Nathaniel R. Helms
Review of Julian
Spilsbury, The Thin Red Line: An Eyewitness Account of the
Crimean War. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005. Pp. 340.
Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd ....
Julian Spilsbury's The Thin Red Line details a conflict that
would have passed into obscurity if not for James Brudenell, the
seventh Earl of Cardigan and reluctant commander of the Light
Brigade. The narrative begins in 1853 when the sun never set on the
British Empire. The Russians are eyeing a cherished naval base to
give them unimpeded passage into the Mediterranean Sea. The decline
of the Turkish Empire, the "sick man" of European politics, gives
Tsar Nicholas I an opportunity to seize a Turkish port that will
give him the access he craves. The Tsar's telegraphed intention is
the casus belli the appalled British and French use to take
up arms against him.
In a time eerily reminiscent of the present, seemingly disconnected
events in the Holy Land, rebellion in the Balkans, and the ebb and
flow of power between Eastern and Western Europe quickly bring
matters to a head. After a brief review of the specific causes of
the war, Spilsbury moves to the Crimea Peninsula, where the British
and French, joined in an uneasy alliance, choose to make their
stand. If they can seize
the principal port in the Crimea and
home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the Tsar's expansionist aims will
be foiled. It is only supposed to take a year.
weaves a tapestry of anecdotal eyewitness accounts depicting the
entire bloody campaign with astonishing detail and power. The story
is a chronicle of firsts: the first use of the Minié ball by British
and French riflemen, with devastating results;
the first deployment of rifled cannon;
the first news
reports to be flashed by telegraph from a war front; the first time the British public reads
daily accounts of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons dying miserable, unattended
deaths from disease and wounds.
Many remarkable witnesses tell the story. Lord Raglan, the overall
British commander, his generals, staff officers, sergeants, and
private soldiers all get their say. Their distinctive writing styles
lend a unique flavor to a narrative that might otherwise have been
quite drab. Particularly intriguing is Francis Isabella "Fanny"
Duberly, the wife of Henry Duberly, the Paymaster of the 8th
Hussars. "Blonde, attractive, witty, and twenty-four" (11), she one
of a handful of wives allowed to accompany soldiers to perform
menial labor and provide rudimentary nursing care that was otherwise
unavailable. From her extraordinary perch, Fanny records in
vivid detail the moments of brilliance and days of despondency that
mark the course of the year-long siege of
Like all battlefields the Crimean Peninsula is a dismal place when
the British and French armies arrive after a seven-day, thirty-mile
march from their landing beaches at Calamita Bay in September 1854.
Barren, unoccupied except for the enemy, and parched by the summer
sun, it is miserably hot and humid. It will be equally unbearable in
the cold, wet winter to follow. The enemies they will soon meet in
force are watching from a respectful distance.
From the deck of a troopship floating serenely on the Black Sea, a
Captain Wilson of the Coldstream Guards watches the Cossack cavalry
sent to harass the Allied landing: "Scurvy-looking knaves in grey
watch-coats, mounted on active, shaggy ponies, and armed with long,
unpleasant-looking flag-less spears are watching our proceedings"
Action is not long in coming and the Light Brigade is the first unit
to find it--a skirmish fought to repel Russian Cossacks from the
invading army. Spilsbury uses the encounter to illustrate the
divisiveness among commanders at every level in a time when
officers' commissions are bought and sold by the rich and idle to
give them something respectable to do. In this instance, Raglan
orders Cardigan to attack, only to have his methods questioned by
Lord Lucan, his brother-in-law, superior, and frequent nemesis
throughout the campaign. It is the first of many clashes between
senior officers more concerned with personal pride and position than
The mission of the invaders is to occupy Sevastopol, at the
peninsula's southern edge, and Balaklava, a port town ten miles
away, thereby excising the Crimea from Mother Russia with a single
brilliant stroke of the knife. At first its seems they will succeed.
