on 31 December 2010
This is a beautifully paced book. There is an excellent account of the factors leading up to the war making some sense out of the "Eastern Question". The battles are dealt with in sufficient depth but not a blow by blow narrative as is too often the case in military history. What makes the book outstanding is the focus on the ordinary soldier and particularly their suffering during the first winter in the Crimea. We get a clear picture of the awful conditions, the disease, the injuries and above all the incompetence of the commanders.There are many extracts from personal letters and they, along with the illustrations and maps, contribute greatly to the story. The book does not end with the Treaty of Paris but goes on to describe the effect that the war had on European politics during the ensuing deacdes.
on 11 September 2011
This is the first book by Figes I've read (having until now little or no interest in Russian history, or perhaps more correctly: not the time to immerse myself in the subject), but it will definitely not be the last. 'Crimea' is truly a gem. I had read The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Wordsworth Military Library) years ago, but looking back now I enjoyed 'Crimea' a lot more, and - more to the point perhaps - I think it's not just a fuller account of the Crimean War (and what came before and after) but also a more objective view.
Figes consulted a wealth of primary and secondary sources, considers the conflict from all viewpoints, gives each of the allies and opponents their due (from the commanders-in-chief to the lowliest soldier), and above writes it all down in a clear, easy and sweeping style which kept me reading on well into the night completely oblivious of the time. An unputdownable book about the defining conflict of the 19th century.
On July 18, 1854, two British warships under the command of Captain Erasmus Ommaeny bombarded the monastery on the main island in the Solovetskie Islands in the White Sea. The monastery itself had no real military or political value, but Ommaney lacked the forces necessary to attack the main Russian base in the area at Archangel and decided that the monastery was a suitable enough target to win his men plaudits at home. After the outdated Russian batteries defending the monastery were destroyed, Ommaney demanded the surrender of the place; when this was refused he launched a second bombardment before sailing away in frustration, his bold military action having caused a total of six casualties, all among his own men.
There is no mention of Ommaney's adventure in Orlando Figes's history of the Crimean War, which is unfortunate considering how nicely it encapsulates the pointlessness that is a dominant theme of his assessment of the conflict. Its absence is also revealing, as it shows Figes's focus to be squarely on the eponymous theater of the war. There is some discussion of the combat in the Caucauses, a couple of passing mentions of fighting in the Baltic and no mention of battles anywhere else. This is also unfortunate, as it would have been interesting to see him employ the same penetrating analysis to these other overlooked theaters that he applies to the fighting in the Crimea. For his book offers a insightful reexamination of this often-overlooked conflict, one that demonstrates its underrated significance to the history of Europe in the 19th century.
Figes spends the first part of the book teasing out the complicated origins of the war. While many factors were involved, he considers the role of the Russian tsar Nicolas I to be the most significant one, giving greater weight to religion as a motivating factor in his actions than have previous historians. Yet this only served to define some of the particulars of what was an ongoing struggle between the major European powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and her territories. Pressured by Russia, the Ottomans received support from Great Britain and France, each of whom were motivated by different interests and seeking different goals.
Achieving their various goals eventually cost the sides involved far more than they had anticipated. When war did break out in 1854, the British and the French were divided as to what to do to strike at the Ottomans. Eventually an assault on the Russian Black Fleet and their main naval base at Sebastopol became their goal, motivated as much by the allies' desire to move their forces out of cholera-afflicted Bessarabia as anything else. Their landing and subsequent advance soon developed into a ponderous siege of the town. Here Figes excels in describing the siege and the major personalities involved, capturing the bravery of the men and the appalling errors which were made by their leaders in waging it. The fall of Sebastopol, along with Nicholas's death and succession by his reform-minded son Alexander II, led to a negotiated peace that was a humiliation, one which was soon reversed by a combination of adroit diplomacy and fortuitous timing. Figes concludes with a chapter in which he looks at the weight given to the conflict in the national imaginations of the various countries which sent men to fight and die there, a few of whom were immortalized but most ultimately forgotten.
