Because of the decay of the once-great Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire, the foreign affairs of many of the powers of Europe around 1853 were consumed with the exact manner of its division so as not to result in any imbalances of power. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia made an attempt to come to some sort of understanding with England with regard to that in 1853, partially to prevent any possible alliances against themselves by trying to complicate relations between England and France and partially to secure a trade outlet through the Black Sea. Russia suggested that Moldavia and Wallachia (modern day Rumania), and Bulgaria be independent, that Serbia become a sort of protectorate of the Russians, that Crete and Egypt be ceded to England, and that the Austrians be allowed to establish themselves on the Adriatic Sea. The English foreign minister rejected the offer and said that he was going to go talk with France about the whole thing, which was no good for the Russians, since they liked France even less than they liked England. All the same, though, Nicholas I thought that something had been settled, and spoke with the British ambassador to St. Petersburg as though something had been. The assumptions that he made during these conversations with regard to Russian intentions concerning the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, next to Constantinople, set off a storm of bad P.R. for Russia in Britain.

This couldn't have come at much worse a time for the Russians, since they were having a dispute with the Ottomans and France at about the same time. It seems that the ruler of the Ottoman Empire had given rights of protection of various Christian churches in Palestine out to a number of different nations, among them France and Russia. France was led by Napoleon III during this time, and he relied heavily on the support of domestic militant Christian groups to maintain his power base. In order to appease these groups, France began in about 1840 to demand the return of some rights that they had lost in 1740, namely the key to the Church of the Nativity in old Jerusalem and the right to place a silver star on the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. The French were quite insistent about this and threatened the Ottomans with military action if they failed to comply. The Russians did not want the French to recover these rights, though, and told the Ottomans that if they gave in to the French that Russia would invade the regions of Moldavia and Wallachia, presumably under Ottoman control at the time. The Ottomans were very weak and tried to appease everyone by adopting the smile and nod tactic whenever anyone said anything. This tactic wound up failing when it was discovered that the Ottomans pretty much had no intention of giving anything to anybody. From there it was just a matter of who could move their military first, and the French did by sending warships to both the Ottoman capitol of Constantinople and the Bay of Tripoli. The ruler of the Ottomans had no choice but to give in to the French, since they were the ones with the immediate threat looming over him.

When the Russians did respond to this maneuver, it was not with weapons, but with diplomacy. They sent an ambassador by the name of Menshikov to Constantinople. He demanded full restoration of rights to Greeks, a secret alliance with Russia, and protection under the Ottomans of everyone in their empire who subscribed to any sort of Orthodox Christian faith. These were all relatively major commitments alone, and were really not received very well at all by the Ottomans, who were also apparently influenced against the Russians by a British ambassador by the name of Stratford de Redcliffe. The Greek rights were ceded, but the Russians got none of their other demands. This diplomatic mission helped to strengthen the anti-Russian sentiment in the British parliament, though, and when the British asked the French if they wouldn't mind helping eliminate Russian influence in the area, France said, "Okay."

A naval force from the two nations was dispatched to the Dardanelles in July 1853, whereupon Russia made good on its promise to invade Moldavia and Wallachia in June. The Ottomans then declared war on Russia in October. The Anglo-French fleet met with a certain amount of success, penetrating to the Bosporus by this time, but in November, the Ottoman navy was destroyed by the Russians in the Black Sea. While this was a military victory for the Russians, it was a public relations disaster. The press in France and England became more and more violent in tone and exhortation until in January 1854 France, England, and the Ottomans entered into formal alliance against Russia, which was exactly what the Tsar had tried to avoid with his various diplomatic failures. It didn't matter to him for too much longer, however, since he was replaced by Tsar Alexander II in February of 1855. Allied troops landed in Crimea in September of 1854 with the objective of capturing Sevastopol. In spite of enormous casualties on all sides, Russia held Sevastopol until September of 1855, fueling the perception of incompetence of all concerned due primarily to the huge casualties.

