Crimea: the Last Crusade

Not since Hugh Trevor-Roper erroneously declared the Hitler "diaries" to be the genuine article has a British historian so thoroughly discredited himself among his peers. It is no secret that many critics have reacted to the publi­cation of Orlando Figes's Crimea by refusing to review it. The poison-pen scandal surrounding Figes - involving revenge, lies, bullying and very public humiliation - will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.
Yet books, like children, deserve to be judged on their own merits, and Crimea - which is quite a departure for Figes in many ways - has much to commend it. The Crimean war, or the "eastern war" as Figes prefers to call it, is remembered in England today largely as an epic history of incompetence and entrenched practices that resulted eventually in a number of modernising reforms, not least the Florence Nightingale-inspired care of the wounded.

However, Figes argues that the war should be remembered first as a religious conflict with its roots in the struggles between French Catholic and Russian Orthodox monks over control of Jerusalem's Christian shrines (hence the subtitle The Last Crusade), and second as a proto-modern war in which the elements that made the subsequent conflicts so destructive were either tried out for the first time or else in development.

The chapters on the religious dimensions of the war are so dense that Figes gives the reader permission to "skip over them" and go straight to the fighting. Once you get there, at around page 165, you are rewarded with the kind of panoramic view that has made Figes such a popular historian. Drawing on personal accounts from all sides of the conflict, Crimea illustrates in great detail how the war consumed more than 750,000 lives - most of them Russian - in only two years. (The Russian authorities were notoriously neglectful of the army rank and file: during the Hungarian campaign of 1849, for example, just 708 soldiers were killed in battle, but 57,000 were admitted to hospital.)

Improved firepower was one of the reasons why so many died during the conflict. The new 1853 Enfield rifles, which were being phased in by the British army, had a much greater range than the Russian smoothbore muskets, under certain conditions firing as far as 1,200 yards. The "thin red line" of the 93rd Highlanders at the Battle of Balaklava in October 1854 would never have survived the Russian cavalry charge if the soldiers had been using one of the less accurate older models. As it was, they were able to get in two deadly volleys, one at 500 yards and the other at 350, before the Russians reined in and turned back. Official US military observers in the Crimea so admired the firepower of the Enfield that it became the second most widely used weapon in the American civil war of 1861-65.

The Americans also seized on the impor­­tance of fast communications after seeing how the new electric telegraph connected Lord Rag­lan's headquarters with eight separate field stations, covering 24 miles. Even more influential for the future of warfare was the Grand Crimean Central Railway, running from Balaklava to the military camp above Sevasto­pol, which was built by the British in 1855 - the first time that a railway line had
been constructed for war purposes. This solved the problem of how to bring supplies over miles of impassable mud-bound road. Without it, the soldiers would have starved and the army would pro­bably have been forced to abandon the siege of Sevastopol. The railway also brought down the wounded to be treated at Balaklava in what became known as "hospital trains".

Seven years later, the use of one railway had been transformed into a vital military strategy. Entire civil war battles were won and lost accor­ding to which side was able to make the most effective use of rail transport. The tactic reached its peak when Ulysses S Grant made destruction of the South's railways one of his top priorities. However, no general better absorbed the early lessons of the Crimean railway than the Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke, whose crushing victory over the Austrians in 1866 owed much to his brilliant exploitation of railroad systems.

Railways, rifles and electric telegraphs no longer play much part in modern warfare, but the other "firsts" discussed by Figes have come to dominate and even shape the nature of our conflicts. The use of war photography, the rise of the star reporter and the power of public opinion to start and end wars all emerged during the conflict in the Crimea.

Although in 1855 the radical MP John Bright labelled the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, "the Angel of Death" for his role in promul­gating the war, the gung-ho attitude of the press was just as much to blame for convincing the public that the fighting was necessary. For this reason alone, as Figes says, the "eastern war" remains a conflict that we can neither trivialise nor forget.

Crimea: the Last Crusade
Orlando Figes
Allen Lane, 608pp, £30

Amanda Foreman is a historian and biographer. Her latest book is "A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided" (Allen Lane, £30)

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!