Once upon a time: War in Crimea

Last updated 12:20 05/03/2014
Crimea War
Library of Congress

BLEAK: A view from a hillside cavalry camp showing people, horses and tents on the plains of Balaklava.

Crimea War
Library of Congress
HISTORY: A group of officers from the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, a regiment formed in 1693 that fought in the Charge of the Light Brigade, during the 1854 Battle of Balaklava.

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Eight years before the Civil War nearly tore the United States in two, the imperial army of Russia met the allied armies of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire on the battlefields of the Crimean peninsula for what would become the first truly modern war.

By the start of the conflict, in 1853, the industrial revolution had arrived, creating mass urban landscapes, new methods of manufacturing and vast gains in productivity. But with the rise of industry also came a revolution in warfare. Trains transformed logistics, the telegraph sped up communication, and modern rifles and other weaponry enabled slaughter on a whole new scale. The battlefields of the Crimean War bore witness to this ugly fact; some 25,000 British, 100,000 French, and as many as a million Russians died.

The carnage was magnified by the fact that military advances had not spread equally to the warring parties. In the Crimean war, men with swords and lances fought men armed with rifles and artillery, marking a bloody baptism for the modern world and a morbid funeral for the pre-industrial era. The disparity in capabilities is one reason why the Crimean War has gone down in history as a monument to military incompetence. Officers wantonly sacrificed the lives of unprepared and ill-equipped soldiers to much better-armed adversaries - a travesty immortalised in Tennyson's poem Charge of the Light Brigade, which chronicles a suicidal frontal assault on a Russian artillery regiment by a British cavalry unit. Few episodes illustrate more profoundly the folly of Crimean War battles than a group of swordsmen on horseback charging into a hailstorm of cannon fire:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'

Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldiers knew

Some one had blunder'd:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

And, unlike wars past, the home front was not sheltered from such battlefield horrors. The Crimean War was the first conflict to be covered in real time by journalists, who sent their dispatches by telegraph back to London, Berlin and Paris. The very citizens whose sons bore the war's cost were therefore kept abreast of developments on the front, including the astounding incompetence and mishaps of their militaries.

This news came not only in words, but also in pictures.

Technically, the first battlefield photographs were taken during the Mexican-American War. But it is British photographer Roger Fenton who is considered the first war photographer, a distinction he gained for pictures he took in Crimea.

Fenton was only in Crimea for a few months, from March 8 to June 26, 1855. But, according to the Library of Congress, he managed "to produce 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions." Fenton took his photographs using "large format glass plate cameras ... which required long exposure times - [of] up to 20 seconds or more".

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During his time in Crimea, Fenton extensively photographed the landscape and took portraits of soldiers and officers, but he did not capture the embedded view of combat we are accustomed to today. "There are no actual combat scenes, nor are there any scenes of the devastating effects of war," the Library of Congress explains. Not only did Fenton work with a big, bulky camera that required long exposure times, he also had to travel with a large mobile darkroom - a "converted wine merchants' wagon" - and immediately process the images. Fenton's view of Crimea is more still - it is calm and quiet. By capturing the moments in between the fighting, Fenton left us with a striking but nevertheless incomplete visual memory of the Crimean War - it is often bleak, but it is bereft of all its bloody, senseless misery.

Today, Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine, is back in the news. After pro-European revolutionaries overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian forces seized the regional parliament in Crimea and have threatened to secede. Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Ukraine's pro-Russian factions, located predominantly in the eastern part of the country, and he has deployed Russian forces to Crimea.


Here is FP's look back at the work of Roger Fenton

- Foreign Policy

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