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Crimean War

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Crimean War
Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904).
Date 1853–1856
Location Crimean Peninsula,
Black Sea,
Baltic Sea
Result Allied victory, Treaty of Paris
France French Empire
Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire
United Kingdom British Empire
Piedmont-Sardinia Kingdom of Sardinia
Russian Empire Russian Empire
Bulgaria Bulgarian Legion
total: 1,000,000
300,000 Turks
400,000 French
250,000 British
30,000 Sardinians
4,250 German brigade
2,200 Swiss brigade
700,000 Russians
7,000 Bulgarians
Casualties and losses
374,600 total dead
French: 100,000 of which 10,240 killed in action; 20,000 died of wounds; ca 70,000 died of disease
British: 2,755 killed in action; 2,019 died of wounds; 16,323 died of disease
Sardinians: 36 casualties
Italians: 2,050 died from all causes
Turks: total dead and wounded 200,000 est.
total dead est. 50,000
143,000 total dead:
25,000 killed in action
16,000 died of wounds
89,000 died of disease

The Crimean War (October 1853–February 1856) was fought between the Russian Empire on one side and an alliance of the British Empire, France, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia on the other. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. Most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula, but there were smaller campaigns in western Turkey, the Baltic Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the White Sea.

The war has gone by different names. In Russia it is also known as the "Oriental War" (Russian: Восточная война, Vostochnaya Voina), and in Britain at the time it was sometimes known as the "Russian War".

The Crimean War is notorious for the logistical and tactical errors on both sides. Nonetheless, it is considered to be the first "modern" war as it "introduced technical changes which affected the future course of warfare," including the first tactical use of railways and the telegraph. It is also famous for the work of Florence Nightingale, who pioneered modern nursing practices while caring for wounded British soldiers.

The Crimean War was also the first to be extensively documented in photographs.

Pre-battle tensions

Conflict over the Holy Land

The chain of events leading to France and Britain declaring war on Russia on 27 March and 28 March 1854 can be traced to the coup d'état of 1851 in France. Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to attempt to force the Ottomans to recognize France as the "sovereign authority" in the Holy Land.

Russia disputed this newest change in "authority" in the Holy Land. Pointing to two more treaties, one in 1757 and the other in 1774, the Ottomans reversed their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty and insisting that Russia was the protector of the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon III responded with a show of force, sending the ship of the line Charlemagne to the Black Sea, a violation of the London Straits Convention. France's show of force, combined with aggressive diplomacy and money, induced Sultan Abdülmecid I to accept a new treaty, confirming France and the Roman Catholic Church as the supreme Christian authority in the Holy Land with control over the Christian holy places and possession of the keys to the Church of the Nativity, previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Tsar Nicholas I then deployed his 4th and 5th Army Corps along the River Danube, and had Count Karl Nesselrode, his foreign minister, undertake talks with the Ottomans. Nesselrode confided to Sir George Hamilton Seymour, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg:

[The dispute over the holy places] had assumed a new character - that the acts of injustice towards the Greek church which it had been desired to prevent had been perpetrated and consequently that now the object must be to find a remedy for these wrongs. The success of French negotiations at Constantinople was to be ascribed solely to intrigue and violence - violence which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio of kings, being, it had been seen, the means which the present ruler of France was in the habit of employing in the first instance.

As conflict loomed over the question of the holy places, Nicholas I and Nesselrode began a diplomatic offensive which they hoped would prevent either Britain's or France's interfering in any conflict between Russia and the Ottomans, as well as to prevent their allying together.

Cornet Henry Wilkin, 11th Hussars, British Army. Photo by Roger Fenton

Nicholas began courting Britain through Seymour. Nicholas insisted that he no longer wished to expand Imperial Russia, but that he had an obligation to Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire. The Tsar next dispatched a diplomat, Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Ottoman Sublime Porte. By previous treaties, the Sultan was committed "to protect the Christian religion and its churches". Menshikov attempted to negotiate a new sened, a formal convention with the power of an international treaty, under which the Ottomans would allow to Russia the same rights of intervention in the affairs of the Orthodox religion as recently allowed France in respect of Catholic churches and churchmen. Such a treaty would allow Russia to control the Orthodox Church's hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire. Menshikov arrived at Constantinople on 16 February 1853 on the steam-powered warship Gromovnik. Menshikov broke protocol at the Porte when, at his first meeting with the Sultan, he condemned the Ottomans' concessions to the French. Menshikov also began demanding the replacement of highly-placed Ottoman civil servants.

