The Crimean War (1853–1856) was fought between Imperial Russia on one side and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula, with additional actions occurring in western Turkey, and the Baltic Sea region. The Crimean War is sometimes considered to be the first "modern" conflict and "introduced technical changes which affected the future course of warfare.



In the years between 1854 and 1856 Britain fought its only European war between the ending of the Napoleonic conflict in 1815 and the opening of the Great War in 1914. Although eventually victorious this was a hard war fought with little skill and filled with great loss. Indeed the Crimean War became infamously known for military and logistical incompetence perhaps most aptly epitomised by the near annihilation of the British Light Brigade. Arguably the only bright light in this sorry tale was the work of Florence Nightingale a nurse who almost single-handedly drastically cut mortality rates for the British wounded. The Crimean War had begun as a quarrel between Russian Orthodox monks and French Catholics over who had precedence at the holy sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth but soon turned into a full scale Clash of the Empires.



 Crimean War documentary 1853-1856




 The Charge of the Light Brigade





 Hear a recording of a soldier of the Crimean War !

 Trumpeter Landfrey's Charge of the Light Brigade, recorded 1890. Landfrey was a bugler in the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 25, 1854, of the Crimean War. On this recording Landfrey plays a trumpet that was used at the Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815 .



Sevastopol Sketches Audiobook (Russian: Севастопольские рассказы, Sevastopolskiye rasskazy) are three short stories written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1855 to record his experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855) in the Crimean War .



 Documentary about Florence Nightingale. It tackles her legacy with both positive and negative interpretations.

Bulgarian summer

Captain Bernard, 5th Dragoon Guards

In the early summer of 1854, the Russians were still occupying Moldavia and Wallachia and threatening Turkish positions along the Danube, especially the fortress of Silistria on its southern bank. If this fell and enemy troops poured into the Balkans, the allies would need to bolster the Turks in Bulgaria; hence the advance to Varna. But before Raglan left England, Newcastle had instructed him that, although his 'first duty' was to protect Constantinople, if the enemy made no 'onward movement it may become  essential for the attainment of the objects of the war that some operations of an official character should be undertaken by the Allied armies ... No blow ... struck at the southern extremities of the Russian Empire would be so effective for this purpose as the taking of Sebastopol[sic].'


So the prospect of an allied invasion of the Crimea was always in Raglan's mind. However, it would not be easy to organise.

St Arnaud, in command of the larger French force, tried to gain control of the two armies and to dictate their deployment in Bulgaria. Only firm action by Raglan, including a personal appeal to the Sultan with detailed reference to the tripartite agreement guaranteeing independent, national commands, avoided major confrontation. However, Raglan quickly established a good working relationship based on mutual respect with Omar Pasha, whom he visited at his headquarters in Shumla.


The neighbourhood of Varna rapidly became overcrowded, and the British moved further inland to the valleys of Devna and Aladyn. There cholera struck in addition to debilitating dysentery and fevers. Relocation of the camps did not noticeably stem the flow of fatalities: during July, 600 died in a fortnight. Serious deficiencies in the hospital services, which relied heavily on recalled military pensioners gathered into an optimistic Hospital Conveyance or Ambulance Corps, were cruelly revealed. So were supply problems. Some troops still carried the smooth-bore Brown Bess musket, instead of the new Mini? rifled version; on 15 June, Raglan complained that the 3rd Division lacked 1,300 promised Minis. Ten days later, Raglan informed New of a deficiency that would never be satisfactorily solved during the entire campaign: 'The means of [land] transport form our principal want and a most seri one.' Under a system named 'waggons of country', carts and drivers would be recruited on contract in the area of operations. This proved totally unrealistic in Bulgaria, and later in hostile Crimea. Regular provision of food became difficult, too. St Arnaud complained to Raglan that British and changed. During the night of 22/23 June, the Russians raised the siege of Silistria, and bym2 July they had withdrawn completely from Moldavia and Wallachia. However, political and public opinion in London and Paris determined that Russia must be taught a lesson and deterred from ever agai threatening the Balkans or the Str A. W. Kinglake, author of a det account of the war, would allege t decision to invade the Crimea was a sleepy Cabinet on 28 June. In reventure had been discussed in political circles since at least December 1853 and widely aired in the press during the three months following. A variety of military figures (including Captain J. R. Drummond RN, who visited Sevastopol in January 1854, British commander could not therefore have been entirely surprised when on 16 July he received a dispatch (dated 29 June) from Newcastle: 'The fortress [Sevastopol] must be reduced and the fleet taken or destroyed: nothing but insuperable impediments ... should be allowed to prevent the early decision to undertake these operations.'


Raglan consulted Sir George Brown, not only an experienced soldier but also somebody with whom he had worked closely at the Horse Guards and had wanted as his second-in-command. Brown's response, that they should consider what Wellington ('the great Duke') would have done under the circumstances, has often been misinterpreted. There were serious military objections to invading the Crimea: it was already late in the year and, once ashore, success would be necessary before the onset of winter; no reliable information was to hand about either the strength (estimates varied between 45,000 and 120,000) or disposition of Russian troops on the peninsula; given the problems encountered during the move to Varna and subsequent time in Bulgaria, rapid agreement between the three allies could not be guaranteed; neither land nor sea transport were readily available; above all, no invasion plan existed. However, Brown recognised that their political masters were intent on landing in the Crimea and seizing Sevastopol. His observation therefore was not military, but political. Wellington held that officers were constitutionally subject to the wishes of government ministers.

Newcastle's dispatch on 29 June reminded Raglan that he had been forewarned on 10 April, and the Secretary of State later acknowledged that the British commander had obeyed the government, contrary to his own professional judgement. In a separate letter, Newcastle emphasised that 'unless we destroy Russia's Black Sea fleet I do not see my way to a safe and honourable peace'.

Others on the spot expressed their doubts, once the decision to invade the Crimea became known. Burgoyne focused on the proximity to winter, Brigadier-General
W. B. Tylden, Raglan's Commanding Engineer, thought it 'a very rash undertaking'; Lieutenant the Hon. Henry Clifford believed the whole idea dangerous in view of its open discussion even before the troops left England: 'The least sanguine look upon the plan as that of a madman and the taking of the place as impossible.' Not much enthusiasm there.

The Adjutant-General of the British Expeditionary Force, Major-Genera lJ. B. Estcourt, thought supply and transport still 'very defective ... there is a want of organisation'; and in England The Daily News blamed deficiencies on 'our absurd system of throwing aside in peace the machinery we are compelled to make use of in war'. Quite possibly. But an invasion had to be organised. Thus, on 18 July a Council of War decided that steps should be taken to find a landing beach sufficiently large to accommodate the combined force, not dominated by enemy guns and within reasonable distance of Sevastopol.

Three days later, sailing along the west coast of the Crimea in Fury Brown and the French divisional commander Canrobert chose the mouth of the Katcha river, 7 miles (11km) north of Sevastopol. All had not been settled, though. On 28 July, Raglan needed to deal firmly with a French suggestion that the allies stay in Bulgaria to counter any renewed military threat to the Danube and ultimately Constantinople, by pointing to the declared policy of the British and French governments. Then, half-hearted attempts were made to convince the enemy that the objective was Odessa or the Caucasus.


Officers of the 71st regiment

The Russians were not fooled. Even as troops sailed down the Channel from English ports in February 1854, Field Marshal I. F. Paskevich drew Nicholas I's attention to the bellicose outpourings of the British press about attacking Sevastopol. He believed it likely that an expedition would try to land in the Crimea. On 11 July, Menshikov similarly warned the Tsar of 'an attempt against Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet'. However, on 12 September the C-in-C West Crimea concluded that it was now too late in the year for such an enterprise. Not his last mistake that year.

