Sima Godfrey | War and Collective Forgetting

By Sima Godfrey

“Theirs but to do and die”

For the past few years, I have been working on a book about the Crimean War in French cultural memory.  More exactly it is a book about the absence of the Crimean War from French cultural memory.  Although the French led the Allied campaign in the war against the Russians in Crimea (1854-1856) no one seems to remember they were there, including the French themselves. Whenever – if ever – one thinks about the Crimean war, the imagination tends to go straight to the heroic “Charge of the Light Brigade”,  immortalized in the poem by Alfred Tennyson, where 600 British cavalrymen rode into Russian fire because of a misguided order from a misguided officer.  In less than 20 minutes more than 200 horsemen were killed or wounded as they rode up a valley surrounded on three sides by Russian guns. One also remembers Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who treated wounded soldiers in makeshift hospitals in Crimea and introduced life-saving standards of medical hygiene.  The tragic Charge and the selfless service of Florence Nightingale, the “Lady of the Lamp,” amply represented in paintings and lithographs were engraved in the public imagination as models of masculine and feminine heroism at a time of war. And they live on in films, novels, rock songs and children’s books.

On the Russian side, people similarly remember the fearless, heroic, but ultimately doomed Russians who held off the year-long siege of Sebastopol, a story of national pride told by Leo Tolstoy in his Sebastopol Sketches. Tolstoy established the equation that the battle for Sebastopol was a battle for Russia. A century later, when Nazi Germany bombed Sebastopol and laid siege to the city, it was Tolstoy’s writing about the Crimean war that resonated throughout the city’s defense.

So what about France? This was the only war the French won in the nineteenth century, a victory that returned them to diplomatic prominence with the Treaty of Paris in 1856.  The French army was the most technologically advanced and it set the standard for military efficiency during the war. And the French made up the largest contingent of the Allied forces. The British sent over 98,000 men and lost 22,000, most to disease. The French lost almost as many men as the British sent over. Of the 310,000 troops sent, 95,000 died – 75,000 from cholera, typhus, scurvy or other diseases. They too performed heroically and suffered tragically.  Where is that story?

As I read more and more about this war – the first modern European war with its tactical use of railways and steam-propelled battleships, the first war telegraphed, photographed and reported in the press by a correspondent at the front – the question that kept gnawing at me was how does one forget a war? How does a nation forget a war in which 95,000 men perished? For this seems to be true in France, where the war does not figure in the literature of the time (or after) and is not memorialized in public monuments. Unlike Britain and Russia, this war does not have a place in the collective memory of historical events that define modern French identity.

I looked for and found traces of that war in the popular culture of the time  – equestrian spectacles, panoramas, board games, painted dishes – but these ephemeral traces were clearly not enough to imprint it on the national psyche. In order to understand what appears to be an act of collective amnesia, I turned to the study of collective memory which allowed me to come up with a few ideas about how and why a war falls off the radar.  But my own hypotheses fell short.

Cut to March 2020.

The world grinds to a halt as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe. Even as I write these words, I am in social isolation observing restrictions imposed to protect us from the deadly disease. We are told that we are at war with an invisible enemy.  We are at war with an illness. Those who have succumbed to the illness are warriors who have lost the battle. The militarized metaphors are – if not helpful – pervasive.  A light bulb goes off.  I suddenly realize that I have not been asking the right questions about “my” war. The question is not “how does one forget a war?” but “how does one forget a war in which 75,000 men perished from disease?”

War and plagues have a long shared history. Even the great Homeric war epic, the Iliad, opens with an evil pestilence. Nevertheless, despite the long association of war and epidemic, the picture of young men dying of diarrhea, vomit and high fever doesn’t square with received images of what war looks like.  Commenting on the singularly martial language that has been used to describe the coronavirus, Micki McElya asks: “if we are all warriors, why aren’t the currently more than 86,000 American pandemic dead treated as patriots and honored for their sacrifices?” (Washington Post, 15 May, 2020).  Similarly, in her book on the influenza pandemic of 1918, Elizabeth Outka notes that whereas World War I is visible everywhere in the literature of the interwar period, the Spanish flu that killed 50,000,000 is not. At best it has a “spectral presence” in the literature of the time. In failing to “read for illness” she adds, we end up affirming how military conflict has come to define history.  We revere the men with the guns, not the men with the runs.

Is this perhaps why the Crimean War disappeared from the French imaginary?

Britain lost over 17,000 men to illness but the image they retained of Crimea is still dominated by the romantic vision of 600 brave soldiers on horseback riding into the path of enemy fire and certain death.

“Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.”
“Charge of the Light Brigade”

Similarly, although the Russians suffered 450,000 casualties, the Russian story of the Crimean War is one of heroism and defiance. After pages describing gruesome amputations and dying soldiers and civilians, Tolstoy ends his sketch of “Sebastopol in December” with a salute to the noble spirit of patriotic Russians defending Sebastopol and their country to the end.

