In the Crimean War of 1854–56, France and Britain sided with the Ottoman Empire against Russia, which lost the war and saw its power in southeastern Europe reduced. The last great hurrah for the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean War took place north of the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula and gave us Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the first modern war correspondents.

The Crimean War was a Victorian-era Vietnam for Britain and France. The aim of the conflict was to keep tsarist Russia out the Mediterranean, curb Russian expansion and prevent disruption of French, British and Turkish trade routes to Asia. After a long stalemate Turkey won.

Queen Victoria described the Crimean War, the only British-European War, of her reign unnecessary but authorized the use of force in numerous colonial wars and conflicts. British officers cared little about the fate of their troops and the casualties figures were unnecessarily high and there was general disregard for the health of the troops.

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages ; Turkish Culture Portal ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Ottomans Versus Russia

In the early eighteenth century, Russian Tsar Peter the Great (Peter I) initiated a long-lasting goal of Russian foreign policy, to gain access to warm-water ports at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Peter first moved to eliminate the Ottoman presence on the north shore of the Black Sea. Russia's main objective in the region subsequently was to win access to warm-water ports on the Black Sea and then to obtain an opening to the Mediterranean through the Ottoman-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Despite territorial gains at Ottoman expense, however, Russia was unable to achieve these goals, and the Black Sea remained for the time an "Ottoman lake" on which Russian warships were prohibited.*

During the next two centuries, Russia fought several wars to diminish Ottoman power. In a ruinous sixteen-year war, Russia and the Holy League — composed of Austria, Poland, and Venice, and organized under the aegis of the pope — finally drove the Ottomans south of the Danube and east of the Carpathians. Under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the first in which the Ottomans acknowledged defeat, Hungary, Transylvania, and Croatia were formally relinquished to Austria. Poland recovered Podolia, and Dalmatia and the Morea were ceded to Venice. In a separate peace the next year, Russia received the Azov region. In 1774 the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynarja gained Russian ships access to Ottoman waterways.

The Ottoman Empire fought three wars with Russia in the nineteenth century. The Crimean War (1854-56) pitted France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, Russia abandoned its claim to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and renounced the right to intervene in the Balkans. War resumed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Russia opened hostilities in response to Ottoman suppression of uprisings in Bulgaria and to the threat posed to Serbia by Ottoman forces. The Russian army had driven through Bulgaria and reached as far as Edirne when the Porte acceded to the terms imposed by a new agreement, the Treaty of San Stefano. The treaty reduced Ottoman holdings in Europe to eastern Thrace and created a large, independent Bulgarian state under Russian protection.*

Turks and Russians in the Crimea and the Caucasus

During the Middle Ages the Turks controlled most of the Crimean peninsula and Byzantine and Genoese built fortresses and trading posts on the coast, where treasures brought from China on the Silk Road were shipped to Europe. In the mid-13th century Mongols lead by Batu Khan claimed the Crimea. These tribesmen, later called Tatars by the Russians, allied themselves with Ottoman Turkey and supplied the great Istanbul-based empire with white slaves. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, September 1994]

The Russian achieved victory over the Turks in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-75 with the help of the Cossacks. Afterwards the semi-autonomous Cossack state was broken up, the Ukraine became buffer zone between Russia and Turkey, and the way was paved for expansion into the area and the eventual seizure of the Crimea and the Black Sea Coast.

Russia fought numerous wars with Persia and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Caucasus region as well as with resistance movement of indigenous Caucasus ethnic groups. The resistance was particular strong in the 19th century from mountain people such as the Chechens, Circassians, Avars and others.

In the late 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled the land south of the Caucasus mountains, including present-day Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Tsarist Russia controlled the land north of the Caucasus mountains. The Georgian kingdoms were acquired by Russia in 1804. Persia ceded northern Azerbaijan and Yeravan (part of Armenia) to Russia in 1813 as part of the Treaty of Gulistan and an agreement made after a war from 1826 to 1828.

Beginning of the Crimean War

The tsars captured the Crimea in the 18th century from Ottoman Turkey after invading the Black Sea port of Sevastopol after a one year siege. To protect the peninsula Russia based its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.

When the Russians occupied some Turkish provinces north of the Danube in 1853, the French and British assembled a huge forces in Varna in present day Bulgaria, to defend Istanbul.

The Crimean war began on March 28, 1954 when France and Great Britain came to the aid of Ottoman Turkey, after Russian troops entered the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, under the excuse of helping Christian communities there.

