OPINION John Barnie

NWR Issue 109

The Sentimental Poppy

The Englishman who may still be attracted to the spot reads there names once well known in England; and looking on the neighbouring hills and hollows, where so protracted a strife was waged, and where so many thousands fell, he sees the points which mark the Russian lines of defence, with the famous Malakoff and Mamelon standing up in all their former defiance; while beyond, against the blue of the Euxine, are the streets and domes and churches of the city, risen from its ashes. New batteries protect the shore, the docks once more resound with the clang of labour, the port is filled with the barks of commerce, and guarded by the vessels of war. Yet a few years, and all those who still remember how passionately the thoughts and wishes of the people of England were once directed on this spot, will themselves have departed, and nothing will then survive to remind the world of this long and desperate conflict of giants except a page in history.

These are the closing words of General Sir Edward Hamley’s The War in the Crimea, published in 1891 when memories of the campaign in the Crimea and the terrible slaughter at the siege of Sebastapol in 1854–55 were rapidly fading. (Hamley, who had served throughout the campaign, himself died three years later.)

If the Crimean War survives in public memory today it is because of vague recollections of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or of Florence Nightingale, the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, and her part in the reorganisation of the massive military hospital at Scutari; but the English, French and Russian generals who conducted the campaign, the great battles of Alma, Inkerman and Balaclava, even the siege of Sebastapol itself, are no longer part of our collective consciousness. We no longer mourn the dead in this industrialised precursor to the First World War, even though the slaughter was on a horrific scale. According to Hamley, in the final assault on Sebastapol, the French lost 7,567 officers and men, including five generals killed and four wounded; the English 2,271 officers and men (3 generals wounded); and the Russians 12,913 officers and men (two generals killed, five wounded). In the campaign overall, from various causes including disease, Hamley estimates the Russians lost nearly half a million men.

Only military historians of the period remember this now; the war has passed below the event horizon of the rest of us, as Hamley foresaw that it would. So too have the Boer Wars, even though they happened little more than a hundred years ago.

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Award-winning author John Barnie’s latest title is Footfalls in the Silence (Cinnamon).

       


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