109 of 115 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good with Some Defects
This book is a solid attempt to fill real void; the absence of a good overview history of the Crimean War. Figes is a specialist on 20th century Russia and equipped to delve into the Russian literature on the Crimean War. The result is a well-balanced book in which Figes attends to all the major combatants - Russia, Ottoman Turkey, France, and Britain. Another very...
Published on April 24, 2011 by R. Albin
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, Not Excellent, Not Much New
Figes is known as a historian of Russia, and his Crimean War history focuses mainly on Russia, with much additional material on Britain and France. Other than slightly more material on Russian internal politics, this is pretty much the standard focus that most English language histories of this conflict have taken in the past, and, frankly, there is little new here. The...
Published on July 29, 2011 by Severian
Most Helpful First | Newest First
109 of 115 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good with Some Defects,
Figes argues that religion figures in several important ways in the outbreak of the war. Religion was a major motivation for Russian policy, in large part because the pious Nicholas I felt a divine vocation to expand Orthodox Christianity. A certain amount of anti-Orthodox feeling was also an important factor in British and French politics. Ottoman Turkey, for example, allowed a limited amount of Protestant evangelism within its borders, Russia did not. French Catholic interests were also opposed to Orthodoxy. Related to these religious issues was the relative importance of public opinion in Britain and France. Popular sentiment in Britain, particularly among the relatively pious middle classes, was against Russia. In the first age of mass press, this gave war sentiment considerable impetus. In France, Napoleon III pursued an aggressive foreign policy as a way to bolster the legitimacy of his recently installed regime. War against Russia was also a way to placate conservative Catholic sentiment.
Much of the book is a well written narrative of the Crimean campaign. Figes shows well that this was not a minor war, but rather a major effort with enormous casualties among the combatants and very large effects on civilian populations around the Black Sea. These narrative sections are well done, stressing the primitive nature of the Russian military and the amateurish British war effort. Only the French army, with its long experience in North Africa, was really prepared for combat. The French and British benefited also from a significant technological innovation, the Minie ball rifle, which greatly enhanced infantry firepower. Figes is careful to point out that the Crimean campaign, while the major theater, was not only theatre of the war. There were efforts by the British and French in the Baltic, and significant combat in the Balkans and the Caucausus.
Figes is also quite good on the aftermath of the war. The breakdown of the Congress of Vienna system with the severing of ties between Austria and Russia is shown well. The re-emergence of France as a major force in European politics was one of the results of the war. The highly unsatisfactory nature of the war and the post-war settlement had major repercussions in Britain and Russia. It prompted major reforms in the Russia, including relaxation of serfdom, and contributed considerably to discrediting the role of aristocratic management of politics in Britain. One of the most interesting and important sequelae of the war was major ethnic cleansing and redistribution around the Black Sea. Prior to the war, for example, the Crimea had been populated by Tatars. During and after the war, the Crimea became a Russian dominated region.
This book, however, has some significant defects. In a book where a lot of text is devoted to military operations, the maps are sparse and not particularly good. As Figes points out, this is also the first war to be covered by good quality photography. What not more photos of the terrain on which the war was fought? Figes points out correctly that this was a major war with casualties in the hundreds of thousands, but nowhere is there any systematic presentation of casualties. A simple chart with estimates and some record of the troops committed would be very useful. The focus on the Crimea gives the impression that the Baltic and Caucausian theatres were sideshows. I suspect the brief treatment of both is somewhat misleading. The Franco-British failures in the Baltic appear to have been a significant effort and the failures had major strategic consequences. The operations in the White Sea and the Pacific were minor but are never mentioned. Figes also appears to be a bit careless about some details. His brief account of the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is misleading. I doubt that Russian muskets had an effective range of 300 yards. As shown by the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, its not correct that the Austrian were in constant retreat in the Balkans from the 1870s to the outbreak of WWI.
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blows away the competition,
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Charge of the Light Brigade--in Context,
Once war began, the allies (Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, plus others as well) bruised the Russian forces at the outset. Then, a surprisingly strong stand by the Russians at Balaklava. This is the battle, of course, where history witnessed The Charge of the Light Brigade (which was actually rather successful despite the heavy losses suffered by the troops involved). The invasion force of the British eventually won and moved--with the French--toward the key city of Sevastopol. The allies moved slowly, not seeing need for dispatch. A major mistake. Time played into the Russians' hands as they fortified the city and received reinforcements. Another factor in Russia's favor was the inept British commander, Lord Raglan. He made mistake after mistake, thereby aiding the Russian cause. On the other hand, the Russian forces were afflicted with a set of poor commanders as well.
