The war (October 1853 – February 1856) originated for some of the flimsiest of all possible reasons.
For centuries Russia had been expanding southwards from the central area around Moscow. Over time, the tsars focused their attention on control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits leading into the Black Sea and further conquest of Ottoman-controlled territory. One of the motivating factors for Russian expansionism was the idea of Russia as Third Rome and this entailed the idea that Russia was a protector of Orthodox Christians everywhere, especially those still living in the Ottoman Empire.
By the mid-nineteenth century, France had also begun to portray itself as a protector of Catholic Christians living in the Ottoman Empire.
In both Russia (Emperor Nikolai I) and France (Emperor Napoleon III) domestic issues and/or considerations of imperial power and prestige set the two countries on a collision course because of a religious disagreement that originated in the Near East, far from either France or Russia proper.
Here's the simplified version of what happened. Sometime in early 1850 a quarrel broke out between Catholic and Orthodox monks about access to holy sites in Palestine (then part of the Ottoman Empire). Napoleon III asked, and received from, the Ottoman sultan the right to French protection of Catholics living in the Ottoman Empire. This agreement was based on an old Ottoman-French document. Nikolai I protested and requested that the status quo, based on an old Ottoman-Russian treaty, be maintained. The status quo implied that it was a Russian prerogative to provide protection to the Orthodox subjects living in the Ottoman Empire. There were attempts at a compromise between France, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, a compromise partly mediated by the British, but while the Catholic and Orthodox monks in Palestine settled their differences, both Napoleon III and Nikolai I became ever more belligerent, like two roosters strutting around the barnyard, and the result was war.
In time, the war escalated. First Russia mobilized, and then the Ottoman Empire mobilized. Russia occupied the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia; and then war officially broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. France, England and Piedmont-Sardinia allied themselves against Russia. That was something that Russia had not expected. This escalation of the war meant that the war spread from the Balkans to the Black Sea and Crimea, to the Baltic, and to the Trans-Caucuses region.
The central theater of the war was the Black Sea and Crimea. In September 1854, allied forces landed on the Crimean peninsula with the aim of capturing Sevastopol, the main Russian naval base on the Black Sea and the key Russian fortifications there. A quick victory did not materialize, and the Anglo-French army undertook a siege of Sevastopol. Conditions (weather, disease, supply difficulties) for both sides were terrible. The city fell on 9 September 1855 after a siege of almost one year in length.
By that date, Russia had a new tsar. On 2 March 1855, Aleksandr II assumed the throne after the quick, and unexpected death of his father Nikolai I. It was almost like the old tsar had given up in the face of the Crimean catastrophe. Aleksandr II initially remained committed to the war, but after the fall of Sevastopol, other countries began to join the alliance against Russia. The last straw was an Austrian ultimatum that it was prepared to enter the war unless the war ended--note that Austria had already occupied the Danubian principalities when Russian evacuated its troops from there. Russia asked for peace.
The essential points of the Treaty of Paris, signed 30 March 1856, were:
- The Dardanelles were closed to all warships, and the Black Sea became demilitarized.
- Russia agreed not to establish any naval or military fortifications along the Black Sea as a condition for the return of Sevastopol and other towns and cities in the Crimea.
- Russia abandoned any claims of protecting Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
- The Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia became largely independent.
- Christians were granted a degree of official equality within the Ottoman Empire.
The Treaty did not last intact for very long. After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Russia, with Germany's approval, renounced the Black Sea clauses of the treaty and proceeded to reestablish its fleet on the Black Sea.
In may ways the war was a catastrophe for all those involved. Technically the coalition of France, Great Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire won the war, but their costs were high.
- Casualties, especially non-battle deaths, were enormous. See the summary of Crimean war casualties at Statistics of Wars, Oppressions and Atrocities of the Nineteenth Century.
- The Crimean War marked the ascendancy of France to the position of preeminent power on the European continent, but that would last for only a very short time until the unification of Germany.
