Kinglake's Invasion of the Crimea

IT is a pleasure to know that Kinglake’s celebrated history has been brought to a conclusion. It is a literary work, and at the same time it fulfills amply the requirements of painstaking labor and thorough comprehensiveness of the field dealt with which are laid upon modern historical scholarship. Its distinction is that it is more than a narrative of events, more than a brilliant picture of battle and a stirring record of gallant action; it has, in addition to its substance, certain qualities, not only of style, but also of mind, which make it, if not a great history, at least a remarkable one. It bears the traits of the classical tradition in historical writing to a degree unrivaled by any contemporary work, and that of itself would suffice to render it eminent; but beyond this it has the stamp of intellect upon it, the signmanual of an author whose interest in men exceeds his curiosity about things, whose view includes the special events of a campaign from that philosophical standpoint which frees them from technicality, and brings them into wider relations with the general course of human affairs. This history is as much a study of character as of war. These two aspects of the work interchange with each other, but it is the former that is kept to the front, and hence it is a distinguishing peculiarity of the story that in the movement of masses of soldiery individuality is never lost sight of, but is kept well forward in the reader’s attention; nor is this personal element confined to the generals in command, but the subaltern officers and their men are often the heroes of the chapter.

One reason of this characteristic, which is the source of much of the vitality and fine energy of the narrative, is no doubt Kinglake’s desire to vindicate Lord Raglan. He wrote his volumes for this purpose. He was compelled, therefore, to a close examination of whatever illustrated the personality of the English commander, and to constant portraiture of the men by whom he was surrounded The siege of Sebastopol is an admirable subject for a history of this kind. The field is narrow, the problem remains the same, the personages change. There was a fine conflict of wills in the central group of the allied commanders. Lord Raglan was in a peculiar position. He was a soldier of old experience, and as a man he possessed a certain impressiveness and noble manner; he was expected by his home government to control the conduct of the war, but he was in command of only a fraction of the forces, and his weight in council would naturally be somewhat proportioned to the size of his army and his consequent risk in operations of war; his ascendency was, therefore, one which he could not base on right, but must acquire and maintain by virtue of the respect which he could win by his own personality; his work was as much diplomatic as military. It would require rare qualities to discharge this complex duty, laid upon him, with entire success; and it is not surprising that he should not have escaped criticism. Sometimes, one would have naturally prophesied, he would have to choose between following his military judgment as to what ought to be done at the moment, and yielding to his diplomatic sense as to what was possible when other elements than the necessities of war mingled with the situation ; and then he would be blamed as a soldier and praised as an ambassador in the same breath. His post, however, was much more difficult than that of an ally in a divided command, with much the fewer troops and the duty of making his advice prevail over his associate. Possibly he might have persuaded Canrobert, who was a sound soldier and had a free and honorable nature. It was not Canrobert whom he had to overcome, but one whose part in the siege was, perhaps, not suspected by him, or only imperfectly guessed after the influence had been long exerted. This was the French Emperor himself. Louis Napoleon, as we now know, had a plan of his own for ending the war with French glory; he even indulged the ambition to be himself the captain of the victory. He had examined the field from Paris and charted the campaign, and, after he had given up the notion of putting it into execution himself, he still insisted on his general’s following his orders and doing his will. In the earlier stages of this attempt to exhibit his own military genius, he sent Niel to the camp before Sebastopol, and laid upon him the mission to hold Canrobert idle until he himself should march to the front. In consequence of Niel’s presence with such credentials, Canrobert was not only debarred from following Lord Raglan’s advice, even if he wished to accept it, but he, on the contrary, was compelled to let the besiegers strengthen Sebastopol still further, and advance their defenses into the open ground between the two armies. Lord Raglan might look on, in ignorance of the influences swaying Canrobert, and counsel to his heart’s content, but he was exerting his persuasiveness upon the wrong man. It was at Paris, not in the commander’s quarters, that the conduct of the war was being determined. Even when the English general had once obtained French consent to an expedition to open the Sea of Azof, he was doomed to the great disappointment of having the force stopped midway by a telegram from Paris ; for Louis Napoleon meant not only that his plan should be carried out, but that nothing else should be done.

