The wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 further convinced Nicholas of the danger of instability, leading him to crack down domestically. This succeeded: Russia and Britain were the only two powers to escape upheaval in 1848. He had limited opportunities to use Russian military power against the 1848 revolutions, but did assist the Turks in suppressing revolution in the Danubian Principalities. The most important Russian intervention came in assisting Austria to crush a Hungarian uprising that took half the empire out of Vienna’s control. Deeply humiliated by his failure to defeat Hungary himself, Emperor Franz Joseph finally agreed to Russian assistance in spring 1849; 350,000 Russian troops poured into Hungary, restoring the Austrian Empire and withdrawing without incident. Nicholas clearly believed he had accumulated some moral capital. On the contrary, as Austrian chancellor Felix Schwarzenberg correctly predicted, Austria would shock the world with the extent of her ingratitude.
The Crimean War exhibits an extraordinary contrast between the deep forces pushing for war and the comical superficial causes. The long-term problem remained the Ottoman Empire’s long, steady decline, a decline that Russia promoted while enjoying its territorial benefits. For a brief time in the 1830s, Russia treated the Ottoman Empire as a protectorate instead of a target, but by the 1840s Nicholas again saw the Ottoman Empire as an arena for expansion. British mistrust over Russian expansionism in the Near East and in central Asia, threatening Britain’s colonial empire, grew and flourished, especially after Nicholas broached the subject of a partition of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s previous wars made it abundantly clear the Turks could not resist Russia alone. Britain, however, feared Russia’s march south toward its Indian Empire and the Mediterranean sea-lanes. In France, the 1848 revolution had concluded with Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, elected French president. Eager to emulate his uncle’s prestige while building support among French Catholics, Louis Napoleon pressured the Turks to allow France a special position as protector of Catholics in the Holy Land, at the expense of Orthodox Christians.
The Holy Land gave ample opportunity for Catholic-Orthodox conflict. Communities of Catholic and Orthodox monks had disputed control of Christian sites for decades, disputes often degenerating into fistfights. Wrestling monks had little to do with power politics, but symbolized a larger question of French or Russian predominance in the Near East. The Ottoman government was caught in-between. Given Russian determination to expand, Turkish determination to resist, and British and French determination to knock back Russian power, any pretext might start a war.
That pretext came in spring 1853 when Aleksandr Sergeevich Menshikov, Russian envoy to the Turks, demanded concessions from the Ottomans, including expanded Orthodox rights in the Holy Land and recognition of Russia as protector for all Orthodox under Ottoman rule. These demands were on their face religious, but had a deeper political meaning: was the Ottoman Empire an independent state or a Russian puppet? Nicholas miscalculated badly, expecting French opposition but British and Austrian neutrality. With British and French backing, the Turks refused these demands. Russia responded on 21 June/3 July 1853 by sending its troops into Moldavia and Wallachia, nominally under Ottoman suzerainty.
The Turks did not immediately declare war in response, instead temporizing while awaiting British and French support. In autumn 1853, the British and French fleets sailed into Turkish waters in preparation for a move into the Black Sea, and the reassured Turks declared war on Russia on 4/16 October 1853. Hoping to avoid European intervention and already in possession of the Danubian Principalities, Nicholas assured the other powers that Russia would avoid offensive action. The Turks had no such scruples and crossed the Danube to attack the Russians occupying Moldavia and Wallachia. The Turks went on the offensive in Transcaucasia, also without success. In the Black Sea, the initial fighting produced the first battle of steamships in history on 5/17 November 1853 when the Russian vessel Vladimir captured a Turkish ship.
As indecisive combat on land continued, more important developments took place at sea. A Russian squadron under Pavel Stepanovich Nakhimov trapped a Turkish fleet sheltering under the guns of Sinope, an Ottoman city on the Black Sea. On 18/30 November 1853, Nakhimov attacked the fleet at anchor. Russian exploding shells wreaked havoc on the wooden Turkish ships, sinking or grounding over a dozen. This victory, raising the possibility of complete Russian domination of the Black Sea, provoked the British and French fleets to move into the Black Sea. After Russia rejected an ultimatum to evacuate from Moldavia and Wallachia, Britain and France declared war in March 1854. As in previous Russo-Turkish wars, the greatest danger to Russia was not failure but excessive success.
