The Crimean War
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Lord Aberdeen's ministry
The term coalition is one which until the twentieth century had a perfectly clear meaning. It meant not a combination of parties in Parliament in support of a ministry whose members are drawn from the ranks of one party, but the combination in a single ministry of members drawn from the ranks of different parties. The Liberal Government formed by Lord John Russell in 1846 depended upon the support of the Peelites, as the Melbourne ministry before had virtually been established by a compact with O'Connell. Lord Aberdeen's ministry was what they were not, a coalition ministry in the correct sense of the term, because the ministers were drawn from the ranks of two parties, the Peelites and the Liberals.
Its chief, Lord Aberdeen, was a Peelite, so was its Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone. Palmerston was not allowed to return to the Foreign Office but had to be contented with the post of Home Secretary; he was in fact distinctly antagonistic to Aberdeen, who was strongly opposed to assuming anything like an aggressive attitude in foreign affairs. By the not unfamiliar irony of politics Aberdeen was the one minister under whose leadership the British Empire has been involved in a European war since Waterloo. Palmerston's old place was actually taken at first by Lord John Russell. The year 1853 was notable for the first Gladstone budget, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer advanced along the lines of Free Trade.
The Sick Man of Europe
Duties upon some two hundred and seventy articles were either reduced or removed. But in a very short time it became evident that foreign not domestic affairs were to absorb public attention. Early in the year, Nicholas I, the Tsar of Russia, expressed to the British ambassador his conviction that the Turkish Empire was "a very sick man," very near to dissolution. Russia and Britain ought to be agreed upon a policy when that contingency should arise; and if Britain wanted Egypt and Crete for her share he should not object. Britain did not receive the proposal with any favour; she had no desire to see Russia in possession of Constantinople, with an unlimited fleet in the Black Sea ready to pass through the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean whenever it might suit her. She adhered to the policy of maintaining the integrity of the Turkish Empire, a fact which Nicholas failed to grasp. It was evidently his intention to hasten the dissolution which he had persuaded himself to regard as inevitable, and he found his opportunity in the differences between the Greek and Latin Christian Churches in Palestine.
France had a traditional and purely sentimental theory that she was the protector of Latin Christianity in the East; Russia had a traditional and exceedingly practical theory that she was the protector of Christians in general, but particularly those of the Greek Church. Louis Napoleon had just made himself Emperor of the French, and it was necessary for him to justify his position in the eyes of France and of the world by an active assertion of French claims. When Greeks and Latins quarrelled over points of precedence, Nicholas on one side and Napoleon III on the other brought pressure to bear upon the Porte.
[Ed. The author uses the term 'Porte' to refer to the central government of the Ottoman Empire; more specifially the term applies to the foreign ministry of the Ottoman government in its dealings with European powers.]
The Porte tried to satisfy both, and succeeded in pleasing neither, with the result that the Tsar in effect put forward a claim to be formally recognised as the protector over all the Christian subjects of the Porte. The Porte refused the demand, which no sovereign state could possibly have tolerated, whereupon Russian troops crossed the river Pruth and occupied the trans-Danubian principalities. Hostilities were delayed by an attempt on the part of the Western powers to effect a pacification. They addressed a joint note to Russia and Turkey. Russia accepted it, but Turkey pointed out that it might be interpreted as confirming the Tsar's most extravagant demands. The Powers, who had no such intention, thereupon withdrew the note, Turkey demanded the evacuation of the Danubian provinces, Russia did not move, and at the end of October 1853 the two countries were technically at war.
Now after the episode of the "sick man" it was impossible for the British Government to doubt that Russia was bent on her programme of the partition of the Turkish Empire, according to the precedent of the partition of Poland. The Tsar, on the other hand, was comfortably convinced that Britain was wholly given over to commercial pursuits and would, at any rate, stop short of armed intervention, a view which he might not have taken had Palmerston been at the Foreign Office, where Russell's place had been taken by Lord Clarendon, Russell, himself being occupied at the conferences of the Powers. The French Emperor, however, was in hearty co-operation with the British Government, and perhaps rather eager for war than otherwise, since military glory almost a necessity to the imperial successor of the first Napoleon.
