8 battles that shaped the Crimean War
From the first clash along the Danube to the fierce fight to take Sevastopol, we examine the conflict’s most important encounters
The battle of Oltenița – 4 November 1853
8,000 Ottomans v 6,000 Russians
Killed: 30 Ottomans, 600–700 Russians
The war’s first military engagement came several months before Britain and France joined the hostilities. Near the village of Oltenița in the region of Wallachia (now part of Romania), the Ottomans established fortified positions on the banks of the River Danube, ready to defend their territory against the steadily advancing Russians under the command of General Peter Dannenberg. As his troops approached these defences, Dannenberg moved his infantrymen to the front.
However, despite some of them managing to breach the fortifications’ moat, the Russians suffered heavy losses and were recalled, clearly unprepared for the level of artillery required to destabilise the Ottomans’ defences. Perhaps surprisingly, the Ottomans didn’t pursue the retreating Russians, content to have merely contained the opening battle of what would be a drawn-out war. But while not a crucial victory militarily, Oltenița’s impact was more to do with psychology and morale.
The battle of Sinop – 30 November 1853
12 Ottoman ships v 11 Russian ships
Killed: 3,000 Ottomans, 37 Russians
Less than a month after Russian progress on land had been derailed at Oltenița, the first naval battle of the war gave Russia a significant victory. At the port of Sinop on the Black Sea’s southern shore, a Russian fleet – including six battleships – attacked a dozen smaller Ottoman ships in the town’s harbour, all but one of which were sunk or run aground. The Russian squadron remained intact. As well as benefitting from the element of surprise, this dominant victory was testament to the Russians’ deployment of explosive shells which, far more destructive than cannonballs, decimated the wooden hulls of the Ottoman vessels. Not content with demobilising these ships in such a brutal and unrelenting manner, the Russians then turned their aim on Sinop itself, shelling the town and claiming the lives of a great many civilians.
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Back in St Petersburg, the authorities were both relieved and ecstatic that the hefty financial investment made in upgrading the Russian navy had produced such an emphatic result. Elsewhere in Europe, the unprovoked nature of the attack in Sinop drew instant condemnation; the word ‘massacre’ was never far from critics’ lips. Deep concern over both Russia’s intentions and its naval firepower fuelled and strengthened the argument for western Europe to become engaged militarily in the conflict. Amid a growing anti-Russian fervour, British and French warships entered the waters of the Black Sea in January 1854. The war was no longer simply Ottoman versus Russian.
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The battle of the Alma – 20 September 1854
58,000 allies v 37,500 Russians
Killed or wounded: 4,100 allies, 5,000 Russians
In mid-September 1854, an allied force of British, French and Ottoman troops landed on the Crimean Peninsula in a move not foreseen by Russia, which hadn’t predicted a land campaign as winter approached. Under the command of Britain’s Lord Raglan and France’s Armand-Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud, the combined forces were vast in number. Such was the scale of the allied effort – hundreds of vessels laden with armour, horses and men had crossed the Black Sea – that it took five days for the entire party to disembark before the massed ranks began to march towards the strategically significant port of Sevastopol, around 35 miles away. After a comparatively minor clash between the allies and the Russians at the Bulganak River, stiffer resistance was in place seven miles away at the mouth of the Alma River, where the Russians had taken up position atop the Alma Heights, a series of bluffs and cliffs which gave them a strategic advantage.
The allies’ tactics, largely drawn up by the cholera-riven Saint-Arnaud rather than the out-of-his-depth Raglan, saw the French attack the Russian left flank, the latter being surprised at their enemy’s ability to scale the cliffs. The British assaults on the Russian right flank overran key bastions, but their superior firepower (in the form of Minié rifles that fired hollow-based bullets), combined with the French capture of the Alma Heights, drove the Russian army into a full retreat. Remarkably, neither the British or French forces pursued them to Sevastopol, with Saint-Arnaud and Lord Raglan both blaming each other for failing to seize the opportunity. However, Raglan had his eye on a different port: Balaclava.
The siege of Sevastopol: 17 October 1854 – 11 September 1855
Killed: 128,387 allies, 102,000 Russians
The capture of Sevastopol – ahead of other ports on the Crimea Peninsula – had been a primary objective for the allied powers for one overriding reason: it was the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the means through which Nicholas I intended to secure footholds across the Mediterranean basin. Destroying the fleet – or at least disabling it – was crucial in stymying the tsar’s expansionist ambitions. The allies chose to pen in Russian forces in the city, and in the process, they ended up creating one of the most famous sieges in history. While the allies had 120 guns pointed at Sevastopol, both from the Black Sea and from the uplands south of the city, the Russians had three times as many to use for their defence, utilising the naval artillery repurposed after they had scuttled in excess of a dozen of their own ships to prevent the allies’ capture of them.
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While many significant battles were won and lost beyond the siege lines the allies had constructed, the siege itself became a feature for nearly the next 12 months. The Russians withstood half a dozen heavyweight bombardments in Sevastopol during this time, but the sixth was particularly damaging, claiming between 2,000 and 3,000 Russian casualties on each of its three days. The heroic defence eventually mutated into a reluctant abandonment and retreat.