Meanwhile, preparations for the allied invasion were slowed down by a major fire in Varna on 10 August which dest vast quantity of stores (including 11,000 pairs of boots) and, perhaps maliciously, was ascribed to Greek sa in Russian pay. Yet more delay occurre through the need to assemble sufficient troop transports, prepare adequate siege equipment and finalise the landing and assault plans. To make matters worse, cholera was still raging. In the first week of August, 8 per cent of the British land force was suffering from it.




After embarkation had been completed, the armada aimed to concentrate in Balchik Bay, 15 miles (24km) north of Varna, but 'a strong breeze for several days' disrupted the programme. When Raglan arrived at Balchik on 5 September, St Arnaud had already left. Not until three days later did the two vessels carrying the French and British commanders meet at sea. By then the invasion fleet was strung out over an alarming distance.

That afternoon, an allied conference on board Ville de France, St Arnaud's ship, learnt that the French now favoured landing on the south coast of the Crimea at Kaffa, 100 miles (160km) east of Sevastopol and separated from it by mountainous terrain. Reconvened the following day on Caradoc, Raglan's steamer, the conference rejected Kaffa, but expressed unease about the proximity of the Katcha to Sevastopol, from which the enemy could quickly bring up troops and artillery.


Skirmish at the Bulganek. 19 September 1854. After allied troops began marching southwards towards Sevastopol, the light cavalry encountered enemy cavalry across the shallow Bulganek river Massed Russian infantry were then detected in dead ground ahead, and the vanguard extricated from the planned ambush under cover of artillery fire.


So on 9 September, protected by three warships. Raglan and 11 British and French officers sailed in Caradoc to re-examine the west coast of the Crimea. They returned to the allied ships, which had gathered at the rendezvous 40 miles (64km) west of Cape Tarakan, and announced that the landing area would now be in Calamita Bay, just south of the small port of Eupatoria and 30 miles (48km) north of Sevastopol. Raglan estimated that 20,000-25,000 enemy troops had been seen in camps during the reconnaissance, in addition to the garrison of Sevastopol and others hidden inland at Simpheropol, Batchi Serai and elsewhere.

The armada resumed its passage eastwards, and on the evening of 12 September Eupatoria came into sight.

Next day it was occupied and the allied force sailed on south to the landing beaches, characterised by the ruins of an old fort. Menshikov received intelligence that the allied armada was at sea while attending the Borodin regiment's ball on 11 September, and confirmation of the impending landings arrived two days later during an evening performance of Gogol's play The Government Inspector in Sevastopol. When the news circulated among the audience, the theatre rapidly emptied.

Photograph of French Zouves

The unopposed invasion commenced on 14 September, but stormy weather interrupted the landings, which were not completed for four days. Then a total of approximately 63,000 men and 128 guns were ashore. St Arnaud wrote confidently: 'The troops are superb ... we shall beat the Russians.' On the morning of 19 September, the march south started: four rivers had to be crossed before reaching the Bay of Sevastopol, which divided the northern suburbs of the naval port from its southern dockyard. The British protected the exposed left flank as the French and Turks advanced adjacent to the coast on the allied right. Two regiments of light cavalry rode ahead of the British force, two covered the flank and a fifth the rear. Cardigan, as brigade commander, went with the two leading regiments, but Lucan had insisted on accompanying the invading force despite absence of the Heavy Brigade and Raglan's reluctance, because the two brothers-in-law had already clashed in Bulgaria.

Reaching the small Bulganek river, which was the first of the water obstacles, during the afternoon of 19 September, Raglan spotted Cossacks beyond. He sent the
cavalry advance guard over the stream to investigate. As they did so, the sun fla on the bayonets of massed infantry dr up in ambush. Covered by 6pdr and 9pdr field guns, the cavalry skilfully withdrew; and the first skirmish on C territory had taken place.


Battle of the Alma

The Battle of the Alma, 20 September 1854,


The march resumed on the morning of 20 September. Kinglake, the chronicler who rode with the army, wrote that it 'was like some remembered day of June in England for the sun was undaunted, and the soft breeze of the morning had lulled to a breath at noontide'. Five days earlier, naval reports had warned Raglan that the Russians were gathering in strength south of the Alma (the second river), which ran into the Black Sea across the allies' front 5 miles (8km) beyond the Bulganek. The ground on its northern (right) bank, across which the Allies must approach, sloped gently towards the river. The south bank, however, rose steeply in places to 15ft (4.5m) and above it 300 to 500ft (90-150m) undulating downs presented an ideal position from which to dominate the river and its approaches. At the extreme western end of the 5.5 miles (9km) of rolling countryside, a 350ft (105m) cliff abutted the Black Sea, where an old Tartar fort overlooked the river-mouth. A ford at the village of Almatamack (a mile [1.6km]) inland and, like Bourliouk and Tarkhanlar, on the north bank) led to a wagon track suitable for artillery; three other paths further east were less accessible.

Three miles (5km) inland, the post road from Eupatoria to Sevastopol passed close to the village of Bourliouk, crossed a wooden bridge and climbed through a gorge overlooked to the east by Kourgane Hill (450ft, 135m), to the west by Telegraph Height. Menshikov discounted any serious attack west of Telegraph Height, identifying the post road as the crucial point. He fortified Kourgane Hill (site of his headquarters) with the so-called Great and Lesser redoubts, respectively armed with 12 and nine cannon. In reality, these 'redoubts' were low breastworks 3-4ft third village, Tarkhanlar, 1.25 miles (2km) east of Bourliouk, played no part in the ensuing battle and is omitted from most British maps and accounts.

At the Alma, Menshikov had General P. D. Gorchakov commanding 6 Corps (Lieutenant-General D. A. Kvintsinsky's 16 Infantry Division and Lieutenant-General V. Ia. Kiriakov's 17 Infantry Division) plus one brigade from 14 Infantry Division; a hussar brigade and two Don Cossack regiments of cavalry; four 13 Infantry Division infantry battalions (two from the Belostok and two from the Brest regiments); one rifle battalion; one naval battalion; and one engineer regiment. In all, therefore, he had 42 infantry battalions, 16 squadrons of light cavalry, 11 squadrons of Cossacks and 84 guns. An indeterminate number of patriotic civilian volunteers, hastily enrolled, temporarily swelled the ranks and promptly- vanished once the shooting started.

Allied HQ staff

Believing that the steep track on to the heights close to the sea was impassable for military purposes, Menshikov deployed a single battalion of the Minsk regiment with half a battery of field guns near Ulkul Akles, a mile (1.6km) south of the river-mouth. Its purpose was predominantly to warn of undue activity at sea, with one company forward in the Tartar fort to observe allied movement from the north. Menshikov appears not to have ridden over ground himself, but relied on reports from staff officers.

Convinced that the allies could not embarrass him west of Telegraph Height, Menshikov did not position defenders along the Alma until about 2,000yds (1,830m)
from the sea, just east of Almatamack. Between there and Telegraph Height (approximately 2,500yds [2,285m]) he placed the four battalions of the Brest and Belostok regiments, with the Tarutin regiment in reserve. Supported by two field batteries of artillery, the Borodin regiment held Telegraph Height, with the Moskov (sent by Khomutov from eastern Cr reserve. These units west of the post were evidently under Kiriakov, but i retrospect confusion appears to have occurred over direction of the Borodin regiment, administratively part of Kvitsinsky's 16 Division. An added complication was that Kiriakov was placed under Menshikov's direct command, not that of Gorchakov, his corps commander. Some accounts maintain that Menshikov kept personal control of all the reserves.

