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The Crimean War is one of history's most compelling subjects. It encompassed human suffering, woeful leadership and maladministration on a grand scale. It created a heroic myth out of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade and, in Florence Nightingale, it produced one of history's great heroes. New weapons were introduced; trench combat became a fact of daily warfare outside Sebastopol; medical innovation saved countless soldiers' lives that would otherwise have been lost. The war paved the way for the ...
The Crimean War is one of history's most compelling subjects. It encompassed human suffering, woeful leadership and maladministration on a grand scale. It created a heroic myth out of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade and, in Florence Nightingale, it produced one of history's great heroes. New weapons were introduced; trench combat became a fact of daily warfare outside Sebastopol; medical innovation saved countless soldiers' lives that would otherwise have been lost. The war paved the way for the greater conflagration which broke out in 1914 and greatly prefigured the current situation in Eastern Europe.
“a well-written, thorough study of what can be considered the first modern war.” —New York Times Book Review
...a sound and solid description of the Crimean War.
A Churchwardens' Quarrel
We should deeply regret any dispute that might lead to conflict between two of the great Powers of Europe; but when we reflect that the quarrel is for exclusive privileges in a spot near which the heavenly host proclaimed peace on earth and good-will towards men - when we see rival churches contending for mastery in the very place where Christ died for mankind - the thought of such a spectacle is melancholy indeed!
—Lord Malmesbury, Britain's Foreign Secretary, 1852
The spark to the tinderbox was the key to the main door of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. By tradition, history, and a common usage which had been built up over the centuries, the great key was in the possession of the monks of the eastern, or Greek Orthodox, branch of the Christian church; they were the guardians of the grotto in which lay the sacred manger where Christ himself was thought to have been born. That state of affairs was contested with equal fervour by their great rivals, the monks of the Roman Catholic, or Latin, church who had been palmed off with the keys to the lesser inner doors to the narthex (the vestibule between the porch and the nave). There was also the question of whether or not a silver star adorned with the arms of France should be permitted to stand in the Sanctuary of the Nativity, but in the spring of 1852 the rivals' paramount thoughts were concentrated on the possession of the great key to the church's main west door.
`Is it true,' asked the antiquarian Alexander William Kinglake, who wrote the first history of the Crimean war, `that for this causearmies were gathering, and that for the sake of the key and the silver star, the peace of the nations was brought into danger?'
The short answer was, yes. There were of course other more pressing strategic reasons caused mainly by the impending demise of the Ottoman Empire, and the differing attitudes of the main European powers towards the problem; but they might have been settled diplomatically had it not been for the confrontation between France and Russia over the guardianship of Palestine's Holy Places.
It was an argument which had its origins in the history of the early Christian church. For centuries the sacred places of the Holy Land had been objects of intense Christian devotion. Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem were magnets for pilgrims from all over Europe anxious to seek pardon for sins or simply to add a further spiritual dimension to their lives. To them these names were not just places of veneration but living reminders of an age when Jesus Christ walked amongst mankind. To visit Jerusalem was to see the bible come alive. In the Old City stood the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the house of Caiaphas where Jesus was brought after his arrest. Outside the walls could be found the path to Bethany over the Mount of Olives where the crowd strewed olive branches and shouted `Hosanna!' There were also equally sonorous memorials to the faiths of Judaism and Islam, reminders that Jerusalem and Palestine are home to several religions. Indeed, bloody wars had been fought by the Christian powers to protect their holy places from the influence of Islam and to restore them to Christian rule.
During the period of the crusades great battles were waged between Christians and `infidels' and by the end of the eleventh century the Holy Land had become a kind of European Christian province. Unfortunately the piety and grace which fuelled those clashes could not keep the Christians from quarrelling amongst themselves. Ever since the long decline of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries the church had split into two rival communions. The Emperor Constantine's decision to move the seat of his power to Byzantium in AD330 had created two patriarchs, one in the east and the other in Rome in the west. They soon became rivals, but in 1054 the split became much wider when the Bishop of Rome excommunicated his counterpart in the east, thereby creating an eastern or Greek communion under the Patriarch of Constantinople and a western or Latin church which looked to the leadership of the Pope.
It was not just a spiritual divide: following the loss of Jerusalem in 1204 the crusaders turned their wrath on the eastern church and sacked Constantinople. Within a hundred years the Holy Land had been lost and the enmity between the two churches increased. In 1453 the schism was made complete when Byzantium, or Constantinople, fell to the Islamic Turks to give their Ottoman Empire a gateway to Europe. However, to begin with, the new regime tolerated the Eastern Church which not only prospered but grew in faith and set about converting the inhabitants of the great Russian land mass to the north.
