On Sweaters and Military Incompetence: The Crimean War Through the Lens of Fall Fashion

Joshua Downes

The arrival of Autumn and the changing weather means it is time to unbox our jackets and sweaters and look for our mittens and boots. Yet as we don our vests and fleeces one might wonder where all these different articles of clothing came from. It is perhaps no surprise that much of modern fashion has its roots in military wear. From trench coats and bomber jackets to aviator sunglasses and combat boots, many of our current sartorial choices reflect battlefield innovations from the past. It makes sense that something designed to keep soldiers dry and warm on the battlefield will also work when we cozy up around a firepit or go leaf peeping. What is surprising is that a disproportionate amount of cold weather clothing has roots in the Crimean War, an obscure conflict nearly two centuries ago. This clothing includes items such as cardigans, balaclava hoods, and the often-worn but almost never-named raglan sleeve shirt (a mid-length sleeve, diagonal seam, shirt with generally different colored torso and sleeves, today popularly worn as baseball jerseys). There appear to be essentially two reasons for this. First, it was pretty cold during the war. Second, a confluence of military incompetence and early forms of media created an event which had an outsized impact on English-speaking culture.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 until 1856, is today largely forgotten, even in those nations which participated. A product of the great power politics within Europe during the 19th century, the conflict arose over tension between Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire. For the previous century, Russia had been expanding its influence in eastern Europe and central Asia. The Ottoman Empire, the proverbial “Sick man of Europe,” desperately tried to maintain its waning power. Although it would take a great work of history to explain the immediate causes of the war, let it suffice to say that, when the war started, the Russian Empire faced off against not only Ottoman Turkey, but France, the United Kingdom, and several smaller states. The governments of France and the UK believed that it was too dangerous to allow Russia unchecked expansion and control of the crucial Bosporus Strait which would allow its fleets access to the Mediterranean. Thus, they felt obliged to support the Ottomans.

In 1854, in a bid to relieve pressure on other fronts, the British and French launched an ambitious invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. As evidenced recently by the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict, Crimea, and specifically the port of Sevastopol, remains an important strategic point in the Black Sea. In the context of the Crimean War, an Anglo-French seizure of this port would hopefully bring the war to an early victory. Unfortunately, a military expedition thousands of miles from home would be difficult under the best conditions. However, in the 1850s, transportation, logistics, and medical care were all still relatively archaic. Steam-powered ships were in their infancy, which meant it took weeks for supplies to arrive and the army was still reliant on good winds. Food preservation was limited and the army ate barely-digestible canned meat and rock-hard biscuits, supplemented with whatever could be obtained locally. Surgeons lacked any sort of antiseptic and only the earliest use of ether and chloroform allowed wounded men minimal relief. While the Anglo-French allies had a few early victories, they failed to quickly capture Sevastopol and set in for a long siege.

The Siege of Sevastopol remains a powerful illustration of incompetence, misery and suffering which have far too often been the results of war. Lasting the winter of 1854-1855, the campaign left between 100,000 to 200,000 men dead. Only 10-20% of those deaths occurred from actual combat. Unprepared for a long siege, the allies could not supply their troops with enough food or warm clothing. Supplies had to be brought into the tiny port of Balaclava and then up the winding, muddy trails to the front. To make matters worse, disease quickly broke out and thousands succumbed to typhus, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and scurvy. One officer’s wife, accompanying the army, summarized the situation well.

“If anybody should ever wish to erect a ‘Model Balaklava’ in England… Take a village of ruined houses in the extremest state of all imaginable dirt; allow the rain to pour into them, until the whole place is a swamp of filth; catch about 1000 sick… with the plague, and cram them into the houses indiscriminately… and stew them all up together in a narrow harbor, and you will have a tolerable imitation of the real essence of Balaklava.”

In October, hoping to break the siege, the Russians attacked the allies’ defenses. The Battle of Balaclava is mostly remembered for two phrases which entered the lexicon. The term “thin-red line” and its many derivatives comes from the first phase of the battle in which a line of Scottish troops stopped a Russian cavalry charge. The second phase of the battle is famous for the “Charge of the Light Brigade” when a force of six hundred men under General James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan (who often sported a woolen waistcoat) made an ill-fated charge of their own against Russian artillery. The attack was a disaster with around half of the men killed, wounded, or captured. Even worse, the tragedy was largely a result of poorly-worded orders from Lord Cardigan’s superior, the aging, half-deaf, one-armed General FitzRoy Somerset, the 1st Baron Raglan (who favored his namesake sleeve for his remaining arm).

This sort of military incompetence should be expected. The leadership of both the French and British armies were mostly old veterans of the wars of Napoleon, which ended forty years earlier, and were unprepared for the conflict. Furthermore, the British officer corps, a bastion of the upper class and nobility, was based on a promotion system where officers bought their ranks. Cardigan himself paid £35,000 (about $3.3M today) for his command. That these men were, at best, indifferent to the suffering of their men is evident.

While military tactics and logistics may have been based in the previous century, other new technologies meant that the population at home was more aware than ever before of the suffering of their soldiers and the ineptitude of their generals. Early photography brought pictures of the front that exposed the harsh realities of the war. Additionally, early war correspondents such as William Howard Russell reported on the appalling conditions at Balaclava and an underwater cable laid in 1855 brought information home in mere hours. While the war had initially been popular in Britain, in response to this coverage, the ruling government collapsed, the public raised money for improvements in soldier’s care, and thousands of hand-made knitted caps were shipped to Balaclava.

That these terms born in the Crimean War are still relevant today is largely a result of the specific time in which the war occurred. Technology, communication, and improved literacy all contributed to a homogenized cultural zeitgeist in the early Victorian era. War correspondents and poets (like Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade) had huge readerships. Cardigan and Raglan, not to mention their namesake clothing, were household names. The heroism of futile charges and suffering for queen and empire fit well into Victorian notions of patriotism and manhood. The Victorian era still has a large impact on our culture today (see white wedding dresses). So this Fall, whether it is at a pumpkin patch with the family or a backyard football game in the leaves, take a moment to appreciate the fact that you are not knee deep in mud, dying of cholera, and being led to slaughter by millionaires who bought their rank. 

Image: The Roll Call (1874), Elizabeth Butler, Royal Collection Trust, Licensed under Public Domain https://www.rct.uk/collection/405915/the-roll-call 

Joshua Downes is a candidate for a M.S. in Foreign Service and a M.A. in Global, International and Comparative History. He focuses on 19th and 20th century US foreign policy in Asia, European colonial history, and 19th century military reform and innovation.  

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