10 OCTOBER 1970, Page 21

General disorder


The Vainglorious War A. J. Barker (VVeiden- feld and Nicolson 70s) On 20 September 1854 the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards crossed the Alma in perfect line formation, as the Duke had taught them almost half a century before. By the spring the remnants were huddled among the mud and rats in trenches before Sebastopol foreshadowing miseries half a century in the future. Because of its character as a strange jumble between an- cient and modern, the Crimean War will always fascinate the military historian and it is as a military historian that Mr Barker justifies another book on the subject.

He pays a price by limiting himself so strictly to the battlefield. His account of the diplomacy and politics of the war is perfunctory. It will not do to describe as `a combination of feeble and aristocratic English gentry' a Cabinet which included Palmerston and Gladstone.

Some fascinating themes are excluded, for example the effect of the war on British politics. A peaceable Cabinet and a peaceable Court were hustled into war by a vociferous public opinion which seems to have extended through all classes. As in 1940 a government was overturned, and an elderly patriot recalled from relative failure to lead the nation in war. Yet at the same time the Crimean War gave birth through the elo- quence of Bright to that radical tradition of opposing your country right or wrong which has since had So much to answer for in our political life. These opposing emotions were fanned for the first time by vivid press reports from the theatre of war, comparable to the impact of television on our own judg- ment of wars in Vietnam and Nigeria.

Mr Barker avoids these themes as much as possible and heaves a sigh of relief once the armies are landed in the Crimea and he can start describing battles. This he does very well in a plain clear style. It is a shame that there are no maps of Balaclava or Inkerman to point his admirable accounts.

Never can a major war have been so in- competently fought by the generals on both sides. The personal courage of Lord Raglan and the other elderly British commanders, peering back hopefully through forty years of parade ground life to the dim glories of the Peninsula, could not redeem their lack of all other soldierly and administrative qualities, The French were more pro, fessional, and because their administration was much better, they preserved their army through the winter of 1854 and so dominated the decisive fighting of the next year. The F.ussians, and in particular Prince Menschikoff, were the worst of all; few generals can have missed so many big chances. If he had remembered even one of the lessons of 1812 and swept the Crimea of supplies before the advancing Allies, they could hardly have stayed through the first winter. '

In the end, as Mr Barker says, the hero is the private soldier in all the armies, and particularly the British. This verdict is the more striking because of the scrupulous fairness to the French and Russians which Mr Barker shows throughout. It is borne out by the evidence of courage and endurance which he deploys. Social historians of Britain in the nineteenth century might pause from their statistics for a little to consider exactly what it was that November morning which caused the exhausted British infantry, long after the normal bonds of discipline were dissolved, to counter-attack again and again the massive grey columns looming through icy fog along the murderous ridge of Inkerman,