Khalid's Reviews > Crimean War

Crimean War by Orlando Figes
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's review
Jul 10, 2011

really liked it
Read in June, 2011

Orlando Figes restores the conflict as “a major turning point” in European and Middle Eastern history. He argues forcefully that it was “the earliest example of a truly modern war — fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene.” The ferocious yearlong siege of Sevastopol “was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare” of World War I.
The war itself was initiated when religious squabbles over holy places in the Ottoman towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem prompted Russia to march troops into present-day Romania, threatening the partition of Ottoman lands. In response, the Ottoman Empire declared war, and Britain and France rallied to its defense. The devastating combat around the Black Sea proved unbearable for Russia: two-thirds of the soldiers killed in the war were Russian. After losing Sevastopol, Russia accepted a humiliating peace.
Figes, a renowned professor of history at the University of London, might be thought the loneliest of creatures, the Crimean War buff. But his history is a huge success. His harrowing recounting of Sevastopol presents an inferno of military absurdities and gruesome deaths, with people hit by rocks, gored with lances, hacked by swords, decapitated by shells and disemboweled. Figes artfully uses painstaking archival work to expose the secret machinations of statesmen, but he never overlooks the awful human costs, like the nonchalant willingness of aristocratic Russian officers to sacrifice their peasant soldiers. And the book traces the roots of many modern crises: Britain, trying to create buffer zones against Russia, occupies Afghanistan and considers seizing Baghdad, where a British diplomat blithely proclaims that Sunnis and Shiites “could always be played off against each other.”

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