By May, Russian troops under Ivan Fyodorovich Paskevich were besieging the Turkish fortress of Silistria on the Danube. Paskevich was, however, losing his nerve. His lines of supply and retreat back through Moldavia were long and vulnerable, especially as Austria massed troops along its border. Under pressure from Austria, Russia evacuated the Principalities and, by arrangement with the Turks, Austria occupied them instead. Russian evacuation should have provided an opening to resolve the conflict, for Russian occupation of the Principalities had provoked the Turkish declaration of war in the first place. Instead, Britain and France alike did not want to waste an opportunity to limit Russian power, while Russia saw no need to settle when it had not been defeated on the battlefield.
Britain and France faced a basic strategic problem: from the opposite end of Europe, how could they inflict sufficient pain on Russia to force Nicholas into meaningful concessions? One option was the Baltic Sea. British and French fleets attacked Russian shipping and bombarded ports and fortresses, and the Russian fleet was too weak to leave harbor and resist. While these actions did not induce Sweden to join the war as Britain and France had hoped, they did prove humiliating and forced Nicholas to maintain substantial forces in the north to prevent an amphibious landing. The other option was the Black Sea, where overwhelming British and French naval superiority meant invasion was a possibility anywhere. Britain and France chose to invade the Crimean Peninsula, giving the war its name. Command in the south went to Menshikov, an arrogant and overconfident blowhard whose obnoxious diplomacy helped provoke the war in the first place. Reacting passively to the growing British and French naval presence in the Black Sea, Menshikov failed to improve Crimean fortifications, particularly at the main Russian base of Sevastopol. Though Nicholas attempted to move reinforcements into the Crimea, lack of railroads meant that all troops and supplies inched south at marching speed. It was easier and faster for Britain and France to move troops from London and Paris to the Crimea than for Nicholas to move troops within his own country. By September 1854, Russia had 70,000 soldiers and sailors in the Crimea.
Those 70,000 reveal the extent of the Russian crisis. With potential armed forces of nearly a million men, Russia could spare only 30,000 troops for the Caucasus and 80,000 for the Balkans. Defending Russia’s western border against possible Prussian or Austrian intervention while protecting the Russian coast from British naval attack meant Russia simply lacked men. That was only the beginning of Russian problems. Staff work had been neglected for decades, and there were no coherent war plans. Conscripts still served 25–year terms, reduced to 15 under good conditions. Few soldiers who survived even 15 years were in condition to be brought back in wartime, meaning there were few reserves. Russian infantry were armed with muzzleloading smoothbore muskets, not the much more accurate rifles the British and French had available. Russian tactics were still Napoleonic, relying on dense columns that took no account of rapid advances in the lethality of fire. The Russian navy had not rebuilt for steam power and so could not contest possession of the Black Sea. The war on land was primed for Russian disaster.
On 1/13 September 1854, 60,000 British and French troops and some Turkish contingents landed at Evpatoria, north of Sevastopol. Menshikov did not contest these vulnerable landings, contenting himself with concentrating his troops behind the Alma River, midway between Sevastopol and Evpatoria. This was a strong defensive position, with high ground on its southern bank. That defense still required competent command. Menshikov instead left a mile-long gap between the seacoast and the start of his lines, trusting the cliffs on the riverbank to prevent an enemy attack. He placed his 35,000 Russian troops in dense formations close to the river, not on the higher ground close behind. No effort was made to dig trenches or construct earthworks, and Menshikov left his chain of command vague and disordered. He complacently expected to defeat the British and French by counterattacking as they were hit by defensive fire and thrown into disorder crossing the Alma.