Poor diplomacy was also involved in starting the war. The reason for starting the war was a refusal by the Turks to allow the Russians to establish protection for shrines in Jerusalem, which was under Turkish control. The conflict began with a siege of the Russian naval headquarters at Sevastopol on the tip of the Crimea.

Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by a poem by Lord Tennyson, was a stupid blunder not a heroic event. During the Battle of Balakava of October 25, 1854 near the Crimean city of Sevastopol, a British commander ordered his lancers and dragoons to chase a Russian unit that was carrying away some captured British cannon.

The whole debacle was the result of a misinterpreted order. The commander of the light bridge received the order: "Advance rapidly to the front and prevent the enemy from carrying off the guns." The commander could not see the captured British cannons and thought the order referred to Russian cannons at the end of the valley, encircled on three sides by Russians, not the place where the cannons were being removed from.

The commander realized that entering the valley was suicidal and complained to his superior, who didn't realize the order had been misinterpreted and told him an order was an order and proceed.

The Light Brigade began heading down a path that exposed them to Russian artillery on three sides. The officer who gave order saw that they were heading in the wrong direction and rode towards them to tell them to change direction but he was hit by a shell before he could warn them. The brigade entered the valley and were shot at from several directions. It reached the Russian cannons and fought with a huge Russian cavalry force. When the British realized they could go no further, they turned around, took more enemy fire, and returned to the place they started.

Of the 670 members of the Light Brigade that entered the Valley of Death only 195 returned alive. Most of the horses were killed or had to be killed later. The general who ordered the charge returned to his yacht in Balaklava Harbor and drank champagne while took bath and condemned the commander for mucking his operation.

The Battle of Balakava was actually a success for the British. The 93rd Highlanders won the epithet "the thin red line" by stopping the initial Russian advance. The 800-man Heavy Brigade charged and routed the 3,000-man Russian cavalry.

William Howard Russell and the Crimean War

“The Times”' William Howard Russell was sent to the Russia to cover the Crimean War with the instructions to "tell the truth". He is now considered the world's first war correspondent. In addition to his description of the Light Brigade charge he also described the lack of supplies and the appalling conditions the British army suffered through. The report inspired the Tennyson poem and roused Florence Nightingale to go to the Crimea with 38 nurses.

On the fighting on October 25, 1854, Russell wrote: "If an exhibition of the most brilliant valor, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy."

"Eleven battalions of Russian infantry had crossed the Tchernaya, and they threatened the rear of our position and our communications with Balaclava. Their bands could be heard playing at night by travelers along the Balaclava road to the camp, but they 'showed' but little during the day and kept up among the gorges and mountain passes...Our lines were formed by natural mountain slopes in the rear, along which he French had made very formidable entrenchments...On the top of these hills the Turks had thrown up earthen redoubts, defended by 250 men each.

“At half past seven o'clock this morning an orderly came galloping into the headquarters camp from Balaclava, with news that at dawn a strong corps of Russian horses supported by guns and battalions of infantry had marched into the valley, and had already nearly dispossesses the Turks of the redoubt No. 1...and they were opening fire on redoubt Nos. 2,3 and 4, which would speedily be in their hands unless the Turks offered a stouter resistance than they had done already."

"Looking to the left towards the gorge we beheld six compact masses of Russian infantry which had just debouched from the mountain passes near Tchernaya, and were slowly advancing with solemn stateliness up the valley. Immediately in their front was a regular line of artillery, of at least twenty pieces strong. Two batteries of light guns were already a mile in advance of them, and were playing with energy on the redoubts, from which feeble puffs of smoke came at long intervals. Behind the guns in front of the infantry were enormous bodies of cavalry.”

Lack of Turkish Resistance

Russell wrote: "It was soon evident that no resistance was to be placed on the Turkish infantrymen or artillerymen. All the stories we had heard about their bravery behind stone wall and earthworks proved how differently the same or similar people fight under different circumstances."

"When the Russians advanced the Turks fired a few rounds at them, got frightened at the distance of their supports in the rear, looked round, received a few shots and shells, and then bolted, and fled with an agility quite at variance with the commonplace notions of oriental deportment on the battlefield. But the Turks on the Danube were every different from the Turks on the Crimea, as it appears the Russians of Sebastopol are not at all like the Russians at Silistria."

