Ottoman -Russian positions around the town of Kars in the Caucasus Mountains.
The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinope on 30 November 1853 sparked the war; painting by Ivan Aivazovsky.
Russia and the Ottoman Empire massed forces on two main fronts, the Caucasus and the Danube. Ottoman leader Omar Pasha managed to achieve some victories on the Danubian front. In the Caucasus, the Ottomans were able to stand ground with the help of Chechen Muslims led by Imam Shamil.
An Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Sinope, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, by a Russian squadron, on 30 November 1853. This action is notable for being the first use of shell guns in naval warfare.
A dispute over the role of Russia’s Tsar in protecting Christians in the Ottoman Empire resulted in a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that broke out in July 1853 when a Russian army crossed the Danube border and occupied the largely Christian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. The move provoked a general European crisis, as the French, under Napoleon III, had been agitating to replace the Russian Tsar as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman army checked the Russian advance, although no major battles were fought. The most influential event occurred in the war at sea.
A Russian squadron cruising off the Turkish coast discovered that their Ottoman counterparts had anchored in the port of Sinope in order to shelter from bad weather. The Russian commander, Vice Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, took the decision to attack. The Ottomans – 12 ships in total – were deployed in the typical crescent formation they adopted in port. Nakhimov ordered his ships – eight vessels, six of them larger than any of the Ottoman vessels – to sail into the harbour in a two-line formation. The Russians opened fire on the Ottomans and within a couple of hours had destroyed all but one of the opposition. Some 3,000 Ottomans perished, and Admiral Osman Pasha was taken prisoner. Russian losses were limited to about 300.
The Russian achievement shocked both France and Britain, to whom the Ottoman Empire turned for support. On 28 March 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia, thus beginning the Crimean War.
After nine months of conflict, Britain and France have the strategic advantage in a war with Russia, the allies’ strategy having been advanced on two fronts, in the Baltic and in the Black Sea.
The war began as a military expedition to drive the Russians out of Moldavia and Wallachia, but the Russian Tsar withdrew his troops even before the arrival of British and French forces.
The allied army, numbering about 60,000, then landed at Kalamata Bay, in the Crimea, in September 1854. The objective was to capture the main Russian naval port in the Black Sea, at Sevastopol, but Russian defenders blocked their route at the Alma River. The allies attacked, but did not co-ordinate their moves properly. As a result, the British suffered needlessly heavy casualties in driving the Russians out of their position.
Although Sevastopol was placed under siege in October, the Russian commander at the Alma, Prince Menshikov, kept part of his army in the field. On 25 October, he led a raid against the British base of Balaclava, on the right of the allied siege lines. The Russians succeeded in capturing allied positions on the Causeway Heights overlooking Balaclava and their cavalry advanced against the port, but they were defeated by the “Thin Red Line” of the 93rd Highlanders. Meanwhile, another cavalry force directed at the rear of the British siege lines was engaged by the British Heavy Brigade and driven off.
The Battle of Balaclava is best remembered, though, for a British military disaster. The Russians were removing the guns from the redoubts the Ottomans had defended along the Causeway Heights. The British commander, Lord Raglan, sent an order to the Light Brigade to stop the Russians doing so. Its commander, Lord Cardigan, did not have the same view of the battlefield, and the only guns he could see were those positioned by the Russians in the valley between the Causeway Heights and the Sapoune Heights. Disastrously, he charged these, and lost half his command in a needless effort.
Eleven days later, on 5 November, Menshikov attacked the British again, at Inkerman. The Russians suffered extremely heavily in this battle and it marked the end of Menshikov’s career. As winter settled in, both sides turned their attention to the siege.
After a siege lasting nearly a year, the garrison of the Russian naval base of Sevastopol abandoned it to the allied armies on 11 September 1855. The evacuation was caused by the capture of the Kornilov Redoubt, a key position on the Malakoff Hill overlooking the city, during an allied assault. The French had pushed forward their trenches to within 84 feet (26 m) of the Russian defences, and synchronized their assault using watches. Although the fighting was hard, by throwing a whole corps into the assault – some 10,000 men – the French simply overwhelmed the defenders.
The allied success has come after months of frustration. Following a failed assault on Sevastopol in October 1854 and the Russian assault on the allied siege lines in November of the same year, both sides devoted more of their effort to coping with the harsh weather than to pursuing the siege aggressively. Disease and bad weather had badly affected the allies. The ordinary British soldier suffered terribly, especially compared to his French counterpart, who had at least been provided with timber huts. One British regiment, the 28th Foot, 783 strong when it embarked for the Crimea, lost 265 men dead to disease, malnutrition and exposure alone, before any losses to enemy action.
When the late Russian Tsar, Nicholas, learned of the difficulties the weather was causing the allied troops his confidence had risen. He believed that “Generals January and February” would transform the Russian chances of victory dramatically. However, his generals in the field were less enthusiastic about their chances and, after the failure of a probe at Eupatoria on 17 February, a new commander, Prince Dmitri Gorchakov, was appointed.
The siege was an impressive engineering effort on both sides. There had been a number of major assaults on the Russian defences prior to the final one, and the one of 18 June 1855 in particular was intended to capture the city for the allies. Some 10,000 men from both sides were killed or wounded in this attack.