Figes's book is a superb history of a often-overlooked war. His background in Russian history and his command of the Russian-language sources allows him to provide a far more complete examination of the conflict than exists in most English-language accounts, while his abilities as a writer help bring the war to life. In this sense Ommaneny's escapade can go unnoticed, overshadowed as it was by the far larger and bloodier farce that took place further south that Figes recounts with both humanity and insight. The result is a book that, while far from the final word on this complex and multifaceted conflict, is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon for the author's success in providing such an entertaining and informative account of a war that has long been denied its due.
on 2 February 2011
I have read much on the Crimean war but little about it's causes and aftermath. This book is easy to read, brilliantly researched and I enjoyed it very much. In some respects it is rather like a mural as it paints the various players, the political and religious factions, the war itself and the social and national consequences. The use of quotations from other writers is very well done to illustrate the feelings of those times. My great grandfather and great great grandfather were at the siege of Sevastopol and I have visited the city twice. I would have liked to see some of the paintings mentioned in the book by way of illustration as I could only recall one of them, "the roll call". Well done Orlando.
on 17 October 2010
The most important event of the nineteenth century was the Crimean War. Paradoxically, it is also the most forgotten one. However,Orlando Figes has resurrected its memory and in his new book about it he has done a superb job. This is history at its best, written by a master historian who knows how to write history which reads like a thriller.
More than 800000 men were killed in this horrible war, whose starting point was a religious motive and which ended in many changes in the European political,religious and ethnic fields. The war signified the end of the Concert of Europe. According to Figes,it is the first book to draw on many and various Russian,French,Ottoman and British sources and his command of the new, hitherto untapped sources is perfect.
The first quarter of the book serves as an introduction to the causes of the war, where Professor Figes discusses the religious factor which was the main reason for the Crimean War. He offers the reader a panoramic view about the pilgrims to the Holy Land; a description of the Russian and Turkish clashes over the Holy Land and interests in those places and an in-depth analysis of the Eastern Question.
The rest of the book,more than 400 pages, is devoted to the war itself, and it is this part where the reader will,in my view, enjoy it most. Figes' forte is in using as many perspectives as possible about the same event,thus you will be able to know what the Russian soldier,the Turkish officer,the British doctor or the French Emperor were doing what and where. Kings, queens,princes,courtiers,diplomats,religious leaders,Polish and Hungarian revolutionaries,doctors,nurses,journalists,arists and photographers,pamphleteers and writers(the most famous one being Tolstoy) and also historians-all are here with their individual stories,memories,journals,photos or letters. In fact,the abundance of sources is so rich that you get the feeling of watching a multi-angled excellent documentary.
In the words of the author,"the Crimean War was a watershed.It broke the old conservative alliance between Russia and the Austrians and as a result of the war,new nation states emerged, among them Romania and Germany. It left Russia with a deep resentment of the West,a feeling of betrayal that the other Christian states had sided with the Turks,and with the frustrated ambitions in the Balkans that would continue to destabilize relations between the powers in the 1870s and the crises leading to the outbreak of the First World War".
This was the first war where the public had its say, where the telegraph aided the war correspondets in their mission to tell their readers real and rapid accounts of what was happening in the killing fields of Balaklava, Alma,Inkerman and Sevastopol. Only on the battlefield of Inkerman the Russians lost about 12000 men,the British 2610 casualties and the French 1726,which was "an appallling number killed in just four hours of fighting-a rate of almost on par with the battele of the Somme".
The war correspondent Nicholas Woods observed that ..."some (men)had their heads taken off at the neck,as if with an axe;others their legs gone from the hips;others their arms, and others again were hit in the chest or stomach,were literally as smashed as if they had been crushed by a machine".(pp.268-269).
Among the many interesting many characters peopling his opus,there stands out the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov,who was responsible for the introduction of field surgery trouth the use of anaethetics.
One of the main villains in this war was Lord Palmerston who wanted to see a crushed Russia,thus helping the British achieve masterdom in East Asia. Seeing Russia as the main aggressor was the British point of view which had dominated British politics up to World War Two.
This war changed many things among them the way the West regarded the Turks and the way the Turkish leaders regarded the West.In Britain it marked the end of the British aristocracy being the defender of the Empire,substituted by the common soldier.
The other strong points in this book are the way he describes the soldiers,the officers and the civilians in the Crimean theater and their daily methods of coping with disease,their war crimes(looting, rape,murder),personal tragedies and so on.
The last part, the shortest,is about the way the war stirred-and still does-memories mainly in France and Russia. In 2006 the bodies of 14 infantrymen were discovered, buried with their grenades and crucifixes in the famous battle of Alma,and they were reburied with full military honours.
