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The Crimean War

Pembroke Lodge

The Crimean War has a peculiar resonance for the modern world, since it has been argued - by A.N. Wilson for example - that this pointless and awful struggle arose largely out of religious tensions between various groups in the Middle East.

Origins are always a strange concept in history, since everything always leads on from something else. But having said that, a good place to start with the Crimean War might be the invention of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage by the Empress Helena in the fourth century. Although Empress Helena is now patron saint of archeologists, her story delves less into the earth and more into the murky depths of myth and religious division. She was mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, and travelled 1400 miles from Rome to Jerusalem to carry out excavations, hoping to find evidence of the life of Jesus. She apparently found a few nails, and some wood from the cross which had been used in the Crucifixion. "Proof" of the find's authenticity came from observing the wood's healing properties when held against a sick person, who subsequently recovered. In this way Helena both created and laid a Roman Catholic claim to one of the most important sites of Christianity. In the eighteenth century the Roman Catholic claim to the central symbols of Christianity was reaffirmed. 1740 saw an agreement between the French government and the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire giving France "sovereign authority" over the Holy Land. For this reason a silver star, decorated with the royal arms of France, was placed over the very spot where Christ had supposedly been born in Bethlehem. So western Roman Catholics became custodians of Christianity's most holy sites, when there were virtually no Roman Catholics in the region. To the local Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, and Romanian orthodox churches, and to the Arminian and Coptic traditions this was an insult.


In 1852 Napoleon III, wanting to impress his restive population, asked for the keys of the church at Bethlehem to be returned to the French clergy. The Sultan agreed, simply wishing to avoid trouble. In a sad echo of a long history of local religious jealousy, Russia's Tsar, Nicholas I, protested. Nicholas pounced on an opportunity to ask for Russia to be assigned the general protectorate over Christians in the Turkish Empire. Britain then waded in, worrying that Nicholas was simply planning a dangerous expansion of Russian influence. Britain allied with Turkey against Russia. At Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park the cabinet met, and although Russia had withdrawn troops from positions on the Danube, war was still declared. Britain felt that this would be a good opportunity to defeat Russia and guard against its future expansion. So war began, and from this point of view its origins lie in Middle Eastern religious division. It should be said, however, that not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the Crimean War. AJP Taylor in his book The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848 - 1918 saw no religious factor in the Crimean War. But Taylor was writing in the twentieth century when nationalism was all, and nation fought nation. In the twenty first century we are in a more complex situation, and a religious interpretation of the Crimean War makes more sense.


War raged in the Black Sea, the Crimean Peninsula, western Turkey and in the Baltic for three years between 1854 and 1856. Conditions were famously terrible, and the fact that these conditions were so widely known resulted from improved communications which allowed news to come back quickly from the Crimea to Britain. In this sense the Crimean War was the first modern war. After Waterloo in 1815 news of victory came from men in a boat which landed at Broadstairs. Only forty years later news came back from the Crimea via electric telegraph, the first time electric telegraph had been used in war. People followed events by avidly reading William Howard Russell's articles in The Times newspaper, which was selling more copies than it had ever done. In fact newspapers played a role in bringing about war in the first place. Pressure for action against Russian "bad guys" was put on the British government by public opinion expressed through, and whipped up by, the newspapers. The prime minister, the Earl of Aberdeen never wanted a Crimean War, but was forced into it by a kind of mass hysteria. In the Birmingham Oratory, John Henry Newman had a room in which he, like so many others, followed the war. This room was left as it was when Newman died in 1890, and visiting the room it is still possible to see the influence of newspapers in maps of the campaign cut out from The Times. Another memorial to the new reporting of war is Tennyson's poem Charge of the Light Brigade which he wrote after reading an article in The Times in October 1854. A Single Needle Telegraph machine which was used to transmit information during the Crimean War can be seen at the Royal Corps of Signals Museum at Blandford Camp, Dorset. Newspapers with reports on the Crimean War can be seen at the British Library Newspaper Library in Colindale, North London.


Florence Nightingale Museum

Reporting of the war led to some dramatic responses by people reading about events. Electric telegraph communication may have demonstrated modernity, but the news it brought back frequently depicted a choatic, outdated military organisation. Monsieur Alexis Sayer, chef at the Reform Club in London headed out to the Crimea to see what he could do to help. This remarkable chef had already taken soup kitchens to Ireland, and had pioneered a stove designed to prepare large amounts of food quickly. His two steam boiler stove with cooking containers on top was invaluable in serving soldiers on battlefields. Florence Nightingale, a pioneering nurse travelled to the Crimea in an attempt to sort out a chaos of illness. 10,000 British troops died of cholera whilst stationed at Varna. Sadly at the time there was little awareness of the importance of sanitation, and inspite of improving hospital care and cleanliness, death rates continued to rise. It was only after sewers were flushed out in 1855 that real progress was made. Florence Nightingale learnt this lesson and returned to England to help campaign for sanitary conditions, on which large scale public health has rested ever since. Army organisation also lagged behind the times. While the Royal Navy had been a meritocracy since reforms instigated by Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century, the Army held more stubbornly to class distinction and the buying of command. Even though the Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief between 1798 -1808 and 1811-1827, had set minimum time and age limits for service before promotion could occur, at the time of the Crimean War it was still possible for a man to buy his way to a powerful position. Lord Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade was in the words of A.N Wilson a "noisy, lecherous... upper class hooligan" who purchased his command of the 11th Hussars for £40,000. His grand home at Deene Park survives and can be visited.

The war ended in 1856 with a British and Turkish victory of sorts. The Treaty of Paris pledged to respect the territory of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. From a point of view of national war it seemed that the Crimean struggle was over. But if you take a view that it was from religious tension that hostilities really began than you could say that echoes of the Crimean War continue today.