The Crimean War, 1853-1856

Photo from the Panorama Museum, Sevastopol

      The war began in October, 1853 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and by March, 1854 had involved France and England. When the Russian Black Sea Fleet completely devastated the Turkish navy at the Battle of Sinope in November, 1853, England felt threatened. The threat came in a large part from the fact that for the first time, exploding shells were used in a naval engagement. To add to this, in France, Napoleon III desired to revive the military might of the French which had been destroyed 39 years earlier at Waterloo.

   The 'Russian War', as it was originally known, was the first ‘European' war fought by England since Waterloo. Meanwhile, France had fought in Algeria in the 1840s, and because of this experience its army was more battle-ready. However, throughout the period following Napoleon I's defeat, England's army had fought only small battles, where large scale tactics, communications, or the supply of a large army was not a concern. 

   Yet, even after an interval of almost 40 years, the Crimean War was fought in the same manner and with almost the same equipment, uniforms, weapons , and thinking as at Waterloo. Moreover, England was primarily a sea power, which is one reason why its army was less efficient and more old-fashioned than its navy. The war was the last of the old fashioned wars; the last before science came to the aid of the military; and it was the last, with the exception of the French, where the majority of artillery was smooth-bore.

   It was the war that started the change in the British military which ultimately saw the end to the system whereby a wealthy man could purchase a commission for himself, or his son. The war bolstered the young Second Empire of Napoleon III, and it helped indirectly with the unification of Italy and the creation of the German state, and it delayed for a while the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire. 

   The Crimean War postponed Russia's territorial advances until the beginning of the 1870s; it gave birth to the acceptance of female nurses as witnessed by Russian nurses and the work of "The Lady with the Lamp", Florence Nightingale, and her pioneers in battlefield medicine; it gave impetus to uniform and equipment changes in the British army; it utilized photography for the first time on the battlefield; it was the first war fought with rifled muskets, the first to use railways, iron-clad steamships, electrically exploring mines, and the telegraph. The war produced more causalities than the American Civil War. It was a war lead by old generals, and in the case of the British, it fought by poorly equipped men. Moreover, it was the first large-scale conflict which used trench warfare, and the first war to see chloroform used as an anesthetic.

   The French interest in the Middle East was the similar to the other powers wishing either to protect the lines of communication or to hold Russian expansion into Europe. France wanted her fair share of the Sultan's lands when the Turkish Empire collapsed. Moreover, the French were the protectors of the Roman Catholic Church in the East. The Russians considered themselves the protectors of the Orthodox Church who, with the Roman Catholics, were the custodians of the Holy Places. Thus, France and Russia were at odds in this area too.

   The problem lay in the 'Eastern Question' posed by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. Russia had been eager to increase its influence in the Balkans and to wrest from Turkey control of the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Britain and France viewed Russian control of the straits as a threat to their own interests, and Austria was uneasy about Russia's growing influence in the Balkans. Thus, in the early 1850s Tzar Nicholas I of Russia, who expected the support of Austria and the neutrality of Prussia, intervened in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, he believed that the British government would collaborate in a partition of the Balkan territories controlled by the Turks. In support of this belief was the assumption that England would not side with her eternal enemy, France. Additionally, the Tzar held that the British government would collaborate in a partition of the Balkan territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

   Many Western historians suggest that Tzar Nicholas I was primarily interested in protecting the Orthodox Church, and was willing to use force to do so. We are told that the Sultan, aware that if he allowed Russia to dictate to his country that his sovereign rights would be infringed, declined Russia's advances stating that any grievances that the Orthodox Christians may have would be investigated without the aid of Russia. Moreover, historians tell us that the Tzar's next move was the invasion of Moldavia and Wallachia, countries immediately north of Bulgaria. While true, it is also true that Russia and Turkey had questionable relations stemming from the signing of the Treaty of Adrianople following the Russo-Turkish war in 1829. The closing of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to the warships of all foreign countries, including Russia, which had followed the conclusion of the international Straits Commission of 1841, proved an intolerable limitation on the sovereignty of Russia, and bottled up the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

   It was ultimately this fleet which demonstrated off of the port of Sinople, Turkey in 1853 without drawing the allied fleets into action. Encouraged by this lack of response, the Tzar attacked and destroyed the Turkish fleet on 30 November, 1853. This did not bring an immediate response from the allies. Only the British and French newspapers created hysterical clamor over the "Massacre of Sinople". What really got the attention of the British, however, was the use, for the first time, of exploding shells. With this new weapon, the Russian fleet completely annihilate the Turks, and got the attention of England. One must remember that at this time, England ruled the waves. With the use of exploding shells, Russia had challenged Britain's navy.