Kvitsinsky, still responsible to Gorchakov, exercised tactical command of Kourgane Hill, where he deployed the Kazan regiment in direct support of the two redoubts, holding the Vladimir and Uglit regiments with two Don Cossack field batteries in reserve. Guarding the flank were the Suzdal regiment and two Don Cossack regiments. Astride the post road, 2,000yds (1,830m) south of the Alma, Gorchakov had seven infantry battalions in reserve (the Volyn regiment and three battalions of the Minsk) with a hussar brigade (two regiments) and a light horse battery. Even more cavalry were waiting south of Kourgane Hill.

Vineyards north of the river had been cleared to remove cover for the allies and expose an unhindered field of fire for the Russians. Cavalry patrols scouted towards the Bulganek and riflemen were placed in Almatamack and Bourliouk. Apart from the few dedicated riflemen, the Russians had under 100 rifles to each infantry regiment. Reliance on the short-range, smooth-bore musket meant that artillery had to cover the river crossings. The newly arrived Congreve rockets proved useless because no launcher frames had been sent with them. Nevertheless, Menshikov had 33,000 infantry, 3,400 cavalry, 2,600 gunners and 116 guns at his disposal and a powerful natural position to defend. Including reserves, approximately 20,000 men and 80 guns were east of Telegraph Height, covering the gorge and Kourgane Hill, the remaining 13,000 men and 36 guns from Telegraph Height to the sea.

Sevastopol, Kornilov wrote in his diary: 'The [Alma] position selected by the prince is particularly strong and we are therefore quite content... God does not abandon the righteous and we therefore await the outcome calmly and with patience.'

On the allied right, 37,000 French and Turkish troops were supported by 68 field guns and the fire of steamers off-shore. The two brigades of Bosquet's 1st Division were separately to use the steep coastal path and that near Alamatamack. To Bosquet's left, Canrobert's 1st Division would scale the heights via other identified tracks, with Napoleon's 3rd Division attacking Telegraph Height frontally. Forey's 4th Division in reserve would back up Napoleon as and when required. Raglan, on the left, nominally had 26,000 men (including 1,000 cavalry) and 60 guns, was out of range of naval gunfire and faced the strongest part of the enemy position.

At about 11.30, the main allied body halted 1.5 miles (2.4km) from the Alma, as Bosquet continued to advance. Naval gunfire in his immediate support commenced at noon. The overall plan provided for Bosquet to climb the heights to engage and distract the enemy, then Canrobert and Prince Napoleon, supported by Forey, would take Telegraph Height. Only after this would Raglan attack Kourgane Hill.

When Bosquet's force approached, the Russian company in the Tartar fort withdrew, and by 1 pm the French were on the heights close to the sea. At alm precisely the same moment, 4.5 miles (7.2km) further inland and still north o river, the British resumed their advance After half an hour, they halted again, deployed into line and lay down to a French success against Telegraph Height. They were now within enemy artillery range. One officer wrote: 'I think the worse part of the whole affair was lying down in lines before we received the order to advance. The shells bursting over us and blowing men to pieces, arms, legs and brains in all directions.'

Raglan realised, however, that the exposed British were taking heavy casualties on the northern slope, so at 3 pm he ordered his men forward. The Light Division was on the left of the front line, with the 2nd on its right straddling the post road facing Bourliouk village, to which Russian skirmishers had set fire. Behind the Light
and 2nd divisions respectively were 1st and 3rd with the 4th in reserve, cavalry guarded the flank.

Having issued his orders, with his Raglan crossed the river just west of Bourliouk under the lee of Telegraph to a position where he could see clearly both Kourgane Hill and the Russian reserves. Realising that the enemy might be enfiladed from this spot, he sent back for a brigade of the 2nd Division and field artillery to join him. Meanwhile, the Light Division had taken the Great Redoubt ('up the hill we went, step by step, but with a fearful Hill, as the 1st Division in the wake of the Light crossed the river and retook the redoubts; the Highland Brigade the Lesser, the Guards Brigade the Great. Ordering his command forward, Major-General Sir Colin Campbell called: 'Now men, the army is watching us. Make me proud of the Highland Brigade.' In his detached eyrie, Raglan observed with admiration: 'Look how the Guards and the Highlanders advance.'


Major-General Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863). Led the Highland Brigade at the Battle of the Alma, commanded the defences around Balaclava, was directly involved in the Thin Red Line' action and later in the war took charge of the newly formed Highland Division. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)


With Kourgane Hill in British hands, and the French now on Telegraph Height, at 4.30 the battle was won. Lucan sent the Light Brigade in pursuit of the fleeing Russians, but Raglan recalled them. He knew that around 3,000 Russian cavalry had not been committed to the battle and loss of his small force would have vastly hampere further allied movement. Kiriakov had rallied infantry and 30 guns, 2 miles ( south of Telegraph Height.

As rockets sped the fleeing enemy on their way, Raglan asked St Arnaud to take up the pursuit, as he had suffered fewer casualties: the British lost 362 (including 25 officers) with another 1,640 wounded or missing. But the French commander declined, as the knapsacks of his troops had been left on the northern bank. The French reported 1,243 casualties (more conservative estimates thought 63 killed and about 500 wounded, the larger figure having included cholera deaths); the Russians incurred 5,511 casualties (including 1,810 dead).

When he heard that the French had scaled the downs further west, Menshikov had left Kourgane Hill and fruitlessly ridden back and forth, unable to decide when or where to commit his reserves. Returning eastwards, after the battle had been lost, he found a distraught, dismounted Gorchakov. Angrily asked why he was in such a state, Gorchakov replied: 'I am alone because all my aides-de-camp and the officers of my Staff have been killed or wounded. I have received six shots.' During a later truce, a Russian officer admitted: 'Yes, gentlemen, you won a brilliant victory at the Alma.'

It was also critical. Failure on 20 September would have brought the Crimean campaign to a premature, ignominious conclusion. However, Menshikov should never have been driven from such a strong position, which he had ample time to prepare. His over-confidence, which encouraged spectators to view the anticipated slaughter, played a major part in the battle's ultimate outcome.


 Flank march

The Flank march. Faced with formidable Russian defences north of Sevastopol Bay. on 25 September 1854 the allies marched round them to the east The following day, invading troops poured across the Plain of Balaclava on to the Chersonese plateau to besiege Sevastopol.

Possibly because he was terminally ill, but allegedly because his men were fatigued, St Arnaud refused to move on during the following two days. Meanwhile, the dead were buried and Russian wounded evacuated to Odessa. The allied march did not resume until 23 September, to the chagrin of Admiral Lyons, who firmly believed that 'a golden opportunity' had been lost to snatch Sevastopol before the Russians could reorganise. Yet, how Sevastopol was to be attacked had still not been decided: seizure of the northern half then bombardment to induce surrender of the southern dockyard districts; or, alternatively, a march round Sevastopol to the east and a siege of the port from upland to the south. High ground and two more rivers (the Katcha and Belbec) lay ahead, though, before Sevastopol came into sight.


Rear-Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons (1790-1858). Second in command of the Black Sea fleet, in charge of the in-shore squadron and naval liaison officer at Lord Raglan's headquarters; succeeded Vice-Admiral Dundas as C-in-C in January 1855.


