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.