We’ve just started the rounds of publicity for ‘Into the Valley of Death’, and I’ve been struck by the number of people who preface their remarks with ‘Of course, I don’t know anything about the Crimean War.’
‘Of course’. Most readers of historical fiction are familiar with the Victorian period – so why not its biggest war? Most know about the Peninsular and Napoleonic Wars – so why not one forty years closer to our own time? What is it about the Crimean War that means all I’m usually asked about the book is ‘Is Florence Nightingale in it?’ She is, as a matter of fact, but there is rather more to the Crimean War than that.
It was huge in its day. Less obviously territorial than the Napoleonic wars, this one seemed a simple matter of standing up to the aggression of Russia, who was trying to wrest control of Jerusalem from the poor little Muslim Turks. When Russia brutally massacred the Turkish fleet at Sinope, the public's sense of chivalry was touched, just as sixty years later it would be moved by the plight of ‘poor little Belgium’. And so the bells rang for war and the ogre of the Russian Bear dominated the newspapers quite as much as ‘Boney’ ever had.
Naturally, there was more to it than that – Britain and France both feared Russian expansionism, and if Britain had also her naval supremacy to worry about, then France’s Napoleon III had a personal insult to avenge. The Tsar of Russia had disdained the long-standing protocol that required monarchs to address each other as ‘Dear Brother’, and written to the post-revolutionary Emperor as ‘Dear Cousin’…!
But the British public knew little of that. The war caught the public imagination like no other, and we are surrounded by its legacy even to today. There are more pubs and streets named after the Alma than any other battle in British history – even Waterloo.
The names of Balaklava, Inkerman, Raglan, Lucan, Cardigan, Sir Colin Campbell are all emblazoned in public places we pass every day – and when Eric Sykes wanted an address to typify middle class suburbia he famously placed his character in ‘Sevastopol Terrace’. Even clothing took its names from the Crimea – the Raglan sleeve, the Balaklava helmet, the Cardigan. People called their daughters after its most glorious battle, and the obscure name ‘Alma’ rose to popularity from that day.
Queen Victoria herself waved goodbye to the Foot Guards when they set off for the Crimea, while the crowds at Portsmouth sang ‘Cheer, Boys, Cheer!’
Off they went in their thousands, these young men who’d hardly heard a shot fired in anger, off they went to the cholera camps of Varna, the killing fields of the Alma and Inkerman, the devastation of the North Valley at Balaklava, the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, the mud and blood of the trenches at Sevastopol. Off they went – and some of them, a few of them, came home. They returned to medals and acclamation, to a world that finally recognized their suffering and realized the army of the old world would have to change.
And now? The war is forgotten, all but airbrushed from our history. They’re not mentioned in Remembrance Day services, those soldiers who endured so much. Their memorials fall into decay, and the one in Beeston near Nottingham serves only to make schoolchildren giggle when they read the legend ‘Died of Diarrhoea’. No-one writes about them. Everyone here can think of several novels about Waterloo – but name just two about the Charge of the Light Brigade. Name one.
I suppose I should be happy about that because of the rarity value it gives mine, but in human terms I think it’s tragic. What other war can command so many icons, so many ‘firsts’ as the Crimea? The first war photographer, first telegraph in war, first hospital train, first major trench warfare – all Crimea. Tennyson’s most famous poem – Crimea. Florence Nightingale – Crimea. Mary Seacole, voted Britain’s ‘Greatest Black Woman’– Crimea. The Victoria Cross – Crimea. It’s the war that produced the most famous cavalry action in the history of warfare – the Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s the war when the 93rd Highlanders at Balaklava gave the world the phrase ‘The Thin Red Line’. In any other country we’d be celebrating it and our schoolchildren would know every event of it by heart.
|'The Thin Red Line' by Robert Gibb|
So what went wrong?
Politics. Whatever we thought at the time, the Crimea isn’t a war of which we can be proud. There’s the evil taint of colonialism hanging over it, an attempt to prevent Russia’s power extending into Afghanistan and ultimately India. It was a stupid and avoidable war, and we made a horrible mess of it. The legend of Florence Nightingale only reminds us of the horrific neglect to which our soldiers were subjected, while the Charge of the Light Brigade only recalls the blunders of commanders who sent men unnecessarily to their deaths. If we think about the Crimea at all, the only thing we feel now is shame.
Fine. There’s nothing glorious about the Crimea – there’s not much glorious about any war – but that still doesn’t make it right to ignore the soldiers. If a government sends them out in a ‘rotten cause’, if it fails to equip or support them properly, if it wastes their lives to ensure their own political survival – then why blame the soldiers who are effectively the victims? They weren’t to know they were living in an unfashionable time. They couldn’t know when they ran to their slaughter at the Alma that posterity would just say ‘how embarrassing’ and turn the page. Tennyson spoke the truth when he wrote ‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.’ That’s exactly what they did – and in their thousands.