In time this plan was laid before the generals at Sebastopol, and was known by them to be impossible. Canrobert had long been uneasy at his position, and, finding it intolerable, retired from the command. Then a new personality came upon the scene, Pélissier. Kinglake’s portrait of the new commander is one of the strongest, the most deeply cut, the most lifelike, of any which his history contains. Pélissier had seen the opportunities which Canrobert had been forced to neglect, and his impetuous nature chafed at the sight; but when he entered on his duties he was likewise met with the supreme orders from Paris. He, too, was to be a puppet, moved by the imperial hand over unknown mountain passes and into unforeseen perils; but he refused to commit himself to this chamber strategy, and designated the movements he was directed to undertake as “ adventures.” He met the Emperor in a rough but effective way; he ignored the orders, and went on his own path; he came to a cordial understanding with Lord Raglan, and in concert with him not only opened the Sea of Azof and attacked and took the entrenchments which the enemy had advanced during Canrobert’s inactivity, but actually made a grand assault upon the town’s great defenses. This course of action, however, was not without danger and anxiety; he apparently received some support from the French war minister in his conduct, but his action was such as could only be maintained by victory, and even then was met by the coldest recognition of the Emperor. At one time, indeed, the Emperor had removed him, and the dispatches to that effect were sent, but were fortunately stopped before they got out of France. The strain of the conflict, nevertheless, wore upon his mind, and at the critical point, the period of the general assault, Kinglake thinks that he was so weakened as not to have full control of his faculties ; his judgment, in other words, was impaired, and he made some grand errors, chief of which was the abrupt change of plan by which he decided to deliver the assault without the previous two hours’ bombardment which had been agreed upon between him and Lord Raglan as a necessary preliminary. It was at this point that the inevitable choice of evils came to the latter. He had engaged to attack with the English forces. His military judgment told him that the movement was a hopeless error; on the other hand, if he should remain inactive, without making even the show of an effort, the French, who were sacrificing large bodies of men in this same assault, might charge him with holding back in a critical moment, and lay the defeat to his remissness; in any case, there was danger that the cordial understanding and coöperation with Pélissier might be broken. He chose to sacrifice his men. It is true that in making the movement he saw that all proper precautions were taken that the attack should be made at the least expense of life ; but the fact remains that he put his own judgment and will in abeyance at the decisive moment of the siege, and wasted his forces in a desperate sally. This was a capital and definite action on which his military critics could lay the finger; and furthermore it must be admitted that he failed to make his counsels, which we now know were excellent, effective. It was the French plan that was carried out. Whether this was due to a lack of force in his character, which was not equal to the task of impressing itself resolutely on his associates, or was an inevitable consequence of his position, must be judged by the reader. Kinglake’s defense consists only in exhibiting in full the hard conditions under which he was placed. In doing this, he incidentally shows the noble nature and personal attractiveness of the old soldier of the Peninsula and of Waterloo, but all this eulogy and the touching account of his death do not affect the question as to the worth of his special services in the Crimea. In war more than in other things success is the touchstone of wisdom.

The defense of Lord Raglan and the general management of the siege, however, are only a part of what this history treats of. The warfare itself is the continuous story : the fortunes of the attack and the defense, the turns and eddies of the tide of battle, the charges, the melees, the struggles in the trenches by night, the bombardments and the assaults; and never have such incidents been at once so minutely and so vividly described. Kinglake’s laborious search among the records enables him to make this account full of personal episodes. The artillery fight of Captain Oldershaw is the most remarkable of these single adventures, and it has the advantage in popular interest of having never been told before. It was a feat which will hereafter be remembered, among the incidents of the Crimea, with the charge of Scarlett and that more famous one of the Light Brigade. The presence in the trenches, too, of men who were afterwards to be distinguished, and were then having their apprenticeship in war, of Graham, Wolseley, and Gordon, adds much romantic interest to these details of the fighting. Naturally it is English valor only which is thus celebrated, because Kinglake’s authority has been the English reports ; but the allies have their fair share of praise for their fighting deeds, although one sees them in the mass, and not in the individual instance. The enemy, too, is well treated. For the great master of the defense, Todleben, Kinglake can find no encomiums too eulogistic, and in his final chapters he sums up the services of this remarkable engineer with telling force, and gives to him the credit which was then denied to him among his own people, because he was only a colonel of engineers. The fight was, as he says, less a siege than a continuous battle between two entrenched armies, who fought with earthworks as much as with rifle and sabre. On the Russian side, Todleben was the real general in command.

In the narrative as a whole, one is especially struck by the part taken in it by what is known as the fortune of war. It favored the Russians very greatly. If the allies could have known the actual condition of things inside the town, or if they had guessed better the relative strength of the different parts of the fortifications, they could have taken the place many times over; but from the first moment of their appearance before Sebastopol, when they might have occupied it almost unopposed, and did not, — from the time when they deserted the MacKenzie heights, never again to regain the coveted position,—fortune was averse to them. On the other hand, there were times when the English lines were spread out so thinly, were so inadequately manned, that the Russians, could they have been aware of the true state of affairs, might have profited by it, much to the danger of the allies. It was in more senses than one “ a battle by night.” This aspect of war, its uncertainty, its confusions, its happy or unhappy accidents, have lately been the subject of much writing, and Tolstoï in particular has emphasized them, and pushed his theory of the entire fortuitousness of military operations on a grand scale to the extreme; but in this very campaign of Sebastopol, in which this element is brought forward so strongly that one cannot neglect it, there is also the evidence of the tremendous force of energy and will and science properly applied as they were by Todleben, and of the power of penetrating to the real situation as it was shown by Lord Raglan, though by the perversity of his allies, and especially by the meddling of the French Emperor, his faculty was made of no avail. It seems to us a misfortune that Kinglake has chosen to leave the story unfinished, so that the reader cannot follow to the consummation this conflict of chance and skill, and see how the balance at last was struck between them. Lord Raglan’s death is the period he set for himself, and he has limited himself accordingly. He has left a noble literary work in memory of his friend; and if it is not a complete history of the war, it is a history of battle, which has already taken its place among the masterly literary productions of our age, and a place that is unique.

  1. The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of its Progress down to the Death of Lord Raglan. Vols. V. and VI. By ALEXANDER WILLIAM; KINGLAKE. New York: Harper & Bros. 1888.