Soon Russia was to emerge as the strongest of the Orthodox communions; successive tsars considered themselves to be the rightful protectors of the holy places of Palestine and they took a dim view of the Latins' pretensions which had the backing of France. (In 1520 Francis I had accepted that responsibility following his meeting with King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.) Not only had Russian money maintained the shrines for many centuries while they were under the control of the Ottoman Empire but countless thousands of Russians had been Palestine's most devout pilgrims. Kinglake wrote:
When the Emperor of Russia sought to gain or to keep for his Church the holy shrines of Palestine, he spoke on behalf of fifty millions of brave, pious, devoted subjects, of whom thousands for the sake of the cause would joyfully risk their lives. From the serf in his hut, even up to the great Tsar himself, the faith professed was the faith really glowing in his heart, and violently swaying the will.
Kinglake had a good understanding of the problem. He had visited the Holy Land in 1834 and as a result had written Eothen, a lively and disinterested account of his travels and the people he met. To him the Russians were intensely pious pilgrims who had made the long and dangerous journey from their homelands over the Caucasus mountains and on through the wastes of Kurdistan and Syria into Palestine. This holy enterprise was the culmination of a life well spent - whatever the cost in material terms, for many did not return and others used up their life savings simply to tell their neighbours that they had worshipped at the spot were Christ was born or at the stone on which his crucified body was washed and anointed in preparation for burial in the tomb.
On the other hand, and in stark contrast, the standard French pilgrim seemed to be a Johnny-come-lately, `a mere [French] tourist, with a journal and a theory, and a plan of writing a book'. During the years of the Bourbons the kings of France had taken a great interest in the Holy Land and had been pleased to count themselves as the protectors of the Latin monks. The last intervention had come in 1740 when King Louis XV had obtained from the Sultan of Turkey an agreement whose capitulations confirmed the rights of the Latin church in Palestine. One hundred years later, though, the effects of the French Revolution and the early nineteenth-century Enlightenment had encouraged a more secular attitude to religious affairs and French (and other western European) visitors to the holy places did not always behave with the decorum expected of evangelists. Amongst their number was Richard Curzon, a British member of Parliament and notorious plunderer of Byzantine religious remains, who had witnessed the annual Good Friday celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1834 when the Christian miracle of light from heaven was re-enacted:
The behavior of the pilgrims was riotous in the extreme; the crowd was so great that many persons actually crawled over the heads of others, and some made pyramids of men by standing on each other's shoulders, as I have seen them do at Astley's...At one time, before the church was so full, they made a racecourse round the sepulchre; and some, almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed.
Altogether it was a scene of disorder and profanation, which it is impossible to describe.
In this case, though, the pilgrims' `screams and tumult' quickly developed into a riot in which several hundred worshippers died or were killed by panicking Turkish soldiers. While the catastrophe was `a fearful visitation' at a time when Christ's resurrection was being celebrated, Curzon also noted that the so-called miracle was an `evident absurdity' perpetrated by the monks who `for the purposes of worldly gain, had deluded their ignorant followers with the performance of a trick in relighting the candles, which had been extinguished on Good Friday, with fire which they affirmed had been sent down from heaven in answer to their prayers'.
In addition to the religious impetuosity witnessed by Curzon, the monks themselves often had skirmishes, fighting not just with fists but also with candlesticks and other solemn artifacts. If the wrangling had been left to the occasional brawl all might have been well but unfortunately both the tsar and the new emperor of France took a keen interest in the dispute and were determined to solve it to the satisfaction of their co-religionists. The eastern and the western churches might have been separated by a thousand miles but in 1852 they found their point of conflict within the confined space of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Nicholas I had both temporal and spiritual reasons for wanting to extend his protection of the eastern church within the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon III's were rather different. Having dismissed the French parliament he needed all the support he could get, most especially from the Roman Catholics, before he could declare himself emperor. It suited him therefore to have France play a greater role in Palestine and `to put an end to these deplorable and too-frequent quarrels about the possession of the Holy Places'. To that end the Marquis de Lavalette, his ambassador to the Porte - or the Sublime Porte, the court or government of the Ottoman Empire - insisted that the Turks honour the agreement made in 1740 which confirmed that France had `sovereign authority' in the Holy Land. Otherwise, hinted de Lavalette, force might have to be used.
On 9 February 1852 the Porte agreed the validity of the Latin claims but no sooner had the concession been made than the Turks were forced to bow once more, this time to Russian counter-claims. Basing his argument on an agreement, or firman, of 1757 which restored Greek rights in Palestine and on the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainarji (1774) which gave Russia protection of the Christian religion within the Ottoman Empire, Nicholas's ambassador succeeded in getting a new firman ratifying the privileges of the Greek Church. This revoked the agreement made to the French who responded by backing up their demands with a show of force.