By the time the allies began their move to Sevastopol, a siege was inevitable. The Russian winter and disease devastated the besiegers--especially the British, who had frighteningly poor logistics.
Media were players in this war, one of the earlier occasions when media played a key role. Media helped fan the flames in the West in favor of war; stories about the appalling conditions facing the soldiers during the war also had an effect on the people back home. In addition, the technology of war had changed. The adoption of the minie ball made the firepower of the English and French far beyond that of the muskets of the Russians.
The war limped to its conclusion, as noted in this volume. The final chapter pulls matters together, exploring the myth and memory of the bloody Crimean War.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, Not Excellent, Not Much New,
Another problem with the book is that the actual military operations of the War itself, besides focusing on the usual restricted viewpoints seen in Western histories, only take up about a third of the text. The diplomatic build-up to the war, the diplomatic maneuverings behind the scenes, and (unusually) the cultural aspects of the remembrance of the conflict take up the other 2/3rds of the text. Though some might find this fascinating, I wished Figes would have focused more on the actual operations.
Figes, like many academic historians, with a few notable exceptions like John Keegan (in his earlier days anyway) has little feel for military affairs and his coverage of the War gives little real insight into how and why the battles and sieges developed as they did. We get lots of primary source accounts quoted from soldiers and officers as to what happened, and what their feelings about the events were, but the author devotes little time to actually synthesizing these reports so as to let us know the inner structure of the campaign or its significance in the history of warfare. The historian as transcriber is always a sign that the writer is not comfortable with analysis or explanation.
To my mind, the somewhat earlier history of the Crimean War by Trevor Royle (2000) is superior to Figges' work. Royle is a good writer, though perhaps not as elegant a stylist as Figes, but Royle has written much military history and he is quite comfortable with forming his own conclusions as to developments on the battlefield. Royle's maps are not as good as Figes' (which is a miserable state of affairs as Figges' maps are not at all very good) but Royle devotes less space to diplomatic missions and the workings of the Czar's court. Royle's account also lacks much on the Baltic or Danubian theaters, but at least he does do a better job with the Franco-British campaigns.
Figes is an excellent writer and his history of the Russian Revolution was superb, perhaps because a revolution is usually focused on things besides military operations so Figges' dilettantism seemed more appropriate there. Here, in a history of an actual war, the author seems to be operating more outside his comfort zone and so he spends a lot of time going on about diplomacy and culture. If you, the reader, want to know a little bit about the war itself and just as much about the diplomacy and culture of the period, Figes is fine. But if you want to know a lot about the war itself, read Royle for now and hope someone eventually writes another history that fully addresses all theaters and campaigns of the conflict.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Orlando Figes "The Crimean War" is history writing at its best!,
In this new book "The Crimean War" Figes provides a comprehensive look at the 1854-56 war. The combatants were:
Tsarist Russia was ruled by the expansionistic minded Tsar Nicholas I (reigned from 1825-55). Nicholas died in 1855 being replaced by his son Alexander II who continued his father's policies. The Russians were Slavophiles who wanted the Orthodox faith to reign supreme in the Balkan regions being ruled by the Turkish government. The Russians also desired to defeat Turkey in the Crimean area. A military victory against Turkey would provide Russia a salt water port of entry into the south of their large nation. Over 450,000 Russian soldiers, many of whom were illiterate peasants, were casualties of fighting and disease (cholera, typhoid, dysentry etc) in the Crimean War. Nicholas was an arch conservative who feared Austria and feared rebellion against his dictatorship in Poland. Russia was defeated by the allies forcing the tsarist government to begin a reform of its huge army of over one million troops. Count Leo Tolstoy participated in the war serving the Russian forces in the Balkans and during the seige of Sevastpool. His "Sevastpool Skethces" launched him as a literary star.
Turkey: Accurately labelled 'the sick man of Europe" by Tsar Nicholas I. Turkey was a corrupt society which ruled a huge Muslim empire. The seat of the government was in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). The Turks had a good army and were
fanatical Muslims eager to protect their religion and empire.
France-The ruler was Napoleon III who wished to restore France to the prestige it had forfeited since the defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo in 1815. The French had a fine army and outnumbered their British allies three to one in the Crimea. Napoleon III was a strong ally of Piedmont in the successful downthrow of Austria and the formation of the new Kingdom of Italy. France emerged from the war with increased prestige and glory. This was soon ended when Bismarck and Prussia defeated the Gallic nation in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
Great Britain-Lord Palmerston was the aggressive foreign secretary and later Prime Minister of the nation. In order to ensure the balance of power in continental Europe he wished to defeat Russia. The British also feared Russian expansionism in the Balkans. The British Army under Lord Raglan did not do as well as the French in the Crimea. Over 20,000 British soldiers were casualties of the fighting in the Crimea. The British public largely supported the war as they did not trust Russian intentions and were adverse to the spread of the Orthodox religion.
