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  • James Houser

October 4, 1853 - The Crimean War Begins

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

October 4, 1853. If they’d all just minded their business, this never would have happened. A religious dispute in Palestine blossoms into a full-on European crisis. Intimidated by the growing power of Russia, Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire join into a coalition to take on the Tsar. The result is Europe’s first full-scale international conflict since the fall of Napoleon, mainly known for its primary battleground – a little spit of land called the Crimea.


Why do nations go to war? In 1970, the noted philosopher Edwin Starr asked his audience, “War! What is it good for?” Answering his own question, he asserted “Absolutely nothing.” Of course, this is not a sufficient answer for our purposes. As I’ve said time and again in my history posts, nations and peoples go into wars thinking that they absolutely *are* good for something. That “something” could be removing a potential threat, protecting a critical ally, the defense of some perceived honor or reputation, or even a noble crusade to liberate people from something or another. And typically, nations aren’t too shy about explaining why they are going to war, even if the reasoning is bad (Iraq 2003) or stupid (France 1870).


(One of the most popular “facts” that just ain’t true is that the United States invaded Iraq for oil. The reasons were far more misguided than that. Oil would at least have been, if not a VALID reason, a LOGICAL one. But I digress)


The Crimean War is different. None of the “surface” causes of the war actually penetrated to the heart of what the conflict actually was: a great power conflict that everyone had pretended didn’t exist until it did. There would be all sorts of window dressing for the war – talk about atrocities, religion, duties, and rights – but this was almost all propaganda to obscure the naked force at the heart of the Crimean conflict. As complex as the war sounded on the outset, it was very simple. One paragraph will do it:


The growing power of Russia in the Middle East and Asia alarmed both Britain and France, who had interests in the region. The slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum, and the great diplomatic concern of Europe was “who gets what” when the Ottomans finally fell apart. Russia, because of its long-standing opposition to the Ottomans and its proximity to the region, stood to benefit the most from the Ottomans collapsing. Britain and France stood to benefit from keeping it alive – if only to keep Russia in check. So when the Russians made an aggressive move against the Ottomans in 1853, the British and French responded.


Simple, right? Well, no one could come out and say that. For centuries, Russia had been creeping south. Catherine the Great had finally conquered the Muslim powers that once controlled the Crimea, and she had begun a never-ending series of Russian wars against the Ottoman Empire that slowly rolled the border south. Granted, the Ottomans weren’t saints, and their bad behavior was often more than enough reason for a war – but as they grew weaker, and the Russians grew stronger, the Tsar’s excuses for war became more and more flimsy.


As far as thinking up a good reason to fight the Ottomans went, the Ottoman oppression of Christian minorities within their borders had become “Ol’ Reliable.” Whenever Russia wanted to go bare-knuckle with the Turks, all they had to do was point at some vague oppression or another and say “Let’s go boys!” The Tsar thus had a vested interest in presenting himself as the protector of the Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire – fellow Orthodox Christians like the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and Armenians. They were a convenient tool to start a war with, and were almost always stabbed in the back during the peace deal.


Well, that little fantasy was diminished when Napoleon III of France took power. Napoleon III (as I’ve mentioned) was an airhead with delusions of grandeur, desperately trying to reclaim the glory of his namesake uncle. In 1851, Napoleon declared the French Catholic Church to be the protector of all Christians in Palestine, and when the Ottomans objected Napoleon rattled his saber by moving some battleships towards the Ottoman coast. This threat – and a generous handful of cash – convinced the Ottomans to say, “Ok fine,” and granted France and the Catholic Church sovereignty over the holy places in Palestine, including the Church of the Nativity – previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church, aka Russia’s favorite faction.


The series of events that followed was something like a Monty Python-esque farce, including a caper where Catholic and Orthodox clergymen literally fought over the keys to the freaking church. But it was a farce with very real-world consequences. Russia began massing troops along the Ottoman Empire’s northern border in modern-day Romania, while the French began to increase their naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire, probably feeling like a neglected kid trying to hold his drunken parents apart during a fight, began to ready its military as well. None of this was really about who had the keys to the church, for God’s (literal) sake. Russia wanted a free hand in the decaying Ottoman Empire, the French were horning in on their territory, and the Ottomans were basically so weak that they had to side with one or the other.


That wasn’t the diplomatic line both sides spun, since the Tsar’s diplomats kept ranting about the “acts of injustice towards the Greek church.” The Russians were very clearly preparing for a new war with the Ottomans, and they wanted the French and British out of the way. The Russian diplomatic corps started a charm offensive with the British, trying to persuade them to stay out of the fight. Tsar Nicholas I innocently insisted that he didn’t *want* to fight the Ottomans or *want* to expand Imperial Russia, but that he had an *obligation* to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire from being killed or bullied or rickrolled or whatever it was the evil Ottomans were doing to them. He may have even believed part of this.