Later that summer, much to Nicholas's fury and to Britain's irritation, Napoleon III ordered the 90-gun steam-powered battleship Charlemagne to sail through the Dardanelles. This was a clear violation of the London Convention of 1841 which kept the Straits closed to naval vessels, but it also provided a telling demonstration of French sea power. It was nothing less than gunboat diplomacy and it seemed to work. Impressed by the speed and strength of the French warship, and persuaded by French diplomacy and money, Sultan Abd-el-Medjid listened ever more intently to the French demands. At the beginning of December he gave orders that the keys to the Church of the Nativity were to be surrendered to the Latins and that the French-backed church was to have supreme authority over the Holy Places. On 22 December a new silver star was brought from Jaffa and as Kinglake wrote, in great state `the keys of the great door of the church, together with the keys of the sacred manger, were handed over to the Latins'.
Napoleon III had scored a considerable diplomatic victory. His subjects were much gratified, but in so doing he had also prepared the ground for a much greater and more dangerous confrontation. Given the strength of Russian religious convictions Tsar Nicholas was unwilling to accept the Sultan's decision - which he regarded as an affront not just to him but to the millions of Orthodox Christians under his protection - and he was determined to have it reversed, if need be by using force himself.
Russia and Turkey were no strangers to discord: there had been numerous armed confrontations between the two countries since they first clashed over possession of Astrakhan in 1569. Under the rule of Peter the Great there had been a long-running war over the steppe lands of the Ukraine and access to the Black Sea, and the early years of the nineteenth century had seen Russia attempting to take advantage of Ottoman decline by expanding her own imperial holdings. In 1828 Russia supported the Greeks in their war of independence and used it as a pretext for further military operations in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Although the Turkish army was no pushover, major defeats at Akhalzoc and Kulrucha forced them to sue for peace and, at the resultant Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, Russia was granted Ottoman territory in the Caucasus and at the mouth of the Danube in Bessarabia.
Having used the mailed fist in the past, Russia could see no reason for not using it again in 1853. The Russian 4th and 5th Army Corps were mobilised on the border with the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia and the veteran Russian chancellor and head of the foreign ministry, Count Nesselrode, issued a warning that his country could not `swallow the insult which she has received from the Porte...vis pacem, para bellum!' (`If you wish for peace, prepare for war.') At the same time he laid plans to outwit France on the diplomatic front, first by weakening her influence at the Porte and, second, by courting the support of Britain, at that time Turkey's principal European ally.
With his lengthy experience of European diplomacy—he had served in the Paris embassy before 1812 and had been first secretary of state at the foreign ministry since 1816 and chancellor since 1845—Nesselrode was well, aware of the influence exerted by the French ambassador at the Porte, the Marquis de Lavalette, whom he suspected of bribing the Sultan's Grand Vizier, Mehemet All, and the Turkish foreign minister, Fuad Effendi (later Pasha). This supposition was not ill-founded. France enjoyed healthy trading links with the Ottoman Empire and had, therefore, a vested interest in retaining their diplomatic primacy at the Porte; but as Nesselrode told Seymour, the British ambassador at St Petersburg, this did not mean that Russia could meekly accept the situation. As Seymour reported, quoting Nesselrode verbatim:
[The row over the Holy Places] had assumed a new character that the acts of injustice towards the Greek church which it had been desired to prevent had been perpetrated and consequently that now the object must be to find a remedy for these wrongs. That the success of French negotiations at Constantinople was to be ascribed solely to intrigue and violence - violence which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio of kings, being, it had been seen, the means which the present Ruler of France was in the habit of employing in the first instance.
Under those circumstances Nesselrode also warned that Nicholas would use whatever means at his disposal to reverse the decision, and that the armies had been mobilised to reinforce Russian diplomacy. Even at that early stage the Russian chancellor believed that, unless France backed down, war was inevitable. In a remarkably prescient letter written to Brunnov, his ambassador in London, on 2 January 1853, he forecast that France was forcing a confrontation and that in the conflict Russia would `face the whole world alone and without allies, because Prussia will be of no account and indifferent to the question, and Austria will be more or less neutral, if not favourable to the Porte'. Moreover, Britain would side with France to exert its superior naval strength, `the theatre being distant, other than soldiers to be employed as a landing force, it will require mainly ships to open to us the Straits of Constantinople [the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the Bosplate and the Dardanelles], and the united naval forces of Turkey, England and France will make quick work of the Russian fleet.'
Some of these fears Nesselrode attempted to pass on to Seymour but the British ambassador decided not to take the warnings at face value. As he explained in a despatch on 9 January, `His Majesty's violence of language does not always portend violence in action'.