Figes gives brief but good descriptions of the major battles of the war fought at Alma, Balaklava, Inkermann and during the horrendous eleven month siege of Sevastpool. The war was widely written about in the popular press; reported by such intrepid reporters as William Russell and provided good photographs of the scene of the conflict. The use of the minie ball by the allies increased the lethality of modern warfare. Trench warfare presaged this mode of fighting to later be seen on a widescale in the World War I.
The book includes many quotations from civilians, soldiers, politicians and historians about the events of the Crimean War. Maps are provided at the front of the book. Famous persons such as Florence Nightingale, Their are also several excellent photographs and editorial cartoons pertaining to the Crimean War. Figes has done his homework by providing a extensive bibliography and footnotes evincing his careful research.
Tolstoy, Lord Ragland and others appear in the bloodspilled pages of this excellent history book. If you read only one book on the Crimean War then this one should be your selection! An excellent work on a little known but pivotal nineteenth century global war!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Removing the Romantic Reveals this War's Significance,
So the author is righting a wrong by providing an extremely well written history. It has elements of an engaging narrative given the first person accounts which are balanced with significant detail. In fact, it is that detail that suggests this is not a pleasure read - it is best consumed by those with more than a passing interest in history. Several aspects resonated and impressed me:
- fighting would anticipate the crass, mass method of war to follow while confusingly mixing in quaint codes of chivalry
- the book rightfully spends a great deal of time on the siege of Sevastopol. The statistics and lengths of which will amaze: it lasted two weeks shy of a full year and saw 150 million gunshots and 5 million bombs lobbed between the two sides
- it was fought with modern technologies, supply chains, and transportation. And extremely interesting are the facts and observations advanced by Figes on the role of media and how it influenced public opinion in Russia, France and England - in starting the war, waging it, and interpreting who won
- over 750,000 soldiers lost their lives but this figure is made even more fascinating when it is known that the vast majority died due to disease and poor conditions rather than combat. Figes spends appropriate time describing fighting conditions, medical treatment, and several innovations that became common practice to better care for fighting men
The author's epilogue titled "The Crimean War in Myth and Memory" is an astounding examination of how the conflict has been oversimplified, how it impacted the countries and their militaries who fought it, and how media and propaganda emphasized and inflated innocuous, romantic aspects which, in turn, contributed to war's glorification and ultimate repetition. A thoroughly educational and illuminating history from the author whose superlative "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924" equally impressed.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Incomplete,
This review is from: The Crimean War: A History (Paperback)From my days as an undergrad historian major, one of the biggest backhanded complements that you could get from a professor was "well researched, needs better writing". I feel like Figes' "The Crimean War" is suffering from such a drawback.
Figes is a cultural historian of Russia, evidenced by his previous work in "A People's Tragedy" and "Natasha's Dance" (both of which I will admit I have not read). In this regard, his research is superb. We get to know Tsar Nicholas I and his mindset, and we really get to know how this war shaped Tolstoy and his writing. We even learn a lot about how the war affected Dostoevsky (who wasn't even a participant), and how the theme of the war was addressed in subsequent Russian and Soviet literature and cinema. If this book was labeled "A Russian Cultural History of the Crimean War", then it would get more stars from me - although less blockquotes would be useful (two pages of unabridged Tolstoy gets a bit much at times).
But Figes is attempting more. This book makes some big claims that it does not follow through on. It claims (especially from its UK title, "The Last Crusade") that this was primarily a religious war. Figes does provide some background on the original dispute over shrines in Palestine, and examines much religion-influenced writing on the conflict in Russia (and to a degree Britain and somewhat France as well), but he seems to believe that the claim that religion is the prime motivator in most conflicts "down to the Balkans in the 1990's" is self-obvious, when to my mind it's more lazy thinking from a British academic. For a claim that is so huge that it even influences the title of the book, he never really argues his point, and his long discussions of diplomacy before, during and after the war point strongly to great power politics, rather than religion, being the motivating factor.
