“The Crimean War: A History” by Orlando Figes

The Crimean War

“So why did the allies not pursue a peace once the Russians had left the principalities? Why did they decide to invade Russia when the war against the Russians had been won? Why was there a Crimean War at all?” (p. 192)

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and learned a great deal about this war and some interesting tidbits in general.

Like most war histories, the book starts out with the usual pre-war analysis (how and why the participants got into the war in the first place), a mid-level analysis of the principal battles, and wraps up with the impact of the war.

Orlando Figes does a great job of describing where each of the principal nations were coming from historically and what their aims were for not just the war, but future prosperity. This gives the reader insight into the actions of each country which is necessary to really understand why this war took place at all. This is especially true with France as Napoleon III was in power at the time and it will benefit the reader to understand how he both differs and is alike to his uncle as France’s role in this war was critical. Same is true for Nicholas II as his reign started during this war. If the reader doesn’t understand the full Russian background, they will struggle to really understand the war itself.

Figes also does a great job of weaving not just data (such as dead and wounded figures) into the fabric of his story but also descriptions of high-ranking military leaders as well as the everyman soldier. Figes’ use of quotes from the everyday soldiers is what really impressed me such as below:

“Nikifor Burak, a soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the Tobol’sk Infantry Regiment, wrote to his parents, wife and children in the village of Sidorovka in Kiev Province:

‘We are now a very long way from Russia, the land is not like Russia at all, we are almost in Turkey itself, and every hour we expect to die. To tell the truth, nearly all our regiment was destroyed by the Turks, but by the grace of the highest creator I am still alive and well…I hope to return home and see you all again, I will show myself to you and talk with you, but now we are in the gravest danger, and I am afraid to die.'”

If anything, he probably could have cut down on the amount of quotes used throughout the book because after reading the third or fourth one about the same conditions, I started to get bored. Overall, I thought the quotes could be less but were very helpful to the reader to really understand what’s happening from the soldier’s viewpoint. Combine this with the leadership viewpoints, and the reader gets a broader picture of the battle conditions. Especially the differences with the generals and their nicer tents, tea service, and the soldiers in their hastily made tents from trees and eating hard biscuits.

There were so many things this book taught me that I’m really grateful to Figes for making the reading interesting enough to get through the book. If this book were mind-numbing, I wouldn’t have learned:

  • About war tourists – these people bring picnic baskets and set up on top of a nearby hill eating their lunch and watching the battle. This was their idea of a vacation!
  • This is the war that brought us Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace” is based on his experiences during this war), Florence Nightingale, Lord Alfred Tennyson (“Charge of the Light Brigade” came from this war), and Nikolai Pirogov (who introduced triage of the wounded and the use of ether not just for anesthesia but to keep the patients calm).
  • This is one of the last wars where leaders from both sides would meet to agree to a temporary cease-fire while the dead and wounded were removed.
  • This is one of the first wars to use trench warfare (not to the advanced degree it was used in WWI).

Overall, I would give this book 3 1/2 stars and if you’re looking for a book to give you an introduction to this war, I would recommend this one.

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About jenvolk5

Bank auditor by day, trivia and knowledge hound all other times.
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