War is declared
In October the British and French fleets were ordered to the Bosphorus to protect their national interests; Turkey declared war upon Russia, and the Tsar announced that he was merely holding the trans-Danube principalities as a material guarantee, and would not take the offensive against Turkey. Almost immediately after wards the Russian Black Sea Fleet fell upon and annihilated a Turkish squadron lying in the Turkish harbour of Sinope. Popular indignation in England and France rose high, and Aberdeen was forced to consent to the occupation of the Black Sea by the joint fleets. It can hardly be doubted that the extremely pacific language adopted by the Prime Minister had encouraged the Tsar in the conviction that Great Britain might be relied upon not to declare war.
In the meantime the Turks had crossed the Danube and had achieved some definite successes. In February (1854) France and Britain, who had reason to expect support from Austria but did not wait for her joint action, sent to Russia a demand for the evacuation of the principalities; and the rejection of the demand was followed at the end of March by the declaration of war.
The position seemed to point clearly to an approaching, campaign on the Danube. In that expectation the forces of the allies were conveyed to Varna. The situation, however, was changed by the intervention of Austria, which, although she did not actually declare war, induced Russia to withdraw from the principalities. This was enough for Austria, but not for Britain and France. It was universally felt that the retirement of the Powers would still leave Russia free to choose her own opportunity for striking at Turkey. It was imperative to strike a blow which would enable the Powers to dictate terms giving the necessary security. The strength of the Russians in the Black Sea depended on their position at Sevastopol in the Crimea, and a campaign in the Crimea was resolved upon.
[Ed. Note that the author uses 'Sevastopol' rather than the currently accepted name 'Sebastopol']
Unfortunately it was not anticipated that there would be any necessity for a winter campaign. Had it been possible to carry out the plan at the moment when it was first mooted by Lord Palmerston, in June it is probable that Sevastopol would have fallen at once; but transport difficulties and cholera intervened, and it was not till the second week of September that the French and British forces landed in the Crimea at a point some thirty miles to the north of Sevastopol, in the Bay of Eupatoria. The British, commanded by Lord Raglan, numbered something less than twenty-five thousand men, the French force, under Marshal St. Arnaud, being slightly larger. The advance of the force was blocked by the Russians on the river Alma. After a hard fight, of which the British bore the brunt, the Russians were driven back in rout, but owing to the opposition of the French Marshal the pursuit was not pressed. When the army did advance Lord Raglan again yielded to St Arnaud, and instead of making an immediate attack on the north side of Sevastopol, the allies marched round and took up their position at Balaclava.
For the third time the British yielded to the French, who objected to an immediate attack, and the allies prepared themselves to lay siege to Sevastopol on the southern side, the British lying on the east of the French, and therefore being in the more dangerous position. For the Russian general, Menschikoff, had withdrawn into the interior to secure his communications, not into the fortress, and any attack from him would fall upon the British. His communications with Sevastopol were also open, the allied force not being sufficiently large to effect a complete investment. The delay in attack enabled the Russian, or rather German, engineer, Todleben, to strengthen the defences, a work accomplished with extraordinary skill and rapidity; while the harbour had been protected from the operations of the allied fleet by sinking Russian ships in the entrance. The actual garrison consisted mainly of the sailors from the Russian fleet.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
The general result was that a great bombardment was opened on October 17th and was maintained for a week, but only to prove that Sevastopol would not fall without a prolonged siege. On the 25th the Russians attempted to relieve the fortress by seizing the port of Balaclava, on which the British were dependent for their supplies. The attempt was foiled mainly by the magnificent charge of the Heavy Brigade, which shattered and rolled back an advancing column of Russians of five times their own numbers. But the splendid action of the Heavy Brigade, crowned as it was by triumphant success, has been eclipsed in the minds of men by the famous charge of the Light Brigade, as futile and purposeless as it was heroic. Under a misapprehension of orders received from the general, Lord Lucan, in command of the cavalry, entirely against his own judgment, ordered the Light Brigade of six hundred men to charge through a deadly storm of fire upon a distant Russian battery.
The order was obeyed. The six hundred charged to the guns, carried them, and then the survivors rode back again - "all that was left of them." Ten days later Menschikoff again attacked the British position at Inkermann. The attack was made in the early morning in a thick mist. As a consequence of the conditions the battle resolved itself into one in which groups of soldiers fought independently in detached parties not knowing what was going on in other parts of the field. It was a soldiers' battle, fought and won by the sheer obstinate valour of the men, unaided by tactical skill or science on the part of the officers, for which there was literally no opportunity. By downright valour and discipline the British won and drove off the hosts of the Russians.