Unknown to the allies, Menshikov had made a decision that would fundamentally affect the course of the campaign. On 23 September, he sent Kiriakov with a covering force to the Belbec river, ensured that warships were sunk across the entrance to Sevastopol to prevent penetration by the allied fleets, left a garrison in the port (supplemented by sailors from the sunken ships), marched surplus regiments over the Tchernaya river to the east and began to gather a 30,000-strong field army on high ground beyond. From there, he could threaten the flank of the invaders and keep in touch with reinforcement routes from the north and east.

24 September was a pivotal day for the allies. Intelligence was received that 'yesterday' the Russians had sunk seven warships across the entrance to Sevastopol harbour and built a new earthwork near mouth of the Belbec. Sent ahead to scout, Cardigan reported that an 'impracticable' marsh lay beyond the Belbec, whose causeway was dominated by enemy guns and infantry (Kiriakov's force). That evening a decisive conference took place in camp on the Belbec.

The preferred option of taking the northern suburbs preparatory to a bombardment and assault across the bay on the southern dockyard paled. The octagonal Star Fort (its guns capable of 4,000yds [3,660m]) range) had been strengthened by construction of two batteries nearby and support by entrenched infantry. A Polish deserter also claimed that the area had been mined. Sir John Burgoyne 'strongly' favoured marching round Sevastopol to mount a regular siege from the south. The French, worried about the strength of the northern defences, agreed.


Lieutenant-General Sir John Fox Burgoyne.


So with Cathcart's 4th Division and the 4th Light Dragoons left at the Belbec to maintain communication with the fleets, the flank march began on 25 September; 'this bold and extraordinary movement, which claims rank with the greatest efforts of military science', according to The United Service Magazine. During its course, his escort having temporarily lost its way, Raglan very nearly rode into the rearguard of the Russian field army making its way out of Sevastopol. During the morning of 26 September, the British commander crossed the Tchernaya river and entered the village of Kadikoi 1.5 miles (2.4km) from Balaclava. Approaching the chosen British supply port through a narrow gorge and having been assured of a friendly reception, Raglan was fired on from an old castle at the harbour entrance, which rapidly surrendered.

The choice of Balaclava seemed strange. On the left of the line, the British could legitimately have wheeled on to the upland before Sevastopol and made use of the nearby ports of Kamiesch and Kazatch. But Burgoyne and Lyons urged Raglan to secure Balaclava and the new French commander, Canrobert, agreed. On 25 September, Canrobert had succeeded St Arnaud, who died at sea four days later.


General Francois Certain Canrobert (1809-95). A divisional commander with the French Expeditionary Force, he succeeded St Arnaud as C-in-C in September
1854. In May 1855 he resigned in favour of General A. J. J. Pelissier. taking over his corps and remaining in the theatre of war


So on 27 September, the allies deployed on the high ground south of Sevastopol with the French on the left and British on the right. The Chersonese upland, shaped rather like a heart, had an eastern escarpment (the Sapoune Ridge) 700ft (210m) high overlooking the Plain of Balaclava. A break in the south-eastern corner (the 'Col') gave access to Balaclava via a steep track. This would be used to transport the British supplies. The boundary between the British and French areas of responsibility was the 'Man of War Harbour', a deep inlet from Sevastopol Bay known to the Russians as South Bay.

The French put their 3rd and 4th divisions under Forey in the siege lines, the 1st and 2nd in a Corps of Observation commanded by Bosquet in reserve behind the British in the south-eastern quarter of the plateau. The British 3rd and 4th divisions were placed immediately east of the Great Ravine, the southward extension of Man of War Harbour, with the Light Division in its rear. The 2nd Division held the extreme right in the area later known as Mount Inkerman, with the Brigade of Guards from the 1st Division supporting it. The French, therefore, faced the Old Town, containing the artillery and engineer stores; the British, the newer, eastern Karabel suburb with the naval barracks, dry docks and main dockyard area.

At the outbreak of hostilities, the civilian population comprised approximately 38,000 Russians, Armenians, Jews, Tartars and Greeks, many of them traders.


Battle of Balaclava, 25 October 25, 1854


"Thin Red Line tipped with steel”, painted by Robert Gibb, 1881, In this incident, the 93rd, aided by a small force of Royal Marines and some Turkish infantrymen, led by Sir Colin Campbell, routed a Russian cavalry charge.

As the allies settled on the upland on 27 September, a semicircle of fortifications could be seen facing them, supported by unsunken warships firing long-range from Sevastopol Bay. Apparently, only 23 of the Russian guns on land were effective, but this was not evident to the allies, who believed that 20,000 men were defending the naval port in addition to the field army in the east. In fact, later evidence suggests that, including militia, marines and disembarked sailors but excluding 5,000 workmen, the garrison actually totalled 30,850 men at this time.

The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava  illustrating the Light Brigade's charge into the "Valley of Death"

Neither Burgoyne nor the French supported an assault without preliminary bombardment, so preparations for one were begun. Answering a request from Raglan, on
October Admiral Dundas agreed to land 1,000 marines with a complement of field guns in addition to a naval brigade of 1,040 officers and men with heavier cannon. The Royal Artillery disembarked its siege train, dragging it almost 8 miles (13km) to the heights. The British troops were entrenched 2,300yds (2,100m) away from
the enemy, and assaulting across such a wide expanse of open ground would be suicidal without total reduction of the fortifications ahead. On the left, the French put batteries on Mount Rodolph; the British similarly did so on Green Hill and Woronzov Height, 1,300-1,400yds (1,190-1,280m) from Sevastopol, with the Lancaster guns situated in two 'half-sunken batteries' 2,800yds (2,560m) from the enemy. As preparations for the bombardment went ahead, sickness among the troops mounted, and towards the end of October Raglan could muster only 16,000 fit men.


What became known as the First Bombardment by 126 British and French guns began at dawn on 17 October. The Russians (now with an estimated 220 guns, including those of steamers in the Bay) forestalled this by opening fire earlier, and there is some suggestion that allied batteries responded prematurely and piecemeal. None the less, the naval 68pdrs in particular proved extremely effective, and Paymaster Henry Dixon of the 7th Royal Fusiliers pleaded to his father that 'you must excuse much as the row [sic] is too great to write a line'.

At 10.30, two hits on ammunition magazines silenced the French. Thereafter only 41 British guns were engaged. Moreover, the planned simultaneous naval bombardment did not actually commence until 1.30 pm, achieved little and obliquely proved that the fleets at sea could contribute nothing tangible to the siege with their guns. On land the British seriously damaged the Malakov and Great Redan works and theoretically opened a way for an infantry assault. But the French were unable to attack the Flagstaff bastion in front of them and Raglan rightly decided that, unless they could do so, his men would be liable to heavy losses from flank fire. The Russians were therefore able to repair their fortifications overnight under the direction of the able engineer Lieutenant-Colonel F. E. I. Todleben.
Although the French did reopen fire the following day and the bombardment continued for a further week, it ended in failure. The Russian commander o Sevastopol, Vice-Admiral Kornilov, w mortally wounded, however, and direction of the military and naval forces devolved separately on Lieutenant-General von Moeller and Vice-Admiral Nachimov.


Gun batteries in action. Heavy mortars and siege artillery fire on the Russians before Sevastopol. The Woronzov metalled road from Yalta is extreme left, the Malakov defence work far right, Sevastopol Bay and harbour entrance in the distance.


Battle of Inkerman


This clash was something of a dress rehearsal for a much more serious clash on 5 November. The north-eastern corner of the plateau occupied by the allies before Sevastopol featured an area of high ground about 1.5 by 0.75 miles (2.4 by 1.2km). It was known to the British as Mount Inkerman and the Russians as Cossack Mountain, was bordered on the west deep Careenage Ravine, and to the east the escarpment of Sapoune Ridge.

