Conference Report – Charting the Crimean War: Contexts, Nationhood, Afterlives

The University of Leicester and the National Army Museum recently collaborated on a conference which investigated the legacy of one of the Victorian period’s most notable conflicts, the Crimean War. In this post, Rachel Anchor, researcher in the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester, reports on the conference and reflects on how this war lives on in contemporary culture and academia.

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This recent conference, organised by the University of Leicester (Dr. Holly Furneaux and Rachel Anchor) and the National Army Museum (Dr. Alastair Massie) was a great success and an example of the exciting work emerging from the centre’s Collaborative Doctoral Award on the cultural afterlives of the Crimean War. The conference gave a good taster of the work being undertaken on the Crimean War (1854-1856), a conflict which has traditionally been overlooked by scholars. The wide range of papers on the day and the success of Louise Berridge’s fictional work ‘Into the Valley of Death’ is testament that the Crimea is reaching a wider audience. The purpose of the day was to improve understanding of the war’s impact from a variety of national and disciplinary perspectives.

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The day kicked-off with a fascinating keynote talk by Dr. Trudi Tate (University of Cambridge), on representations of and reactions to the Fall of Sebastopol.  Trudi noted the ambivalent feeling in contemporary responses to the longed-for capture of the Russian naval town – allied action which was ultimately marked by French glory and British failure.  Many were struck by the ‘sublime’ sight of the prolonged destructive forces wrought on the town, captured by painters such as William Simpson, whilst James Robertson’s photographs of abandoned entrenchments are marked by a frankness and absence of rhetoric. Trudi neatly demonstrated the futility and contradictions of war by pointing to widespread British admiration for the engineering behind Sebastopol’s docks, which were nevertheless destroyed upon capture.

Panel 1 considered questions of national capability, providing a variety of national perspectives. Dr. Howard Fuller (University of Wolverhampton) opened with a talk re-examining Andrew Lambert’s theory that the war with Russia could have been decided in the Baltic, had the abandoned naval campaign against the Russian port of Kronstadt taken place. Providing a detailed analysis of British naval plans for this operation, Howard argued that commanders and even the bellicose Lord Palmerston were unsure of the Royal Navy’s success. Therefore, the peace of 1856 was aided by British uncertainty and not just Russian fear. Dr. Yulia Naumova (V&A Museum) provided a rare Russian perspective on the Russian Medical Service, pointing out that Russian literature has traditionally mirrored British historiography in labelling the conflict ‘humiliating’ and exaggerating the shortcomings of the country’s military and political system.  Using new evidence, she re-examined Russia’s relatively advanced medical capabilities and accounted for its shortcomings in the Crimea.

Anthony Dawson (University of Leeds) then re-examined the ‘myth’ of French logistical superiority during the war, a trope used by the reporter William Howard Russell who idealised the French Army due to its promotion from the ranks. This unfavourable comparison in all logistical and medical matters suited fellow middle-class reformers, but Anthony convincingly argued that it was based upon perception and emotional response.  Subsequent emulation of the French system as exemplary was flawed, since it contended with similar difficulties to the British and achieved a similar degree of notoriety in the French press. Continuing on a theme of medical provision, Dr. Mike Hinton (Kings College London) used an untapped resource, The Medical and Surgical History of the British Army to re-assess the nature of the problems affecting the health of the British Army in the Crimea. Mike re-focused attention on the camp hospitals and the nature of the cases there prior to their transportation to Scutari Hospital. Using statistical analysis, he showed how there was a correlation between improved living standards at the front (including the state of camp hospitals) and improved mortality rates at Scutari, thus refuting the prevailing view that the Sanitary Commission alone saved the day in 1855.

