Attacking my pile of decade old book purchases I came upon The Crimean War by Orlando Fige and decided that it was time for a change of pace in my reading habits. I am very glad I did so, it was an excellent read and filled in some interesting gaps in my understanding of world politics.
The book starts with a good introduction as to the causes that lead up to the war-the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s determination to expand its influence in the Holy Land and Ottoman provinces and most of Europe’s’ distrust of Russia. It was eye opening to learn that in the Holy places in the Near East fights broke out among armed monks and others over which religion would have primacy.
Everything I thought that I knew about the Crimean War came from Flashman at the Charge by MacDonald Fraser. Not surprisingly since Fraser also wrote a good deal of history, the parts that he wrote about (aside from Harry Flashman) were very accurate. Included was the incompetence and disagreements of the leaders, the Thin Red Line, and the charges of both the Heavy and Light Brigades. However I had always carried the impression that the English were the primary power fighting and that their allies, primarily France, played a distinctive second fiddle.
Far from the truth. While the English, lead by Prime Minister Palmerston were advocates of a major war against Russian, primarily to defend English trade interests and possessions. However they were not really willing to put the resources into the effort, hoping to get allies to play a major part, which they did. The major victories of the war were achieved by France, and its leader Napoleon III ended up being shown as a shrewd negotiator. The overall ability and competence of the French really surprised me. All I really knew about Napoleon III was his invasion of Mexico and the disastrous war of 1870.
I had forgotten about its successful invasion of Algeria and thus had an experience, battle harden core in its Zouaves. The military had portable canteens, bakeries, well planned out supply logistics and well staffed and intelligently laid out hospitals. The officers lived close to the men and capital punishment was mostly eliminated. Pretty much all of the opposite was true for the English. In combat they made most of the important gains and became the dominate partner in the allies.
The English, seemingly living off their reputation earned in the Napoleonic wars decades earlier, were to put it mildly, a mess. Corporal punishment was very common, the officers were distant from the men, both culturally and physically, living apart and enjoying a much better lifestyle in camp. Planning from the very senior level on down was almost entirely absent.
The Russians were also resting on their Napoleonic laurels and when faced with modern weapons and tactics failed. In part due to the backwardness of the country, couple with an autocratic leader who seemingly acted on a whim at times. Without a thought to the long term impact of his actions.
The Russians one true advantage was a huge numerical advantage, which was greatly offset by poor medical and logistical issues. Their casualties were between 400,000 and 600,00, compared to the English 28,000. However they developed a method of battlefield triage that helped save lives that went above what Florence Nightingale did on the Allied side.
One issue that I would have liked was both better maps and have them presented throughout the book rather than at the start. It could be difficult to follow combat on specific days. Overall the Crimean War gives a very good overview of the causes of war, how it was fought, and the near term aftermath. It also shows the lasting impact that the war had on European relations that still affect the world today.