The Crimean War

When I first wrote my Russian history papers, back in 1990, I breezed over the Crimean War, only devoting a paragraph to it, and mainly focusing on the causes and aftermath, rather than on the war itself.  Now I have decided the conflict deserves more than that; like World War I, a lot of men died in vain here.  You may consider this a tribute to them.  Keep on reading here, or go to the new section in Chapter 2 of my Russian history series.

The Crimean War

In foreign affairs, the system of international cooperation worked out so carefully at Vienna came undone as a result of events in the only European power that did not attend the 1814-15 congress: Turkey. The Turks never got over the defeats they suffered at the hands of Christian nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the next crack in the Ottoman Empire’s once-impressive facade was not long in coming; it was Greece, which declared independence in 1821. Europe’s five principal nations could not agree on what to do about the Greek War of Independence (1821-29); Prussia and Austria refused to have any part of it, while Britain, France and Russia jumped in on the side of the Greeks. Together the three allies easily defeated the Turks, and Greece was freed, but the friendliness that existed between the kings of Europe was gone. Now there could only be peace as long as no king became greedy for more land or power than he already had.

As the nineteenth century progressed the Ottoman Empire, which Nicholas I scornfully called “The Sick Man of Europe,” grew visibly weaker, and as it did so, the temptation to exploit this weakness grew stronger every year. In 1853 Nicholas succumbed. He sent an ultimatum to the sultan demanding the right to protect his Christian subjects (about 40% of the Ottoman Empire’s population); when the sultan said no, he declared war. The Russian Black Sea fleet destroyed the Turkish fleet off Sinope (modern Sinop, Turkey), and the army occupied the nearest Turkish provinces, Moldavia and Wallachia.

The Western response was quick; nobody liked the Turks, but a strong Russia controlling Constantinople was a bigger threat to world peace than a weak Turkey. Britain, France and Piedmont-Sardinia (an Italian kingdom) joined the war on the side of the Turks, and landed an expeditionary force on the Gallipoli peninsula, at the entrance to the Black Sea. They also persuaded the Greeks, who hated the Turks and were thinking of getting involved on the Russian side, to stay out of the conflict. The Russians couldn’t count on their central European friends, either; Prussia stayed neutral and Franz Josef of Austria threatened to join the Allies if Nicholas did not pull his troops out of Moldavia and Wallachia immediately. Nicholas was furious–it was, after all, only a few years since he had saved Franz Josef’s bacon in Hungary–but he could not take on all of these countries at once, so he recalled his forces.

That eliminated the reason for the fighting, because the Russians were back to where they were before the trouble started; if the war had ended here, only fans of historical trivia would remember it today. But the British and French felt they could only teach a proper lesson to the Russians by defeating them in a battle somewhere, and since the Russians would not come to them they must now go to Russia. They decided that Sevastopol, the Russian port in the Crimea where the Black Sea fleet was stationed, would be a suitable target. September 1854 saw the joint Anglo-French force enter the Black Sea, blockade the Russian Black Sea fleet in Odessa, and land 50,000 men at Eupatoria, a spot on the Crimean shore one hundred miles from Sevastopol.(8)

The Crimean War dragged on for more than a year because of incompetent leadership on both sides. The Russian commander, Alexander Menshikov, was so confident he could crush the intruders that he did not interfere with their landing. Six days later, he tried to stop the advance of the Allies at the Alma River, but in the battle of the Alma, the British charged from an unexpected direction, and the Russians broke and ran. Then it was the Allies’ turn to blunder. Disagreement between the British and French commanders on how they should attack Sevastopol meant it would take the rest of September and October to surround the city, giving the Russians plenty of time to fortify and supply it.

The Russians made two major attempts to break the siege of Sevastopol, at Balaklava (October 25) and Inkerman (November 5). Two British units distinguished themselves at Balaklava: the 93rd Highland Regiment, which earned the nickname the “thin red line” because it didn’t have the strength to hold off a Russian cavalry charge, but did so anyway; and the Light Cavalry Brigade, which was ordered to recover some cannon the Russians had captured from the Turks, before they could take the guns away. The order was extremely vague; it didn’t say which guns to take, or where they were. Consequently the Brigade bravely charged a position which they had no chance of taking; only 195 of the Brigade’s 661 men survived. Afterwards, Alfred Lord Tennyson made the Brigade famous by writing a poem which emphasized their valor and the foolhardiness of their mission: “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The battle of Inkerman was even bloodier, and is sometimes called “The Soldier’s Battle” because heavy fog isolated the armies into small units, forcing individual soldiers to think for themselves, rather than simply obey orders from their superiors.

