Monday, 24 January 2011

The valley of death


It’s Good Friday, April 10, 1846. Jerusalem is packed with pilgrims on an Easter weekend that happened to fall on the same date in both the Latin and Orthodox calendars. The mood is tense. The two religious communities had been arguing over who has the right to be first to carry out the rituals at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest places in Christendom, standing on the spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified.

That Friday was to be anything but good. The Catholics arrived only to find that the Greeks were there first. A fight broke out, priest against priest, soon to be joined by monks and pilgrims from the respective camps. People fought not just with fists but anything they could get a hold of – crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense burners. Wood was torn from the sacred shrines and used as clubs. Knives and pistols were smuggled into the church. By the time the Mehemet Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, had restored order forty people lay dead.

This dreadful incident, all in the name of a shared belief, marks the departure for Orlando Figes’ Crimea, the Last Crusade, the first full account of the Crimean War that I have read. I know Figes well, one of the best specialists on Russian history in the English-speaking world, the author of the superlative A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. Although his history of the Crimean War lacks the range and power of the latter book, he has done a tremendous service, placing the conflict firmly within the context of the Eastern Question – the issues arising from the continuing decline of the Ottoman Empire – and European power politics as a whole.

I’m not completely convinced by his ‘crusading hook’, I have to say. Yes the war did begin with a conflict over who had the best claim to protect the holy places within the Turkish empire, the Catholic French or the Orthodox Russians, and again, yes, Tsar Nicholas I was strong in his conviction that he was a defender of the ‘true’ faith, a defender of the Orthodox faithful in all the Turkish lands. But almost immediately, when the fighting started, the religious issue was obscured by more general issues arising from European geopolitics. Besides, a war which involved Turkish Muslims, British Protestants and French Catholics, on one side, against Orthodox Russians, on the other, does not look much like a ‘crusade.’ The Tsar may have begun with crusading thoughts, but before his death in March 1855 he was more preoccupied by the decline in Russian power.

Figes' greatest service has been to rescue the conflict from fragmentation and partiality, the preserve, at best, of amateur military historians, more interested in the clash of arms than the reason for the clash of arms. The war may have been tragic and ‘unnecessary' but it still marks and important stage in the development of European politics and diplomacy. It marks the end of the Concert of Europe, the arrangement between the powers to police the settlement of 1815 emerging from the Napoleonic Wars. It marks the break in the informal alliance between Russia and Austria that helped preserved that settlement in aspic, allowing for the rise of new nations like Italy and Germany. So, in all, it was so much more than the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Lady with the Lamp.

So far as the conflict itself is concerned there was really no need, as the author shows, for the Crimean War ever to have been the Crimean War. There was no need, in other words, for the landing on the Crimean peninsula, followed by the lengthy, and bloody, siege of the port of Sevastopol, for the simple reason that the Russians had suffered a serious tactical and strategic reverse in early 1854.

They had previously occupied the semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia, now Romania, with a view to pushing south of the Danube in a march on Constantinople. But unexpectedly tough resistance by the Turks at the fortress of Silistria prevented any further advance. When this was coupled with the landings of the French and British at Varna, in what is now Bulgaria, and the threat of Austrian intervention, the Russians had no choice but to withdraw from the occupied provinces. But the blood was up; the war had to run its course, Russia had to be humbled; Sevastopol had to fall.

Crimea marks a vital stage in the development of warfare, combining elements of the old and the new, combining the Napoleonic Wars at one remove and the First World War at the other. It was the last of the old wars, if you like, containing the seeds of the new. Although it may come as a surprise, the campaign on the Crimea itself, and its eventual outcome, was far more a French than a British affair. The French contributed many more troops. It was their capture of the Malakhov redoubt in September 1855 that led to the fall of Sevastopol and the end of the war.

Diplomatically their role was also decisive. Palmerston, who succeeded the far less militant Aberdeen as prime minister in 1855, rather took on the role of Cato the Elder. Cartago delenda est was his war cry. His Carthage was Russia, which he intended to remove forever as a threat to the British Empire. If he had had his way the Russian borders would have returned to those of 1709, before Peter the Great’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava. The press was behind his war-drive, the people were behind him, even the Queen was behind him; the French were not. He did not have his way because Napoleon III had other visions. Britain may have had the fleet, but the French had the army.

This is a good story, an important story told with verve and style, told in a wholly compelling fashion with plenty of balance and nuance, placing the Crimean War in proper context. The author is to be commended for his industry and his scholarship, for writing a first-class account of an important passage in European history.

26 comments:

  1. I just finished reading that book (which I got as a present at Christmas) yesterday!

    One thing that struck me is how some of the potential flashpoints from those days remain disputed/unresolved today. Serpent Island, disputed between the Russians and Ottomans then, disputed again between Romania and Ukraine; Bessarabia/Moldova/Transnistria; and how British suspicion of Russia has not gone away (even if it is not always unjustified), even if our broadsheet press is a little less jingoistic than that of the 1850s!

    And then the repeated betrayal of the Poles...

    I learned a lot from the book. Figes' best? Maybe not quite - but an important addition to English-language histories of the region and period.

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  2. Ana,

    Excellent thoughtful review. I'm going to get this book and take this opportunity to get Fige's book on the Russian Revolution too.

