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Crimean War

Military conflict fought between October 1853 – March 1856

Top 10 Crimean War related articles

Crimean War
Part of the Ottoman wars in Europe and the Russo-Turkish wars

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting Siege of Sevastopol (1904)
Date16 October 1853 – 30 March 1856 (1853-10-16 – 1856-03-30)
(2 years, 5 months, 14 days)

Allied victory[5]


 Ottoman Empire

 British Empire[a]
Caucasus Imamate[c]

 Russian Empire

Kurdish rebels[3][4][c]
Commanders and leaders
Total: 673,700
 • 40,000[1]
 • 10,000[2]
Total: 889,000[7]

888,000 mobilised
324,478 deployed
1,000 Greek legion
Casualties and losses

Total: 223,513

10,100 killed in action
10,800 died of wounds
24,500 died of disease

8,490 killed in action
11,750 died of wounds
75,375 died of disease
39,870 wounded

2,755 killed in action
1,847 died of wounds
17,580 died of disease
18,280 wounded

28 killed in action

2,138 died of disease

Total: 530,000
35,671 killed in action
37,454 died of wounds
377,000 died of disease

80,000 wounded[7][8]

The Crimean War[e] was a military conflict fought from October 1853 to February 1856[9] in which Russia lost to an alliance made up of France, the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom and Sardinia. The immediate cause of the war involved the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Roman Catholics, while Russia promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Longer-term causes involved the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the unwillingness of Britain and France to allow Russia to gain territory and power at the Ottoman Empire's expense. The war stood out for its "notoriously incompetent international butchery".[10]

While the churches worked out their differences with the Ottomans and came to an agreement, the French Emperor Napoleon III and the Russian Emperor Nicholas I refused to back down. Nicholas issued an ultimatum demanding that the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire be placed under his protection. Britain attempted to mediate and arranged a compromise that Nicholas agreed to. When the Ottomans demanded changes to the agreement, Nicholas recanted and prepared for war. In July 1853, Russian troops occupied the Danubian Principalities[9] (now part of Romania, then under Ottoman suzerainty).

In October 1853, having obtained promises of support from France and Britain, the Ottomans declared war with Russia.[11] Led by Omar Pasha, the Ottomans fought a strong defensive campaign and stopped the Russian advance at Silistra (in present-day Bulgaria). A separate action on the fort town of Kars in Western Armenia led to a siege, and a Turkish attempt to reinforce the garrison was destroyed by a Russian fleet at Sinop (November 1853). Fearing an Ottoman collapse, the British and French fleets entered the Black Sea on January 3, 1854.[12] They then moved north to Varna in June 1854, arriving just in time for the Russians to abandon Silistra. Aside from a minor skirmish at Köstence (today Constanța), there was little for the Allies to do.

Frustrated by the wasted effort, and with demands for action from their citizens, the allied commanders decided to attack Russia's main naval base in the Black Sea: Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. After extended preparations, allied forces landed on the peninsula in September 1854 and marched their way to a point south of Sevastopol after winning the Battle of the Alma (20 September 1854). The Russians counterattacked on 25 October in what became the Battle of Balaclava and were repulsed, however the British Army forces were seriously depleted as a result. A second Russian counterattack, at Inkerman (November 1854), ended in stalemate. The front settled into a siege involving brutal conditions for troops on both sides. Smaller military actions took place in the Baltic (1854-1856; see Åland War), the Caucasus (1853-1855), the White Sea (July-August 1854), and the North Pacific (1854-1855).

Sevastopol fell after eleven months. Isolated and facing a bleak prospect of invasion from the west if the war continued, Russia sued for peace in March 1856. France and Britain welcomed this development, as the conflict was growing unpopular at home. The Treaty of Paris, signed on 30 March 1856, ended the war. It forbade Russia from basing warships in the Black Sea. The Ottoman vassal states of Wallachia and Moldavia became largely independent. Christians there gained a degree of official equality, and the Orthodox Church regained control of the Christian churches in dispute.[13]:415

The Crimean War was one of the first conflicts in which the military used modern technologies such as explosive naval shells, railways, and telegraphs.[14](Preface) The war was one of the first to be documented extensively in written reports and in photographs. As the legend of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" demonstrates, the war quickly became a symbol of logistical, medical, and tactical failures and mismanagement. The reaction in Britain led to a demand for professionalisation, most famously achieved by Florence Nightingale, who gained worldwide attention for pioneering modern nursing while treating the wounded.

