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!

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide