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The Crimean War

A War Marked by Blunders Including the Charge of the Light Brigade

By

Lord Raglan

Lord Raglan, British Commander in the Crimean War

Library of Congress

The Crimean War is known primarily for the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem written about a disastrous episode when British cavalry attacked in the wrong direction. The war itself, which was fought between the allied nations Britain and France against their enemy Russia, arose from muddled circumstances and did not make enormous changes in Europe.

Although rooted in longstanding rivalries, the Crimean War erupted over what was obviously a pretext involving religion of populations in the Holy Land. It was almost as if the large powers in Europe wanted a war at that time to keep each other in check, and they found an excuse to have it.

The Crimean War is generally remembered today not as a military success by any participant nation but for:

  • Acts of heroism
  • Florence Nightingale
  • First war correspondents
  • First war photography
  • First "modern war"

Causes of the Crimean War

In the early decades of the 19th century, Russia had grown into a mighty military power. By 1850 Russia appeared to be intent on spreading its influence southward. Britain was concerned that Russia would expand to the point where it held power over the Mediterranean.

The French emperor Napoleon III, in the early 1850s, had forced the Ottoman Empire to recognize France as a sovereign authority in the Holy Land. The Russian tsar objected and began his own diplomatic maneuvering. The Russians claimed to be protecting the religious freedom of Christians in Holy Land.

War Declared By Britain and France

Somehow the obscure diplomatic wrangling led to open hostilities, and Britain and France declared war against Russia on March 28, 1854.

The Russians appeared willing, at first, to avoid war. But demands put forth by Britain and France were not met, and a larger conflict seemed unavoidable.

The Invasion of the Crimea

In September 1854 the allies struck the the Crimea, a peninsula in the present day Ukraine. The Russians had a large naval base at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, which was the ultimate target of the invasion force.

The British and French troops, after landing at Calamita Bay, began marching southward toward Sevastopol, which was approximately 30 miles away. The allied armies, with about 60,000 troops, encountered a Russian force at the River Alma and a battle ensued.

The British commander, Lord Raglan, who had not been in combat since losing an arm at Waterloo nearly 30 years earlier, had considerable trouble coordinating his attacks with his French allies. Despite these problems, which would become common throughout the war, the British and French routed the Russian army, which fled.

The Russians regrouped at Sevastopol. The British, bypassing that major base, attacked the town of Balaclava, which had a harbor that could be used as a supply base.

Ammunition and siege weapons began to be unloaded, and the allies prepared for an eventual attack on Sevastopol. The British and French began an artillery bombardment of Sevastopol on October 17, 1854. The time-honored tactic did not seem to have much effect.

On October 25, 1854, the Russian commander, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, ordered an attack on the allied lines. The Russians attacked a weak position and stood a good chance of reaching the town of Balaclava until they were repulsed heroically by Scottish Highlanders.

Charge of the Light Brigade

As the Russians were fighting the Highlanders, another Russian unit began removing British guns from an abandoned position. Lord Raglan ordered his light cavalry to prevent that action, but his orders got confused and the legendary "Charge of the Light Brigade" was launched against the wrong Russian position.

The 650 men of the regiment raced into certain death, and at least 100 men were killed in the first minutes of the charge.

The battle ended with the British having lost a lot of ground, but with the standoff still in place. Ten days later the Russians attacked again. In what was known as the Battle of the Inkermann, the armies fought in very wet and foggy weather. That day ended with high casualties on the Russian side, but again the fighting was indecisive.

The Siege Continued

As the winter weather approached and conditions deteriorated, the fighting came to a virtual halt with the siege of Sevastopol still in place. During the winter of 1854-55 the war became an ordeal of disease and malnutrition. Thousands of troops died of exposure and contagious illnesses spread through the camps. Four times as many troops died of illness than combat wounds.

In late 1854 Florence Nightingale arrived in Constantinople and began treating British troops in hospitals. She was shocked by the appalling conditions she encountered.

The armies stayed in trenches throughout the spring of 1855, and assaults on Sevastopol were finally planned for June 1855. Attacks on fortresses protecting the city were launched and repulsed on June 15, 1855, thanks largely to incompetence by the British and French attackers.

The British commander, Lord Raglan, had taken ill and died on June 28, 1855.

Another attack on Sevastopol was launched in September 1855, and the city finally fell to the British and French. At that point the Crimean War was essentially over, though some scattered fighting went on until February 1856. Peace was finally declared in late March 1856.

Consequences of the Crimean War

While the British and French did eventually capture their objective, the war itself could not be considered a great success. It was marked by incompetence and what was widely perceived as needless loss of life.

The Crimean War did check the Russian expansionist tendencies. But Russia itself was not really defeated, as the Russian homeland was not attacked.

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