How Crimea Became the First “People’s War”

Luke Tomes

Victorian
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Background

The Crimean War (1853-56) is often remembered for the horrific mortality rates suffered by all belligerents, including the British, French, Russian and Ottoman Empire. The conflict was deadly – almost one in five men sent to Crimea perished. This was mainly due to the diseases that became rife within army hospitals such as typhoid, typhus and cholera.

In Britain we also often associate the conflict with popular figures such as Florence Nightingale or notorious events such as the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, read in poems and portrayed in various paintings and Hollywood films.

Apart from this, the war is often overshadowed by the more notable conflicts of the early nineteenth and twentieth century, and its significance, in terms of the technological and media-related breakthroughs witnessed, has been all but forgotten.

The war was revolutionary. It was the first conflict to directly involve the British public and hence became known as the first “People’s War”.

For soldiers of the Crimean War, perhaps the greatest adversary they faced was the Selimiye Barracks in Scutari, a makeshift hospital for wounded men. A lack of hygiene, medicine and compassion made this a living nightmare - if you didn't perish from your wounds, you would probably succumb to one of the mass infections which plagued the barracks. But one nurse changed all that, Florence Nightingale, who is commonly considered the founder of modern nursing. Professor Lynn McDonald took me through the incredible work of Nightingale, highlighting her importance as a social reformer and statistician. Listen Now

Steam Power and the Telegraph

With the recent invention of the telegraph wire and the steam engine, which was now used to power naval vessels, the delivery time on reports sent back from the front to Britain was cut from a few months, to a matter of days and in some cases, hours.

547 kilometres of submarine cable was laid by Royal Engineers between Balaklava and Varna in April 1855 and enabled officials in London and Paris to communicate swiftly with their commanders in Crimea, usually within 24 hours.

Yet it was not just the political and military leaders who had access to these reports. The British public was kept in the loop, receiving information from the front on a consistent basis through newspaper reports and via photographs.

War Correspondents

William Howard Russell, circa 1854. Image Credit: United States Library of Congress / Public Domain

Along with the end of courier services on horseback came the end of the days of amateur agents. Newspapers now employed professional correspondents who wrote intense and factual reports that intrigued a wide audience in Britain, mainly amongst the middle and upper classes. Growing literacy rates had also meant that the majority of the public were now able to engage with the war and understand the conflict in a way they were never able to before.

Employed by The Times newspaper to report on the war, William Howard Russell became perhaps the most notable example of a ‘professional war correspondent’ and soon was a household name in Britain, known for his incredibly authentic, factual and often damning articles.

What was truly unique about Russell’s reporting style was the fact that he was asked to involve himself directly in the action and live amongst the British soldiers at the front. This gave him first-hand experience of what the Crimean War was truly like for the ordinary soldier and he conveyed this information back home.

Public Opinion

War reporting soon began to influence public opinion. Reaction to narratives of the horrific conditions endured by soldiers, the poor military leadership displayed and the lack of any sort of direction was manifested in a loss of public support for Lord Aberdeen’s government and the war effort in general.

To put this into perspective, one can use the popular satirical magazine Punch, which often provided an accurate indication of public opinion.

In April 1854, just before Russell had started reporting from Crimea, Punch published a cartoon “Right Against Wrong” which depicted both Victoria-Britannia and the British Lion seemingly unamused at the actions of Russia in Crimea. This was demonstrative of the national feeling that it was right for Britain to go to war and to protect the Ottoman Empire, often referred to as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, from the dangerous and land-grabbing Russian Empire.

Yet, as Russell began to express his concerns with the treatment of soldiers in the war, Punch began to publish cartoons that criticised the ineptitude of generals and Lord Aberdeen, who was losing support at an alarming rate. The cartoons reflected a lack of confidence in his war policy not only amongst the British public, but in parliament. He would soon resign in January 1855.

“Patient Heroes”, Punch Magazine December 1954. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Personal Accounts

Alongside reports came personal accounts and letters written by soldiers at the front which often endorsed the criticisms of Russell. They highlighted the realities of war and drew sympathy from the British public. Some soldiers, for instance Captain George Frederick Dallas, admitted that there was no point writing cheerful letters hiding the realities of the war to his family as they would find out soon enough in the papers what he was really experiencing.

As a result of the increasing level of detail and criticism in The Times, leaders such as Lord Raglan were forced to make key decisions. He sent more troops to areas where the army was weak and ordered more winter boots for infantrymen. Meanwhile, the public were also keen to use newspapers to participate and aid soldiers in the war. Many contributed, for example, by writing articles containing advice on techniques to keep warm during the cold winter.

Photography

The use of photography also became an innovative form of media reporting that allowed the public to see Crimea as it actually appeared to those at the front. The technology used was extremely complicated and difficult to transport. Nonetheless, photographs such as those taken by Roger Fenton seemed to encapsulate the landscape of Crimea and portray leading British figures in a grand and honourable light.

Fenton became well known for being one of the first photographers to take pictures of a warzone. One of his pictures, “The valley of the shadow of death, dirt road in ravine scattered with cannonballs”, that depicted the infamous ‘Valley of Death’, is still universally recognised to this day.

‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’, photographed by Roger Fenton, 1855. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum / Public Domain

Censorship and Propaganda

Regardless of its success in engaging the British public with the war effort, the new style of reporting was unfavoured by British military leadership. Many commanders were concerned that the speed at which information could be transported might compromise their strategy by revealing positions and battlefield tactics.

General Lord Raglan famously complained that the Russians did not need an intelligence service as they could find out all the tactical information they needed from The Times.

Nonetheless, new forms of war reporting, especially the use of photography, did present opportunities to create propaganda. Roger Fenton was urged by Prince Albert and persuaded to stage many of his photographs, including his capture of the ‘Valley of Death’. Cannonballs were placed carefully for the photograph and dead bodies removed, so as to encapsulate the intensity and glory of war as opposed to its horror.

Consequentially, media reporting in the Crimea also raised significant questions about how new forms of reporting could possibly be manipulative and used as propaganda. The previously undoubted authenticity of war reports could no longer be taken at face value. What could not be doubted however, was that the future of war would never be the same.

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Tags: Crimean War

Luke Tomes