This is one of the best history books which I have read in the last ten years and I am sure that it will become not only a bestseller but also a classic. Bravo,Professor Figes!
on 27 June 2013
If you are a general reader of history, rather than a specialist, and are looking for a lucidly written, one-volume account of the Crimean War, its causes and effects, then this is the book for you. Prior to reading it my knowledge of the war was confined to a hazy awareness of the charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale, and some Russian place-names such as Sevastopol and Balaklava. This history sets out in great detail the political context within which the war broke out, including the fear of Russian expansion which led western nations such as Britain and France to take the side of the Ottoman Empire against Russian attempts to release Orthodox Christians from Muslim hegemony.
Figes draws on Russian and Turkish sources in addition to British and French ones and the result is a very impressive and convincing account. The military course of the war is covered without overwhelming the reader with technical detail but the book is particularly strong on the plight of soldiers injured in the war or suffering from the conditions under which they operated, particularly during the siege of Sevastopol. If I have any quibble it is that I would have liked more on the experience of the people being besieged.
The fascinating course of events following the war is also deftly handled by Figes. Read it!
on 24 September 2013
This book combines shoddy, pop-history analysis with a drearily conventional structure. Professor Figes offers no new revelations whatsoever regarding the story of the Crimean campaign itself and at times distorts the facts to generate a more 'glamorous' storyline.
"Crimea: The Last Crusade" was put together extremely carelessly, and a reader fresh to the subject will find it very hard to navigate. In the five chapters leading up to the war, Figes deals with everything from rival Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem to the introduction of Christianity to Kievan Rus' in the tenth century, yet dedicates almost no time at all to the soldiers and ordinary civilians on whose testimony the major part of his account later relies. It really feels like two unconnected books: one a religious and social history of Orthodox Christians in south-eastern Europe and the Levant, and one a fairly banal account of a war fought by people completely dissociated from the first book.
Figes is one of those historians who starts every chapter with a glossy scene-setting anecdote: the crowds of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem, the Sultan on his white charger riding to the Mosque, etc. This can be a great way of drawing the audience in, as it allows historical beginners to picture the past as well as read about it. Unfortunately Figes' writing flair dies out after only a few pages and the reader is left leafing through pages and pages of terminally dull official correspondence between this Russian minister and that British diplomat. These extracts from repetitive letters sometimes take up entire pages. "Crimea: The Last Crusade" is old-fashioned, stodgy Great Man history at its worst. It weighs the reader down, asking us to process name after unfamiliar name, letter after letter, report after report.
The reader may, in chapter 5 ("Phoney War") have a distinct sense of deja vu as Figes repeats the same issues over and over again. Despite the endless blow-by-blow account of what the Russian and British governments were discussing internally prior to the war, Figes fails to link any of it directly to pilgrims in the Holy Land or Christians in the Ottoman Empire, one of the major contentions of his prologue. There is some discussion of Christian uprisings in the Balkans, but all we hear of them is the occasional (lengthy) memo on the subject between the Tsar and his ministers. It's shockingly boring, when it could and should be a gripping story about national identity.
Figes has some odd writing quirks and this includes his way of describing people: he refers to the British Ambassador Stratford Canning as "Stratford" throughout the text (nobody else named Canning appears in any significant capacity, not even the former Prime Minister), and at one stage introduce Charles Dickens as "Dickens" without mentioning his first name at all.
This assumption of prior knowledge on the one hand, with rank ignorance on the other, permeates the entire book. Figes takes time to explain what a "Ship of the Line" is in a naval context, and then almost immediately describes the Russian fleet as consisting of "battleships". Quite apart from being inaccurate this also precludes the audience from learning anything about fleets (or words) in the nineteenth century.
That is another major fault; as a military history, "Crimea" is dire. While Figes rightly includes countless excerpts from soldiers' diaries and official reports, these are never constructed into a coherent story. The battle of the Alma, for example is a series of anecdotes, without a map or a summary from the author to guide us (the map included at the beginning of the book is not annotated and in no way relates to Figes' description).
On the battlefield, every individual who is mentioned comes across as a clown or a moron. For every reader who thought that the 'butchers and bunglers' school of military history had been safely consigned to the ashtray of historiography, think again. Figes takes the usual line that Lord Raglan was a senile old duffer, and actually cuts out his direction of horse artillery at the Alma (perhaps the most important thing he did in the entire Crimean War) from his account completely in order to justify this characterisation. Added to this are the usual descriptions of drunken and incapable Russian generals ordering their troops to fire at friendly cavalry, British troops freezing to death on Cathcart Hill and aristocratic officers unable to tell their arses from their elbows.
