The Crimean War, one of history's most compelling subjects, encompassed human suffering, woeful leadership and misadministration on a grand scale. It created a heroic myth out of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade and, in Florence Nightingale, it produced one of history's great heroes. The war was a watershed in world history and pointed the way to what mass warfare would be like in the twentieth century. New weapons were introduced; trench combat became a fact of daily warfare outside Sebastopol; medical innovation saved countless soldiers' lives that would otherwise have been lost. Ultimately, by failing to solve the Eastern Question, the war paved the way for the greater conflagration which broke out in 1914 and greatly prefigured the current situation in Eastern Europe.
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About the Author
Trevor Royle is Associate Editor of the Sunday Herald and a regular commentator on international affairs for BBC radio.
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The Great Crimean War 1854â"1856
By Trevor Royle
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2000 Trevor Royle
All rights reserved.
A Churchwardens' Quarrel
We should deeply regret any dispute that might lead to conflict between two of the great Powers of Europe; but when we reflect that the quarrel is for exclusive privileges in a spot near which the heavenly host proclaimed peace on earth and good-will towards men – when we see rival churches contending for mastery in the very place where Christ died for mankind – the thought of such a spectacle is melancholy indeed!
Lord Malmesbury, Britain's Foreign Secretary, 1852
The spark to the tinderbox was the key to the main door of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. By tradition, history, and a common usage which had been built up over the centuries, the great key was in the possession of the monks of the eastern, or Greek Orthodox, branch of the Christian church; they were the guardians of the grotto in which lay the sacred manger where Christ himself was thought to have been born. That state of affairs was contested with equal fervour by their great rivals, the monks of the Roman Catholic, or Latin, church who had been palmed off with the keys to the lesser inner doors to the narthex (the vestibule between the porch and the nave). There was also the question of whether or not a silver star adorned with the arms of France should be permitted to stand in the Sanctuary of the Nativity, but in the spring of 1852 the rivals' paramount thoughts were concentrated on the possession of the great key to the church's main west door.
'Is it true,' asked the antiquarian Alexander William Kinglake, who wrote the first history of the Crimean war, 'that for this cause armies were gathering, and that for the sake of the key and the silver star, the peace of the nations was brought into danger?'
The short answer was, yes. There were of course other more pressing strategic reasons caused mainly by the impending demise of the Ottoman Empire, and the differing attitudes of the main European powers towards the problem; but they might have been settled diplomatically had it not been for the confrontation between France and Russia over the guardianship of Palestine's Holy Places.
It was an argument which had its origins in the history of the early Christian church. For centuries the sacred places of the Holy Land had been objects of intense Christian devotion. Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem were magnets for pilgrims from all over Europe anxious to seek pardon for sins or simply to add a further spiritual dimension to their lives. To them these names were not just places of veneration but living reminders of an age when Jesus Christ walked amongst mankind. To visit Jerusalem was to see the bible come alive. In the Old City stood the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the house of Caiaphas where Jesus was brought after his arrest. Outside the walls could be found the path to Bethany over the Mount of Olives where the crowd strewed olive branches and shouted 'Hosanna!' There were also equally sonorous memorials to the faiths of Judaism and Islam, reminders that Jerusalem and Palestine are home to several religions. Indeed, bloody wars had been fought by the Christian powers to protect their holy places from the influence of Islam and to restore them to Christian rule.
During the period of the crusades great battles were waged between Christians and 'infidels' and by the end of the eleventh century the Holy Land had become a kind of European Christian province. Unfortunately the piety and grace which fuelled those clashes could not keep the Christians from quarrelling amongst themselves. Ever since the long decline of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries the church had split into two rival communions. The Emperor Constantine's decision to move the seat of his power to Byzantium in AD330 had created two patriarchs, one in the east and the other in Rome in the west. They soon became rivals, but in 1054 the split became much wider when the Bishop of Rome excommunicated his counterpart in the east, thereby creating an eastern or Greek communion under the Patriarch of Constantinople and a western or Latin church which looked to the leadership of the Pope.
It was not just a spiritual divide: following the loss of Jerusalem in 1204 the crusaders turned their wrath on the eastern church and sacked Constantinople. Within a hundred years the Holy Land had been lost and the enmity between the two churches increased. In 1453 the schism was made complete when Byzantium, or Constantinople, fell to the Islamic Turks to give their Ottoman Empire a gateway to Europe. However, to begin with, the new regime tolerated the Eastern Church which not only prospered but grew in faith and set about converting the inhabitants of the great Russian land mass to the north.
Soon Russia was to emerge as the strongest of the Orthodox communions; successive tsars considered themselves to be the rightful protectors of the holy places of Palestine and they took a dim view of the Latins' pretensions which had the backing of France. (In 1520 Francis I had accepted that responsibility following his meeting with King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.) Not only had Russian money maintained the shrines for many centuries while they were under the control of the Ottoman Empire but countless thousands of Russians had been Palestine's most devout pilgrims. Kinglake wrote:
When the Emperor of Russia sought to gain or to keep for his Church the holy shrines of Palestine, he spoke on behalf of fifty millions of brave, pious, devoted subjects, of whom thousands for the sake of the cause would joyfully risk their lives. From the serf in his hut, even up to the great Tsar himself, the faith professed was the faith really glowing in his heart, and violently swaying the will.