In 1855, Sardinia joined the war on the side of the European-Ottoman alliance, mostly so that it could get in on the peace conference afterward. Prussia was neutral until approached by officially neutral but anti-Russian Austria with the idea of establishing a defensive alliance. Although not formally allied to the European-Ottoman group, these two countries did join the rest in demanding Russian withdrawal from Moldavia and Wallachia. When Russia did withdraw, Austria rushed to occupy the two territories, forcing the Russians to maintain a defensive posture. A peace conference had been underway in Vienna throughout the war, and it formulated a few peace proposals, such as a Russian protectorate over Wallachia, Moldavia, and Serbia, freedom of navigation on the Danube, a revision of the arrangement of 1841 regarding the straits near Constantinople, and a five-power protection of Christians in Turkey instead of a Russian monopoly. Russia resisted signing this agreement until the Austrians gave him an ultimatum saying roughly, "Do it or we're going to war against you too." It has been said that this ultimatum was the real cause of the end of the war, although the fall of Sevastopol which is traditionally seen as the decisive blow is a much more dramatic way to end. The new British prime minister was not satisfied since he wanted Russia to be partially dismembered after the war, and he sort of got his wish, although France and the rest weren't as happy about it as he was. Russia had to give a hunk of southern Bessarabia to the Moldavians in order to ensure the Danube's navigability, and had to promise not to station any troops on the Aland Islands. Also, the Black Sea was made neutral and pretty much everyone involved made a solemn promise not to mess with Turkey anymore, since nothing good really ever seemed to come of it.


Chronology of the Crimean War, Or, Why No One Really Gets Along in Eastern Europe :

1848 : Revolution in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary & Germany. Chartist protests spread throughout England, where, in April, the Duke of Wellington forms a special constabulary to quell uprisings.

1849 : Russian and Austria form joint force to put down Hungarian uprising.

1851 : Victorian England has settled into a comfortable position as the world’s ascending imperial and industrial power – hosting in May the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ (namely, Her Nations). The Crystal Palace which houses the exhibition is visited by over six million people that year. However, in Europe, France and Russia (who are both lagging badly behind in industrialization and railway building) are maneuvering in the Mediterranean as the power of the Ottoman Empire begins to fade (Egypt, Greece & Hungary has all asserted their sovereignty from Turkey). Despite Tsar Nicholas’s assertion he ‘wants not an inch of Turkish soil’, the politicians of the West are suspicious of Russian intentions, particularly in the Baltic region. The New York Tribune runs editorial by freelance journalist Karl Marx (yes, that one...), which states "Whenever the revolutionary hurricane has subsided for a moment, one ever recurring question is sure to turn up : the eternal Eastern Question." 1 In other words, who would fill the vacuum of influence and inherit the Ottoman legacy.

1852 : As recounted above, a set of keys for the doors to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem actually provided the trigger for the diplomatic crisis that led to war – both Orthodox Russia and Catholic France insisted on specific rights over the site of pilgrimage, though under strong Ottoman administration this had not historically been an issue. Turkey initially ruled in favor of the French monks holding the keys (a treaty signed in 1740 with France obliged the Porte to do so) – but Russia demanded acknowledgment. As negotiations wore on through the summer, Louis Napoleon III thought a display of resolve might free the deadlock. In direct contravention of the London Convention of 1841, the French brought the Charlemagne, one of their 90-gun steam-powered battleships chugging into the Dardanelle region. Not very subtle, but gunboat diplomacy carried the day – and by Xmas the keys to the Nativity were handed over to the Latin Church. The Tsar was livid.

1853 Jan-April : Czar Nicholas I concedes to British consul that the failing Ottoman Empire requires delicate handling to avoid open war – and he is appalled at the lack of tact shown by the French emperor, and his emissary Nesselrode elaborates: ‘Violence, which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio last argument of kings, it seems, is the means which the present ruler of France is in the habit of employing first.” Russia's primary interests are in gaining ice free access to the Mediterranean, which control of Constantinople and the Bosporus River could provide. The British view Russian expansion in Asia as threat not only to the Mediterranean, but also overland trade with Constantinople and their colonial interests in India. France's Napoleon III also seeks influence in the contested region, especially hoping to gain access to Jerusalem.2

1853 May-June : Sultan Abdul Medjid, Napoleon III and Czar Nicholas (with the British acting as intermediaries) break out into a diplomatic War of Words3. When the Czar's demands, namely the 'right to act as protector' for the 10 million Russian Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, were rejected outright by the Sultan, Russia occupied Moldavia and Wallachia, north of the Danube, in response. The Russians demand their authority be recognized concerning the Orthodox Christians living throughout the Ottoman realms – but to the British it appears suspiciously like the Tsar may be making a move on Constantinople itself. The British ambassador summarizes: “the safety of our vast commercial interests and of European policy as well as the maintenance of peace are compromised by Russia’s present military and naval position.” He recommends the intervention of the Royal Navy.

