — designed by the Sultan’s advisers to head off fundamentalist insurrection in Istanbul.  The real fighting began as the French and British ships sailed through the Bosporus to put Sepastopol, at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula, under siege.

Soon the allied fleets were strung out across the Black Sea, a moving forest of ships’ masts interspersed with huge black clouds of smoke and steam. It was a fantastic sight, ‘like a vast industrial city on the waters’, noted Jean Cabrol, doctor to the French commander, …

British Ships in Balaklava Harbor, 1853

For six hours the city was shelled by an allied broadside of 1,240 guns; its coastal batteries had just 150 guns. ‘The sight was one of the most awful in the way of guns,’ Henry James, a merchant seamen, wrote in his diary after watching the bombardment from further out to sea. ‘Several of the liners kept up a heavy cannonade and it could be compared to the rolling of a huge drum.
… We could see showers of shot striking the water at the foot of the forts and flying up in heaps at the walls.’ The firing of the fleets created so much smoke that the Russian gunners could not even see the ships.


For the first time, public opinion was shaped and reflected in the many newspapers of England, most of which were influential in pushing belligerent national policy.  Gone were the centuries of decisions by a small coterie around a monarch to wage war in pursuit of reclaiming territories, monarchical pride, expansionism or control of wealth.  Those at the top still decided of course, but now the daily drumbeat of scare headlines, opinion pieces and men in the streets — in England all pushing a virulent Russia & Orthodox phobia– became significant.

Reporters in the field, using the telegraph sent first hand reports, often used in inflammatory pieces.  The term “the Fourth Estate” began to be used.

‘Journalism  …  is indeed the “Fourth Estate” of the Realm: not merely the written counterpart and voice of the speaking Third.’ The government had little choice but to recognize this new reality. ‘An English Minister must please the newspapers,’ lamented Aberdeen, a Conservative of the old school who moved between the palace and his Pall Mall club. ‘The newspapers are always bawling for interference. They are bullies, and they make the government a bully.”


Among the writers in the Crimea, though not as a journalist, was the young Count Leo Tolstoy, whose Sebastopol Sketches put him on the Russian literary map.  His experience of the bravery and devotion of the common soldiers, typically serfs from the great estates, and of the incompetence and dissoluteness of the officers, not only provided him with the core material for War and Peace, but changed his life.  His original purpose for going was to write, but as a means of reform:

Tolstoy wanted to see and write about the war: to reveal to the public the whole truth – both the patriotic sacrifice of the ordinary people and the failures of the military leadership – and thereby start the process of political and social reform to which he believed the war must lead.


It was in the Crimea also that Tolstoy began his conversion from his hedonistic life of titled privilege to the ascetic Christian anarchist whose life and writings influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Figes’ book has a wealth of first hand documentation.  Though it is thin in letters or accounts of Ottoman soldiers, he can scarcely be blamed.  Even for the army brass at the time, the soldiery presented singular problems.

The Turkish army was made up of many nationalities. It included Arabs, Kurds, Tatars, Egyptians, Tunisians, Albanians, Greeks, Armenians and other peoples, many of them hostile to the Turkish government or unable to understand the commands of their Turkish or European officers (Omer Pasha’s staff contained many Poles and Italians).
They spoke so many different languages that, even within small units, translators and criers had to be employed to shout out the orders of the officers.  Language was not the only problem of command. Many Muslim soldiers were unwilling to obey Christian officers, even Omer Pasha, a Croatian Serb and Orthodox by birth (his real name was Mihailo Latas) who had been educated in an Austrian military school before fleeing from corruption charges to the Ottoman province of Bosnia and converting to Islam.


There are details of weaponry, dress, food — and the lack of it, biting cold, the ruins of the city, the expulsion an fleeing of thousands of Tartars who had the temerity to fight the Russians. There are horrific passages of the carnage.

The wounded and the dying were lying all together with the sick and the diseased on beds and mattresses crammed together on the filthy floor. With so many men suffering from diarrhoea, the only toilet facilities were large wooden tubs standing in the wards and corridors. There was almost no water, the old pipes having broken down, and the heating system did not work.


For first rate history of one of the lynch-pins of the history of modern war, nationalism, religion and politics it would be hard to surpass The Crimean War: A History.  Sources are identified within the narrative line itself, so while there are a trove of footnotes, it is not necessary to flip back to them to know who said what, to whom, when, not only by soldiers,

 The letter contained a long list of names, a ‘funereal accounting’ of the soldiers who had fallen in the previous day’s assault on the Malakhov, and yet, Gilbert thought, one could feel from it ‘how much his soul was haunted by the breath of death (souffle de la mort). The list of names goes on and on, endlessly despairing, friends who disappeared, the of officers who have been killed.’ Loizillon appeared lost in grief and guilt – guilt because he had survived.

but the Tsar and the Queen

‘Your daily losses in Sevastopol underline what I have told you many times before in my letters – the necessity to do something decisive to end this frightful massacre [the Tsar’s italics]


I read The Crimean War while on a three week visit to Turkey in April of 2012.  We didn’t get to the Black Sea, though we glimpsed it through the northern neck of the Bosporus. I read the book to fill in my readings over the last year about World War I, and the tensions that led to it, including this, and the Boer war in South Africa.  It also drew me because of its nearness in time to us, while so distant in knowledge.  If the Civil War in the United States had an effect on the people which continues to today, I wondered if the war in the Crimea had affected the lives of people I was now visiting.  Without any interviews or even casual mention of the war reaching my ear,  I suppose that war weighs hardly at all in the minds of today’s Turks.  Is there a substrate, a share of attitude and way of behavior, transmitted from generation to generation, that takes in victories and defeats, sets the sense of us and them, of betrayal, honor, nationhood?  I suspect so.  It is certainly true that the Islamic fundamentalism rising today is similar in many ways to that which rose in response to western meddling in the 1850s. Though then, the West wanted privileges restored to their coreligionists in Muslim lands and today it wants to enforce western rules of finance and trade, the effect would seem to be the same.  The same, as were the tables turned, and Turkey today were telling the French how to tighten up their accounting rules:  Anti Turkish riots in the Bourse.   Lessons available to all.


For an Orlando Figes essay on the translation of Russian novels, titled Tolstoy’s True Hero, and a recommendation of which to read, see here.

For a colorful website about the Siege of Sebastopol (not Figes’), go here.