Armies at the time of the Crimean War

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In most armies at the time of the Crimean War, there was a clear division between the officers and the enlisted men. The officers tended to be aristocrats who were schooled from childhood about honor and glory. There was a sense among many officers that there was no glory in a death other than in combat and that cowardice meant certain disgrace. The quest for glory led to several actions during the war that can only be labeled military follies, the most stunning example being the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), commemorated in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Rank-and-file troops often had a perspective on the war that was different from that of their commanders and were motivated by appeals to national pride, regimental pride, or a sense of competition between regiments.

In the 1850’s army officers were not typically trained to think about supplies or to plan ahead. This lack of emphasis on strategic planning meant that the Allied armies entered the Crimean War without any knowledge of battlefield terrain. The commanders were also ignorant of the local climate and the size of the forces they would face. For instance, the British commander Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, the Baron Raglan (1788-1855), assumed that fresh water supplies and horses would be available. The British took neither medical supplies nor their hospital wagons with them during the invasion of the Crimea and, in fact, made no provisions at all to care for wounded soldiers. The supply base built by the British was at Balaklava, at times more than 9 miles from the front lines. The only way to the base was along a dirt road that ran uphill and became a river of mud when it rained. The situation was made worse by the lack of pack animals; all supplies had to be carried to the front by the soldiers themselves. Only at the end of April, 1855, was a rail link completed between the British supply base at Balaklava and the front.

The British were not alone in these oversights, however; the Turks had little transport to speak of and had made an agreement with the British to supply them. Because the Turks did not organize their own supply trains and the British were not in a position to fulfill the agreement, Turkish soldiers were forced to live off the land. The French were closer to their supply base and were accompanied by viviandieres, young women who acted as provisioners for the French troops. Because the French had brought pack animals to use for the transportation of material, they transported food and ammunition for all of the Allied armies. The situation was equally bad for the Russian soldiers. Their officers frequently stole the funds allocated to purchase food, and supply conveys were often delayed by poor weather.

The officers who served during the Crimean War were no better at planning battles than they were at organizing their forces. Despite the creation of a Turkish military academy in 1834, many senior Turkish officers remained illiterate. British officers received little formal military training, and the vast majority had not studied maps, topography, or military tactics. Moreover, in peacetime these officers spent little time with their regiments and preferred to leave the day-to-day management to their sergeants. Similarly, Russian officers were not required to have any formal knowledge of military tactics. Only the French officers received a solid military training at several military academies. They were expected to study map reading, tactics, fortification, and topography. Their grasp of the material was tested through regular examinations and regiment inspections, but the training of the French officers was nullified once the campaign in the Crimea began. British senior officers did not get along well with the French commanders, who tended to come from less distinguished and less wealthy families. Because the Allies needed to coordinate their forces in battle, it was imperative for the commanders to agree on a strategy. However, as the war began the Allies could agree upon no coordinated plan. Joint command quickly broke down amid personal rivalries between the commanders. The lack of coordination wasmost evident during the Siege of Sevastopol. The original plan was for the Allied armies to attack the city from the north, destroy the city’s docks, and sink the Russian fleet. However, this plan was eventually abandoned in favor of a joint British and French attack from the south. The Turks took no direct part in the Siege of Sevastopol. A strong assault as soon as the British forces were in place would most likely have succeeded in taking the city, but the French commanders insisted on waiting for the arrival of their siege guns before the engagement began. In the end, the Allies camped nearby and waited for almost a month before firing any weapons at the city’s defenders. The reprieve gave the general in charge of Sevastopol’s defenses time to build a series of fortifications and await reinforcements. By the time the British and French commanders agreed to attack the city, it was virtually impregnable. It ultimately took almost a year for the Allies to take Sevastopol.

