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.

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis