B O O K   R E V I E W S

Victory Over Disease: Resolving the Medical Crisis in the Crimean War, 1854-1856

By Michael Hinton

Helion & Company, 2019, 351 pages, £29.95 paperback

John Bright denounced it as ‘this terrible crime’, and John Morley called it ‘most unfortunate, mortifying, and absolutely useless’. Yet A.J.P. Taylor claimed it was a war of liberation which freed western Europe from Russian interference, enabled Italian and German unification and secured Britain two generations respite from European war. Whatever one’s opinion of it, the Crimean War was important and, moreover, today it continues to fascinate. A new book on it is Michael Hinton’s Victory Over Disease: Resolving the Medical Crisis in the Crimean War, 1854-1856.


Dr Hinton was a veterinary surgeon and latterly a veterinary academic researching infectious diseases. After retirement he completed a Ph.D on medical aspects of the Crimean War, supervised by Professor Andrew Lambert, at the prestigious  Department of War Studies at King’s College London.  He has contributed to this journal and to The War Correspondent, newsletter of the Crimean War Research Society. His book, based on his dissertation, has monochrome illustrations largely from the Illustrated London News – Punch quipped that the war was undertaken to benefit the ILN – maps, tables, footnotes, numbered subheadings, an appendix of principal persons, and a bibliography.

Quasi-encyclopaedic and packed with data, Victory Over Disease covers military campaigns, medical knowledge, the Army of the East including logistics and the Medical Department, hospitals, transport of invalids, diseases including cholera and scurvy, casualties, the press, committees, commissions, technology, medals, charities, visual arts, memorials, and legacy. Revisionist, it claims previous historiography was distorted and the contributions of Florence Nightingale and the Sanitary Commission were exaggerated.


The victory over disease was not due to any single person or group but to many, causing an improved standard of living through logistics including the railway, diet including lime juice, accommodation and sanitation: similar to the ‘McKeown hypothesis’ proposed to explain improvement in civilian health in the period. If downplaying Miss Nightingale, the book does not join the ‘politically correct’ but historically incorrect adulation of Mary Seacole, and concludes her contribution was minimal. The book contains much more, including for example comparison of Walcheren, the Crimea and Gallipoli, the foreign-mercenary legions, Brunel’s prefabricated hospital, and Soyer’s culinary reforms using his long-serving stoves.  It emphasises the importance of logistics, insisting that wars are won or lost through them: transport was the ‘ultimate Achilles heel’ of the British in the Crimea.


Internal security was always one of the army’s roles and, only a few years after Chartism’s last flourish in 1848, in July 1854 Queen Victoria wrote to the Duke of Newcastle, the war minister, of the danger of possible insurrection or disorder when so much of the army was far away.  Victorians were not ‘post-truth’. They had a Gradgrind respect for facts and believed in statistics: they even enumerated and published the consumption of sausage rolls at the Great Exhibition. The book reprints many statistics, giving it in places a laundry-list flavour. The odd questionable statement has slipped through. A pedant might query the claim that the Crimea was the only war in Europe involving British troops between 1815 and 1914, citing the Auxiliary Legion, Royal Marines and Royal Artillery in the 1830s Spanish Civil War (Carlist War). 

The book accepts G.M. Trevelyan’s claim that the war made beards fashionable. In fact, as Christopher Oldstone-Moore has shown (‘The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain’, Victorian Studies, autumn 2005), the fashion started before the war, though presumably the bearded veterans reinforced it. The section on the visual arts oddly omits the work of Elizabeth Butler, Caton Woodville and others. 

 

Victory Over Disease is not a quick and easy read but is a ‘must’ for serious students of the Crimean War and will presumably long continue the standard work on its subject.