Born in 1797, the eldest son of the Earl of Hertford, Seymour had been destined for a career in the Royal Navy but his precocious intelligence took him first to Eton and then to Merton College, Oxford. Following a short period at court as a gentleman usher he entered the Foreign Office and was posted to The Hague in 1817. His career also included postings to Berlin, Constantinople and Lisbon. Before taking up the post of ambassador in St Petersburg in April the crowning achievement of his career had been the negotiation of the treaty which secured Belgium's independence in 1839 but it was in the Russian capital that he was to achieve a lasting place in history.
At the time St Petersburg had attracted some of Europe's most capable diplomatists. France was represented by General de Castelbajac, a cautious aristocrat who had Napoleon III's ear and who was generally liked by his colleagues. (Seymour called him `a kind-hearted and conciliatory man, but troubled occasionally with that susceptibility which not uncommonly renders a Frenchman more intent upon trifles than upon matters of serious import'.) Prussia also had a heavyweight ambassador in General de Roekow who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the tsar; indeed, Seymour thought he was `much more of a Russian Cabinet minister than a diplomat'. About the Austrian ambassador, though, Seymour was less kind: Baron Lebzeltern he reported to be `a thoroughly incompetent Levant[ine], quite unsuited to be at the head of a great Mission'.
And at the centre of the diplomatic community stood the elfin figure of Karl Robert Nesselrode, the man who had directed Russia's foreign policy since the end of the wars against Napoleon. Born in 1796 in Lisbon, where his father acted as Russian ambassador, he was one of the many Germans in Russian service, a fact which made him an enemy of the rival Slav faction, and like Seymour he had been destined for a career in the navy. However, an inability to overcome seasickness had ruined his chances and he turned instead to a diplomatic career. His father thought it a bad choice - `He does not have the devil in him, and without the devil a diplomat can go nowhere' - but he quickly proved himself to be a cool and reliable minister. On the Eastern Question he favoured a policy of rapprochement with Britain in order to curb French influence at the Porte but his main concern had always been European stability. With Metternich, he had been one of the architects of the Holy Alliance which came into being in 1816 to bind together the absolute monarchies of Russia, Austria and Prussia.
However, it was not with Austria and Prussia that Nicholas was concerned during the quarrel over the Holy Places. Both countries were in stalemate over the question of German unification and Nicholas and Nesselrode had played a major role in keeping them apart in 1850 when war had seemed inevitable. In any case, with regard to the Holy Alliance, Nicholas considered himself to be the senior partner. That left Britain and France. Unfortunately Nicholas could make little sense of either country, despite the fact that he had excellent ambassadors in Paris and London in Kisselev and Brunnov. France he disliked because it seemed to him to be a centre of revolutionary thought, and he had no time for Napoleon III whom he considered an impostor. Alone among Europe's monarchs he refused to address him as `mon frere' (`my brother'), or to use the numeral III, and could not understand why Queen Victoria had agreed to either form of address. `Because it is a precedent,' explained Seymour. To which the tsar replied `that he thought it was unfortunate that the precedent should have been followed'.
The matter of Nicholas's salutation was to put a strain on relations between St Petersburg and Paris in 1852 and 1853. Even Nesselrode refused to use any other form of address than `the Ruler of France' when discussing Napoleon III with Seymour and General de Roekow, the Prussian ambassador, and Nicholas never relented on the question. Napoleon III could be `mon cher ami' or nothing.
Britain was a different matter. Nicholas admired Queen Victoria and was convinced that his personal charm had created an `understanding' during his visit in 1844. To a certain extent this was true. Victoria called him `the mighty potentate' but her tendency to stand in awe of powerful men was not enough to cement relations. Nicholas had to deal with politicians and here, despite Nesselrode's promptings, he was at a loss. Being an autocrat he could not understand that Britain's politicians were answerable to parliament and were unable to deal with him unilaterally. However, that failing did not prevent him from courting their interest.
Of George Hamilton Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, he had particularly high hopes. Then aged sixty-eight, he had just, in 1852, come to power as prime minister of a Peelite-Whig coalition government with a formidable Cabinet `of all the talents' including Lord John Russell as foreign secretary and Lord Palmerston as home secretary. However, Nicholas was not interested in the minutiae of British domestic politics: what concerned him most was the direction of Aberdeen's foreign policy. The two men had met during the tsar's visit to London in 1844 when Nicholas had warned about the strategic implications of Turkey's impending demise. Although the then prime minister Sir Robert Peel and his foreign secretary Aberdeen remained cautious they signed a memorandum, `the spirit and scope of which was to support Russia in her legitimate protectorship of the Greek religion and the Holy Shrines, and to do so without consulting France.'
