A friend asked why there is so little literature about the Crimean War (1854–56). I am not yet in a position to answer that, but I though I'd start with an eyewitness account, Tolstoy's Sevastopol Sketches (1856), available free on Gutenberg in a translation by Isabel Hapgood. But her first sentences gave me pause:
The flush of morning has but just begun to tinge the sky above
Sapun Mountain; the dark blue surface of the sea has already
cast aside the shades of night and awaits the first ray to begin
a play of merry gleams; cold and mist are wafted from the bay.
So I turned to the more modern translation by David McDuff in this Penguin collection:
The light of daybreak is just beginning to tint the sky about
the Sapun-gora. The dark surface of the sea has already thrown
off the night's gloom and is waiting for the first ray of
sunlight to begin its cheerful sparkling. From the bay comes
a steady drift of cold and mist.
In fact, reading on, I saw that both translations were more or less equally flowery, but in different ways. It is clear that, already the ironist, Tolstoy exploited the radiance of nature as contrast to the scenes of death and battle. So I stuck with the Penguin, which also has the advantage of notes, maps, a glossary, and an excellent introduction by Paul Foote. I am sticking for now with the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES; if I go back to read the COSSACK STORIES and HADJI MURAT, also included here, I shall write a separate review.
After a wild youth, Tolstoy joined the Russian army in the Caucasus in 1851 as a cadet volunteer; he was 22. By 1854, when the Crimean War broke out, he was now a regular officer. At his own request, he was posted to Sevastopol, then near the start of its eleven-month siege by French and British forces. Much of the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES, which launched his literary fame, is thinly-disguised reportage of what he himself experienced. It is this that would give him the authenticity to write War and Peace a decade later, although this earlier book is a much grimmer, more compact work: war, with no peace whatsoever.
The stories form an interesting progression: in length, In date, in narrative technique, and above all in attitude. Each of the three stories is twice as long as its predecessor, at roughly 25, 50, and 100 pages respectively. In date, they cover the final nine months of the siege; they are labeled December 1854, May 1855, and August 1855; as these dates are old style, the final story ends with the surrender of Sevastopol, which took place on September 9, 1855, in the Western calendar.
Narratively, they begin with the eye of a reporter and end with the sensibility of a novelist. The December story is written entirely in the second person, as though the writer were showing you around. The effect is much like a newsreel, where the narrator tours the scene with a portable camera as he moves unflinching from the harbor to the fetid horrors of the hospital, into this barracks or that guardroom, and finally to the most notorious of the gun emplacements, the 4th bastion, amid an almost constant barrage of cannonballs and mortar shells. In the May section, Tolstoy introduces named characters, from a young prince and other aristocrats treating the war as a kind of social adventure, to hardworking regular officers and men with no such claims to privilege. But in his second-to-last paragraph he dismisses the lot of them, saying that nobody is capable of being either the villains or the heroes of his story.
The third and longest tale may not have heroes either, but it does have fully-realized characters. It begins with two brothers meeting up by accident on the road to Sevastopol. The elder has been wounded earlier in the siege, and sent away to convalesce before returning to his regiment. The younger is a volunteer, like Tolstoy originally was himself, and will be seeing battle for the first time. Their fond reunion tapers off into one of those human comments that could only be Tolstoy (if not Thackeray or Trollope):
When they had talked all they wanted to, and had finally begun to
feel the way close relatives often do -- namely, that although each
is very fond of the other, they neither of them have terribly much
in common -- the brothers fell silent for quite a long time.
Subsequent chapters will shift between the two of them, gaining much from the contrast between the innocent and experienced views, and full of fascinating vignettes of their fellow soldiers -- in the end showing that no man is immune to fear, but that there is a spark of heroism in all of us. The climax, seen interestingly through a telescope from a distant lookout, shows the capture of the vital Malakoff Hill by the French, which led to the Russian evacuation of the city the next day.
As for the progression from patriotic fervor to numb despair in Tolstoy's attitude to war, I can do no better than to quote brief excerpts from all three stories:
You will suddenly have a clear and vivid awareness that those men
you have just seen are the very same heroes who in those difficult
days did not allow their spirits to sink but rather felt them rise
as they joyfully prepared to die, not for the town but for their
native land. Long will Russia bear the imposing traces of this
epic of Sevastopol, the hero of which was the Russian people.
But the dispute which the diplomats have failed to settle is proving
to be even less amenable to settlement by means of gunpowder and
human blood. […] One of two things appears to be true: either war is
madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate
that they are far from being the rational creatures we for some reason
commonly suppose them to be. [May, 1855]
Each man, on arriving at the other side of the bridge, took off his
cap and crossed himself. But this feeling contained another -- draining,
agonizing, and infinitely more profound: a sense of something that
was a blend of remorse, shame, and violent hatred. Nearly every man,
as he looked across from the North Side at abandoned Sevastopol,
sighed with a bitterness that could find no words, and shook his
fist at the enemy forces. [August, 1855]