1853 Oct. : “I see little chance of averting war, which even in the most sacred cause is a horrible calamity, but for such a cause as two sets of barbarians quarelling over a form of words, is not only shocking but incredible,” writes the Earl of Clarendon in a personal letter. War is declared by the Ottoman Porte against the Tsar – after last minute negotiations break down. The Turkish army ends up being led by a Croat, Omar Pasha (born Michael Lotis, before converting to Islam), who leads his forces across the Danube in Western Bulgaria (on the 29th) and engages the occupying Russians directly. The Russians are beaten back past Oltensia, south of Bucharest, and their troops face severe attrition by Chechen tribesmen in the Caucasus mountains. France and England realize their involvement may now be avoidable owing to earlier promises of protection.4

1853 Nov. : Early in the month, the British cabinet orders a flotilla of warships in to the Bosphorus to protect Constantinople from any naval offensive. On the 30th, the Russian fleet destroys 12 Ottoman ships in the Black Sea5 at Sinope Bay; the British warship Retribution is witness to the Turk shelling and the massive devastation and casualties caused by the Fleet. Outrage and revulsion are the general reactions in Paris and London when word reaches the cities in mid-December – the editorials paint the attack as a most brutal massacre. The battle pushes Britain in to the war, both from the popular pressure at home when the event is reported, but also needing to assert her naval strength.

Feb 1854 : On the 14th, troops across Britain were called to duty, making their way to the ships at Southampton – one young soldier wrote, “we had been blessed with peace for 40 years. The soldiers were degenerated in the eyes of the public … looked upon as useless and expensive ornaments – but suddenly a change came over the people.”6 The Times editorial (27th) read as follows, reflecting the general enthusiasm –

It is the whole nation that speaks – the whole nation that in heart and spirit goes with every regiment chosen for service from its barracks to the ocean steamer and thence to the seat of war. That nation, if not the most populous, is the most powerful – being the most determined, energetic and preserving people in the world … England has been long making up her mind, but from that mind, so made up, she will never withdraw.

1854 Mar. : France and Britain form alliance with the Turkist Ottomans against Russia and declare war. Gustav Dore and Leo Tolstoy both ended up defending Sebastabol from the allies. It is also the first war to employ telegraphy (widely used by 1840s) as a means of logistical maneuvering, in fact one of the reasons the British were so concerned over the conflict's outcome was that the Wiring of the Atlantic was to begin (some attempts had already failed) and they needed to ensure a steady supply of rubber(or gutta percha rather) from their colonies in the West Indies to complete the Trans-Atlantic Cable. If the conflict spread to the Near East, their trade routes would have been seriously messed up. The dark secret of Britain, however, was her armies being hopelessly unprepared to fight a major land war. England's ground troops had been largely ignored since the War of the Peninsula against Napoleon. Conditions and wages in her ranks are scandalous, desertion & drunkenness endemic. Most of her officers are well into their sixties and seventies, and are mainly gentry who have purchased their commissions – they are therefore, still adhering to the tactics taught them a half century beforehand.

April 1854 : As Britain and France found themselves allies for the first time, after centuries of animosity and rivalry. The British Royal Navy was the undisputed master of the seas at this point – but France had the advantage of a fully modernized and professional army. Since the current crisis was going to require decisive action on land, then, the French would spearhead the campaign. Lord Raglan, commander of the Queen’s Expeditionary Force, was clearly uncomfortable with this situation, but he was quickly forced to put the question aside to deal with more immediate logistical problems. Unlike the French army, which had been fighting a long desert war in Algeria (and so had learned to travel light), the British officers insisted on dragging mammoth luggage trains, furniture, dinnerware and frequently their wives and servants, with them on campaign. All this extra cargo meant more practical material – like gauze, hospital beds, rubber boots and extra rations – ended up stuck on the docks of Constantinople as the troops moved on to Varna, and most of the cargo went missing or was spoiled. (Royle, 135-8)

May – August 1854 : After much wrangling between the leaders of the allied armies (Omar Pasha, Saint Arnaud and Lord Raglan – final preparations are made to use Varna as its Balkan base of operations. Again, the British commissariat bungles the primary supply drop when it offloads its cargo on the wrong side of the bay just before the troops land. After the landing, Lord Cardigan leads his Light Brigade on an endless procession of drills and parade-style formations – to keep the men from idleness and for the benefit of the droves of ‘traveling gentleman’ or war tourists which accompany the landing fleet. Late in the summer however, just as the allies are at last managing a semblance of organization, the Russians abruptly haul ass out of Moldovia and Wallachia – leaving the Varna garrison no enemy to fight.7 On the 25th of the month, Saint Arnaud & Raglan ordered to prepare to move their 40,000 troops to the Crimea & lay siege to Sevastopol.