Almost ten years later Nicholas hoped that the same pro-Russian and anti-French mood would inform British foreign policy and he placed considerable faith in Aberdeen's commitment to the 1844 memorandum. He had good reason to hope that it would for Aberdeen was suspicious of France and shortly before becoming prime minister had confided to Brunnov, the Russian ambassador, that he feared a French invasion as part of Napoleon III's ambitions to retrieve his country's influence in Europe. Moreover, Aberdeen had made little secret of his dislike of Ottoman rule and was not keen to support them against Russia when the lives of Christians were at stake. `I despise the Turks,' he told friends, `for I consider their government the most evil and most oppressive in all the world.""
From Brunnov Nicholas also heard that Aberdeen, as a former ambassador and foreign secretary, would direct foreign policy: Lord John Russell resigned after eight weeks and was succeeded in February 1853 by the affable, though frequently indecisive Lord Clarendon. Given the British prime minister's fears about French motives and his suspicions about Ottoman rule Nicholas clearly believed that an opportunity existed to drive a wedge between London and Paris and to isolate France.
With that in mind he set about winning Seymour's ear. Shortly after arriving in St Petersburg the new British ambassador had complained that it was well-nigh impossible to gain an audience with the tsar v 'Aereas `the Prussian Envoy sees the Emperor as often in the course of each day as the English Minister does in the course of the year.'" All that was to change in the second week of January 1853. The occasion was a concert given in the Mikhailovsky Palace to celebrate the forty-sixth birthday of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlona, the tsar's sister-in-law, and amongst the guests were Seymour and his wife. In a `secret and confidential' despatch written on 11 January Seymour reported to Russell that `the Emperor came up to me in the most gracious manner' to congratulate Aberdeen on his appointment and that he 'trusted the Ministry would be of long duration'. Then he turned to his first theme:
You know my feelings, the Emperor said, with regard to England . . . it was intended that the two countries should be upon terms of close amity, and I feel sure that this will continue to be the case. You have now been a certain time here and, as you have seen, there have been very few points upon which we have disagreed, our interests in fact are upon almost all questions the same.
Choosing his words carefully Seymour replied that that was indeed the case, the only exception being the question of Napoleon III's nomenclature. The emperor replied that the `No. III . . . would involve a long explanation': for the time being he was more concerned to repeat `that it is very essential that the two Governments, that is, that the English Government and I, and I and the English Government should be upon the best terms and the necessity was never greater than at present'. In particular Turkey required considerable discussion and he hoped that Seymour would call upon him soon. At that he shook Seymour's hand to conclude the interview but, sensing that the conversation was unfinished, the British ambassador asked the tsar to `add a few words which may tend to calm the anxiety with regard to the affairs of Turkey which passing events are so calculated to excite on the part of Her Majesty's Government.'
Nicholas smiled and nodded but it was obvious to Seymour that he was not prepared to comment on the reasons for the military deployments in the south. Instead, speaking in French which was the language of the Court and of diplomacy, he made his famous comment that `the Affairs of Turkey are in a very disorganised condition, the Country itself seems to be falling to pieces (menace nurie), the fall will.be a great misfortune and it is very important that England and Russia should come to a perfectly good understanding upon these affairs, and that neither should take any decisive step of which the other is not apprised.'
`Tenez,' the Emperor said as if proceeding with his remark. `Tenez - nous avons sur les bras un homme malade - un homme gravement malade - ce sera, je vous le dis franchement, un grand malheur si un de ces fours il devait nous echapper surtout avant que toutes les dispositions necessaires fussent prises - mais enfin ce n'est point le moment de vous parler de cela.' [`Look here, we have a sick man on our hands - a seriously sick man. It would, to be frank with you, be a great tragedy if one of these days he should leave us, especially before any of the necessary arrangements have been made - but anyway, now is not the time to speak to you about this'.]
It was clear that the Emperor did not intend to prolong the conversation, but I determined upon having the last word. I therefore said - `Votre Majeste est si gracieux qu'il me permettra de lui faire encore une observation. Votre Majeste dit que l'homme est malade - c'est bien vrai, mais Votre Majeste daignera m'excuser si je lui fais observer, que c'est a l'homme genereux et fort de menager l'homme malade et faible.' [Your Majesty is so gracious that he will no doubt permit me to make one more observation. Your Majesty states that the man is sick - this is clearly true, but if Your Majesty will be so good as to excuse me, may I put the point to him that it is up to the strong and generous man to treat with consideration anyone who is ill and weak.]
It was not the first time that Turkey had been described as `a sick man' (un homme malade) - Nicholas had used the expression as long ago as 1844 but it was the first time that the tsar had outlined so clearly his intentions and Seymour ended his despatch with the firm recommendation that `if Her Majesty's Government do not come to an understanding with Russia as to what is to happen in the event of the sudden downfall of Turkey they will have the less reason for complaining if results displeasing to England should be prepared':
The sum is probably this, that England has to desire a close concert with Russia with a view to preventing the downfall of Turkey - while Russia would be well pleased that the concert should apply to the events by which this down downfall [sic] is to be followed.