The enemy cavalry advanced rapidly. “To our inexplicable disgust we saw Turks in redoubt No. 2 fly at their approach. They ran in scattered groups across towards redoubt No. 3, and towards Balaclava, but the horse-hoof of the Cossacks was too quick for them, and sword and lance were busily plied among the retreating band. The yells of the pursuers and pursued were plainly audible.As the Lancers and Light Cavalry of the Russians advanced they gathered up their skirmishers with great speed and in excellent order."

"The solid column of cavalry opens like a fan, and resolves itself into the 'long spray' of skirmishers. It ovelaps the flying Turks, steely flashes in the air, and down goes the poor Moslem, quivering in the plain, split through fez and musket-guard to the chin and breast-plate. There is no support for them. It is evident the Russians have been too quick for us."

Russell's Account of the Charge of the Light Brigade

Russell wrote: "At ten past eleven our Light Cavalry brigade rushed to the front...The whole brigade [607 men] scarcely made one effective regiment, according to the numbers of continental armies; and even then it was more than we could spare...Don Quixote in his tilt against the windmill was not near so rash and reckless as the gallant fellows who prepared without a thought to rush to almost certain death."

"They advanced in two lines, quickening their pace as they closed towards the enemy...At a distance of about 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from their iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. The flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless cross the plain."

"The first line was broken—it was joined by the second, they ever halted or checked their speed an instant...They flew into the smoke of the batteries: but they were lost from view, the plain was strewn with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. They were exposed to an oblique fire from the batteries on the hills on both sides, as well as to a direct fire of musketry."

"Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabers flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between them, cutting down the gunners as they stood. The blaze of their steel, like an officer standing near me said, was 'like the turn of a shoal of mackerel'.”

Retreat of the Light Brigade

Russell wrote: "We saw them riding through the guns... We saw them returning after breaking through a column of Russian infantry, and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the battery on the hill swept them down, scattering and broken as they were. Wounded men and dismounted trooper flying towards us told the sad tale—demigods could not have done what they had failed to do. At the every moment when they were about to retreat an enormous mass of lancers was hurled upon their flank.

"With courage too great almost for credence, they were breaking their way through the columns which enveloped them, when there took place an act of atrocity without parallel in the modern warfare of civilized nations. The Russian gunners, when the storm of cavalry passed, returned to their guns. They saw their own cavalry mingled with the troopers who had just ridden over them, and to the eternal disgrace of the Russian name the miscreants poured a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of struggling men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin."

"At twenty-five to twelve not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns. Our loss, as far as it could be ascertained in killed, wounded and missing at o'clock today, was as followed:

Went into Action, Returned from Action, Action Loss: 1) 4th Light Dragoons (118, 39, 79); 2) 8th Hussars (104, 38, 66); 3) 11th Hussars (110, 25, 85); 4) 13th Light Dragoons (130, 61, 69); 17th Lancers (145, 35, 110). Total (607, 198, 409).

Cossacks and Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade

The most famous verse of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" goes:

Cannon to the right of them
Cannon to the left of them
Cannon in front of them
Volley's and thunder'd
Theirs not to make a reply
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do an die
Someone had blundered

During the Charge of the Light Brigade, a Russian officer reported, the Cossacks were "frightened by the disciplined order of the mass of [British] cavalry bearing down on them, the [Cossacks] did not hold but wheeled to the left, began to fire on their troops in an effort to clear their way to escape." When the Light Brigade had been driven out of the Valley of Death, "the Cossacks...true to their nature...set themselves to the task at hand—rounding up riderless English horses and offering them for sale." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was an Englishwoman who brought a group of volunteers to Turkey to nurse men wounded in the Crimean War. Born in Florence Italy and brought up in a wealthy family in London and Derbyshire, she is credited with bringing proper medical care to the battlefield for the first time and improving the dirty, appalling conditions in which these men were cared for. Some consider here the mother of modern nursing.

Nightingale devoted her life to nursing at an early age and refused to marry because she believed it would interfere with her crusade to bring proper nursing care to the world. When she arrived in Turkey the death rate among the wounded was 42 percent and more men died of diseases, poor nutrition and infection than from their wounds. She worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week; spent her money on food, clothing and hospital beds for the wounded; introduced strict sanitary regulations; and provided the men with healthy food. The result: the death rate among the wounded was cut to three percent.

Nightingale nearly died from typhus but survived and returned to Britain as the famous "Lady with the Lamp." Although she suffered from a number of health problems she established nursing homes and lived to be 90. She refused to be buried in Westminster Abbey and wanted to donate her body "for dissection or postmortem examination for the purposes of medical Science." This request was denied and she was buried among her ancestors at East Wellow.