Other commenters have noted his claim that the war was the first "total war", but again there is not much to back up this claim. I also would have preferred if he avoided anachronistic terms in an attempt to make the war seem "relevant" to modern readers. Was Palmerston really a "liberal internationalist"? Was Imam Shamil's lieutenant really an "Islamic fundamentalist", just because he wanted to expel all Russians from the Caucasus? Such throwaways for modern sensibilities (media inspired xenophobia leads to pointless Middle Eastern war!!) are great for the Niall Ferguson and Anne Applebaum blurbs on the back cover, but are completely not backed up with any notes or research.
Once we move away from the subject of Russian culture, Figes' research thins. We get a lot of quotations about British Russophobia, but not much deep explanation of why it proved to be so popular at the time. Very little background is given to the momentous changes occurring in British and French politics, economics and society at the time. And while Figes sees his work as an antidote to Crimean War history being the province of military history buffs, he goes too far in the other direction: very brief explanations are given to social makeup in the British military, and there is very little discussion of military organization or technology. One would never know that the first experimental ironclad "floating batteries" were used by the French in this war, for example. Whole theatres of the war get short shrift: the Caucasus and the Baltic are covered in about three pages, and nothing at all is said about events in the White Sea or Pacific.
However, the biggest fault in Figes' research is his discussion of the Ottoman Empire. Although he gets many details technically correct, he is thoroughly unfamiliar with this history. He describes the millet system as the downfall of Ottoman stability, despite the fact that it guaranteed just that for four centuries previous (it was the replacement of millet identities with nationalism that really undermined the empire). He claims that the Phanariot Greeks pined for a restored Byzantine Empire and looked to Russia for salvation, which has some basis but is overemphasized while their role as Ottoman diplomats, civil servants, and rulers in Moldavia and Wallachia is neglected. Figes never fails to point out Turkish atrocities, which undoubtedly happened, but interestingly we hear little of Russian atrocities (some mention is made of French and British raping and pillaging). Figes loves to mention rumours of Turkish troops capturing boys as slaves, but nevertheless never mentions that European slavery had been outlawed (at least on paper) several decades prior. He says that the Ottoman Muslims referred to Christian millets as "beasts", which is a flat-out wrong translation of "rayah" (meaning "flock" or subjects). He also goes to great lengths to describe Ottoman treatment of Christian subjects as "unfair", which to us it undoubtedly is, but contemporaneously not much less unfair than, say, British treatment of Catholic subjects (no mention of Ireland or the famine is made). And despite all this, very very little is said about serfdom in Russia, which is extremely odd considering that it so adversely affected Russia's ability to fight that Alexander II decided to end the system after the war. In the bibliography only one Turkish language source is mentioned, plus a couple of fifty year old histories of the Ottoman Empire and a few contemporary Western accounts. I don't mean to sound revisionist, but it seems like Figes is mostly working off of the opinions of others, rather than doing any deep or new research on the Ottoman Empire.
In summary: Figes delves deeply into some aspects of the war, and skims others. You can get a lot of diplomacy and Russian cultural history from this work, but many other topics are skimmed or skipped. I was hoping for a Crimean War version of James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", but this is not comparable in terms of comprehensiveness or readability.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Crimean War,
While initially the Crimean War can be said to have begun due to religious undertones and what was happening in the Holy Land between the Muslims and their Christian (Eastern and Western) counterparts, all too soon religion was intermixing with a variety of other desires on the part of all the major players. France was looking for a new reorientation within European politics, they wanted the stigma of Napoleon's rule to be done away with and for France to be considered a major contender in future European politics; England was eager to check Russian expansion into the Caucasus and the Balkans, as they feared for their interests in India; some within the Ottoman Empire were eager to institute reforms so as to give the Empire a fighting chance to survive in the coming years, while also looking to check Russian expansion and forcing its citizens to look the other way as Christians from the west came to help fight the Russian menace.
In numerous ways the Crimean War can be described as an event that witnessed a clash of ideas on warfare, with the Russians utilizing offensive weaponry and tactics belonging to the Napoleonic battlefield, while straddling new-age ideas in how they developed their defensive works and trench-lines. In essence, their efforts on the offensive lagged behind their eagerness to experiment with the newest ideas in defensive warfare. But such eagerness was not enough to offset the technological and industrial might that Britain and France brought with them to war. In more ways than one it would be safe to say that the reason, as many suspect, that Russia lost this war was due to her backwardness and conservative contempt for reform. Mistakes on the field of battle were made by both sides, which regularly witnessed friendly fire, delayed offensives which cost numerous casualties, lack of communication and coordination, and disorderly retreats by both sides that wound up costing more casualties than if these men stood their ground or at least retreated in order. As an example, during the battle at Alma, a bugle call to cease fire halted a British advance because `an unnamed officer had thought that the Russians were the French and had ordered his men to stop firing' (213), his call was picked up by the other regiments and precious time was lost as the Russian Vladimirsky regiment gained the upper hand. Additionally, the Crimean War could be seen as a foreshadowing of the Russo-Japanese war. Both times the Russian Empire faced an enemy they regularly degraded and hardly considered a worthy challenge. And in both instances one of the main reasons for their eventual failure on the field of battle was that numerous (thousands for the Crimean War, tens of thousands for the Russo-Japanese war) soldiers were held in reserve, which would have been able to tip the balance in favor of the Russians if utilized at key points in the war by well trained commanders.