- Austria fell from the ranks of first-rate powers in Europe. Because Austria had abandoned its long association with Russia, it had no Russian support in its conflict with Piedmont-Sardinia (part of the unification of Italy which came at the expense of Austria), and it had no Russian support in its conflict with Prussia (part of the unification of Germany which came at the expense of Austria). Austria ended up much smaller and in the long run turned to Germany for an alliance of support.
- German unification occurred, a process which Russia did not really oppose as Prussia had not joined the alliance against Russia in the Crimean War.
- Despite winning the war, the Ottoman Empire continued as the "sick man of Europe" and would lose further territory in the Balkans in the ensuing decades.
- Especially for the British, but also for France and even Russia, the war quickly became one of incompetence and mismanagement on all levels.
For Russia the outcome was even worse
- As a result of the war, Russia was diplomatically isolated in Europe with no immediate allies. Tsar Nikolai I had badly misjudged Europe when it came to the idea of a possible partition of the Ottoman Empire (with the understanding that Russia would get the biggest piece). This isolation meant that Russia did not oppose German unification, which altered the European balance of power in favor of Germany.
- The defeat exposed Russian backwardness. The country could not even defend its own territory--despite the transportation problems faced by the British and French forces in the Crimean who tended to be better supplied that the Russians. This Russian debacle was a far cry from position of power experienced by Tsar Aleksandr I leading the allied armies through the streets of Paris after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.
- 500,000 deaths!
- Russia lost any immediate chance of controlling the Danubian principalities.
- Many scholars have indicated that the Crimean disaster contributed to the rather abrupt death of Nikolai I after he caught a cold. It is pretty clear that the defeat did help move Aleksandr II forward with the idea of emancipating the Russian serfs.
Some cultural reminders of the Crimean War
- The war was one of the first wars to be subject to the vagaries of public opinion. Press reports and photographs did sway people, and this was especially the case in France and England, but there was also coverage of the war in the United States. See, for example, the Fenton Crimean War Photographs at the Library of Congress.
- Even Karl Marx was involved in covering the war. He worked as the European correspondent for the New York Tribune. See, for example, his articles in the New York Tribune.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854)
- Lev Tolstoi's Sevastopol Stories (Севастопольские рассказы, 1856)
- Michael Curtiz's movie, Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
- Tony Richardson's movie, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
- Florence Nightingale (1820-1910); Russia's Florence Nightingale was Dasha from Sevastopol.
Some suggested websites
- And so we always start with the Wikipedia entry on the Crimean War. Here's the Russian version, Крымская война.
- BBC History on the Crimean War
- The Crimean War, 1854-56 proved to be a major disaster for Russia. Check the remarks (*.PDF) by Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College.
- Crimean War, 1853-1856
- History of the Crimean War
- Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: the Lady with the Lamp
- The Crimean War on The Victorian Web
- Sparknotes on the Crimean War
- Crimean War Research Society
- Fenton Crimean War Photographs at the Library of Congress
- Crimea Historical Society, The Crimean War 1853-1856
- The Siege of Sevastopol
- Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: The War That Made Britain Great (2 October 2010); See the review of the Figes book in the New Your Times Review of Books (8 July 2011)
- Russian Expansion and the Crimean War (macrohistory.com)
- William Howard Russell, The War (volume 1): From the Landing at Gallipoli to the Death of Lord Raglan (1855) and The War (volume 2): From the Death of Lord Raglan to the Evacuation of the Crimea (1856); also The British Expedition to the Crimea (1877)
- Adolphus Slade, Turkey and the Crimean War: A Narrative of Historical Events (1867)
- Alexander William Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea, vol. 1 – vol. 2 – vol. 3 – vol. 4 – vol. 5 – vol. 6 – vol. 7 – vol. 8 – vol. 9 (London, 1863–87)
- Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava (wiki entry about the poem; wiki entry about the actual assault)
- Most of the major battles of the Crimean campaign, such as the Battle of Alma, 20 September 1854, can also be researched.