September 1854 : Movement of troops from Varna north towards Sevastopol begins in chaos as the massed navies of the three allied nations cram onto the shoreline of the Black Sea and simultaneously load some 50,000 troops, along with equipment, horses and artillery. The French warships’ decks are so packed with men their gun turrets cannot even swivel to aim – and soon the fleet of nearly 100 ships is stretched over a dangerously large area as all thoughts of defense are cast aside. Even more amazing, none of the ships captains have a specific course to plot as the armies’ commanders bicker over possible landing sites – the French want something within five miles of Sevestapol – on the south side of the peninsula – while the British would sooner a more distant, cautious coastline, allowing them time to regroup. Finally, after a week of debate, on the 14th , Empatoria on Calamita Bay was selected – some 40 miles from the city. Smaller vessels & dories begin to land immediately, under a warm autumn sun and the eyes of Hussar patrols in the hills above. Most of the Russians are completely unconcerned however, one remarking ‘The French, we know, can fight, but the English, if they ever do make war, it’s only with savages in their far-flung lands.’ In the end it takes an entire week for all the British army to land – much to the annoyance of St-Arnaud – but finally they organize and together the allies push as far as the River Alma. On the 20th, at 1 pm (after much Gallic espresso consumed & complaining8 done about the sluggish British troops) the massed French and British military divisions begin to wade across the river toward Russian defensive positions, while in the hills above the nobility of Sevestapol took in the Battle of Alma with the help of opera glasses and champagne. By 3pm, Raglan saw a bloody stalemate developing on the river banks, as the heavy guns of each side took a sickening toll. "The infantry shall advance," was his characteristically terse command, but this push in conjunction with a renewed wave from the field guns pushed the Russians into retreat. The allies moved on quickly to Balaclava.

October 1854 : Balaclava becomes a bloody mess as the wounded pile up and weather worsens. When the Russians return on the 25th and launch a dawn sneak attack, they are barely driven off and the Charge of the Light Brigade is a nightmarish bit of military folly which kills a hundred men, wounds three hundred more, and nearly wipes out the British cavalry. Both the Earl of Lucan and the Earl of Cardigan, as the cavalry commanders, are soon after relieved of duty.

November 1854 : The winter weather, disease and damp of Balaclava are now so bad – particularly in the British quarters – the French actually have to start giving the English troops food scraps and leftover blankets (and eventually even start lending them cooks out of pity).9 There are now 107,000 troops garrisoned in Sevastopol, as opposed to the 70, 000 allied troops (nearly a quarter of whom are either wounded or ailing) – at the village of Inkerman the Russians hope to put this numerical advantage to their favor, pushing the allies back into the sea. 60, 000 Russian infantry backed by 234 field guns push in on the British flank – but the cold morning fog is so thick in most places on the field visibility is less than two yards. All order in the ranks on both sides vanishes. Somehow, the French troops rally and flank the Russian guns – and by the end of the day the 10, 000 of Menshikov’s soldiers are killed or wounded.

April 1855 : After a winter of sniping, squalor and stalemate in the miles of trenches now encircling Sebastapol, the Gallic and British forces finally completed a primitive railroad between their supply docks at Balaclava and the field gun positions. The allies take to shelling the city daily after the siege train starts running – using 138 British and 362 French mortars and howitzers. The Russians, however, have been carefully building fortifications, tunnels and earthworks for almost six months – the engineer, Todleben, in charge of the operation is said to have planned the bunkers and foxholes down to the line of sight and angle for each gun emplacement. Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches paint a rather dismal picture of life in the city, the endless echoing boom & flash of distant guns in the night only to be followed nearby crashes and townspeople screaming for stretchers. Despite two weeks bombardment, however, no ground attack was ordered – which only frustrated the men in the trenches all the more: ‘All was for no defined object as our Army is not prepared to storm the town…we did not take Sebastopol because the French would not fight by day, the English would not fight in the dark, and the Turks will not fight at all.’ 13,000 foreign legionaires (mercenaries) were enlisted with the Foreign Enlistment Act from as far as Halifax and Boston to bolster the now embarrassingly diminished British ranks.10

June 1855 : At 6:30 am on the 7th, a French rocket bombardment sends Russian guards dashing to their gun emplacements just as the Gallic infantry crashes into the trenches at bayonet point. The Attack on the Great Redan has begun - the allies find themselves just 200 yards from the city walls now, but at the cost of 5000 French lives. Eight days later, mid month, six hundred fields guns erupt in a deafening roar, signaling another allied push. This time the Russians are ready though, allowing the French to advance halfway across the field before detonating primitive land mines which had been planted under cover of darkness. Raglan watches in horror as line after line of French infantry crumple in the explosions and sniper fire – however the British commander knows he must support his allies now in this catastrophe or the city may be lost. The English follow the French into the same killing fields – only to be recalled an hour later as the entire army withdraws. Raglan succumbs to tears at the sight of five thousand infantry littered across the hundred yards before the city gates – he takes to his bed with fever two days later, and on the 30th dies of dysentry. (Royle, 131-6)

