The Crimean War took place between October 1853 and February 1856. The three-year conflict gets its name from the fact that it was mainly fought on the Crimean Peninsula, an area in the south of modern day Ukraine (as of March 2014 Ukraine is in dispute with Russia over ownership of the territory) that sits within the Black Sea.
The war saw Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire ally against, and ultimately defeat, Russia. It is a war that is remembered for the poor leadership, communication and organisation of the allied forces (often epitomised by The Charge of the Light Brigade), which resulted in a bloody and prolonged conflict.
What had been anticipated to be a short war in which the superior training, experience and technology possessed by the military forces of France and Great Britain were meant to quickly and conclusively dominate, ultimately proved to be a long, drawn-out affair.
The Napoleonic Wars had seen years of widespread military unrest across the continent for several decades until the Congress of Vienna – from September 1814 to June 1815 – finally brought some much-needed peace to Europe. However, after almost 40 years of almost no conflict, the first signs of what was to develop into the Crimean War began to emerge.
The tensions initially lay between the Russians and the Ottoman Empire, based in modern day Turkey. Russia had been expanding south for over 100 years prior to the start of the Crimean War as they conquered first the Ukrainian Cossacks and then the Crimean Tatars. These conquests were primarily motivated by Russia’s desires to gain control of the warm Black Sea ports of the Crimean Peninsula which, unlike their own northern ports, did not freeze over. However, by the time Russia had gained control of these territories there was no longer anything standing between it and the Ottoman Turks.
Russia had long held the view of itself as a protector of Orthodox Christians, many of whom lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Russia also regarded the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe”, a comment – often attributed to its leader at the time Tsar Nicholas I – that pinpoints the Ottomans as the weakest country on the continent because of its shrinking territories and failing finances.
However, while Russia was keen to defend the interests of Orthodoxy, France – under the rule of Napoleon III – was keen to enforce Catholicism on the holy places in Palestine. And so, over 1852 and 1853 tensions grew between the two nations. Russia hoped that Britain would take its side in a potential conflict with the French over control of Ottoman Empire and Middle Eastern holy places, but they were wrong.
In July 1853 Russia move into and occupied the Danubian Principalities as a means of asserting pressure on Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire, now called Istanbul). However, this move alienated the Austrians who relied on these principalities – Moldavia and Walachia – as part of its trade. As Britain, France and Austria sought a diplomatic solution to the problem, the Ottoman Empire was left with seemingly little choice and responded to the threat by declaring war on Russia on 23 October 1853.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ottoman’s declaration of war, the Russians proceeded to comfortably defeat a Turkish squadron in a naval battle at Sinope, in the Black Sea. Britain and France’s response was deliver an ultimatum to Russia, stating that if it didn’t stop its conflict with the Ottoman Empire and withdraw from the Danubian Principalities by March 1854 then they would enter the war in the support of the Turks.
The ultimatum expired and Great Britain and France remained true to their word, joining the Ottoman Empire against the Russians. By August 1854 the Anglo-French fleet; which consisted of modern metal ships that were far more technologically advanced than Russia’s wooden fleet – had already taken command of the Baltic Sea in the north, destroying the key fortress of Bomarsund in the process.
To the south, the allies had gathered an army of 60,000 in Turkey. Under such sizeable pressure, and because Russia also wished to avoid alienating Austria so that it wouldn’t join the allies’ war effort, Nicholas I agreed to leave the Danubian Principalities.
In September 1854 the allied forces crossed the Black Sea and landed in Crimea for what had been expected to be a 12-week assault on the key stronghold of Sevastopol. In fact the military campaign to seize the naval base at Sevastopol and destroy the fleet and dockyard took 12 months. It is this year spent in conflict on the Crimea Peninsula that gives the war its name.
While Russia and the Ottoman Empire had met in several battles at the start of 1854 prior to the involvement of the French and British, the first major battle took place on 20 September 1854. On this date the battle of Alma took place, as the British and French troops – equipped with superior rifled muskets, greater numbers and better training – drove the Russian army out of a strong position north of Sevastopol.
However, the allies failed to capitalise on this victory and the delays in further advances on Sevastopol afforded Russia time to fortify the city and stage attacks of their own. One of these attacks was on 24 October 1854 in the Battle of Balaclava; it is here that the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ took place. Heavy damage was done to both sides in a battle that was marred by miscommunication; the Light Brigade was given the wrong orders, meaning it attacked the wrong artillery battery – a well-prepared one rather than a retreating line – resulting in heavy casualties.
