On March 30, 1856, the Crimean War officially came to a close after the Treaty of Paris was signed between Russia and a victorious alliance that included France, England, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. Though largely forgotten today, the two-and-a-half-year conflict claimed at least 750,000 lives and marked the battlefield debut of railways, telegraphs, steamships and rifled muskets. It also left two enduring cultural legacies in nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale and the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade, which was immortalized in an 1854 Alfred Tennyson poem. Explore eight key facts about one of the 19th century’s most devastating wars.
1. Religious tensions helped trigger the war.
While it’s remembered as a clash of empires, the Crimean War was sparked by a seemingly minor religious dispute. For years, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics had squabbled over access to holy sites within the borders of the majority-Muslim Ottoman Empire. Both France and Russia purported to be the defenders of these Ottoman Christians—France supported the Catholics and Russia the Orthodox—and in 1852 they began jockeying for recognition by the Ottoman government. When the Turks ignored some of his demands, the Russian Czar Nicholas I mobilized his army and occupied the Ottoman territories in what is now Romania. Fearing that the Czar was looking to dismantle the Ottoman Empire—a weak regime he called the “sick man of Europe”—France and Britain cast their lot with the Turks and declared war on Russia in March 1854. The Crimean War soon transformed into an imperial struggle for influence over the ailing Ottoman Empire, but it never lost its religious overtones. British and French Christians roundly denounced the Russian Orthodox Church in the press, and many Russians and Turks came to view the conflict as a holy war between Eastern Christianity and Islam.
2. It wasn’t fought exclusively in Crimea.
Its name notwithstanding, the Crimean War was a global conflict that featured several different theaters of battle. Early clashes occurred in the Balkans and in Turkey, and the focus only shifted to Crimea after the Allies launched an invasion of the peninsula in September 1854. While most of the war’s most famous battles would eventually take place in Crimea, naval actions and intermittent fighting also erupted in such far flung places as the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Baltic and the White Sea on the Northwest coast of Russia. In August 1854, French and British forces even launched an unsuccessful attack on Petropavlovsk, a port city on Russia’s Pacific coastline near Siberia.
3. The Allied forces weren’t very fond of one another.
Though ostensibly united against Russia, the forces of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire were not natural allies. The British and the French were ancient enemies who had tangled during the Napoleonic Wars a few decades earlier, and they spent most of the Crimean campaign quarreling over strategy and field tactics. British commander-in-chief Lord Raglan, who had lost an arm at the Battle of Waterloo, was even known to refer to the French—not the Russians—as the “enemy.” Meanwhile, colonial prejudices ensured that both the French and the British mistreated their Ottoman allies, who were branded as unreliable and often beaten, ridiculed or relegated to manual labor. According to one account by a British interpreter, some of the European troops even forced the Turks to carry them on their shoulders whenever they marched across muddy roads or streams.
4. Most of the war was spent in an 11-month siege.
After invading the Crimean Peninsula in the autumn of 1854, the Allied forces scored a victory at the Battle of the Alma and then besieged the vital Russian naval hub at Sevastopol. They believed the city would fall in a matter of weeks, but following a series of bloody Russian counterattacks at the Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, the war settled into a stalemate. In what became a preview of World War I’s Western Front, both sides dug extensive trench lines around Sevastopol. Soldiers were forced to suffer through a brutal Russian winter, and many fell victim to “trench madness,” or shell shock, from the constant artillery bombardments and threat of enemy raids. It would eventually take 11 months before a French assault forced the Russians to evacuate Sevastopol. The city’s fall was the symbolic end of the Crimean War, but scattered fighting continued until Russia finally admitted defeat the following year.
5. It was the first war to feature news correspondents and battlefield photographers.
Thanks to new technologies such as the steamship and the electric telegraph, the Crimean War was the first major conflict where civilian journalists sent dispatches from the battlefield. The most notable war correspondent was William Howard Russell, a Times of London reporter who won legions of readers—and the hatred of many generals—for his descriptions of British military blunders and the appalling conditions of the army’s camps and hospitals. Russell’s reports helped convince the British government to allow nurses such as Florence Nightingale to join in the war effort, and his coverage of the disastrous “Charge of the Light Brigade” at the Battle of Balaclava inspired Alfred Tennyson to pen his poem of the same name. The war was also brought to life by photographers such as Roger Fenton and James Robertson, who produced hundreds of wet-plate images of battlefields and soldiers in uniform. While their pictures were often staged—Fenton famously moved cannonballs into a road for a photo titled “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”—they became hugely popular on the home front.
6. The war launched Leo Tolstoy’s literary career.
Along with dashing their hopes of victory in Crimea, the Siege of Sevastopol also introduced the Russians to one of their most legendary authors. Leo Tolstoy spent several months serving in defense of the city as an artillery officer, and was one of the last people to evacuate during its fall on September 9, 1855—which also happened to be his 27th birthday. In between skirmishes and bombardments, the young writer penned a series of unflinching accounts of the siege that were published under the title “Sevastopol Sketches.” Though partially censored by the government, the gritty dispatches gave readers a firsthand glimpse of the horrors of combat, and their popularity helped vault Tolstoy to literary stardom after the war ended. A decade later, the great author would once again draw on his Crimean War experiences while writing one of his most famous works—the epic novel “War and Peace.”
7. Florence Nightingale wasn’t the war’s only famous nurse.
British nurse Florence Nightingale is famous for pioneering sanitary and administrative techniques in the Crimean War’s disease-ridden hospitals, but she wasn’t the conflict’s only notable medical figure. Allied soldiers also received aid from Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born woman who traveled to Crimea and divided her time between selling supplies, food and medicine and treating the wounded on the front lines. Newspapers later nicknamed her “The Creole with the Tea Mug” for her work in providing battle-weary troops with the comforts of home. On the Russian side, a woman named Daria Mikhailova became known as “Dasha from Sevastopol” for dressing soldiers’ wounds using supplies purchased on her own dime, and doctor Nikolai Pirogov helped introduce field surgery and the use of anesthetics. Despite the best efforts of people like Nightingale and Pirogov, infectious disease still killed far more Crimean War soldiers than combat. The British alone suffered an estimated 16,000 deaths from illnesses compared to just 5,000 from battle.
8. The war helped convince Russia to sell Alaska to the United States.
Several factors were involved in Russia’s decision to offload its North American territories in Alaska, but the most pressing arose after its defeat in Crimea. The czarist government found itself in desperate need of gold to offset its crushing war debts, and there were concerns that Alaska might to be lost to the likes of Great Britain in a future war. The United States, which had been friendly with Russia during the Crimean War, eventually emerged as an obvious buyer for the territory. In 1867, after a delay caused by the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward inked a deal to purchase Alaska for the cut-rate price of $7.2 million—the equivalent of just two cents an acre. The deal proved to be a remarkable investment, but it was initially unpopular among American politicians, some of whom took to calling Alaska “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox.”