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Once Upon a Time: War in Crimea

Once Upon a Time: War in Crimea

Eight years before the Civil War nearly tore the United States in two, the imperial armies of Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire met 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 immortalized 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.”

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, where they have seized control of two strategic airports. On Saturday, the Russian parliament officially granted Putin the authority to deploy Russian troops in Ukraine, raising the prospect of another war in Crimea — one we would, again, be able to watch in real time.

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

At the top of this post is a view of Balaklava harbor, on the southwestern tip of the Crimean peninsula, photographed by Fenton in 1855. In addition to the ships, there is a view of the “bell tents.” In the foreground, along the shore, there is a pen filled with horses.

A cityscape showing buildings and residences of Balaklava; men and horses in the foreground and military installations in the background.

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

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 — the ultimately disastrous engagement that was immortalized in Alfred Tennyson’s poem.

The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment established in 1685, also fought in the 1854 Battle of Balaklava — part of the “heavy brigade” that complemented the light brigade’s charge. Here, soldiers from the 4th relax in camp, with a goat and a horse.

A photograph of Balaklava’s harbor, with railway stores in the distance.

Fenton’s famous shot, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” which was determined to have been taken on April 23, 1855, in a battle-worn ravine (though not, as noted by Susan Sontag, in the same location that the Light Brigade made its fateful charge). In recent years, there’s been much debate over whether or not Fenton staged the shot. Some have suggested he took cannonballs strewn alongside the road and moved them onto the road, where they would come into fuller view in the picture’s frame, and re-shot the photo. 

An example of the portraiture taken by Fenton during the Crimean campaign, this photograph shows Fenton himself, dressed in a borrowed uniform of the Zouave, a French infantry regiment.

Marcus Sparling, Fenton’s assistant, seen seated atop their mobile darkroom, a repurposed wine merchants’ wagon.