A Sore Sight: Britain’s Crumbling Crimean Memorials and the Campaign to Restore Them

William Simpson (1823-99), 'Cathcart's Hill, 16th December 1855, watercolour. (© National Army Museum)

William Simpson (1823-99), ‘Cathcart’s Hill, 16th December 1855, watercolour. (© National Army Museum)

The Victorian Studies blog has previously posted about current academic research on the history and legacy of the Crimean War (1854-56), the major armed conflict of Queen Victoria’s long reign. As PhD researcher Rachel Anchor explains however, long-standing neglect of the war has led to its legacy being tarnished, quite literally in the case of British memorials in the region itself. In this post, Rachel discusses the history of this neglect, and the campaign now attempting to address it by raising funds to restore the memorials to British casualties of the conflict.

As the public enter a long period of remembrance and reflection to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, it is worth highlighting the commemorative plight arising from WW1’s pre-cursor, the Crimean War (1854-1856). The ‘Crimea Appeal’ is an ongoing fight to ensure the upkeep of monuments and graves marking British dead on the Crimean peninsula, which now forms part of modern-day Ukraine. As the historical novelist Louise Berridge explains, ‘[t]here are no public funds for war graves, and while the World Wars and later conflicts enjoy the support of a special War Graves Commission, the Crimean War is an orphan for whom no-one takes responsibility. The only way we can fund this memorial is by an appeal for private donations’.The neglect of this conflict, bar certain powerful associations, such as Florence Nightingale, was highlighted in a recent Mastermind episode, in which the war featured in the general knowledge round of quizzing. In response to the question ‘In whose reign did the Crimean War take place?’ the contestant answered ‘George III’. For those with knowledge of the Crimean War or the Victorian period, the question is straightforward, but if the contestant’s response is anything to go by, the war is more appropriate for the ‘specialist’ category. As Denise Bates comments in her latest blog on the profile of historical subjects, ‘[s]ome subjects will inevitably interest only a few enthusiasts whilst those which acquire a critical mass of articulate supporters become part of a wider national consciousness. What is surprising is that a war that killed almost 23,000 British troops can become a niche topic’. If Mastermind is representative of general knowledge about the Crimean War then the dilapidated state of Britain’s Crimean memorial to those 23,000 soldiers is not surprising.

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The British memorial site at Cathcart’s Hill, and graffiti on the base of a damaged obelisk (Images courtesy of Louise Berridge and the Crimea Appeal)

The British memorial complex forms a striking contrast to the widespread respect rightly afforded to soldiers who died in WW1. It also contrasts with the neat, well-maintained memorials of Britain’s allies in the war, Turkey and France.

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Turkish (left) and French (right) memorials in the Crimea (Images courtesy of Louise Berridge and the Crimea Appeal)

The neglect of the British memorials in the Crimea is not a recent development. As Glenn Fisher’s history of the sites makes clear, they were left unprotected from the outset. Throughout the nineteenth century, they were frequently vandalised and a mixture of antipathy on behalf of the British government and diplomatic wrangling over land ownership ensured that the repair and upkeep of the sites was never resolved. A royal visit to the sites in 1869 prompted some action in the 1870s, whereupon it was decided to consolidate the then numerous sites into fewer cemeteries. In 1872, a commission was set up, but the Treasury would only consent to a fraction of the cost required to meet the recommendations of the Commission’s report. In the 1880s, the question was resumed and vital consolidation work carried out with royal backing, but full maintenance of the main site, Cathcart’s Hill, has eluded British interest throughout the twentieth century.

If little momentum was achieved early on, it is easy to see why memorials in a distant land were ignored as the war faded from living memory. Why the Crimean War was orphaned so early on by the British government is difficult to ascertain. It was arguably the major European conflict of the Victorian era and saw a surprising alliance with France and Turkey to suppress Russian power. However, the war was quickly overtaken by imperial interests and colonial wars, with the Indian Mutiny following in quick succession in 1857. The war also assumed the status as a bit of a national embarrassment. The Crimean climate presented significant difficulties for the British and the hardships, as well as the triumphs of the campaign, were captured in vivid detail by the Press. The power of this reporting resulted in the downfall of the then coalition government in January 1855 and a public enquiry. The war challenged the established order, both in government and in military circles, giving voice to radical reformers. In addition to turmoil at home, military action failed to live-up to the promise and excitement of the first few weeks of the campaign. The war’s object, the capture of the naval town of Sebastopol, proved difficult and futile for the British. The tenacity of the Russians and the strength of their defences ensured the British were unable to make a lasting impression on the town’s defences and the vulnerability of the British position meant that they were easy targets for Russian fire-power. A depleted and beleaguered army suffered two deadly defeats in 1855. The men, as on the fields of Flanders, were ordered to advance from inadequate trenches across open ground, under heavy fire.  Poor planning and a failure to learn from earlier mistakes contributed to failure. Few official images of the assault convey the sheer havoc of the affair as the drawings of Lt. Herbert Radcliffe.

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Lieutenant Herbert Delme Radcliffe, ‘Charge of the 23rd at the assault of the Redan, 8 September 1855‘, pen and ink drawing (© National Army Museum)

This second defeat was particularly painful for the British, since the French succeeded on their target, causing the Russians to finally retreat.  The longed-for capture of Sebastopol on the 8th September 1855 was an anti-climax, seen less as an ‘allied’ victory and more as a French triumph.

While the scale and objects of the conflicts differed, the familiar stories marking our understanding of WW1 – suffering in the trenches, misguided optimism for a quick victory, military bungling, the horrors of war, fears about the balance of European power and the need to combat a ‘bullying’ enemy – are all features of the Crimean War 60 years earlier.  It was the first major war to be photographed, one of a number of uncensored reporting avenues available for conveying experiences at the front.  These included the work of the first war correspondents and the letters and drawings of soldiers.  Despite mid-Victorian interest in the war and the wealth of contemporary information, comprehension of British involvement in the Crimean War has narrowed with the passage of time.  The decrepit, now anonymous memorial marking the site where officers were lovingly buried is a stark reminder of this marginalisation.  Practically-speaking, two world wars and the Cold War have made the Crimea a difficult place to visit, but nowadays tourists and visitors are much more numerous.  They would be hard-pressed to understand the British invasion of the Crimea or comprehend the human cost of that decision.

If you would like to help meet the £70,000 target for the restoration and upkeep of the British Crimean Memorial as a place of reflection and mourning and thus acknowledge the relevance of the Crimea to British history, you can donate quickly and easily via: http://crimeaappeal.com/give/.

Rachel Anchor is a trained archivist and PhD researcher working with both the Victorian Studies Centre and the National Army Museum, London. Her research project, which is funded by an AHRC collaborative doctoral award, is titled Curating the Crimea: The Cultural Afterlife of a Conflict. Follow her on Twitter at @VictorianWars

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