Roger T. Stearn

Kitchener: The Man not the Myth

By Anne Samson

Helion and Company, 2020, 274 pages with 45 B&W illustrations and 3 maps, £29.95 hardback

In this the 170th anniversary year of Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s birth (24 June 1850), Anne Samson has published an apposite biography of the famous ‘K of K’. Dr Samson may be known to VMS members through her presentation on the role of the Legion of Frontiersmen in imperial defence at the Society’s annual seminar in May 2018 and the subsequent  publication of her article on the ‘Origins of the Legion of Frontiersmen and the formation of MI5 / 6’ in Soldiers of the Queen (SOTQ, 172, 2018, pp. 9 – 17). Despite disavowing any credentials in military history, Dr Samson is an independent historian and published author predominantly focussing on the First World War in Africa. Her academic qualifications include a Master’s degree from the University of Westminster and a doctorate from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her interest in the life of Kitchener stems from a combination of her research into the First World War and the longevity of his reputation in South Africa where Dr Samson lived during her formative years.

It is true that there is no shortage of Kitchener biographies. General The Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, writing in the book’s Foreword, indicates that there have been fifty-three biographies published to date. Nonetheless, this biography approaches Kitchener’s life from a different perspective than most previous biographies. Although still taking a chronological approach, this is not a typical military biography but rather an exploration of Kitchener’s life through the nuances inherent in his personality, relationships and beliefs. Neither iconoclastic nor hagiographic, overall Dr Samson is sympathetic to her subject yet she does not avoid discussion of his weaknesses, such as his autocratic style and reluctance to delegate, manifest in Kitchener’s character and behaviour. Adopting the supposition that Kitchener was an establishment ‘outsider’, initially through his upbringing then by virtue of his military service being almost exclusively imperial, Kitchener’s conflicts with politicians and senior army officers are detailed and contextualised, resulting in the book’s conclusion that Kitchener’s ‘downfall’ in 1915 – 16 can be attributed to scapegoating by senior colleagues, political and military, who misconstrued him and his actions.

With such a full life to cover and analyse, Dr Samson is particularly adroit in untangling Kitchener’s challenges in India 1902 – 09 and as British Agent in Egypt 1911 – 14, although there are fascinating anecdotes, previously unknown to this reviewer, throughout the book. The biography benefits from a detailed and carefully constructed timeline covering seven pages that will be an invaluable resource for researchers and readers alike. The private Kitchener is considered in detail with his religious beliefs, espousal of Freemasonry, hobbies, personal loyalties and predilections noted. In the current climate of cultural revisionism, previous accusations of antisemitism, of war crimes committed in the Sudan, propensity to military executions and responsibility for refugee ‘concentration’ camps in South Africa are either rejected or contextualised. With regards to personal traits, rumours regarding Kitchener’s alleged excessive alcohol intake are refuted while the old historical canard of Kitchener’s alleged homosexuality is rebuffed and merits minimal comment. At a time when many 19th century personalities are being reassessed on their record relating to race and racism, Kitchener’s sensitivity to other cultures, particularly Islamic, is noted.

So, whereabouts does this biography sit on the bookshelf with other Kitchener volumes?  For those solely interested in traditional military history, this biography does not purport to cover operational and tactical issues and surprisingly little is written about battles and campaigns such as Omdurman and South Africa 1900 – 02. Yet this is not the stated focus of this particular biography. Though Dr Samson covers much of the same ground as the recent Kitchener biography by C. Brad Faught published in 2016, exploring the personality behind the military giant, Faught’s work is arguably more conventionally ‘military’ in content. ‘Kitchener: the man not the myth’ is not an easy read and a modicum of prior knowledge of the subject is beneficial if not crucial, though Lord Richards’ Foreword disagrees with such an assertion. This reviewer demurs on this specific point, but the valuable contribution of this well-researched and referenced book makes to the study of ‘K of K’ places it reputably to the forefront of the shelf of Kitchener biographies.

Being part of Helion’s ‘From Musket to Maxim 1815-1914’ series, the production standards and editing are excellent with the book being presented in hardback with glossy paper, coloured boards and no dust jacket. The text is supported by extensive (yet never distracting) footnotes plus fourteen pages of bibliography and a useful, though not exhaustive, index. With the caveat of the particular focus of the study already noted, this book will appeal to many members of the VMS interested in the person, the personality and his work and as such, it is warmly recommended.

Andrew Winrow

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