The major innovations of the Crimean War
Thanks to a host of 19th-century innovations, the Crimean conflict became the first truly ‘modern’ war
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, fewer than 40 years had passed since the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the methods and technology used by both sides were a world apart from those in that earlier conflict, which had pockmarked Europe in the opening decades of the 19th century. Many new weapons and technologies were deployed for the first time, hence Crimea later being defined by many observers as the ‘first modern war’.
One major advance was in rifle technology. The Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket had been swiftly approved by the British government and put into mass production. In combination with the Minié musket ball, a hollow-based bullet that expanded when fired, Enfields put the allies at a distinct advantage over the Russians when it came to accuracy and inflicting casualties. The navies of both sides, however, adopted shell-firing guns – a technology that the Russians had utilised during the early naval battles against the Ottomans before the British and French joined proceedings.
The war was also the first to see widespread use of mines, both on land and at sea. The Russian navy particularly favoured their deployment, setting more than 1,500 sea mines in the Gulf of Finland to deter any sorties by the Anglo-French fleets towards St Petersburg. The rules of engagement – or, at least, the methods of engagement – were now changed forever.
The Crimean War is undeniably the point in military history at which the irresistibility of steam power in naval battles is universally acknowledged. Although the fleets of both sides were a mixture of sailing ships and steam-powered vessels, the greater number of modern ships built by the allies put them in control of the waters of the Black Sea. With the Russians only in possession of seven steam frigates, the rest of its more antiquated fleet were easily outmanoeuvred and outflanked by the allies’ speedier and more agile steam-driven vessels.
- Read more | 8 battles that shaped the Crimean War
Along with the heralding of widespread naval warfare under steam, the battles on the Black Sea accelerated the notion of armoured ships. The French were in the vanguard of their design and, after joining with Britain to enter the war, they shared plans for ironclad warships with the Royal Navy. After testing, the British government decided to build five of their own. France’s armoured ships were dispatched to Crimea the following year, where their role in destroying the Russian fortress at Kinburn on 17 October 1855 prompted all navies to embark on building such vessels.
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Accompanying the newspaper reports updating readers about events in Crimea were photographs from the war. While artists were seconded to the region by publications such as The Illustrated London News, the development of photography made the Crimean War, as historian Yakup Bektas has declared, “the most illustrated war to date and helped turn it into a visual spectacle”.
- On the podcast | The Crimean War: everything you wanted to know
When exhibited, the photography from the battlefields had an impact that sketches did not possess. Although the images that appeared in the press were actually engravings based on the photographs (the technology to reproduce them in newspapers had not yet been created), readers were given a greater sense of the reality of the conflict – even if the images being published were a matter for subjective decision making, and such editorial choices were susceptible to the requirements of propaganda.
Arguably the most notable photographer in the Crimea was Roger Fenton, who travelled around with his two assistants in a horse-drawn ‘Photographic Van’. Despite his reputation, the Lancastrian seemed to sidestep capturing scenes of brutality and distress. Perhaps with one eye on posterity (and the other on self-preservation), he preferred to spend his time as a portrait photographer, usually with the upper echelons of the British military as his focus. Fenton was also accused of manipulating and even staging some of his non-portrait work. Nonetheless, whether completely honest, Fenton and others helped deliver a sense of the human element of war.
The lengthy siege of Sevastopol presented the British military with a logistical headache. When its men and equipment arrived in Crimea by ship, they disembarked at the port of Balaclava. Although the trenches surrounding Sevastopol were only 10 miles away, transporting the cargo – both human and mechanical – was exceedingly tricky. Not only were the weather conditions frequently atrocious, but the pitted and rough uphill terrain made for progress that was slow at best, and perilous at worst.
Help was on its way, though. Back in Britain, a pair of entrepreneurs, Samuel Morton Peto and Edward Betts, were among the pre-eminent railway builders of the Victorian age. Having read about the conditions in Crimea in the eyewitness accounts of The Times correspondent William Howard Russell, Peto and Betts went into partnership with another railway man, Thomas Brassey, to propose the construction of a simple and effective line between Balaclava and the trenches above Sevastopol. This was no money-making scheme, incidentally, since the trio charged the British government only at cost price.
Progress was speedy, too: after the trains and track parts shipped in December 1854, the line was finished and fully functional within four months. Enjoying a rather high-falutin name, the Grand Crimean Central Railway contributed greatly to the ending of the siege; able to withstand the heavy rains to deliver arms, supplies and personnel to the trenches while returning sick and injured troops to Balaclava.
- On the podcast | Railway history: everything you wanted to know
As if the fighting of the Crimean War hadn’t claimed enough casualties, the death toll was being added to by allied troops falling gravely ill (particularly those in the British Army). One key reason was food poisoning. Soldiers were being catered for by those with little or no experience in cooking – let alone cooking en masse – and, accordingly, a frequently served dish of the day was undercooked meat.
Popularly regarded as the best chef in Britain, the Frenchman Alexis Soyer visited the troops in Crimea and was shocked by the fare being served up. By then, he had already been developing a stove upon which food could be cooked properly whatever the location. In order to meet the needs of the British soldiers, the so-called Soyer Stove swiftly went into production. The celebrated chef also trained the cooks of each regiment how to provide solid, and more importantly non-dangerous, sustenance to their men.
- Read more | A timeline of the Crimean War
Cases of food poisoning fell as a result and a version of the Soyer Stove would go on to be used by the British Army as recently as the Falklands War in 1982. As such, Soyer saved many lives. “War is the evil genius of a time,” the Frenchman wrote in his memoir of his Crimean experience, A Culinary Campaign (1857), “but good food for all is a daily and paramount necessity.”
The Crimean War saw the adoption of another new technology that modernised the processes and procedures of both warfare and the reporting of warfare: telegraphy. It revolutionised communication, whether between the front lines and governments, or between war correspondents and newspaper readers.
A crucial player in this revolution was RS Newall & Company, arguably the leaders in the manufacture and laying of submarine cables. In late 1854, the company was commissioned by the British government to connect, by electric telegraph, Balaclava with the port city of Varna on the western shore of the Black Sea (in modern-day Bulgaria). Two months later, the French and British agreed to connect their respective governments with their troops by constructing a new telegraph line between Varna and Bucharest, the latter being already connected to Paris and London.
- Read more | Why did Britain fight the Crimean War?
Until then, communications from the sharp end of the war had taken up to five days before reaching the telegraph station in Bucharest, starting with a two-day steamer voyage from Balaclava to Varna that was then followed by a three-day horse ride. With a telegraph line now stretching from the front line right to Whitehall, communication was near-instant.
The British public, eager to learn of the latest developments from Crimea, enjoyed this immediacy as they were now able to read the dispatches of Fleet Street’s war correspondents soon after engagements had occurred. This exciting technological advance did carry a downside, though. Russian agents in London could update their superiors in St Petersburg through these fresh reports in the public press.
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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