Monday, March 23, 2015

Clash of Monarchies: The Crimean War

Given recent events in the world, the Crimean War may be a little more on the minds of people lately but, in general, it is a conflict that is not often remembered. And yet, this clash of monarchies had far-reaching consequences for the monarchies involved and even, by extension, for the cause of monarchy in general. There are also lessons that can be learned from it, both positive and negative. Like the First World War, the spark which set it off can easily seem trivial looking back and yet there were much deeper causes for the conflagration. That a dispute over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land could lead to bloody warfare on the Crimean peninsula was due to a number of factors such as thoughtlessness and an arrogant attitude on the part of Russia as well as British inconsistency and an over-eagerness to engage in anti-Russian propaganda. This meant that the British government ended up being driven to war by a public that had been needlessly aroused. Leaders in London may have been reluctant, but they had stoked the fires and were caught in a trap of their own making. It all started with a sort of territorial rivalry between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, then, along with much of the Balkans, part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Clockwise from top left: Sultan Abdulmecid, Emp Napoleon III,
Czar Nicholas I, Queen Victoria and King Victor Emmanuel II
The French Emperor Napoleon III, as part of an on-going (though ultimately futile) campaign to win the support of conservative Catholics in France, pressed the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I, who wanted closer ties with Western Europe to ensure security at a time when nationalist and secessionist movements in the empire were growing, to give special privileges to Catholics in certain areas of the Holy Land. It seemed a harmless move but it offended the Greek Orthodox community which viewed it as an infringement on their own status in the region. Czar Nicholas I of Russia, who viewed himself as the defender of Orthodox Christianity in the world (and understandably so) intervened on their behalf and demanded that the Sultan revise the agreement made with France as well as recognizing Russia as the protector of the Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire. The last demand was certainly a step too far for Sultan Abdulmecid as he feared it would invite Russian interference, not in the distant Holy Land, but in the Balkan countries bordering Russia which were under Ottoman rule but populated by Orthodox Slavs. When the Turks refused to give in, Czar Nicholas I dispatched Russian troops into what is now Romania, to hold the area until the Sultan agreed to his demands. It was all done in a rather heavy-handed way which was typical for Nicholas I and which, as with his domestic policies in Russia, played into a negative view of this great monarch. He saw himself as simply standing up for the rights of Orthodox Christians, demanding no more than what had long been given to them but the way in which it was done caused alarm in Western Europe. To them, it looked like the Czar was jumping on a flimsy pretext to expand Russia and destroy the Ottoman Empire. They feared the chaos and bloodshed that would result if the many diverse subjects of the Ottoman Sultan were set loose with their own agendas.

In truth, Czar Nicholas I had no intention of breaking up the Ottoman Empire. Though he certainly would have liked nothing better, he believed that was something that all the Great Powers would have to collaborate on when the time came. However, he assumed that Britain in particular would understand this and knew what sort of man he was. The British government, however, was a coalition and divided as to how to respond with one faction favoring diplomacy and the other wanting a show of force to frighten Russia into backing away from the Ottomans. Neither side wanted an actual war but this division caused British policy to be erratic and the situation was exacerbated by the British ambassador to Constantinople who was very favorably disposed towards the Turks and personally prejudiced against Russia. There were efforts at a settlement by representatives of the Great Powers meeting in Vienna, but they all failed. The Turks refused to compromise and suspicion toward Russia meant that no matter what the representatives of the Czar said, few were inclined to believe them genuine. As a result, all approached the precipice.

Russia destroys the Turkish fleet
French Emperor Napoleon III, who had started all the fuss, had paid little attention to the issue since his initial request had been granted. He had little interest in the Balkans and no strong desire to act as the guardian of Ottoman Turkey. However, as the crisis came to a boil, with the British acting as the primary foil to the Russians, Napoleon did not want to be left out. He also wanted, more than anything, friendship and alliance with Great Britain which would give him a free hand to pursue French colonial expansion and help ensure that the country which had done so much to bring down his famous uncle would not do the same to him. If there was any chance of winning some glory for France, he was always game and he did not want France to be left out of any great happenings on the world stage. Matters came to a head when, in October of 1853, the Turks demanded that the Russians withdraw from their territory in Romania. When the Czar did not respond, the Turks declared war on Russia and sent their fleet into action in the Black Sea to attack the Russian coast. The Russian Imperial Navy responded and inflicted a stinging defeat on the Turks. Yet, the Czar was still willing to settle things peacefully and in light of this victory offered reasonable terms for a settlement. However, public opinion in the west had been so inflamed that Britain scarcely even considered the proposal and declared war on Russia. Napoleon III quickly did likewise and the Crimean War began in earnest.

