The Annals of War

From The Painter of Modern Life, by Charles Baudelaire, 1863

Bulgaria, Turkey, the Crimea, and Spain have all in turn ministered lavishly to the eye of Monsieur G.—or rather to the eye of that imaginary artist whom we have agreed so to call, for every now and then I am reminded that, to give continued reassurance to his modesty, I have promised to pretend that he does not exist. I have studied his archives of the Eastern War—battlefields littered with the debris of death, baggage-trains, shipments of cattle and hones; they are tableaux vivants of an astonishing vitality, traced from life itself, uniquely picturesque fragments which many a renowned painter would in the same circumstances have stupidly overlooked. (I would, however, hasten to make an exception of M. Horace Vernet, a military historian rather than essentially a painter, with whom Monsieur G., albeit a subtler artist, has manifest affinities if you are only considering him as an archivist of life.) I am ready to declare that no newspaper, no written account, no book has unfolded so well, in all its painful detail and melancholy scope, the great epic poem of the Crimea The eye wanders from the banks of the Danube to the shores of the Bosphorus, from Cape Kerson to the plains of Balaclava, from the plains of Inkermann to the encampments of the English, French, Turks and Piedmontese, from the streets of Constantinople to hospital wards and all the splendor of religious and military ceremonial.

One of these drawings most vividly imprinted on my mind represents the Consecration of the Burial-ground at Scutari by the Bishop of Gibraltar. The picturesque essence of the scene, which lies in the contrast between its Eastern setting and the Western uniforms and attitudes of those taking is realized in an arresting manner, pregnant with dreams and evocations. The officers and men have that ineradicable air of being gentlemen—a mixture of boldness and reserve—which they tarn with them to the ends of the earth, as far as the garrisons of the Cape Colony and the cantonments of India; and the English clergymen give one a vague impression of being beadles or money-changers who have put on caps and gowns.

And now we are at Schumla, enjoying the hospitality of Omer Pasha—Turkish hospitality, pipes and coffee; the guests are all disposed on divans, holding to their lips pipes long as speaking-tubes whose bowls lie on the ground at their feet. And here are the Kurds at Scutari, weird-looking troops whose appearance puts one in mind of some barbarian invasion; or if you prefer, the Bashi-Bazouks, no less extra-ordinary, with their Hungarian or Polish officers whose dandified faces make a peculiar contrast with the baroquely Oriental character of their men.

I remember a magnificent drawing, which shows a single figure standing, a large, sturdy man, looking at once thoughtful, unconcerned and bold; he wears top-boots which extend to above his knees; his uniform is concealed beneath an enormous, bean, tightly-buttoned greatcoat; he is gazing through the smoke of his cigar at the threatening misty horizon; a wounded arm is carried in a sling. At the bottom of the drawing is the following scribbled inscription: Canrovert on the battlefield of Inkermann. Taken on the spot.

Who is this white-mustached cavalry-officer, with so vividly-drawn an expression, who, with lifted head, seems to be savoring all the dreadful poetry of a battlefield, while his horse, sniffing the ground, is picking its way among the corpses heaped up with feet in air, shrunken faces, in weird attitudes? In a corner, at the bottom, can be made out these words: Myself at Inkermann.

And then there is M. Baraguay d'Hilliers, with the Seraskier, inspecting the artillery at Bechichtash. I have seldom seen more lifelike a military portrait, traced by a bolder or a more spirited pen.

And now a name that has achieved a sinister repute since the disasters in Syria: Achmet Pasha, General in Chief to the Kalifat, standing with his staff in front of his hut, receiving two European officers. For all the amplitude of his vast Turkish paunch, Achmet Pasha possesses, both in face and bearing, that indefinably aristocratic air which commonly characterizes the ruling races.

The Battle of Balaclava recurs several times, and in different aspects, in this extraordinary collection. Among the most striking examples we find that historic cavalry-charge celebrated by the heroic trumpet-blasts of Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate: we see a horde of cavalry galloping away at a prodigious speed towards the horizon, between the heavy smoke-clouds of the artillery. The landscape background is dosed by a grassy line of hills.

From time to time religious scenes afford some relief to an eye saddened by all this chaos of gunpowder and slaughter. For example, in the midst of a group of British troops, amongst whom the picturesque uniform of the kilted Scots stands out, an Anglican clergyman is conducting the Sunday Service; his lectern is a pyramid of three drums.

But truth to tell, it is almost impossible with no more than a pen to expound so vast and so complicated a poem composed of such a multitude of sketches, or to communicate the intoxication distilled by all this exotic detail—often melancholy but never sentimental—which is accumulated on several hundred scraps of paper whose very stains and smudges tell in their own way of all the turmoil and confusion in the midst of which our artist must have set down his memories of each day. Towards evening the messenger would come to collect Monsieur G.’s notes and drawings, and often he would thus entrust to the post more than ten sketches, hastily scribbled on the thinnest of paper, which the engravers and the subscribers to the journal were eagerly awaiting in London.

Sometimes we are shown ambulances, in which the very atmosphere seems sick, sad and heavy; at another time we are in the hospital at Pera, where, in conversation with two nuns—tall, pallid and erect, like figures by Lesueur—we notice a casually-dressed visitor, identified by this curious legend: my humble self. And now, along rough twisting pathways, strewn with some of the debris of an already past engagement, we watch beasts of burden—mules, donkeys or horses—slowly making their way with the pale and inert bodies of the wounded carried in rude chairs on their backs. Amid wastes of snow we see camels of majestic their heads held high, with Tartar drivers; they are transporting munition and provisions of all kinds. It is a whole warrior-world—alive, busy and silent; it is a world of encampments, Oriental bazaars displaying samples of every kind of supplies, like barbarian cities improvised for the occasion. Through these huts, along these stony or showy roads, through these ravines, there move uniforms of several different nations, all more or less scarred by war or transmogrified by the addition of enormous topcoats and heavy boots.

It is to be regretted that this album, which is now scattered in several different places (some of its precious pages having been kept by the engravers whose task it was to reproduce them, others by the publishers of the Illustrated London News), should not have been brought to the eyes of the Emperor. I feel sure that he would have graciously perused it, and not without emotion, recognizing therein the deeds and doings of his soldiers, from the most dazzling of military actions to the most trivial occupations of everyday life, all minutely transcribed on the spot by a hand so unerring and so intelligent, the hand of a soldier-artist.

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