After Inkermann the army settled down to the long horrors of the winter siege which have become a proverb. The campaign had been entered upon with no expectation that it would be prolonged through the winter, and with no preparations for that contingency. The home organisation failed disastrously in providing supplies; even those which reached Balaclava in the first instance were destroyed in a gale before they could be disembarked. Those which arrived later could only with extreme difficulty be carried to the front. The criminality of contractors from whom the supplies were obtained made matters infinitely worse. The storm of public indignation which was aroused compelled Aberdeen to resign, and the nation demanded that Palmerston should be called to the position of Prime Minister. Fresh vigour was imparted to the administration; the system was reorganised, and the conditions improved rapidly with the advance of the spring. But perhaps the most notable feature in the improvements was due to the initiative of Miss Florence Nightingale and her heroic staff of nurses, to which has been due the whole new modern conception of the treatment of the sick and wounded in war.
A conference of the Powers was summoned in March; it came to nothing; but, when Sevastopol fell in September, peace negotiations were renewed, and in March 1856 the Powers signed the Treaty of Paris. Even then Britain would hardly have obtained by the treaty the security against Russian aggression for the sake of which she had entered upon the war but for the resolute attitude of Palmerston and Clarendon, who was' still Foreign Secretary. The Emperor of the French had won the military prestige which was more important to him than the curbing of Russia and he was anxious for peace. The Austrian Emperor had owed a good blockades, to be technically recognised, must be actually effective, and privateering was to be abolished.
Apart from the retirement of the Peelites, including Gladstone, when Palmerston's administration was formed, the only political event of domestic importance at this time was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the creation of Life Peerages. Had the attempt been successful, it would have become possible to modify very considerably the character of the House of Lords by introducing an increasing non-hereditary element. Baron Parke was to be raised to the peerage as Lord Wensleydale, but the form of the patent conveyed the peerage for his own life only. The Lords protested; the question was referred to a Committee of Privilege; and it was found that no such form had been used for four hundred years. The Government gave way and the ordinary form was adopted.
Though the war in Europe was brought to an end, two other minor wars were soon engaging a degree of public attention. The Shah of Persia, misled, like other orientals, as to the character of the Crimean War, and by Russian successes which attended it in Asia Minor, imagined that the British power was collapsing and that the Russian star was in the ascendant. Therefore once more he attacked Afghanistan and captured Herat. Lord Auckland's blunder, however, was not repeated; the British came to the aid of Dost Mohammed, and an expedition to the Persian Gulf under the command of Sir James Outram very soon brought the Shah to reason. He retired from Afghanistan, promised not to interfere with it again, and accepted Britain as arbitrator in any dispute which might arise between himself and the Russians. The British action also had the valuable effect of securing the confidence and loyalty of the Amir at Kabul. But the necessity for the Persian expedition was unfortunate, because it withdrew white troops from India at the moment when a grave and unsuspected crisis was impending.
The Opium War
Almost at the same moment the country became involved in complications with China. A collision some years before, arising out of the opium traffic, had resulted in a small war terminated in 1842 by the Treaty of Nankin, under which Hong-Kong had been ceded to the British. In 1856, a Chinese vessel called the Arrow, commanded by an Englishman and flying the British flag, was seized by the Chinese authority at Canton, and her crew were carried off on a charge of piracy. On the doubtful assumption that the Arrow was a British vessel, the Chinese were bound by treaty to hand over the crews to the British authority at Hong-Kong for the investigation of the case. The Chinese refused to do so. Sir John Bowring at Hong-Kong summoned the British squadron to coerce the Chinese. Palmerston supported his action in Parliament, and the hostilities developed into open war.
The high-handed action of the Government was seized upon both by the formal Opposition and by. the advanced Liberals, who disliked Palmerston's aggressiveness, as providing a ground for attacking the ministry. Palmerston, however, appealed to the country, finding his actual position in parliament untenable, and the country returned him to power with a decisive majority. But the operations against China were delayed by the diversion of the expedition to the support of the British Government in India, which in the early summer of 1857 was plunged into the great catastrophe of the Sepoy Mutiny.