The Crimean War marked a turning point for the Russian Empire. The war weakened the Imperial Russian Army, drained the treasury and undermined Russia's influence in Europe. Russia would take decades to recover. The humiliation forced Russia's educated elites to identify the Empire's problems and to recognize the need for fundamental reforms. They saw rapid modernization of the country as its sole way to recover the status of a European power. The war thus became a catalyst for reforms of Russia's social institutions, including the abolition of serfdom and overhauls in the justice system, in local self-government, in education, and in military service.

Crimean War Intro articles: 126

The "Eastern Question"

Southeast Europe after the Treaty of Bucharest

As the Ottoman Empire steadily weakened during the 19th century, Russia stood poised to take advantage by expanding south. In the 1850s, the British and the French, who were allied with the Ottoman Empire, were determined not to allow this to happen.[15] A. J. P. Taylor argues that the war resulted not from aggression but from the interacting fears of the major players:

In some sense the Crimean war was predestined and had deep-seated causes. Neither Nicholas I nor Napoleon III nor the British government could retreat in the conflict for prestige once it was launched. Nicholas needed a subservient Turkey for the sake of Russian security; Napoleon needed success for the sake of his domestic position; the British government needed an independent Turkey for the security of the Eastern Mediterranean ... Mutual fear, not mutual aggression, caused the Crimean war.[16]

Weakening of the Ottoman Empire in 1820–1840s

The First Serbian Uprising (1804–1813) against the Ottoman Empire.

In the early 1800s, the Ottoman Empire suffered a number of existential challenges. The Serbian Revolution in 1804 resulted in the self-liberation of the first Balkan Christian nation under the Ottoman Empire. The Greek War of Independence, which began in early 1821, provided further evidence of the internal and military weakness of the Ottoman Empire, and the commission of atrocities by Ottoman military forces (see Chios massacre) further undermined the Ottomans. The disbandment of the centuries-old Janissary corps by Sultan Mahmud II on 15 June 1826 (Auspicious Incident) helped the Ottoman Empire in the longer term, but in the short term it deprived the country of its existing standing army. In 1828, the allied Anglo-Franco-Russian fleet destroyed almost all the Ottoman naval forces during the Battle of Navarino. In 1830, Greece became an independent state after 10 years of war and the Russo-Turkish War (1828–29). According to the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, Russian and Western European commercial ships were authorized to freely pass through the Black Sea straits, Serbia received autonomy, and the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) became territories under Russian protection.

The naval Battle of Navarino (1827), as depicted by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

France took the opportunity to occupy Algeria in 1830. In 1831 Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who was the most powerful vassal of the Ottoman Empire, claimed independence. Ottoman forces were defeated in a number of battles, which forced Sultan Mahmud II to seek Russian military aid. A Russian army of 10,000 landed on the shores of the Bosphorus in 1833 and helped to prevent the capture of Constantinople by the Egyptians. As a result, the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi was signed, benefiting Russia greatly. It provided for a military alliance between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, if one of them were to be attacked; and a secret additional clause allowed the Ottomans to opt out of sending troops but to close the Straits to foreign warships if Russia was under threat. Egypt remained nominally under Ottoman sovereignty, although it was de facto independent.

In 1838 the situation was similar to 1831. Muhammad Ali of Egypt was not happy about his lack of control and power in Syria, and he resumed military action. The Ottomans lost to the Egyptians at the Battle of Nezib on 24 June 1839, but were saved by Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, who signed a convention in London on 15 July 1840 granting Muhammad Ali and his descendants the right to inherit power in Egypt in exchange for the removal of Egyptian forces from Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, Muhammad Ali had to admit a formal dependence to the Ottoman sultan. After Muhammad Ali refused to obey the requirements of the London convention, the allied Anglo-Austrian fleet blockaded the Nile Delta, bombarded Beirut, and captured Acre. Muhammad Ali accepted the conditions of the London convention in 1840.

On 13 July 1841, after the expiry of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi, the London Straits Convention was signed under pressure from European countries. The new treaty deprived Russia of its right to block warships from passing into the Black Sea in case of war. Thus the way to the Black Sea was open for British and French warships in case of a possible Russo-Ottoman conflict.