It was the beginning of a curious episode in Seymour's career. After months ofhaving been ignored by the tsar he became his confidant and was rightly suspicious about the unexpected turn-around. Certainly, his lengthy despatches to Russell in January and February 1853 betray both his curiosity and a healthy scepticism. Nicholas, he told Russell, `occasionally takes a precipitate step; but as reflection arrives, reason and Count Nesselrode make themselves heard'. And in a confidential despatch of 22 January he explained that his sudden elevation had been made possible not just through the tsar's desire to court Britain but also through Nicholas's displeasure with France, on account of the row over the Holy Places, and with Austria and Prussia because their rulers had agreed to address Napoleon III as `mon frere'.
Five days after the first meeting, on 14 January, Seymour was once more in the tsar's company, this time at his palace outside St Petersburg at Tsarskoe Seloe. Once again Nicholas showed that he was `desirous to speak to him upon Eastern Affairs' and he began with a preamble stating that he no longer shared Catherine the Great's dreams of creating a vast empire which would embrace Ottoman territories because Russia was already `so vast, so happily circumstanced in every way'. However, he did owe an historic obligation to the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire `whose interests I am called upon to watch over (surveiller) while the right of doing so is secured to me by Treaty [Kutchuk-Kainarji].' For that reason Turkey's decline was a matter of considerable interest and he was anxious to prepare contingency plans `in concert' with Britain. Seymour replied that, although Turkey's condition was `deplorable', it was better to shore it up than to prepare for an event which might or might not happen in the near future:
With regard to contingent arrangements, Her Majesty's government, as Your Majesty is well aware, objects as a general rule to taking engagements upon possible eventualities, and would, perhaps, be particularly disinclined to doing so in this instance. If I may be allowed to say so, a great disinclination (repugnance) might be expected in England to disposing by anticipation (d'escompter) of the succession of an old friend and ally.ls
It was on this point that Nicholas was to make a serious diplomatic error. In speaking to Seymour he assured him that he was addressing him as `a friend and gentleman' who would pass on his thoughts about the `sick man' to the British Cabinet with the recommendation that the two countries reach an understanding. To a certain extent Seymour was sufficiently flattered to do this - he ended his despatch of 22 January with the thought that `a noble triumph would be obtained by the civilisation of the 19th century if the void left by the extinction of Mohammedan Rule in Europe could be filled up without an interruption of the general Peace in consequence of the Precautions adopted by the two principal Governments the most interested in the destinies of Turkey.' But this general statement of hopes for peace was not the same as agreeing a common policy for the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire as outlined by the tsar. Worse, Nicholas thought that it was, even though Nesselrode warned him that `the fundamental condition of her [Britain's] policy has always been never to make commitments for a more or less uncertain future, but to wait for the event in order to decide what course to adopt'.
Even when Russell replied warning that `no man and no engagement could guarantee the future' and that Britain would not commit itself to the Russian proposals, Nicholas refused to be deterred. Shortly after the second meeting he instructed Nesselrode to tell Seymour that he regarded the dissolution of Turkey with `dread . . . sincere dread' and that he expected a degree of understanding with Britain. If not, Russia might have to occupy Constantinople as a temporary expediency `if everything were left to chance'. Bluster of this kind did not deter Seymour but he was concerned that the tsar seemed to be deliberately misreading the British position. As January passed into February the tone of his despatches became more worried as he attempted to impart to Russell the strength of Nicholas's belief that Aberdeen's government would support Russia in any move against Turkey.
So, what was Britain's policy? It went against the grain to make preparations for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and successive governments were opposed to any Russian encroachment westward towards Constantinople and control of the Straits. Not only did this represent a premature division of the spoils but it would allow Russia to upset the European balance of power by providing access to the Mediterranean. Far better to wait and see what would happen and, for the time being, to shore up Turkey's position. Another factor was the protection of the route to India. Any Russian encroachment towards the Mediterranean would threaten Britain's interests - as Seymour reminded Russell on 31 January:
Among the duties which an English minister has to perform at St. Petersburg none, I apprehend, are more clear than that of watching the progress of Russian encroachment in the East, and of using such slight influence as he may be fortunate enough to obtain in endeavouring to check a progress which may ultimately bring Great Britain and Russia into collision in very distant latitudes.