On 8/20 September, the Battle of Alma began with a slow, methodical morning advance by 55,000 allies, the French to the west, the British inland. As British and French naval vessels bombarded Russian positions, French troops speedily worked their way along the seacoast, crossed the Alma, and scaled the undefended cliffs on the south bank. By the time Menshikov knew what had happened, the French were firmly in place on high ground overlooking the Russian left flank and pushing artillery pieces up ravines from the river to enfilade the entire Russian position. Russian troops found themselves under immense pressure all along their front, as their muskets were outranged by more modern allied rifles. Russian troops took casualties from allied rifle fire at distances of more than half a mile, outdistancing even Russian artillery. The entire Russian left caved in, swinging back away from the seacoast and French high ground. On the Russian right, the slowly advancing British took heavy losses from Russian artillery until British riflemen creeping through vineyards along the river silenced Russian guns by long-range fire at their crews. By midafternoon, the Russian right wing had collapsed under repeated British assaults, though it withdrew in reasonably good order. A lack of British and French cavalry prevented the defeat from turning into a rout. An energetic pursuit could have captured Sevastopol, for the Russians lacked any organized troops between the Alma and their base.
The Siege of Sevastopol
Sevastopol lay on the south bank of an inlet from the Black Sea, clustered around a small bay and defended from seaborne attack by 500 guns on both sides of the inlet. Its landward defenses were much shoddier. The city had been left undefended during the battle of the Alma, but the defeated Russians flooded back into it. Panicked at the thought of a seaborne attack, Menshikov scuttled ships to block the inlet’s entrance. He then, however, decided to abandon the base, moving the army inland on 12/24 September and leaving the city’s defense to half-completed fortifications, a small garrison, and sailors of the Black Sea Fleet. With Menshikov’s flight, command went to the inspired leadership of Vladimir Alekseevich Kornilov, ably seconded by Nakhimov.
The British and French were unsure how to attack Sevastopol, whether to move directly south from the Alma to seize the northern shore of the inlet first, to circle east to attack Sevastopol from the south, or to take the city from the sea. Deciding on the southern approach, British forces skirted around Sevastopol to the east to seize the inlet of Balaklava, several miles south of Sevastopol, as an advance base.
Kornilov had only days between Menshikov’s exit and the arrival of the British and French, but the allies did not press their advantage with an immediate attack on Sevastopol. Together with the base’s small civilian population and 25,000 soldiers and sailors left behind, Kornilov improvised a remarkable network of fortifications ringing the city. Bombardment from land and sea began on 5/17 October, with 100,000 shells flying in a single day. The ferocity of the artillery died down over the next few days, and allied efforts to pound the city into submission failed. Kornilov was killed by a cannon ball, and command of the defense went to Nakhimov. The allies sapped trenches closer to the bastions defending Sevastopol’s southern, landward side to take by assault what they did not destroy by bombardment. At the same time, and for the remainder of the siege, the Russian defenders constantly repaired ongoing damage to their siegeworks from artillery bombardment and expanded their network of trenches, foxholes, and strongpoints. Losing hundreds of men every day of the bombardment, the Russian garrison received reinforcements and shipped out wounded while maintaining an active defense.
The feckless Menshikov attempted to relieve beleaguered Sevastopol through an attack on Balaklava, the British base south of Sevastopol. Without waiting to concentrate his forces, on 13/25 October Menshikov threw three columns of troops against the redoubts protecting the approaches to Balaklava. Routing the Turks holding those works, the Russians then ran up against British infantry and cavalry holding a second line of defenses and failed to make further progress. Through miscommunication, British light cavalry were drawn into a hopeless attack, the fabled “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Russian artillery and infantry fire slaughtered them. This tactical success, however, did not enable Menshikov’s men to reach the British base or break the siege.
The allies split their 70,000 troops in two. One half concentrated on Sevastopol, keeping up a periodic bombardment while digging mines under the Russian position. The other half screened the city from Menshikov’s relief troops. Russian reinforcements trickling into the Crimea gave Menshikov a substantial edge in numbers over the allies, an edge he needed to use before the British and French besiegers took Sevastopol’s defending bastions and captured the city. Forced into action by Nicholas despite his own deep reluctance, Menshikov decided to attack a British-held ridge east of Sevastopol, just south of the end of the inlet on which the fortress sat. Menshikov’s goal, though he doubted his chances, was to grab high ground east of Sevastopol to lever the British and French out of their positions ringing the base.
