The Crimean War (1853–1856) concluded a period of forty years in which Russian expansion and Ottoman Turkish weakness had created a major problem for the European state system. If the Ottoman Empire collapsed, who should profit, and how could the balance of power be preserved if Russia, Britain, France or Austria were to acquire more resources than their rivals? Hitherto Anglo-Russian consensus on the need to preserve Turkey had staved off the threat of a major war, although Turkey had surrendered Greece and part of the Balkans. Only when Bonapartist France interfered in 1851 did the system fail.
While the spark for war came from a dispute among France, and Russia, and Turkey over the Christian shrines in Palestine, the cause was Russian ambition to control the Dardanelles and Bosphorus, to exclude the strategic threat of British sea power, and ensure the free passage of Russian exports. Britain joined France in diplomatic attempts to avert war, but by the time Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) realized Britain was serious he was too deeply committed to back down. The war began in October 1853, when Turkey declared war on Russia and attacked across the Danube. On 30 November a Turkish flotilla heading for the Circassian coast was annihilated at Sinope by a Russian fleet. Britain persuaded France to adopt a global strategy based on command of the sea, for campaigns in the Baltic, the Black Sea, the White Sea, and the Pacific. Britain and France declared war respectively on 27 and 28 March 1854. They planned an amphibious attack on Sevastopol, after the destruction of a Russian battle squadron at Reval (Tallinn) in the Baltic.
A fifty-thousand-man joint expeditionary force was sent to secure European Turkey, led by Field Marshal Lord Raglan (1788–1855), who had been for many years the Duke of Wellington's (Arthur Wellesley, 1769–1852) Military Secretary, and Marshal Armand-Jacques Saint Arnaud (1798–1854), one of the leading architects of Napoleon III's (r. 1852–1871) coup d'etat. The two armies had rifled small arms, but still used Napoleonic tactics. British long-service regulars were well trained for combat, but ill prepared for the harsh realities of campaigning. The French combined volunteers hardened in the Algerian war with conscript units that proved fragile in battle. The Russian army, the largest in Europe, had no rifles, and did not trouble recruits with aiming. None of the belligerents had a modern administration.
The Baltic campaign of 1854 began with the discovery that Reval was empty, but produced the first major Allied success, the capture of the fortified Aland Islands in August. The British also imposed an effective economic blockade that crippled Russian finances.
In the Black Sea neutral Austria demanded that Russia evacuate the Danubian Principalities (modern Romania) or face war. Russia complied, leaving the allied army at Varna on the Bulgarian coast with no role. The British Government decided to attack
Sevastopol, expecting a grand raid of no more than a month to seize the city, destroy the Russian Black Sea fleet, and demolish the naval base. The French agreed. In mid-September 1854 the Allies landed in the Crimea almost sixty thousand strong. They marched south toward Sevastopol, encountering the Russian army under Prince Menshikov (1787–1869) well dug in on the banks of the River Alma on 20 September. The French used a coastal path to turn the Russian flank while the British drove through the Russian center. The Russians retreated in disorder, unable to withstand British infantry firepower. After a delay caused by Saint Arnaud's terminal illness the Allies marched round Sevastopol harbor to begin a conventional siege from the south, based on the ports of Balaklava and Kamiesch Bay. An attempt to storm the city failed on 17 October, allowing Menshikov to stage a flank attack on Balaklava on 25 October.
After holding off the Russians with slender resources a misunderstanding led the British Light Cavalry Brigade, some 650 troopers, to charge a strong position, which they cleared, and then drove off several times their number of Russian horsemen. Usually portrayed as a disaster, the charge was highly effective, with casualties no heavier than those incurred at the Alma. It broke the morale of the Russians, who would never again face British cavalry. However, British political agitation calling for domestic political reform used the Charge as a metaphor for aristocratic mismanagement and created the myth of disaster.
The other great myth of the war had the same purpose. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was lionized as the "Lady with the Lamp" who nursed sick and wounded troops. In reality Nightingale was a hospital manager, the nursing was done by male orderlies. The "nurses" cooked and cleaned. Nightingale's status reflected the fact that she was the only noteworthy middle-class figure in the conflict. The new universal heroism was reflected in the Victoria Cross, a conspicuous gallantry award for all ranks.
On 5 November another Russian attack, on the Inkermann Heights, came close to driving the Allies into the sea. The massive Russian attack columns became separated in the fog, allowing small British units to hold them off until reinforcements and two siege guns arrived to turn the tide of battle. Nine days later a hurricane demolished the Allied camp, and they had to prepare for a winter in trenches before Sevastopol. The Allies survived, despite appalling hardships, because they had uncontested command of the sea, steam shipping to bring in supplies and reinforcements, and ultimately a railway to mechanize the siege.
