City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Orlando Figes: A New History of the Crimea and the First Truly Modern War (EIBF Review)

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 16 August 2011

Orland Figes
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Orlando Figes

The Crimean War is somehow imagined in the British Isles to be a minor conflict against Russia and of no great consequence.

Years ago, when this reviewer arrived back in Edinburgh, the Scottish Arts Council hosted and exhibition of Crimean War photographs and gave space to wargamers to remount the battle of Balaclava.

The same assumption of the war being a minor one prevailed then, although in fact the Crimean War was the first modern war to be extensively reported and photographed, and to use trains, telegraph, and other ’modern’ paraphernalia.

Wargamers on the other hand, tend to like wars which are ‘neat’ in terms of limited political objectives, and where similar troops oppose each other for control of limited objectives.

Enter Orlando Figes to blow all these preconceptions away. Figes interprets the war as being fought for religious as much as for political ones (if not in fact more so). This confrontation between Orthodox Russia and Catholic France for control of the holy sites of Palestine (including Jerusalem) eventually embroiled Britain, Turkey along with Sardinians and Savoyards in a literally (if not extensively) international conflict.

Figes does argue strongly for religious motives among the leadership of the major powers involved, but did concede that its significance as being the first ‘modern’ war, and the one as a result of which modern Europe, in the shape of a unified Italy and Germany, came into being.   

As with all wars, and especially the first in which the press had first-hand accounts as a result of sending ‘war correspondents’ to the front, mythology overtakes fact and is taken for truth. In these islands, the huge French military effort is downplayed, when recognised at all, Florence Nightingale’s activities eclipse those of one of the few front-line nurses, Mary Seacole (largely because she was black), and Tennyson’s ‘gallant six hundred’ highly romanticises an efficient operation carried out with 120 casualties – expensive in those terms, but neither ‘blunder’ nor ‘disaster’.

Figes study, ‘Crimea; The Last Crusade’ details all this and considerably more. As the most recent general history of the war using Russian and other European sources, it offers a useful corrective to the more self-congratulatory tone of previous British accounts. One hopes it may encourage further iconoclasm (in the best sense).

Event: Monday 15 August