The Crimean War (1854-56)

Read how the Crimean War started as an argument over holy ground, and was characterised by inept commanding by the British and French.

The Crimean War (1854-56) developed because of an argument between the French and Russian religious fraternities over who should have access and right to holy areas in the Middle East, namely Nazareth and Jerusalem. It seems that religion has a lot to answer for when it comes to war, because inevitably discussions turned to arguments, which turned to violence, which resulted in death on both sides. The whole debate had been escalated to a level beyond all reason. The situation was compounded when the Russians, under the directive of Tsar Nicholas I, moved troops into the area, supposedly in order to shield the aforementioned sacred grounds.

The more sceptical of the neutral observers around at the time, may have thought that this military movement had slightly more sinister overtones"¦ and they would have been right! Not long after positioning troops in the Middle East, then a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Russians upped the stakes by massacring a small fleet of Turkish boats, an act that the Turks must respond to.

Back in England, there was more than a murmuring of discontentment from the British government over the acts of the Russians. After all, they had initiated military manoeuvres, that, if proved successful would give them control of an area vital to the Mediterranean trade route so necessary to the British. The French, eager to be allied to the British, began discussions with them, and consequently both countries sent expeditionary forces to the Balkans to confront the Russians.

The war proper started in March of 1854, and six months later the British and French had driven the Russians back from the land they had occupied in the Ottoman Empire. Buoyed by their victory though, they pursued the Russians, who had decided to defend the key naval base of Sevastopol. After arriving on the shores of the Crimean peninsula, north of the base, the British and French troops made their way to attack it, and on the way the Battle of Alma took place.

The Alma was the second of three rivers they needed to cross to reach the base. The Russians had decided to defend the river because on their side they were able to use to their advantage steep hills and rocky cliffs. In the early stages of the battle the French were able to storm the cliffs near to the coast and drive the Russians back. To their left though, the British soon became a disorganised mob. Although briefly taking a Russian position, they were then forced back. Their retreat was better than their attack though - they drew many Russians into an area where they could pick them off at will. Because of the heavy number of casualties received by the Russians, they were forced to withdraw - the Battle of Alma was over.

The British and French pushed on towards the naval base, to which they laid siege, using the harbour of Balaklava as their supply point. The Battle of Balaklava was a key factor in the war being protracted for more than another year. The Russians performed a surprise attack on the Causeway heights, a sought after strategic position. The British came to the aid of the Turks and pressed the Russians, who were forced to retreat, but still held the Causeway Heights. In their impatience, the British high command ordered the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade, who were forced to charge across an open plain defended by heavy Russian artillery. About two thirds of the light brigade were systematically mown down by the Russian guns. Because the Russian had retreated the British claimed victory, but their enemy still held the best position on Causeway Heights. This is why the war continued for many more months.

It was throughout the rest of the war that starvation and disease set in. Supply lines were poor and medical aid nonexistent. It wasn't until Florence Nightingale was posted to the war hospital at Scutari that conditions and facilities were improved to prevent the spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery. She, with her team of nurses were probably the only good thing to come out of the Crimean War, that had been characterised by a series of tactical howlers and breakdowns in communication by the veteran British and French commanders.

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