Over the winter Britain and France reconsidered their strategy. The Grand Raid on Sevastopol had failed, and they had been drawn into a prolonged battle of attrition around the city between three armies, all well dug in and well supplied with heavy (largely naval) artillery. The French, with far larger military resources, gradually took control. Napoleon III favored assembling a large field army to pursue and destroy the Russian army, but his local commanders preferred the steady attrition of local trench attacks. The British still employed a maritime strategy, sending a joint expedition to seize the Straits of Kertch and take control of the Sea of Azov in May 1855. When Marshal Canrobert (1809–1895) had to withdraw his troops from the operation under orders from Paris he resigned the high command, exchanging positions with one of his divisional generals. Marshal Pélissier (1794–1864) carried out the Azov operation, enabling British steam gunboats to cut the Russian logistics link with the River Don, crippling the field army, and limiting supplies to Sevastopol. Raglan and Pélissier stepped up their attacks, and despite the occasional failure, and Raglan's death on 28 June, the vital Malakhov bastion fell to French troops on 9 September. The Russians abandoned Sevastopol, burning the last remnants of their fleet.
This success had come at a heavy cost, but it produced little strategic or political impact. Tsar Nicholas I had died in early 1855, but Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) was not going to make peace because a small dockyard town had been taken. Russia was bankrupt and with its economy in ruins it needed peace. France was weary of war now that it had harvested a full measure of la gloire by taking Sevastopol, so Napoleon III sought peace. Neutral Austria had been bankrupted by the costs of keeping its army mobilized.
Franco-Austrian diplomatic maneuvers limited Russian humiliation and tried to keep the British out of the peace process. The British, aware of the drift of events in Paris, quickly shifted their Baltic strategy to a full-scale assault on Cronstadt, the fortress protecting St. Petersburg. By late 1855 the British were building a massive armada for this operation, and ensured the Russians knew they were ready to use it.
Over the winter of 1855–1856 the diplomats patched up a peace, but Britain kept up its naval mobilization to ensure that both its enemy and its ally recognized British claims. The Peace of Paris was signed in March, but on 23 April 1856 the British celebrated their victory by showing in a demonstration bombardment of Southsea Castle what their Baltic fleet would have done to Cronstadt. This form of coercive diplomacy served Britain well—it did not fight another major war until 1914.
The Crimean War was at once the last preindustrial war and the first modern conflict. It occurred in a period of rapid transformation in the conduct of war at all levels. British strategic thinking, developed from the Napoleonic era, combined economic warfare, global power projection, intelligence-gathering, and new technology into a winning combination. However, while the war moved by steam, military logistics were still working to the rhythm of the oxcart. The small peacetime army simply did not have the capability to mobilize fresh troops. Under pressure from the powerful news media, administrative
reform was inevitable. That said, the British were the first to employ mass-produced rifles; build tactical railways; and employ rifled cannon, inter-continental cable communications, and photography. The French pioneered armored warships, the Russians submarine mines. Although the political aims were limited, the Crimea was a global conflict between the two leading powers of the era, Russia and Britain, with France anxious to improve its status. The war preserved Ottoman Turkey for another half-century, while Russia was forced to reconstruct the very foundations of the state before modernizing its military institutions wholesale. However, the main beneficiary was Prussia. Freed from Russian dominance Berlin had created a unified Germany by 1870, over the wreckage of Louis-Napoleon's Imperial France. It was not the least of the ironies of this war was that while it preserved the balance of power in eastern Europe it created ideal conditions for an altogether more dangerous altercation in the west.
Goldfrank, David M. The Origins of the Crimean War. London, 1994.
Lambert, Andrew D. The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy, 1853–56. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1990.
The incautious and miscalculated decision by Nicholas I to activate his southern army corps and Black Sea fleet in late December 1852 can be attributed to several general misperceptions: the official myth that Russia legally protected the Ottoman Orthodox; disinformative claims of Ottoman perfidy regarding the Orthodox–Catholic dispute over Christian Holy Places; and illusions of Austrian loyalty and British friendship. Attempts to interest the British in a partition of the Ottoman Empire failed. Britain followed France in sending a fleet to the Aegean to back Turkey, after Russia's extraordinary ambassador to Istanbul, Alexander Menshikov, acted peremptorily, following the tsar's instructions, in March 1852. Blaming Turkish obstinacy on the British ambassador Stratford de Redcliffe, the Russians refused to accept the Ottoman compromise proposal on the Holy Places on the grounds that it skirted the protection issue. Russia broke relations with Turkey in May and occupied Moldavia and Wallachia in July.
