The Crimean War

This piece of work about the Crimean War was undertaken by one of our volunteer family researchers, Matt Bury, who is greatly interested in military history. We are very grateful to him for the effort and time taken to produce a synopsis of this important war. It has enabled us to visualize the experience of some of those who are buried in Heene cemetery. Their own stories are linked within this text.

Sue Standing – Chair of Friends of Heene Cemetery

Author and Irishman, Captain James Creagh was awarded both The Turkish Medal and The Crimea Medal with a Sebastopol Clasp during his service with the Royal Scots. Author of  more than 4 books about his life and travels including: ‘A scamper to Sebastopol and Jerusalem’, ‘Over the borders of Eslamiah’, ‘Armenians Koords and Turks’ and his autobiography ‘Sparks and campfires’.

Naval actions in the Crimean War

A map of naval actions in the Crimean War
A map of the naval actions in the Crimean War

Black Sea operations

Naval operations started with the dispatch in mid-1853 of the French and British fleets to the Black Sea in support of the Turkish. By June 1853 both the French and the British fleet had been moored at Besikas Bay, just outside the Dardanelles Strait. When the Russians occupied the Danube Principalities in July, the combined allied fleet moved to the Bosphorus and on the 3rd January 1854, they entered the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, the Russian Black Sea Fleet had been operating against Turkish coastal traffic between Constantinople and the Caucasian ports. To protect their seaborne supply lines, the Turkish fleet sought to draw the Black Sea Fleet into battle. This came on 30th November 1853, when the Black Sea Fleet attacked an Ottoman force in the harbour, at Sinope, and utterly destroyed it.

The battle outraged British public opinion, who were worried what the outcome meant, to the prestige of the Royal Navy. The public clamoured for the British government to declare war. 

Little happened in the Black Sea naval sphere until March 1854 when, after the declaration of war, the British frigate HMS Furious was fired on by forts and batteries at Odessa Harbour.

In retaliation the Anglo-French fleet shelled Odessa causing much damage to the town. To show support for the Turks, after their defeat at the Battle of Sinope, on 22 December 1853, an Anglo-French squadron entered the Black Sea, and the steamship HMS Retribution approached the port of Sebastopol. Its commander was given an ultimatum not to allow any ships into the Black Sea.

In June 1854, the French and British fleets transported the Allied expeditionary forces to Varna in Bulgaria, to support the Turkish operations on the Danube. In September they again transported the armies, this time to Eupatoria, Crimea, for the allied army’s march on Sebastopol.

A painting of the attack on the Fortress of Varna by the Engineers Battalion, 23 September 1828, by Alexander von Sauerweid
A painting of the attack on the Fortress of Varna by the Engineers Battalion, 23 September 1828, by Alexander von Sauerweid, courtesy of Wikipedia.

From August 1855 to November 1856  George Grant Gordon acted as A.D.C. to Gen. Sir James Simpson, commanding the forces in the Crimea.

The Russian fleet then declined to engage the allies, but preferred to maintain its fleet as a shadow, haunting the allied fleets with a constant threat of attack. This strategy failed when Sebastopol, the main port and base of the Black Sea Fleet, was besieged.

The Seige of Sebastopol, painted by George Baxter (1804 - 1867).
The Seige of Sebastopol, painted by George Baxter (1804 – 1867), courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Russians scuttled their warships in the harbour, after stripping them of their cannon and crew, to reinforce their shore fortifications.

During the siege, the Russians lost four 120-gun three-deckers, twelve 84-gun two-deckers, and four 60-gun frigates, in the Black Sea, as well as a large number of smaller coastal vessels.

For the rest of the campaign, the allied fleets were able to retain control of the Black Sea. This ensured that the various fronts were kept supplied.

In May 1855, the allies successfully invaded Kersch (for a second time) and operated against Taganrog in the Sea of Azov.

In September, Kinburn in the estuary of the Dnieper was attacked

The Azov Campaign

In early 1855, the allied commanders decided to send an Anglo-French naval squadron into Kersch on the Azov Sea to undermine Russian communications and supplies to besieged Sebastopol.

The Sea of Azov, and the river Don basin, were crucial for the logistical supply of Sebastopol, which kept it holding out for so long.

