After her final defeat at the end of the Napoleonic Wars France had naturally been knocked well down the pecking order of European nations, and for a while she put up with this, but by the 1840s there was a mood for a return to her former pre-eminence and a thirst for further glory. The return of Napoleon’s remains in 1840 helped encourage this, and within 10 years the great man’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon, was president of a once-more republican France and as keen as any for a return to past splendours. The Crimean War was seen as a perfect opportunity, and although the initial Armeé d’Orient was only about 37,500 strong it later grew to almost 120,000, making it the largest contingent around Sevastopol. If the war failed to deliver any glory to anyone, it did at least improve France’s prestige and gave her army renewed confidence which was soon to stand it in good stead in Italy but prove disastrous in 1870.
Warfare in the Crimea was to be very different from that in North Africa, yet it was her conquests there that made France’s soldiers experienced and battle-hardened. During the 1840s these tough soldiers had received new uniforms and much new equipment, but had also recognised the advantages of a more practical and simple uniform, so that by 1854 virtually all troops kept their good uniforms for parades and wore the capote, the greatcoat that was to be a constant companion for the next half century and more. Happily all the figures in this set are thus dressed, and more specifically they all seem to wear the 1845 model, which was slowly replaced by the 1854 version, inevitably named the ‘Crimean’. The older version was the more common and therefore the correct choice here, although some distinctions like the rows of five buttons rather than six cannot be made out on these models anyway. However there is one error here in that all the coats have three-buttoned cuffs with a flap, when a simpler two-button plain cuff is correct.
The baggy trousers tucked into short gaiters and boots are all fine, and all the men wear the soft cap that evolved from the casquette d’Afrique; the kepi that was to prove so popular throughout the world. Here it is correctly modelled with the square peak.
The kit and straps look fine as far as can be seen, with the men carrying their ammunition pouch, a haversack, bayonet and a gourd for water. None have a knapsack however. Equally none have a sabre, so these are not elites and nor are there any officers or NCOs in the set.
The firearms are the usual rather thick Strelets models that defy identification but should be the 1842 musket, some of which were rifled from 1847. Of particular interest are the bayonets, which should be the straight-bladed M1847. Many seem to fit this description, but a few look suspiciously like they have the re-curved ‘yataghan’ blade which would make them the 1840 or 1840 models, both of which seem to have been issued only to NCOs and above, and possibly to some elites, but not ordinary infantry like this.
A number of the poses are in the act of firing their muskets, while the rest are either advancing of apparently thrusting with their bayonet, as would have happened all too often on the ramparts of Sevastopol. All the poses are reasonable but sometimes rather flat and not particularly varied. The man in the top row reaching for a cartridge would not have been trained to rest his rifle on the ground like that, and should be holding it up by the left hand instead. Occasionally anatomy goes awry, particularly for some hands and wrists, but this is something often seen in Strelets sets. The general chunky look of these figures is also typical of this manufacturer, and looks awful when compared to the only similar set available at the time of writing, that from Emhar (see our comparison below). All the figures are in profile, which can and sometimes does cause problems for the faces. However here we can see that the men are a mixture of clean-shaved, moustachioed and bearded. Non-elite units were only permitted moustaches by regulation (sappers of course being the exception with full beards), but this rule seems to have been relaxed, causing the famous general Vanson to bemoan “barbiches même au centre!” (“goatees even in the centre!”).
Around 20,000 French died as a result of enemy action, but as many as 75,000 died of disease and neglect, particularly in the second winter of the war. With static warfare in trenches, thunderous artillery bombardments and costly frontal attacks on an enemy that was well dug in, the experience of the Crimean French soldier seems closer to wars of 60 years in the future than 60 years in the past. This Strelets set wanders from historical accuracy in a few small areas, and provides a usable if uninspiring selection of figures, so its appeal boils down to whether or not you care for the Strelets style. The French ‘Poilu’ is a vital part of any Crimean War collection, so this set was inevitable and perhaps necessary, but compared to the previous Emhar/IMEX set it comes a distant second to our eye.