Russian historians tend to view this history as evidence that Russia lacked aggressive plans. Russian historian V. N. Vinogradov writes: "The signing of the documents was the result of deliberate decisions: instead of bilateral (none of the great powers recognized this Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi), the new Treaty of London was obligatory for all, it closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles."[17]

Assistance from Western European powers had twice saved the Ottoman Empire from destruction, but the Ottomans had now lost their independence in foreign policy. Britain and France desired more than any other states to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire because they did not want to see Russia gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea. Austria had fears for the same reasons.

Russian expansionism

Russian siege of Varna in Ottoman-ruled Bulgaria, July–September 1828

Russia, as a member of the Holy Alliance, had operated as the "police of Europe", maintaining the balance of power that had been established in the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. Russia had assisted Austria's efforts in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and expected gratitude; it wanted a free hand in settling its problems with the Ottoman Empire, the "sick man of Europe". Britain could not tolerate Russian dominance of Ottoman affairs, as that would challenge its domination of the eastern Mediterranean.[18]

Starting with Peter the Great in the early 1700s, after centuries of Ottoman northward expansion and Crimean-Nogai raids, Russia began a southwards expansion across the sparsely populated "Wild Fields" toward the warm water ports of the Black Sea, which did not freeze over like the handful of ports it controlled in the north. The goal was to promote year-round trade and a year-round navy.[13]:11 Pursuit of this goal brought the emerging Russian state into conflict with the Ukrainian Cossacks and then with the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate[19] and Circassians.[20] When Russia conquered these groups and gained possession of their territories, the Ottoman Empire lost its buffer zone against Russian expansion, and Russia and the Ottoman Empire came into direct conflict. The conflict with the Ottoman Empire also presented a religious issue of importance, as Russia saw itself as the protector of Orthodox Christians, many of whom lived under Ottoman control and were legally treated as second-class citizens.[13](ch 1) The Ottoman Reform Edict of 1856 promulgated after the war largely reversed much of this second class status, most notably the tax non-Muslims paid for not being a Muslim.[21]

Britain's immediate fear was Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which Britain desired to preserve. The British were also concerned that Russia might make advances toward British India, or move toward Scandinavia or Western Europe. A distraction (in the form of the Ottoman Empire) on their southwest flank would mitigate that threat. The Royal Navy also wanted to forestall the threat of a powerful Russian navy.[22] Taylor says that from the British perspective:

The Crimean war was fought for the sake of Europe rather than for the Eastern question; it was fought against Russia, not in favour of Turkey ... The British fought Russia out of resentment and supposed that her defeat would strengthen the European Balance of Power.[23]

Russian siege of Kars, Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29

Because of "British commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East and India",[24] the British joined the French, "cement[ing] an alliance with Britain and ... reassert[ing] its military power".[24]

Mikhail Pogodin, professor of history at Moscow University, gave Nicholas a summary of Russia's policy towards the Slavs in the war against Turkey. His answer was filled with grievances against the West. Nicholas shared Pogodin's sense that Russia's role as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire was not understood and that Russia was unfairly treated by the West. Nicholas especially approved of the following passage:[25]

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years during peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has the right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbor. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice... (comment in the margin by Nicholas I: 'This is the whole point').

— Mikhail Pogodin's memorandum to Nicholas I, 1853[26]

Russia was militarily weak, technologically backward and administratively incompetent. Despite its grand ambitions toward the south, it had not built its railway network in that direction, and communications were poor. The bureaucracy was riddled with graft, corruption and inefficiency and was unprepared for war. Its navy was weak and technologically backward; its army, although very large, suffered from colonels who pocketed their men's pay, from poor morale, and from a technological deficit relative to Britain and France. By the war's end, the profound weaknesses of the Russian armed forces were readily apparent, and the Russian leadership was determined to reform it.[27][28]

Immediate causes of the war

French Emperor Napoleon III
For forty years (1816–56) Karl Nesselrode as foreign minister guided Russian policy