The fact that Britain and France had allowed things to get out of hand can be seen in how unprepared they were for war and it took about six months until they were actually able to take real military action. In the meantime, they tried to gain more allies to fight the seeming colossus of Russia. They found little support. Hints that Finland might be regained were insufficient to tempt Sweden to join in but the primary figure to be courted was the Austrian Empire. However, though there was much temptation in Vienna, Emperor Francis Joseph I did not believe that either side was totally in the right. His greatest concern was Russian expansion in the Balkans but the Russian troops that had been in Romania were soon withdrawn and the Austrian Emperor saw no moral justification for war. He was also afraid that if he moved Austrian forces to the east, Italians in the west would rebel again and be supported by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia under the House of Savoy. He would certainly take no action unless the Piedmontese were on side. Later on, when Austria seemed more inclined to join the allies, this played a part in the Russian desire to end the war before another name was added to their list of enemies. The Austrian attitude was particularly infuriating to Czar Nicholas I. He had sent Russian armies to aid the Hapsburg monarch in crushing the rebellion in Hungary in the Revolutions of 1848 and viewed it as an absolute betrayal that the Austrian Kaiser would not only fail to return the favor but even consider joining the ranks of his enemies. Austro-Russian relations would, ultimately, never recover from this.

Italian light infantry in battle on Crimea
The Prussians, likewise, followed the Austrian example and opted for neutrality. The only success the allies had in enlarging their ranks was the little Italian Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The original request for Piedmontese support was mostly just an effort to get Austria on side but King Victor Emmanuel II was always up for a fight and the Prime Minister, Count Camillo Cavour, wanted French and British goodwill in the struggle to end the foreign domination of the Italian peninsula. Piedmontese involvement could, he reasoned, provide an opportunity for the Great Powers to address the situation in Italy and with Piedmont-Sardinia having recently fought alongside Britain and France, while Austria looked on from the sidelines, surely this would ensure a decision favorable to the cause of Italian nationalism and the House of Savoy. By the time it all happened, the Italians arrived too late to have much of an impact but the 15,000 soldiers dispatched to the front under General Alfonso La Marmora won the respect of their allies by their courage and tenacity at the Battle of Chernaya and the Siege of Sevastopol. Ultimately, the Italians did not get the discussion on Italy that they wanted but they did gain greater French and British sympathy, at the expense of Austria, so that goal was at least achieved.

For the Turks and the Russians, the original combatants, the primary focus was on the Danube front and the Caucasus front. The fighting was brutal and frustrating in both areas. For the allies, the hope was for a ‘knockout blow’ by targeting the primary Russian naval base on the Black Sea; the fortress-city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. 50,000 allied troops were landed and the most famous battles of the war would be fought there. The Turks had some success on the Danube front, but the Russians did not offer much resistance so as to focus on more vital areas of conflict. In the Caucasus, the Turks were aided by Muslim Chechens who, as students of current affairs will be aware, are still often engaged in hostilities against Russia today. There were also Ukrainian uprisings against the Russians, particularly in Kiev, which will also sound very familiar to people today. Originally a series of peasant revolts, they were soon supported by Ukrainian aristocrats who opposed the war. There were naval and coastal battles as far ranging as from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean but it was the Crimea that was the decisive area of operations. Conditions were harsh, the suffering was immense and both sides often seemed to be their own worst enemies.

British Coldstream Guards at the Battle of Alma
Upon landing, the allies won what could have been a crucial opening engagement at the Battle of the Alma River on September 20, 1854. The Russians were not just defeated but were routed by the Franco-British forces, driving them back in utter confusion. Had the allies acted decisively, Sevastopol might have been stormed easily and the war brought to an early end. The British commander, Lord Raglan, wanted to pursue the fleeing Russians but the French commander, Saint Arnaud, did not as provision had not been made for his infantry nor did he have any cavalry. The Russians, however, wasted no time in making the most of this allied indecisiveness. They sunk their own fleet across the harbor entrance, robbing the allies of their naval support which could have been decisive and then set to work fortifying and strengthening Sevastopol so that any allied attempt to storm the city would be almost impossible. Russian thoroughness would mean that the allies would have to take on Sevastopol in siege warfare which would last into the summer of the following year. The Russians, however, were not content to wait in their trenches and the Czar ordered a counter-offensive to sweep the allies from Crimea. This would result in what is, for many, the most famous battle of the war, the Battle of Balaclava.