The British embassy at Constantinople at the time was being run by Hugh Rose, chargé d'affaires for the British. Using his considerable resources within the Ottoman Empire, Rose gathered intelligence on Russian troop movements along the Danube frontier, and became concerned about the extent of Menshikov's mission to the Porte. Rose, using his authority as the British representative to the Ottomans, ordered a British squadron of warships to depart early for an eastern Mediterranean cruise and head for Constantinople. However, Rose's actions were not backed up by Whitley Dundas, the British admiral in command of the squadron, who resented the diplomat for believing he could interfere in the Admiralty's business. Within a week, Rose's actions were cancelled. Only the French sent a naval task force to support the Ottomans.

First hostilities

Battle of Sinope, by Ivan Aivazovsky

At the same time, however, the British government of Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen sent Lord Stratford. Lord Stratford convinced the Sultan to reject the treaty, which compromised the independence of the Turks. Benjamin Disraeli blamed Aberdeen and Stratford's actions for making war inevitable, thus starting the process by which Aberdeen would be forced to resign for his role in starting the war. Shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov's diplomacy, the Tsar marched his armies into Moldavia and Wallachia (principalities along the Danube, under Ottoman suzerainty, in which Russia was acknowledged as a special guardian of the Orthodox Church), using the Sultan's failure to resolve the issue of the Holy Places as a pretext. Nicholas believed that the European powers, especially Austria, would not object strongly to the annexation of a few neighbouring Ottoman provinces, especially given Russia had assisted Austria's efforts in suppressing the Revolutions of 1848.

When on 2 July 1853 the Tsar sent his troops into the " Danubian Principalities", Britain, hoping to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Russian power in Asia, sent a fleet to the Dardanelles, where it joined another fleet sent by France. At the same time, however, the European powers hoped for a diplomatic compromise. The representatives of the four neutral Great Powers — Britain, France, Austria and Prussia — met in Vienna, where they drafted a note which they hoped would be acceptable to the Russians and Ottomans. The note met with the approval of Nicholas I; it was, however, rejected by Abdülmecid I, who felt that the document's poor phrasing left it open to many different interpretations. Britain, France and Austria were united in proposing amendments to mollify the Sultan, but their suggestions were ignored in the court of St Petersburg.

Britain and France set aside the idea of continuing negotiations, but Austria and Prussia did not believe that the rejection of the proposed amendments justified the abandonment of the diplomatic process. The Sultan formally declared war on 23 October 1853 and proceeded to the attack, his armies moving on the Russian army near the Danube later that month. Russia and the Ottoman empire massed forces on two main fronts, the Caucasus and the Danubian front. The Ottoman leader Omar Pasha managed to pull in 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 Shamel. Nicholas responded by dispatching warships, which in the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853 destroyed a patrol squadron of Ottoman frigates and corvettes while they were anchored at the port of Sinop, northern Turkey. The destruction of the Turkish ships provided Britain and France the casus belli for declaring war against Russia, on the side of the Ottoman Empire. By 28 March 1854, after Russia ignored an Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Danubian Principalities, Britain and France had formally declared war.

Mahmudiye (1829), ordered by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II and built by the Imperial Naval Arsenal on the Golden Horn in Istanbul, was for many years the largest warship in the world. The 62x17x7 m ship-of-the-line was armed with 128 cannons on 3 decks. She participated in many important naval battles, including the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855) during the Crimean War (1854-1856). She was decommissioned in 1875

Peace attempts

Nicholas felt that because of Russian assistance in suppressing the Hungarian revolt of 1848, Austria would side with him, or at the very least remain neutral. Austria, however, felt threatened by the Russian troops. When Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from the principalities, Austria supported them and, though it did not immediately declare war on Russia, it refused to guarantee its neutrality.

Russia then withdrew its troops from the Danubian principalites, which were then occupied by Austria for the duration of the war. This removed the original grounds for war, but Britain and France continued with hostilities. Determined to address the Eastern Question by putting an end to the Russian threat to the Ottoman Empire, the allies proposed several conditions for a peaceful resolution, including:

  1. Russia was to give up its protectorate over the Danubian Principalities;
  2. It was to abandon any claim granting it the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs on behalf of Orthodox Christians;
  3. The Straits Convention of 1841 was to be revised;
  4. All nations were to be granted access to the River Danube.

When the Tsar refused to comply with these Four Points, the Crimean War commenced.


Map of Crimean War
French zouaves and Russian soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Malakhov Kurgan

Siege of Sevastopol

During the following month, though the immediate cause of war was withdrawn, allied troops landed in the Crimea and besieged the city of Sevastopol, home of the Tsar's Black Sea Fleet and the associated threat of potential Russian penetration into the Mediterranean.

