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.