On 12th May 1855, Anglo-French warships entered the Kersch Strait, destroying a coastal battery in Kamishevaya Bay.

Once through the Kerch Strait the allied warships attacked anything flying a Russian flag along the Sea of Azov coastline. Russian naval power ceased to exist almost overnight.

This maritime action, led to a significant reduction in supplies reaching besieged Sebastopol, as no town, supply depot, infrastructure building, or fortification was safe from attack. Only Rostov and Azov escaped attack.

On 21st May 1855, gunboats and armed steamers attacked the port of Taganrog, it being an important supply nexus near Rostov-on-Don.

Vast stockpiles of food, particularly bread, wheat, barley, and rye could not be transshipped for use by the Russian armies.

Taganrog was bombarded for 612 hours. Three hundred marines were landed, near the Old Stairway in the centre of Taganrog, but they were repulsed by Cossacks and a local militia.

In July 1855, the allied squadron tried to bypass Taganrog to reach Rostov-on-Don. They did this by by entering the River Don, via the Mius river.

After a local fisherman moved sounding buoys on 12th July 1855, HMS Jasper grounded near Taganrog. The ship was abandoned, beached, and captured intact by Cossacks, who blew it up.

A further attempt at amphibious assault on Taganrog was tried on 19th-31st August 1855.

Due to the previous allied naval threats, and attacks along the coastline, the city was now well fortified, and Russian shore batteries kept the squadron from landing troops.

The allied fleet left the Gulf of Taganrog on 2nd September 1855.

Minor naval operations continued on a small scale along the Azov Sea coastline until late 1855.

The Baltic Theatre

Events elsewhere overshadowed the significance of this theatre, which was close to the Russian capital of the era, Saint Petersburg.

In April 1854, an Anglo-French fleet entered the Baltic to attack the main Russian naval base of Kronstadt, where the Russian Baltic Fleet was stationed. 

In August 1854, the British and French fleet returned to Kronstadt again, for a second attack. The outnumbered, and outgunned Russian Baltic Fleet, confined its manoeuvres to areas under the protection of the cannon of Kronstadt’s fortifications.

Czar Nicholas saw the allied fleet, moored outside St Petersburg, from his Peterhof palace window.

The British and French ships tried to attack the fortified naval base at Kronstadt, but seeing it was too well defended, they went to Sveaborg, and there, won a massive victory. St Petersburg was now threatened.

At the same time, the British and French commanders, Sir Charles Napier, and Alexandre Ferdinand Parseval-Deschenes, (although they commanded the largest fleet assembled since the Wars of Napoleon over 30 years before), considered the fortress at Sveaborg to be too well-defended to engage.

Shelling was limited to two attacks on Russian batteries in 1854 and 1855.

Initially the allied fleets limited their actions to blockading Russian trade in Gulf of Finland. Later naval attacks, in the Gulf of Finland and on other ports, such on the island of Hogland in the Gulf of Finland, proved more successful than sinking coastal traders.

Other maritime raids were conducted on less fortified sections of the Finnish coast (known as the Åland War in Finland.)

The burning of warehouses full of tar, and ships, led to international criticism damning the destruction of ‘civilian’ property.

The British Admiralty were asked by the House of Commons to explain: “a system which carried on a great war by plundering and destroying the property of defenseless villagers”.

The Russian Army in Crimea, was forced to act, without superiority in forces and supplies in this theatre, as the Baltic operations were able to divert attention, supply, and forces, from the area.

In August 1854, a Franco-British naval force stormed and destroyed the Russian Bomarsund fortress, on the Åland Islands.

In the August 1855, the Western Allied Baltic Fleet tried to destroy, by naval gunfire, the Russian dockyard at Sveaborg, Helsinki. Over a thousand enemy guns, firing 20,000 shells, bombarded the fortress and dockyard for two days, but the heroic crew of the 120-gun ship Rossiya, commanded by Captain Viktor Poplonsky, successfully defended the harbour entrance.

The Allies were defeated and retreated to build a huge new fleet of more than 350 gunboats and mortar ketches. This was known as the Great Armament, but it was in vain, as the war ended before it was deployed.