The French emperor Napoleon III's ambition to restore the grandeur of France[29] initiated the immediate chain of events leading to France and Britain declaring war on Russia on 27 and 28 March 1854, respectively. He pursued Roman Catholic support by asserting France's "sovereign authority" over the Christian population of Palestine,[14]:19 to the detriment of Russia[13]:103 (the sponsor of Eastern Orthodoxy). To achieve this, in May 1851, Napoleon appointed the Marquis Charles de La Valette (a zealous leading member of the Catholic "clerical party") as his ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire.[13]:7–9

Russia disputed this attempted change in authority. Referencing two previous treaties (one from 1757, and the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca from 1774), the Ottomans reversed their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty, and declaring that Russia was the protector of the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon III responded with a show of force, sending the ship of the line Charlemagne to the Black Sea, thereby violating the London Straits Convention.[13]:104[14]:19 This gunboat diplomacy show of force, together with money, induced the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I to accept a new treaty, confirming France and the Roman Catholic Church's supreme authority over Catholic holy places, including the Church of the Nativity, previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church.[14]:20

Tsar Nicholas I then deployed his 4th and 5th army corps along the River Danube in Wallachia, as a direct threat to the Ottoman lands south of the river. He had Count Karl Nesselrode, his foreign minister, undertake talks with the Ottomans. Nesselrode confided to Sir George Hamilton Seymour, the British ambassador in Saint Petersburg:

[The dispute over the holy places] had assumed a new character—that the acts of injustice towards the Greek church which it had been desired to prevent had been perpetrated and consequently that now the object must be to find a remedy for these wrongs. The success of French negotiations at Constantinople was to be ascribed solely to intrigue and violence—violence which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio of kings, being, it had been seen, the means which the present ruler of France was in the habit of employing in the first instance.[14]:21

As conflict emerged over the issue of the holy places, Nicholas I and Nesselrode began a diplomatic offensive, which they hoped would prevent either British or French interference in any conflict between Russia and the Ottomans, as well as to prevent an anti-Russian alliance of the two.

Nicholas began courting Britain by means of conversations with the British ambassador, George Hamilton Seymour, in January and February 1853.[13]:105 Nicholas insisted that he no longer wished to expand Imperial Russia[13]:105 but that he had an obligation to the Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire.[13]:105 The Tsar next dispatched a highly abrasive diplomat, Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Ottoman Sublime Porte in February 1853. By previous treaties, the sultan was committed "to protect the (Eastern Orthodox) Christian religion and its churches". Menshikov demanded a Russian protectorate over all 12 million Orthodox Christians in the Empire, with control of the Orthodox Church's hierarchy. A compromise was reached regarding Orthodox access to the Holy Land, but the Sultan, strongly supported by the British ambassador, rejected the more sweeping demands.[30]

Tsar Nicholas fumed at "the infernal dictatorship of this Redcliffe" whose name and political ascendancy at the Porte personified for him the whole Eastern question.[31] (Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe)

The British and French sent in naval task forces to support the Ottomans, as Russia prepared to seize the Danubian Principalities.[13]:111–15

First hostilities

Russo-French skirmish during the Crimean War

In February 1853, the British government of Lord Aberdeen, the prime minister, re-appointed Stratford Canning as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.[13]:110 Having resigned the ambassadorship in January, he had been replaced by Colonel Rose as chargé d'affaires. Lord Stratford then turned around and sailed back to Constantinople, arriving there on 5 April 1853. There he convinced the Sultan to reject the Russian treaty proposal, as compromising the independence of the Turks. The Leader of the Opposition in the British House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, blamed Aberdeen and Stratford's actions for making war inevitable, thus starting the process which forced the Aberdeen government to resign in January 1855, over the war.

Shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov's diplomacy toward the end of June 1853, the Tsar sent armies under the commands of Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich and General Mikhail Gorchakov across the River Pruth into the Ottoman-controlled Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Fewer than half of the 80,000 Russian soldiers who crossed the Pruth in 1853 survived. By far, most of the deaths would result from sickness rather than action,[13]:118–19 for the Russian army still suffered from medical services that ranged from bad to none.

Russia had obtained recognition from the Ottoman Empire of the Tsar's role as special guardian of the Orthodox Christians in Moldavia and Wallachia. Now Russia used the Sultan's failure to resolve the issue of the protection of the Christian sites in the Holy Land as a pretext for Russian occupation of these Danubian provinces. Nicholas believed that the European powers, especially Austria, would not object strongly to the annexation of a few neighbouring Ottoman provinces, especially considering that Russia had assisted Austria's efforts in suppressing the 1848 Hungarian Revolution in 1849.

