Soldiers of the Crimean War (1853-56)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, Sardinia, Austria, and Prussia, vs. Russia

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): The Crimea

DECLARATION: October 4, 1853, Ottoman Empire against Russia

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Russia claimed an exclusive right to protect Orthodox Christians within the territory of the Ottoman Empire; the Ottomans rejected this, and the Russians responded by invading Moldavia and Wallachia, whereupon the Ottoman Empire declared war. Fearing Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Dardanelles, the Western powers, led by Britain and France, allied themselves with the Ottomans.

OUTCOME: Russia renounced its role as protector of the Orthodox; the autonomy of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia was guaranteed; doctrines upholding the principle of freedom of the seas were affirmed.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Russia, 888,000; France, 309,268; Britain, 97,864; Ottoman Empire, 165,000; Sardinia, 21,000

CASUALTIES: Russia, 73,125 battle deaths; France, 20,240 battle deaths; Britain, 4,602 battle deaths; Ottoman Empire, 20,900 battle deaths; Sardinia, 28 battle deaths; many more soldiers died of illness, for a total of 615,378 dead on all sides.

TREATIES: Treaty of Paris, March 30, 1856

The Crimean War is noteworthy on at least two counts: first, as the only European war Britain fought after the conclusion of the NAPOLEONIC WARS in 1815 and before the opening of WORLD WAR I in 1914, and second, as a showcase of logistical incompetence and poor generalship on all sides.

The war began as a dispute between Russian Orthodox priests and French Catholics over who had precedence at the holy places in Jerusalem and Nazareth. After the dispute turned violent, Russia’s czar, Nicholas I (1796-1855), asserted his nation’s duty and right to protect Orthodox Christians as well as Christian shrines in the Holy Land and elsewhere within the Ottoman realm. To show that he meant business, Nicholas invaded Wallachia and Moldavia, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire. On November 5, 1853, a Russian naval squadron attacked and destroyed a Turkish flotilla off Sinope in the Black Sea. British newspapers reported-falsely-that the Russians had purposely fired on wounded Turkish sailors. Presumably, the news reports were planted by the British government, which wanted an excuse to declare war on the Russians in order to forestall their domination of Constantinople and the Dardanelles Strait. For his part, French emperor Napoleon III (1808-73) was eager for a war that would give him an opportunity to emulate the military prowess of his uncle, Napoleon I (1769-1821). Moreover, he felt an obligation to protect the French monks in Jerusalem. Thus, each for their own reasons, Britain and France allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

A combined British and French fleet sailed into the Black Sea and ordered the Russians to withdraw from Wallachia and Moldavia. When Russia refused, war was declared. Austria allied itself with Prussia and, securing Ottoman permission, invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, driving the Russians out by the summer of 1854. This should have brought an end to the war, but Britain and France decided that the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol was a threat to the region and to freedom of the seas. Accordingly, in September 1854 a combined expeditionary force of British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish soldiers landed on the Crimean Peninsula and moved against Sevastopol. The principal British commander was the superannuated Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, lord Raglan (1788-1855), who had not seen service since the Battle of Waterloo.

By the time the allies landed at Calamita Bay on September 13, 1854, many had fallen ill with cholera and dysentery; disease would prove the deadliest foe in this war. The landing was managed poorly, and the British were particularly disorganized. Fortunately for the allies, the landings were unopposed. Three rivers lay between Calamita Bay and Sevastopol. At the second of these, the Alma, a Russian army under Prince Aleksandr Mentschikoff (1787-1869) took its stand. Not only did the Russians enjoy superiority of numbers, they commanded a narrow pass and held ground that was well defended. It should have been an easy victory for them, but in the confusion of battle they misread the strength of the Highland Brigade. These superbly trained troops conducted a fighting advance, firing while advancing. It was a maneuver unknown to the Russians, who panicked and fell back. Thanks to the Highlanders, the Battle of the Alma became a Russian rout.

Defeated, the Russians retreated inland and, as the siege of Sevastopol began, they regrouped along the British flank. As the British and French laboriously prepared their siege works, the Russians struck against the British right flank. Once again, it was Colin Cambell’s (1792-1863) Highlanders who drove off the first wave of Russian cavalry, but an even larger body of Russian cavalry advanced against the British headquarters. The British cavalry was led by General Sir James Scarlett (1799- 1871), who ordered a charge into the much stronger Russians. Tactically, it approached being a suicide mission, yet its ferocity and execution overwhelmed the numerically superior Russians, who retreated.

The battlefield at Balaclava was extremely hilly, and Lord Raglan was anxious to gain the high ground. Accordingly, he ordered George Charles Bingham, lord Lucan (1800-88), the commander of the cavalry, to regain the heights at any cost. Because infantry support failed to materialize, Lucan refused to move. When the Russians began to remove the guns they had captured from British positions, Raglan demanded that Lucan prevent their removal-again at all costs. Lucan in turn ordered the Light Brigade, led by James Thomas Brudenell, lord Cardigan (1797-1868), to take the lead. The Light Brigade advanced into a trap of massed Russian infantry and cavalry on both sides of the valley and ahead of them. When Cardigan protested the folly of charging an unassailable position, Lucan reminded him that his orders came directly from Lord Raglan, the commander in chief. Without further protest, then, Cardigan ordered the bugler to sound the charge, and the Light Brigade advanced into what Alfred, lord Tennyson (1809-92), in his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” would call the “valley of death.” Of the 673 men who advanced, fewer than 200 returned, and most of these were wounded.

The British claimed the Battle of Balaklava as a victory, but, in fact, they had failed to dislodge the Russians from the strategic position of the Causeway Heights. Nevertheless, the principal Russian forces had been flung back. The Russians counterattacked at the Battle of Inkerman, which was fought largely hand-to-hand in a thick fog. A slugfest, the battle resulted in yet another Russian retreat. From this point on the Allies advanced slowly upon Sevastopol, enduring, as they inched forward, a bitter winter. The great scandal of the war was the corruption, heartlessness, and general incompetence of the British commissary department, which failed properly to clothe, feed, and shelter the freezing troops. It was in this context that the British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) campaigned so vigorously for sanitary and decent treatment of the sick and wounded at the hospital in Scutari.

In the meantime, Malakov and Redan, the two main Russian fortifications overlooking Sevastopol, fell on September 8 and 9, 1855. This led to the fall of Sevastopol itself, whereupon Czar Alexander II (1818-81), who had succeeded his father, Nicholas I, opened peace negotiations-even as the war continued to rage in the Caucasus. The Russian siege of Kars, an Ottoman fortress, proved successful, the Turks succumbing mostly to starvation and disease. However, British and French naval bombardment of Russia’s Baltic fortresses continued unremittingly, and Alexander at last agreed to the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856.

Russia relinquished its self-proclaimed role as protector of the Orthodox in the Ottoman realms, and the Russians as well as the Turks agreed to recognize self-government in Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia. Issues relating to domination of the Dardanelles were also resolved, with all sides agreeing to recognize a general principle of freedom of the seas.

Further reading: Deborah Bachrach, Crimean War (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997); Winfried Baumgart, Crimean War, 1853-1856 (London: Hodder Arnold, 1999); Trevor Royle, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Philip Warner, The Crimean War: A Reappraisal (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2000).

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