Part of the Russian defenses were made up of new technology- ‘blockade’ and ‘torpedo’ mines. Immanuel Nobel (father of Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite and the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize), helped the Russians by applying his knowledge of industrial explosives, such as nitroglycerine, and gunpowder, to the creation of mine barrages, around Kronstadt and Sebastopol

In 1856, the British and French planned to attack Kronstadt again, by using armoured floating batteries. Their use had been proved to be highly effective, in the attack on the sea fortress of Kinburn, in the Black Sea in 1855.

Such a threat to their main naval base, contributed partially, to the Russians decision to conclude peace unfavourable, at the Congress of Paris.

The White Sea

In late 1854, a three-ship British squadron, led by HMS Miranda, left the Baltic for the White Sea.

The three ships (Miranda, Eurydice and Brisk), ineffectually attacked the fortress-monastery on the Solvetsky Islands.

They then bombarded Novitska.

They had more success at Kola, which they shelled and then landed marines.

HMS Miranda bombarding the town of Kola on August 24th 1854, printed in the London Illustrated News on 7th October 1854, courtesy of Wikipedia.
HMS Miranda bombarding the town of Kola on August 24th 1854, printed in the London Illustrated News on 7th October 1854, courtesy of Wikipedia.

These were able to destroy some Russian batteries, warehouses and stores before being repulsed.

The Pacific Theatre

Some minor naval skirmishes also occurred in the Far East. 

On the Kamchatka Peninsula, at Petropavlovsk, a British and French Allied squadron, including HMS Pique, commanded by Rear Admiral David Price, and a French force under contre-amiral (Rear Admiral) Auguste Febvrier Despointes, attacked a smaller Russian force, under Rear Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin.

In September 1854, an Allied landing force at Petropavlovsk, was beaten back, with heavy casualties causing the allies to withdraw.

After qualifying in 1855, William Allingham volunteered as a surgeon in the Crimean War. he was in time to be present at the siege of Sebastopol and to see a vast amount of practical surgery in the most arduous circumstances at the hospitals at Scutari. 

The Russian victory at Petropavlovsk was: “a ray of light among the dark clouds”.

The Russians retreated successfully, under the cover of snow, in the Spring of 1855, after larger Allied reinforcements started to arrive in the region.

Anglo-French forces in the Far East, also made several small landings on Urup, the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.

Edward McLaughlin was sent to the Crimea in February 1856. ‘Immediately after the Treaty of Paris was signed on March 30 he returned to England. That started his reputation for having the knack of setting off to war only to arrive when the battles were over.’

The Silver Star of Bethlehem

The silver star of Bethlehem, was the catalyst that started the Crimean War; a war which would bring down a British government, lead to sweeping medical reforms, and the inception of the Victoria Cross.

It was also the first war to have photography, and war correspondents, and brought us the Balaklava helmet, and the Cardigan Jumper.

A map of the Battle of Balaclava, 25th October 1854
A map of the Battle of Balaclava, 25th October 1854, courtesy of Rebel Redcoat on Wikipedia.

Count Leo Tolstoy, as a 26-year-old artillery officer, would use his experiences at Sebastopol to write ‘War and Peace.’

The Silver Star, resides in a grotto, underneath the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. It marks the location where Jesus was born. The upper church is in the care of the Greek Orthodox Church, along with most of the grotto. Latin-rite Catholics, under Franciscan leadership, control another part of the grotto (not the site of Jesus’ birth.)  Instead, their section of the cave is where the manger is located.

Besides Roman Catholics, Armenian Apostolici, also have custody of parts of the church.

The grotto where Jesus was born contains fifteen silver lamps, which serve to represent the three groups: six lamps for the Greeks, four for Catholics and five for the Armenians.

The different religious groups, did not peacefully co-exist. Tensions had been simmering since 1717 when the Silver Star was placed in the Greek portion of the grotto. Due to the fact that the Star was inscribed with Latin text, it became a source of friction, it being prised up and stolen in 1847, an act for which the Greeks were blamed.

The Turkish Sultan, whose Ottoman empire encompassed Bethlehem, established a commission to examine French claims that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, should have joint control over the Holy Places – this led to uproar in Russia.