The United Kingdom, hoping to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Russian power in Asia, sent a fleet to the Dardanelles, where it joined another fleet sent by France.[32]

Battle of Sinop

The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853 sparked the war (painting by Ivan Aivazovsky).

The European powers continued to pursue diplomatic avenues. The representatives of the four neutral Great Powers (the United Kingdom, France, Austria and Prussia) met in Vienna, where they drafted a note that they hoped would be acceptable to both the Russians and the Ottomans. The peace terms arrived at by the four powers at the Vienna Conference (1853) were delivered to the Russians by the Austrian Foreign Minister Count Karl von Buol on 5 December 1853. The note met with the approval of Nicholas I, but Abdülmecid I rejected the proposal, feeling that the document's poor phrasing left it open to many different interpretations. The United Kingdom, France and Austria united in proposing amendments to mollify the Sultan, but the court of St. Petersburg ignored their suggestions.[13]:143 The United Kingdom and France then set aside the idea of continuing negotiations, but Austria and Prussia did not believe that the rejection of the proposed amendments justified the abandonment of the diplomatic process.

On 23 November, the Russian convoy of 3 battle ships discovered the Ottoman fleet harbored in Sinop harbor. Along with the additional 5 battle ships, in the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853, they destroyed a patrol squadron of 11 Ottoman battle ships while they were anchored in port under defense of the onshore artillery garrison. The United Kingdom and French press shaped the public opinion to demand the war. Both used Sinop as the casus belli ("cause of war") for declaring war against Russia. On 28 March 1854, after Russia ignored an Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Danubian Principalities, the UK and France declared war.[33][34]


Britain was concerned about Russian activity and Sir John Burgoyne, senior advisor to Lord Aberdeen, urged that the Dardanelles should be occupied and works of sufficient strength built to block any Russian move to capture Constantinople and gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Corps of Royal Engineers sent men to the Dardanelles, while Burgoyne went to Paris, meeting the British Ambassador and the French Emperor. Lord Cowley wrote on 8 February to Burgoyne, "Your visit to Paris has produced a visible change in the Emperor's views, and he is making every preparation for a land expedition in case the last attempt at negotiation should break down."[35]:411

Burgoyne and his team of engineers inspected and surveyed the Dardanelles area in February, and were fired on by Russian riflemen when they went to Varna. A team of sappers arrived in March, and major building works commenced on a seven-mile line of defence designed to block the Gallipoli peninsula. French sappers were working on one half of the line, which was finished in May.[35]:412

Peace attempts

Valley of the Shadow of Death, by Roger Fenton, one of the most famous pictures of the Crimean War[36]

Nicholas felt that, because of Russian assistance in suppressing the Hungarian revolution of 1848, Austria would side with him, or at the very least remain neutral. Austria, however, felt threatened by the Russian troops in the Balkans. On 27 February 1854, the United Kingdom and France demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from the principalities. Austria supported them, and, though it did not declare war on Russia, it refused to guarantee its neutrality. Russia's rejection of the ultimatum proved to be the justification used by Britain and France to enter the war.

Russia soon withdrew its troops from the Danubian principalities, which were then occupied by Austria for the duration of the war.[37] This removed the original grounds for war, but the UK and France continued with hostilities. Determined to address the Eastern Question by putting an end to the Russian threat to the Ottoman Empire, the allies in August 1854 proposed the "Four Points" for ending the conflict, in addition to the Russian withdrawal:

  • Russia was to give up its protectorate over the Danubian Principalities;
  • The Danube was to be opened up to foreign commerce;
  • The Straits Convention of 1841, which allowed only Ottoman and Russian warships in the Black Sea, was to be revised;
  • Russia was to abandon any claim granting it the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs on behalf of Orthodox Christians.

These points (particularly the third) would require clarification through negotiation, but Russia refused to negotiate. The allies including Austria therefore agreed that Britain and France should take further military action to prevent further Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France agreed on the invasion of the Crimean peninsula as the first step.[38]

Crimean War The "Eastern Question" articles: 102