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Roger Fenton's Letters from the Crimea
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Context: About the Crimean War

The Crimean War arose from a dispute on 1853 between the already hostile governments of Turkey and Russia over the control of the rights of access to the holy places in Palestine. The Russian government took advantage of a disturbance in Turkey, in which Russian monks were killed, to justify their invasion of Turkish provinces on both banks of the Lower Danube.

The French government took the side of the Turks, ostensibly in defence of the rights of its own pilgrims to the Holy Land, but in fact for more complex political reasons. The British, who had long been suspicious of Tsar Nicholas's ambitions, joined forces with the Turks and French in defence of their own interests within the Mediterranean, with war being formally declared on 28 March 1854.

After forty years of peace the British Army was ill prepared to engage with a numerically superior army in a hostile territory three thousand miles from home. The scale of unreadiness and the prevailing incompetence were summarised in a memorandum by Prince Albert:

No generals trained and practised in the duties of that rank – no general staff or staff corps – no field commissariat, no field army department, no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans, no practice, or possibility of acquiring it in the use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry, and artillery, no general qualified to handle more than one of these arms and the artillery kept as distinct from the army as if it were a separate profession.

Little wonder then that the greatest danger came not from the enemy but from its own lack of structure and organisation. An army of 28,000 men under Lord Raglan landed at Varna on 29 May 1854 when the practical difficulties of maintaining that number without adequate preparation and co-ordination soon became evident. Within a matter of weeks large numbers of the men fell ill with diarrhoea and sickness brought on by polluted water supplies and unsanitary conditions; within two months over five thousand men had been admitted to hospital. In June cholera made its first appearance and by mid-July an epidemic was raging. At the military hospital that had been established in Varna the death rate reached 86%. The effect on morale was devastating, for without a shot being fired the army lost at least 900 men with many more being laid low by sickness and lassitude.

In military terms the army fared little better. The alliance between France, Turkey and Britain, always an uneasy coalition, created rivalries and confusion that led even greater hardships and loss of life whenever the combined armies faced the Russians. The British suffered some spectacular defeats through incompetence and muddle, most notably during the battle of Balaklava, 25 October 1855, when the charge of Light Brigade directly into the fire of the Russian cannons led to its annihilation. But the greatest hardship came with the onset of winter when the lack of food, fuel, and adequate protective clothing began to take its toll amongst the living.

At home, the conscience of the nation was stirred by the thundering criticisms of W. H. Russell, war correspondent for The Times, who described in graphic detail the competency of the generals and the inhumane conditions their men endured. It did not take long for the public to realise that the British nation, with the most advanced technology in the world, was allowing its Army to ignore the fundamental well-being of its men. Many of the attitudes prevalent in the Crimean campaign could be traced back to Waterloo. For forty years the Army had remained closed to public scrutiny, and had failed to adjust itself to the modern sensibility of 1854. As a result, there was an outcry against the government, which ultimately brought down Lord Aberdeen's administration in January 1855.

It against this complex political background that Roger Fenton's "Photographic Trip to the Crimea" was undertaken.

About the voyage and letters >



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