In February 1850, the Turks sent a diplomatic note to the French, giving two keys for the great door of the Church of the Nativity to representatives of the Catholic Church. At the same time, the Porte sent a firman [decree], giving secret assurances to the Orthodox Church, that the French keys would not fit the lock.

Despite this, by the end of 1852, the French had seized control of the Holy Places: an act seen by Russia as a challenge to their prestige and policy.

Nicholas I also saw Turkey ‘falling under foreign control’. He wanted Russia to have control over the Near East, with the acquiescence of the western powers (particularly Britain), so that Russian expansion could take place peacefully.

Nicholas thought that this would be easy to achieve since the British Prime minister, the Earl of Aberdeen, was a Tory Russophile.

The Victoria Cross

Prior to the Crimean War, there was no official, standardized system for recognition of gallantry, within the British Armed Forces.

Officers could be awarded one of the junior grades of the Order of the Bath, and brevet promotions, while a Mention in Despatches existed as an alternative award, for lesser acts of gallantry.

In practice, awards of the Order of the Bath, were confined to officers of field rank (usually Major and above), and brevet [field] promotions, or Mentions in Despatches (MiD), were generally confined to members of a commanders’ own staff.

Many reported acts of bravery, by NCOs and Enlisted Men, hitherto were unrecognised and unrewarded.

After the outbreak of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria instructed the War Office to: ‘strike a new medal that would not recognise birth or class.’

The medal was meant to be a simple decoration, that would be highly prized, and eagerly sought after, by those in the armed forces. 

To maintain its simplicity, Queen Victoria (under the guidance of her consort Prince Albert), vetoed the suggestion that the award be called The Military Order of Victoria, herself suggesting the name Victoria Cross.

The Victoria Cross, first introduced on 29 January 1856 to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War.
The Victoria Cross, first introduced on 29 January 1856 to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War.

The original warrant stated that, the Victoria Cross would only be awarded to officers and men who had served in the presence of the enemy, and had performed some signal act of valour, or devotion. The first ceremony was held on 26 June 1857, at which Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients, in a ceremony in Hyde Park, London.

A single company of jewellers, Hancocks & Co., has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded, since its inception.

It has long been widely believed, that all the VCs were cast in bronze from the cascabels (a knob on the rear of a cannons barrel for attaching recoil ropes), of two cannon, that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol (two such cannons are used as gateposts, at the entrance to Brighton station.)

Metal from Chinese cannon, captured in the First Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion, has also been used in forging the medals (particularly those dating from December 1914 onwards.)

The Great Powers, and the lead up to the Crimean War

By the mid-19th century, much of continental Europe was run by Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey.

By 1854, Britain was a European power. The inception of the Industrial Revolution, and the invention of the railway, had propelled it forward, as a leading global power too. Its government was a shaky constitution of Liberals and Conservatives, lead by George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (Lord Aberdeen) as Prime Minister.

Britain had not fought a major war since defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Its conduct in the Napoleonic Wars had added strength to its contemporary foreign policy dealings; Britain’s help in subsidising anti-Napoleonic allies, meant she was seen as peacemaker, and an honest broker, on the international stage. Nelsons famous victory at Trafalgar, in October 1805, had cemented Britannia as ruler of the waves.

Britain was the only country committed to free trade. Most of her foreign policy was geared towards opening up overseas markets, to sell her own manufactured goods to. ‘Liberated’ countries would then be bound into free-trade monopolies. Free trade was a Liberal idea, vehemently opposed by landowning Tories, who saw the free import of grain a massive threat devaluing the land they owned.

The Russian grain trade was of interest to Britain, with Russian expansion, being seen as a great obstacle to world trade. Russia’s refusal to consider free-trade, forced Britain to back Turkish grain exports, thus bullying the weaker Turkey into a free trade-treaty.

The opening of Danube delta, for eastern European grain exports, was one of key diplomatic objectives for fighting the Crimean War.

After Britain, France was the biggest independent state in Europe. The Revolution of 1848 had overthrown the Orleans monarchy. Russia and Austria considered France to be a danger to the ‘established order.’ France was eager to fight Russia and avenge its defeat of 1812. Napoleon III saw Russia as a threat to his vision of a Europe of independent states. Napoleon III had weak domestic support, so courted the powerful Roman Catholic church, by sending gunboats to Constantinople, using sabre-rattling to get more privileges for Roman Catholics in the Holy Land.