But if we look closer at the Beeston memorial we’ll notice something else. Both those local men enlisted on April 26th 1846, which surely suggests they were friends who entered the army together. They weren’t just ‘cannon fodder’; they were individuals, men with names and faces.
|Timothy Gowing in later life|
Soldiers like Timothy Gowing, the 19 year old former shoemaker facing enemy fire for the first time as he marched with the Royal Fusiliers towards the Russian cannon at the Alma:
‘As soon as the enemy’s roundshot came hopping along, we simply did the polite – opened out and allowed them to pass on – there is nothing lost by politeness, even on a battlefield. As we kept advancing we had to move our pins to get out of their way; and presently they began to pitch their shot and shell right amongst us and our men began to fall. I know that I felt horribly sick…’
Soldiers like 20-year old William Wightman of the 17th Lancers who charged with the Light Brigade at Balaklava:
‘We had not broke into the charging pace when poor old Jim Lee, my right-hand-man of the flank of the regiment, was all but smashed by a shell; he gave my arm a twitch, as with a strange smile on his worn old face he said quietly ‘Domino, chum,’ and fell out of the saddle.’
Soldiers like those of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders whose line at Balaklava was all that stood between the charging Russians and the British base. As eyewitnesses reported:
Sir Colin Campbell ‘rode down the line and said ‘Remember, there is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.’ The men cheerily answered his appeal, saying ‘Ay, ay, Sir Colin; we’ll do that.’’
There may be shame in this war, but we should have nothing but pride in these soldiers. As Americans cry ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I feel inclined to cry ‘Remember the Alma! Remember Balaklava, and Inkerman, and the Siege of Sevastopol! Remember the Crimea!’
Remember them – and be proud.
‘Into the Valley of Death’ comes out on May 10th, but you can pre-order it here.
A L Berridge’s website can be found here.
Remember the 93rd!
Absolutely, Susan! Is memory of the Thin Red Line better in Scotland, do you think? It's certainly better in the Crimea, where the knoll they stood on is 'Sutherland Hill' to this day.
It's particularly annoying that the 1968 film 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' omits the TRL altogether, and limits Sir Colin Campbell to an almost comedy cameo at the Alma. Grrr.
Fascinating...Wightman's moving description of his friend's death will stay with me for a long time. Curiously enough, here in South East London every child knows a little about the Crimea thanks to Mary Seacole and Black History Month. At Dog Kennel Hill Primary School the children voted to name their new building after her a few years ago.
'Master Georgie' made a big impression on me, and I look forward to this 'Into the Valley of Death' very much.
This is a desperately moving post, Louise. I am completely ignorant of the period, so this is a stab in the complete dark, but do you think that the overwhelming horror of the First World War has meant that both the Boer War and the Crimean War are overshadowed, somehow, in terms of remembrance? When did that erasure begin? If streets etc bear names connected with the Crimea, do they date to a pre-1914 period?
P.S. Edwardian houses near where I live often have names carved over the front door. One just round the corner from me is, I notice, called 'Omdurman'. I wonder whether its owners have heard of that battle...
Thank so much for your comment, Lydia. That's really interesting (and encouraging) about Mary Seacole too. It would be highly ironic if this wonderful woman who was historically ignored for so long (for not being the same colour as Florence Nightingale) should now be the means of recalling the whole war to our memory.
Thank you so much, Harriet. I suspect you're right about the horrors of WWI obliterating earlier wars - simply in terms of its global scale. You're absolutely right about the street names etc - I haven't found one dated post 1914. The proliferation of pub names was mainly down to ex soldiers starting their own little businesses when they returned home, and it was largely their own efforts that kept the memory alive. The name 'Alma' too - some of the soldiers supposedly made a pact with each other after the battle to call their first born daughters by that name.
But it didn't last. The Crimea ought to have had the same effect as WWI of shocking us into changing our concept of warfare, but it seems we were very slow to learn...
Really interesting, Mary. There's an Alma Road in Bristol and I had no idea where the name came from. There is one other book I'm aware of about the Crimea, though - Katharine MacMahon's The Rose of Sevastopol, which came out a few years ago.
Yes, just looking on the local (Bristol) map here... I can see Alma Road, Alma Vale Road, Alma Road Avenue, Alma House (a block of flats??) and Alma Tavern, all very close together. How interesting.
Fascinating Louise, thank you. The Crimea certainly deserves to be better remembered. For one thing, I think it was the first 'modern' war, where newspaper reports changed public opinion. And the photographs make it accessible in a way paintings never do. The sea war is also interesting, coming on the cusp between wooden sailing ships-of-the-line and steam and steel gunboats.
On Mary Seacole, I was cheered to see on FB recently that the Mid Yorkshire Unison Health Branch gave £1000 to the statue appeal.
A very timely post! Interesting how history could be repeating itself with our soldiers in Afghanistan. Will we remember them, do you think?
Thanks, Sue! Yes, I love 'The Rose of Sevastopol', but I think it really covers the latter part of the siege, ie after November 1854 when all the big battles are over. That's wonderful territory, and I'm nervous of the fact I'm venturing onto it myself in my next book, but KM's is a very mature and modern approach, focussing on the tragedy of the siege rather than the big heroic moments of the soldiers that used to be so well known. It's a different kind of novel from the many that have been written about (say) the Battle of Waterloo.
