Geographical importance and religious differences were both factors in the war.
In Britain, the Crimean War is principally remembered for three reasons: the Charge of the Light Brigade, maladministration in the British army, and Florence Nightingale. However, this war, fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia, is far more complex.
Many wars have been fought on the grounds of the strategic importance of a region; many wars have been fought over religious differences. The Crimean War was the result of both factors.
The Causes of the War
During the years leading up to the Crimean War, France, Russia and Britain were all competing for influence in the Middle East, particularly with Turkey. Religious differences were certainly a catalyst in the Crimean War. Control of access to religious sites in the Holy Land had been a cause of tension between Catholic France and Orthodox Russia for a number of years and in 1853, the conflict came to a head with rioting in Bethlehem, which was then part of the Ottoman empire ruled by Turkey. A number of Orthodox monks were killed during fighting with French monks. Tsar Nicholas I blamed the Turks for these deaths.
‘The Sick Man of Europe’
Tsar Nicholas I demanded that the dispute be resolved in favour of the Orthodox Church and sent his representative Menshikov to Constantinople (now Istanbul) with demands on the Porte (the Turkish court). These demands were not met however and Nicholas took the opportunity to mobilise the Russian army against Turkey, which at this point was beginning to lose its grip on its empire. Nicholas referred to Turkey and its weakening empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and historians have argued that he had ambitions of his own in the eastern Mediterranean. The British and French, for their part, were concerned about Russian expansion in the region and the potential threat to their trade routes.
Russia Attacks Turkey
Initial Russian operations against the Ottoman empire were conducted in Romania with the Russian army crossing the River Pruth into Moldavia on 2 July 1853. In response Turkey declared war on Russia on 5 October. On 4 November, the Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, sinking seven frigates and other shipping. The British and French responded quickly. In March 1854, they declared war on Russia expecting, with their naval supremacy, a quick victory. The allied forces were mustered at Varna in Bulgaria and they prepared for an all-out assault on Russian forces in the Crimea to seize the naval base at Sevastopol.
A joint invasion force, over 60,000 strong, of British, French and Turkish troops landed at Kalamatia Bay, north of Sevastopol, on 14 -16 September 1854. The landings were unopposed by the Russians. W.H. Russell, an Irish journalist writing for The Times, witnessed the early allied operations and noted that ‘The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.’ It was clear that there were flaws in the organisation of the joint forces.
On 19 September, the allies started their move south towards the strategically important city of Sevastopol. There was a minor skirmish on the Bulganek River on 21 September, paving the way for the first set-piece battle of the war which took place on the following day at Alma.
The Battle of Alma
The Battle of Alma saw the combined British and French armies attack a Russian force that was occupying high land above the River Alma. The French were on the right, with their right flank next to the sea and the British to their left. Facing the allies were some 33,000 Russian troops. In order to drive forward the advance to Sevastapol, it was necessary for the allies to cross the River Alma and then attack well-defended positions on higher ground. So confident were the Russians that the allies would be defeated that picnic parties came out of the city to watch the expected victory. The French opened the assault but they faltered, pinned down in vineyards below the Russian positions. Following the order ‘The infantry will advance’, an uphill attack was taken up by the British Light and Second Divisions. It was a powerful offensive and the Russians were forced to flee their positions, having lost 1,755 men and sustained some 6,000 casualties. The British lost 362 men with 1,600 wounded.
The Siege of Sevastopol
The move to take Sevastopol continued the following day. Once they had secured operating bases – the British at Balaklava and the French at Kamiesch Bay adjacent to Sevastopol – the allies set about besieging the city. However, as they only held positions to the south of Sevastopol, this allowed the Russians free access to the city from the north and east, enabling them to threaten the allied bases and forces.
The Russian army lay to the east of Sevastopol in order both to defend its supply lines from the eastern side of the Crimean peninsular and to threaten the British lines of communication. On 25 October, this Russian army moved towards the British lines between their base at Balaklava and Sevastopol. This move resulted in the Battle of Balaklava and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.
The Battle of Balaklava
The Battle of Balaklava is remembered primarily for the Charge of the Light Brigade. However, there were other events in the battle that, militarily, were equally important.
An important factor in the Battle of Balaklava was the terrain over which it was fought. Two valleys, separated by a ridge, were the scenes of three distinct phases of the battle: two cavalry charges and a standing defence by the 93rd Highlanders. The ridge was significant in that it obscured the action in the north valley from the view of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Raglan. His inability to see what was happening may have been one reason for the confusing order sent to the Light Brigade during the battle.
25 October 1854 saw the British and French forces dispersed to the south of Sevastopol. The French forces were based on the harbour at Kamiesch to the south-west of the city and the British at Balaklava to the south-east. British and French forces were also manning defensive positions due south of Sevastopol. Between the British positions on the edge of Sevastopol and their base at Balaklava were a number of Turkish and French troops.