Much of this would be fine (most of it is true) if it was balanced out by some attempt to explain why wars were fought in such a bloody and clumsy way during the mid-nineteenth century. But in this, too, Figes is more interested in shocking the reader than teaching them. So at one point we have a scorching critique of the Russian army's focus on parade-ground drill and reliance on the "obsolete" musket, followed a few pages later by an indictment of the Ottoman army for being "unable to adopt modern formation fighting". These are not accurate portrayals, but even if they were, they would be contradictory and in neither case does he really bother to explain why. Instead what we are offered is a self-satisfied smirk at the expense of 'the olden days'. If you like that kind of thing, then buckle up: this account of the Crimean War consists of smirking and little else.
This lack of real analysis of the combatants is everywhere. Figes at one stage describes French Zouaves as "mostly North African" when he has already established in a previous chapter that Zouave regiments consisted of Frenchmen. He does not mention the 'Turcos' or North African Tiralleurs (who actually were Muslim North Africans fighting for France) at all. Given the awesome reputation which both Zouaves and Turcos acquired in the Crimea this can only be a deliberate oversimplification.
These are small points but they build up over time into a narrative that the reader cannot trust. Figes isn't a 'details man' and his tendency to oversimplify leaves the reader ignorant at best and confused at worst. His framing of the war as a clash of civilisations is huge, but his delving into the minutiae of the actual war itself then becomes distracting. It's the old story: his book tries to be all things to all men, and fails at every step.
I was particularly disappointed with his explanation of the war as the logical consequence of the Russian belief in a 'holy mission' to rebuild the Byzantine Empire. And it all started so well! Figes seemed genuinely interested in Russo-Turkish relations and put together a lively and interesting description of Orthodox pilgrims' journey to the Holy Land, and the political tensions this caused over time. I was very curious to learn what became of the pilgrims (and the pilgrimages) during and after the war, and all I got at the end was a short passage describing how everything went back to normal after the Crimean war. What was it all for? If the book had been plugged as an account of the futility of war from the very start, that might have made sense. As it is, it feels like a waste of our time.
The worst part about "Crimea; The Last Crusade" is not its missing facts or its lack of cohesion, it's that Professor Figes doesn't actually seem all that interested in the Crimean War. With his tendency to let diary extracts run for paragraphs, he leaves the telling of history to other, better writers who were actually there. He evinces neither original analysis nor any kind of personal interest. This book resembles nothing so much as an untidy desk piled high with books and notes and almost impossible for a reader at any level to piece together.
We as an audience rely on historians to teach us what happened in the past, and why it was important. While there is some discussion of the Crimean War's cultural consequences, this seems to be yet another excuse to load us down with endless extracts and cultural minutiae, and where Figes himself steps in to summarise for us, he always paints in very broad strokes that don't really explain anything beyond "many things changed in the Ottoman Empire. People wore different clothes, and some of them learned to read".
A lot of people have written reviews here praising this book. If they enjoyed it, that is fair, but I would strongly advise anyone to read more, and read other accounts, of the Crimean War. The military or historical enthusiast will learn nothing at all, and anybody reading about the Crimea for the first time may take away some wrong impressions of a very interesting period of history, especially if they treat Crimea: The Last Crusade as definitive.
on 20 December 2010
In Crimea, the Last Crusade Orlando Figes takes a holistic approach to the Crimean War. Numerous first-hand sources resurrected from archives in Russia, France, Turkey and the UK combine to make this book at once both original and moving. Extracts from the letters and diaries of Allied and Russian soldiers are interwoven with those of journalists, generals, politicians and emperors. The mistakes of the `arrogant and wilful' Russian Tsar, Nicholas 1, and of the `near geriatric' British commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, whose refusal to capture Sevastopol when it was only lightly defended by the Russians condemned both sides to a drawn-out struggle in conditions that augured the pernicious quagmire of the Western Front, are itemised in full. Like World War One, the Crimea became a war of attrition between `lions led by donkeys' - the stoic heroism of the battered, sodden, frozen, sleep-deprived and (in the case of the Russian and Turkish troops) starved soldiers would beggar belief if it were not so authoritatively documented in vividly described trench and battle scenes.
At the same time the reader if made aware of the frailty of the combatants, of the high rates of contagion and desertion of duty and of the appalling impact of the weapons of modern warfare on the human body. The `thin red line' of the Alma gives way to a struggle resembling something between the Somme and an interminable medieval siege in which, as Leo Tolstoy tells us on the back of the dust-jacket, we `will see war not as a beautiful, orderly, and gleaming formation..... but war in its authentic expression - as blood, suffering and death'. As a young artillery officer, Tolstoy fought at Silestria before the Allied intervention and subsequently defended Sevastopol - his 'Sevastopol Sketches' (which made him famous) and his diaries and letters are frequently cited. Yet Orlando Figes is so talented a writer and historian that he can easily encompass the reflections of his chief witness within his own absorbing narrative and afford to allow him the last word.
