Notes on the Crimean War

The Valley of Death, scene of the charge of the Light Brigade of the British cavalry at Balaclava during the
Crimean War; note the numerous cannon balls scattered about the ground; Roger Fenton photograph.

Valley of Death
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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 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.

For Russia the outcome was even worse

Some cultural reminders of the Crimean War

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Some suggested websites