There are also other novels about the Crimea, but again they don't write about the most famous part - ie the Charge of the Light Brigade. The closest, I think, is Patrick Mercer's 'To Do and Die', but even he concentrates on the infantry so that the Charge is something that happens in the distance.
I just find it rather strange.
Thanks for commenting, Mark. And yes, I absolutely should have mentioned the modern aspect of the role played by the press. It was William Howard Russell of the Times who highlighted the plight of our soldiers to the public - and without his reports I doubt Florence Nightingale would have ever gone there.
But there were snags, and some of those are modern too. The Russians read the Times as much as we did, and were very interested in the details of our troop dispositions...!
Thanks for the comment, Ken - and the 64 million dollar question! You're right, I think, in that the relative unpopularity of our current wars is already affecting our perception of the soldiers sent to fight them - and that too, I think is unfair. Soldiers don't make wars, governments do - and it's a shame to blame the former for the sins of the latter.
We've talked about this before, Louise - but I still really enjoyed this post. Eloquent, moving, thoughtful. You're a star!
Repetitive and predictable, you mean! I'm afraid I do rather ride my hobby horse on this one, as if one shrill voice can make up for a century of neglect.
Thank you for listening to me rant not once, but twice!
The Charge of the Light Brigade was, of course, caused by a rash word from Macdonald Fraser's Flashman!
Incredible, really, that such a famous conflict should have been so thoroughly forgotten; an empty plinth with the legend 'Taken at Sebastopol' used to stand outside Cheltenham's principal hotel. It had supported a cannon (which was reputedly melted down for munitions during the second world war).
Curiously enough, I lived for a short time in a town in South Wales which had been named 'Sebastopol' after the battle.
Neil! A fellow Flashman fan! I'm overwhelmed.
But you'll remember Flashman only cashes in on the suggestion that the Russians are taking the guns by reminding Raglan that Wellington never lost one. What about the 'unknown staff officer' who said the Russians were after them in the first place, eh? Especially when history (and the Russians) insists that they weren't...
There's a story there somewhere. Or at least I hope there is, since I've based a huge chunk of 'Into the Valley of Death' on it...
Thanks so much for commenting. I didn't know that about Cheltenham, and it's a crucial bit of info as one of my friends is trying to track down what happened to every one of the Sevastopol cannon. Seriously - thank you very much.
Excellent post! And I have tweeted this link because the History Girls tweet seems to go to a different place that isn't this blog. Most odd. Will tweet this link again, in case readers want to go and explore the rest of the site!!
Thanks, Adele. I've never seen anything like that before, and can't think how it's happened.Technology Is Not Us.
I must say I knew little about the Crimean War. I'm German and when I try to remember my time at school I must say that the Crimean War was not a big topic.
Now everything has changed. I nearly finished (two chapters left) 'Crimea' by Orlando Figues. A great book to enter the history of the Crimean War. Thanks to this book I could follow your great post without problems.
I belong to the lucky people who got an ARC of 'Into the Valley of Death'. I wanted to read it after 'Crimea' but I could not resist and read the prologue and the first chapter.
Don't worry I do not spoil. All I want to say is .... it is like using a special magnifying glass which shows you details, emotion and more.
There is no way out: If you like this post than 'Into the Valley of Death' is a must read for you.
Edi! Lovely to see you here, and thanks so much for posting. I'm very glad ITVOD is holding up so far, but am in trepidation as to what you'll think of the rest...
But the fact that you, from Germany, are still interested in reading about this war, only makes the main question here more striking. Why don't the British want to know their own history?
The Russians know it - and they effectively lost. The Ukraine is obviously independent now, but the dominant culture and language remain Russian, and yet I was welcomed everywhere I went. Everyone knew about the Alma and Inkerman, everyone knew about the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the fact I was 'angliski' guaranteed me both courtesy and respect.
I understand that the Crimean War is a possible tourist attraction for them, but it seemed to go beyond that to a real appreciation and respect for history. Russian students of the war are going to be terribly disappointed when they come over here to see how WE remember it...
I don't think the Thin Red Line is known better in Scotland - not among modern school children anyway. There is a hill not far from my house where we go sledging in the winter and it is known as 'The Alma' but I never thought about the name before. Perhaps the reason that it is the forgotten war is because quite soon after Britain fell out with 'Johnny Turk' and didn't want to be reminded that we'd been on their side. The tone of the newspaper article would hardly enlist modern sympathies. Your passion come across so well that I can't wait to read the book.
Thanks so much, Theresa.
That's very interesting about the hill - the advance at the Alma was indeed very steeply uphill, but I've never come across a hill named after it before. The Highland regiments really distinguished themselves at the Alma too - so much so that the Russians named them 'the devils in skirts'.
That's also a really good point about the Turks - the revolting jingoism of the newspaper article certainly suggests the Victorian public would not look kindly on any independent action by its erstwhile allies. And after Gallipolli...!!!
There is a Vale Road in my home town of Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool, Merseyside. Named, of course, after Alma Vale. I’ve often wondered if the good residents of that road know (or even care) from whence the name came.
There is a memorial in Ormskirk to a man who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade - and survived.
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