Some foolish commentators have been suggesting that the West has no interest in provoking another major conflagration in the Crimea. Have we not learned the lessons of the disastrous conflict 160 years ago which saw the deaths of 25,000 British troops, 100,000 French and as many as a million Russians?
Yes we have! No one is pretending that a new Crimean War wouldn’t be terrible for all concerned. But let’s not dwell on the negativity. Think of the potential benefits!
1. A more realistic foreign policy, born of bitter experience.
No one in the West really wanted a Crimean war in the 1850s. Britain, France and Austria were sucked into it by a mix of Russian expansionism (Czar Nicholas I in the Putin role) and treaty obligations (Budapest Memorandum, anyone?).
Or, as one historian of the war, Shepard Clough magisterially put it:
“It was not the result of a calculated plan, nor even of hasty last-minute decisions made under stress. It was the consequence of more than two years of fatal blundering in slow-motion by inept statesmen who had months to reflect upon the actions they took.
“It arose from Napoleon’s search for prestige; Nicholas’s quest for control over the Straits; his naïve miscalculation of the probable reactions of the European powers; the failure of those powers to make their positions clear; and the pressure of public opinion in Britain and Constantinople at crucial moments.”
Gosh. Why does this analysis of the political class’s thinking sound so weirdly familiar? Are we going to learn anything from history, ever?
2. Military Reform
The British fighting man performed magnificently in the Crimea, winning victories at Alma and Inkerman with his skill, initiative and bloody-minded tenacity.
Even Balaclava, though a stalemate, was a moral victory of sorts thanks to the suicidal heroism displayed during the Charge of the Light Brigade, which so terrified the Russians that they never again dared face the British army in open field.
But in almost every other respect the campaign was a disaster for the British army. The soldiers were hideously badly led by arrogant, feckless toffs (most of whom had been elevated not through talent but by buying their commissions); and woefully ill-equipped and provisioned.
And because the war correspondent William Howard Russell was there to write about it for The Times, the public back home was fully informed – and infuriated into demanding reform. From the embers of the Crimean experience, rose the modern British army.
There are some unfortunate modern parallels.
In individual actions in Iraq and Afghanistan our troops have fought like tigers. But our retreat from Basra airport was utterly humiliating, our withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the job very much undone, and the Army’s morale after the severe cuts could scarcely be lower.
Maybe a Crimean debacle isn’t exactly what it needs right now – but just think what wonders the resultant public outcry would effect. We might even have a working military again!
3. Better nursing
On 14th November 1854, the Crimean debacle was transformed from the routinely dreadful to the unimaginably hideous when a gale sank 30 ships in Balaclava harbour – taking with it £3 million worth of supplies.
The British army – equipped only for summer – now had to face a Russian winter under canvas with almost no food, fuel or heating. The soldiers died in thousands – of cholera, typhus and dysentry; of malnutrition; of cold.
Many more still would have died had it not been for Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari. Her secret, we know, had less to do with her medical treatments – which were rudimentary – than on simple things like scrupulous sanitation and the human comfort provided by the dedicated nurses.
It’s probably true that our modern military hospitals would have little to learn from a new Crimean war. But the salutory effect on our NHS staff if they were sent out to work in the back of the beyond under the discipline of a stern, old-school ward sister and forced to change filthy bandages, empty bed pans, swab floors might be the best thing we need to prevent another Mid-Staffordshire Hospital tragedy.
4. The Balaclava
For 160 years the Balaclava helmet has brought pleasure, warmth and sinister anonymity to millions. And it all began with the knitted woollen headwear sent out to the Crimea by soldiers’ loved ones to keep them warm through the fierce Russian winter.
But in recent years the Balaclava has acquired somewhat dodgy connotations – sported as it so often is by paramilitaries, terrorists and bankrobbers. Perhaps if we had another war, the ingenuity of our soldiers’ families might result in the invention of a more attractive form of headwear.
5. Mary Seacole
Black History Week just wouldn’t be the same without Mary Seacole, the most famous black person in the history of Britain – celebrated in primary schools across the land as the black Florence Nightingale, only a bit better obviously because she was black and therefore more meaningful and real.
But in recent years Mary Seacole’s star has waned somewhat, as certain commentators have inconveniently pointed out that a) Mary Seacole wasn’t all that black (“Only a little brown” as she described herself) and b) that her nursing skills weren’t all they could have been (she was criticised by Florence Nightingale for giving wounded men alcohol).
Clearly the time has come to find a new role model for Britain’s ethnic communities. A new Crimean War could provide just the opportunity. And if all else fails, perhaps, we could send Lenny Henry out to entertain the troops and allow his legend to develop over time..