The Crimean War (1853-1856), fought by Britain, France, and the Ottoman Turks against Russia, took place in an era during which the major European powers were in heavy competition over trade and territory as they sought to build their empires.
The Crimean War (1853-1856), fought by Britain, France, and the Ottoman Turks against Russia, took place in an era during which the major European powers were in heavy competition over trade and territory as they sought to build their empires. This quest served to spur the technological innovations that would alter the shape of warfare in the nineteenth century. The invention of the
The Crimean War was sparked by rivalries between the great European powers. Russia had long coveted access to the Mediterranean Sea through the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, both of which remained in Turkish hands in the 1850’s. Because Russia, France, and Britain were competing for trade with the Ottoman Empire, any Russian expansion into the Mediterranean could threaten the interests of Britain and France as well as the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire itself. The relationship between Britain and Russia was further complicated by each country’s rival desires for influence in India and the Middle East. France was willing to block Russian expansion into Turkish territory but had its own interest in territorial expansion at the expense of the Turks in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.
In July, 1853, Russian soldiers marched into the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, then under Turkish control, and continued to advance east toward the Danube River. In early October, Turkey declared war on Russia and sent its armies toward the Danube and the Caucasus Mountains. During the winter of 1853-1854, France and Britain watched from the sidelines; their only action was to send some troops to stations in the Mediterranean. However, at the end of March, 1854, the Crimean War officially began when Britain and France declared war on Russia. The major military goal of the Allied forces was to invade the Crimean Peninsula and eventually to capture the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. Once that fortress finally fell in 1855, the war’s major fighting ended and peace negotiations soon began.
Major Sites in the Crimean War, 1853-1856
By contrast, only 6,000 Russian infantrymen were equipped with modern rifles; the remainder went into battle armed with
A cartoon by John Leech decries the wretched conditions British soldiers faced in the Crimea. One soldier says to the other, “Well, Jack! Here’s good news from home. We’re to have a medal,” and the other replies, “That’s very kind. Maybe one of these days we’ll have a coat to stick it on!”
The armies that fought in the Crimean War were clearly unconcerned with camouflaging themselves from the enemy, wearing a variety of colorful uniforms and headgear. For instance,
Typically, the soldiers who fought during the Crimean War were issued only one uniform, which was to be worn in all weather and on all occasions. It was intended that soldiers would receive a new uniform each year but would keep their greatcoats for a longer period of time. For instance, British soldiers were given a new greatcoat once every three years. Supply routes to the Crimea were poorly organized, however, and at one point, a freak winter storm destroyed some of the ships carrying new uniforms to the Allied forces. Many soldiers ultimately had to scavenge for their uniforms. Only the Russian soldiers seem to have carried extra shirts, socks, trousers, and leather boots with extra soles in their knapsacks. Muslim members of the Turkish army each carried a prayer rug as part of their equipment.
The Crimean War featured the heaviest
The Turkish military
The Crimean War involved naval
Russia relied on an army of
One-sixth of officers came from the
The vast majority of British troops were volunteers: Only 1 percent were criminals and vagrants being punished by the legal system. Wages were a shilling a day. Infantryman signed on for a ten-year period, whereas cavalryman served twelve-year terms.
The French army emphasized merit rather than birthright. Few officers were from the nobility. Instead, they had to earn their promotions and to live on their military salaries. Consequently, they had more sympathy and understanding for the men under their command. Whereas British officers spent little time with their soldiers, French officers would more frequently share the living and dining quarters of their men. French soldiers were
After a series of defeats in the eighteenth century, the Turks began to reform their army along French and Russian lines. By the start of the Crimean War, these reforms had seen some success: Junior officers were literate and had received some military training. However, they were resented by many senior officers who remained illiterate. Corruption affected the Turkish army’s ability to supply itself, because officers often siphoned off money allocated for provisions in order to pay the bribes needed for promotions. The Turkish force was multinational in its composition: Some officers were Hungarians, Italians, and Poles who had fled their homelands, and the infantry had come from all over the empire.
An engraving depicting the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, at the Battle of Balaklava (1854).
In most armies at the time of the Crimean War, there was a clear division between the
In the 1850’s army officers were not typically trained to think about supplies or to plan ahead. This lack of emphasis on strategic
The British were not alone in these oversights, however; the Turks had little transport to speak of and had made an agreement with the British to supply them. Because the Turks did not organize their own supply trains and the British were not in a position to fulfill the agreement, Turkish soldiers were forced to live off the land. The French were closer to their supply base and were accompanied by
The officers who served during the Crimean War were no better at planning battles than they were at organizing their forces. Despite the creation of a Turkish military academy in 1834, many senior Turkish officers remained illiterate. British officers received little formal military
The Crimean War saw two distinct types of warfare: land battles and sieges. The tactics used by the armies varied depending on the situation and on their national traditions. During land battles, the British infantry would advance in a line, unhurriedly and silently, toward the enemy fire. In contrast, the French commanders encouraged individual initiative and had trained their troops in athletics, hand-to-hand combat, and mountain climbing. French soldiers rushed to the attack as quickly as possible, in part because their officers believed they would retreat otherwise. Both the French and the Russians would scream and shout as they advanced. The Russian army’s main infantry tactic was to have the troops advance in densely packed columns at the same time as the enemy approached and to fire at the enemy as the Russians advanced. The troops were told that aiming was not important, and few of the bullets found their mark, because target practice was not part of a Russian soldier’s normal training. After using their
Should an infantryman survive the initial advance and meet the enemy, hand-to-hand combat would begin. All types of weapons would be used: bayonets, swords, stones, even feet and teeth for kicking and biting. Rifle butts frequently served as clubs. All troops were trained to rely on their bayonets more than any other weapon.