    - Mike Cullina

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  3. Isn't Figes the chap with the creative approach to self-promotion on Amazon?

    Yesterday, elsewhere, I was reading a post about the Zulu Wars. All so irrelevant, now.

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  4. Dominic, not to forget the Caucasus, on the assumption that the perpetrator of today’s bomb outrage at Domodedovo airport is from one of the terrorist groups based there.

    I agree that the book makes an important contribution to the history of the period but the one on Russia before and after the Revolution is definitely better.

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  5. Calvin, yes that's the guy. I've mentioned that in a previous post. It was all so unnecessary, especially as he is such a good historian. He has no skill at all as an assassin. All history is relevant, but some is more relevant than others. :-)

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  6. History of the world, conquest for empire and commerce .The Brit Royals had a falling out with the Russian Royals,Helped destroy the Romanovs helped the Bolsheviks in two world wars They went broke doing this, lost their empire And have enslaved the U.S. to the world bankers and now globalization.

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  7. Helped the Bolshvics in ww2 not ww1 .The allies did make an effort to fight the Bolshiviks after ww1 but withdrew from russia.

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  8. Ana, have you read any of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels?

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  10. Anthony, yes that was a tremendous pity. Admiral Kolchak is another of my heroes. :-)

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  11. Bob, yes some of them in my teen years. Great fun!

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  12. Adam, I’m not going to get bogged down in semantics here but there was nothing ‘illegal’ about the First Gulf War.

    Disraeli may have been critical of the Crimean operation but he was equally critical of the failure of Aberdeen to take a firmer stand against Russia. It was his threat of military action in 1877 that forced Russia to back down over San Stefano, not wishing to risk another Crimea. Do you seriously believe that he would have stood back and done nothing if they had not; would ‘peace with honour’ have been obtained simply because the Tsar liked his soulful eyes? Disraeli’s attacks on Palmerston were born of resentment as much as anything, and he was just as prepared to ring the jingo bell when it suited him. Yes, I realise that only you have a supreme understanding of world affairs, the very reverse of the ‘liberal interventionists’, the greatest straw man of all.

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  14. Also, Nathan Rothschilds stole the money.

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  15. Was it not his threat to go to war with Russia that created jingoism in the first place? I do not see Palmerston as a 'liberal interventionist' but as an arch-imperialist.

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  17. Let me play Devil’s Advocate, Adam, and present you with an alternative scenario, an alternative interpretation of Disraeli’s greatest foreign policy triumph. It goes like this.

    The Eastern Question in Europe was a running sore; it would remain a running sore right up to 1914, when successive Balkan Wars finally merged into the First World War. A solution was needed, a comprehensive solution, one that would have involved removing the Ottomans from most of Europe. In the 1850s Gladstone suggested such a solution in the recreation, more or less, of the Byzantine Empire. Alexander II, that well-known ‘liberal interventionist’, offered another in the 1870s in the creation of an enlarged Bulgaria.

    Then comes Disraeli ready, once again, to prop up the sick man of Europe; then comes the Congress of Berlin, a band-aid to man haemorrhaging from a major artery. Peace with honour? what utter tosh; it was no more peace with honour than Munich, though the illusion was preserved for a little longer. The inevitable reckoning was merely postponed.

    What a mirage the whole thing was. Bulgaria, as it turned out, was not the Russian Trojan Horse that Disraeli feared it would be. The Cyprus Convention merely alienated the Turks, ensuring that they would eventually take the side of Germany. The Congress of Berlin both frustrated Slav nationalism and Turkish imperialism. Worst of all it gave the Austrians a mandate over the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was, in the long run, to be the immediate cause of the First World War. In his short sightedness and lack of vision, Disraeli merely helped lay the foundations for the tragedy to come.

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  20. I told you I was playing Devil's Advocate, but the facts still support this interpretation. The Ottomans were almost completely removed from Europe in the First Balkan War and only partially restored in the Second; so the verge of madness was clearly crossed.

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  22. Adam, the Ottoman Empire was a force for stability?! Do please tell me you are not in earnest; you cannot possibly be in earnest.

    Do you know anything of the history of Ottoman Europe between 1814 and 1914? Do you know anything of the repeated Balkan wars, largely caused by Ottoman incompetence and mismanagement? Do you know anything of the millet system which guaranteed that the Christian minorities would be treated as second class citizens, despite repeated promises of toleration and equality by the Porte, a system which actively encouraged rebellion and instability? Do you know anything of the fate of the Slavs under the Ottomans, particularly the Serbs, a people whom you profess to admire? I recommended Rebecca West’s book to you once, which you clearly have not read, or, if you have, you've clearly not understood. Oh, if you ever go to Belgrade I trust you will keep your opinion about 'Ottoman stability' to yourself, especially if it's anywhere near 28 June.

    Sorry, I know you are going to consider this yet another ‘insult’ but your imperial preference here is overwhelming your judgement. Either that or your view can only be excused by ignorance of the subject. I really could not care less about your adhesion to antiquated notions of empire - that's your prerogative - but I will simply not tolerate the cavalier treatment historical facts. That's the one thing that really makes me cross.

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  25. Turgid and moronic personal attacks? Well, if that's how you want to see it so be it.

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