In the Battle of Inkerman on 24 October/5 November 1854, 60,000 Russian troops rushed the high ground east of Sevastopol in uncoordinated masses from the northwest and the northeast. Though enjoying surprise, the attacks ran into accurate British rifle fire and took heavy casualties, made worse by organizational chaos. Though the British were under heavy pressure, French reinforcements from the south restored the situation. The bloody fighting achieved nothing except demoralizing Menshikov and his hapless field force. After this, there seemed little hope of saving Sevastopol. In February 1855, well aware that his bungling was winning him political enemies with every passing day, Menshikov tried to salvage the situation by another offensive. On 5/17 February 1855 he attacked Evpatoria, the initial allied landing site. Though it was defended by Turks, who had not performed well at Balaklava, the Russian attack failed miserably.
To make matters worse, Russia’s diplomatic position was declining rapidly. At the end of 1854 Austria joined the anti-Russian coalition, though it did not intervene militarily. At the beginning of 1855, tiny Piedmont- Sardinia joined the alliance, though in pursuit of European influence, not from antipathy toward Russia. Confronted by defeat after defeat, and worn down by the strain of his responsibilities as autocrat, Nicholas died on 18 February/2 March 1855. Before his death, he directed his son and heir Alexander II to dismiss Menshikov. Mikhail Dmitrievich Gorchakov, an aged veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, took over as commander in chief in the Crimea. He continued to funnel soldiers into Sevastopol, as the Anglo-French net around the base was never complete.
By June 1855, allied trenches were close enough to Russian bastions to make an assault conceivable. The French and British planned a major attack on Sevastopol’s eastern perimeter for 6/18 June 1855, the anniversary of Waterloo. The predawn attack was detected by Russian outposts and defeated by morning. Only one bastion was temporarily captured by the French, and it was recaptured just as quickly. The boost to Russian morale proved counterproductive and temporary. It raised false hopes the war might still be won, and only days later Nakhimov was mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet.
Though Alexander harbored little hope for victory, he did not wish to begin his reign with ignominious surrender. With deep misgivings, Gorchakov and his commanders agreed to another attack on the allied ring east of Sevastopol. This assault was directed at the Fediukhin Heights, an isolated mass of high ground physically separate from the plateau on which the British and French shielded Sevastopol, so even Russian success would be pointless. Gorchakov’s ambivalence extended to his organization of the attack, which was extraordinarily indecisive and timid. On the morning of 4/16 August 1855, four Russian infantry divisions in succession and under fire crossed swamps, a river, a canal, and assaulted dug-in French troops on the heights. Predictably, they were shot down with no discernible result, losing 8,000 killed or wounded.
This desperate Russian attack convinced the allies victory was close, and the bombardment of Sevastopol intensified. Ammunition shortages meant that the Russian defenders could not respond. Expecting an epic final assault at night, the Russians were taken by surprise by the massive French storm at midday on 27 August/8 September 1855. On the southeastern side, using surprise, the French fought their way into a key bastion on the Malakhov Heights, from which repeated and bloody Russian attacks could not expel them. Other French assaults on the southwestern defenses achieved little, as did British attacks on the southern defenses. Those failures were irrelevant, for French possession of the Malakhov bastion made the entire defense of Sevastopol untenable. After a day that left 25,000 killed or wounded on both sides, though, the allies were in no position to press their advantage. This allowed Gorchakov to evacuate the remainder of the Sevastopol garrison by boat and pontoon bridge across to the northern side of the inlet. The yearlong siege of Sevastopol killed and wounded 170,000 men, not including the tens of thousands the British and French lost to disease.
With Sevastopol fallen, there was no longer any way of denying Russia’s utter defeat, but peace negotiations seemed hopeless. Only substantial victories against the Turks in the Caucasus gave any leverage at the bargaining table. On-and-off negotiations since mid-1854 had made no progress. An Austrian ultimatum at the end of 1855 warning of war unless Russia capitulated finally forced Alexander to accept terms. The settlement was not unduly harsh on Russia itself, though it produced a substantial setback in Russian influence over the Ottoman Empire and in the Balkans. The demilitarization of the Black Sea deprived Russia of its Black Sea Fleet and prevented any naval defense against future interventions like the invasion of the Crimea. Far more serious than the penalties of the peace settlement was the destruction, for Russians and foreigners alike, of the illusion of Russian military power. Something had to change.