September 1855 : All attempts by the Russians to maintain or repair their fortifications are abandoned as their re-supply routes are severed by Turkish troops throughout the Crimea – the sickness and exhaustion of the long siege finally begin to sap the defenders’ resolve. British artillery bombardments is now nearly constant and French sappers have extended tunnels all the way to the walls. On the 8th, the British and French breach the last set of defenses and push into the city proper – Gen. Gorchakov orders his men to fall back into the northern section of the city, detonating ammo bunkers and bridges as they fall back. 13, 000 Russians & 10, 000 Allied infantry are killed in the storming of Sebastopol. With the fall of the city, the tone of the British military command sharpens against Russia – some even call for invasion through Finland and Poland. However, diplomats from Austria and France finally convince the Tsar to accept terms (freedom of shipping on the Danube, neutralization of the Black Sea, a united Wallachia-Moldovia & a DMZ surrounding the Balkan principalities).

January 1856: The Russian cabinet, after much deliberation, feels the country crippled by the war effort – and agrees to Allied terms.

  1. refers to the floundering Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia, Moldavia, Wallachia {later Romania}, Bulgaria and Anatolia) and its poor relations with the Russian Empire.
  2. since the early 1850s Muslim police has strict orders to keep Christians and Jews away from sacred sites, increasing tensions to the point where monks and priests of different faiths openly fought in the streets (according to James Finn, British consul (1853). Marx, still covering the area, wrote "...these sacred rows merely conceal a profane battle."
  3. the British, in their desert- dry sense of humor, referred to the negotiations as the '1001 Notes.'
  4. i.e. the people of Chechnya have had a jihad-on for the Russians for going on 200 years.
  5. this is the first use of high explosive shells in battle, and effectively ends the age of the wooden warship. The destruction of the harbor and all its ships takes the Russian squadron little more than an hour and the town itself is engulfed in flame – with several thousand seamen and civilians drowned or badly burned.
  6. Timothy Gowing, A Soldier’s Story (Nottingham, 1883)
  7. The Russian forces in the principalities knew two weeks ahead of time hostilities were about to be mounted against them – and even the hour of the planned attack – because The Times, with its slew of reporters and military sources in the region, printed detailed daily reports of the Allies’ preparations. Twelve hours later, by telegraph, the essentials of these reports (often more detailed than the Government’s own briefings) would be read by the Czar in St. Petersburg. As one British diplomat exclaimed, ‘our own correspondents have certainly contrived to keep our enemy informed of all he must want to know…the press and telegraph are enemies we have not taken into account.’ (Royle, 179)
  8. The French troops had been ready since 7am that morning, apparently.
  9. When pictures and descriptions of the conditions reach London and are printed in The Illustrated London News, the majority of the middle class who supported the war effort react with fury against the poor preparations. On the 14th of the month, just after Inkerman, the misery is multiplied when a winter gale lashes the coast and sinks 27 ships – most of them laden with winter supplies and medicine. The HMS Prince goes down with all 150 hands on board and 40, 000 winter uniforms in her hold. By January, over 3, 000 men a month are dying from cholera or hypothermia.
  10. Actually, Joseph Howe, the Nova Scotian politician, was the administrative head of this North American recruitment campaign on behalf of the British – he fleeced his English peers for nearly eight thousand pounds for his troubles. He also very nearly brought the United States into the war when American authorities discovered he was recruiting in New England, despite the sworn neutrality of the US. The English were already sore at the Yanks for allowing ships to be build for the Czar in NY shipyards, and the US was also talking pretty tough about annexing Cuba at the time – so this made relations between the country notably tense.
  1. Crimea : The Great Crimean War, 1854 – 1856 / Trevor Royle (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
  2. The history of the war with Russia: giving full details of the operations of the allied armies; illustrated by a series of celebrated commanders; events of the war; battle scenes; views of celebrated places in the seat of war ... etc. / Henry Tyrell. (London, London Co., 1855-58)
  3. The Russo-Turkish campaigns of 1828 and 1829, with a view of the present state of affairs in the East. (London, Smith, Elder & co., 1854)
  4. Death or glory : the legacy of the Crimean War / Robert B. Edgerton. (Oxford : Westview Press, 1999)
  5. British military intelligence in the Crimean War, 1854-1856 / Stephen M. Harris. (London: Frank Cass, 1999)
  6. The eastern question, 1774-1923 / A.L. Macfie. (NY : Longman, 1996)

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