Today marks 160 years since the end of the Crimean War, the most important Great Power conflict fought between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
The war took place mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia on one side, and Russia on the other. Beginning in 1853, the immediate cause of the conflict resulted from religious tensions in the Middle East, including a dispute between Russia and France over the privileges of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the Holy Land. The Holy Land was then part of the Ottoman Empire ruled by Turkey and Tsar Nicholas I demanded that the Turks resolve the dispute in favour of the Orthodox Church. Nicholas’ demands, however, were not met, leading to the mobilisation of Russian forces against Turkey.
Turkey, by this time, was beginning to lose its grip on its empire and both Britain and France were concerned about Russian expansion and the potential danger posed to their trade routes. Turkey declared war on Russia on 5 October 1853, in response to initial Russian operations. The following month the Russian Black Sea fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. The British and French responded by aligning themselves with Turkey and both declared war on Russia in March 1854.
An allied army of over 60,000 British, French and Turkish troops was initially stationed in Turkey, ready to defend Istanbul from attack. In a letter from Major Edward Wellesley to his wife, Annot, dated 4 May 1854, he complains of the inexperience of staff and attendant confusion of arrangements as the British and French forces set up their bases in the Bosphorus:
A number of our Artillery Transports are hourly arriving and are stationed about 4 miles from here, the bustle and confusion attendant on all these arrivals are immense more particularly as all the staff nearly are new and there is too much discussion and too little actual work. You can imagine I have had enough to do and undo.
[MS 63 A904/4/18]
In order to strengthen their naval supremacy, the allies adopted a plan to land in the Crimea and conduct an all-out attack on Russian forces in the region, with the aim of seizing the naval base at Sebastopol and destroying the fleet and dockyard. In mid-September 1854, the joint allied invasion force landed at Kalamatia Bay. In order to advance on Sebastopol, the allies first had to cross the River Alma and attack heavily defended Russian positions on higher ground. With the advantage of new rifled muskets, together with superior skill and numbers, the allies were able to conduct a powerful offensive and force the Russians to flee their positions.
However, they failed to pursue the Russians directly, losing an opportunity to easily capture Sebastopol. This provided time for the Russians to fortify the city and stage two flank attacks. The first of these took place on 25 October, with Russian forces moving towards the British position at Balaclava. The Battle of Balaclava is best remembered for the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in which miscommunication in the chain of command led to the British Light Brigade conducting a frontal assault against well-fortified Russian artillery. The brigade suffered heavy casualties under a bombardment of direct fire. While criticised as a major blunder at the time, the charge also came to symbolise the valour and bravery of the British cavalry. The result of the battle was indecisive, with the Russians failing to break through the British lines. A further attempt was made to defeat the British with a surprise attack at Inkerman on 5 November 1854. The intense fighting resulted in massive losses, mostly on the Russian side, and ended with the allied troops continuing to hold their ground.
Soon after the Battle of Inkerman, winter set in. The winter of 1854 was a harrowing one for the troops. Not only were living conditions extremely poor, but medical supplies in the field were also inadequate. Media reporting from the front line highlighted the dreadful conditions and the level of maladministration in the army which led to widespread public outrage.
Even before the first significant battle of the war the allied forces found their numbers depleted by a wave of fever and cholera, as is noted by Major Edward Wellesley in a letter to his sister-in-law, Mary, on 25 August 1854:
The troops have suffered much from fever and cholera and the French army most dreadfully, we have lost many officers and soldiers and the fleet has also suffered materially… There is no doubt this is the most unhealthy place at this season of the year, in fact the Russians lost half their army when they besieged the town in 1828 and we are fortunate in escaping as we have…
[MS 63 A904/4/34]
Having twice acted as Foreign Secretary between 1830 and 1851, Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, was serving as Home Secretary when the Crimean War broke out. As such, he had limited control over British policy during the lead up to the war. In a memorandum, date 20 January 1855, Palmerston writes of the “present lamentable condition of our army in the Crimea” and places the blame on those in authority. He suggests that they should be removed with the exception of Lord Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, first Baron Raglan, despite his having shown himself to be “deficient” in caring for his officers and troops. Palmerston continues by declaring that if a remedy is not found, the reinforcements would be “victims sent to the slaughter” and that “defeat and disgrace must be the inevitable result”. He also criticises the decision to attack Sebastopol, believing that the “first thing then to be done is to put the army into a good condition”. [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR22(i)/1/96]
The public outcry eventually led to a number of organisations and individuals setting out for the war zone to minister to the troops. Among the nurses was Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. She emphasised the need for well trained nurses and clean hospitals to aid in the recovery of the sick and wounded. Following the war she continued to campaign tirelessly to improve health standards.
In the spring of 1855 the allies, now joined by the Sardinians, resumed their siege of Sebastopol. The siege continued until September 1855 when, having defended the city for almost a year, the Russians finally evacuated. By now Palmerston had become Prime Minister and was involved in negotiating the terms of peace. The Crimean War ended in the spring of 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March.
In his diary entry, dated 31 March 1856, Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, writes:
Yesterday Sunday. Peace was signed and the intelligence sent by electric telegraph. The guns announced it to the people. Let us bless the Lord who has brought us out of so many and great dangers, who has shown us such unspeakable and undeserved mercies, and who has taught us how and why to thank Him! May it be a true peace, a lasting peace, a fruitful peace. May it give double energy and double capacity to our thoughts, desires and efforts.
[MS 62 Broadlands Archives SHA/PD/7]
Alongside the Palmerston Papers, Special Collections houses a range of other material providing perspectives on the Crimean War. These include the diaries of Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (MS 62); the letters of the Major Edward Wellesley (MS 63); a diary and notebook of General Sir John St. George, who served as an artillery officer in the Crimea (MS 59); and the Crimea journal of Henry Parnell, fourth Baron Congleton (MS 64). Parnell joined the Buffs or the Third Regiment of Foot in 1855 at the age of 16 years of age. He served with them in the Crimea after the fall of Sebastapol in 1856 and his journal presents a very different picture from the records of officers in a combat situation.