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The Upside Down: History Is More than Its Set Pieces

John Mitchinson explores how the lessons of the Crimean War still resonate today

The Relief of the Light Brigade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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The house I live in is called Crimea House. It was once the home of the foreman of Crimea Yard, a flash 19th Century sawmill with a steam-driven beam engine and a 50-foot-high ornate brick chimney. Stories persist that the sawmill made planks for ships that fought in the Crimean War, but it seems unlikely: we’re a long way from the nearest port.

The owner of the Great Tew estate in the 1850s – a rather remarkable classicist and amateur inventor called Matthew Piers Watt Boulton – had recently retired and was busy modernising the big house and its outbuildings. The date for that work is 1856, the year the Crimean War ended. Like many other streets, pubs and public buildings across England, our sawmill was almost certainly named to mark Britain’s recent victory. Plus, the architects Boulton had employed were gothic revival specialists, which would explain the rather grandiose decoration of the chimney.

If asked about the Crimean War, most of us can probably recall the Lady with the Lamp and the Charge of the Light Brigade. As for who was fighting whom, and for what, the answers are much less clear. 

Living in a house that carries its name has inspired me to look a little deeper. And the conflict turns out to resonate with contemporary relevance.

It began in Palestine, then as now, a place of contested religious priorities. 

In theory, the minor disagreement between Russia and the Ottoman Sultan over access to Christian sites in Jerusalem could have been swiftly resolved by diplomatic activity by Britain and France. As so often, it was a war that no one really wanted but, as ever, each nation felt there was something to gain. 

Russia wanted to flex its military muscles and prove it deserved a seat around the European table. Napoleon III of France was looking to consolidate his position as Emperor (he’d crowned himself the year before). Britain, always with its eye on the economic main chance, had recently tripled its trade with Turkey and needed to protect the passage to India.

In July 1853, Tsar Nicholas I invaded Moldavia and Wallachia (now part of Romania but then under Turkish rule). Turkey, in turn, declared war on Russia. In November, the brutal Russian destruction of the Ottoman fleet at Sinope on Turkey’s northern coast left 3,000 dead. Portrayed as a massacre by the Western press, this hardened popular anti-Russian sentiment and led to declarations of war by Britain and France the following March.
What followed was two-and-a-half years of bloody and attrition warfare, remembered for costly strategic blunders on both sides. Some 650,000 lives were lost, more than three-quarters of these due to the depredations of secondary infection and cholera – something that, despite Florence Nightingale’s best efforts, was only fully understood after the war.

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It was the first war in which railways and telegraphs were used to supply the frontlines and the first with ‘embedded’ war reporters such as William Henry Russell and the young Leo Tolstoy. For the first time, photographers like Roger Fenton were able to capture vivid images of real soldiers and actual battlefields. 

Making the public feel closer to a war changed their view of it. It created the cult of the brave British soldier which was in marked contrast to those of the Napoleonic campaigns who were generally disparaged as undisciplined, venal mercenaries. This heroic status was given extra impetus by the introduction of the Victoria Cross in 1856, which soon became the ultimate symbol of British military valour.  

The scrutiny of reporters on the ground also meant the hasty and incompetent decisions of the senior officers were mercilessly exposed, seeding the ground for the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ in the Great War and even, as Fintan O’Toole has persuasively argued, the peculiarly British cult of the ‘heroic failure’ that resurfaced most recently among Brexiters.

Then, as now, the brutality of the war led to street protests. In January 1855, a ‘snowball riot’ in London’s Trafalgar Square saw a large crowd pelt cabs and pedestrians with snowballs and had to be put down by truncheon-wielding police. A parliamentary request for the Government to produce accurate casualty figures led to the resignation of Lord Aberdeen’s administration. In Russia, the humiliation of defeat enabled the new Tsar Alexander II to modernise his institutions and abolish serfdom, as a much less costly way of restoring Russia’s status as a great power.

So, the Crimean War still has much to teach us, not least that history is always more than its obvious set pieces. For example, the chimney in Crimea Yard isn’t a chimney at all. It’s a purely decorative folly: the steam escaped from a much smaller vent on the side of the building. 

So it goes with history. Truth escapes from the side vents.

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