The Russians had to scuttle their ships, and used the naval cannons as additional artillery and the ships' crews as marines. During the siege, the Russians lost four 110- or 120-gun 3-decker ships of the line, twelve 84-gun 2-deckers and four 60-gun frigates in the Black Sea, plus a large number of smaller vessels. Admiral Nakhimov suffered a fatal bullet wound to the head and died on 30 June 1855. The city was captured in September 9, 1855, after about a year-long siege.

Azov Campaign

In spring 1855, the allied British-French commanders decided to send an Anglo-French naval squadron into the Azov Sea to undermine Russian communications and supplies to besieged Sevastopol. On May 12, 1855 British-French war ships entered the Kerch Strait and destroyed the coast battery of the Kamishevaya Bay. On 21 May 1855 the gunboats and armed steamers attacked the seaport of Taganrog, the most important hub in proximity to Rostov on Don. The vast amounts of food, especially bread, wheat, barley, and rye that were amassed in the city after the outbreak of war were prevented from being exported.

Bombardment of Taganrog from a British raft during the first siege attempt

The Governor of Taganrog, Yegor Tolstoy and lieutenant-general Ivan Krasnov refused the ultimatum, responding that "Russians never surrender their cities". The British-French squadron bombarded Taganrog for 6 1/2 hours and landed 300 troops near the Old Stairway in the downtown Taganrog, but they were thrown back by Don Cossacks and a volunteer corps.

In July, 1855 the allied squadron tried to go past Taganrog to Rostov on Don, entering the Don River through the Mius River. On 12 July 1855 H.M.S. Jasper grounded near Taganrog thanks to a fisherman who repositioned the buoys into shallow waters. The Cossacks captured the gunboat with all of its guns and blew it up. The third siege attempt was made August 19-31, 1855, but the city was already fortified and the squadron could not approach close enough for landing operations. The allied fleet left the Gulf of Taganrog on September 2, 1855, with minor military operations along the Azov Sea coast continuing until late autumn 1855.

Caucasus theatre

There was fighting between the Russians and the Turks in the Caucasus, which included the Battle of Kurekdere in 1854, and the siege of Kars (a Turkish fortress) by the Russians in 1855.

Baltic theatre

The Baltic was a forgotten theatre of the Crimean War. The popularisation of events elsewhere had overshadowed the significance of this theatre, which was close to Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital. From the beginning, the Baltic campaign was a stalemate. The outnumbered Russian Baltic Fleet confined its movements to the areas around fortifications. At the same time, British and French commanders Sir Charles Napier and Alexandre Ferdinand Parseval-Deschenes – although they led the largest fleet assembled since the Napoleonic Wars – considered Russian coastal fortifications, especially the Sveaborg fortress, too well-defended to engage, so they limited their actions to blockading Russian trade and conducting raids on less fortified sections of the Finnish coast.

Bombardment of Bomarsund during the Crimean War, after William Simpson

Russia was dependent on imports for both the domestic economy and the supply of her military forces and the blockade seriously undermined the Russian economy. Raiding by allied British and French fleets destroyed forts on the Finnish coast including Bomarsund on the Åland Islands and Fort Slava. Other such attacks were not so successful, and the poorly planned attempts to take Hanko, Ekenäs, Kokkola, and Turku were repulsed.

The burning of tar warehouses and ships in Oulu and Raahe led to international criticism and, in Britain, MP Thomas Gibson demanded in the House of Commons that the First Lord of the Admiralty explain "a system which carried on a great war by plundering and destroying the property of defenceless villagers".

In 1855, the Western Allied Baltic Fleet tried to destroy heavily defended Russian dockyards at Sveaborg outside Helsinki. More than 1,000 enemy guns tested the strength of the fortress for two days. Despite the shelling, the sailors of the 120-gun ship Rossiya, led by Captain Viktor Poplonsky, defended the entrance to the harbour. The Allies fired over twenty thousand shells but were unable to defeat the Russian batteries. A massive new fleet of more than 350 gunboats and mortar vessels was prepared, but before the attack was launched, the war ended.

"Bombardment of the Solovetsky Monastery in the White Sea by the Royal Navy". A lubok (popular print) from 1868

Part of the Russian resistance was credited to the deployment of newly created blockade mines. Perhaps the most influential contributor to the development of naval mining was inventor and civil engineer Immanuel Nobel, the father of Alfred Nobel. Immanuel helped the war effort for Russia by applying his knowledge of industrial explosives such as nitroglycerin and gunpowder. Modern naval mining is said to date from the Crimean War: " Torpedo mines, if I may use this name given by Fulton to self-acting mines underwater, were among the novelties attempted by the Russians in their defenses about Cronstadt and Sevastopol", as one American officer put it in 1860.

