30 March

The Crimean War was a military conflict fought between October 1853 – February 1856 in which Russia lost to an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.

The immediate cause involved the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Catholics, while Russia promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Christians. The longer-term causes involved the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the unwillingness of the United Kingdom and France to allow Russia to gain territory and power at Ottoman expense. It has widely been noted that the causes, in one case involving an argument over a key, have never revealed a “greater confusion of purpose”, yet led to a war noted for its “notoriously incompetent international butchery.”

While the churches eventually worked out their differences and came to an initial agreement, both Nicholas I of Russia and Napoleon III refused to back down. Nicholas issued an ultimatum that the Orthodox subjects of the Empire be placed under his protection. Britain attempted to mediate, and arranged a compromise that Nicholas agreed to. When the Ottomans demanded changes, Nicholas refused and prepared for war. Having obtained promises of support from France and Britain, the Ottomans officially declared war on Russia in October 1853.

The war opened in the Balkans when Russian troops occupied provinces in modern Romania and began to cross the Danube. Led by Omar Pasha, the Ottomans fought a strong defensive battle and stopped the advance at Silistra. A separate action on the fort town of Kars in eastern Turkey led to a siege, and a Turkish attempt to reinforce the garrison was destroyed by a Russian fleet at Sinop. Fearing an Ottoman collapse, France and the UK rushed forces to Gallipoli. They then moved north to Varna in June, arriving just in time for the Russians to abandon Silistra. Aside from a minor skirmish at Constanța there was little for the allies to do. Karl Marx quipped that “there they are, the French doing nothing and the British helping them as fast as possible”.

Frustrated by the wasted effort, and with demands for action from their citizens, the allied force decided to attack the centre of Russian strength in the Black Sea at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. After extended preparations, the forces landed on the peninsula in September 1854 and fought their way to a point south of Sevastopol after a series of successful battles. The Russians counter attacked on 25 October in what became the Battle of Balaclava and were repulsed, but at the cost of seriously depleting the British Army forces. A second counter attack, ordered personally by Nicholas, was defeated by Omar Pasha. The front settled into a siege and led to horrible conditions for troops on both sides. Smaller actions were carried out in the Baltic, the Caucasus, the White Sea and in the North Pacific.

Sevastopol fell after eleven months, and formerly neutral countries began to join the allied cause. Isolated and facing a bleak prospect of invasion from the west if the war continued, Russia sued for peace in March 1856. This was welcomed by France and the UK, where the citizens began to turn against their governments as the war dragged on. The war was officially ended by the Treaty of Paris, signed on 30 March 1856. Russia lost the war, and was forbidden from hosting warships in the Black Sea. The Ottoman vassal states of Wallachia and Moldavia became largely independent. Christians were granted a degree of official equality, and the Orthodox church regained control of the Christian churches in dispute.

The Crimean War was one of the first conflicts to use modern technologies such as explosive naval shells, railways, and telegraphs. The war was one of the first to be documented extensively in written reports and photographs. As the legend of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” demonstrates, the war quickly became an iconic symbol of logistical, medical and tactical failures and mismanagement. The reaction in the UK was a demand for professionalisation, most famously achieved by Florence Nightingale, who gained worldwide attention for pioneering modern nursing while treating the wounded.