Monday, 21 December 2015

The Crimean War, 1853-5

On 4th October 1853 Turkey declared war on Russia, thus setting in train the events that would lead to the Crimean War. By its end, a quarter of a million men would have died, many of them in appalling conditions from cold and disease, as opposed to being direct battle casualties.

The causes of the Crimean War

The roots of the war lay in Russian ambitions to take advantage of the rapid decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which Tsar Nicholas I had declared to be “the sick man of Europe”. Nicholas believed that the western powers of Britain and France would not intervene if he nibbled away at the borders of Turkish Europe, but this proved to be a forlorn hope.

One seemingly petty cause of the war was a squabble between Russia and France over who should be the protector of Christian communities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. France was particularly keen to secure the rights of Catholics to guard the “Holy Places” whereas Russia wanted Orthodox Christians to have this role.

Britain, meanwhile, wished to maintain the balance of power in eastern Europe and therefore had every reason to suspect Russian ambitions in the region, being especially wary of any action that would enable Russia to gain access to the Mediterranean through the Turkish straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.

For these reasons, Britain and France were able to put aside their traditional rivalries and send a joint fleet to Constantinople in support of the Turks.

War is declared

It was the Russian movement of troops into Turkish Europe (modern-day Romania and Bulgaria) that prompted Turkey’s declaration of war, this being followed by initial Turkish success in driving them back. However, when a Turkish flotilla was destroyed on 30th November the British and French felt compelled to sail into the Black Sea to protect Turkey from further aggression.

Britain and France declared war on Russia on 28th March 1854, with the focus of war only moving to the Crimean Peninsula, on the north side of the Black Sea, in September of that year. It was therefore nearly a year after the initial declaration of war by Turkey that the war became the Crimean War.

A badly run war

As the conflict dragged on it became apparent that a great deal was wrong with the British war machine, in which the commanders were appointed on grounds of family history, aristocratic background and the purchasing of commissions, rather than any ability to lead armies into battle.

The original idea of landing an army on the Crimea to take control of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol was crazy from the outset; for example, it was only when the invasion fleet reached the coast that anyone started thinking about where they would actually disembark.

The war became known for disasters on the battlefield and important reforms off it. The notorious “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Battle of Balaklava in October 1854 was typical of the military ineptitude of Britain’s commanders. On the other hand, the heroic actions of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole saved many lives and led the way towards a complete re-assessment of medical and support facilities for serving soldiers.

All in all, the Crimean War was one that should never have taken place, and it should certainly never have been conducted in the way it was. However, by bringing the inadequacies of the military establishment into full focus (aided by the pioneering war reporting of William Russell of The Times and the photography of Roger Fenton) the reforms that followed did much to make the British army better suited to face the conflicts that were to come.

© John Welford