British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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The Crimean War: "Britain in Blunderland" part 2

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In an attempt to gain access to the Mediterranean through the Straits, the Russian army had invaded the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. Soon afterwards an Anglo-French army went to the Balkans to prevent the Turkish empire from being controlled by the Russians. The allied troops were landed at Varna and fell prey to cholera almost immediately. In the time that it took to ship out the troops to the Black Sea, Austria-Hungary had demanded that Russia withdraw totally from the two area, which Russia did. So far as the allies were concerned, that left nowhere in the Balkans for them to fight. However, Britain and France were determined to fight Russia somewhere, so they decided to invade the Crimea and destroy the naval base at Sevastopol. They landed at Eupatoria on 14 September 1854, intending to make a one hundred mile triumphal march to Sevastopol the capital of the Crimea, with 50,000 men.

The Battle of the Alma. This map is taken from Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr Hibbert.

Click on the image for a larger view.

On 20 September 1854 the Battle of the River Alma was fought a week after the allied landing, the first engagement of the war. The Allies marched down a grassy slope, overlooked by a natural escarpment which had been heavily fortified with redoubts by the Russians. The Allied line of attack led them onto the enemy guns. Menschikov, the Russian general, thought a frontal attack was suicidal and therefore out of the question. The British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Raglan, ordered a frontal assault over the steepest ground. Lack of information and lack of reconnoitre meant that he did not know about the easy routes. The Allies surprised Menschikov, who took his army and fled towards Sevastopol in utter disarray. The British navy helped the rout by shelling the Russian's position. The Allies failed to follow up their advantage. The cavalry was lined up but was not ordered to pursue and complete the victory, which explains why the cavalry was so keen for action later. The Russians were allowed to return unmolested to Sevastopol. The opportunity to finish the war at the Battle of the Alma was lost; Sevastopol was fortified, reinforced and armed before the Allies arrived; siege warfare ensued.

Map of the Chersonese Peninsula: the map is taken from Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan, (Longmans, 1961), with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr. Hibbert. Alvin Wee of the University Scholar's Programme, created the electronic version.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Raglan wanted to march the 15 miles to Sevastopol and storm it there and then because there were no landward defences since the Russians had relied on the redoubts at Alma to defend Sevastopol. The French general, St. Arnaud, disagreed so the Allies marched past Sevastopol to take up a position on the south side to obtain a sheltered harbour from which to conduct a formal siege. This gave the Russians a respite of several weeks which they spent in fortifying, re-equipping and re-garrisoning the town. By the time the Allies attacked, Sevastopol was heavily defended. After October 1854 until its end the war was one of attrition marked by:

The war was punctuated with blunders and disasters

On 25 October 1854 the Battle of Balaclava took place. This was when the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred, led by Lord Cardigan and his light cavalry. Both armies had outposts and redoubts - heavily-armed, well defended, strategic positions - from which they tested their opponents' strength by making sorties. The Russians, on a sortie from Sevastopol on to the Causeway Heights to redoubts manned by the Turks so frightened the defenders that the Turks fled. The Cossacks took the redoubts and began to make off with the naval guns and ammunition which had been used in the redoubts. The loss of guns was a clear sign of defeat which Raglan could not allow. Raglan saw what the Russians were doing, and ordered that the guns should be retaken from the Russians. The order was very vague and very hastily scribbled by General Airey (at Raglan's command). Captain Nolan took the order to Lord Cardigan. It said:

'Ld. Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front - follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate!'

The order did not say which guns, or where they were. Although Raglan - on the Heights and having an overview of the area thought it was obvious - the cavalry in the valley could not see the Russians with the British naval guns because the Russians were over the top of the ridge. Consequently the cavalry was baffled: the only guns they could see were those before Sevastopol two miles away where there were gun emplacements down both sides of the valley and across the end.

Captain Nolan was of little help. He disliked Cardigan and was excited because finally the cavalry was going to do something. They had been the butt of infantry jokes because the cavalry had done nothing so far. When asked where the guns were, he vaguely waved his arm and said "There!" Cardigan and Lucan assumed, therefore, that they were to take the guns at the end of the valley. No commander should ever order cavalry to attack heavy artillery - even Cardigan thought the order was stupid. Still, orders were to be obeyed. The Light Brigade, comprising 670 men, set off down the valley at a canter with Cardigan fifty yards in front of them. Nolan realised that Cardigan was going in the wrong direction and tried to stop him: Cardigan refused to listen.

The Charge of th Light Brigade. Click on the image for a larger view

The soldiers in the first Russian batteries did not believe their eyes so they did not fire. Then the massacre began. When the charge was over, 195 men were left. Cardigan was the first in and first out and he was unscathed; he left his men to find their own was back. The charge was a massive blunder and caused irrecoverable loss - most of the light cavalry was gone.

So who was to blame?

Raglan was blamed for issuing so imprecise an order. He could see what was going on, but ought not to have assumed that Cardigan could.
General Airey (the Adjutant General) was blamed because he wrote the order.
Captain Nolan was blamed because he took the order to Cardigan, and was itching for action. When asked "Which guns?" he waved his arm and said, "There is your enemy."
Cardigan was blamed for not checking or questioning the order - but he had the sense to refuse to hand it over to Airey after the charge.
Contemporaries settled on Nolan - but he was killed in the charge. Dead men carry all burdens.

It was a collective, shared responsibility, a combination of

The charge reflected the political mistakes of the war.

5 November 1854: the Battle of Inkerman

This was to prevent the Russian attempt to relieve Sevastopol, and to prevent Russian supplies from reaching the town. Fog led to the enemy armies losing each other, and fighting among themselves.

