As a historian watching Vladimir Putin’s Russia flout international law to send troops into Crimea – part of the separate country of Ukraine – it is truly hard not to marvel. Another Crimean War? Really? Why would anyone want to repeat that particular horror?
Yes, Putin has reasons for the incursion. Don’t they always. Crimea’s coast city of Sevastopol happens to host Russians principal warm water post and Navy base. And most of the people who live in Crimea actual want the Russians in control. In a fair plebiscite, they would doubtless vote for joining Putin. But a new war over Crimea?
The first Crimean War
In case you forget, the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 was the premier European bloodbath of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Over 220,000 Russians died in the contest along with some 300,000-375,000 “allies,” mostly British, French, and Turkish.
|Russian President Vladimir Putin
practicing with loaded weapons.
But worst of all was the original War’s utter pointlessness. Started over a pretext – alleged Turkish mistreatment of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, which Turkey then controlled – it had more to do with Western fears of Russian expansion than any principled stand to “protect Turkey” – the West’s ultimate excuse to intervene.
Russia mostly lost the War. Britain and France finally captured Sevastopol, the Black Sea was de-militarized for a time, but not for long. Russia soon re-established its Naval base and, by 1914, Britain and France had happily switched sides and embraced Russian as their new ally in preparation for Europe’s next grand and largely pointless bloodbath, World War I.
View from the USA
We Americans happily stayed out of that fight. We would stage our own grandiose bloodbath Civil War a few years later in the 1860s. As a result, most Americans have only two clear images of the Crimean War.
- One is of Florence Nightingale treating wounded British soldiers.
- The other is of Errol Flynn in his 1936 classic The Charge of the Light Brigade (see clip above), playing real-life British officer Lord James Cardigan leading that famous 1854 suicide cavalry mission (yes, it resulted from miscommunication among careless officers) that, through pure courage and pluck, managed to breach Turkish lines before it was forced to immediately retreat. In real life, almost half the 670 British soldiers involved were lost: 118 dead, 127 wounded, 60 captured.
Still, Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his heroic poem.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
”Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
|Florence Nightingale leading British nurses in Crimea.
The irony of a new Crimean War in 2014 is hard to miss. How convenient it would be in its own odd way. All the historic battlefields are already there and waiting. Why not simply recycle, and maybe use re-enactors instead of real soldiers?
Hopefully, cooler diplomatic heads will prevail, a formula will emerge for all sides to save face, guaranteeing both independence for the Ukrainian state as well as Russia’s strategic access to Sevastopol. But if not, what an opportunity it could be for historians – the parallels, the contrasts, the urgent need for TV talking heads.
It’s true what they say: Never throw away your old notes.