‘The Thin Red Line’
The first move by Russian forces towards Balaklava was repulsed by the stand of the 93rd Highlanders, led by Major-General Sir Colin Campbell. Campbell formed his men into a line (rather than into a square, which was the accepted way for infantry to face a cavalry charge) and the probing Russian advance was driven off with volleys of musket fire. This action became known as ‘The Thin Red Line’.
For more on ‘The Thin Red Line’, link to the website of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (which was formed by the amalgamation of the 91st and 93rd Highlanders in 1881).
The Charge of the Heavy Brigade
Repelled by the 93rd Highlanders, the Russians regrouped and moved more of their cavalry into the south valley. Brigadier-General Scarlett, commander of the Heavy Brigade of cavalry, saw this and anticipated another Russian attack. He moved quickly and led the Heavy Brigade on an uphill charge into some 2,000 Russian horsemen before the enemy could complete its preparations. The Russians were duly forced back into the north valley.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Meanwhile the Light Brigade, commanded by Major-General the Earl of Cardigan, was awaiting orders. The brigade consisted of the 13th Light Dragoons, 4th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, 8th Hussars and 11th Hussars. The Light Brigade, together with the Heavy Brigade, made up the cavalry division which was commanded by Lieutenant-General the Earl of Lucan.
The order which came stated: ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.’
The order was brought initially to Lucan by Captain Nolan, a talented cavalry officer serving as aide-de-camp to Brigadier-General Airey (the Quarter Master General). Lucan passed the order on to Cardigan who, in response, led a charge of 673 soldiers up the length of the valley between two rows of Russian artillery on the heights. They were bombarded from all sides and suffered heavy casualties. It was a fiasco and only a charge by French cavalry saved the Light Brigade from total destruction. The battle ended with the Russians retaining their guns and their position, although they had failed to break through the British lines.
‘Someone Had Blundered’?
The interpretation of the order to attack has been the subject of intense speculation by historians. A popular theory is that the order referred to recapturing Turkish guns that were being taken by Russian forces in the hills above the battlefield. Nolan, however, seems to have assumed the target was the Russian guns about a mile away up the north valley and may have advised Lucan to lead the charge there. Nolan, who charged with the 17th Lancers, was the first to be killed and was thus unable to clarify this point. Lucan and Cardigan for their part hated each other. (Lucan had been married to Cardigan’s youngest sister but was now separated from her.) None of the personalities involved in initiating the charge appear to have acted well. Raglan’s order was imprecise, Airey’s drafting of the order was ambiguous, Nolan failed to explain the order to Lucan adequately, Lucan failed to question Nolan properly to establish his commander’s intent and Cardigan failed to seek adequate clarification from Lucan. Lucan also failed to provide the support from the rest of the cavalry and the horse artillery mentioned in the order. After the charge, Lord Raglan blamed Lucan.
Battle of Inkerman
After the failure to break the British lines of communication on 25 October, the Russians made a further attempt to defeat the British with a surprise attack at Inkerman on 5 November 1854. The Russians attacked the British in very foggy conditions. There was a fierce hand-to-hand battle that raged all day and resulted in thousands of casualties, mostly on the Russian side. This action became known as ‘the Soldier’s Battle’. As dusk fell, the British finally held the field, having received useful, if belated, help from the French.
After Inkerman the British and French continued to besiege Sevastopol. Finally, following a major assault in September 1855, the Russians evacuated the city, having kept the allies out for almost a year.
The Crimean War ended in the spring of 1856 but wrangling over the details of the Charge of the Light Brigade and who was at fault continued into the following decade. The last man who took part in the Charge died in 1924.
Maladministration in the British Army
One of the significant features of the Crimean War was the dreadful conditions and neglect endured by the troops. Not only were living conditions very poor, but medical supplies for troops in the field were also inadequate. W.H. Russell’s reports for The Times revealed the true depth of suffering and maladministration, particularly during the winter of 1854. These accounts upset Queen Victoria, who described them as these ‘infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers’. Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that ‘the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country’.
But a public outcry concerning the care of the soldiers eventually led to a number of nurses, including Florence Nightingale, being sent to the hospital at Scutari, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Another famous woman who cared for the sick and wounded was Mary Seacole, who came from Jamaica.
Other improvements in medical care were developed, including the first hospital train built by the firm of Peto, Brassey and Betts, and the first prefabricated hospital designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This hospital with, initially, 22 wards was erected at Renkioi in Turkey. Although the care of sick and injured soldiers improved, disease had been the biggest killer in the Crimean War.
Following the war, a number of enquiries were made into the running of the British army, and the process of reforming its medical care, which was to take half a century, began.