   As a result of a total diplomatic stalemate, Britain and France dispatched various notes to the Tzar demanding the evacuation by Russia of Moldavia and Wallachia by 30 April, 1854. When this failed, England and France landed troops at Constantinople, Turkey and Varna, Bulgaria. In July 1854, Russia withdrew from Moldavia and Wallachia but it was too late to stop the allied naval expedition to the Baltic. In September 1854, the allies landed in the Crimea at a place curiously named Kalamita Bay. For the common soldier of both sides, the next two years were to produce harsh Russian winters, summers with searing heat, poor food, disease, terror, boredom, insufficient clothing and medical supplies, insufficient supplies of equipment and munitions, incompetent leadership, and even a hurricane in November of 1854. Interspersed with this sad state of affairs were the battles of The River Al'ma, Inkerman, Balaklava (and the infamous charge of the Light Brigade), and the long siege and evidential capture of Sebastopol. With the armistice on February 29, 1856, the fighting ended.

   The defenders during the final assault on the beleaguered fortress were outnumbered. Russian troops in Sevastopol numbered 24,500. The Allies, on the other hand, totaled approximately 55,700, of whom 40,900 were used in the assault.  On the Korabel'naia sector, the Russians used 21,100 troops to defend against 21,300 French, 6,250 English, and a small force of Sardinians. On the city sector, the French attacked with 8,380 troops, while the Russians defended this sector with 3,350 men. Russian losses on this day were 12,913 while the Allies lost 7,570 French, 2,351 English, and 40 Sardinians.1  

  It has been a major embarrassment to the English, and a source of pride to the French, that the latter were able to successfully storm the Malakhov, while the English were unable to hold the Great Redoubt.  Not generally noted, unfortunately, is the fact that the French started their attack from only 84 feet from the Russian positions2,  while the English infantry had to traverse over 200 yards3 through devastating fire before reaching the Russian positions.  The fact that the English did as well as they did speaks volumes of the courage of the British soldier, especially when one considers that he had to run the same gauntlet in June, only then the distance was over 800 yards.

   The Treaty of Paris attempted to ensure that future Russian intervention at the expense of Europe and the Ottoman Empire would be halted. Russia won only minor concessions from the war.  Moreover, her causalities were high, as more than 450,0004 Russians lost their lives during the conflict.  After the death of Nicolas I, his son Alexander II soon realized that he could no longer rely on the labor of the surfs, and that Russia must embrace the new technologies. Thus, on March 3, 1861 the Tzar issued the order emancipating the peasants. Causalities were significant for both sides. In addition the high losses of the Russians, the French lost 95,0005 and the English lost 22,0006, 7. Turkey's losses are reported to be similar in number to French casualties8.

   France seemed to have gained the most from the Crimean War. French armies had won the most impressive victories in the final attacks on Sebastopol, and France supplanted Russia as the dominant power in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, a first glance, also seemed to gain much from the conflict. However, the war actually hastened its slow disintegration which was finally complete by the outbreak of World War I. The British gain was at first slow to be realized, but because of the concerns about the British military, reforms were finally instituted which began the modernization of the army.  As in most defeats, the loser learns more than the winner.  Russia instituted reforms following the Crimean war, both militarily and civilian, and began a slow national modernization.

1. John Shelton Curtiss, Russia's Crimean War, p. 455
Ibid, p. 448
3Trevor Royal, Crimea,
The Great Crimean War 1854-1856, p. 410
4. Curtiss,
pp. 470-471
Ibid, pp. 459-460
6. Paul Kerr, et al.
The Crimean War, p. 178
7. General Sir Edward Hamley, K.C.B.,
The War in The Crimea, p. 302
8. Kerr, 
p. 180

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