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October 21, 2004

The British Army in Crimea at the National Army Museum

Posted by Christie Davies

A Most Desperate Undertaking: The British Army in Crimea
National Army Museum
Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HT
Exhibition runs until 31st March 2005
Daily 10 am to 5.30 pm
Free Admission

The National Army Museum's exhibition on the Crimean War marking its 150th anniversary is full of both familiar and unfamiliar stories. The incompetent commanders, the charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale and her nurses are all there in detail but so too is technical progress in communications. Here we may learn of the field telegraph used in war for the first time and of the submarine cable from Balaklava to Varna in Bulgaria which allowed politicians in London for the first time rapidly to know what was going on at the front and here we may see the good quality pictures sent back by the earliest war photographers. The technology is an entire generation in advance of the Battle of Waterloo; unfortunately the level of organization of the British Army was not.

The British army's incompetence in large things in the war is well known but the exhibition with its concentration on specific objects from the war brings home how disastrously incompetent it was in small things. There were not enough water bottles so men went thirsty and caught water-borne diseases. Their knapsacks were badly designed. They threw away much of their equipment and also discarded the special 'Albert Shako' designed by the Prince Consort and wore forage caps even on parade. It sounds like Mr Blair and Iraq. Three times as many horses as men were lost in the Charge of the Light Brigade and a shortage of horses for transport meant a shortage of rations for men. The French army had field ambulances in Crimea. Guess who did not? The Russian winter is cold even in the Crimea and all the army's winter clothing was conveyed on a single ship – which sank. Only the commander was snug in his cardigan.

Lord Cardigan had earlier been tried for attempted murder by the House of Lords but got off on a technicality. His colleague the Duke of Cambridge cracked up and went home with shell shock in 1854. Two years later he was made Commander in Chief and remained so until 1895. Had there not been Swiss, German and Italian legions serving Britain as mercenaries one wonders where it would have ended. It is particularly humiliating to learn that Britain's unexpected ally France did rather more of the fighting on land and was rather better at it. The exhibition reveals how Britain, then the world's richest, most advanced and most powerful nation managed to bungle an entire war with its unreformed army.

Yet in making this point the exhibition raises questions it can not answer, for it is, as befits an exhibition in our National Army Museum limited to the topic 'the British army in the Crimea'. What on earth was our army doing there? Were we tricked into going to war in this fashion by the French whose Roman Catholic monks had quarreled with their Russian Orthodox counterparts over precedence in the sacred places of the Holy Land? The French even struck a medal to La Sainte Alliance in 1854, a kind of horrible precursor of the way we were lured half a century later into the Entente Cordial, a phrase first coined around the time over Crimea. Why was the British naval expedition against the Russians recalled after capturing the Russian owned Åland islands in the Baltic? Why did Britain not keep these Swedish speaking islands permanently as a fortress and naval base? Why was peace declared by Napoleon III in 1856 just as a new and larger British naval offensive against Russia in the Baltic was being planned? Why did it take so long before attempts were made by Britain to stir up revolts among the dissident peoples in the Caucasus at the edge of Russia? Why had Britain ever been so foolish as to countenance Greece becoming independent of the Turks, thus encouraging Russian expansionism? The exhibition can not answer these questions but it is a measure of its success that it provokes them.

It is also a good exhibition for children with its Crimean war floor game and its invitation to them to weigh themselves in 56lb cannon balls. They will also be pleased to learn that thirteen year olds served in the army at Crimea. One of them, William Lang, whose photograph is shown, reported that he had been frightened for the first hour of shelling at the Alma but had never been frightened since. This manly little chap should be an inspiration to the boys of today and may even encourage them to take up a military career.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain (Transaction Publishers, 2004) which looks closely at the interactions between Parliament, courts and the British armed forces in the twentieth century.


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Chistie Davies review is interesting. It will definately make me go to this exhibition.

Posted by: John at October 23, 2004 09:25 AM
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William Lang was my great, great grandfather are there any other articles/pictures/history of him? Please help.

Posted by: Andrea McCabe at February 3, 2009 10:20 AM
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