“those men … the very heroes of those grievous times, who have not fallen, but have been raised by the spirit, and have joyfully prepared for death, not for the sake of the city, but of the country. This epos of         Sevastopol, whose hero was the Russian people, will leave mighty traces in Russia for a long time to come.”

In the introduction to his 1858 book on the war, the French military surgeon, Lucien Baudens, speaks of two images of war – the first, glorious, composed of brilliant feats of arms, and the second, bleak and composed of dark suffering. Everyone, he says, is familiar with the first. This is the image the British and Russians retained. As for the second, people have only vague notions. As a military surgeon, the second was the war he saw. But vague notions and bleak images do not legends make.

The French author Maxime Du Camp declared that the real enemy in the Crimean War was not the Russian army but the cholera epidemic that ultimately defeated the leaders of the Allied forces themselves, Maréchal Saint-Arnaud and Lord Raglan. The battle against this enemy did not come with trappings of valour nor did it secure a place in national memory. The truth is that before the French troops ever faced a single Russian bullet, 10,000 of them had died of cholera on their arrival from France. Writing in 1863 Alexander William Kinglake recalls the staggering suffering of the French who had, ironically, brought cholera with them from Marseilles.

“In the day’s march, and sometimes within the space of only a few hours, hundreds of men dropped down in the sudden agonies of cholera; … On the 8th of August … out of the three French divisions which marched into the Dobrudja, no less than 10,000 lay dead or struck down by sickness.”

The English too were struck by cholera, though not quite as badly as the French, and they subsequently suffered from many other illnesses that circulated in the camps. Some froze to death during the winter of 1855 for lack of winter uniforms. But the dash and daring of masculine strength in the face of insurmountable odds trumped the reality of feverish dehydrated men writhing in trenches or on dirty floors in ill-equipped hospitals. One would have to wait for World War I for such images to connote modern war.

On the French side, there were battles won, forts taken, but no romance. On September 9, 1855, the French seized the Malakoff redoubt protecting Sebastopol; the Russians, unable to maintain their defense, abandoned the city.  After a year-long siege, this was a military coup.  But just as the “Charge of the Light Brigade” overrode the story of men defeated by illness, illness in the form of typhus overshadowed the military triumph, swooping down on the French army “like a vulture attacks a cadaver” (Du Camp). Between October 1855 and July 1856 when the French left Crimea, 12,963 men died; 242 from wounds, 12,721 from illness. The 242 injured in battle might well be remembered as war heroes honored for their sacrifice.  But what of those 12,721?  Their story was laid to rest in medical reports, not novels, not poems.

In the end, as I sit at home far from the library, the coronavirus has helped me find one possible answer to the question:  how does one forget a war in which 95,500 men perished, 75,000 men from cholera, typhus, etc.?  How?  If this war didn’t find its place in the canons of French literature and art, it is precisely because it was a war in which 75,000 men died from cholera, typhus, etc. Call it “the war on an invisible enemy,” 19th-century victims of epidemic deaths, even in uniform, did not have the military cachet that makes for bestsellers and national myths.

Coda: May 24, 2020.

I have stepped out of my nineteenth-century war and its illnesses to reflect upon differences in the way we tell the story of the “battle we are waging” against Covid-19. We have found our own warrior heroes. They are the people risking their lives “at the front” – the doctors, nurses, paramedics. In an earlier age of war, they were also there, risking their lives. But medical personnel, essential, exhausted and dedicated as they were, were seen as peripheral to the action and certainly to the narratives of war. Doctor J.C. Chenu who wrote the report on medical services during the war was blunt: “it is not the general but the doctor who saves armies.” In 1856, the deaths of 31 French doctors from typhus simply figured on the general list of 12,721 deaths from illness. They too, like the soldiers they cared for were remembered not as wartime heroes, but as victims.

It is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and the New York Times has made an extraordinary decision about the way they will mark the national holiday that recalls military personnel who died while serving their country. Beneath a banner that reads “US deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss,” the entire front page of the paper – no photos, no graphics – is given over to a list of names of victims of the war against Covid-19.  The collective experience of those names in print, each attached to the briefest of obits, acts as a public ritual of mourning.  It defies the collective amnesia I have been trying to make sense of in 19th-century France. As if in response to Micki McElya in the Washington Post, and to my sad conclusion that war deaths from illness lack the memorable dignity of war deaths in battle, the Memorial Day lists of names bestow the equivalent of military honor on the fallen whose numbers have outstripped the deaths of American soldiers in all recent wars combined. In the midst of the unfathomable numbers of dead and dying from this pandemic, in this regard the T/times have changed us.

Sima Godfrey teaches in UBC’s Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies. In 1998 she founded the UBC Institute for European Studies which she directed until 2007. As a Wall Scholar, she has been looking for the invisible Crimean war in 19th-century French literature and wondering why, despite the deaths of 100,000 Frenchmen, it does not figure in French cultural memory.