A Comprehensive Look at The Crimean War (1854-56)

Read how the Crimean War started as an argument over holy ground and was characterized by inept commanding by the British and French.

The Crimean War, a significant conflict in the 19th century, is often overshadowed by the two World Wars that followed it. Yet, this war holds profound importance in the annals of history for its military, technological, and diplomatic developments. Fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between the Allies (Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia) and Russia, the war was a display of power, imperial ambitions, and a precursor to modern warfare tactics.

The Prelude to War

The Crimean War (1854-56) developed because of an argument between the French and Russian religious fraternities over who should have access and right to holy areas in the Middle East, namely Nazareth and Jerusalem. It seems that religion has a lot to answer for when it comes to war because, inevitably, discussions turned to arguments, which turned to violence, which resulted in death on both sides. The whole debate had escalated to a level beyond all reason.

The situation was compounded when the Russians, under the directive of Tsar Nicholas I, moved troops into the area, supposedly in order to shield the aforementioned sacred grounds.

The more skeptical of the neutral observers around at the time may have thought that this military movement had slightly more sinister overtones, and they would have been right! Not long after positioning troops in the Middle East, then a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Russians upped the stakes by massacring a small fleet of Turkish boats, an act that the Turks must respond to.

Back in England, there was more than a murmuring of discontentment from the British government over the acts of the Russians. After all, they had initiated military maneuvers that, if proved successful, would give them control of an area vital to the Mediterranean trade route so necessary to the British. The French, eager to be allied to the British, began discussions with them, and consequently, both countries sent expeditionary forces to the Balkans to confront the Russians.

Key Battles and Military Strategies

The war witnessed several key battles that demonstrated the changing nature of military tactics and technology. The Siege of Sevastopol, the Battle of Balaclava (famous for the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade), and the Battle of Alma were significant confrontations that highlighted the valor and the futility of war.

  1. Siege of Sevastopol: A prolonged and arduous siege that tested the endurance and strategy of both the Russian defenders and the Allied attackers.
  2. Battle of Alma: Marked as the first major battle of the Crimean War, it set the course for the subsequent military engagements.
  3. Battle of Balaclava: Known for the Charge of the Light Brigade, this battle became emblematic of the bravery and the tragic miscommunication in wars.

The war started in March of 1854, and six months later, the British and French had driven the Russians back from the land they had occupied in the Ottoman Empire. Buoyed by their victory, though, they pursued the Russians, who had decided to defend the key naval base of Sevastopol. After arriving on the shores of the Crimean peninsula, north of the base, the British and French troops made their way to attack it, and on the way, the Battle of Alma took place.

The Alma was the second of three rivers they needed to cross to reach the base.

The Russians had decided to defend the river because, on their side, they were able to use steep hills and rocky cliffs to their advantage. In the early stages of the battle, the French were able to storm the cliffs near the coast and drive the Russians back.

To their left, though, the British soon became a disorganized mob. Although briefly taking a Russian position, they were then forced back. Their retreat was better than their attack, though – they drew many Russians into an area where they could pick them off at will. Because of the heavy number of casualties received by the Russians, they were forced to withdraw – the Battle of Alma was over.

The British and French pushed on towards the naval base, to which they laid siege, using the harbor of Balaclava as their supply point. The Battle of Balaclava was a key factor in the war being protracted for more than another year. The Russians performed a surprise attack on Causeway Heights, a sought-after strategic position. The British came to the aid of the Turks and pressed the Russians, who were forced to retreat but still held the Causeway Heights.

In their impatience, the British high command ordered the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade, who were forced to charge across an open plain defended by heavy Russian artillery. About two-thirds of the light brigade were systematically mown down by the Russian guns. Because the Russians had retreated, the British claimed victory, but their enemy still held the best position on Causeway Heights.

This is why the war continued for many more months.

The Human Cost: Suffering and the State of Medicine

The Crimean War is also remembered for the immense human suffering it caused, much of which resulted from the deplorable state of medical care and hygiene on the battlefield.

It was throughout the rest of the war that starvation and disease set in. Supply lines were poor, and medical aid was nonexistent.

Florence Nightingale

It wasn’t until Florence Nightingale was posted to the war hospital at Scutari that conditions and facilities were improved to prevent the spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery. She, with her team of nurses, was probably the only good thing to come out of the Crimean War, which had been characterized by a series of tactical howlers and breakdowns in communication by the veteran British and French commanders.

The Treaty of Paris

After years of conflict, the exhaustion of resources and public pressure led the warring parties to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1856, officially ended the Crimean War, redrawing the map of Europe and setting a precarious balance of power. The treaty curtailed Russian influence in the Black Sea and affirmed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, although these measures proved to be temporary.

The Crimean War, though often eclipsed by later global conflicts, was a turning point in the history of warfare, diplomacy, and international relations. Its battles reshaped military tactics, its suffering spurred medical reforms, and its outcome shifted the balance of power in Europe. As we reflect on the echoes of this conflict, we recognize the multifarious ways in which the Crimean War left its indelible mark on the course of history, reminding us of the complexities and the perennial nature of human conflict.

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