While the Ottomans mobilized, European statesmen sought an exit. Russia's outright rejection in September of another Ottoman compromise finessing the protection issue, one which the British found reasonable, emboldened the Turks to declare war and attack Russian positions in Wallachia and the eastern Black Sea (October). Admiral Pavel
Nakhimov's Black Sea squadron destroyed a Turkish supply convoy off Sinope (November 30), and the combined Anglo–French–Turkish fleet entered the Black Sea on January 1, 1854. Russia refused the humiliating allied demand to keep to port, and by early April, Britain and France were at war with Russia.
Russia's million–man army was larger than that of the allies, but had fewer rifles and deployed 600,000 troops from Finland to Bessarabia as insurance against attacks from the west. Anglo–French fleets and logistics far outclassed Russia's.
The war operated on several fronts. The Russians crossed the Danube in March and besieged Silistra, only to retreat and evacuate Wallachia and Moldavia in June in the face of Austro–German threats. Anglo–French naval squadrons entered the Baltic and destroyed Russia's fortifications at Bomarsund and Sveaborg, but did not harm Kronstadt. In Transcaucasia, Russian counterattacks and superior tactics led to advances into Eastern Anatolia and the eventual investment of Kars in September 1855.
The key theater was Crimea, where the capture of Sevastopol was the chief Allied goal. Both sides made mistakes. The Russians could have mounted a more energetic defense against Allied landings, while the Allies might have taken Sevastopol before the Russians fortified their defenses with sunken ships and naval ordnance under Admiral Vladimir Kornilov and army engineer Adjutant Eduard Totleben. The Allies landed at Evpatoria, defeated the Russians at the Alma River (September 20, 1854), and redeployed south of Sevastopol. The Russian attempt to drive the Allies from Balaklava failed even before the British Light Brigade made its celebrated, ill–fated charge (October 25, 1854). The well–outnumbered allies then tried to besiege Sevastopol and thus exposed themselves to a counterattack at Inkerman on November 5, 1854, which the Russians completely mishandled with their outmoded tactics, negligible staff work, and command rivalries.
Despite a terrible winter, the Allies reinforced and renewed their siege in February 1855. Allied reoccupation of Evpatoria, where the Turks held off a Russian counterattack, and a summer descent on Kerch disrupted the flow of Russian supplies. The death of Nicholas I and accession of Alexander II (March 2) meant little at first. As per imperial wishes, the Russians mounted a hopeless attack on the besiegers' positions on the Chernaya River (August 16). The constant Allied bombardment and French-led assaults on Sevastopol's outer defenses led to an orderly evacuation (September 8–9). The Russians in turn captured Kars in Eastern Anatolia (November 26), thereby gaining a bargaining chip. Hostilities soon abated.
Russia lost the war in the Baltic, Crimea, and lower Danube, with the demilitarization of the Åland Islands and the Black Sea and retrocession of southern Bessarabia, but, at the cost of 400,000-500,000 casualties, defended the empire's integrity from maximal Anglo–Ottoman rollback goals and won the war in the Caucasus and Transcaucasia. The evidence of Russia's technological and structural inferiority to the West, as well as the massive turnout of peasant serfs expecting emancipation in return for volunteer service, were major catalysts of the Great Reforms under Alexander II. Russia became more like the other great powers, adhering to the demands of cynical self-interest.
Baumgart, Winfried. (1999). The Crimean War, 1853-1856. London: Arnold.
Goldfrank, David. (1994). The Origins of the Crimean War. London: Longman.
David M. Goldfrank
the crimean war developed out of a basic misunderstanding between great britain and imperial russia over fundamental aims regarding the disposition of the territories of the greatly weakened ottoman empire.
About 1830, a Russian war against the Ottoman Empire had assured the independence of Greece. Until that time, the British, a close trade partner of Russia, had largely acquiesced to Russian acquisition of protector status over certain of the Ottoman Empire's Orthodox Christian territories, such as Serbia and the Romanian principalities.
There had always been Russophobes among British leaders, including William Pitt, the Younger, and George Canning. But it was only when Lord Palmerston was appointed secretary of state for external affairs that a clear British policy concerning the Middle East was conceived. The Treaty of Hunkar-Iskelesi, following Egypt's invasion of Asia Minor in 1833, appears to have been the catalyst. Apart from awarding to Muhammad Ali Pasha control of Syria and the island of Crete, a secret clause recognized Russia's right to intervene in Turkish affairs to "protect" the interests of Orthodox subjects. Palmerston made it clear to Parliament that this arrangement must be undone. He proposed that, to protect Britain's lifeline to India, Britain must either station soldiers in the Middle East at strategic points or energetically assist the Ottoman leadership to reform its armed forces and liberalize its system of government.