Kinglake had a good understanding of the problem. He had visited the Holy Land in 1834 and as a result had written Eothen, a lively and disinterested account of his travels and the people he met. To him the Russians were intensely pious pilgrims who had made the long and dangerous journey from their homelands over the Caucasus mountains and on through the wastes of Kurdistan and Syria into Palestine. This holy enterprise was the culmination of a life well spent – whatever the cost in material terms, for many did not return and others used up their life savings simply to tell their neighbours that they had worshipped at the spot were Christ was born or at the stone on which his crucified body was washed and anointed in preparation for burial in the tomb.
On the other hand, and in stark contrast, the standard French pilgrim seemed to be a johnny-come-lately, 'a mere [French] tourist, with a journal and a theory, and a plan of writing a book'. During the years of the Bourbons the kings of France had taken a great interest in the Holy Land and had been pleased to count themselves as the protectors of the Latin monks. The last intervention had come in 1740 when King Louis XV had obtained from the Sultan of Turkey an agreement whose capitulations confirmed the rights of the Latin church in Palestine. One hundred years later, though, the effects of the French Revolution and the early nineteenth-century Enlightenment had encouraged a more secular attitude to religious affairs and French (and other western European) visitors to the holy places did not always behave with the decorum expected of evangelists. Amongst their number was Richard Curzon, a British member of Parliament and notorious plunderer of Byzantine religious remains, who had witnessed the annual Good Friday celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1834 when the Christian miracle of light from heaven was re-enacted:
The behaviour of the pilgrims was riotous in the extreme; the crowd was so great that many persons actually crawled over the heads of others, and some made pyramids of men by standing on each other's shoulders, as I have seen them do at Astley's ... At one time, before the church was so full, they made a racecourse round the sepulchre; and some, almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed.
Altogether it was a scene of disorder and profanation, which it is impossible to describe.
In this case, though, the pilgrims' 'screams and tumult' quickly developed into a riot in which several hundred worshippers died or were killed by panicking Turkish soldiers. While the catastrophe was 'a fearful visitation' at a time when Christ's resurrection was being celebrated, Curzon also noted that the so-called miracle was an 'evident absurdity' perpetrated by the monks who 'for the purposes of worldly gain, had deluded their ignorant followers with the performance of a trick in relighting the candles, which had been extinguished on Good Friday, with fire which they affirmed had been sent down from heaven in answer to their prayers'.
In addition to the religious impetuosity witnessed by Curzon, the monks themselves often had skirmishes, fighting not just with fists but also with candlesticks and other solemn artefacts. If the wrangling had been left to the occasional brawl all might have been well but unfortunately both the tsar and the new emperor of France took a keen interest in the dispute and were determined to solve it to the satisfaction of their co-religionists. The eastern and the western churches might have been separated by a thousand miles but in 1852 they found their point of conflict within the confined space of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Nicholas I had both temporal and spiritual reasons for wanting to extend his protection of the eastern church within the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon III's were rather different. Having dismissed the French parliament he needed all the support he could get, most especially from the Roman Catholics, before he could declare himself emperor. It suited him therefore to have France play a greater role in Palestine and 'to put an end to these deplorable and too-frequent quarrels about the possession of the Holy Places'. To that end the Marquis de Lavalette, his ambassador to the Porte – or the Sublime Porte, the court or government of the Ottoman Empire – insisted that the Turks honour the agreement made in 1740 which confirmed that France had 'sovereign authority' in the Holy Land. Otherwise, hinted de Lavalette, force might have to be used.
On 9 February 1852 the Porte agreed the validity of the Latin claims but no sooner had the concession been made than the Turks were forced to bow once more, this time to Russian counter-claims. Basing his argument on an agreement, or firman, of 1757 which restored Greek rights in Palestine and on the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainarji (1774) which gave Russia protection of the Christian religion within the Ottoman Empire, Nicholas's ambassador succeeded in getting a new firman ratifying the privileges of the Greek Church. This revoked the agreement made to the French who responded by backing up their demands with a show of force.
Later that summer, much to Nicholas's fury and to Britain's irritation, Napoleon III ordered the 90-gun steam-powered battleship Charlemagne to sail through the Dardanelles. This was a clear violation of the London Convention of 1841 which kept the Straits closed to naval vessels, but it also provided a telling demonstration of French sea power. It was nothing less than gunboat diplomacy and it seemed to work. Impressed by the speed and strength of the French warship, and persuaded by French diplomacy and money, Sultan Abd-el-Medjid listened ever more intently to the French demands. At the beginning of December he gave orders that the keys to the Church of the Nativity were to be surrendered to the Latins and that the French-backed church was to have supreme authority over the Holy Places. On 22 December a new silver star was brought from Jaffa and as Kinglake wrote, in great state 'the keys of the great door of the church, together with the keys of the sacred manger, were handed over to the Latins'.