The Thin Red Line of the 93rd Highlanders
The Russian plan was to relieve the siege of Sevastopol by hitting the allied-held port of Balaclava, a vital point of entry for allied logistics. At the forefront would be Russian reinforcements newly arrived from the Danube front under General Pavel Liprandi. The British had reports of troop movements all hinting at an impending attack, but there had been so many false alarms that Lord Raglan dismissed them. It was the perfect opportunity for the Russians to strike. Although taken by surprise, the Turkish and British defenders fought fiercely but the Russians won the first round, driving the Turks from their redoubts and capturing their artillery. However, the Russian force soon crashed into the immovable object that was the British army. One unit that came to great fame was the 93rd Highlanders, “the thin, red line” that stood firm against a crushing Russian cavalry charge. The Russian advance began to fall apart but the British had their misfortunes too. In another sector, probably the most famous aspect of the battle occurred when a misunderstanding sent the British light cavalry brigade of Lord Cardigan on a bold but suicidal charge against well-placed Russian artillery. They were wiped out but won immortality for their courage.

Relief of the Light Brigade
The result was called a victory by both sides. The stunning loss of the light brigade took the fight out of the British, and the Russians had made some gains so they counted it as a success for the troops of the Czar. However, the British had stopped the advance, held Balaclava and the overall status quo remained so that the British also deemed it a success; the Russian advance had been stopped. It did give a morale boost to the Russians but the strategic situation was unchanged so that the Russian commander, the Russo-Finnish Prince Alexander Menshikov, ordered another attack to break through the thin allied lines before Sevastopol could be totally encircled. The result was the Battle of Inkerman which was a disaster for Russia but which meant hard times for both sides. Shrouded in fog, the two sides grappled blindly with each other but, despite Russian superiority in man power, the training and discipline of the French and British proved decisive and the Russian attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Allies and enemies alike gained a mutual respect for each other because of the vicious fighting at Inkerman. Another Russian attack had been stopped and the morale of the Russian army, raised by Balaclava, was dashed by Inkerman and plummeted sharply. Yet, the allies were scarcely better off as the engagement disrupted their timetable for the siege and meant that both sides would endure a long, miserable winter in the trenches.

Russian troops at the siege of Sevastopol
Disease, hunger and cold did most of the damage from that time on as the war came down to the siege of Sevastopol, resembling a First World War battle, with only occasional raids and scouting expeditions to relieve the monotony. Both sides began to take stock and wonder if all the suffering was worth it. For Czar Nicholas I, it was a matter of honor but intensely frustrating. That an empire so vast, with such a huge population, could be brought close to ruin by such a small, multi-national expeditionary force supporting the ramshackle Ottoman Empire was too much to take. However, the primary problem for Russia was infrastructure, something which would plague Russian war efforts for a very long time to come. They had the men to overwhelm the allied army, they had the supplies to support them but it proved impossible to get these things where they were needed, when they were needed because of the poor roads and lack of rail transport. For the allies, the suffering of the troops was causing problems even at home and they realized that just because the Russian hordes had not been brought down on them yet, they were still out there and even if Sevastopol fell, it did not mean that Russia could not go on fighting. The allies then tried to expand their forces by the aforementioned efforts to bring in the Austrians and Italians. The Italians of Piedmont-Sardinia came but only Austria could open up a new front that would be decisive and the Austrians remained aloof. Almost.

Czar Nicholas I
The Austrian government, in the name of Emperor Francis Joseph came up with a proposed ultimatum called the Four Points of Vienna which called for concessions so far-reaching that no Russian government would ever, for even a moment, consider agreeing to them. Austria vowed to join the war if Russia did not submit within two months. Moreover, the allies had played one of their own friends false to obtain this promise of Austrian support. To win over a country that had so-far refused to take their side, the allies effectively sold-out one who had and whose forces were fighting and dying alongside their own. Still worried about maintaining Austrian domination of northern Italy, the Four Points were issued only after the French and British promised that if there was any uprising after Austria joined the war, that they themselves would send troops to suppress the Italian population and maintain Austrian rule. However, it all turned out to be for nothing because Austria would not move unless the German states joined the war as well and they had absolutely no interest in doing so. Outraged at the false hopes that had been raised, the allies came down on Austria hard and threatened to take up the cause of Italian independence if the Austrians did not make good on their promises. So an Austrian ultimatum was sent to St Petersburg which no doubt would have infuriated Czar Nicholas I beyond measure and probably make him resolved to fight to his last drop of blood against such infamy and betrayal (as he viewed the whole Austrian attitude) but the “Iron Czar” of Russia died on March 2, 1855.

