Home About Sources Topics Background

Crimean texts

A summary of the war in the Crimea

by David Kelsey

Origins of the war.

In 1853, not for the first time nor for the last, war broke out between Russia and Turkey. The Ottoman Empire had dominated south-east Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa for centuries. It was now in decline while Russia was pursuing a policy of expansion on all its borders. In July 1853, affronted by the decision of the Sultan to appoint the Roman Catholic Church as custodians of the Christian shrines in the Holy Land, Russia sent troops into the Balkan provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, ostensibly to protect the interests of Christian populations. Turkey chose to interpret the action as a casus belli and declared war in October. The following month Russian naval vessels crossed the Black Sea and destroyed a large part of the Turkish fleet in the harbour of Sinope. This was presented in the British press as a ‘massacre,’ and public opinion turned against Russia. France and Britain had political motives to support Turkey. Emperor Louis Napoleon had recently established the Second Empire by a coup and was anxious to demonstrate his imperial credentials. He had promised to support the Sultan against Russia if the Roman Catholic Church was preferred to the Orthodox Church in the dispute over the Christian shrines. Britain was consolidating its control of India and was alarmed at the prospect of Russian control of the eastern Mediterranean and expansion into Afghanistan. In February 1854 France and Britain issued an ultimatum to Russia to withdraw from the Balkan provinces by the end of April; on 28 March they declared war. Naval forces had already been deployed in the region and troops were already on their way.

March to August 1854
Six months of idle decline.

No strategy for the conduct of the war had been determined. The French and British forces, under the command of Lord Raglan, spent the spring and summer of 1854 encamped in and around Varna in Bulgaria while the Turks fought unassisted against the Russians besieging Silistria on the Danube a hundred miles to the north. By the end of June the Turks had relieved Silistria, and the following month the Russians withdrew from the Baltic provinces. The allied ultimatum now having been met, albeit tardily and perforce, Raglan hoped that his army would be called home. The long inactivity had had a deleterious effect. Cholera was rife, morale was low, and discipline was lax. To his dismay he was ordered to invade the Crimea and reduce Sebastopol, the fortified base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Slowly and reluctantly he prepared to do so.

September to October 1854
A busy autumn.

On 14 September 1854 the allied armies began landing in the Crimea at Old Fort, about 30 miles north of Sebastopol. The landings were unopposed. Unbeknown to the Allies, Sebastopol’s defences were not in good order. The commander of the Russian army in the field, Prince Menschikoff, promised to hold the invaders at the Alma, about halfway between Old Fort and Sebastopol, for three weeks, the time needed to effect the required repairs and re-armament. When the Allies reached the river on 21 September they overran the Russian positions in less than three hours. The battle of Alma was an overwhelming victory for the Allies, but losses were heavy on both sides. Future strategy was affected by the reluctance of the British generals to risk further losses in major assaults.

Menschikoff fell back to Sebastopol, then withdrew his army to the interior, leaving the town to its fate. When the Allies arrived they did not assault from the north but marched around the town and took Balaklava, a small port about 8 miles south of Sebastopol. Again Raglan chose not to assault Sebastopol immediately, preferring to mount a preliminary bombardment from land and sea. It took three weeks to unload the siege artillery and mount it in position, so Sebastopol gained the time it needed to strengthen its defences. The Allies then bombarded Sebastopol for a week without creating an opportunity to assault.

On 25 October the Russian field army launched a counter-attack towards Balaklava. They pushed the Allies back from the Causeway Heights, but their cavalry advances were ignominiously repulsed first by infantry (the stand of the thin red line) and then by cavalry (the charge of the Heavy Brigade). The day ended disastrously for the Allies with the charge of the Light Brigade, but the Russians had failed to retake Balaklava or to sever its communications with the troops in front of Sebastopol.

