‘Let Everybody Die!’

The Crimean War (1854–55), fought on a Russian peninsula in the Black Sea, began as a minor quarrel between French Catholics and Russian Orthodox over control of the Holy Places in Muslim-ruled Jerusalem. Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary joined Turkey in a war against Russia, and for the first time in history Europeans fought on the side of a Muslim power against another Christian country. The allies never quite decided whether their aim was to prevent Russia from expanding its empire in Central Asia, threatening India, occupying Constantinople, and seizing territories of the Ottoman Empire, or to destroy Russian power in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Baltic, Finland, and Poland.

Orlando Figes writes that the war actually “began in 1853 between Ottoman and Russian forces in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the territory of today’s Romania, and spread to the Caucasus, where the Turks and the British encouraged and supported the struggle of the Muslim tribes against Russia, and from there to other areas of the Black Sea.” The Crimean was both the first “total war”—in which armies attacked civilians and perpetrated atrocities—and the first truly modern war, involving new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and innovations in military medicine. It was also the first war to be incited by the press and public opinion, though frontline reports and grisly photographs later revealed the horrific conditions of the sick and wounded soldiers.

Both sides made many blunders in this mistakenly conceived and badly planned war. The British, without reliable maps, were uncertain about where to land in the Crimea. The commander, Lord Raglan, in a criminal decision, kept the ill-supplied and demoralized army on the frozen heights during the winter. Though the Caucasus was a much softer target, the allies besieged Sebastopol for eleven agonizing months. Raglan felt it was essential to storm something to achieve a symbolic victory that would justify all the hardships. There was pointless sacrifice on both sides, and when the Russians planned a final suicidal assault, their commander dismissed objections by exclaiming: “Let everybody die! We will leave our mark upon the map!”

The pride of the British cavalry was the Light Brigade—much lighter after their fatal charge down a valley against musket and artillery fire from three sides. Of the 661 men in the charge, nearly half were killed, wounded, or captured. After the Russians had won the battle of Balaklava, Tennyson thundered, “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” But with more careful planning and fierce fighting, the allies finally attacked and captured the Russian naval base at Sebastopol and destroyed the myth of Russia’s invincible power that went back to their glorious defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The peace terms were, ironically, based precisely on the diplomatic Four Points that Russia had rejected before the war began.

Two heroes emerged from this disaster. Count Leo Tolstoy, who’d fought in the Caucasus, was first attached to the general staff and then to an artillery brigade. In Sebastopol, his firsthand account of the fighting, he begins by stressing the comradeship of soldiers under fire, the agonizing fear before battle, and the “funny sort of pleasure to see people killing each other.” But as the war progresses he emphasizes the terrible slaughter and brutal treatment of the courageous soldiers.

The British national heroine was the innovative and self-sacrificial nurse Florence Nightingale. She introduced good order and new standards of hygiene in the military hospital—built on top of a cesspool—at Scutari, outside Constantinople, and brought her medical reforms to England after the war. One poet intoned, “Deep and true England’s heart has glow’d in this great woman’s holy cause.” Nightingale, who made her rounds at night, became known as the “Lady with the Lamp.” Several other notable phrases entered the English language after the war: the balaclava, a woolen covering for the head and shoulders; jingoism, a chauvinistic form of patriotism; the “thin red line” of red-coated and easily targeted soldiers; and the czar’s unintentionally ironic description of the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe.”

After the war the British instituted the Victoria Cross for bravery in battle and did the decent thing by abolishing military flogging in peacetime. (The Russians allowed up to fifteen hundred lashes—far more than was necessary to kill a man.) Turkey became increasingly Westernized, and the Black Sea was opened to commercial shipping. Russia lost its Black Sea fleet and Bessarabia on the western shore, but its humiliating defeat aroused permanent hatred of the West. The Russians continued their inexorable advance toward Afghanistan and India, maintained control of eastern Poland, and crushed a patriotic rising there in 1863. They also encouraged the Pan-Slav movement in the Balkans, the immediate cause of World War I, which destroyed the once powerful Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Twelve days after the peace treaty was signed, Figes notes, “the old religious rivalries began once again. Fights broke out between the Greeks and the Armenians during the ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.” 

The Crimean War is filled with memorably morbid details. Allied guns fire four hundred shells a minute; the volley of grape shot sounds like “a covey of birds very strong on the wing”; hand-to-hand fighting takes place “in the dark, illuminated only by the flashes of the rifles and muskets.” A wounded soldier suddenly regains consciousness during an amputation without anesthetics; Lord Raglan asks for his severed arm to retrieve a ring his wife had given him; a headless corpse remains in the saddle for thirty yards, “the lance at the charge, firmly gripped under the right arm.” Orthodox priests bless the troops while mounted officers use the knout to whip them into the frontline; the Turks capture children to sell as slaves; the Crimean Tatars rape and mutilate hundreds of Russians. Figes’s lively narrative, far too detailed for the general reader, is aimed at the specialist. The first two hundred pages describe the religious, political, diplomatic, and military prelude; the last hundred pages concern the aftermath of war. The factual density of this impressive but daunting book recalls the crude definition of history as “just one damned thing after another.”

The results of the Crimean War did not justify the ruthless slaughter. The British lost one-fifth of their 98,000 men, 80 percent of them to disease. The French lost one-third of 310,000, the Turks half of 120,000, the Russians a staggering 450,000—not counting civilian casualties. As a Russian official noted of Czar Nicholas I, all this destruction was caused by “a mad will, drunk with absolute power and arrogance.... What was the point of it all?”

Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: 

Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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