The mid-19th-century Crimean War, pitting England, France, and less powerful allies against Russia, was one of the first major international wars in history. In the execution, it was none too inspiring. As Trevor Royle writes in his sweeping study of the conflict, "it encompassed maladministration on a grand scale and human suffering, if not without parallel then at least minutely recorded by the watching war correspondents"--the war being the first as well to have been widely reported. It was, a contemporary British journal put it, a war of "lions led by donkeys," young men commanded by doddering veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns who served in an unlikely alliance. The English officers, Royle writes, could never shake the habit of calling their French comrades "the enemy," and never quite trusted them, either.
The result was carnage: not only the loss of a good portion of the Light Brigade in the most famous--but not the most inept--incident of the war, but also the destruction of whole regiments left to blunder about in the fog and smoke, thanks to their commanders' inadequate intelligence-gathering efforts. Not much changed at war's end. In the eventual peace treaty, France and England and Russia kept their territories more or less intact, and the struggle for power between Russia and the neighboring Ottoman Empire, in whose defense France and England had ostensibly gone to war, stretched out for another generation. It ended with a Russian victory that allowed Russia to assume control of Turkish holdings in the Balkans, which, Royle notes, lay the seeds for still another international conflict, World War I.
Royle does a fine job of negotiating through the many complexities, diplomatic and military, of the Crimean War. His descriptions of battlefield tactics (or the lack thereof) are among the best in the literature. More comprehensive than Robert B. Edgerton's Death or Glory: The Legacy of the Crimean War, Royle's Crimea is likely to stand as an enduring work on this strange, wasteful conflict. --Gregory McNamee [via]