White Sea theatre

In autumn 1854 a squadron of three British warships led by HMS Miranda left the Baltic for the White Sea, where they shelled Kola (which was utterly destroyed) and the Solovki. Their attempt to storm Arkhangelsk proved abortive.

Pacific theatre

Minor naval skirmishes also occurred in the Far East, where a strong British and French Allied squadron (including HMS Pique under Rear Admiral David Price and Contre-admiral Febrier-Despointes besieged a smaller Russian force under Rear Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. An Allied landing force was beaten back with heavy casualties in September 1854, and the Allies withdrew. The Russians escaped under snow in early 1855 after Allied reinforcements arrived in the region.

The Anglo-French forces also made several small landings on Sakhalin and Urup (one of the Kuril Islands).

Italian involvement

Camillo di Cavour, under orders by Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia (also known as Piedmont), sent troops to side with French and British forces during the war. This was an attempt at gaining the favour of the French especially when the issue of uniting Italy under the Sardinian throne would become an important matter. The deployment of Sardinian troops to the Crimea allowed it to be represented at the peace conference at the end of the war, where it could address the issue of the Risorgimento to other European powers.

End of the war

Peace negotiations began in 1856 under Nicholas I's son and successor, Alexander II, through the Congress of Paris. Furthermore, the Tsar and the Sultan agreed not to establish any naval or military arsenal on the Black Sea coast. The Black Sea clauses came at a tremendous disadvantage to Russia, for it greatly diminished the naval threat it posed to the Turks. Moreover, all the Great Powers pledged to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

The Treaty of Paris stood until 1871, when France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. While Prussia and several other German states united to form a powerful German Empire, the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, was deposed to permit the formation of a Third French Republic. During his reign Napoleon III, eager for the support of Great Britain, had opposed Russia over the Eastern Question. Russian interference in the Ottoman Empire, however, did not in any significant manner threaten the interests of France. Thus, France abandoned its opposition to Russia after the establishment of a Republic. Encouraged by the decision of the French, and supported by the German minister Otto von Bismarck, Russia denounced the Black Sea clauses of the treaty agreed to in 1856. As Great Britain alone could not enforce the clauses, Russia once again established a fleet in the Black Sea.

Having abandoned its alliance with Russia, Austria was diplomatically isolated following the war. This contributed to its defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War and loss of influence in most German-speaking lands. Soon after, Austria would ally with Prussia as it became the new state of Germany. With France, now hostile to Germany, allied with Russia, and Russia competing with the newly re-named Austro-Hungarian Empire for an increased role in the Balkans at the expense of the Turks, the foundations were in place for creating the diplomatic alliances that would lead to World War I.

Notwithstanding the guarantees to preserve Ottoman territories specified in the Treaty of Paris, Russia, exploiting nationalist unrest in the Ottoman states in the Balkans and seeking to regain lost prestige, once again declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 24 April 1877. In this later Russo-Turkish War the states of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro achieved independence.

Criticisms and reform

A tinted lithograph by William Simpson illustrating conditions of the sick and injured in Balaklava. Published April 1855, digitally restored.

The Crimean War was notorious for military and logistical immaturity by the British army. However, it highlighted the work of women who served as army nurses. War correspondents for newspapers reported the scandalous treatment of wounded soldiers in the desperate winter that followed and prompted the work of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, Frances Taylor and others and led to the introduction of modern nursing methods.

The Crimean War also saw the first tactical use of railways and other modern inventions such as the electric telegraph, with the first 'live' war reporting to The Times by William Howard Russell. Some credit Russell with prompting the resignation of the sitting British government through his reporting of the lacklustre shape of the British forces deployed to the Crimea. Additionally, the telegraph reduced the independence of British overseas possessions from their commanders in London due to such rapid communications. Newspaper readership informed public opinion in the United Kingdom and France as never before. It was the first European war to be photographed.

The war also employed modern military tactics, such as trenches and blind artillery fire. The use of the Minié ball for shot, coupled with the rifling of barrels, greatly increased Allied rifle range and damage.

The British Army system of sale of commissions came under great scrutiny during the war, especially in connection with the Battle of Balaclava, which saw the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. This scrutiny eventually led to the abolition of the sale of commissions.

The Crimean War was a contributing factor in the Russian abolition of serfdom in 1861: Alexander II saw the military defeat of the Russian serf army by free troops from Britain and France as proof of the need for emancipation. The Crimean War also led to the eventual realisation by the Russian government of its technological inferiority, namely in its military practices as well as its military weapons.

