Death or Glory:
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 this study.
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.