On 5 November the Russians attacked again, this time against the British lines to the south-east of Sebastopol. The battle of Inkerman consisted largely of desperate hand-to-hand struggles fought over ridges and ravines. It became known as “the soldiers’ battle” because the commanders on either side had little control over the course it took. By the end of the day the Russians were forced to retire.

November 1854 to February 1855
A winter of troubles.

The British army in the Crimea was not prepared for the severity of the winter of 1854-55. The men were badly housed, fed, and clothed. Transportation of supplies from Balaklava to the encampments was effected with great difficulty. Cavalry mounts, themselves short of food, were used as beasts of burden. On 14 November a great storm sank many of the vessels off Balaklava, some laden with much needed supplies. Facilities for the treatment of disease and injury were disastrously inadequate.

When news of the sufferings of the troops reached Britain there was public outcry. The Government demanded explanations from Raglan and his Quartermaster General, Sir Richard Airey, but was itself forced to resign. The new Government sent General Simpson out to be Raglan’s Chief of Staff, an implied rebuke for the lack of organisation at his Headquarters. Commission after commission was despatched to the Crimea to report upon conditions — a Hospital Commission, a Sanitary Commission, a Supplies Commission. Private individuals set up the Crimean Army Fund to send supplies from public subscriptions.

March to August 1855
Six months of slow attrition.

It had become clear that the original plan, to take the town by an outright assault after a bombardment or two, would never be realised. Many were now convinced that a total investment of the town was needed, but there were insufficient troops for that purpose. Meanwhile the siege operations continued, the Allies pushing trenches and batteries towards the town’s defence works, the Russians obstructing them as best they might by rifle pits and anti-personnel mines. There were occasional forays by both sides against each other’s works, and sporadic bombardments, with no clear advantage gained by either side.

The Allies turned their mind to disrupting the Russians’ supply routes into the Crimea. In May an allied expedition by sea captured Kertch and Yenikale, giving the allied navies command of the Sea of Azov, following which Soudjak Kale and Anapa were both taken.

On 18 June major assaults were mounted against the Malakoff Tower and the Redan, two major outer defence works of Sebastopol. The assaults were beaten back with heavy losses. Later that month Raglan died of illness, and Simpson was appointed Commander-in-Chief in his stead.

In the battle of Balaklava the Russians had taken the Fedioukine and Causeway Heights but later abandoned them. On 16 August they attempted to retake them but were decisively beaten by the French and Sardinians in the battle of the Tchernaya. This defeat may have persuaded the Russian commanders that the Allies could not be beaten in the field, and that the defence of Sebastopol was a lost cause.

September 1855 to March 1856
An inglorious success and seven months of stand-off.

On 8 September the Allies re-attempted the June assaults. This time the French captured the Malakoff but the British were beaten back from the Redan ignominiously. Generals had failed to lead their troops, reinforcements were not ready when needed, and some men had fled from the face of the enemy. To the Allies’ astonishment the next morning revealed that overnight the Russians had withdrawn all their forces to the North Side across a floating bridge. Sebastopol had been taken after all. The early congratulations from London soon turned to recriminations however. Simpson wanted to wait and see what the Russians would do next; the Government expected more positive action. Simpson was also criticised for the failure at the Redan, and by the end of September he resigned in disillusion. His resignation was immediately accepted but he remained in post as a lame-duck commander for another six weeks while the Government debated who should succeed him, finally deciding upon Sir William Codrington.

Throughout November and December Codrington continued Simpson’s policy of ‘wait and see.’ Attention was paid to reorganising command structures and to establishing huts and roads so as to avoid a repeat of the previous year’s winter troubles. There had been a naval expedition to Kinburn in October, but plans for similar forays against Kaffa and Arabat were now abandoned. Austria made proposals for a peace conference. In January 1856 the Allies blew up the docks in Sebastopol, accepting that they themselves would not need them for future operations. In February they blew up Fort Nicholas. The Peace Conference opened in Paris, and an armistice was declared in the Crimea. The Peace Treaty was signed on 30 March 1856. The war was over.

Home About Sources Topics Background