The Crimean War – Seven Essential Facts About Victorian Britain’s Most Peculiar Conflict

The ridiculous Crimean War has been called, among other things, "notoriously incompetent international butchery." (Image source: WikiCommons)

The ridiculous Crimean War has been called, among other things, an act of “notoriously incompetent international butchery.” (Image source: WikiCommons)

I view the Crimean War as a very important historical event and find it puzzling that it’s not used more frequently as a canvas for historical novels.”

By M.J. Neary

THE CRIMEAN WAR (1853-1856) is a conflict stepped in irony. It was the first war in centuries in which long-time adversaries Britain and France fought on the same side — a partnership that would repeat itself in World War One. And just like in 1914, it was also a struggle in which the valour of ordinary soldiers stood in stark contrast to the near criminal ineptitude of the generals. Yet despite being costly and unpopular at home, Britain’s campaign in the Crimea provided certain collateral benefits, such as advancements in nursing and medicine.

As with most wars, the conflict in the Crimea was fought over territory. France, Great and Sardinia joined forces to protect the interests of the waning Ottoman Empire against the territorial advances of Czarist Russia.

Two of my Neo-Victorian novels are set in the 1850s: Wynfield’s Kingdom and the sequel Wynfield’s War. The first book touches upon the forthcoming military engagement, while the second novel plunges my protagonist straight into combat. I view the Crimean War as a very important historical event and find it puzzling that it’s not used more frequently as a canvas for historical novels. Here are some of the more astounding facts about this often overlooked conflict.

Mortar's trained on Russian positions in the Crimea.

Heavy siege mortars trained on Russian positions in the Crimea. The two-and-a-half-year conflict was one of the first wars of the Industrial Revolution. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It Was the First ‘Modern War’

Some historians argue that the Crimean War provided a glimpse into how conflicts of the future would be waged. It was fought between two large power blocs: The Russian Empire on one side, countered by the French, the British and the Ottoman empires, as well as Sardinia. The Crimean War also saw the premiere of modern military technologies such as explosive naval shells, railways and telegraphs. Mass destruction and battlefield communications were taken to a brand new level in the Crimea — and the world’s military planners took notice.

British soldiers seen through the lens of Roger Fenton. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British soldiers seen through the lens of war correspondent Roger Fenton. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It Was the First War on Film

Roger Fenton's mobile photo studio. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Roger Fenton’s mobile photo studio. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The advent of photography coincided with the outbreak of the Crimean War, making it the first military engagement in history to be covered by photojournalists. The sketches, paintings and other visual accounts of prior conflicts were immediately overshadowed by the raw power of the camera. Not surprisingly, the images from the front enthralled audiences at home. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was one of the first British military photographers and helped pioneer the genre. The son of a Member of Parliament, Fenton’s fascination with photography began in 1851 after he visited the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park, history’s first World’s Fair. There he encountered some early photographic daguerreotypes presented by a future Civil War photojournalist Matthew Brady. The rest is history. Three years later Fenton was in the Crimea, photographing the campaign with his own cameras. With help from his servant William, Fenton travelled the front in a large van carrying his bulky photography equipment. His dangerous trek resulted in over 300 usable prints, many of which are still viewable today.

A nurse tends to a wounded soldier.

A nurse tends to a wounded soldier.

It Saw the the Rise of Military Nursing

Florence Nightingale. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Florence Nightingale. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Crimean War was also the conflict that first put nursing on the map as a respectable profession, thanks to Florence Nightingale. The 34-year-old Tuscan-born social activist volunteered to accompany the British army on campaign and was horrified by the fact that more men died of disease and complications from wounds than in actual combat. Of the war’s 21,000 British fatalities, 16,000 were caused by preventable illnesses. Many feminists have since claimed Nightingale as one of their own, although she did not consider herself an advocate for women’s rights – her main goal was to advance the medical profession. Despite her status as a champion of sick soldiers, she was not viewed as a saint by all of her contemporaries. Nightingale’s tireless lobbying for better conditions for the troops and improved rations were frequently ignored while her detractors claimed that her contributions were overrated.

