Jul 12, 2007

Book Review: The Crimean War, 1853-1856

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Baumgart, Winfried
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 244 pages


The Crimean War is perhaps one of the least studied and most poorly understood of European conflicts, in part due to the emphasis by historians of the war to focus on military action in and around the Crimean Peninsula. There were, of course, significant areas of fighting in the Baltic, the Far East, and along the Danube watershed, and Baumgart’s The Crimean War traces the evolution of the Crimean War and its aftermath within the context of its widespread zones of conflict. Moreover, Baumgart argues that the Crimean War debunks the myth of the Congress of Vienna as creating “the peace that lasted,” and suggests that this conflict had the potential to become the first world war some six decades before the beginning of World War I.

While Baumgart demonstrates an emphasis on military and diplomatic history, this book is far from the sort of narrowly-focused tome that one expects to find in a book on the history of warfare. Throughout the text are sections on social, technological, and epidemiological history; the author’s emphasis on the deadly cholera and typhus epidemics – which killed more soldiers than any other cause – makes this text stand apart from other military histories of the war. Endnotes are provided following each chapter, and Baumgart included a 14-page annotated bibliography for further reading on specific topics related to the Crimean War. The cross-referenced general and bibliographical indices are quite thorough, and this reviewer was unable to find a relevant topic or source not covered in an index.

Baumgart drew on a wide variety of Russian, British, French, Prussian, and Austrian sources for his account, avoiding the trap of documentary bias by relying too heavily on materials from only one of the belligerents. The text, though, is woefully short on primary sources from Ottoman officials, for which the author claims that “very little research has been done on the Turkish army during the Crimean War.” Finally, the author provided useful maps and diagrams for the reader that assist in understanding troop movements, international borders, and the geography of specific battles in the Crimean War.

Baumgart delineated “three main layers” of causative factors leading to the outbreak of hostilities in the Crimean War, all of which revolved around the so-called Eastern Question. The first of these is what the author described as the “internal decay” of the Ottoman Empire that struggled to maintain hegemony over a widely-dispersed collection of lands in which the Turks made up only one-third of the imperial population; Baumgart noted that the emergence of the janissaries as a “state within a state” – and their subsequent purge during the 1826 Auspicious Incident - left the Ottoman Empire without a reliable domestic security force. Baumgart pointed to rising nationalism among the ethnic peoples of the Balkans as another significant contributor to what would become the Crimean War, as groups such as the Serbs, the Greeks, and the Romanians began wresting autonomy from the Sultan in the early nineteenth century. Finally, Baumgart argued that increasing interventionism by the European great powers created a scenario ripe for international conflict in the decades leading up to the Crimean War.

Portrait of Russian Tsar Nicholas IPortrait of Russian Tsar Nicholas I

Baumgart downplays the role of religious issues as contributing factors in the outbreak of the Crimean War, differing from many earlier historians. Much has been made by traditional accounts of the war of the disputes between France and Russia over the status of Christians in the Ottoman Empire and control over holy sites in the Levant. Pointing to documents written in the Tsar’s own hand, Baumgart argued that religious issues for Nicholas I were “mere camouflage” for his real aims, which were mainly geopolitical and expansionist in nature. Chief among these Russian goals, the author maintained, was the expression of Russian hegemony in the Danubian Principalities, which thus made the Crimean War of paramount concern to Austria, a nation recently recovered from the instability of the Revolutions of 1848 and for whom stability in the Balkans and Central Europe was an overriding modus operandi. Baumgart also disputed the notion that religious protection for Christians in the Ottoman Empire was a major concern for Napoleon III, and he argued that the French emperor merely wanted to exploit the crisis for his own “ulterior motives.” These included gaining the support of the Catholic Church to help legitimize his new status as a monarch and currying favor with the British by supporting their efforts to stabilize the Levant as a strategic region in international trade routes. Moreover, noted Baumgart, a principal aim of Napoleon III throughout his reign was the revision of the balance of power established at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, and he hoped to use the Crimean War as a tool to improve the French position in the European power structure.

There was a moment in time, argued Baumgart, in which a swift Russian response in the early military engagements could have brought about markedly different outcomes in what became known as the Crimean War. The author believes that the reluctance to press the advantage by Russian field marshal Ivan Fedorovich Paskevich ultimately cost Nicholas I the war:
The Danubian campaign, especially the months of January to June 1854, was characterized by hesitation and indecision, the Tsar in St. Petersburg constantly goading his “father-commander” into action with innumerable letters, Paskevich in return always expressing doubts and especially fear of Austrian intervention, more or less sabotaging the commands or rather the pleas of the Tsar.
Moreover, maintained Baumgart, quick action could have forced the Allies to be on the defensive, and he laid out the following hypothetical scenario:
It may be safely said that the Russian army would, without Paskevich, have crossed the Danube more quickly, besieged the Turkish fortresses south of the river, swept down the Balkans towards Constantinople, and there dictated peace terms. As it was, he was responsible for raising the siege at Sillistria and, probably pretending to have received a wound, left his army and returned to Warsaw.

Florence Nightingale, nurse and statisticianFlorence Nightingale, nurse and statistician

Baumgart noted that the Crimean War was notable for many differences from then-traditional warfare, and he developed a convincing case that this conflict should be considered the first truly modern war. The author included material on the efforts of Florence Nightingale and the group of nurses that accompanied her to improve sanitation and environmental conditions in the British military hospitals, noting that in a matter of months the mortality rate among the wounded showed remarkable decreases. Baumgart also described the work of photographers Roger Fenton and James Robertson, who achieved fame as the first war photographers. While noting the presence of the telegraph as an emerging mode of communication, though, Baumgart’s work would have benefited from a lengthier analysis of the power of instantaneous communication as a revolutionary military tool.

It is as a work of military and diplomatic history that Baumgart’s The Crimean War most excels, and the author provided well-documented details on the struggles faced by generals and diplomats. The meticulously-organized text can be used as a ready reference, as Baumgart provides useful subheadings throughout that make identification of individual topics a simple matter. While specialists in nineteenth-century European warfare might find the book to be lacking in some primary material, this text is an excellent introduction to the Crimean War for non-specialist historians as well as general readers. Finally, in light of recent bungled military campaigns in the Middle East, a reading of The Crimean War might be a wise recommendation for those who make decisions on invading sovereign nations, as Baumgart’s inclusion of Sir Robert Morier’s summation of the Crimean War as a “perfectly useless” conflict has eerie parallels in 2007.

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