Napoleon III had scored a considerable diplomatic victory. His subjects were much gratified, but in so doing he had also prepared the ground for a much greater and more dangerous confrontation. Given the strength of Russian religious convictions Tsar Nicholas was unwilling to accept the Sultan's decision – which he regarded as an affront not just to him but to the millions of Orthodox Christians under his protection – and he was determined to have it reversed, if need be by using force himself.
Russia and Turkey were no strangers to discord: there had been numerous armed confrontations between the two countries since they first clashed over possession of Astrakhan in 1569. Under the rule of Peter the Great there had been a long-running war over the steppe lands of the Ukraine and access to the Black Sea, and the early years of the nineteenth century had seen Russia attempting to take advantage of Ottoman decline by expanding her own imperial holdings. In 1828 Russia supported the Greeks in their war of independence and used it as a pretext for further military operations in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Although the Turkish army was no pushover, major defeats at Akhalzoc and Kulrucha forced them to sue for peace and, at the resultant Treaty of Adrianople in 1829, Russia was granted Ottoman territory in the Caucasus and at the mouth of the Danube in Bessarabia.
Having used the mailed fist in the past, Russia could see no reason for not using it again in 1853. The Russian 4th and 5th Army Corps were mobilised on the border with the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia and the veteran Russian chancellor and head of the foreign ministry, Count Nesselrode, issued a warning that his country could not 'swallow the insult which she has received from the Porte ... vis pacem, para bellum!' ('If you wish for peace, prepare for war.') At the same time he laid plans to outwit France on the diplomatic front, first by weakening her influence at the Porte and, second, by courting the support of Britain, at that time Turkey's principal European ally.
With his lengthy experience of European diplomacy – he had served in the Paris embassy before 1812 and had been first secretary of state at the foreign ministry since 1816 and chancellor since 1845 – Nesselrode was well aware of the influence exerted by the French ambassador at the Porte, the Marquis de Lavalette, whom he suspected of bribing the Sultan's Grand Vizier, Mehemet Ali, and the Turkish foreign minister, Fuad Effendi (later Pasha). This supposition was not ill-founded. France enjoyed healthy trading links with the Ottoman Empire and had, therefore, a vested interest in retaining their diplomatic primacy at the Porte; but as Nesselrode told Seymour, the British ambassador at St Petersburg, this did not mean that Russia could meekly accept the situation. As Seymour reported, quoting Nesselrode verbatim:
[The row over the Holy Places] had assumed a new character – that the acts of injustice towards the Greek church which it had been desired to prevent had been perpetrated and consequently that now the object must be to find a remedy for these wrongs. That the success of French negotiations at Constantinople was to be ascribed solely to intrigue and violence – violence which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio of kings, being, it had been seen, the means which the present Ruler of France was in the habit of employing in the first instance.
Under those circumstances Nesselrode also warned that Nicholas would use whatever means at his disposal to reverse the decision, and that the armies had been mobilised to reinforce Russian diplomacy. Even at that early stage the Russian chancellor believed that, unless France backed down, war was inevitable. In a remarkably prescient letter written to Brunnov, his ambassador in London, on 2 January 1853, he forecast that France was forcing a confrontation and that in the conflict Russia would 'face the whole world alone and without allies, because Prussia will be of no account and indifferent to the question, and Austria will be more or less neutral, if not favourable to the Porte'. Moreover, Britain would side with France to exert its superior naval strength, 'the theatre being distant, other than soldiers to be employed as a landing force, it will require mainly ships to open to us the Straits of Constantinople [the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the Bosplate and the Dardanelles], and the united naval forces of Turkey, England and France will make quick work of the Russian fleet.'
Excerpted from Crimea by Trevor Royle. Copyright © 2000 Trevor Royle. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
Preface * Prologue: 1851 * Part I * A Churchwardens' Quarrel * Menshikov's Mission * Getting into Deep Waters * The Thousand and One Notes * Phoney War * The Affair at Sinope * Drifting Towards War * "Our Beautiful Guards" * Uneasy Partners * Opening Shots * Varna Interlude * Hurrah for the Crimea! * Part II * Advance to Contact * The Alma: The Infantry Will Advance * Missed Opportunities * Ladies with Lamps * Balaklava: A Cavalryman's Battle * Inkerman: An Infantryman's Battle * Arrival of General Winter * Muddle in Washington, Progress in Vienna * "Pam Enters the Fray" * Spring Stalemate * Todleben's Triumph * Spring Cruise, Summer Success * Trench Warfare: Massacre in the Redoubts * Sebastopol Falls * The Forgotten War: Kars and Erzerum * A Second Winter * Part III * Peace Feelers * Tying Up Some Loose Ends * Peacetime in Paris * The New World Order * Learning the Lessons the Hard Way * Epilogue: 1914