Read Hugh Small’s analysis of today’s sanctions against Russia, on History and Policy website
Read Hugh Small’s comment on the ‘frozen war’ in Ukraine
What’s new in The Crimean War
Hugh Small spent ten years researching and writing The Crimean War. His goal was to make sense of this, the most destructive conflict of Queen Victoria’s reign; his earlier research into Florence Nightingale had left him with the feeling that there was much unexplained on the military and political side of the war. He was encouraged by the work of Andrew Lambert and Winfried Baumgart, scholars who made important discoveries 140 years after the war in the fields of naval strategy and European cooperation during the conflict. Small believed that many other issues remained unexplored, due to the government’s “let sleeping dogs lie” policy in the face of public disappointment about the war’s outcome. He went back to basics, consulting all the primary sources; surprisingly, he found that some of the most important of them have been consistently misquoted since Victorian times. For example, in 1863 the government allowed publication of an expurgated version of the orders to attack Sebastopol, omitting the paragraphs that laid down conditions that had to be satisfied for such an attack and the alternatives if they were not. Many historians have used this doctored version even though the original became available by the 1920s. They concluded, mistakenly, that the Army High Command had no choice but to attack Sebastopol, and therefore could not be held responsible for the result.
The result of Hugh Small’s work is a succinct and highly readable account which makes sense of the key players’ actions in a way not achieved before, and explains why the Ukraine is so divided today. His final conclusion is that Europe’s mistaken choice of a military solution to Russia’s tyrannical expansion not only failed to resolve the problem in 1854, but ensured that it would persist through our time.
Click here to read a summary of the book in History Today (April 2014; paywall).
Click image above to see the book at Amazon
If it wasn’t for his meticulously documented sources and his acclaimed earlier research on Florence Nightingale, it might be thought that some of his conclusions were fantasies. Examples of his new revelations:
- The war was not a French/British adventure, it was a concerted European attempt to stop and roll back the expansion of the tyrannical Russian Empire, which had swallowed up an area of Europe five times the size of France in the previous 100 years. European leaders were agreed that unless checked this expansion would continue. For 130 years after the failure of their Crimean project, they were proved right.
- The British and French attacked Sebastopol because a cholera epidemic made it impossible to stay where they were in the Balkans. The only permitted alternative, a campaign to liberate the Caucasus, was politically unacceptable to conservative, imperialistic British commanders.
- The British High Command technically mutinied in May 1855, by disobeying orders to abandon its mistaken strategy of taking Sebastopol by bombardment and assault. The two most senior officers pretended that they would obey direct orders from London to attack the Russian armies outside Sebastopol instead, but sabotaged the new strategy and ensured that the French allies could not follow it either.
- The French withdrew from the war because of this refusal of their British allies to obey orders from the Minister of War in London.
- The inability of the two most industrialised countries in Europe to subdue a remote outpost of undeveloped Russia caused the collapse of the Concert of Europe, which had kept the peace since the Napoleonic Wars.
- The Battle of the Alma was won for Britain and France ‘by a humble regiment of the line, left without orders, hiding in a ditch,’ and not, as commentators claimed at the time and since, by artillery under the orders of the C-in-C.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade was not caused by the errors and family quarrels of the Generals, it was reluctantly allowed by them to prevent a mutiny in the Brigade at being continually held back. The Army’s Commander-in-Chief gave this explanation to the House of Lords at the time, but it was forgotten in the enthusiasm for Tennyson’s famous poem. It was the Light Brigade themselves who decided to charge at the Russian cavalry (not at the guns, as Tennyson and others claimed). The ‘cavalry blunder’ story was to cover up the disobedience of the infantry commanders who ignored their own orders to join the attack.