Other accounts of the battle:

Timothy Gowing
WP Richards
New York Times
a French account

14th November, 1854: the great storm

This was possibly the biggest disaster for the British army. The gale sank 30 ships in Balaclava harbour and destroyed over £3 million worth of stores, equipment and supplies, just as the Russian winter set in. The Allies had prepared only for a summer campaign and had to make do with summer equipment: tents, light clothes and so on. It took months to re-supply them. Men died of exposure, disease, starvation. The gale was a major factor in the suffering and hardship experienced by the troops.

See also WP Richards' and Usherwood's accounts of the great gale

The army had not been equipped for a long campaign, let alone a winter campaign. Public subscriptions were raised in England to send 'extras' to the troops, but they rarely received them, due to corruption and inefficiency

There was also terrible mis-management. Everything went wrong; everyone was incompetent.

The Commissariat Department, responsible for supplies, was notoriously inept and corrupt. It sent no building materials or food; it sent left and right boots in separate ships - and one of the ships sank - and so on. Wellington had complained about the red tape and inefficiency in the French Wars and it was just as bad in the Zulu Wars (1878). The great gale merely compounded the inadequacy of the Commissariat.

Then the Russian winter set in, while the troops were still under canvass, with no, food, fuel or heating. Cholera and typhus broke out; men froze to the bone-marrow in the trenches; dysentery took its toll. Illness killed more men than died in battle: shades of 1812.

See also

Captain Campbell's account
Lieutenant-Colonel Sterling's account
WP Richards' account

Czar Nicholas I bragged about having "Generals January and February" on his side, to send the Allies packing. He offered to provide on three-decker ship for the rag-end of the Allied army to leave the Crimea: it began to look as if that was all they would need.

The failures of the campaign came back to Britain and to the public because

  1. The Times sent William Russell as their eye-witness war correspondent. He sent despatches by electric telegraph, and the readers learned of the blunders and inefficiency
  2. letters home from soldiers e.g. Captain William Richards of Bristol, Charles Usherwood from Rotherhan and Timothy Gowing from Norwich

It became clear that the senior officers did not share the hardships of the men: they had huts, decent food, and so on. Cardigan had his private yacht there, for example.


A public subscription had been set up to provide 'extras' for the troops - chocolates, cigars, socks - but the Commissariat Department had never got them to the men: they either lost, stole, kept or sold them. This created uproar and led to massive protests, petitions and demonstrations against Aberdeen. The public, bankers, merchants and traders began to oppose the war. It looked as though Britain was going to lose, and that Britain's policy for the east would be in tatters.

Parliament was worried by Christmas 1854, in spite of public opinion. By then the "Eastern Question" had become a wholly different issue. Britain had entered the war for a conservative reason - to maintain the status quo: very much a negative reason. Britain did not want land, influence or anything other than to contain France and Russia. However, Britain was now staring in the face the strong possibility of defeat, and she had a lot to lose. Most of the problems were due to inefficiency. If Russia won, there was nothing to stop Russia taking everything which Britain had tried to prevent since 1815. Even the loss of India was a possibility, and that was untenable. The radicals used the disasters to justify their demands for further reforms.

In January 1855 the Sheffield MP John Arthur Roebuck tabled a motion of "No Confidence" in the government and demanded a full enquiry into the conduct of the war. The vote was carried with a huge majority and Aberdeen resigned on 1 February 1855. Another government had fallen because of foreign policy: every government since 1846 - except the Derby coalition - had been brought down by foreign policy matters. Disraeli was keen for the Tories to take power for a Tory revival and the end of the war. Derby failed to form an administration therefore parliament turned to Palmerston - one man, not a party. Palmerston was deemed to be the only man capable of pulling Britain out of the mess with some honour. He was chosen by parliament to recover the Eastern Question and to bring Britain from the edge of defeat; to stop the war he might have prevented in the first place. Palmerston formed a Whig/Radical coalition with Gladstone at the Exchequer (for a few weeks) and Clarendon as Foreign Secretary. Palmerston did not change things immediately: things were already getting better. He took over at the right moment:

Palmerston kept things going and speeded up the turn of events:

  1. he appointed Lord Panmure as Secretary for War and put him in charge of a new supply and transport department at the Admiralty, with responsibility for getting supplies to the Crimea, thus by-passing the Commissariat. Panmure was responsible for Brassey,Peto and Bell being sent to build the Balaclava-Sevastopol railway.
  2. Palmerston was lucky. In February 1855, Czar Nicholas I went to the Crimea to inspire his troops after their defeat at Eupatoria; he caught a chill from his own "General February", which turned to pneumonia. He died in March 1855. The British press had a field-day, but since the Czar was seen as a demi-god, the Russians were devastated. Czar Nicholas I was replaced by Czar Alexander II which possibly helped to secure peace, because Alexander II was not committed to 'winning'.
  3. In February 1855 Piedmont-Sardinia sent regiments to support Britain and France. They wanted help for Italian Unification and saw that Austria-Hungary's neutrality had cost her friends. Piedmont wanted to capitalise on Austria's isolation. The Piedmontese army did stirling work in the Crimea, hoping for gain later.

Although the war had turned to the advantage of the Allies, it still took a year - until summer 1855 - for Sevastopol to fall, at which point the war was deemed to be over and Russia to be defeated. Everyone had had enough by then.

In March 1856 the Treaty of Paris brought peace. The hostilities ended; Britain, which had gone to war to preserve the status quo, was on the 'winning' side in an unnecessary conflict. The Treaty ended that phase of the Eastern Question, but it did not solve the Eastern Question; it could not hope to do that. There was no solution, and the Treaty of Paris merely halted the current crisis. It was another truce in the incompatibility of British and Russian interests in the Middle East.

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