Why the Crimean War mattered

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century there were five “Great Powers” which charted he course of European diplomacy: the Austrian Empire, the German kingdom of Prussia, France, Britain, and Russia.  Of these, Austria held pride of place.  The Austrian Empire dominated both Germany and Italy, and had an alliance with Russia to maintain the international system created at Vienna after the fall of Napoleon.

To the southeast lay the Ottoman Empire.  In those days it included much of the Balkan Peninsula, the future Arab countries of the Middle East, and modern-day Turkey.  Plagued by centuries of sloth and despotism, the Ottoman Empire had been disintegrating for many years.  Europeans expected it to break up, eventually.  When would that time come and who would gather up the bits and pieces?  This last question put Britain, one of whose “lifelines of Empire” ran through the Eastern Mediterranean, at odds with Russia, which shared a long border with the Ottoman Empire.  When Russia and the Ottomans went to war in 1853, Britain and France (which had its own interests in the Middle East) joined the Ottomans in 1854.

The British Army that went to war against Russia suffered from several disabilities.  First of all, it lived in the shadow of its previous successes.  The most recent and most important of these had come under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.  Wellington had commanded the British troops fighting against Napoleon’s armies in Spain (1808-1814) and then had defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo (1815).  Whatever the “Iron Duke” had done was good enough for his successors—even if conditions had change.  The senior ranks of the army were filled with men who had served under the duke in their younger days.  These were now long past, so a virtual living history museum now led the army.  Second, Britain’s subsequent wars had been comparatively small-scale fights in distant India.  Officers drawn from the ranks of the British aristocracy often chose not to accompany British troops to India.  Instead, they allowed professional soldiers from lower social groups to command on foreign duty.  A “European” war against Russia appeared as very different and more acceptable service than did Indian service.  Those with little experience of real war would take command.

The war took place around the edges of the Black Sea, first in the future Rumania, later on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russians had invaded the Balkan portions of the Ottoman Empire, but had then retreated.  The British and the French decided to invade Russia itself by capturing the port of Sebastopol.  From September 1854 to September 1855 the British and French besieged Sebastopol while other Russian forces tried to raise the siege.  Bloody battles followed at Balaclava, Inkerman, Eupatoria and Tchernaya.  All were defeats for the Russians.  Sebastopol finally surrendered.

The subsequent peace treaty did nothing to solve the problem of Ottoman decadence.  The behavior of the Austrians, who had remained neutral while their Russian ally was beaten, led to Vienna’s isolation when first Italy, then Germany, were united at its expense.  The rise of a powerful Germany, the long-term hostility between Russia and Austria in the Balkans, and the continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire provided the fuel for the First World War.

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