Roughly in the middle of Mount Inkerman and 2,000yds (1,830m) south-east of Sevastopol stood Shell Hill, approximately 600ft (180m) above sea level, with two extensions, East and West Gut. About a quarter of a mile (0.4km) from the southern end of the Quarry Ravine, 1,200yds (1,100m) from Shell Hill and 30ft (9m) higher than it, was the L-shaped Home Ridge. This would be the focal point of the forthcoming battle and was where 6,500 'muffin caps' of Russian infantry with four field guns had been repulsed during the skirmish on 26 October.

On Mount Inkerman, which comprised rocky scrubland, were two small defence works. Just north-east of Home Ridge was the Sandbag Battery - an empty 9ft-high (3m) position with embrasures cut for two guns to cover the Tchernaya river below, but no banquette for small arms. In front of Home Ridge, where the old post road emerged from the Quarry Ravine on to the plateau, stood a 4ft-high (1.2m) heap of stones known as The Barrier. Another 2ft-high (0.6m) rampart, called Herbert's Folly, on Home Ridge offered some protection for gunners. There were no entrenchments, only these meagre protective walls.

In this area, the British 2nd Division, commanded by Major-General J. L. Pennefather in place of the sick de Lacy Evans, deployed approximately 3,000 men either south of Home Ridge or thrown forward in pickets. About a mile (1.6km) to the south, the Brigade of Guards was encamped with a troop of horse artillery, but also had a forward picket overlooking the Careenage Ravine. Bosquet's Corps of Observation was yet a further mile south on Pennefather in an emergency would not, therefore, be easy.

For Prince A. S. Menshikov, the Russian commander, the episode of Little Inkerman had been no more than a reconnaissance in force. On the basis of what he learnt, he drew up a plan to drive the British from Mount Inkerman and disrupt their communication with Balaclava. General P. D. Gorchakov, with 22,000 troops and
88 guns, would advance across the Tchernaya towards the Fedioukine Hills, 'to support the general attack, distracting the enemy forces. trying to secure the approach to the Sapoune, the dragoons being ready to scale the heights at the first opportunity'. Lieutenant-General F. I. Soimonov, with 19,000 men and 38 guns, was to emerge from Sevastopol at 6 am to cross the Careenage Ravine and advance along the two gullies on to the plateau. Lieutenant-General P. Ia. Pavlov, leading 16,000 men and 96 guns, would leave the Mackenzie Heights at 5 am, descend to the Tchernaya and cross Tractir Bridge and the aqueduct to attain the heights from the north-east via the three ravines.

These two columns were to meet in the area of Shell Hill at 7 am, where the 4 Corps commander, General P. A. Dannenberg, would take tactical charge of the operation. Lieutenant-General F. F. von Moeller, commanding the land forces in Sevastopol, was to cover the attackers with his batteries and make a demonstration on the allied left to discourage the French from reinforcing Mount Inkerman. The attacking force that was ordered to 'seize and occupy the heights', exclusive of Moeller's troops, therefore totalled 57,000 men and 222 guns, with another 4,000 men and 36 guns in reserve on Mackenzie Heights.

Fortunately for the British, Pavlov and Soimonov did not achieve the required co-ordination, Pavlov being delayed for two hours at the Tchernaya by bridge repairs. Perhaps, even more fortunately, Dannenberg's plan for Soimonov to keep west of Careenage Ravine to clear Victoria Ridge on Pavlov's flank was not followed. Still more galling for the Russians, Gorchakov inexplicably left the bulk of his force east of the Tchernaya, and Bosquet quickly realised that his threat was not dangerous. This allowed the French corps commander readily to support Pennefather.


Battle of Inkerman, 5 November 1854. Major-General J. L Pennefather (mounted centre), temporarily leading the British 2nd Division in place of its sick commander Lieutentant-General Sir Geory de Lacy Evans, watches British infantry repulse Russians (right), as reinforcements approach (left). (Author's collection)


Heavy rain on 4 November persisted well into the night and at dawn light rain and thick mist still cloaked Mount Inkerman, concealing the Russians' advance. Shortly after daybreak, forward pickets gave warning of their movement, and Raglan reached Home Ridge from his HQ, 4 miles (6.4km) south of Home Ridge, at about 7.30 am. He learnt that Soimonov's troops were making their way on to the plateau, and recognised the threat to the whole Mount Inkerman position. Ordering England's 3rd Division to be vigilant on the British left, he told Cambridge (with the Guards Brigade) and Cathcart (4th Division) to support the 2nd Division. He discovered that Brown had declined Bosquet's offer of help, but promptly welcomed it. Crucially, as it transpired, he feared the range of the Russian artillery, which could reach the British encampments from Shell Hill. Raglan therefore ordered up two 18pdr guns from the siege park.

Soimonov did get 22 12pdr guns on to Shell Hill and West Gut, from which to bombard Home Ridge and the 2nd Division camp beyond. Under cover of their barrage, the Russian infantry advanced south to be met by troops sent forward by Pennefather towards the Sandbag Battery on the right, The Barrier in the centre and Miriako on the left. As British battalions depl meet them, two 9pdr field guns fired their heads into the gloom. Another s battery went up to the head of the M was engulfed by enemy troops debo from the gully and lost three guns. A determined counter-attack by the 88th Regiment saved the day and more field guns arrived to raise the number on and around Home Ridge to 36. At the Wellway, the 77th drove back another grey mass; 'no order could be given owing to the fog. All we could do was to charge them when they came in sight,' wrote Lieutenant the Hon. Henry Clifford. By 8 am, Soimonov's infantry were on their way back to Shell Hill. Pavlov had not yet appeared.

When Pavlov's men eventually debouched from the ravines at about 8.30, fierce fighting was renewed, particularly around the Sandbag Battery, which changed hands several times and where French troops were heavily engaged. Not until 11 am was this position finally secure. Seeing bodies piled around the defence work, Bosquet pithily remarked: 'Quel abbatoir!' Meanwhile, as the mist lifted, Raglan had seen that the enemy was close to breaking through between The Barrier and Sandbag Battery, where British troops were fighting desperately at close quarters to protect Home Ridge. Raglan sent word for Cathcart urgently to assist the Brigade of Guards there, but the 4th Division commander decided independently to advance on the extreme right and turn the Russian left. In doing so, tragically he led the troops with him down a gully and paid for the error with his life. His last words allegedly were 'I fear we are in a mess.'

Although the Guards were successfully- reinforced, the Home Ridge remained in danger. With Soimonov dead and his division effectively out of the line, Dannenberg had taken command; 9,000 of Pavlov's men were still uncommitted and he now launched them towards The Barrier. Only determined use of bayonet saved the day. One observer recorded that the dead in the area were 'as thick as sheaves in a cornfield' enemy artillery'. Undoubtedly, their ability to silence enemy guns on Shell Hill proved important, possibly even decisive. As the Russians streamed away from The Barrier and Sandbag Battery, Raglan sent men to clear Shell Hill to prevent Dannenberg from entrenching on it. Realising that the day was lost, the Russian corps commander ordered a general retreat behind a covering force. By
2.30 pm, the enemy had fallen back from Shell Hill and half an hour later Raglan and Canrobert together watched them recross the Tchernaya in disarray.

