Balaklava, Sevastopol, Inkerman, the Valley of Death – in Britain, where the savage toll was so acutely felt, these names still have the power to arounse pride and fury. Algernon Percy travelled to Crimea to visit the evoctavie battlefields
From the Tsarist Riviera around Yalta to the vineyards of Massandra, Crimea offers many temptations, but my visit to Ukraine was to be strictly academic. I had studied 19th-century history at university, and had heard tell of an ancestor who had served with distinction in the Crimean War. I was resolved, then, to see the battlefields that even now toll a knell in the British imagination – the Seat of War in the East, to borrow the title of Colnaghi’s book of William Simpson’s lithographs depicting the conflict.
As in 1854, Sevastopol is the Russian navy’s most important base. As such it was closed even to Russian tourists until 1997, and the nearby small harbour of Balaklava was not marked on Soviet maps because it was a submarine base. The region remains in consequence relatively unexplored by British tourists.
Unlike the allied invasion force, which in September 1854 landed by sea on the west coast of Crimea at Calamita Bay, near Yevpatoria, my three companions and I arrived via Simferopol. Our route to Sevastopol was therefore different from that of the allies’ march, but not wildly so, because we encountered the same terrain and rivers (including the River Alma, where the first battle was fought), and we converged with the allies’ flank march around Sevastopol at Mackenzie’s Farm, named after the Russian admiral of Scottish descent. I later had the opportunity of seeing for myself the west coast, imagining from the heights of Alma the Russians’ commanding view of the allied landing place a few miles to the north, and the menacing naval task force just offshore.
We were furnished with an interpreter, a guide, a local historian and a driver – staff on a scale I imagine General Lord Raglan would have enjoyed. On our first morning we were taken to the site of the Grenadier Guards’ camp, four or five miles south of Sevastopol. We trundled past small wooden dachas, down a dirt track across the barren and stony soil that is typical of the region, until we reached what looked like just another random scattering of rubbish in the middle of the countryside, sadly so common all around Sevastopol. It was indeed a refuse tip, though this one dated from the 1850s and was where the British Guards had dumped their old bottles: mostly thick, dark porter bottles, with a few of the officers’ more delicate wine bottles among them. Hundreds of pieces of glass lay scattered about, and digging a little with bare hands one could find items almost intact. Here and there, in little clumps over a wider area, crocuses were sprouting, planted, we were told, by British army officers outside their tents.
Algernon Percy is the author of ‘A Bearskin’s Crimea: Colonel Henry Percy VC and his Brother Officers’ (2005). He is working on a TV miniseries on the Crimean War.
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