The British weren’t buying it. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire would give Russia’s navy access to the Mediterranean, and the British Royal Navy considered that to be HER territory. (To be fair, the Royal Navy thought every ocean and sea was her territory.) Plus, Britain and Russia had been not-so-secret rivals for years, especially when it came to Central Asia and Persia. The “Great Game” – a diplomatic, military, espionage and economic competition for domination of the Middle East and Central Asia – was already underway between Britain and Russia, and if Russia was able to overrun the crumbling Ottomans they would gain a substantial leg up. Of course, none of this was the stated reason for Britain’s decision to interfere in the upcoming war. The *stated* reason was that the Russians were in violation of a treaty from 1774 – which has been a nightmare for historians ever since, because there were multiple translations of the treaty which could be taken multiple different ways and it’s impossible to know who was reading what version at what point and…yeah.


Either way, the British and French now had naval forces on the way to protect the Ottomans, while the Russians were gathering a large army on the northern border. Everyone held their breath for what looked like the first major European war since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Sure, there had been smaller fights, and the Revolutions of 1848 had kicked up quite a bit of violence and smaller conflicts, but not since Napoleon III’s uncle had gone into exile 38 years previously had major European powers gone to war with each other. It had been a nice, long period of peace and two big things had happened. The first was that everyone had forgotten how shitty war was. The second was that technology had moved on – but military thinking had not. The state of technology on the eve of the Crimean War was closer to that of the American Civil War than the Napoleonic Wars, with all the carnage that entailed.


But no one knew that yet. In February 1853, the Russians sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire demanding Russian sovereignty over all the Christians in the Turkish boundaries, with control of the Orthodox Church hierarchy therein. With British and French support, the Ottomans rejected this demand for what it was – a proposal that no sovereign nation could accept and remain independent. Imagine if Saudi Arabia tried to claim authority over all Muslims in the United States? Not only would most of those Muslims be unhappy, but the United States would be furious. So were the Ottomans, and they refused the ultimatum. War was on the horizon.


With the Ottoman rejection of this ultimatum, Russia began making moves. In July 1853, Tsar Nicholas sent troops into the independent Romanian states of Moldavia and Wallachia that served as “buffer states” between the Russians and Ottomans. Of the 80,000 troops that Russia sent into these territories, half would die – mostly of sickness and maltreatment. This marked one of the persistent themes of the Crimean War: the absolutely broken medical and supply systems of all armies. The Crimean War was such a scandal for every nation, with most of its casualties coming from easily preventable diseases and the wretched conditions of the soldiers, that it toppled the Prime Minister’s government in Britain and led to the founding of the Red Cross.


There were negotiations before the war actually came to a head, where multiple diplomats from all over Europe met in Vienna to try and draft an acceptable settlement. Even though Britain, France, Russia and the Ottomans were publicly rattling their sabers for war, some on both sides still believed they could prevent an outbreak of war. France and Russia, though, were raring to go. They had both gotten their blood up, and they had been drinking their own propaganda about the “right to protect Christians in the Empire” so much that they had begun to believe it themselves. The Ottomans refused any terms that compromised their independence as a power, so it was inevitable. With British and French fleets assembling at Constantinople, Russian armies on the northern border, and the Ottoman armies gathering, the question was who would pull the trigger.


The Ottomans pulled it. On October 4, 1853, the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Russians, with their justification being the Russian invasion of the Romanian border states. Within days, their army in the Balkans crossed the Danube River and went haring at the Russian force. To the everlasting surprise of all European observers, the Ottomans WON the Battle of Oltenita on November 4, beating the Russians and driving their army back. The situation soon reversed itself, though, and more Russian troops began to stream in and drive the Ottomans back into Bulgaria. By early 1854, the Russians had entered Ottoman territory and laid siege to the critical fortress at Silistra.


At the same time, the Russian Navy was preparing its own strike. On November 30, the Russian Black Sea Fleet launched a night raid on the Ottoman naval base at Sinop on the northern coast of Turkey. It was a total Russian victory, with almost ten Ottoman ships sunk or grounded for the loss of no Russian vessels. After defeating the fleet, the Russian Navy shelled the city itself, inflicting almost 3,000 civilian casualties. One of the Russians’ chief advantages in the battle was their naval guns’ new ammunition: the exploding shell, a recent innovation that helped make wooden warships obsolete. Instead of cannonballs, shrapnel, or other projectiles, the exploding shell resulted in both kinetic and explosive damage. The Battle of Sinop clearly demonstrated the destructive power of the shell and was essentially the first shot (no pun intended) in the 19th-Century naval arms race that would lead to the ironclad, the torpedo, and the dreadnought.