The majority, if not all, of the major actions that took place during the war involved British, French, and Russian troops. Turkish troops are at best a sideshow, a tangent, that gets mentioned every now and then. In truth, this war made little sense in the fact that British and French soldiers had more in common with their Russian enemies than their Ottoman allies. All too often Figes comments on the fact that fraternization occurred between the French/British and Russians, who exchanged alcohol, food, and trinkets in no-man's land (many Russian officers could speak French), and even visited each other's camps to talk, and more often than not complain about the Turks/Ottomans. Furthermore, British soldiers regularly treated Turkish troops in a degrading manner, assigning them do jobs fit for slaves, at best. While some Turks might have found this unbearable, their government routinely reminded them that the British and French were their allies and here to help them, so any contempt they might have felt for their Christian, European counterparts was curbed when reminded of the fact that these men were putting their lives on the line for the Ottoman Empire.
One of the more interesting aspects of the war period that Figes deals with is public opinion and newspapers and their impact on the home front. More than any other, the British were regularly aware of what harm newspaper articles could do to the war effort or, in turn, how helpful they could be in siding the public with the actions of the state. The Crimean War was the first war to be seen in pictures by the public as it was being fought, and for the British, it was the first time that a military award, the Victoria Cross, was issued to common soldiers for their courageous deeds on the field of battle (something other states were already doing).
In effect, the Crimean War holds an important place in European history as the antagonisms that resulted from the conflict led directly to the unification of Italy and Germany and most definitely to the Balkan crises that would usher in the First World War. France received its wish and a shift in the balance of power in Europe was underway soon after the end of hostilities. Austria had antagonised Russia for the last time and Russia was soon happy to see Austrian troops defeated by the French/Italians and soon after by the Prussians, leading the way to Italian and German unification. The French were happy to witness the breakup of the Holy Alliance, and after the creation of the Dual Alliance, the relationship between Prussia/Germany, Austria, and Russia would never be the same again; in the end this led to the Franco-Russian alliance that would become the Entente. Lastly, the changes made in the Balkans were never truly finalized as the needs/wants of the population in the Balkans was hardly taken into consideration. Thus, it was only a question of when rather than if a future war would break out in the powder keg of Europe. Additionally, Russia was forever changed as Alexander II took the throne in the midst of war, brought the war to an end, and freed the serfs, thereby changing the course of Russian history in the coming decades.
For all the strengths that Figes brought to this study of the Crimean War, and there were many, there were also a few weaknesses. They by no means take away from the numerous strengths, but they are worth mentioning as Figes is a historian new to military history and at times it seems he makes exaggerations and unfair criticisms without all the relevant/needed information at his disposal. Initially I was somewhat skeptical when the author claimed that the Crimean war was the "first `total war'" (xix). Considering the studies available on `total war' I would say that's very much stretching the definition. While both civilians and soldiers took part, and this was a war very much reliant on industry and, to an extent, the home front, claiming this to be a `total war' is an exaggeration, at best. Figes also inserts a limited discussion of the Russian military, at one point concentrating on the fact that many casualties within the Russian army were a result of disease and death from wounds (due to lacking sanitary conditions). While such accusations are true, Figes makes it seem as if only the Russians suffered from such inadequacies on the field of battle. Yet, throughout the various battles that he discusses (Alma, Inkerman, Siege of Sevastopol) the French and British suffer just as much as the Russians from disease and unsanitary conditions for their wounded. Such initial descriptions of the Russian army are weak as there are no comparisons made and at best the analysis is superficial.
18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crimean War,
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Maps missing in Kindle version,
This review is from: The Crimean War: A History (Paperback)This may be a good book BUT, since there are no maps included with the Kindle version (at least I can't find any) I am going to stop trying to read it.
The physical book has several maps which seem to be useful.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Crimean War: A History by Orlando Figes (Paperback - February 28, 2012)