The Crimean War appears to have become one of those forgotten wars of the past: people can sometimes connect a name or a event, but not really have an understanding as to why Britain went to war with Russia. The immediate images that come to mind are that of Florence Nightingale, balaclavas (named after the Battle of Balaclava), as well as the Charge of the Light Brigade. But what started it?
Like many wars power politics came into play. Since 1815 the major countries of Europe – Britain, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia – decided that a balance of power was to everyone’s favour. Regular conferences were held in the hope of resolving disputes before they got out of hand and ended up on the battlefield, all the while containing those threatening revolutionary ideas that had exploded throughout the continent in the 1790s and early 1800s. However, faith in communicating around the table began to lose its appeal during the 1840s, with the British casting nervous eyes at the expanding Russian empire in the near East.
The key player in this region was the Ottoman empire, which controlled land that stretched from northern Africa through Egypt, into the Middle East, and being based in Turkey in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). But despite this impressive size, it was a dying empire. During the 19th Century it became the whipping boys, particularly for the Russians, which earned the infamous term ‘sick man of Europe’. However, Britain feared that if the empire was to break up and fragment it would severely disturb the notion of a balance of power; the Russians would have ample opportunity to swoop in and obtain more land and threaten Britain’s naval dominance in the Mediterranean. Then, the next step could have been Russian control of the Middle East which would place India in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the French were becoming more assertive once again; under Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s they had controlled Europe before tumbling down in 1815. Now, in the 1850s, they were under the control of another Napoleon’s nephew: Napoleon III. It was clear that he wanted to claim a piece of glory to place himself amongst his uncle, and a fight against the Russians could achieve just that.
In 1853 the Russians and Ottomans went to war (in what can be seen as one in a series of wars during this period). The British and French joined in 1854, stoked up by the war hawks present in both countries; particularly in the form of Lord Palmerstone in Britain. They decided on the Crimean as the place to take the fight to the Russians, however, plans did not run smoothly. There were small gains and heavy losses, which is where Florence Nightingale made such an impact in helping to save countless lives by implementing new methods in the treatment of the wounded.
The war dragged on until the allies could obtain the port of Sevastopol, with the city falling in September 1855 after a year-long siege. The loss of the city was a big blow for the Russians, however, it was not the decisive blow to end the conflict. Instead, the calls for peace came from a change in political personal, with Russia seeing a change of Tsar (with Nicholas dying during the war), leading to peace negotiations in Paris in 1856.
Some historians see the war as being a stale-mate of sorts, but it must be remembered that the peace was particularly severe on Russia. Although they had Sevastopol returned, they were forced to demilitarise the Black Sea which meant the loss of vital naval bases and ensured the continuing dominance of the British navy in the Mediterranean. However, “victors” are not usually assigned in this conflict due to the short-term gains of the allies.
The Crimean War is a complex one, with it involving other theatres of war outside the region, and even included other countries (the Italians of Piedmont sent 18,000 men!). In many ways, it foreshadows the later wars of the century and the First World War of the 20th Century, particularly in the partnering of Britain and France. Ultimately, it was a needless war: Britain and France only involved themselves to boost their pride and to stop the spread of another empire. Although Russia was defeated it would remember the settlement and would look to overturn it in the decades ahead.