Although the Allies had won both battles, they did not have enough strength left to continue their offensive. Nor were they prepared to face a Russian winter; a severe storm in mid-November sank thirty British ships in Balaklava harbor and destroyed the supplies they were carrying. Remembering how the armies of Charles XII and Napoleon had suffered, the tsar boasted, “I have two generals who will not fail me: Generals January and February.” The next few months seemed to prove him right; the Allies steadily lost men to cholera and the cold weather; all they could do was defend themselves. And keep in mind that the Crimea has one of the mildest climates of any spot in the Russian Empire; the Allies would have lost the war for sure if they had gone after St. Petersburg or Moscow!

The Allies, like the Russians, thought at this stage that the best way to win the war was through attrition, so the siege of Sevastopol continued through the winter of 1854-55. This meant that more lives would be wasted on both sides. Wars of attrition are also as uncreative as the artist who uses a paint-by-numbers kit to copy a masterpiece; generals who wage them are not remembered as brilliant strategists. For the Allies, the only bright moment during that winter came in February, when the Turks won a battle against the Russians at Eupatoria. The tsar himself became a victim of “General February”; he caught pneumonia and died during that month, leaving his son Alexander II (1855-81) to pick up the pieces. Another February casualty was the British government, which fell to a no-confidence vote when folks at home learned that the British army was being destroyed by incompetence, neglect and bad organization.

When warmer weather arrived, it took all of spring and most of summer for the Allies to build up their positions around Sevastopol, before they could go on the offensive again. Attempts were also made to cut off the Russian supply line, by capturing the ports of Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don, but these attacks failed. Still, it was the Russians who had the supply problem now, because the empire had almost no railroads. The French did better; when they captured Malakoff Hill, the most important redoubt defending Sevastopol, the Russians had to evacuate the city, and Sevastopol itself surrendered in September 1855.

A Russian campaign in the Caucasus in the summer and fall of 1855 captured the Turkish city of Kars, but the fall of Sevastopol meant continuing the war was futile. Alexander II wasn’t as determined to fight as Nicholas had been; that, and more threats from ungrateful Austria, persuaded him to talk peace. Negotiations went on for three months in Paris, culminating with the signing of a treaty ending the war in March 1856.

To show the Allies had made their point, the treaty dismantled all of Russia’s naval bases on the Black Sea, forbade the Russians from building any fortifications on the Aland Islands (to replace the ones taken out early in the war) and declared that nobody had the right to interfere with Turkish affairs on behalf of the sultan’s Christian subjects. Russia also agreed to hand over the Danube River delta to the Turks, and to return Kars, their only gain from the war. To keep the Russians from entering the Balkans again, Moldavia and Wallachia were united in 1858 to create a new country, Romania, and the tsar agreed to leave it alone.  He even gave the coast of Bessarabia to the new state, so the Romanians would have access to the sea. Finally, the war taught both the British and the Russians that professional soldiers make better military leaders than nobles who got their commands through family connections or money.(9)


8. The main theater of the war was the Crimea because both sides had the idea that whoever got Sevastopol would win. However, it was not the only campaign, or even the first. In July 1854 an Anglo-French naval force sailed into the Baltic and destroyed the Russian forts on the Aland Islands, between Sweden and Finland. Another Allied squadron besieged the remote Pacific port of Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula, but failed to take it (September 1854-April 1855).

9. The origin of the Romanian people is one of the unsolved mysteries of the past. Before 1858 they were called Vlachs or Moldavians, depending on where they lived. The first record mentioning either name dates to 1230; Wallachia and Moldavia were independent states in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Today’s Romanians claim they are descended from Roman soldiers and colonists who settled the province then called Dacia, between 106 and 270 A.D.  Their language is clearly a Romance language, related to Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, but the Roman colonist story doesn’t explain how they could have survived in the region for more than a thousand years, without being assimilated into the barbarian tribes (e.g., Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Petchenegs, Polovtsi and Mongols) that passed through. It now appears more likely that their ancestors were from Latin-speaking communities south of the Danube, who kept their language after the Eastern Roman Empire switched to Greek; they probably moved north of the Danube to fill a vacuum, one or two centuries before the Ottoman Turks moved in.

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