Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Story of Crimean War Resonates Today

"It is a strange sort of pleasure to see people killing each other, and yet every morning and evening I would spend hours at a time watching. The spectacle was truly beautiful, especially at night," wrote a young Leo Tolstoy after his first taste of combat early in the Crimean War. The experience not only provided Tolstoy with the subject matter for "Sevastopol Sketches," his first work of fiction, it also permanently shaped his world view.

The Crimean War (1853-1856) was the first truly modern war. It introduced bureaucracy, unprecedented levels of political interference in military affairs, and close press scrutiny onto the battlefield. Mines, the telegraph, railroads and ironclad warships first saw action in this conflict and war correspondents and front-line photographers were there to witness them, thoroughly demoralizing both the troops and the home front in the process. The world was exposed to the horrors of trench warfare for the first time here and the foundations were laid for the future use of tanks, submarines and poison gas.

Fittingly, the Crimean War produced no military heroes, only medical ones like Florence Nightingale, the English nurse, and Nikolai Pirogov, the Russian surgeon, both of whom saved countless thousands from death by disease or infection. Pirogov not only completely modernized the way wounded Russian soldiers were cared for, he personally carried out over 5,000 operations during his 10 months at the front, averaging seven minutes for an amputation.

All this horror is fascinatingly presented in The Crimean War, a companion volume to the British Channel 4 television series of the same name. This well-designed and engaging book tells the story of the war almost exclusively through the diaries and letters of the participants, as well as through powerful photographs and paintings, many of which are reproduced here for the first time. Of special note are the haunting watercolors by English Captain Henry Clifford.

The book effectively creates a sense of immediacy and relevance out of this seemingly long-forgotten war. The forces that caused it -- instability in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East; religious fundamentalism; fear of Russian expansionism -- are as unsettled and unsettling today as ever. Also, the descriptions of war present a distinctly modern mix of the heroic and the horrific that became possible only when there were enough literate ordinary soldiers to leave their impressions for posterity.

Perhaps the most modern thing about the Crimean War was that it was pointless. Roughly 750,000 men died for the sake of already outdated imperial posturing. The casualties were drastically inflated because officers and politicians insisted on applying Napoleonic tactics (such as the charge of the light brigade) in a war characterized by fearsome modern weaponry. As an English officer wrote: "The conduct of the Allies since we arrived in this country has been one continued piece of blundering stupidity."

Or, in the unforgettable words of one French general: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie."

"The Crimean War" by Paul Kerr, Mick Gold, Teresa Cherfas, Georgina Pye and Margaret Mulvihill. Boxtree, 192 pages, 16.99 pounds ($27).