Seymour was also much vexed by hints that Russia was about to make fresh diplomatic overtures to Persia. It had come to his attention that the Oriental Department of the Russian foreign ministry was about to replace its diplomats in Tehran with officials `capable of speaking Indian languages' and that this could be a prelude to the signing of a new treaty of understanding between the two countries. As he told the Foreign Office this would be `disastrous' especially if Russia had gained undue influence in Turkey:
Under such circumstances Russia might be expected to revert with increased eagerness to her designs on the Indian possessions of Great Britain, and she would do so under infinitely more favouring circumstances than at any preceding period.
In the months to come Seymour was to grow increasingly concerned about Russian intentions towards India, and Russia's territorial ambitions in Persia were taken extremely seriously in the Foreign Office. For that reason Turkey's integrity was of paramount importance. With those fears in mind Seymour was given a further taste of Nicholas's diplomatic offensive when they met again at a party given by the Grand Duchess Hereditary on 20 February. As Seymour reported the following day Nicholas was at his most charming and spoke in flattering terms of the confidence he placed in Britain and its ambassador. Once again, he turned the conversation to Turkey. 'I am not so eager about what shall be done when the bear dies,' he said, `as I am to determine with England what shall be done upon that event taking place.' Seymour's reply was an accurate reflection of British policy.
But sir, I replied, allow me to observe that we have no reason to think that the Bear (to use Your Majesty's expression) is dying. We are as much interested as we believe Your Majesty to be in his continuing to live - while for myself I will venture to remark that experience shows me that countries do not die in such a hurry. I have seen by our Archives both in Turkey and Portugal that these two countries have for years been considered in a perishing state, and yet there they remain, and there Turkey will remain for many a year unless some unforeseen crisis should occur; it is precisely, Sir, for the avoidance of all circumstances likely to produce such a crisis that her Majesty's Government reckons upon Your generous assistance.
Nicholas replied that the British government was misinformed, that Turkey was on its last legs, `that the Bear is dying, you may give him musk, but even musk will not keep him alive and we can never allow such an event to take us by surprise'. All that was needed, he continued, was `a general understanding . . . between gentlemen'.
The conversation was a prelude to a longer discussion the following day when Seymour was bidden to read to the tsar Russell's confidential despatch warning that `it would hardly be consistent with [the] friendly feelings' for Britain to commit itself to any firm action over Turkey. `The great difference between us is this,' explained Seymour, `that you continue to dwell upon the fall of Turkey and the arrangements requisite before and after the fall, and that we on the contrary look to Turkey remaining where she is and to the precautions which are necessary for preventing her condition from becoming worse.'
The conversation then ranged over the familiar ground that Russia had no territorial ambitions in Turkey but was prepared to act to protect its own interests and that, therefore, an understanding had to be entered into with Britain. The tsar also warned that he remained suspicious of France and that when he spoke of Russia's interests he included those of Austria. Towards the end of this lengthy and repetitive discourse Nicholas then gave Seymour a glimpse of his concept of dividing up the Ottoman Empire. The Danubian principalities, Serbia and Bulgaria, would become independent under Russian protectionthereby giving Russia control of the Balkans - while he would `have no objections to offer' ifEgypt and the island of Candia (Crete) became British possessions. Somewhat taken aback by the proposal, Seymour pointed out that Britain already had a strategic interest in Egypt as it s provided the overland route to India across the isthmus of Suez to the Red Sea. He contented himself by noting that `the English views upon Egypt did not go beyond the point of securing a safe and ready communication between British India and the Mother Country.'
With that the conversation drew to a close and Seymour reported its contents to Russell the next day. Although he conceded that he had difficulty in remembering everything said by Nicholas and was conscious of `having forgotten the precise terms employed by him with respect to the commercial policy to be observed at Constantinople', Seymour's letter confirmed British fears that Russian threats towards Turkey had to be taken seriously. Far from assuaging them, Nicholas's conversations with Seymour only served to heighten British concern. Although Aberdeen had been sympathetic to Russian demands over the Holy Places and was prepared to prevaricate, other members of his Cabinet would not sit back and allow the tsar to dictate policy.
Unfortunately for Nicholas he believed that Britain would fall in line with his proposals. In this he might have been cheered by Seymour's diplomatic sympathy and discretion but his biggest mistake was to misunderstand Aberdeen's position. While it was true that the prime minister decided the direction of Britain's foreign policy and was not keen to interfere directly in the French and Russian row over the holy places, Aberdeen was in charge of a divided Cabinet. Palmerston and Russell, backed by the influential Whig peer Lord Lansdowne, were eager to stand by Turkey, while Aberdeen and his chancellor of the exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone, wanted to avoid the possibility of being dragged into a war against Russia.