But once again, as was a trend throughout the Crimean War, a lack of organisation and communication blighted the allies’ progress; they failed to follow up on their relative success against the much larger Russian forces at the Battle of Balaclava, which allowed Russia to regroup ahead of the even more bloody Battle of Inkerman on 5 November 1854. Here the Russian’s attempted to lift the siege on Sevastopol by attacking allied troops at Inkerman but foggy weather hampered any chances of an organised attack and as such the battle is often called ‘The Soldier’s Battle’ because they were left to fight on their own initiative. The Russian army of 42,000 men marched on the much smaller allied army (15,700) and, despite waves of attacks, the smaller ally forces stood their ground in a military display that has become celebrated for the training and professionalism of the troops. The battle, although a largely unsuccessful one for Russia, did manage to further slow allied progress – it left 11,959 Russian casualties (3,286 killed), and 4,373 allied casualties (810 killed); 2,573 British (635 killed), and 1,800 French (175 killed).
Despite Russian attempts to meet the allied forces in battle and lift the siege, such were the superior numbers of the British, French and Ottoman that the city of Sevastopol remained heavily surrounded. Following the Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman much of the action was halted over the cold winter, with both sides suffering from a lack of supplies.
As pictures of the squalid conditions the ally soldiers, specifically the injured ones, were in filtered back home, efforts were made to send support to aid the war effort. This is when Florence Nightingale rose to prominence; she gathered a group of female volunteer nurses to boost the medical workforce and improve conditions for wounded soldiers – it was a major development in military care and women’s involvement in war. Indeed the Crimean War is notorious for its medical failings, with the vast majority of deaths coming as a result of injuries and disease rather than death on the battlefield.
In the winter of 1854/55, Italian forces from the Kingdom of Sardinia joined the allies. On 16 February 1855 the Russians took on a growing Ottoman force in the battle of Eupatoria in which the allies recorded a convincing victory. In the same month Tsar Nicholas I fell ill as a result, it has been claimed, of the effects of the war effort. What began as a cold developed into influenza before he eventually caught pneumonia and died on 18 February 1855. Alexander II succeeded him in March 1855.
The allies looked to push home their advantage and in March 1855 they attacked fortifications at Malakof hill, but to little effect. With Sevastopol still proving difficult to breach, the allies tried a change of tact. They launched the Azov campaign and turned their attention to the Kerch to the east. A fleet of 60 ships carried 15,000 men to the city but a lack of organisation once again hindered their advances as plans to outflank the Russians failed, leading to another indecisive result on the battlefield.
In August 1855 the Russians launched a counterattack on Balaclava, resulting in the battle of Tchernaya. This was an emphatic victory for the allies, with the Russians suffering heavy losses – it signalled the beginning of the end for Russia’s control of Sevastopol. The French followed up on the victory by storming the vital Malakhov bastion on 8 September 1855, an act that left the weakened Russians with no choice but to flee and evacuate the city the next day. Once they had control of Sevastopol the allies set about destroying the ships and docks that the fleeing Russians had not already done themselves.
While one of the enduring characteristics of the Crimean War has been poor leadership and communications, both on and off the battlefield, by the supposedly war-savvy allied forces, the Russians also displayed many noteworthy shortcomings that contributed to their eventual defeat. One such failing was the purportedly widespread alcoholism of the Russian army; it was commonplace for troops and generals to drink heavily before, during and after battles, so much so that some historians have even claimed that army commanders drunkenly ordered attacks on their own soldiers while under the influence.
A lack of experience and organisation also plagued Russia’s military campaigns throughout the war; there were several occasions – such as the Battle of the Chernaya and the Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman – when they outnumbered their opposition but failed to capitalise on the numeric advantage. The generals’ propensity to attack impetuously, coupled with the inferior skills and equipment of the Russian soldiers, meant the allied forces were consistently able to overcome the larger Russian army, which increasingly comprised of militia as the war effort went on.
Once the city of Sevastopol had fallen to the allies there was relatively little conflict in the Crimean War. The Russians were able to gain control of the city of Kars but this would later be relinquished back to the Ottoman Empire.
The war had proven to be longer and bloodier than expected which, for Britain especially, had led to disgruntlement back home. Nevertheless, the ally threat remained in Russian territories until the Congress of Paris began on 1 February 1856. Eventually, on 30 March 1856, the Treaty of Paris was signed officially bringing an end to the war.
The key results of the peace negotiations saw Russia return Kars and “all other parts of the Ottoman territory of which the Russian troops were in possession” back to the Ottoman Empire. The Russians also agreed to the Black Sea remaining demilitarised. The allies – Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Turks – meanwhile agreed to restore the Russian towns and ports they occupied, including Sevastopol and Balaklava. Much of the treaty, particularly the bans on Russia having any naval forces in the Black Sea, was designed to re-establish the peace that had been created by the Congress of the Vienna in 1815 and had lasted for almost 40 years prior to the start of the Crimean War.
See also: Cold War Chronology
"The Crimean War 1853-1856". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.