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Introduced in 1856 as the highest award for British military valor, the Victoria Cross is a product of the Crimean War. Instituted by Royal Warrant, the honor sought to unite public opinion in the face of wartime discontent. The award celebrated military masculinity, honoring those few who had had performed exemplary acts of bravery in battle. Battle technologies have changed across centuries, but the award remains Britain’s rarest military honor, with fewer than 1400 crosses granted to date. The Cross has bestowed fame and fortune on many recipients. Across the ages, it has thus been an object of desire for veterans, regiments, and families. Even today, museums and collectors seek out Crosses to buy and display. The award never carried the talismanic power that its champions hoped, however. The Cross could not quell radical critique during the Crimean War. It did not upend the disillusionment that came with World War I. Nor did it allay the discontent of the colonized in their pushes for independence across the twentieth century. While the honor has sated appetites for heroism, its fetishistic promises have remained unanswered, from Crimean times to our own.
Florence Nightingale was the indisputable heroine of the Crimean War during the conflict and after. Though she treated the cholera, her greatest success came in the realm of public opinion. The press bathed Nightingale, an unusually capable and energetic professional, in sentiment. Vaulted to celebrity, the Lady with the Lamp found her place in poems and on porcelain. Postwar labors in public health, nursing, and statistics across her long life had farther reaching effects. Yet, the image of the young Nightingale endured. She was the subject of statues, pageants, and radio shows; she became the emblem of the nursing profession. Complex and malleable, Nightingale was an icon of Englishness and a global heroine. She was an embodiment of Victorianism and a modernizing force. She inspired loyal proponents and fierce detractors. Nightingale bedeviled the army’s medical men in her lifetime; she attracted ire from modernist critics after her death. The greatest rebuke came from the British nursing profession; it discarded Nightingale as its emblem in favor of more current role models in 1989. This most enduring Victorian heroine was ultimately out of step with contemporary Britain.
The Crimean War was not the first time Britons made their ways to the Black Sea peninsula, but it was the decisive occasion to place the land in the national consciousness, giving rise to travel narratives in newspapers, diaries, and letters. These accounts by wartime adventurers provided ways of understanding the Crimea, cosmopolitan and foreign in British eyes, during the conflict and after. Even while showcasing far-away lands, they showed Britons, the English especially, to be reluctant travelers, glad to head homeward at war’s end. After the troops exited the peninsula and across the Victorian age, return narratives cast the Crimea as a place of memory and self-discovery. During the twentieth century, global politics made the peninsula a stage for world wars and for international diplomacy, culminating in the Yalta Conference of 1945. In the postwar era and until the 2014 Russian invasion, the peninsula became a tourist destination, giving Britons a view behind the Iron Curtain and a glimpse of a post-Soviet Age. Across these changes, Crimean War narratives provided frameworks that allowed Britons to understand history, apprehend travel, and assess themselves.
The year 2020 provides evidence of the Crimea’s continued relevance in troubled times. In Britain, 2020 marks the moment that Brexit was finally done. Several critics found resonance in the Charge of the Light Brigade and the cult around it, which valorized heroic failure. Like the officers of the Light Brigade, the Tory leadership blundered as it led the nation into the abyss. In Britain and beyond, 2020 will be remembered as the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Like the battle against the cholera in the Crimea, the British struggle against the virus was marred by mismanagement. In response, the names of Nightingale and Seacole found their ways onto makeshift hospitals and rehabilitation centers. And, as in the Crimea, military men – here, centenarians whose youths overlapped with the longest-lived of the Victorian generation – captured the hearts of the public. Most notable was Captain Tom Moore, whose compassion and particular variety of courage spurred him, at the age of 100, to raise money for the NHS before dying a celebrity in 2021. Even now, the Crimean War’s long afterlife provides touchstones for success, failure, and hope.
