Ian Fletcher and Natalia Ischneko’s The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires is a good read. Dry, but good. That likely sounds like faint praise, but the Crimean War is one of those events that I’d wanted to learn more about for some time — it’s one of those things where you hear the term bandied about if you are a bit of a history buff, there’s Tennyson’s poem about a certain charge, even the realization that what folks in the UK call balaclavas derives from the harsh winter British troops spent on the peninsula the first time through, specifically the harbor town they were stationed in.
But for all that general knowledge, there’s this incredible void at the heart of the war in popular knowledge — namely, what exactly was the Crimean War? A little context too — there were a slew of ‘small’ wars in southeastern Europe throughout the nineteenth century, ‘small’ at least if you were lucky enough not to be in the middle of them. This one happened to involve most of the big names, though, so that’s part of the reason why it got the attention it did. Dig into the heart of it all, though, and you find that this war was a combination of such a ridiculous overlay of power politics and personal grievances that it’s both perversely impressive and just plain horrific.
More on that in a bit. The stated goals by the coauthors were to try and present a more rounded history of the War to their main respective audiences in the UK and in Russia — the two met while Fletcher was part of a tour group visiting Crimean War sites, and what was discovered was how vastly different the perceptions of what was memorable or worth noticing about the war were between the two countries. Nearly everything that holds a place in British and Anglophonic collective memory is treated with a shrug in Russia, while on the flipside the war itself in Russian memory differs from the siege of Sevastopol that was seen to follow it, even though in the West and elsewhere it’s all part of the ‘Crimean War’ in general.
With that goal in mind, the general goal of the book is achieved, though in itself in a strangely circumscribed way. By aiming at a more all-around view of the conflict, it’s still seen almost solely through British and Russian eyes — perhaps a necessary limitation given the length of the book and the detail provided, but the French side of the conflict is barely presented beyond the unavoidable key actors and decisions, while the Turks are barely remarked upon outside of their commander. If anything, the book ends up making you wonder more about their experiences — something which results from the useful decision on the part of the authors to include a regular amount of personal reflections, testimonials and letters from British and Russian soldiers and observers alike.
Meanwhile, while the book has a tendency to drag a bit — it always feels like two chapters at a time at most is all that’s readily manageable — it does provide both an overall portrait and a variety of telling if occasionally repeated details, from the long shadow of Wellington on the British Army preventing it from fully reforming as it ought to the story of Dasha Sevastopolskaya, a young orphan girl who took it upon herself to be an independent field nurse for Russian troops. I now have a better grasp on this simultaneously famous and obscure conflict, and the history fiend in me is satisfied for that reason.
Yet overall, the sheer sadness and waste of this all — a conflict arising out of Napoleon III’s desires to be a player on the international scene and any other number of political considerations that seems like so much rubbish now — is what one is left with, and which makes the occasional mentions of glory and honor (apparently without irony) rather jarring. Near the end is when the authors project the overall death toll at being 640,000 people at least — and then note that this overtops the death toll from the Civil War. 40,000 of them alone were Frenchmen who died of disease in the second winter of the war, and their utter anonymity in the text — mentioned briefly by this number once or twice, then not referred to again — seems like a final sad indignity.
Perversely, however, after it all, there’s something funny that came out of all this, though this isn’t mentioned in the book. As John D. tipped a bunch of us off to — one of Iron Maiden’s first big singles was directly inspired by the Crimean War, “The Trooper”:
And it’s because of that song that this performance by one Van Canto can exist:
And I can’t add much more to that.