Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Crimean War: A History / by Orlando Figes

Few modern Americans, even those historically inclined toward European history, know much about the Crimean War. A great many people, when asked, won't even be able to locate the region in question on a map (Black Sea/southern Ukraine). It was one of the few large-scale European conflicts--if not quite a global war, then at least a 'hemispheric' one--which the United States had absolutely nothing to do with outside of remote casual interest. So it is indeed a little ironic that recent trends in American foreign policy have involved many of the same issues--political partitioning in the Holy Land, conflict resolution between religious-based nationalities, middle-eastern border disputes, over-reaching dictators, etc.--which instigated the original Crimean, or 'Eastern' War over a century and a half ago. In similar fashion to the world wars that would follow a century later, war in the Crimea was a mult-tiered, multi-faceted affair. In no way was it relegated to one place, nor was it concentrated within a single rivalry. It was the first conflict to be fought on multiple continents with battles raging simultaneously in areas ranging from St. Petersburg to the Caucuses and from eastern Europe to eastern Siberia. It was also the first war to utilize the revolutionary logistical devices of the railroad and the telegraph.

Though a disastrous affair nearly on par with the first World War's futility and ineffectiveness, it wasn't a conflict entered into with haste. As with any military engagement, tensions were high long before the fighting. In prior decades, the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the restructuring of European nation states and the Treaty of Vienna (1815) had essentially established Russia as the "Policemen of Europe" in that portion of the continent, bestowing them with the authority to subdue minor uprisings throughout much of the Balkans, Turkey and Eurasia. Feared at the time of the treaty, notions later expounded upon by none other than Marx and Engels, was that Russia could not resist the urge to expand their own empire. Concern over Russia's already creeping propensity to exert undue influence over their Ottoman counterparts was self-evident. Such a condition also foresaw that the imperial powers of France and Britain, fearing their interests abroad in the same regions, would oppose Russia's ambitions to the point of war. These educated guesses were proven correct when an increasingly impatient and aggressive-minded Russian ruler, Czar Nicholas I, acted toward not only extending his country's own territory but in attempting to implement Christian Orthodox rule in the Holy Land. One thing led to another and before long forces, over 1 million men strong with the allied contingent (France-Britain-Sardinia) and nearly as much on the Russian side, were shipped by rail to the Crimea to wage battle in places such as Sevastopol, Balaklava and Tagenrog.

For a war best remembered for more than a few strategical blunders, Tennyson's tongue-in-cheek poem Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale, this is a pretty good chronicle of the conflict, very well-researched and written by an author with an enthralling flair for military history. Birkbeck College, University of London professor and Booker Prize winner Figes does well to remind readers just how implemental of a war it was and just why it was that prior to World War I, Europeans lived very much in the shadow of the Crimean War. It was a particularly flawed and fatal engagement with over 500,000 casualties, men and civilians doomed and deposed as much by disease and sanitation deficiencies as the fighting. As well the conflict was as much a pivotal precursor to modernity as it was a forerunner to more destructive, technologically advanced warfare. Within the new world order we now inhabit, the Crimean War can be seen as a primitive encounter with the contemporary war on terror, having procured itself as the first full conflagration of the industrialized world against the Orient and a symptomatic early warning sign of the West's future relations with Islam. (947.0738 FIGES)

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