The Crimean War saw two distinct types of warfare: land battles and sieges. The tactics used by the armies varied depending on the situation and on their national traditions. During land battles, the British infantry would advance in a line, unhurriedly and silently, toward the enemy fire. In contrast, the French commanders encouraged individual initiative and had trained their troops in athletics, hand-to-hand combat, and mountain climbing. French soldiers rushed to the attack as quickly as possible, in part because their officers believed they would retreat otherwise. Both the French and the Russians would scream and shout as they advanced. The Russian army’s main infantry tactic was to have the troops advance in densely packed columns at the same time as the enemy approached and to fire at the enemy as the Russians advanced. The troops were told that aiming was not important, and few of the bullets found their mark, because target practice was not part of a Russian soldier’s normal training. After using their firearms, the Russians would then charge with their bayonets. The types of advances used by all of the armies in the Crimean War actually made it easier for the enemy to kill the advancing soldiers. Troops were often under fire for more than a mile before they engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Moreover, in their brightly colored uniforms, soldiers could be seen so far away that advances lacked any element of surprise. Joint maneuvers also proved difficult during the war. No army would agree to deviate from its tactics in order to better synchronize an attack. Instead, for instance, the British soldiers were told to maintain the discipline of their advance and not to try to match the pace set by the French. Commanders, often within the same army, proved reluctant to communicate with one another during a battle.

Should an infantryman survive the initial advance and meet the enemy, hand-to-hand combat would begin. All types of weapons would be used: bayonets, swords, stones, even feet and teeth for kicking and biting. Rifle butts frequently served as clubs. All troops were trained to rely on their bayonets more than any other weapon.

The cavalries were also part of land battles during the Crimean War. Both the British and the French successfully used cavalry charges against the enemy. They benefited because Russian infantrymen were not instructed on how to defend themselves against enemy cavalry charges. In contrast, Russian dragoons would ride into battle but fought on foot, and the regular Russian cavalry did not demonstrate the iron discipline needed for a successful charge. Things were even more difficult for the Turks; the Bashi-Bazouks, although clearly the most superb of the Turkish horsemen, refused to fight against regular cavalry and had to be used to terrorize enemy civilians instead.

Infantry advances and cavalry charges continued to be used during the Siege of Sevastopol but were supplemented with several other tactics as well. Before the soldiers would attack, the Allied armies would pound the city with heavy artillery bombardments and try to tunnel under the Russian fortifications. New long-range rifles meant that sharpshooting emerged as an effective tactic during the Crimean War. Under the cover of darkness, a sniper would crawl toward the enemy lines and dig a foxhole. Then he would wait until daylight revealed a target. Other nighttime activities developed during the Siege of Sevastopol, in which the Russians engaged in nighttime raids on enemy trenches in order to kill sleeping soldiers and capture prisoners who could supply them with information. Indeed, all sides relied on spies to obtain information about the enemy. Suspected spies, however, would be shot if they were captured.

Books and Articles Almond, Ian. “The Crimean War, 1853-6: Muslims on All Sides.” In Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Baumgart, Winfried. The Crimean War, 1853-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Curtiss, J. S. The Russian Army Under Nicholas I, 1825-1855. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1965. Edgerton, R. Death or Glory: The Legacy of the Crimean War. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Fletcher, Ian, and Natalia Ishchenko. The Crimean War: AClash of Empires. Staplehurst, Kent, England: Spellmount, 2004. Fuller, W. C., Jr. Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914. New York: Free Press, 1992. Grainger, John D. The First Pacific War: Britain and Russia, 1854-1856. Rochester, N. Y.: Boydell Press, 2008. Griffith, P. Military Thought in the French Army, 1815-51. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989. Harris, Stephen. British Military Intelligence in the Crimean War, 1854-1856. London: Frank Cass, 1999. Lambert, A. D. The Crimean War: The British Grand Strategy, 1853-56. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990. Small, Hugh. The Crimean War: Queen Victoria’s War with the Russian Tsars. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2007. Sweetman, John. Balaclava, 1854: The Charge of the Light Brigade. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1990. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. _______. The Crimean War. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2001. Thomas, R., and R. Scollins. The Russian Army of the Crimean War, 1854-56. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1991. Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. ABrief History of the Crimean War: The Causes and Consequences of a Medieval Conflict Fought in a Modern Age. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Armies at the time of the Crimean War

  1. Pingback: The Crimean War | Weapons and Warfare

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