By the 1850s, Napoleon’s reign was a fading memory and the First World War was more than half a century away. But Europe saw no shortage of bloody conflicts in the interim, and one of the most important was a clash of empires in Crimea. Waged between October 1853 and February 1856, the Crimean War was a struggle between Czarist Russia on one side and the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire on the other. Here’s an 11-point crash course that should bring you up to speed.
1. Tensions among religious groups helped instigate the Crimean War.
From 1517 to 1917, the largely Islamic Ottoman Empire controlled Jerusalem. Two of the area’s religious minorities, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, considered parts of Jerusalem to be holy and wanted guaranteed access to those sites. The Orthodox Christians found an ally in Czar Nicholas I of Russia, who invaded Turkish holdings in present-day Romania in June 1853 to put pressure on Ottoman rulers. The czar justified the invasion as necessary to safeguard the rights of Orthodox Christians—but it was no secret that the czar also wanted to grab Turkish territories for Russia. Nicholas I saw the Ottoman Empire as a vulnerable target; he once called it “a sick man, a very sick man.”
2. The Kingdom of Sardinia was a latecomer to the Crimean War.
The Crimean War’s official start date was October 5, 1853, one day after the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. Because Russian expansion threatened French and British commercial interests, both of those superpowers allied themselves with the Ottomans, joining the fray in March 1854. Another ally, the Kingdom of Sardinia, entered the war in 1855. This bygone nation, which encompassed the island of Sardinia and parts of the Italian mainland, took up arms against Russia as a way to improve its diplomatic relationship with France.
3. The conflict centered on Sevastopol, Russia’s naval port on the Crimean Peninsula.
The Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783, was still part of the Russian Empire when the war began. The diamond-shaped landmass extends into the Black Sea and its port city of Sevastopol was a major base of operations for the Russian navy—so when Britain and France joined the Ottoman cause against Russia, their forces headed straight for Crimea. Over 60,000 allied troops reached the peninsula between September 14 and September 16, 1854. Weeks later, they launched an 11-month siege of Sevastopol that raged until September 1855. And the Crimean War wasn’t restricted to Crimea itself: In addition to the fighting in modern-day Romania, naval battles took place in the White Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the North Pacific.
4. Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale became celebrity nurses during the Crimean War.
In their 2004 book War Epidemics: A Historical Geography of Infectious Diseases in Military Conflict and Civil Strife, 1850-2000, M.R. Smallman-Raynor and A.D. Cliff write that an estimated 155,000 British, French, Turkish, and Sardinian troops lost their lives in the Crimean War. Many came down with dysentery, typhoid, or cholera. Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican nurse, paid her own way to Crimea during the war (after the UK War Office refused her services) and created a hotel for wounded soldiers near the Crimean settlement of Balaklava. Elsewhere, at a British military hospital in Turkey, the trendsetting nurse Florence Nightingale dramatically improved the facility’s sanitation standards. Nicknamed “the Lady with the Lamp” by the press, she was also an early data analyst with a penchant for pie charts.
5. The most famous Crimean War photograph may have been staged.
War photography came of age during the fight in Crimea. Images of battle camps and weary soldiers taken by witnesses shaped public opinion. No Crimean War photographer is more celebrated today than Roger Fenton, whose series of 360 pictures shot between March 8 and June 6, 1855, astonished the British media. One photo, called The Valley of the Shadow of Death, resonated with the critics. It shows a dirt roadway littered with stray cannonballs, the desolate aftermath of the shelling at Sevastopol. Yet, in 2007, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris suggested that someone had rearranged the cannonballs across the road, long after they’d been fired, perhaps to increase the dramatic effect of the image.
6. The “charge of the light brigade” in the Crimean War was a strategic disaster.
On October 25, 1854, during the Battle of Balaklava, the 676 men in the British light cavalry had orders to retrieve guns captured by the Russians. But their instructions were confusing, and the unit was misdirected into an exposed position surrounded by Russian artillery. Though fatally outgunned, the light brigade was ordered to charge directly into enemy fire. Survivors later described “riding into the mouth of a volcano” and seeing their comrades’ bodies torn apart by cannonballs. Russian troops routed the cavalry, killing 107 and wounding 187 men plus 400 horses. The disaster was immortalized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s December 1854 poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which begins:
“‘Forward the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
7. Russia’s leader died in the middle of the conflict.
Czar Nicholas I developed pneumonia after attending a wedding in St. Petersburg and died on March 2, 1855, at age 58. His eldest son, Alexander II, succeeded him as czar and went on to oversee Russia’s defeat in the war his father had instigated.
8. A British naval ship in the Crimean War had a live tortoise as its mascot.
Timothy the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise enjoyed a decorated career with the British Royal Navy. Taken from a Portuguese ship in 1854, Timothy sailed aboard the HMS Queen during the siege of Sevastopol as the vessel’s mascot. It was the first of several naval campaigns Timothy joined before she (yes, she) retired and went to live at Powderham Castle in Devon, England. When the 11-pound tortoise passed away in 2004, she was approximately 160 years old.
9. An eight-mile railway helped Britain and its allies win the Crimean War.
Stretching from the Sevastopol battlefront to a British military camp eight miles away, the Grand Crimean Central Railway transported heavy guns, critical supplies, and wounded soldiers. Construction started in February 1855 and lasted for eight weeks. “Although the railway was quickly and simply built, it proved vital, especially in the rainy season when the ground was muddy, as long as the railway itself did not succumb to the mud,” historian Yakup Bektas wrote in Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science in 2017 [PDF].
10. The Crimean War foreshadowed the end of serfdom in Russia.
On September 8, 1855, the allies finally took Sevastopol. Russia entered peace negotiations the following year, which culminated in the 1856 Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Crimean War. Under the treaty, the Black Sea was declared a neutral territory, off-limits to all warships, Russian or otherwise. Eager to distance himself from the humiliating defeat, Czar Alexander II used the ensuing years to carry out domestic reforms. His biggest achievement was the abolition of Russian serfdom—a system of forced labor that gave the nobility power over workers bound to specific plots of land—in 1861. Russian laws protecting serfdom had been in force since 1649, and by the second half of the 19th century, serfs made up 34.4 percent of Russia’s population. The fear of a populist uprising drove Alexander II to action; he argued, “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.”
11. The war also set up the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Colonized by Russia in 1741, Alaska was once a lucrative source of seal and sea otter pelts for Russian traders. But the enormous territory was sparsely populated and difficult to defend. That second point was underscored during the Crimean War, when British forces attacked Petropavlovsk, an outpost in Kamchatka just across Bering Strait from Alaska. Russia decided to sell Alaska before another empire could take it by force and handed it to the United States for $7.2 million (about $130 million today) in 1867, one of the biggest land bargains of all time. Alaska gained statehood on January 3, 1959.