Matters were also complicated by Lord John Russell's position. He had agreed to join the coalition Cabinet on condition that he would not be required to stay at the Foreign Office for any length of time as he wanted to lead the government in the House of Commons. Aberdeen agreed to the arrangement as Russell's support was essential for the maintenance of the coalition but, even so, it stored up trouble for the future. During his brief eight-week spell at the Foreign Office in 1852 Russell had been responsible for writing the despatch which rebuffed unequivocally Nicholas's overtures. This set the tone which his successor, Clarendon, was bound to follow. Second, he asked Lord Stratford de Redchffe (formerly Sir Stratford Canning) to return to Constantinople as Britain's ambassador.
On the face of it the decision could not be faulted. Not only was Stratford Britain's most experienced diplomat but there was little about Turkish affairs which he did not know. A cousin of George Canning, he had shown a precocious interest in foreign affairs while at Eton and in 1810, at the age of twenty-four, had found himself in charge of the embassy in Constantinople. With Britain fighting for its life against Napoleon Stratford was forced, as he put it, `to steer by the stars' while interpreting Britain's policy - which was to check French influence at the Porte and to conclude a rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. The resulting Treaty of Bucharest, signed in May 1812, resolved the differences between the two countries and freed Russian forces on the Danube to join the war against Napoleon. I It also made Stratford's name and cemented British influence at the Porte: from that moment onwards he was known in Constantinople as the `Great Elchi', the ambassador par excellence.
Stratford left Constantinople in 1812 vowing never to return - he disliked many aspects of Ottoman society - but following appointments in Switzerland and the United States he heard with dismay that he was to be sent again to Turkey in 1825, and he remained there for another four years. A career in politics beckoned, but his grasp of Ottoman affairs forced him to accept another mission to Constantinople in 1842. For the next sixteen years his astuteness and firmness allowed Britain to emerge as the controlling force in Turkish politics, so much so that successive Sultans dared not act without his approval. For example, when Mehemet All Pasha, the Sultan's brother-in-law, murdered his Christian mistress and went unpunished Stratford said that `an English ambassador can never admit to his presence a cruel assassin' and as a result of the protest the man was dismissed from his post as minister for the navy.
Inevitably, perhaps, his pre-eminence and his ability to act without reference to London made him many enemies. While foreign secretary in 1830 Aberdeen attacked him for his `political inclinations'; Nesselrode feared him as an opponent while Nicholas I openly hated him because he exerted undue influence at the Porte. (He had refused to accept him as ambassador in 1832.) In 1852 Stratford was at home on leave in London and did not expect to return to Constantinople. Russell, though, persuaded him otherwise and he set out for Constantinople by the overland route through Paris and Vienna.
By then Nicholas had set in train the second string of his offensive towards the Porte. While he had convinced Seymour that he was only interested in achieving a peaceful accord he had arranged for: a diplomatic mission to proceed to Constantinople. This was to be led by Prince Alexander Sergeevich Menshikov, whose orde were to achieve a solution to the question of the Holy Places, on which would recognise Russia's rights of protection, if need be by compulsion.
A bluff soldierly man with little imagination, Menshikov had fought against Turkey in 1817 and 1828 and had little respect for his opponents. Besides, he was accustomed to getting his own way and had a high opinion of his own abilities. (Seymour informed Russell that the prince had a `peculiar turn of thought constantly shewing itself by sarcastic observations which make him a little dreaded by St Petersburg society'.) When he arrived in Constantinople on 16 February on board a steampowered warship, the Gromovnik (Thnnderer), his great rival Stratford had not yet returned to Turkey but, as Kinglake noted with no little awe, `the Emperor Nicholas was obliged to hear that his eternal foe . . . was slowly returning to his embassy at the Porte.'
Preface * Prologue: 1851 *Part I * A Churchwardens' Quarrel * Menshikov's Mission * Getting into Deep Waters * The Thousand and One Notes * Phoney War * The Affair at Sinope * Drifting Towards War * "Our Beautiful Guards" * Uneasy Partners * Opening Shots * Varna Interlude * Hurrah for the Crimea! * Part II * Advance to Contact * The Alma: The Infantry Will Advance * Missed Opportunities * Ladies with Lamps * Balaklava: A Cavalryman's Battle * Inkerman: An Infantryman's Battle * Arrival of General Winter * Muddle in Washington, Progress in Vienna * "Pam Enters the Fray" * Spring Stalemate * Todleben's Triumph * Spring Cruise, Summer Success * Trench Warfare: Massacre in the Redoubts * Sevastopol Falls * The Forgotten War: Kars and Erzerum * A Second Winter * Part III * Peace Feelers * Tying Up Some Loose Ends * Peacetime in Paris * The New World Order * Learning the Lessons the Hard Way * Epilogue: 1914
Posted July 9, 2002
Covers his subject in clear language. I've read many books on the Crimean War and this is probably the best in so far as it covers just about everything but is not overwhelming. This guy knows how to write history. Great sources.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.