Truth gets lost at sea

The Crimean War
September 10, 2004

This book relies heavily on eyewitness accounts, although the material comes from published works familiar to most students of the Crimean War. Its author is a university lecturer in politics, not a historian (military or otherwise), and the book is particularly strong on the political side. It is, in my opinion, equally weak on military matters.

I confess that, aware of Clive Ponting's success in court when prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, I feared that he might take an unbalanced anti-establishment line. And he did. Thus the French are lauded at every possible point, and the British - especially those in authority - are denigrated.

He suggests that the Allies should have assaulted Sevastopol from the north: no one who has been to the area and sailed Sevastopol harbour (as anyone writing on the war today must do) could think this. The north side was a cul-de-sac. The real mistake was not to assault immediately from the east, as several urged.

I find Ponting's account of the battle of Balaklava poor, and he is unfair to Lord Cardigan for his conduct after the charge. He did not simply ride off to his yacht, but sought his soldiers and wounded aide-de-camp and slept wrapped in his cloak beside a campfire. I agree that the blame for the charge must rest with Lord Raglan, not Lord Lucan or anyone else.

Ponting claims that Inkerman was won by the French intervening when the British "were on the point of defeat" but he does not mention the early French reversals that convinced many of them they were near defeat. There is no mention of the British 18-pr guns, thought by most to have had a decisive effect, even before the arrival of the French.

There is an interesting quote from W. H. Russell about how marvellous the administration under Commissary-General Filder was: an example of Russell's unreliability that is worth noting. But this is spoilt a few pages later by a sneer from Ponting at the officers who in the first winter "suffered some discomfort (compared with their usual standards), but little more than that". Surely a reading of a few of the works listed in the bibliography should have corrected this ridiculous impression? There is a silly remark that in 1853 the marquess of Anglesey had run the Ordnance Medical Department though he "had no medical training". The marquess was then, of course, Master General of the Ordnance, a Cabinet post, and his responsibilities embraced considerably more than the medical department.

Florence Nightingale, arch-representative of the establishment, is denounced, and Mrs Seacole is noted as having achieved "as much, if not more, for the British soldiers". No evidence is offered, and I know of none.

And so on. In several instances, a logical argument is built that leads to an obvious conclusion, but at the last moment, another, contrary, view is expressed. For example, the devastating effect of the Allied artillery bombardment of the Russians in Sevastopol is described, but the clear deduction that this led to the abandonment of the town is shirked.

So, in summary, this is an important book that should be read. It is anti-establishment, anti-British, poor on the battles and the military side generally - but it is strong on the politics before, during and after the fighting. It is comprehensive in coverage and, in this respect, the book is similar to Trevor Royle's Crimea (1999), which quickly became a standard work on the war. I recommend students of military history to read and compare the two books.

Major Colin Robins is editor of The War Correspondent , journal of the Crimean War Research Society.

The Crimean War: The Truth behind the Myth

Author - Clive Ponting
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 379
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7011 7390 4

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