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.