(Okay, be patient, this one is a bit tortured and convoluted, but I'm one giant huge sinus headache right now. Anyway, enough of my whining, off we go.)
Someone once said to me that the Crimean War was most notable for producing three pieces of fashion terminology: the cardigan sweater, raglan sleeves, and balaclava caps. With all apologies to British commanders Lord Cardigan and Lord Raglan and the town of Balaklava, I hesitate to reduce the war to a fury of knitwear. Or then again, maybe I should.
Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 is pretty much a blow-by-blow account of the war. It all began with some chattering about protecting the Ottoman Empire (infamously described by Tsar Nicholas I as “a sick man…a very sick man,”), the Christians of the Empire, and relics associated with Christianity. That wasn’t really much more than a front for the usual problems of the countries involved—Russia wanted to make sure it had access to waterways, France wanted to prove it was strong, and Britain wanted to expand its empire, hopefully while keeping out the French and Russians. Wild card Austria made everyone nervous, the Americans got a little involved due to an obstreperous ambassador, and Prussia and Bismarck were on the horizon. Oh, and that knitting.
This is what I mean: the war involved a number of half-steps on the way to what we would think of as modern warfare. Let me use my favorite, the telegraph, as an example: communication during the Napoleonic wars consisted of messengers on horse or foot; by the Crimean War, telegraph lines ran between major cities, with messengers on land or sea completing transmission of information; in the (American) Civil War, only five years after the end of the Crimean War, the telegraph was used for virtually real-time battlefield communication, with the Union Army sending almost a million electronic dispatches during the war. Another example is the railroad. Again, the Napoleonic wars transported supplies the same way man had for thousands of years, that is on foot, water, or pack animal; the Crimean War also used those means of transport but then part way through the war began to lay down railroad tracks to move supplies and soldiers; by the Civil War, railroad transportation was commonplace. Finally, journalism—newspaper accounts during the Napoleonic Wars basically consisted of official military dispatches (which might arrive weeks after an event); the Crimean War had the first “embedded” journalist, William Russell of the Times, who traveled with the British Army and sent back stories to his newspaper that arrived sometimes faster than official reports to the Queen; by the Civil War, not only were journalists sending rapid fire stories via telegraph, but photographers were traveling with the army. So do you see what I mean? The Crimean War is the halfway point on the way to modern warfare, the bridge between the 18th century and all that came before that, and the wars of the 20th century. In addition to the railway, telegraph, and changing role of the newspaper, the Crimean War also featured the Minie rifle that could reach further targets with more accuracy. Trench warfare came to the fore. And while the Crimean War was not the beginning of machine woven material, nor the end of hand knitting--think of all those endless stories you hear about homefront volunteers in later wars knitting socks or whatever--it was undoubtedly a firm step deeper into the Industrial Revolution and the culture of the factory. Am I making any sense? Do you see what I mean? If I took Sinutab and Excedrin Migraine would it be a bad idea to take some Vicodin, too? Should I start drinking after that? Why don't I just bang my head against the wall for a while?
Better minds than mine can recount the events of the war and the stories behind them. For example, our Mr. Royle—this did start with his book, after all. He explains how the French were better prepared for war than the British due to France's recent fighting in Algiers while the British had not fought since Napoleon; he tells how the Charge of the Light Brigade might have been brave on the part of the men involved but was the result of a blunder and miscommunication; he goes over the siege of Sevastopol (or Sebastopol—it would have been nice if Royle had chosen one spelling and run with it for the whole book). He dissects the haphazard steps towards ending the war that included, amongst other stumbling blocks, the desire on the part of the British and French to have not just a negotiated peace, but a peace accompanied by a resounding military victory, more or less just for the benefit of the public. Peace was not enough, there also had to be resounding defeat and glorious victory.
Royle does a perfectly fine job going through all of this and more (I know, how can I discuss the Crimean War and not mention Florence Nightingale? So here goes—Florence Nightingale. There. Done.). He uses lots of excerpts from letters and has a wonderful number of maps showing troop movements and such. And yet…and yet… for some reason I was not enthralled by this book. I found it—I hate to say this, because it is undoubtedly a fine effort—informative, yet slightly dull. Or maybe it was just me and my mood. Anyway, I guess I’m saying that if I were going to write something about the Crimean War, I would rush back to this book for research, but if I wanted to be swept away, I would not choose it.
Here we are on the verge of June, the halfway point of the year, and though I have read many things, and liked quite a few of them, I haven’t really loved anything yet and wonder if I will. Oh, all right, I know--to be fair, I don't think any of my favorites from last year showed up until July or August, so just put the drama on hold and keep looking, Skippy.