The battle of Balaclava: 25 October 1854
28,000 allies v 25,000 Russians
Killed or wounded: 615 allies, 627 Russians
Following their retreat at the battle of the Alma, the Russians spent the next month regrouping ahead of the next skirmish. While redeployed personnel from the Russian navy defended Sevastopol from inside the city, General Alexander Menshikov’s soldiers operated beyond the allies’ siege lines, able to move around the countryside as they tried to find the weakest section to attack. They found it to the south, around the town of Balaclava. Lord Raglan had moved his men there after Alma, but didn’t have enough troops to offer the most watertight defence of the siege’s right flank. The Russians’ first attack was on Ottoman forts on the Vorontsov Heights, and it was a successful encounter, with the Ottomans forced to retreat after an initial spell of stubborn defence.
The Russians then approached the second defensive line in the region, one formed by Ottoman infantrymen and the British 93rd Highland Regiment. At dawn, the regiment’s commander, Major-General Colin Campbell, outlined to his troops what was about to occur at what was the last defensive line between the Russians and the town of Balaclava. “There is no retreat from here, men,” he told them bluntly. “You must die where you stand.” Without the numbers to set them up four-deep, as was customary, Campbell’s defences were half as shallow. In their red uniform jackets, the 93rd met the oncoming Russian cavalry charge with two volleys of fire: one from 800 yards away and a second from 500 yards. This was sufficient. The Russians turned and fled, although Campbell had to order the 93rd not to pursue them. “93rd! 93rd! Damn all that eagerness!”
The valley of death
His advice might have served the equally eager Lord Raglan. Keen to deter the Russians from making off with captured British guns, he ordered that the Light Brigade go after them. Unencumbered by decent armour for either man or horse, the Light Brigade could cover ground quickly and thus disrupt the Russians fleeing with such heavy armaments. So, into the valley rode the Light Brigade; “the valley of Death” as Lord Tennyson’s poem would later dub it.
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However, a miscommunication had taken them right into the heart of set-in Russian troops who had the British ringed on three sides of the valley. Chaos ensued. A correspondent from the London Illustrated News saw “a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls”, while a French onlooker couldn’t understand the logic of Raglan’s order: “it is not war. It is madness.” Regardless of who was responsible for the misdirected attack, it terrified the Russians, who never again came out on horseback to face British cavalry.
The battle of Inkerman: 5 November 1854
15,700 allies v 40,500 Russians
Killed or wounded: 4,676 allies, 11,959 Russians
After the Charge of the Light Brigade had seen the deaths of courageous soldiers led by misguided generals, the battle of Inkerman was a much different affair. Largely due to the day’s foggy conditions, the Anglo-French forces mainly fought without orders from on high. Largely thanks to their own initiative, an allied victory ensued. Again attempting to penetrate the long, under-protected allied siege lines around Sevastopol, General Menshikov had ordered another attack, this time in the vicinity of Mount Inkerman. He had up to 42,000 men at his disposal, although the area’s hilly geography made such numbers impractical. Still, the Russians greatly outnumbered the 2,700-strong 2nd Division, with British generals swiftly calling for reinforcements.
The splintered nature of the ensuing battle, caused by both weather conditions and terrain, meant that officers could only direct the fighting immediately before them. Captain Edward Hamley of the British 1st Division explained that “once engaged, every man was his own general”. As such, Inkerman became known as ‘The Soldiers’ Battle’. Bolstered by the arrival of two 18-pounder guns, which drove off the Russian field artillery, the allies successfully held their position. The Russians would never launch another land-based attack on the allies’ siege lines again.
The battle of Eupatoria: 17 February 1855
32,000 allies (almost exclusively Ottomans) v 19,000 Russians
Killed: 91 allies, 168 Russians
Sevastopol wasn’t the only strategically crucial Crimean port. Fifty miles to the north, the Ottomans controlled the city of Eupatoria, an advanced base near the ‘neck’ of the peninsula that was well-placed to cut Russian supply lines. On 17 February 1855, the Russians attempted to capture the port, but soon encountered problems in penetrating its defences.
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Having advanced to the city walls, Russian leaders discovered that the protective water-filled ditches surrounding them were too deep to be able to launch an assault; they simply didn’t offer a firm base from which the walls could be scaled. By 10 o’clock that morning, the Russians were already in retreat, a withdrawal hastened by Ottoman cavalry and infantry charging them.
The battle of Malakoff: 8 September 1854
70,500 French v 59,500 Russians
Killed or wounded: 8,000 French, 13,000 Russians
The siege of Sevastopol had been prolonged thanks to Russia’s defence of the city’s harbour. On its south side, this protection was provided by the Malakoff-Kurgan ridge, on which stood a stone tower, the home of five heavy cannons. In September 1855, French forces tried to smash the siege’s stalemate by attacking the Malakoff fort. After a day of intense combat, the fort fell and the French tricolour was raised up its flagpole.
It had been a bloody encounter, but it was to be the war’s last major battle. And it felt like the climax, too; no fewer than 19 generals on either side lost their lives, and the capture of the fort meant the capture of Sevastopol. But the clash did not decide the war. It would be factors away from the battlefield – such as bankruptcy, and pressure from Austria and Sweden – that would leave Russia unable to fight on.
Nige Tassell is a journalist who specialises in history
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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