Unnecessary war

Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856

Trevor Royle <em>Little, Brown, 564pp, £22.50</em>


The Crimean war was the only European conflict in which British armies engaged between 1815 and 1914. Its apparent cause - a recondite dispute about the key to the holy places in Jerusalem - masked conflicting ambitions on the part of the two main allies, Britain and France (Turkey was always a junior partner). Napoleon III, just two years into his inglorious Second Empire, wanted to break up the cosy consensus of the Great Powers which had marginalised France after Waterloo. Britain, too, looked back to 1814-15, when Russian armies swarmed across western Europe. Determined that this should never happen again, the British also wanted to prevent the Russian navy from entering the Mediterranean and to deter "the Bear" from designs on the Indian subcontinent. Geopolitics was the name of the game.

The resulting war, in which more than 250,000 died on each side, was a notable fiasco. Although the Allies beat the Russians time after time - at the Alma River, Balaclava, Inkerman and Chernaia - they could not score an outright victory; that meant invading the Russian heartland and, after Napoleon's disaster in 1812, no one had the stomach for it. Locked in stalemate around the fortress of Sevastopol, which finally capitulated after a year's siege, both sides succumbed to the ravages of cholera, dysentery, malaria and "General Winter". The heavy casualties and the grim fate of the hospitalised and dying caused a national scandal in England.

This was the only 19th-century war from which no great military figures emerged. The British commander, Lord Raglan, was spectacularly incompetent and intermittently suffered from the delusion that he was fighting the French. His cavalry commander Lord Lucan was embroiled in a long-standing feud with the chief of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, and this was a material factor in the best-known incident in the Crimean War - the absurd Charge of the Light Brigade. The French commander-in-chief, Francois Canrobert, was no better than Raglan and, in many ways, even more incompetent - he never wanted to take action of any kind and was nicknamed "Robert Can't" by the British. As for the Russians, they could have won the battle of Inkerman but for the mutual loathing between their commanders General Dannenburg and Prince Menshikov, who were pulling in different directions.

Sir Richard Burton, commanding a corps of Turkish irregulars known as the Bashi-Bazouks, accurately called the conflict "our great national blunder, the great artillery duel in the corner of the Black Sea". But there were some beneficial spin-offs. Florence Nightingale made her reputation as the lady with the lamp and her campaign to improve medical conditions may actually have benefited from Raglan's incompetence. Leo Tolstoy, serving on the Russian side, stored away a host of details on military life which would appear in War and Peace. Another to make his name in the conflict was W H Russell, war correspondent of the Times, who went on to greater fame in the American civil war and other conflagrations. The Crimea was the first war in history to be fought under a media spotlight. More long-term consequences were the railways as a key factor in warfare and the realisation that the British army could not continue to be officered by aristocratic morons.

In this thorough and scholarly history, Trevor Royle gives us full measure on all these aspects of the war. The most original part of his account deals with the wider international ripples of the conflict and the largely unseen roles of Austria and the US. Austria came under pressure when Cavour sent troops from Piedmont and Sardinia to fight on the Allied side - a shrewd move meant to advance the cause of a united Italy. Austria's aim as proposed peacemaker was to secure her political objectives without firing a shot. The Austrians forced Tsar Alexander to the conference table by threatening to intervene on the Allied side; the Tsar feared that Prussia, too, would intervene against him, thus leading to civil unrest in Russia. Meanwhile, the British prime minister, Palmerston, wanted to fight Russia to the death, without France if need be, and he raged at the deference Louis Napoleon showed to Austria, which had never been involved in the fighting.

The Russians' best chance lay in inveigling the US into the war. Anglo-American relations were poor in the late 1850s. The US feared its merchant ships might be stopped and searched on the high seas, and further tensions were caused by British recruitment of mercenaries in North America contrary to the US Neutrality Act of 1818. When the British denied they were recruiting US citizens but were caught red-handed in an official lie, and when this coincided with a diplomatic row between Paris and Washington over the contumacious US minister to Spain, Pierre Soule, American entry into the war seemed inevitable. In the event, both sides played it cool. The Allies rejected an offer of 30,000 troops from Spain for fear of antagonising the Americans, then at loggerheads with Madrid over Cuba. And the US, in the years just before the civil war, was already a house divided. Royle's juggling of all these elements, using a variety of sources from Foreign Office reports to the diaries of Fanny Duberley, contributes to making this an exemplary history of an unnecessary war.

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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