July 29, 2018

Crimean War 1850s - No Wonder Russia Occupied Crimea 2014

The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854 by Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927), (Published by Henry Greaves and Co, London, 1895).

Its no wonder that Russia risked international pariah status in 2014 by retaining or reoccupying all of the Crimean Peninusula in order to protect Russia's Black Sea Fleet's status at the port of Sevastopol. This month my local Poetry Group commissioned me to do the following synopsis of the Crimean War and its relationship to the Tennyson's 1854 poem The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The Crimean War was fought from October 1853 until the peace treaty in February 1856. The War claimed at least 750,000 casualties mostly from disease (including 530,000 Russians).

Origins of the war included a power vacuum created by the weakening of the Ottoman/Turkish Empire particularly its chaotic hold on the southern European (Balkans eg. Rumanian and Bulgarian) territory as well as the Middle East. A religious and racial justification was added by Russia (defending Eastern orthodox Christian rights in Jerusalem and Balkan states) and France defending of Catholic rights in the Turkish Empire.

Britain and France’s main concern was not religious but strategic. Britain and France feared that as Russia took over Turkish territory (especially in the Balkans) Russia would become the strongest power in Europe. In 1853 Russian demands that its soldiers defend Eastern Orthodox Christian rights in the Turkish dominated Balkan countries became too much for Britain and France.

The British, French and Turkish Alliance in 1854 decided to invade the Russian strategic base in the tiny Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. The ultimate objective being the Russian Fleet Base and fortress of Sevastopol. The British/French fear was if Russia retained Crimea AND took over the Turkish capital at Constantinople (that controlled Mediterranean access to the Black Sea) Russia could gain influence in the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding countries. Britain and France also wanted to protect their future 1859 on Egyptian Suez Canal project from possible Russian influence.

Poor British/French organisation and the strength of the Russian defended Sevastopol fortress meant that a year long siege developed. Like most extended old-fashioned sieges disease broke out due to crowding and sewerage infected water. Disease killed far more men on all sides than Crimean battle deaths.

On 25 October 1854 the Russians tried to weaken the siege by attempting a large assault on the British supply port of Balaklava. This confused combination of events became known as the Battle of Balaklava of which part became known as the Charge of the Light Brigade. This Brigade was of 670 light cavalry who were not meant to assault a Russian Force of around 50 canon, but (less mentioned) around 8,000 Russian infantry who shot at the Light Brigade. The Charge was meant to retake some wheeled canon or “guns” that the Russians had stolen from the British. 

Of the 670 the Charge caused 270 casualties (110 killed, 160 wounded). This 40% casualty rate was actually not unusual in the preceding Napoleonic wars and subsequent First World War.

Reasons for the charge included poor communication between the British High Command and the commander leading the Light Brigade. Miltary expert Field Marshal Wolseley later recalled that during the Crimean War era the British Army did not study war. Hence, when the Crimean War broke out, so ignorant were our generals and our colonels, it is a marvel any of us survived. Our officers had no training. They never read a book upon military matters, and at the mess, those who mentioned tactics were told to "shut up." Since the Napoleonic Wars the British Army was clear out of practice.

Tennyson probably never visited Crimea (?). His poem was published 3 weeks after the Charge. Another major event was the counter-propaganda of the "Thin Red Line" of mainly Scottish red coated infantry who gloriously blocked a Russian cavalry charge at Balaklava.

The British losses epitomised by the Charge became such a major public and high political concern that a riot broke out in London in January 1855. By 1855 Britain, France and Russia all wanted the war to end, leading to the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

Besides Florence Nightingale and military medicine what came out of the war was Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s interest in War. Unlike Tennyson Tolstoy was at Crimea serving as a young artillery officer (promoted for heroism). Tolstoy recorded that time in his short story book Sevastopol Sketches

Although not as wasteful as many military actions The Charge of the Light Brigade became synonymous with the horrors of war.


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