The Crimean War lasted from October 1853 to February 1856. It was a war fought primarily on the Crimean Peninsula between the Russians on one side, and the British, French, and the Ottoman Empire on the other, with the Kingdom of Sardinia joining the Allies later in the war. Other theatres of war included the Baltic Sea, the provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia (both in modern Romania) and the Sea of Japan.
The beginnings of the war can be traced to 1851, when the French president Louis-Napoléon (soon to be emperor Napoleon III) demanded that the Ottomans acknowledge France as the 'sovereign authority' of the Holy Land.
However, this flew in the face of two earlier treaties between the Russians and the Ottomans, and so the Ottomans renounced the treaty. Napoleon III responded by sending a warship, the Charlemagne to the Black Sea. This show of force, along with some diplomacy and money, led the Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid I to reverse his decision, and a new treaty confirmed France and the Catholic Church as the supreme Christian Organization in the Holy Land. It also gave the keys to the Church of the Nativity, previously in the hands of the Greek Orthodox Church, to the Catholic Church.
Napoleon appeared to misjudge the religious convictions of Tsar Nicholas I. Angry over losing the diplomatic war to France, the Russian Tsar had his 4th and 5th Army Corps mobilized and deployed along the River Danube and had Count Karl Nesselrode, his foreign minister, begin a diplomatic war to regain Russian prestige with the Ottomans.
Prince Menshikov attempted to negotiate a new treaty, under which Russia would be allowed to interfere whenever it deemed the Sultan's protection inadequate. The British embassy in Istanbul at the time was being run by Hugh Rose. Rose gathered intelligence on Russian troop movements along the Danube frontier, and became concerned about the extent of Menshikov's mission. Rose used his powers as the British representative to the Ottomans, and ordered a British squadron of warships to depart and head for Istanbul. However, Rose's actions were not backed by the British admiral in command of the squadron, only the French sent a naval task force.
At the same time, however, the British Prime Minister Aberdeen sent Lord Stratford who, through skillful diplomacy, convinced the Sultan to reject the treaty. Benjamin Disraeli blamed Aberdeen and Stratford's actions for making war inevitable, starting the process by which Aberdeen would be forced to resign. Shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov's diplomacy, the Czar marched his armies into Moldavia and Wallachia (Ottoman principalities 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 would not object strongly to the annexation of a few Ottoman provinces.
In July 1853 the Russians invaded Moldavia and Wallachia. With the failure of a peace conference in Vienna; in October 1853 Turkey declared war on Russia. Britain and France declared war on 27th March 1854, after their ultimatim for Russia to withdraw was ignored, and concentrated their forces at Varna in Bulgaria, defending any Russian move towards Constantinople. The Turks, however, were able to force the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Principalities.
The French and British decided to make use of their overwhelming sea forces and capture the Russian base at Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsular. The taking of Sevastopol would end any hope of Russian naval superiority in the Black Sea. They landed about 30 miles north of the base during 14-18th September, 1894 and marched south along the coast, accompanied by the fleet. They met the Russians under Menshikov at the Alma River, and after three hours of fighting, the Russians retreated, having lost 9,000 men to the Allies’ 2000. In one of those inexplicable cases of failure of command, the Allies’ commanders either couldn’t (the British Lord Raglan) or wouldn’t (the French St. Arnaud) press home their advantage, and by the time they moved, Menshikov had removed his army from danger and commenced shoring up the defences of Sebastopol by sinking ships in the entrance to the Harbour.
The campaign bogged down into the siege of Sevastopol, which was to last until the Russians finally retreated from the base on 8th September 1855 after a French attack; and included two major battles where the Russians tried to break the siege: Balaclava (25th October 1854) – during which the “Charge of the Light Brigade”, immortalised in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, took place – and Inkerman (5th November 1854) in which numerically superior Russian forces; both from within Sevastopol, and a Russian field army; were repulsed; but not defeated due to the failure of the French and British commanders to act as one… a problem that reoccurred during the war.
The Crimean War also included naval action throughout the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, and engagements by the Royal Navy in the Baltic. It was the Royal Navy’s destruction of the Russian dockyard at Sweaborg (in modern Finland) in August 1855, as much as any action in the Black Sea, that forced the Russians to think of peace.
After the French success in the autumn of 1855, peace negotiations were held during the winter of 1855/6 and the Treaty of Paris was signed on 30th March 1856. The Black Sea was closed to all naval forces, and its shores to fortifications, ending Russia’s plans for control in that area. A part of the Baltic was made a demilitarised zone. Both France and Russia lost the official right to protect Christians’ rights in the Ottoman Empire.
The Crimean War is notable for the lack of will of the French field command at certain crucial times, poor decision making of the British, and the tactical inferiority of the Russians. (There has not been any criticism of the courage of the men of any of the nations involved.) It was the first major conflict where the Media had an effect on the conduct of the war, with the correspondent for the Times of London newspaper being able to whip up righteous anger in the public of Britain with his articles on the plight of the wounded and the lack of support for troops ill-equipped for the rigours of a Russian winter. It also brought the world’s attention to Florence Nightingale.
The war took place at a time of technological change with both the British and French armies changing from the old smooth-bore musket to muzzle-loading rifles. The fleets were a mixture of sail and steam. The new telegraph technology enabled almost instant news to reach those at home.
The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest medal for gallantry, was first awarded for acts during the Crimean War.