There are references to the Crimean War all over London: Sebastopol Road, Inkerman Terrace, The Alma public house, and so on. There is of course nothing like Trafalgar Square or Waterloo station to remind Londoners of the sacrifices made in the Russian War of 1854-55, but there is the Crimean War Memorial on Waterloo Place – a situation of which one feels Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief in the Crimea, who had lost an arm at Waterloo, would have approved. It is perhaps not surprising that the Crimean War lacks the same place in the English psyche as the Napoleonic Wars: it was fought in response to a doubtful casus belli in a far flung place and exhibited a breathtaking degree of incompetence on the part of the political and military elite – in spite of the undoubted heroism of the troops on the ground.
A few years ago I visited the Ukraine, the country in which the Crimea now finds itself, and resolved to see for myself ‘The Seat of War in the East’ (the title of Colnaghi’s book of William Simpson’s lithographs of the Crimean War). I had studied nineteenth-century history at university and was vaguely aware of an ancestor who had served with distinction in the Crimean War. My visit was therefore intended to be entirely investigative and resistant to the the temptations of the tsarist riviera around Yalta or the vineyards of Massandra. As in 1854, Sebastopol is the Russian navy’s most important base, although it now has to be shared with the Ukrainian navy. As such, it was closed even to Russian tourists until 1997 and the nearby village of Balaklava was unmarked on Soviet maps because it was a submarine base. The region remains, therefore, relatively unexplored by British tourists.
A fluent Russian-speaking ex-Life Guards friend of mine was at the time working in Kiev. He was unable to accompany me to the Crimea that first time but arranged for me to be received there by a staff on the scale that I imagine Lord Raglan had. I and my three companions were duly furnishedwith an interpreter, a guide, a local historian and a driver. On our first morning we were taken to the site of the British Guards’ camp, four or five miles south of Sebastopol. We trundled past small wooden dachas down a dirt track across the barren and stony soil that is typical of that region until we reached what looked like another random scattering of rubbish in the middle of the countryside, sadly so common all around Sebastopol. It was indeed a refuse tip, although this one dated from the 1850s and was where the Guards had dumped their old bottles: mostly thick, dark-coloured and almost opaque remnants of porter bottles, with a few of the officers’ more delicate wine bottles among them. There were hundreds of pieces of glass scattered about, and if one dug a little with bare hands one could find items almost intact. Here and there, in little clumps over a wider area, crocuses sprouted up, which we were told were planted by the officers outside their tents.
We then proceeded to the heights overlooking Balaklava and the Valley of Death where the Charge of the Light Brigade had its moment of glory (almost the only involvement had by the cavalry in the entire war). Such was the cost in men and horses, the Brigade could no longer function as an instrument of war after this early action. Nevertheless, it is fascinating for a tourist of today to observe that the ground on which the Battle of Balaklava took place is essentially the same as it was in 1854, and only by doing so can one appreciate the scale of the problems facing the Army of the East in its efforts to prosecute the siege and eventual destruction of Sebastopol. Permanently manning a twenty-mile front in hostile territory one thousand five hundred miles from home at the same time as fighting in other theatres of war around the globe would surely tax us today as much as it did then. The mismanagement of the Crimean War and the appalling number of deaths caused by disease are no doubt part of the reason why the nation has effectively chosen not to remember much of this conflict. It is a pity that many of the lessons learnt at the time appear also to have been discarded.
The action in which I had a particular interest was the Battle of Inkerman – one of the hardest fought clashes of arms in the nineteenth century, almost completely forgotten by all but one or two military historians. At the time, Inkerman was far more important than Balaklava, not only militarily but in terms of its impact on the everyday lives of the British people. An allied defeat at Inkerman would have resulted in the catastrophic loss of the war. The losses which were sustained by the cream of the British infantry on 5 November 1854 hit the nation very hard. The Grenadier Guards, for example, took over fifty percent casualties, sustained in the course of nearly nine hours of hand-to-hand fighting. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone back home knew or had heard of somebody in the Guards because those regiments always attracted the elite. For example, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Hunter Blair, Scots Fusilier Guards, and serving MP for Ayrshire, was killed in action at Inkerman; following this his brother officer, Lieutenant Sir James Fergusson, who was wounded the same day, announced his candidacy for the constituency. His letter to the electorate was addressed from the ‘Field of Inkerman’. He was of course elected.
When the electric telegraph from the Crimea announced soon after the battle that the cost to the Guards regiments had been particularly high, those at home faced an agonising wait for the full casualty lists to be published two or three weeks later. Suddenly the efforts on the home front of countless upper- and middle-class ladies raising money for The Times’ Patriotic Fund and the Crimean Army Fund to provide comforts for the troops and sustenance for the families of those killed or wounded took on a whole new meaning. Whilst aristocratic Guards officers were in the van at Inkerman, the day was won thanks to the sheer grit and determination of thousands of private soldiers and NCOs. In the words of one artillery officer who was there: ‘Colonels of Regiments led on small parties, and fought like subalterns, captains like privates. Once engaged, every man was his own general.’ Sir James Fergusson agreed that this culture did much to ensure victory. Of the Battle of the Alma, he said, ‘I found I was freely giving orders to the company, though the junior subaltern, and did a good deal that would not have been permitted at a field day, but I never was found fault with, and indeed I believe I got credit for it.’
Accordingly, Inkerman should be celebrated as an admirable testament to the professionalism and courage of the British army from the most senior regimental officer down to the youngest private. Instead, the only feat of arms from the Crimean War that we habitually recall nowadays is the ten-minute Charge that was the consequence of an ignominious catalogue of incompetence – for all the extraordinary bravery of the participants in that particular action.
It is fascinating to consider the extent to which the film Zulu captured the public imagination and brought the Zulu Wars back into the public eye after nearly a hundred years. I have always dreamed that the same could be done for the Crimea. The Zulu War was nothing compared with the scale of the earlier conflict and, despite the interest it generates today, is not apparently recorded in any London street name. Curiously enough, however, the oldest blue plaque in London, dating from 1867, relates to Napoleon III, whose son, the Prince Imperial, was killed whilst attached to the British army in Zululand.
It was therefore with considerable enthusiasm that I recently heard from my fellow Crimean enthusiast, Patrick Mercer (who has written the authoritative history of the Battle of Inkerman as well as a number of historical novels of this period), that he has been commissioned to write the screenplay for en epic war film of the Crimea. England’s Gold will have a fictional storyline and will be a tale of the trenches and Inkerman, incorporating scenes set in Horse Guards and Whitehall. The film will be as much pro-Russian as pro-English. I hope that it brings the degree of fortitude shown by our forebears in the Russian War to the fore, so that Alma, Inkerman and other names are recalled with pride once more.