Britain chose the less expensive route of assisting such pro-British viziers as Mustafa Reşid Paşa and their protégés to reform the Ottoman system. Upon the accession of Sultan Abdülmecit I in 1839, the Ottoman government launched the so-called Tanzimat reform, which would culminate in the first Ottoman constitution of 1876. Also in 1839, the combined European powers forced Muhammad Ali, who was on the verge of usurping further powers from the Ottoman sultan, to withdraw his forces from Syria and the Sudan in exchange for the conciliatory gesture of receiving Egypt as his hereditary kingdom.
Despite this heightened British interest in the Mediterranean region, apparently Russia missed the message. When Czar Nicholas I (1825–1855) paid a state visit to Britain in 1842, he queried the British about the disposition of "the Sick Man of Europe." In typical British fashion, officials in London failed to give the czar a direct answer; consequently, he and his delegation concluded that if Russia strengthened its hold over Ottoman Turkey, Britain would not be upset.
A clash of interest and a cause célèbre was not long in developing. Sultan Abdülmecit, after consulting the powerful and popular British resident
ambassador, Stratford Canning, decided to award to France the traditional function and title of Protector of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Imperial Russia, which annually sent thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land and had recently invested sizable funds in Jerusalem for churches and pilgrim hostels, took grave offense at not receiving the honored designation. After long drawn-out bickering over the issue, Russia issued an ultimatum. With the Ottomans supported by the British ambassador, who now ordered the British fleet into the Black Sea, Russia declared war and marched on the Balkans, where the Turks put up a stiff resistance. Meanwhile, the British and French landed troops in the Crimea in 1853 and 1854 and besieged Russian fortifications at Inkerman and Sebastapol. Ill-equipped and ravaged by cholera, the Russians capitulated in 1855, and Czar Nicholas abdicated to be replaced by Czar Alexander II.
In the Peace of Paris (1856), Ottoman Turkey, France, Britain, and Austria—the latter not having been an active participant—forced upon Russia a humiliating settlement. Russia was to cease its meddling in Ottoman affairs, including Romania, and it was not permitted to fortify any point on the Black Sea. Her naval vessels also were placed under strict control of the allies.
This embarrassing result was an important factor in forcing Czar Alexander to declare the liberation of the serfs in 1861. Moreover, the heavy commitment by Britain in the war and the great loss of life, in spite of heroic medical assistance by Florence Nightingale's field hospital in Istanbul, played a major role in Britain's decision twenty-five years later to occupy Cyprus and then Egypt to assure its lifeline to India without recourse to Ottoman Turkey.
see also abdÜlmecit i; canning, stratford; hunkar-iskelesi, treaty of (1833); muhammad ali; mustafa reŞid; ottoman empire; palmerston, lord henry john temple; tanzimat.
C. Max Kortepeter
The Black Sea theatre dominated contemporary perspectives of the war. Britain supplied a field army of about 28,000, which, with a French contingent of equal size, landed in May 1854 at Varna to defend it against Russian forces crossing the Danube. When this threat failed to materialize, the allied armies were transferred to the Crimean peninsula, landing north of the main Russian naval base of Sebastopol on 14 September. Their first victory, at the Alma six days later, enabled them to continue south around Sebastopol from the landward side to Balaclava, so establishing a partial siege of the base.
Through the autumn the Russians tried to break the siege of Sebastopol, the two major attacks being at Balaclava in October and Inkerman in November. After surviving a bad winter, for which they were not equipped, the allies launched naval expeditions against the smaller Russian bases of Kerch at the eastern end of the Crimea in May and Kinburn (near Odessa) in October 1855. Meanwhile, the Russians made one final attempt to relieve Sebastopol in August at the Tchernaya (in which the British were hardly involved). Repeated British and French attacks on Sebastopol finally led to the base becoming untenable and the Russians abandoned it in October.
Modern historical study pays at least as much attention to the purely naval campaign fought in the Baltic as to the Crimean theatre. The end of the war came about not through the fall of Sebastopol but through the British victory in August 1855 in destroying by bombardment the Russian dockyard at Sweaborg (outside modern Helsinki). Together with Kinburn, this demonstrated the vulnerability of Russian naval bases to British ships, a threat made explicit that winter with the building of the ‘Great Armament’, a floating siege train of over 360 vessels intended to capture the main Russian naval base in the Baltic at Cronstadt. Rather than face the loss of Cronstadt as well as Sebastopol, the Russians agreed to moderate allied peace terms in the treaty of Paris of 30 March 1856, with the Black Sea declared neutral and the Danube an open waterway.
The result of the Crimean War has been much debated. By pursuing a realistic limited aim the Allies held Russia in check for a generation, rather than destroying themselves by marching on Moscow. Equally, although British performance in the Crimea was a contemporary byword for incompetence, it is recognized that the army did not perform much worse than at the start of the Napoleonic wars, was as much a victim of government parsimony as of its own faults, and that by the winter of 1855 most of its problems were solved.