The Thin Red Line by Julian Spilsbury is an excellent account of the Crimean War from the British point of view, but it is far from a ‘decisive account’ as some reviewers like to call it. The book draws from letters and personal accounts of a number of British soldiers, sailors, and officers to tell the story of the Crimean War through the eyes of those who fought it, and Spilsbury does a masterful job of weaving these accounts together into a coherent narrative and filling in the gaps – This book is very well written, and is one of those books that are simply a pleasure to read.
The book opens with a quote from Tsar Nicholas I to the British ambassador in 1853, concerning the ‘Eastern question’ – ‘We have on our hands a sick man’ says the Tsar, ‘A very sick man; it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he should slip away from us, especially before all the necessary arrangements are made.’ – The ‘sick man’ is of course the Ottoman Empire, and the Thin Red Line follows what is essentially the beginning of that ‘great misfortune.’ We start by seeing an Army hastily pulled together out of British Mediterranean and Home Garrisons – This army, poorly organized, under-supplied in everywhere it matters and plagued by bad luck, will be the British force in the Crimea. Although the soldiers sail out of England in great cheer and spirits, which they maintain through the war in face of great military blunders, a Russian winter, and constant under-supply in the typically British stiff-upper-lip fashion, they encounter their first bout of bad luck almost as soon as they disembark in Turkey, with fierce bouts of Cholera thinning their ranks while the army sits stagnant in indecision. We then follow the allied landing at the aptly named ‘Calamita bay’ (Literally Calamity bay – The British army, at the time, was exceptionally genre blind), and their march south along the Black Sea coast towards Sebastopol.
Then comes the first of the British battles of the Crimean war, the Alma (Not to be confused with the Alamo!) – And this is where The Thin Red Line really shines. Spilsbury draws accounts of the battle from almost every regiment and goes to great lengths to give a clear picture from all viewpoints – That of the rank-and-file British soldier marching in line, through the officers that lead their regiments, to Lord Raglan himself, and his seemingly indifferent coolness under fire. It is a truly brilliant account of the battle, a standard Spilsbury maintains and surpasses with each battlefield account in the book. Later, we are to read about the battle of Balaklava and the two most iconic actions of the war – ‘The Thin Red Line’, where a regiment of Scottish Highlanders face a Cossack cavalry charge in two-deep formation, and rout them under a hail of shot; and the ill-fated ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ where British cavalry charge through the North Valley on a misunderstood, vague order, and into a crossfire between three Russian artillery positions and all its supporting infantry. We are also treated to an excellent account of the battle of Inkerman, where the Russian army attempts to break the allied siege by threatening it’s supply from the coast, and of course a horrific account of final assault on Sebastopol that decides the outcome of the war.
I can find only one complaint with this book, and that is how narrow its scope is. First of all, it is very anglocentric; Spilsbury has found excellent accounts to draw on, no doubt, but they are all British in origin and this creates a very lopsided account of the war. I should have liked to read about the French in their battles, or read accounts from the Russians concerning the defense of Sebastopol and the conditions behind its walls (Though I suppose I have Tolstoy’s Sebastopol sketches for that!), Or even Turkish accounts of the first and last battles of the war. Spilsbury was quick to explain French, Russian and Turkish action where it influenced the British, but where it does not they are given only a passing sentence or reference. We read about the failed British assault on the Great Redan, with all its horrors, but the first we read of the French assault on the Malakoff is a British soldier noting the tricolore flying above it. We read of the British sentries on Mt. Inkermann, but where are the Russian accounts? Much is made of the Minié Rifles, a new weapon issued to the British that lends them a decisive edge against the Russians, but what do Russian soldiers and officers have to say about charging in their columns against the hailstorm of shot that is a British Minié Line?
The book also has a very strong focus on the combats of the Crimean War – Spilsbury follows the Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman and the siege bombardments and assaults in great depth, drawing from the accounts of Soldiers across the battlefield through different regiments and ranks. It is very interesting to read through the battles, and we are witness to some Heroic and seemingly superhuman deeds. However, beyond battles this account is found to be lacking. Spilsbury only touches briefly on the logistical and Medical problems faced by the British army. He looks briefly at the effects of the Russian winter and Cholera outbreaks on the men, but I can’t help but feel his account of all this would do better with more detail and discussion. Florence Nightingale, arguably the most famous name of the Crimean War, is mentioned only once or twice in passing – while she is responsible for revolutionizing the British medical service and giving birth to the Medical staff corps. To his credit, Spilsbury does acknowledge this nearer to the end of the book in a discussion on the aftermath of the war, but I would have liked to read more of Nightingale’s struggle and efforts, as well as a number of other aspects of the war not discussed in depth here.
Overall, the Thin Red Line is an excellent book – though I feel its subtitle should be altered slightly to read; ‘An Eyewitness History of British Combats in the Crimean War.’ I found this book while exploring a military hobby store one afternoon, and am very glad of my purchase – It is superbly written, and contains brilliant insight into the British military actions of the war. It comes from me highly recommended to anyone interested in military history – But: Someone interested in the politics of the war; the Medical or Logistic side of the war; or the war from the Russian, French or Turkish perspective, would do better to look somewhere else for a more fitting account. Nonetheless; What the Thin Red Line does, it does extraordinarily well.