Wednesday, 12 October 2011


It is not much remembered today, but in the parishes of Whitegate and Aghada in East Cork, where the British Army recruited heavily, almost one third of the male population died in the Crimean  War. In fact almost one third of the British Army deployed in the Crimea was Irish.

 It was the earliest example of a truly modern war, fought with new industrial technologies, and with modern communications and modern media hype.

I   recently read  “Crimea, the last crusade“ by Orlando Figes.  Figes is a specialist in Russian history and brings a new perspective to a war, that is usually remembered from a British point of view, as if the  charge of the Light Brigade  was what it  was all about.

The origin of the  war  was in the  ambition of the Russian Tsar to increase  his influence in the Ottoman Empire, both in general and ,  as the protector there of Orthodox Christians. He was very sensitive to preference being shown to Latin Christians (Catholics and Protestants) by the Ottoman authorities, especially in the Holy Land, then Ottoman Palestine, as a result of French pressure.

 While the immediate cause of hostility was a dispute about rights in the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem, there was a wider fear of Russian expansionism, and  of Russian ambitions  to  create a sphere of influence that would threaten British and French interests.

There were echoes of current controversies in Afghanistan. The Ottomans had  only abolished the death penalty for Muslims who converted to Christianity in 1844, and in fact a number of executions took place after that. Against that background, it was surprising that France and Britain would join Turkey in a religiously motivated  war against Russia.  It explains some of the hostility that exists to this day between Orthodox and  Latin Christians,

The immediate reason for Britain and France joining Turkey in a war against Russia in 1854 was a Russian occupation of Ottoman provinces in present day Romania and Moldova. This was not intended to be permanent , but was a gambit to obtain other concessions from the Ottomans, notably better   rights for Orthodox Christians than  for Latin Christians.

Instead of conceding Russian demands in face of Russian occupation of some of their territory, the Turks declared war on Russia  in late 1853.  The Russians then destroyed the Turkish fleet, which was portrayed as a war crime in the British and French media .France and Britain declared  war on Russia in  March  1854.  They decided to  attack Russia in the Crimea, a  territory Russia had  taken from Turkey in the previous century.

The British Prime Minister hoped to roll back Russian power, forcing it to hand Finland back to Sweden, and to give back the Crimea, Circassia and Georgia back to the Turks.

The French were better prepared for the war than the British. French troops had winter supplies, but the British did not.  The French also had better medical supports,  and  systems for feeding  their soldiers in the field.

Both the French and British had much better  rifles than the Russians, but the Russians  had better anaesthetics which enabled them to perform battlefield surgery  more  quickly and to  save more lives.

Although , technically speaking, the Russians had  lost the war,  when it ended in  1856, the Allies did not achieve their  war aims.

But the religious and political bitterness , engendered by the  war ,  led to  atrocities when  it was over.

Muslim Circassians and  Tatars suspected of collaboration with the Allies, were  driven out of their homeland by the Russians .   20,000 Maronite Christians were massacred in Ottoman controlled  Lebanon,  and there were attacks on Christians in Nablus and Gaza.   Christian Armenians emigrated from  Ottoman  territory to Russia  because they feared a similar fate.

The fall of Communism has brought back to the forefront of modern politics many of the  old antagonisms that were on display during the Crimean war and in its aftermath.  That is what  made  this  book so interesting.

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