Florence Nightingale owned a pet owl and carried it around with her in her pocket wherever she traveled. She said she was called by the voice of God to do her work. She considered the statistician Quetelet's book “Social Physics” to be her second Bible, saying statistics was a measure of God's purpose.

End of the Crimean War

The Crimean War was a disaster for Britain. It dragged on much longer than anticipated, resulting in a huge loss of life. Only a fraction of the deaths were from fighting. More than 22,000 died from illness. Thousands more lost limbs to frostbite in the bitter Crimean winter. The siege at Sebastopol was not the only military disaster. The military leadership was generally regarded as incompetent. All told, a half a million Russian, French, British and Turkish soldiers died (two thirds of them from disease).

The Crimean War ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856, which Russia accepted even though most Russians found the terms unacceptable. The treaty demilitarized the Black Sea and deprived Russia of southern Bessarabia and a narrow strip of land at the mouth of the Danube River. The treaty gave the West European powers the nominal duty of protecting Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, removing that role from Russia, which had been designated as such a protector in the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji.

Mark Twain visited Sevastopol ten years after the Crimean War and said Pompeii was in better condition after being buried by Vesuvius. "Your eye encounters scarcely anything but ruin, ruin, ruin!" he said. During World War II, Sevastopol was leveled again by a 248-day German siege. Unexploded mines are still being removed today. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, September 1994]

Russian Foreign Policy with Europe after the Crimean War

Russia was weakened by its loss in the Crimean War. Afterwards it laid low on the international scene. The burden of paying for the war fell particularly heavy on the serfs, who revolted and burned and pillaged estates. After the Crimean War, Russia pursued cautious and well-calculated foreign policies until nationalist passions and another Balkan crisis almost caused a catastrophic war in the late 1870s. Russia's primary goal during the first phase of Alexander II's foreign policy was to alter the Treaty of Paris to regain naval access to the Black Sea. Russian statesmen viewed Britain and Austria (redesignated as Austria-Hungary in 1867) as opposed to that goal, so foreign policy concentrated on good relations with France, Prussia, and the United States. Prussia (Germany as of 1871) replaced Britain as Russia's chief banker in this period. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia followed the United States, Britain, and France in establishing relations with Japan, and, together with Britain and France, Russia obtained concessions from China consequent to the Second Opium War (1856-60). As part of the regime's foreign policy goals in Europe, Russia initially gave guarded support to France's anti-Austrian diplomacy. A weak Franco-Russian entente soured, however, when France backed a Polish uprising against Russian rule in 1863. Russia then aligned itself more closely with Prussia by approving the unification of Germany in exchange for a revision of the Treaty of Paris and the remilitarization of the Black Sea. These diplomatic achievements came at a London conference in 1871, following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After 1871 Germany, united under Prussian leadership, was the strongest continental power in Europe.

Later, Russia's sponsorship of Bulgarian independence brought negative results as the Bulgarians, angry at Russia's continuing interference in domestic affairs, sought the support of Austria-Hungary. In the dispute that arose between Austria-Hungary and Russia, Germany took a firm position toward Russia while mollifying the tsar with a bilateral defensive alliance, the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 between Germany and Russia. Within a year, Russo-German acrimony led to Bismarck's forbidding further loans to Russia, and France replaced Germany as Russia's financier. When Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck in 1890, the loose Russo-Prussian entente collapsed after having lasted for more than twenty-five years. Three years later, Russia allied itself with France by entering into a joint military convention, which matched the dual alliance formed in 1879 by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Russia Versus the Ottomans in the Balkans

In 1873 Germany formed the loosely knit League of the Three Emperors with Russia and Austria-Hungary to prevent them from forming an alliance with France. Nevertheless, Austro-Hungarian and Russian ambitions clashed in the Balkans, where rivalries among Slavic nationalities and anti-Ottoman sentiments seethed. In the 1870s, Russian nationalist opinion became a serious domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgaria and Serbia quasi-protectorates of Russia. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis escalated with rebellions in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria, which the Ottoman Turks suppressed with such great cruelty that Serbia, but none of the West European powers, declared war. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In early 1877, Russia came to the rescue of beleaguered Serbian and Russian volunteer forces when it went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Within one year, Russian troops were nearing Constantinople, and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia's nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria. Russian nationalists were furious with Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia, but the tsar accepted a revived and strengthened League of the Three Emperors as well as Austro-Hungarian hegemony in the western Balkans.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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