The Legacy of the Crimean War
By Robert B. Edgerton. Boulder,
CO: Westview Press, 1999. 288 pp.
Lt Col Harold E. Raugh, Jr., United
States Army (Retd) reviews these books exclusively for DJ.
The mention of the Crimean War evokes images of stalwart British Guardsmen
battering the Russians at the Alma; of the gallant Light Brigade thundering
down the “Valley of Death”; of small units of soldiers engaged
in brutal hand-to-hand and bayonet combat in the dense fog on the Inkerman
Heights; and of the wearying, but eventually successful, sapping of and
assaults on Sevastopol. But there was also another face to the war in
the Crimea: bungling and aged leaders; logistical and medical ill-preparedness;
and abominable weather conditions, hunger, disease, and unfathomable deprivation.
Indeed, how participating soldiers experienced the Crimean War, particularly
from a cultural perspective, is the theme of this interesting study.
The author of this book, Death or Glory: The Legacy of the Crimean War,
is Robert B. Edgerton, Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry at the
renowned University of California, Los Angeles. Edgerton, while not a
military historian, is no stranger to Victorian military history. His
books include Like Lions They Fought: The Zulu War and the Last Black
Empire in South Africa (New York: Free Press, 1988), and The Fall of the
Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast (New
York: Free Press, 1995). In these previous two studies, the author views
the respective military campaigns from the perspective of the indigenous
tribes involved. In Death or Glory, the author seeks to answer one main
question: “In a war as long, horrible, and deadly as [the Crimean
War], does culture —people’s traditional beliefs and practices
— make a difference in how the war is experienced, or was this war
so intense that all people, no matter what their backgrounds, reacted
to it in the same way?” (p. 3).
In an attempt to answer this profound question, Edgerton has mined numerous
published studies, first-hand narratives, personal reminiscences, and
other accounts, mainly of participants in the conflict, and has woven
together various vignettes and anecdotes from these accounts to try to
show how one’s culture influences how war is experienced. The activities,
perceptions, and experiences of many of the leading participants —
British, French, Turkish, Sardinian, and Russian — are highlighted
and compared (although somewhat superficially) with the experiences of
Northern and Southern soldiers during the American Civil War. The author
concludes, rather simplistically and in very general terms — especially
given his relatively small sampling and mainly anecdotal “evidence”
— by asking another question: “Is it correct to say that this
horrific war reduced all who fought in it around Sevastopol to the same
elemental beliefs and practices, blurring their national, class, and religious
background?” (p. 248). A rather unconvincing answer is given, “That
is how it appears” (p. 248).
The Crimean War witnessed the introduction of mass-produced rifles, railroads,
and steam-driven warships. It was an early conflict involving relatively
modern technology, and as such was a precursor of the American Civil War
that began only a few years later. It was also the first war in which
newspaper correspondents could telegraph their stories directly from the
battlefield. The same sense of immediacy is frequently conveyed by the
author as he recounts soldiers’ tales of their gallantry as well
as their fears, privations and suffering.
The author approaches his subject topically, first providing the diplomatic
and historical context of the Crimean War, followed by an overview of
the characteristics of the participating armies. “Butchered Leadership”
is next chronicled, followed by logistical and medical aspects of the
war and the role of women and children in the conflict. A chapter is devoted
to the frequently misunderstood and maligned Turks. The apparent motivation
of soldiers is presented, and an analysis of the experiences of combat
soldiers is conducted. What is well-known by combat arms soldiers, regardless
of “cultural differences,” is that for men at war “nothing
matters to them as much as doing well in the eyes of their closest comrades”
(p. 247). This must be another very tentative conclusion of the author,
since he stated earlier in the book that “we do not know why they
performed these acts [of gallantry], or how they felt as they did so”
(p. 191); “What kept these men going remains a matter for speculation,...”
(p. 193); and “How they coped with these horrors can never be fully
understood, . . .” (p. 215). The author at times seems unsure of
his research and analysis.
A visual aspect to the book is provided by eleven worthwhile monochrome
contemporary photographs and two satisfactory maps (“The War Zone,
1853-1856” and “From the Alma River to Sevastopol”).
The endnotes (eighteen pages) follow a peculiar format not known to scholarly
research and publication. Moreover, many of the endnotes are also grossly
incomplete, listing only an author but no page numbers to document the
reference — or to permit the reader to verify the author’s
research. The fairly complete nine-page bibliography (“references”)
contains no unpublished source material, only books and a few journal
articles, and indicates the author’s reliance on published documents.
There are also a number of distracting and disconcerting factual errors.
In describing the French Army, for example, the author states “The
French army had become the best-equipped, best-trained, and best-supplied
force in the world” (p. 53); the Sardinian Army in the Crimea is
later considered “The best equipped and most admired” (p.
65). Numerous other errors and contradictory information appear throughout
The Crimean War, the longest and bloodiest confrontation between the Napoleonic
Wars and World War I, began as a romantic affair and changed quickly into
a deadly and horrible conflict. The advent of new technology in a combat
environment, its impact on the evolution of tactics and operations, and
the abilities of leaders and soldiers to understand and react to such
changes in the Crimean War deserve further study. For answers to these
questions one must look elsewhere. While Death or Glory provides a number
of interesting vignettes and facts from the Crimean War, readers need
to be aware of its significant limitations.