Monday, March 17, 2014

The Crimean War Pt.1 (Causes) - Alison Stuart

The Crimean Peninsula has been (and sadly will continue to be) much in the news lately, evoking memories of another war fought over the same piece of land in the 1850s. By way of word association someone asked me what the Crimean War of the 1850s had been about - and I am ashamed to admit I didn't know the answer!

The Charge of the Light Brigade 25 Oct 1854 - Battle of Balaclava
The Russians are coming…” A cry that garnered such fear in the inhabitants of the far off British Colony of Victoria that they felt compelled to build heavy fortifications to guard the entrance to Port Phillip Bay and the Yarra River. Fort Queenscliff and Fort Gellibrand both survive today and have been (and continue to be) active military installations well into this century.

The Crimean War is so entrenched in our historical psyche but why did the Colony of Victoria build its fortifications? Why did the Gallant 500 gallop into the Valley of Death? What caused Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole to set up hospitals for the wounded?

What surprised me when I started to read on the subject, that it was a religious war based on the struggle for control of the Christians living within the Ottoman Empire, mixed, of course, with a good dose of Franco/British/Austro-Hungarian/Russian imperialism. This was, after all, the age of Empires.

The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire (ruled from Constantinople/Istanbul) had dominated Eastern Europe since the 13th century. At its height in the 16th and 17th century it controlled the Middle East, Greece and up as far a Hungary and its range of territory included the ‘Khanate of Crimea’. Although the Ukraine (of which the Crimea was a part) remained under the control of the fierce warlike Tartars and Cossacks, the Ottoman Empire saw the Ukraine as a useful buffer against Russia. 

With the rise of imperialism in the 18th century, Russia moved southwards. Its goal was a ‘warm water’ port on the Black Sea which would be capable of being used all year round, unlike its northern ports which froze over in winter. By the end of the 18th Century Russia had annexed the Crimean Khanate.

Tsar Nicholas I
Like all good Empires by the 19th century the Ottoman Empire had begun to stagnate and had become increasingly reliant on Western Europe financially. The Christian population within the Empire had gained power and control and the ‘sick man of Europe’ as Tsar Nicholas I called it, came head to head with an expansionist Russia which saw itself as the protector of the orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire. This brought it into direct conflict with France and its advocation of the Catholic faith. 

Napoleon III of France
In the early 1850s Emperor Napoleon III of France embarked on a scheme intended to emulate that of his namesake Napoleon I and restore French grandeur. In effect it was a holy crusade to save the Christians of the failing Ottoman Empire from the scourge of the Orthodox religion and convert them to the true faith (Catholocism). He sent the Marquis la Valette as an envoy to the Ottoman Empire (the ‘Porte’) with the demand that it recognise France as the sovereign authority over the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire. Russia intervened arguing that it had sovereign authority over the Orthodox Christians of the Empire.

France responded by sending a warship into the Black Sea, an act of war.The Charlemagne would outrun and outgun any ship in the fleets of the Empire or the Russians and the Ottomans responded by agreeing to a treaty acknowledging France and the Roman Catholic Church as the supreme Christian authority with control over the Roman Catholic holy places. Symbolically this included possession of the keys to the Church of the Nativity, previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Tsar Nicholas responded by entering into diplomatic negotiations with Britain, while at the same time deploying his troops along the Danube River. The Russians hoped to court Britain over to its side in the escalating dispute with France over control of what it called “The Holy Places”, the sites in Palestine visited by Christian pilgrims of the eastern and western religions. 

Britain had a long standing policy of maintaining the status quo of the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas was looking for control of the Near East with the imprimatur of the major powers and saw Britain as being key to gaining that imprimatur. 

Alexander Sergeyevich Menschikov
In 1853 Tsar Nicholas sent one of his closest advisors Prince Menshikov (later to become Commander in Chief of the Russian forces) to the Porte (the court of the Ottoman Empire) with instructions to negotiate a new treaty allowing Russia the same rights to interfere with the affairs of the Orthodox Christians as had been granted to the French with respect to the Catholics. As the Orthodox Christians greatly outnumbered the western Christians, this would give Russia incredible power within the Ottoman Empire.

Menshikov arrived in Istanbul (Constaninople) in January 1853 aboard a heavily armed gun ship, The Thunderer. His arrogant, high handed and insulting attitude toward the Ottoman court was met with dismay by the Turks. Meanwhile the British Charge d’affaires, Hugh Rose, had been conducting covert intelligence operations and alerted his superiors to the extensive Russian troop movements along the Danube. 

Menshikov returned to St. Petersburg to report his failure to gain the agreement of the Turks to Russia’s demands. Nicholas responded by ordering the invasion of the Turkish States of Moldavia and Wollachia. His intention was not so much to start a war as to bully the Turks into agreeing to the Russian demands. He badly misjudged the British and the French who he viewed as natural enemies of each other and unlikely to interfere. What he did stirred a hornet’s nest. France saw the action as a direct threat, Britain was concerned that Russia’s actions posed a direct threat to the stability of the area and was in contravention of its own policy of protecting the status quo of the Ottoman Empire. Austro-Hungary saw the Russian troop presence in the Danube as posing a direct threat of invasion into its territory and the Prussians started to mobilize as a result of the destabilisation of Austro-Hungary, fearing a threat to its own confederated States. 

Sultan Abdülmecid I 
The 4 powers met at Vienna and drafted a compromise which was put to Russia and Turkey. The note stated that the Czar should evacuate Moldavia and Wallachia but that Russia, as the protector of the Orthodox Church, should have nominal protection of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and of the Holy Places. Russia accepted the terms and began to withdraw from Moldavia and Wollachia but the Sultan felt the wording was too ambiguous and in October 1853 Sultan Abdülmecid I declared war on Russia.

The Russians and Turks massed troops along the Danube and in the Caucusus and the Ottoman forces enjoyed some early victories but at sea Russian ships destroyed a fleet of Turkish ships at anchor off the coast of Anatolia. This action gave both Britain and France the case for war. Still the British government hesitated. To not go to Turkey’s aid meant giving Russia the power to expand unchecked and to help Turkey meant war. By Christmas 1853 war fever raged through the British Government and in March 1854 Britain and France jointly declared war on Russia not so much as to protect Turkey, as to prevent Russian expansionism.

Russia had completely misjudged Britain and the “Crimean War” began with an allied landing at Varma in June 1854, deploying in September 1854 to the Crimean peninsula. 

And what reason did the far off colony of Australia have to fear the Russians expansionist ambitions?

Russia had a major sea port on its Eastern Coast - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. In August 1854, Anglo-French forces laid siege to the town. The town did not fall and the siege only lasted 10 days before the allies withdrew, leaving the British colonies in the Pacific in fear of attack from the Russians, which fortunately never eventuated!

The "Right Battery" Fort Gellibrand, Williamstown, Victoria - Australia

For more information please visit VICTORIAN WEB (which is a great resource!) and watch this space for the next installment in the history of the Crimean War. 

(ALISON STUART is an award winning Australian writer of cross genre historicals with heart.  Whether duelling with dashing cavaliers or wayward ghosts, her books provide a reader with a meaty plot and characters who have to strive against adversity, always with the promise of happiness together.  Her latest book CLAIMING THE REBEL'S HEART is a historical romance set in the English Civil War. Her May release LORD SOMERTON'S HEIR, is a Regency romantic suspense)