Fanny Duberly and her husband. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fanny Duberly and her husband Henry. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It Was a Women’s War

Florence Nightingale was not the only notable female of the Crimean campaign. Fanny Duberly (1829-1903), an English soldier’s wife, joined her husband and wrote of their experiences. Henry Duberly served as a junior officer and paymaster to the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, part of the British light cavalry that took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Henry’s life was spared in the ill-fated assault; he was on staff duty that day and did not participate in the charge that had taken the lives of so many of his friends. Fanny’s writings, which were starkly honest in their portrayal of the action, were not limited to her own eye-witness accounts of the campaign. She also documented track of rumours and scandals circulating through the British army. Though heavily criticized for her tell-all narrative and snubbed by polite society for having challenged societal norms, Mrs. Duberly was loved by the people and respected by her husband’s colleagues. Her published work, Journal Kept During the Russian War, made her something of a celebrity.

"Lions led by donkeys" is a phrase used to damn the generals and praise the soldiers of the First World War. The same case could be made against the leadership during the Crimean War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Lions led by donkeys” — A phrase used to damn the generals and praise the soldiers of the First World War. The same sentiment could have been applied to the leadership in the Crimean War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It Was a War of In-Fighting

Cardigan. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The 7th Earl of Cardigan. (Image source: WikiCommons)

One of the internal scandals that did not evade Fanny Duberly’s pen was the conflict between two British generals, George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan (1800-1888) and James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868). The two were in-laws. Lucan was married to Cardigan’s sister, and Cardigan believed that Lucan did not treat his sibling well. The two men could not stand each other and were barely on speaking terms. Lucan was Cardigan’s immediate superior, which that made matters rather more interesting. Lucan also protested Fanny Duberly’s presence by her husband’s side, which the general considered a constant distraction.

It Had It’s Share of Villains

Lucan. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lucan. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lord Lucan was a man of many impressive vices. His enemy Cardigan was no saint himself, but Lucan certainly lived up to his reputation as a brute. History buffs who focus on his activities in the Crimea tend to forget that his greatest transgressions against humanity started long before the war. As an absentee landlord in his Irish estate at Castlebar, County Mayo, he had evicted and starved to death an estimated 40,000 tenants. His cruelty towards the Irish even earned him the title “The Exterminator Lord.”

"Into the valley of death rode the six hundred." Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous "Charge of the Light Brigade" poem celebrated the ill-fated attack. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” poem celebrated the ill-fated attack. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The War is Most Famous for a Futile Attack

The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Oct. 25, 1854 Battle of Balaclava would go down as one of the costliest and most tragic blunders in history. Lord Tennyson’s famous poem of the attack was published just six weeks after the events it describes. In it, he praised the valour of the cavalry as well as their unconditional obedience and commitment to carry out the orders, regardless of the obvious outcome. More than a third of the 660 men to take part in the assault were mowed down. “Their’s not to reason why,” Tennyson wrote. “Their’s but to do and die.” Ultimate responsibility for the disaster continues to be controversial. Ultimately, it may have been a string of confusing orders that led to misdirection. Even though the charge was headed by Cardigan, some historians place the responsibility on Lucan, while others blame Lord Raglan (1788-1855), an elderly general who had lost his arm at the Battle of Waterloo. Raglan ended up dying in 1855 of a nervous breakdown. The man had seen and endured so much in his life, and the loss of the Light Brigade was likely the final straw.

Dazed and confused: The survivors of the Roger Fenton's shot of survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, just hours after their shattered attack. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Dazed and confused: Roger Fenton’s shot of survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade just hours after their shattered attack. (Image source: WikiCommons)


headshot_red-1An only child of classical musicians, M.J. Neary is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed expert on military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. Notable achievements include a series revolving the Anglo-Irish conflict, including Never Be at Peace, a novel of Irish rebels. She continues to explore the topic of ethnic tension in her autobiographical satire Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy. Her latest release is a cyber mystery Trench Coat Pal set in Westport, CT at the dawn of the internet era. A revised edition of Wynfield’s Kingdom, her debut Neo-Victorian thriller, was recently released through Crossroad Press. Wynfield’s War is the sequel following the volatile protagonist to the Crimea. Set in 1910 Ireland, Big Hero of a Small Country is a tragic and violent tale of a family ravaged by an ideological conflict.

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