A Russian attack on the French in August, at the Tchernaya River, was intended as a last attempt to break the siege. If it failed, Gorchakov believed nothing could save Sevastopol. Reinforcements from the rest of Russia arrived in the Crimea after long marches across the Ukraine and were barely fit for service; the same problems of deaths through disease and lack of supplies affected the Russians as the allies.
As it was, the attack failed miserably, in part because Gorchakov did not expect it to succeed. It was a gesture, not a serious attempt and was followed by a 20-day allied bombardment that ended with the assault and capture of the Kornilov Redoubt.
The Ottoman armed forces
The Ottoman armed forces, having begun their war with Russia badly, eventually played an important role in the allied victory.
The Ottomans fought on three fronts in the war. Their first campaigns were against the Russians in the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Here, they managed to halt the Russian advance, although they could not on their own reverse the Russian occupation of these vassal states of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans were also involved in an offensive into the areas of Georgia and Armenia controlled by Russia. Here the Ottomans experienced less success than they did in the Balkans. In 1854, three battles resulted in the Ottomans being forced back into the city of Kars. However, this strongpoint would defy the Russians until after Sevastopol had fallen, in part owing to the efforts of a British officer seconded to the Ottomans, Nova Scotian-born William Fenwick Williams.
The garrison managed to keep the Russians out of Kars from the beginning of the siege in June 1855 until the end of it in November the same year.
Siege of Kars
After neglecting the fronts in Asia Minor and the Caucasus for so long, the main concern for Britain was the Russian siege of Kars. Alexander stepped up pressure on the Turkish fortress town to strengthen his negotiating position in peace talks with the British following the downfall of Sevastopol. The capture of Kars would open the way for the Tsar’s troops to advance towards Erzurum and Anatolia, threatening British interests on the land route to India. Alexander had ordered the attack against Kars in June in the hope of diverting allied troops from Sevastopol. A Russian force of 21,000 infantry, 6,000 Cossacks and 88 guns led by General Muraviev advanced from the Russian-Turkish border to Kars, 70 kilometres away, where a Turkish force of 18,000 troops under the command of the British General William Williams, knowing they would be defeated in an open battlefield, had spent all their energies on the fortification of the town. Among the many foreign officers in the Turkish force at Kars – a legion of Polish, Italian and Hungarian refugees from the failed rebellions of 1848–9 – there were many skilful engineers. The Russians launched their first attack on 16 June, but when this was vigorously repulsed they laid siege to the city, intending to starve the city’s defenders into surrendering. The Russians saw the siege of Kars as their answer to the allied siege of Sevastopol.
The Turks favoured sending an expeditionary force to relieve Kars. Omer Pasha pleaded with the British and the French to let him redeploy his Turkish forces in Kerch and Evpatoria (some 25,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry) and ‘throw myself upon some point of the coast of Circassia, and by menacing from thence the communication of the Russians, oblige them to abandon the siege of Kars’. The allied commanders were reluctant to make a decision and passed the matter on to the politicians in London and Paris, who were at first unwilling to move the Turkish contingent from the Crimea, and then approved the plan in general terms but argued over the best way to get to Kars. It was only on 6 September that Omer Pasha left the Crimea for Sukhumi, on the Georgian coast, from where it would take his army of 40,000 men several weeks to cross the southern Caucasus.
Meanwhile Muraviev was getting restless before Kars. The siege had taken a terrible toll on the town’s defenders, who suffered from shortages of food and from cholera; but Sevastopol had fallen, the Tsar needed Kars quickly, and with Omer Pasha’s army on its way, he could not wait for the blockade to break the morale of the Turks. On 29 September the Russians launched a full-scale assault on the bastions of Kars. Despite their weakened state, the Turkish forces fought extremely well, deploying their artillery to great effect, and the Russians suffered heavy casualties, about 2,500 dead and twice that number wounded, compared to about 1,000 Turkish casualties. Muraviev returned to his siege tactics. By mid-October, when Omer Pasha, after several delays, was only just beginning his long march south from Sukhumi, the defenders of Kars were starving; the hospital was packed with victims of scurvy. Women were bringing their children to the house of General Williams and leaving them there for him to feed. The horses of the town had all been slaughtered for their meat. People were reduced to eating grass and roots.
On 22 October word arrived that Selim Pasha, Omer Pasha’s son, had landed an army of 20,000 men on the north coast of Turkey and was marching towards Erzurum. But by the time he reached the town, only a few days’ march away, the situation in Kars had become even worse: a hundred people were dying every day, and soldiers were deserting all the time. Among those who were fit to struggle on, morale sank to an all-time low. Heavy snowfalls at the end of October made it practically impossible for the Turkish relief forces to reach Kars. Omer Pasha’s army was held up by Russian forces in Mingrelia, and then showed no sign of hurrying towards Kars, resting for five days in Zugdedi, the capital of Mingrelia, where the troops became distracted by pillaging and kidnapping children to sell as slaves. From there, they failed to make much headway in very heavy rain through the deeply forested and marshy territory. Selim Pasha’s forces were even slower to advance from Erzurum. It turned out that he did not have 20,000 men, but less than half that number, far too few to defeat Muraviev’s forces on their own, so Selim Pasha decided not to try. On 22 November a note was handed by a British diplomat to General Williams, informing him that Selim Pasha’s army would not come to Kars. With all hope gone, Williams surrendered the garrison to Muraviev, who, to his credit, ensured that the 4,000 sick and wounded Turkish soldiers were well cared for, and distributed food to the 30,000 soldiers and civilians he had starved into submission.