British troops at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.
The final assault by the allied forces at Sevastopol in 1855.
Infantry advances and cavalry charges continued to be used during the Siege of Sevastopol but were supplemented with several other tactics as well. Before the soldiers would attack, the Allied armies would pound the city with heavy artillery bombardments and try to tunnel under the Russian fortifications. New long-range rifles meant that
A variety of contemporary sources are available to readers who wish to know more about the Crimean War. British newspaper
Many participants in the Crimean War wrote accounts of their experiences both immediately after the war and for many years following it. Some of the English-language memoirs and diaries include those of George Higginson, Seventy-one Years of a Guardsman’s Life (1916); John Richard Hume, Reminiscences of the Crimean Campaign with the Fifty-fifth Regiment (1894); Frederick Robinson, Diary of the Crimean War (1856); and Humphry Sandwith, A Narrative of the Siege of Kars (1856). Many Russian, Sardinian, and French soldiers also wrote memoirs, but their works have not been translated into English. Due to the low literacy rate among the Turkish troops, few of their firsthand accounts exist. All of the memoirs reflect the age in which they were written, conveying the attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices of the 1850’s and omitting certain elements that a modern reader would expect from accounts of contemporary warfare. For instance, because it was not fashionable to discuss emotions, particularly those experienced during battle, the authors describing their Crimean War experiences rarely discuss topics such as combat fatigue.
In addition to the various memoirs, there were travel accounts written by people with firsthand views of the Crimean War. These books were not necessarily written by regular soldiers or even by military personnel. Among the most useful is George Palmer Evelyn’s A Diary of the Crimea (1954), which describes the role he played as a British mercenary in the Crimean War. Evelyn’s account is particularly informative about the layout of the battlefields. Sir Henry Clifford’s Henry Clifford, VC: His Letters and Sketches from the Crimea (1956) provides another firsthand account of the war, focusing on the period from September 18, 1854, to April 18, 1856. George B. McClellan’s The Armies of Europe Comprising Descriptions in Detail of the Military Systems of England, France, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sardinia: Adapting Their Advantages to All Arms of the United States Service and Embodying the Report of Observations in Europe During the Crimean War, As Military Commissioner from the United States Government, 1855-1856 (1861) provides a great deal of information about the organizations of the armies of most combatants in the Crimean War. Drawings and charts illustrate the information.
Letters Home from the Crimea (1999) is a collection of letters by Temple Goodman, a cavalryman who saw action in the Battle of Balaclava as well as the Siege of Sevastopol. Other published collections of letters include “Little Hodge”: Being Extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Lt.-Colonel Edward Cooper Hodge Written During the Crimean War, 1854-1856 (1971), written by Edward Cooper Hodge and edited by George Paget, the marquess of Anglesey; Letters from the Army in the Crimea, Written During the Years 1854, 1855, and 1856 (1857), by Sir Anthony Coningham Sterling; Life, Letters, and Diaries of Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Graham with Portraits, Plans, and His Principal Despatches (1901), by R. H. Vetch; and Crimean Diary and Letters of Lieutentant-General Sir Charles Ash Windham, K.C.B., with Observations upon his Services During the Indian Mutiny (1897), by Sir C. A. Windham.
Finally, special mention should be made of Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) fictional account of the Siege of Sevastopol, entitled Sevastopolskiy rasskazy (1855-1856; Sebastopol, 1887), as well as his published diaries covering the years of the Crimean War. As a young man,
Almond, Ian. “The Crimean War, 1853-6: Muslims on All Sides.” In Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Baumgart, Winfried. The Crimean War, 1853-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Curtiss, J. S. The Russian Army Under Nicholas I, 1825-1855. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965. Edgerton, R. Death or Glory: The Legacy of the Crimean War. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Fletcher, Ian, and Natalia Ishchenko. The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires. Staplehurst, Kent, England: Spellmount, 2004. Fuller, W. C., Jr. Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914. New York: Free Press, 1992. Grainger, John D. The First Pacific War: Britain and Russia, 1854-1856. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2008. Griffith, P. Military Thought in the French Army, 1815-51. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989. Harris, Stephen. British Military Intelligence in the Crimean War, 1854-1856. London: Frank Cass, 1999. Lambert, A. D. The Crimean War: The British Grand Strategy, 1853-56. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990. Small, Hugh. The Crimean War: Queen Victoria’s War with the Russian Tsars. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2007. Sweetman, John. Balaclava, 1854: The Charge of the Light Brigade. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1990. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. _______. The Crimean War. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2001. Thomas, R., and R. Scollins. The Russian Army of the Crimean War, 1854-56. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1991. Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. A Brief History of the Crimean War: The Causes and Consequences of a Medieval Conflict Fought in a Modern Age. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006. Balaclava, 1854. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 1996. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Feature film. Warner Bros., 1936. Combat Camera. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1992. The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires. Documentary. Direct Cinema Limited, 1996. Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War. Filmstrip. Multi-Media Productions, 1980. Trumpets and Typewriters: A History of War Reporting. Documentary. ABC, 1983.
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