The Battle of Inkerman had been won - at a price. Surveying the field of carnage, Captain Temple Godman remarked: The field of battle is a terrible sight.' In all, 
10,729 Russians were killed (including Soimonov), wounded or taken prisoner (a figure rising to 11,974 if casualties from the Sevastopol garrison and Gorchakov's force are added). The British suffered 2,357 casualties, 597 of them killed (including 39 officers, two of them generals). French casualties amounted to 1,743 (175 dead, including 25 officers).

Winter turmoil

In the immediate aftermath of victory, Pennefather exclaimed: 'I tell you, we gave 'em a hell of a towelling.' A cooler appreciation of the allied position was, however, required. A Council of War the following day acknowledged that Sevastopol would not fall before winter. De Lacy Evans was among those who favoured raising the siege and withdrawal from the Crimea.

Raglan realised that this would signal abject failure, successful re-invasion of the peninsula being highly unlikely. He persuaded the doubters that the siege must continue. Frantic requests now went to England for building material to construct 'sheds', more entrenching tools, sandbags, engineers and artillery. In the short term, Dundas agreed to off-load further naval guns and bring up heavy mortars from Malta. Despite the doubts and disputes, the Battle of Inkerman was heralded as another allied victory; and in its wake Raglan became a field marshal.


A 'fearful gale' (to many 'a hurricane') on 14 November swept away tents and equipment and sank 21 British vessels from the Katcha to Sevastopol, including several like Prince carrying much-needed supplies. In the words of Corporal W. McMillan, it was 'one of the roughest days that ever man was out in'. Continuing losses of horses and men through disease and wounds made matters infinitely worse. It was totally unrealistic for a new arrival, Captain Hedley Viccars, to write: 'We are anxiously waiting for Lord Raglan to storm Sebastopol [sic]; for, though we must lose many in doing it, yet anything would be better than seeing our soldiers dying there daily.' Raglan did not have enough men to storm the port, and disagreement between the allies over the focal points of the Russian defences did not help either. Burgoyne argued that the Malakov on the allied right was the key fortification; the French, the Flagstaff Bastion west of Man of War Harbour.
So weak was the British situation that Raglan pleaded for not only more men but also urgent replacement of officers: three generals had been killed at Inkerman, three invalided home and three more seriously wounded, numbers that included four divisional commanders (Cathcart, Cambridge, Evans and Brown). Cardigan went home sick to a hero's welcome, while still at the front Lucan erupted in a welter of self-righteousness when Raglan's dispatch on Balaclava became known. In it Raglan criticised the Cavalry Division commander for believing that he must 'attack at all hazards' and further pointed out to Lucan that 'attack' appeared nowhere in the relevant order. The acrimonious dispute between field marshal and lieutenant-general would rumble on until February 1855, when Lucan was recalled by the government to preserve military discipline.

Meanwhile, towards the end of January, the French with their superior numbers had taken over the extreme right of the line in front of the Malakov and Mamelon defence works, while the British concentrated on the Great Redan. At least this solved the strategic problem: the area east of Man War Harbour was now recognised as th critical point.

Raglan had insufficient men to mak adequate roads, and supplies were sadl deficient: 'such roads ... such ground ..a depth of mud,' Estcourt exclaimed. During the bitterly cold days of December, the fuel ration was reduced and, although more food reached Balaclava, the means to convey it to the siege lines was lacking; the land transport system virtually non-existent. On 14 December, Raglan tersely wrote to Commissary-General William Filder: 'Something must really be done to place the supply of the army upon a more satisfactory footing or the worst consequences may follow.' But Raglan had no direct control over Filder and the Commissariat, even when responsibility for that department passed from the Treasury to the Secretary of State for War ten days later.

Raglan suffered similar frustration with the medical services, which owed allegiance to the Army and Ordnance Medical Department in London. Dr J. (later Sir John) Hall blandly rejected Raglan's complaints about lack of hospital orderlies: 'I considered them sufficient ... and I do still.' Florence Nightingale, who had arrived at Scutari on 4 November 1854 with 38 female nurses due to public and political dismay at reported medical shortcomings, penned a furious letter to Sidney Herbert, Secretary at War in London, about lack of hygiene: 'The vermin might, if they had but "unity of purpose", carry off the four miles of beds on their backs and march with them into the War Office and Horse Guards.' Like Raglan, she was facing the inbuilt inertia and vested interests engrained in a long-standing administrative system. In January 1855, Miss Nightingale gauged that over 50 per cent of the British troops in the Crimea were sick. Captain C. F. Campbell recorded that on one day in that month, the 63rd Foot could parade only seven fit men.


New plans

Plans to renew the siege in earnest quickened in February 1855, especially after the Russians sank six more ships across the entrance to Sevastopol harbour, destroying any hope that they might give up the fight. During the winter's lull in operations, they had strengthened the dominant Malakov defence work and the Mamelon in front of it, now faced by the French on the allied right.

Sickness and casualties, incurred in occasional sorties and exchanges of artillery fire, had reduced the effective British fighting strength to scarcely more than
12,000. Despite this deficiency in men, however, Raglan faced an elaborate French plan to complete the siege of Sevastopol by taking the Star Fort in the north and using 50,000 troops to storm the field army on Mackenzie Heights. Fortunately, the British commander was ignorant of further French proposals to concentrate their reserves at Constantinople. Nor did he know that the Cabinet had needed to reject the idea that British forces should be brought under French control, something attempted by St Arnaud when the allies were in Turkey. In the Crimea, the French now had eight infantry divisions divided into two corps, commanded by Plissier and Bosquet.

The French plan for the investment Sevastopol rested to some extent on aggressive action by Omar Pasha from Eupatoria, where on 11 February he commanded 26,000 infantry, two bat horse artillery with a third battery ab land. Six days later, the Russians launched a determined assault on Eupatoria, which the Turkish C-in-C drove off. This action did underline the importance of the small port and raise the question of whether the Turks should move against the Russian supply lines from the Perekop peninsula into Sevastopol rather than seek to attack the naval port's northern suburb. An allied strategy was not easy to agree, with all three national commanders now in the Crimea. The French undoubtedly had the largest contingent of troops, but the relationship forged between Raglan and Omar Pasha in Bulgaria endured.

A change of government in London in February 1855, with replacement of Aberdeen and Newcastle as Prime Minister and Secretary of State for War respectively by Palmerston and Panmure, brought an intensification of criticism. Panmure swiftly informed Raglan: 'I see no reason ... to alter the opinion which is universally entertained here of the inefficiency of your general staff.' The Commander-in-Chief at the Horse Guards in London, Lord Hardinge, referred to complaints from 'officers of rank' and The Times thundered: 'Their [the troops'] aristocratic generals, and their equally aristocratic staff view this scene of wreck and destruction with a gentleman-like tranquillity ... [they would] return with their horses, their plate and their china, their German cook and several tons' weight of official returns, all in excellent order, and the announcement that the last British soldier was dead.'

Raglan vigorously defended his staff, but Burgoyne had been sent out by the government to be his adviser and was recalled as the ritual scapegoat, leaving the Crimea on 20 March.

In February, too, a Commission of Inquiry- went to the front under Dr A. Cumming to investigate the medical services, 'found the patients in the field hospitals generally in a filthy condition' and contrasted the British arrangements unfavourably with those of the French. Palmerston immediately dispatched a more powerful Sanitary Commission of Mr R. Rawlinson, Dr J. Sutherland and Dr H. Gavin, charged with putting not only the field hospitals in the Crimea, but also those at Scutari 'into less unhealthy condition'. This Commission was rapidly followed by Sir John McNeill and Colonel Alexander Tulloch 'to inquire into the whole management of the Commissariat Department'. Although the departments subject to investigation by these various bodies were not under Raglan's command, the impression of incompetence affected perceptions of his inefficiency by those unfamiliar with the tortuous administrative system. On 24 February, Lucan finally left the Crimea in high dudgeon at being recalled, but in truth his continual sniping at Raglan about Balaclava had become intolerable.

