Their's not to reason why

7th November 1997 at 00:00
THE CRIMEAN WAR. Channel 4. Sundays. 8.00pm-9.00pm. November 9-23.

Aleks Sierz watches a history of the war that made British national heroes of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale

Like all major conflicts, the Crimean War (1853-6) is mainly remembered through its iconic images: the reckless bravery of the charge of the Light Brigade and the gentle ministry of Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp. One of the great strengths of Channel Four's three-part documentary series, The Crimean War, is that it shows in vivid detail how such images were constructed.

Take the charge of the Light Brigade. This episode of staggering military incompetence was turned into a legend of glory by, among others, the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, chiefly to distract attention from the ineptitude of the generals, such as Lord Raglan, who were responsible for the carnage.

The Scottish artist William Simpson made what looks like an eye-witness painting of the famous charge. In programme two he's quoted as saying that this was his third attempt. After the first two sketches were rejected by the cavalry leader Lord Cardigan, the third was approved only because "I had taken greater care to make his lordship conspicuous in the front" of the charge. This is how myths are made.

As a way of teaching a healthy scepticism of historical evidence, it's hard to beat hearing this quote just as Simpson's heroic picture is shown. Other examples abound: when the army's incompetent administration failed to clothe the soldiers in winter, the authorities allowed newspapers to print drawings of "our boys" in balaclavas and cardigans, when in reality they were freezing to death in summer gear.

The myth of Florence Nightingale as the Lady of the Lamp similarly hides the reality that she was no motherly angel, but an energetic, practical and authoritarian administrator. The strength of this series is that it shows that Russia, the enemy of Britain and France, also had its sisters of mercy. It's revealing to see national propaganda - soldiers in beautiful uniforms - confronted with the reality of war: sketches of corpses and amputees.

From the point of view of narrative, the series does a good job of sketching the background of the Crimean War. Since it began with Russia's imperial designs on the decaying Turkish empire in the Balkans, some of the facts sound pretty suggestive.

Turkey saw its struggle as a jihad; one of its best generals was a renegade Christian from Croatia. But although Turkey was Britain's ally, the Western powers were overtly racist. The Turks, says one British soldier, are "a queer lot" and their women "dirty and lazy-looking". The Scutari hospital, where Florence Nightingale tended the wounded, was originally a Turkish barracks. It was simply grabbed by the British for their own use.

Using vivid eyewitness accounts, the series also reminds us that this was the first war to be photographed (originally by Romania's Karol de Szathmari, then by Britain's Roger Fenton) and the first to have war correspondents. The Irishman William Howard Russell was the correspondent of The Times; on the Russian side, the siege of Sevastopol was recorded by Leo Tolstoy.

As history, The Crimean War is refreshingly even-handed. Both sides of the conflict are well represented and the Muslim point of view is given a fair hearing. As well as the rhetoric of war, there were moments of compassion. After the battle of Inkerman, Captain Henry Clifford met the Russian soldier whose arm he'd hacked off the day before - and the Russian forgave him.

As well as showing how the British press turned military disasters into glory, the series also points out how sneaky the authorities could be. While neither the reports of war correspondents nor the letters of soldiers were censored, they were often deliberately delayed in the Crimea, so that the official version was the first to reach home.

Although the series works well as a narrative, some of its production values are poor. While it is fair enough to include a snatch of Tennyson's 1890 recording of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" - so querulous it's bound to raise a laugh in any classroom - the fakey foreign accents of the Russian and French eye-witnesses are a turn-off. New recordings of old songs are welcome, but does the singing have to be so ragged?

The series contains plenty of material that can be used by enterprising history teachers. For every patriotic general urging his men to kill, there's one who's crying at the loss of life. The Crimean War gives an excellent account of how the war changed the history of Europe - and the reason that it was fought.

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