Crimea: The Last Crusade

Orlando Figes

Crimea: The Last Crusade
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Crimea: The Last Crusade

Orlando Figes

The terrible conflict that dominated the mid 19th century, the Crimean War killed at least 800,000 men and pitted Russia against a formidable coalition of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. It was a war for territory, provoked by fear that if the Ottoman Empire were to collapse then Russia could control a huge swathe of land from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf. But it was also a war of religion, driven by a fervent, populist and ever more ferocious belief by the Tsar and his ministers that it was Russia’s task to rule all Orthodox Christians and control the Holy Land. Orlando Figes' major new book reimagines this extraordinary war, in which the stakes could not have been higher and which was fought with a terrible mixture of ferocity and incompetence. It was both a recognisably modern conflict - the first to be extensively photographed, the first to employ the telegraph, the first ‘newspaper war’ - and a traditional one, with illiterate soldiers, amateur officers and huge casualties caused by disease. The iconic moments of the war - the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Siege of Sebastopol, the impact of Florence Nightingale - are all here, but there is also a rich sense of the Crimea itself and the culture that was destroyed by the fighting. Drawing on a huge range of fascinating sources, Figes also gives the lived experience of the war, from that of the ordinary British soldier in his snow-filled trench, to the haunted, gloomy, narrow figure of Tsar Nicholas himself as he vows to take on the whole world in his hunt for religious salvation.

Review

In April this year Orlando Figes, a well-respected professor at Birkbeck College, London, became more noted for a reviewing scandal than for his insights into Russian history. Damning reviews of books by rival Russian historians appeared on Amazon, along with others lauding Figes’s own work. All were traced to Figes, who first denied any knowledge of the reviews and then claimed his wife had written them, before finally confessing that he was indeed the author. Among the questions raised by these events are ‘What was he thinking?’ and ‘Are his books such that only he can praise them?’

So let’s get it straight: I am not Orlando Figes. Nor am I married to him. Despite this, I recommend Crimea. It provides a scholarly yet highly readable account of the war waged between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire from 1854 to 1856, and a convincing argument about its lasting significance as both ‘the last crusade’ and the first modern war.

As Figes explores, the origins of the conflict were complex, involving religious and political concerns, widespread Russophobia (which would reverberate through the twentieth century) and fear of Ottoman dominance. Once fighting began, in battles such as Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, casualty rates were shockingly high, compounded by the use of inappropriate equipment, poor medical treatment and outdated military tactics. Detailed descriptions of strategy and warfare are illuminated and humanised by generous excerpts from a wide range of archival material. Reports from Queen Victoria and Tsar Nicholas, for example, along with accounts by Leo Tolstoy (stationed at Sevastopol with the Russian army during the siege), and by British and French soldiers and observers, are among the many woven effectively into the narrative. Through them, Figes demonstrates that there was far more to the Crimean War than St Kilda street names, Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Florence Nightingale. It’s well worth discovering.

Ann Standish is an historian based at Melbourne University

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