The Russian, Tsar Nicholas I, was known as the ‘iron tsar’, as he believed fervently in three principles of government: autocracy, religious orthodoxy and russification of conquered lands. Nicholas I, believed the collapse of Turkey was both imminent and desirable. In 1783, Russia had captured the Crimea from Turkey.

Ottoman Turkey had been gradually shrinking since 1683. Many European powers saw ailing Turkey’s Balkan states, as areas where they could now exert influence and gain power.

In the Spring of 1853, after France had used its gunboats to get concessions from the Sultan, Tsar Nicholas sent Prince Menshikov to demand that Turkey sign a new treaty, formalising Russia’s protectorate over all Christian subjects in Turkish lands, (which concomitantly would allow Russia to intervene on Turkish soil.) The Sultan and his advisors were encouraged to resist by the French, who sent a fleet from Toulon to the Mediterranean, as a gesture of support. The Turkish refused the new treaty, and envoy Prince Menshikov stormed out on 21st May 1853.

On 31st May, the Tsar sent an ultimatum to Turkey, saying he would invade the semi-autonomous regions of Moldavia and Wallachia. The Russians real aim was to take Constantinople, due to its access to open seas, particularly the Mediterranean.

Russia’s threat to Turkey produced a split between British pacifist Tories and bellicose Liberals. Conservatives (such as PM Lord Aberdeen) saw Russia as a friend. Neither the court of Queen Victoria and Consort Prince Albert, or the Tories, liked the ‘revolutionary’ Napoleon III. The Conservative ministers thought Turkey and France were deliberately provoking Russia to make Britain go to war. When Home Secretary Palmerston learned of Russia’s ultimatum to Turkey, he urged a British counter-ultimatum. Premier Lord Aberdeen refused, but the Royal Navy was sent to the Dardanelles to bolster the French forces there, and support Turkey.

Henry Glover Puckle’s military experiences were varied for at the outbreak of the Crimean War he volunteered for active service, and was three times requested to hold himself in readiness for the front but was finally sent to India instead.

The Russian occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia, did not immediately provoke war, but other Great Powers, (Austria, Prussia, France, and Britain), did try to get Turkey to appease Russia. The Popular press mocked the British government for its pacifism in the face of Russian aggression. Russia’s help for Austria, in suppressing the Hungarian uprising, was seen as a more serious issue than the Waterloo campaign, or the Greek War of Independence, had been. Liberal voices called for strong action against Russia.

On 4th October 1853, the Turkish sent a counter-ultimatum to Russia to get out of Ottoman land. Britain did not know of this and sent its fleet, in the wake of the French fleet, on to Constantinople. Emboldened by the arrival of both friendly fleets, the Turks declared war on Russia on 18th October 1854.

A series of initial battles along the Danube, showed that the Turkish army of the ailing Ottoman Empire, to be a lot tougher proposition, than Russia first thought. The Turks saw the War as a jihad against infidel Russia.

A painting of the Russian destruction of the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853, by Ivan Aivazovsky
A painting of the Russian destruction of the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853, by Ivan Aivazovsky, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Six weeks later, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet destroyed most of the Turkish fleet at Sinope in the Black Sea, utilising explosive shells, for the first time, in naval warfare. The battle, though successful, was a Russian miscalculation. It tipped Britain over the edge into war, as it was overly protective of the premiere status of the Royal Navy. Austria also distanced itself from Russia.

In an hour and a half, the action was decided, and if Admiral Nakhminov had ceased his fire, there would have been no stain on his credit. But he kept up a merciless fire of shot and shell, which killed numbers of unresisting men. He did not cease fire til every Turkish ship, save one, was a stranded wreck . . . We found above 100 wounded in every stage of suffering, some in agony, many of them disfigured by explosions.

Adolphus Slade (British officer attached to the Turkish fleet)

In the face of a Royal Navy threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, it withdrew to its base at Sebastopol. Britain and France declared war on Russia, at the end of March.

Thus, two Christian countries were fighting to defend the Muslim occupation, of a Christian church in Constantinople from a crusading Orthodox Christian Russia.

Researcher: Matt Bury