As the weather improved in March, the siege lines edged closer to the Sevastopol defences, raising hopes of an early assault. An allied conference on 25 March set 2 April as the date for renewal of the bombardment.

According to the Quartermaster-General, Airey, only Raglan's patient 'conferring' persuaded the French to support a combined ground attack in the area of the Mamelon/Malakov and Great Redan after the bombardment without simultaneous action west of Man of War Harbour. In the event, the long-awaited Second Bombardment by 501 guns (101 of them British) did not occur until 9 April, in poor visibility through mist and rain.

Meanwhile, in March, Nicholas I had died to be succeeded by his son, Alexander II. Menshikov had paid the price for failure at Eupatoria, being replaced by Prince M. D. Gorchakov from Bessarabia.

At a meeting of the three allied commanders on 14 April, Raglan secured agreement to continue the current bombardment less intensely to conserve ammunition, but all decided that a ground assault was out of the question. Shortly afterwards, the full extent of the ambitious French plan for future operations became clear. Having deducted those in hospital and detached on support tasks, Canrobert estimated that the French had 90,000 men available in the Crimea; the British, similarly,
20,000. The Sardinians (formally committed to the alliance in January 1855) had promised to send 15,000 men and Omar Pasha could put 25,000 in the field exclusive of Turks defending Eupatoria. This overall total of 155,000 could be divided into 90,000 to contain Sevastopol and 65,000 to act as a field force. Omar Pasha, however, still favoured an advance from Eupatoria against the northern suburb, and there the matter rested for the moment. The Second Bombardment, in the meantime, petered out with no assault on the defences.

Unknown to the commanders in the Crimea, an even more bizarre plan instigated by Napoleon III had actually been agreed in London. Omar Pasha would continue to hold Eupatoria with 30,000 Turks, as a further 30,000 combined with 30,000 French under Canrobert maintained the siege from the southern upland. Including artillery and cavalry, the 20,000 British would be withdrawn from the siege to join 15,000 Sardinians (who reached the front under General A. La Marmora in May),
5,000 French and 10,000 Turks to form a field army under Raglan. This force would cross the Tchernaya to the Mackenzie Heights. An exclusively French second field army, comprising the 25,000 reserves at Constantinople and 45,000 from the siege of Sevastopol, would concentrate at Aloushita, considered. Burgoyne, back in England and present at the relevant meetings, evidently raised no objection. Almost certainly, he calculated that practical difficulties would kill the idea, not least because the number of available Turkish troops had been grossly exaggerated. It also emerged that Napoleon III envisaged taking command of the Aloushita force in person. Then he decided not to journey to the east, and the whole scheme gently faded away. The allies were left to press the siege as best they could. That meant renewed bombardment, followed by an assault on the defences of Sevastopol.

In England, a Parliamentary Select Committee, chaired by J. A. Roebuck, had begun to inquire into the British experiences and became known generally as 'The Sevastopol Committee'. Part of the placebo for political and public angst, which also led to the fall of Aberdeen's government, it concerned itself with Christmas past, provided a platform for the disaffected like Lucan and made no useful contribution to the current position at the front. None the less, news of its proceedings unsettled those conducting operations in the field.

The month of May proved turbulent for the allies. The bombardment was not renewed, though a series of fierce clashes occurred around the siege lines. Omar Pasha threatened to resign because his troops were consigned solely to defensive duties and the Turkish government had agreed to some of his men being placed under Raglan. Canrobert did resign in favour of General A. J. J. P?lissier, remaining in the theatre of war to take over his successor's corps.

A bold change of strategy, dictated by the continued free passage of men and supplies to enemy forces in and around Sevastopol from the east, launched an Anglo-French expedition under Sir George Brown Kertch at the mouth of the Sea of A 3 May. However, extension of the t to the Crimea had its drawbacks for commanders. Politicians could quic interfere with operations, and this w painfully underlined. After repeated from Paris, the following day the French contingent was ordered back to Sevastopol and the enterprise collapsed.

Fifteen days later, now in command, P?lissier galvanised the French into clearing the Russians from the Fedioukine Hills and all ground west of the Tchernaya, besides making aggressive probes on the upland. He disagreed with grandiose plans for field operations or attacking the northern suburb from Eupatoria. Vigorous pursuit of existing siege operations was the only option. He agreed that the Malakov and Great Redan were the keys to success and that the Mamelon and Quarry positions respectively in front of them must be the preliminary objectives. Furthermore, the Kertch expedition would be remounted.

On 22 May, therefore, Brown once more sailed in command of a combined British, French and Turkish force of 15,000 men, with engineer and light cavalry support. This time the immediate objective was seized plus nearby Yeni Kale, as worships destroyed installations and shipping in the Sea of Azov. Before Sevastopol, fine weather raised morale, horse races and sports' days were organised on the Plain of Balaclava and a lavish Queen's Birthday Parade was staged.


Renewed bombardment



At the beginning of June, the garrison of Sevastopol officially numbered 53,000, including 9,000 naval gunners. On the Mackenzie Heights and in camp at the Belbec were a further 21,000 men and 100 field guns. The allies' Third Bombardment eventually got under way on 6 June and at dawn the following day the French advanced on the Mamelon, while the British assaulted the Quarries. 'It was', attempt to carry on to the Malakov. Despite the undoubted gains, that formidable fortification and the Great Redan still lay- ahead. And the French had to some extent been disrupted by a furious dispute between P?lissier and Bosquet, which led to Regnaud de St Jean d'Angely taking over Bosquet's corps on the eve of renewed assault on the Russian defences.

The Fourth Bombardment commenced on 17 June, with 600 allied guns firing along the line from the Quarantine Fort in the west to Point Battery in the east. The shells of 114 French and 166 British cannon fell on the Karabel suburb. After a pause overnight, this aerial onslaught was to recommence at 3 am on 18 June, with infantry attacks going in three hours later. Suddenly Plissier decided to attack at 3 am without preliminary artillery fire and Raglan had hastily to amend his orders. 'Nothing but confusion and mismanagement' thus prevailed among the allies, in the words of the Hon. Somerset Calthorpe, Raglan's ADC.

The enemy, not for the first time, pre-empted the allies. Then the trail from an enemy shell fuse was mistaken for the executive rocket, and General Mayran on
the French right launched his assault prematurely. In the centre and left, generals Brunet and d'Autemarre waited until the agreed signal, so this part of the allied attack went in piecemeal and predictably met fierce resistance. Seeing the French predicament, Raglan sent his men over 400yds (365m) of open ground against the Great Redan without further bombardment. His noble gesture predictably failed, even though a few French and British did temporarily reach the outskirts of Sevastopol. During this action, the British incurred 1,505 casualties, the French 3,500 and the Russians 5,500 (some later Russian accounts claim 3,950). The Malakov and Great Redan, though, remained in Russian hands.

 Battle of the Tchernaya

Fall of Sevastopol, 7 June- 8 September 1855

The Fedioukine Hills lay 1,000yds (915m) from Sapoune Ridge and comprised three separate features scarred by deep ravines, which impeded easy movement. To reach them from the Mackenzie Heights, the Russians needed to cross the Tchernaya, 25ft (8m) wide, 6ft (2m) deep and edged with treacherous marshland, besides negotiating in front of it an aqueduct (canal) with steep masonry sides. Defending the Fedioukine Hills, the French had 18,000 men with 48 guns under General Herbillon deployed each side of the road from Tractir Bridge across the Plain of Balaclava, and they established a bridgehead east of the Tchernaya protected by earthworks.