Russian troops at Malakhov
The last straw came when, after about a year of increasingly tight siege warfare, the city of Sevastopol fell to the allies on September 9, 1855. British, French, Italian and Turkish forces had all suffered heavy casualties, more than the Russians overall, but already sinking Russian morale and support for the war collapsed entirely due to the fall of the city they had fought so hard and for so long to defend. This, combined with the threat of Austria joining the war at the final hour finally prompted the Russians to make peace on terms dictated by the allies. The result was the Peace of Paris which was very punishing toward the Russians. Romania was removed from Russian influence, Russia had to renounce protecting the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire, key islands in the Baltic had to be demilitarized, a strategic fortress and territory controlling the mouths of the Danube had to be given to the Turks, all military forces in or around the Black Sea were forbidden and the straits of the Dardanelles and Bosporus were closed to Russian warships, shutting Russia off completely from the south. There are few historians who doubt that if Czar Nicholas I had been alive, such a peace would never have been agreed to (indeed, some put about the story that he had killed himself rather than face such a thing). At least the war was over and it had been a war of stunning heroism and immense suffering.

Allied forces in the Crimea
The results were far-reaching. The Ottoman Empire had been effectively guaranteed by the Great Powers and would remain, helped along by one faction or another, until choosing the losing side in World War I. The Kingdom of Romania eventually emerged as an independent monarchy because of the changes but the Bessarabia territory Russia had to cede to Turkey would continue to be a bone of contention. Piedmont-Sardinia gained sympathy but not as much actual support as they would have liked but they would go on to found the revived Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy in the next decade. The French Second Empire gained great fame for the courage of their soldiers but still no lasting alliance with Great Britain which preferred to remain aloof. The British gained a heroine in Florence Nightingale, Russian guns to cast Victoria Crosses from, many famous poems and paintings but mostly a reluctance to get involved in such a thing for some time to come. Confidence in the military and its aristocratic leadership had been badly shaken. The Austrian monarchy fared badly, which is all the more strange as they were never involved. Austrian actions managed to leave both sides with a bad opinion of them, each felt that Austria had betrayed them. The former solidarity between the Hapsburg, Romanov and Hohenzollern dynasties was ruined forever. Meanwhile, the Prussians sat at home, sharpening their swords.

The Russian Empire obviously emerged very badly off. For very small reasons, Russia had gone into a war that proved almost ruinous and which left the empire virtually boxed-in. Under Nicholas I, Russia had reached it maximum of territorial expansion but by the Peace of Paris seemed more isolated than any major power in the world. Yet, Russia proved able to recover and carry on in a very uniquely Russian way. Czar Alexander II, renewed friendly ties with Germany and (albeit temporarily) Austria, sold Alaska to the United States so that the British in Canada wouldn’t get hold of it, expanded Russian power in central Asia and even managed to win a minor victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1877 when Turkish brutality toward the Bulgars caused their former Western European friends to turn their backs on them. However, longer-term the Crimean War caused an antagonism between Russia and Austria that would fester until the Great War that doomed them both. It also led, indirectly, to another conflict when, as Russia was shut off from the oceans in the west, Russia looked east and expanded toward the Pacific which ultimately resulted in the war with Japan that proved very damaging to the image of the monarchy at home and abroad.

Quite a lot of ‘blow-back’ for what started as an inter-Christian spat over sanctuary privileges in Jerusalem.


  1. Alma was a battleground in this war?

    Well, we have Le Pont d'Alma in Paris as memorial thereof.

    1. As well as the Paris suburb of Malakoff. And rightly so as the French really fought tremendously.

  2. The Mongol Tatar Muslim Khanates which succeeded the Golden Horde are interesting monarchies in their own right. Crimea was a Genghisid monarchy.

    The Khans of the Crimean Khanate, Kazan Khanate, and Astrakhan Khanate were all descendants of Genghis Khan and heirs of the Golden Horde and Mongol Empire. The Crimean Khans were the last Genghisids to effectively rule.


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