Remembering the Crimean War
Monday, March 10, 2014
Given the current tug-of-war in Crimea, it is hard not to think about one of the most romanticized wars of the 19th century — the Crimean War. Fought during the 1850s, it pitted Imperial Russia against the forces of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.
The issues that brought about the conflict were Russia's demand to protect Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman territories and a dispute between Russia and France over the rights of the Russian Orthodox versus Roman Catholics in the Holy Land.
But the underlying cause, as with most wars, was economic. In this case it was the growing competition among the empire-building nations of Europe, and involved Russia's need for a warm-water port. As Russia began to push south, it came into conflict with the British in India and the Middle East, which explains why the British sided with the Ottomans. Interestingly, these same economic issues can be found intertwined in the current crisis.
The Crimean War lasted for more than two years, involved almost 2 million men and cost the lives of more than half a million. Fought in the decade before the American Civil War, the death toll was almost as high, over a shorter period of time.
Ultimately, Russia abandoned Sevastopol, sinking its own fleet as it departed. The war ended when Austria threatened to join the fight against the Russians, a decision that soured relations between the two countries and would push Austria into an alliance with Germany by the end of the century. The seeds of World War I were already beginning to grow.
Today the Crimean War is mostly forgotten, overshadowed by larger and more terrible conflicts. This is sad, because the war included some of the most memorable moments in the history of warfare.
There was the Battle of Balaclava, remembered today as "the valley of death" and commemorated by two of Britain's most famous poets. There was also the courage and leadership of a young woman who went to Crimea not to take lives, but to save them.
After reading news accounts of the battle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson dashed off a poem that immortalized the courage of the 11th Hussars, the British light cavalry remembered for their suicidal charge against the Russian lines. That poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, later made into a Hollywood movie, offers insight into the fate of the average soldier on far too many battlefields. As Tennyson noted, "Some one had blunder'd: theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."
Years later, in his poem Tommy, slang for the common British soldier, Rudyard Kipling wrote about the Sutherland Highlanders, a small group of Scottish soldiers who withstood the assault of a much larger Russian cavalry unit at the same battle. For their courage, the Scots became known as the "Thin Red Line of 'eroes," a name that today is synonymous for a small force standing against overwhelming odds.
Finally, there is the memory of Florence Nightingale, who led a group of young women to the Crimea to tend wounded soldiers. There, because of her late-night rounds, she became known as "The Lady with the Lamp." It was a time when more soldiers died from disease than battle.
In Crimea, she fought for better sanitary conditions, improvements that are credited with saving a great many lives in that war and the wars that followed. After the war she returned to London to establish the world's first modern school of nursing and, most notably, inspired Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross.
While the Crimea may be an obscure corner of the world, and the Crimean War a forgotten folly of European imperialism, the nobility of these men and women, and the examples they offer, are worth remembering. Let's hope the current crisis in Crimea will be resolved without another bloody war.