When the combined armies march south in five columns, the officers
and ranks are fueled with optimism. Everyone knows the Russians are
an uncivilized lot, easy pickings for the best trained, best
equipped army in the world. This is the first of many errors in
The book describes the principal battles of the campaign
chronologically and in splendid detail: the Battle of Alma, on the
banks of a miserable, muddy stream of the same name; the year-long
siege of Sevastopol; the battles for the heights overlooking
Balaklava, where the charge of the Light Brigade occurred; and the
final Battle of Inkerman. One can almost feel the barrages of solid
shot bounding across the ground like startled hares while the air
buzzes with angry blasts of grapeshot and musketry. The agony and
nobility of war are captured in all their Victorian magnificence.
With the 46th [Regiment] ... Lieutenant Frederick Dallas
... wrote [of the battle for the Heights above the Techernaya
Valley], "The fire was very heavy. At last the enemy began to waver,
and we took advantage of it and made a most splendid headlong Charge
on them, pushing them down the steep side of the mountain in utter
confusion. The slaughter of them was immense, for we charged right
at them, and every man had shot away his 60 rounds (or nearly so)
before we could get them to pull up." Lieutenant-Colonel Colin
Campbell ... took up the story. "Dallas took the five men next to
him and attempted as he described 'to boil up a little charge.' But
when he got within about ten yards of the Russians, finding himself
totally unsupported, he ran back again as fast as he came;
extraordinary to say, he got back untouched, although he says that
every man in the Russian line seemed to be firing point-blank. Three
out of his five men were killed" (224, 228).
Spilsbury describes the darker face of the war very well. Putrefying
wounds, cholera, dysentery, and smallpox decimate entire regiments
in a few days. By their efforts to relieve the agonies of crudely
treated wounds and rampant disease, Florence Nightingale and her
indomitable nurses enter the forefront of history. Somerset
Calthorpe, an aide-de-camp to Raglan, describes the horrors of a
regimental hospital: "Here might be seen the surgeons hard at work
in their terrible but merciful duty, their arms covered with blood,
the floors strewn with limbs just amputated, and slippery with gore.
The enormous number of wounded quite overpowered the unceasing
efforts of the medical officers" (102).
Disease kills many more men in the Crimean War than bullets.
Times reporter W.H. Russell sends home dispatches describing the
conditions at the Scutari barracks hospital, just across the
Bosporus from Istanbul, where Florence Nightingale treats the sick
and wounded evacuated from the Crimea. Disease is so pervasive, one
regiment reports it has only seven soldiers available for duty. More
than 10,000 British soldiers sent to the Crimea--thirty-five percent
of the army--die of disease there. Of the 22,500 British, French and
Turkish troops ultimately sacrificed, only 4,000 succumb to wounds
sustained in fighting.
Then as now generals and physicians lie to prevent the public from
turning against a war. Thus, although Chief Medical Officer Dr.
John Hall reports that all is well in health care in the Crimea, in
fact, Spilsbury reveals, "There was no soap, no towels, no scrubbing
brushes. There was no hospital clothing, no kettles, knives, forks
or spoons, Rations were cooked in thirteen great Turkish coppers
which rarely even boiled the water, let alone cooked the meat. There
were no rations suitable for the sick or convalescent, and very few
The British and French prevail--for a time. The strategic goal of
destroying the Black Sea Fleet and nullifying the threat of
Sevastopol is accomplished, but at overwhelming cost. On 28 February
1856, the Allies and Russians negotiate an armistice and Sevastopol
reverts to Russia in exchange for a shaky peace. The next day the
war is over.
Spilsbury closes with an apt allusion: "'But what good came of it at
last?' asked the small boy at the end of Robert Southey's poem 'The
Battle of Blenheim.' The old man answered, 'Why I cannot tell,' said
he,/ But t'was a famous victory'" (321).
St. Charles, MO
Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854).
In addition to authoring The Indian Mutiny (London:
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007), Spilsbury writes military
obituaries for the Daily Telegraph and scripts for the
British television series The Bill, Taggart, and
An Appendix usefully summarizes what is known of the subsequent
history of the book's principal eyewitnesses. Other helpful
inclusions are a
"Select Bibliography" of some fifty entries, five very clearly labeled gray-scale maps, and
fifteen high-quality color illustrations of paintings relevant
to the Crimean War in the National Army Museum in London.