The war also led to the establishment of the Victoria Cross in 1856 (backdated to 1854), the British Army's first universal award for valour.

Chronology of major battles of the war

Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place, St James's, London
  • Battle of Sinop - 30 November 1853
  • Siege of Petropavlovsk - 30-31 August 1854, on the Pacific coast
  • Battle of Alma - 20 September 1854
  • Siege of Sevastopol - 25 September 1854 to 8 September 1855
  • Battle of Balaclava - 25 October 1854 (see also Charge of the Light Brigade)
  • Battle of Inkerman - 5 November 1854
  • Battle of Eupatoria, 17 February 1855
  • Battle of Chernaya River (aka "Traktir Bridge") - 25 August 1855
  • Sea of Azoff naval campaign, May to November 1855
  • Siege of Kars, June to 28 November 1855

Prominent military commanders

  • Russian commanders
    • Prince Mikhail Dmitriyevich Gorchakov
    • Count and Namestnik Ivan Feodorovich Paskevich
    • Admiral Pavel Stepanovich Nakhimov
    • General Eduard Ivanovich Totleben
    • Prince Aleksandr Sergeyevich Menshikov
  • British commanders
    • James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan
    • Fitzroy Somerset, 1st Lord Raglan
    • Sir Thomas James Harper
    • Sir Edmund Lyons (later 1st Lord Lyons)
  • French commanders
    • Marshal Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud
    • Marshal François Certain Canrobert
    • Marshal Aimable Pélissier
  • Ottoman commanders
    • General Abdülkerim Nadir Pasha
    • General Omar Pasha
  • Kingdom of Sardinia commander
    • General Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora

Last veterans

  • Yves Prigent (1833-1938). Was in French Navy.
  • Charles Nathan (1834-1934). Last French soldier, also saw action in Italy, Syria, Mexico and the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Edwin Hughes (1830-1927). Last survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
  • Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845-1940). He was a cadet on HMS Dragon during the siege of Sevastopol, earning two campaign medals before his twelfth birthday.
  • Timothy the Tortoise (1839 - 2004). The naval mascot of the HMS Queen

In fiction

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson depicted a disastrous but brave cavalry charge during the Battle of Balaclava.
  • Leo Tolstoy wrote a few short sketches on the Siege of Sevastopol, collected in The Sebastopol Sketches. The stories detail the lives of the Russian soldiers and citizens in Sevastopol during the siege. Because of this work, Tolstoy has been called the world's first war correspondent.
  • Jack Archer: A Tale of the Crimea by G.A. Henty, 1883, a historical novel, details the adventures of two sailors in the Crimean War.
  • "Hope" by Lesley Pearse describes the experiences of a nurse in the Crimean War as part of a wider and longer plot.
  • James Joyce's Finnegans Wake includes an episode known as "How Buckley Shot the Russian General" which is based on a story from the Crimean War and contains innumerable references to the war, its locales, the languages spoken there, and the literature inspired by the war, including "The Charge of the Light Brigade".
  • Anti-Ice, by Stephen Baxter, and Queen Victoria's Bomb, by Ronald W. Clark, both depict alternate histories where nuclear weapons were used by the British in the war.
  • Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius, by Kevin J. Anderson, features several Jules Verne characters (such as Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror) serving in the Crimean War.
  • Detailed and vivid fictional accounts of the Crimean War, the Intelligence Department, the Charge of the Light Brigade, its aftermath and the experience of nursing during the war are portrayed, as part of a wider plot, in The Winter Journey, Volume 20 of The Morland Dynasty a series of historical novels by author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Although this is a recent work of fiction, the author is also a historian and cites many factual works as part of her research for this novel.
  • Flashman at the Charge, a 1973 novel by George MacDonald Fraser. Harry Flashman finds himself in the Crimea as an unwilling participant in the notable actions of the War, including The Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.
  • Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair is set in a 1980's world where the Crimean War is still ongoing between the British and the Russians.
  • V.A. Stuart's historical fiction novel Hazards Command is about a captain who fights in the Crimean War.
  • Music
    • The song " The Trooper" by heavy metal band Iron Maiden tells a story from the point of view of a British soldier.
    • Glass Tiger's song The Thin Red Line was inspired by the war and the music video depicts a battle between Scots and Russians.
    • The song " Abdul Abulbul Amir" by Irish music hall performer Percy French was inspired by the Crimean War and reduces it to two fighters, the Turk Abdul and the Russian soldier Ivan Skavinsky Skivar, who duel over a triviality and both die, accomplishing nothing.
    • The Irish music song "The Kerry Recruit" deals with the experiences of a young man from Kerry who fights in the war.
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