But that was all in the future. Right NOW, the engagement at Sinop set public opinion on fire in Europe. The Russians cheered the victory, believing it to be a vindication of the Russian Navy – long the red-headed stepchild of the European navies. The British and French were furious that the Russians had shelled a civilian city; the use of the new shell technology itself was considered by some to be barbaric and inhumane – the same accusation that gets tossed at every new technology. Either way, with the Russian army on the march in the Balkans and the Russian navy on the ascendancy in the Black Sea, Britain and France took the plunge.


On March 28, 1854, after Russia refused a British/French demand to withdraw from the Romanian states, the two countries declared war on Russia. They had already assembled expeditionary forces of their own to accompany the naval forces into battle, and by April 1854 were landing their armies in Bulgaria. The British and French each committed around 25,000 men to this combined army, but they would soon find out that fighting a major war a continent away would require far more men, far more hardship, and far more suffering than they ever anticipated.


The British commander was Lord Raglan, a man much maligned by contemporary media and later historians for his mismanagement and maltreatment of the forces under his command. In actuality, Raglan’s failure was the failure of every European establishment in the 1850s. No militaries of the age really had an adequate medical, supply or organization apparatus. Among the British troops camped in Bulgaria, cholera, dysentery and fever were soon rampant. The seriously deficient hospital and sanitation system failed to prevent or cure these diseases, land transport was always lacking and food and ammunition supplies suffered as a result, and only half of the British troops had the new Minie rifle – the state-of-the-art firearm that held a decisive edge over the older Napoleonic-era muskets.


In the midst of this quagmire, the war situation suddenly changed. By July 1854, the Russians had given in to the Allied demands and withdrawn completely from the Romanian states. With this condition satisfied, the reasons for war technically no longer existed; they could get back to negotiating over who held the keys to the churches in Jerusalem and stuff like that.


Political and public opinion, however, would not allow Britain and France to back down now. They had spun a propaganda web to justify a war, and they were now caught in it. British and French politicians had done too good of a job cloaking their cynical, self-interested motives for joining the war in rhetoric about duties to the Christian populations, atrocities, and violations of treaties. They couldn’t back out now without losing political legitimacy at home. The Earl of Aberdeen’s government in Britain could fall; Napoleon III’s still-shaky hold on power in France was always subject to the shifts of public opinion. The Allies decided: Russia must be taught a lesson and deterred from ever interfering in the Balkans or with the Ottomans again.


But where to go next? The Allies had no interest in chasing the Russian army up into the wilds of the Ukraine. There was, however, a tempting target dangling BELOW the Ukraine. The city of Sevastopol, at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula that sticks like an arrowhead from the bottom of the Ukraine, was the major Russian naval base in the Black Sea - the place from where the Black Sea Fleet had sailed to wreak havoc at Sinop. Raglan had floated the idea to the British government earlier in 1854, and initial reconnaissance of the Sevastopol area showed that the Russian forces there were not overwhelming. A quick landing, a few sharp battles, and the port would be theirs. So it was settled: the Allies would attack the Crimea to try and force Russia to accept a more favorable peace.


On September 13, 1854, the Anglo-French-Ottoman force landed at Eupatoria, 30 miles to the north of Sevastopol. The invading armies soon downloaded all their gear and artillery. Redcoated British soldiers with their tall bearskin hats and broad mustaches; blue-coated French with their shakos and gleaming bayonets; Ottomans in their turbans and with their colorful gear; all landed on the Crimea to undertake a short, quick campaign that would win the war before winter set in.


The war would not be over before winter. The worst, by far, was yet to come. As the Allies marched south, they ran into their first battle with the Russians. On September 20, the Allied army encountered a Russian force entrenched along the Alma River and launched a frontal attack. After three hours of heavy fighting in the Battle of the Alma, the Allies drove the Russians out of their dug-in positions. Both sides were shocked by the heavy losses, with 3,800 of the Allies killed or wounded.


The Allies continued south. Their objective: Sevastopol. Somehow, a dispute over who controlled the keys to a church in Jerusalem had ended up with boys from Scotland, Moscow and Champagne fighting over the fate of the Greek Christians on a Ukrainian peninsula. Whatever the actual reasons that led them there, it still didn’t make a lot of sense. But here they were. The “Russian War,” as it had been known at first, had now become “The Crimean War.”


I still haven’t talked about the most famous moment of this war – but I will. Because on the 25th, I’ll talk about the Charge of the Light Brigade.


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