The Crimean War
The Ottoman’s atrophying economic and political influence played a key role in the preamble to a war that became regarded by military historians as the first modern war. It was the first war to have reports from the frontline, with William Howard Russell blazing a trail for contemporary war reporting with his telegrams to The Times. But warfare’s embrace of modernity did not cap the bloodshed. Between October 1853 and February 1856, an estimated 25,000 Britons died as a result of the war. The total death toll exceeded one million.
It was a war defined by courage on the battlefield, where allied soldiers obeyed commands that sent them to their deaths at the Battle Of Balaclava in 1854; a battle which will be remembered for the Charge Of The Light Brigade and the Thin Red Line. The Crimean conflict brought to prominence the importance of medical aid during battle; British nurse, Florence Nightingale became immortalised as The Lady Of The Lamp for her reforms of the army’s medical care. With better sanitation and nightly rounds from Nightingale and the likes of Mary Seacole helped influence modern nursing.
The Ottoman Empire’s decline could be dated back to 1828. Once mighty in the 16th Century under Suleiman The Magnificent, it was a shadow of its former self by the time Russia under Tsar Nicholas I’s became resolute expansionists, bringing the region to the brink.
Tensions arose when France, under Napoleon III, impressed upon the Ottoman Empire that authority over the Holy Land in 1851 was French, and Roman Catholic, much to the annoyance of Russia. Nicholas I wished to exert Orthodox rule. The Ottomans deferred authority back to the Russians, only to cede once more when the French naval fleet trained its guns on the coastline. France’s naval muscle caused Sultan Abdülmecid I to reinstate French authority over the Holy Land, and the possession of the keys to the Church of The Nativity: the birthplace of Jesus Christ was sacred to both Christians and Muslims, and was an intoxicating totem for imperial powers.
The Russians amassed troops along the Danube. Sir George Hamilton Seymour, the British Ambassador to Russia, was courted by Russia. They feared an alliance between the British and the French, the two most powerful nations in Western Europe. When the British learned of Russia’s movements in the Danubian Principalities, war looked inevitable.
Britain, France, Prussia and Austria met in Vienna to draft a proposal to stabilise the region. The Russians bought into it; but the Ottomans, still convinced that Russians were hoping to undermine their autonomy, rejected it. At the Battle Of Sinop, 30th November 1853, Russian battleships under the admiralty of Pavel Nakhimov laid waste to Ottoman frigates. Britain and France joined the war.
The allies’ proposals for peace were dismissed out of hand by the Tsar. He would not withdraw from the Danube; cede the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs at the behest of the Orthodox Church; revise the Straits Convention of 1841; open the River Danube to international fleets. The diplomatic deadlock was a portent of the long, stalemate that would arise from the yearlong Siege Of Sebastopol .
At Sebastopol, the Russians fought tooth and nail, utilising their naval fleet as auxiliary artillery fire and drafting naval officers into the fight. Nakhimov was shot dead in the conflict. While Sebastopol was repelling the allies, Russian troops under Prince Menshikov marched north-east. 25th October 1854, Menshikov’s men were positioned by the Tchernaya River. The Russians, 20,000 strong in infantry, with 3,5000 cavalry and 76 guns were a formidable presence in Balaclava. The allies’ position was under threat. The perilous Woronzoff Road, their chief communications route, was vulnerable. When the Turks were routed at Canrobert’s Hill, the Earl Of Raglan, commander of the British army, recognised the threat.
3,000 of Russia’s cavalry were billeted at Causeway Heights, overlooking South Valley. The British Army’s Heavy Brigade, comprising of Royal Scots Greys, 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and 5th Dragoon Guards, were outnumbered. When the Russians advanced into the valley the Brits charged. It as an unlikely victory as the Russians were scattered in retreat. A similar act of stolid determination was witnessed by the 93rd Highlanders, who, under Sir Colin Campbell , stood firm against a Russian advance. The most iconic turn of events in Crimea was The Charge Of The Light Brigade; the result of a chaotic and fractious chain of command, it was a suicidal cavalry charge into the teeth of over 5,000 Russian infantry.
Alfred Lord Tennyson ’s poem illustrated the folly, carnage and courage of the charge. The British cavalry were at the mercy of military instruction which came from Lord Raglan, delivered by Captain Louise Edward Nolan and misinterpreted by Lord Cardigan and Lieutenant General Lucan, Cardigan’s brother-in-law. Raglan wanted to contest the Causeway Heights, forcing the Russians back from their gun positions. But Nolan’s instruction was not explicit enough. The cavalry – lead by Cardigan, who spearheaded the attack and made it back alive – attacked the Russian’s positions in the South Valley. 278 from some 673 cavalry men were killed or wounded. More would have perished had the French Chasseurs d’Afrique offered cover for the retreating troops.
It was a bloody vignette in the bloodiest of wars. No-one won at Balaclava. But the war was turning. Sebastopol’s resistance was waning. 17th February 1855, the allied troops were victorious at Eupatoria, gaining control of the Crimean coastline. Sebastopol would fall, it would only be a matter of time. For the Russian Empire it was the end of an era. Nicholas died shortly after Eupatoria. His son and successor negotiated peace with the allies, and with the Treaty Of Paris 1856, the war was over.
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