The culmination of the Battle of Balaklava, the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred over fifteen minutes of tragic and action-packed drama during October 1854. In the Crimean moment and beyond, the occasion has epitomized the war’s tragedy and blunder. Its persistence in national memory derives especially from the poem that immortalized it: Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Celebrating the Chargers as the paragons of duty, Tennyson’s verses gave them a corporate identity across their lifetimes, as they sought glory and fended off poverty. Long after the Victorian era, patriotic Britons clung to the Charge, using it as a tool for military recruiting, taking pride in its relics, and finding consolation in its lessons. Its persistence notwithstanding, the Charge had a changing meaning: the duty that it epitomized became an antiquated value in the twentieth century, as antiwar crusades, comic parodies, and even epic films suggest. Moreover, Tennyson’s verses were no static monument: their complexity has allowed, time and again, for the event’s reworking so that it does not anymore suggest glorious duty as much as it symbolizes heroic failure.
Death is a shared experience across wars, but the cultures of mourning and conditions of burial that accompany it vary across conflicts. Combatants in the Crimea held to a Victorian ideal of death that imagined a peaceful passing and a proper burial. War at a distance made the good death impossible. Yet, priests and medical men, as well as soldiers and officers, ensured that their brethren passed away as comfortably as possible. Men of compassion and feeling, they expressed grief among themselves and with loved ones at home. They buried the war dead in scattershot graves and in organized cemeteries like Cathcart’s Hill. When the war was over, the graves remained a concern on the home front. The wars of the twentieth century and the Cold War, too, followed on the neglect of the nineteenth century. A twenty-first-century campaign to restore British graves in the Crimea reinvigorated Victorian sentimentality, yet ended abruptly with Russia’s 2014 invasion. Across decades and centuries, the poor upkeep of Crimean graves was an emotional flashpoint. It served as a referendum on the War itself and on the place of the mid-Victorian conflict in British history and consciousness.
The Crimean War bequeathed to Great Britain the Charge of the Light Brigade, a military disaster, and Florence Nightingale, a long-adored heroine. These epitomes of the conflict are not static emblems of Victorian England. They are lodestones for writing the nation’s past, forging its future, and assessing its annals. Other innovations and personages to emerge from the War also continue to exert their hold on ordinary Britons. The War inspired the Victoria Cross, a military award for valor, which holds its allure even today. More recently, Mary Seacole, a Caribbean-born hotelier and healer, has come to the fore as a Crimean heroine. Beyond the names of battles, heroes, and institutions, the Crimean War offered immaterial legacies. It engendered forms of masculinity and models of femininity, as well as practices of burial and structures of feeling. The notion of afterlife allows us to apprehend the longstanding, varied, and elusive effects of this mid-Victorian conflict. The six chapters of this book trace facets of the war and its legacies as they demonstrate the persistence of an overlooked conflict in the making of modern Britain.
The newest addition to the pantheon of Crimean worthies is the Caribbean healer and hotelier Mary Seacole, who ministered to the troops at the war front. In 1857, Seacole released her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was an effort to safeguard her livelihood and secure her place in Crimean history. The latter goal was realized with the rediscovery of the autobiography in the later twentieth century. Black British activists and health care providers found an inspiration in Seacole’s story, sharing it in their communities and building on its legacy. By the millennium, their labors had transformed Seacole into a national icon, with a place in the National Curriculum and the National Gallery. A magisterial statue of Seacole now stands on the South Bank of the Thames, where Florence Nightingale spearheaded efforts in nursing education. Touted in the past as the “Black Nightingale,” Seacole was another unconventional woman with a long legacy. Yet, she is a Crimean protagonist in her own right, known for warmth, humor, and ingenuity. An embodiment of distinctive virtues, Seacole has become a Crimean role model for the twenty-first century.
The mid-nineteenth century's Crimean War is frequently dismissed as an embarrassment, an event marred by blunders and an occasion better forgotten. In The Crimean War and its Afterlife Lara Kriegel sets out to rescue the Crimean War from the shadows. Kriegel offers a fresh account of the conflict and its afterlife: revisiting beloved figures like Florence Nightingale and hallowed events like the Charge of the Light Brigade, while also turning attention to newer worthies, including Mary Seacole. In this book a series of six case studies transport us from the mid-Victorian moment to the current day, focusing on the heroes, institutions, and values wrought out of the crucible of the war. Time and again, ordinary Britons looked to the war as a template for social formation and a lodestone for national belonging. With lucid prose and rich illustrations, this book vividly demonstrates the uncanny persistence of a Victorian war in the making of modern Britain.