"Crimea" explains the power struggles of mid-nineteenth century Europe: the ramshackle Ottoman Empire, ironically dismissed by the Russian Tsar Nicholas 1 as "the Sick Man of Europe" as he falls prey to his growing obsession to liberate the Eastern Orthodox Christians from Turkish dominance; Austria, traditionally an ally of Russia, but now unwilling to go beyond "armed neutrality", for fear that encouragement of uprisings of Slavs in Turkey will give its own minority groups ideas of rebellion. France is keen to gain victory against Russia after its earlier humiliation under Napoleon Bonaparte, and the English - concerned more about commerce than religious rights- wish to deflect the Russians from their suspected designs on India. This melting pot of conflicting aims causes one of the frequent wars between Russia and Turkey to boil over into the conflict which has left the fragmented legacy in our history of the "Lady with the Lamp", Florence Nightingale (who gets scant mention here, including her failure to realise that soldiers were dying in droves because the local water supply was contaminated), the balaclava hat against the perishing winters and the heroic, misconceived charge of the Light Brigade (which was not quite the disaster it was portrayed).
Once he "gets into" the battles in the Crimea, Figes' account is gripping. He brings out clearly the chaos, incompetence and misplaced courage under fire - yet frequent barbarism with looting of the dead, beheading them in the hope of monetary reward being one Turkish tradition . WW1 is foreshadowed, with the accounts of soldiers fraternising between onslaughts - the officers from opposing sides sometimes sipped champagne together as their men cleared away bodies so that the battle could continue.
Although I found interesting the first chapter on the unholy disputes between different religious factions in Jerusalem, and there is the intriguing incident of the Tsar travelling incognito (for fear of assassination) to England to persuade Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister to agree to a future carve-up of Turkey, not realising that Parliament might need to be consulted, the opening chapters are hard to follow in places, particularly the important section on "The Eastern Question". Figes invites you to skip the first 130 pages, but the analysis of the background is important and it would have been better if he had simply provided better maps, a glossary of key characters, and a simple "time line" of critical events. I suppose this reflects the historian's usual dilemma as to how much prior knowledge to expect of the reader.
The evaluation of the aftermath gives food for thought: the Russians focussed on their victories during the war, rather than their overall failure, and managed to recoup within 25 years their losses under the Paris Peace Treaty. They proceeded quite quickly to fight the Turks again, having made strenuous attempts to update their military organisation. The epilogue on the British commemoration of the Crimean War in rather sickly Victorian poetry is a bit of an anticlimax.
Overall, this is more digestible than many historical tomes, and I found much of it fascinating.
on 28 November 2010
This has been described as "the only book about the Crimean War anyone need read" - and I am prepared to believe it! Figes manages to do a wonderful job of putting that misunderstood war into a proper political context as well as describing clearly and movingly the actual engagements of the war.
I came to the book with the vaguest possible sense of how the war came into being, and was a little off-put by Figes' own suggestion that the political backdrop was a bit of a slog and could be skipped - but was thoroughly glad I persisted! I had certainly had the sense that it was a nonsensical war, and now at least I have a really good idea of why each party thought it was a good idea - though I confess I would need to go through it all again before I could claim to have a very firm grip on it ...
His account of the war itself is certainly easier to follow (though as with most books dealing with military history there are too few maps), and well and poignantly told - and the comparative accounts of the various armies is fascinating. If I have a criticism of thie main section of the book it is that I felt an even better job was just another revision of the draft away - the structure is good and clear, the language well chosen, the illustrations telling - and the use of Tolstoy's contemporaneous writing wonderful - but the story could have sung even louder with a bit more direction. But this is a mere quibble.
Figes also gives us plenty of afterstory - in two respects: the political aftermath - the settlement after the war and how it unravelled and why (as well as how it can be traced into the disputes of the lst centaury), and the perception of the war at the time and since (the celebrity status of Florence Nightingale etc. and the slide of the war into forgotten status). Tellingly, he finishes on the recent reinstatement of the Crimean dispute as a point of national honour in Russia ...
All in all an excellent and rewarding book and well worth the aches and pains the sheer weight of the volume gave me!