Panel 2, chaired by the Victorian Studies Centre’s Professor Joanne Shattock and in which I also participated, dealt with cultural representations of the war in the mid-Victorian imagination. My own paper focused on royal representation during the war, revealing a PR campaign to present the monarchy as the ultimate champion and carer of the soldier. Beyond the charged sentiment expressed in relation to the ordinary soldier, via a ‘leaked’ royal letter in the press and unifying images of the Queen distributing Crimean Medals to the war wounded, I pointed to a hidden struggle to assert Crown authority over the army. Continuing with the soldier’s welfare, Tai-Chun Ho (University of York) explored the afterlife of Thomas Campbell’s ‘The Soldier’s Dream’ (1804) during the war, which was resurrected in Punch and other media to highlight ethical issues pertaining to the soldier and his family.  Tai-Chun argued that these representation re-configured Campbell’s  ‘weary’ and ‘war-broken’ soldier to ease anxiety about the soldier’s fate, but that Tennyson’s ‘Maud’, if read as an ironic re-writing of Campbell’s piece, challenged unifying constructs of the soldier.  Dr. Muireann O’Cinneide (University of Galway) went on to tackle the writing of Alexander Kinglake, the prolix historian of the war. As an expert in travel writing, Muireann made interesting analogies between Kinglake’s successful travel book, Eothen (1844) and his colossal The Invasion of the Crimea (1863-1887). She mapped effectively the transition between the individualism and English stoicism expressed in Eothen and the challenges of a communal theatre of war. Kinglake negotiated this by situating conflict in the minds of key figures rather than the battle-field. Critics praised the personal bias in Eothen, but Kinglake’s use of it under the mantle of historian provoked harsh criticism. Muireann ended her talk by speculating whether the ‘true’ Crimean historian should adopt an emotive palette.

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Commemorative medal marking the ‘Holy Alliance’ (Anglo-French Alliance), c.1854 (National Army Museum)

Panel 3 dealt with some of the war’s legacies, beginning with Professor Katie Hornstein (Dartmouth College, New Haven) and her paper on the French artist Henry Durand-Brager. Katie focused on Brager’s canvases entitled The Siege of Sebastopol, exhibited at the Salon of 1857 (now held at Versailles), revealing how Brager drew inspiration from print and photographic media to tackle the pictorial dilemma of representing an event without a definable locus. He drew-up a panorama of Sebastopol before zooming-in on its detail on separate canvases. Katie drew particular attention to Brager’s canvas Craters in Front of the Bastion du Mat, deemed unique in nineteenth-century representations of warfare. The scorched, forbidding aspect of this painting anticipates the sombreness of World War One imagery.  Next up was Hugh Small (author of Avenging Angel), who focused on the figure of Nightingale as a social reformer, charting her influence upon public health and slum clearance post-war.  Hugh showed how Nightingale stipulated that existing dwellings were connected to proper drainage, a clause which made its way into the Public Health Act of 1874 and aided slum clearance. Hugh revealed Nightingale’s powers of influence behind the scenes, particularly regarding government appointments and the direction of sanitation policy as independent from medical solutions. The talk re-dressed Nightingale’s neglected afterlife as a lobbyist and campaigner on home soil. Rounding off the panel and the day’s papers was Prof. Lara Kriegal (Indiana University) who cogently mapped public fascination with the so-called ‘Balaclava Bugle’ and the rival claims to having sounded the fateful action of the Light Brigade. Lara revealed how the Bugle has helped to carve out a singular celebrity for the Brigade’s survivors, representing both economic value and a tangible form of bodily presence.

Last, but not least, was a keynote question and answer session with the historical novelist Louise Berridge, led by Dr. Holly Furneaux.  Louise’s lively responses tackled the rewards and challenges of re-creating the Crimean War in fiction, including dealing with its ‘myths’ and legends. Louise reflected that although people contest detail, myths are not necessarily negative in the significance they attach to a person or event.  A key attraction of the Crimean War for her is its human force and this is reflected in the strength of her characters, all of whom are distinct and compelling. Countering the notion that this period was marked by British ‘stiff upper-lip’, as purported by Ian Hislop in a recent television series, the panellists and Louise agreed that the Crimean War ranks highly in its human interest. It was fiercely contested at the time during unprecedented and uncensored press engagement, which channelled class disgruntlement and forged reputations for better or worse. The war was a vessel for projected public feeling like no other and has also left in its wake a corpus of material revealing the soldier’s sentiments.

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