On the French right flank, some 2,000yds (1,830m) further south and 3,000yds (2,745m) from the escarpment, lay high ground at right angles to the Woronzov Heights, overlooking bridges across the Tchernaya and the aqueduct. This t and its vicinity were occupied by 9,000 Sardinians and 36 guns, with a infantry and artillery detachment o the river on Telegraph Hill. A further 50 squadrons of French and British were in the area between the Fedioukine Hills and Kadikoi; 20 squadrons of French cavalry, two infantry divisions and 12 guns in the Baidar Valley. Ten thousand Turkish infantry and 36 guns formed additional reserves.
The allies knew that Russians were constructing portable bridges for the river and aqueduct; in turn, Gorchakov was aware that the allies expected an attack. Nevertheless, he was committed to mounting one. On the Russian right, General-Adjutant N. A. Read with two infantry divisions was ordered 'to engage the Fediukin [sic] by artillery fire and prepare to cross the river' in the area of Tractir Bridge, but not to do so without Gorchakov's specific permission. On Read's left, Lieutenant-General P. P. Liprandi, also with two divisions, was similarly to seize Telegraph Hill with one division and await further orders. His second division would move towards Chorgun and the Baidar Valley.


Battle of the Tchernaya, 16 August 1855. Russian troops from the Mackenzie Heights (background) cross the Tractir Bridge (centre) and a narrow bridge over the aqueduct (foreground) to be driven back from the Fedioukine Hills by French units including Zouaves. (Author's collection)


Herbillon, alerted by reports of unusual movement on the Mackenzie Heights during 15 August, was ready when Russian artillery opened up at dawn the following day. Whether Read did so at Gorchakov's behest or independently remains uncertain. But, as part of Liprandi's 6th Division demonstrated towards the Baidar Valley, he sent his troops across Tchernaya under cover of mist shortly after 5 am. Soon they were engaged in bitter close-quarter fighting. Made aware of their predicament, Gorchakov brought up his reserve 5th Division, but like Menshikov at the Alma, he could not make up his mind when or where to commit it. When the mist lifted, the French artillery devastated Read's battalions, as Plissier ordered forward infantry reinforcements. By 7.30 am, with its commander killed, Read's corps had been chased back over the Tchernaya.

Riding on to the field at about 8 am, Gorchakov ordered eight battalions from Liprandi's force, which had taken Telegraph a general retreat. The Battle of the Tchernaya (Chernaia Rechka to the Russians) on 16 August had lasted five hours. It cost the French 1,800 casualties; the Russians an estimated 8,000 (2,273 killed); the Sardinians 28 killed.

As Todleben foresaw, the last hurrah of the Russian army during the Crimean War had proved as disastrous as it was fruitless. To Alexander II, Gorchakov blamed the dead Read for not carrying out 'my orders to the letter' - orders that at the time were open to different interpretations and, even in retrospect, remain obscure. Major-General P. V. Veimarn, Read's chief of staff, believed that even if the Fedioukine Hills had been taken, the weight of allied reserves have prevented any assault on Sap Ridge and obliged the Russians to a their gains by nightfall. Field Mars Paskevich concluded that the battle 'without aim, without calculation, without necessity and most of all finally eliminated the possibility of attacking anything thereafter' - a damning, but justified, indictment of Gorchakov and his surrender to pressure from Moscow. Four divisions had been used piecemeal; most of Liprandi's force and the reserve division saw no action at all.

 Fall of Sevastopol

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904)

On 17 August, 704 allied guns opened the Fifth Bombardment on Sevastopol. Lasting four days, it was not, however, followed by the expected renewed assault on the Malakov and Great Redan. That occurred on 8 September after three days of further bombardment (the Sixth) by 775 British and French guns, 57 of them from the Royal Navy, 126 from the Royal Artillery. In the Little Redan, 200 of the 600 defenders la Motterouge the Curtain Battery. Each of these divisions would be supported by engineers, artillerymen to spike captured guns or turn them on the enemy and, critically, men with scaling ladders. Troops of the British Light and 2nd divisions, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Codrington and Major-General J. Markham respectively, attacking the Great Redan were to be similarly supported and preceded by skirmishers briefed to pick off enemy gunners, making a grand total of 1,900 men. Fears of another debacle like that of 18 June prevailed, especially as the exposed area short of the objective remained substantially the same. Brigadier-General C. A. Windham, who would distinguish himself on the day, wrote pessimistically to his wife: 'This may possibly, ay and probably will be, the last letter you will ever receive from me.'

Gorchakov believed that the French were waiting for heavy mortars and would not yet attempt an assault. Noon, when the enemy pickets changed, was designated zero hour, but the British and French left were not to attack until a flag signalled capture of the Malakov. Having taken their trenches to within 30yds (27m) of the Malakov, the sudden surge of MacMahon's division caught the Russians by surprise and they were quickly overrun. Cannon in the Curtain Battery, which could have ranged on the Malakov once captured, were spiked, but French troops were driven back from the Little Redan. P?lissier therefore decided to concentrate on holding the Malakov in strength against inevitable counter-attacks. MacMahon told a British officer: 'I'm here, and I shall stay here,' proceeding to beat off the Russians five times.

French troops on the allied left attacked at 2 pm and suffered heavy loss without taking either the Central or Flagstaff bastions. Due to the rocky terrain, the British had been unable to advance their trenches much closer than 400yds (365m) from their objective, and as on 18 June were enfiladed by withering fire from the Gervais, Barrack and Garden batteries. Although a few brave men (including some from the Naval Brigade) managed to get into the defence- work, they quickly became casualties or were driven out. For the second time an attack on the Great Redan had failed. It cost 2,610 British casualties, 550 of them dead, including 29 officers.

However, as Burgoyne had predicted, the Malakov proved the pivotal fortification. In the final assault on it, the French suffered 7,567 casualties (1,634 killed); Russian casualties were put at 12,000 (3,000 killed). With loss of the Malakov, Gorchakov decided that the southern part of Sevastopol was untenable. During the night of 8/9 September, leaving their wounded behind, the Russians blew up fortifications and important buildings in the port and crossed the prepared pontoon of boats, which they burnt behind them, to the northern suburb.

Next day the allies triumphantly took charge of the dockyard and its environs, claiming that Sevastopol had fallen. But Captain the Hon. Henry Clifford did not rejoice; '1 stood in the Redan more humble, more dejected and with a heavier heart than I have yet felt since I left home ... I looked towards the Malakov, there was the French flag, the Tricolour, planted on its parapet ... no flag floated on the parapet on which I stood.' He might have reflected, though, that if enemy fire had not been directed at the Great Redan, the French in the Malakov would have been bombarded from batteries not required to engage the British. Thus, on 9 September, the tricolour might not have been flying over the Malakov either. Capture of the main, southern part of Sevastopol with its dockyard and arsenals was truly an allied effort, especially as Turks and Sardinians were in the siege lines.

Windham's fate provides an interesting postscript. Despite his forebodings, he survived the Redan debacle, became Chief of Staff to the British C-in-C in the Crimea, was later knighted and advanced to the rank of lieutenant-general.

 Religious Wars

For weeks the pilgrims had been coming to Jerusalem for the Easter festival. They came from every corner of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, from Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Anatolia, the Greek peninsula, but most of all from Russia, travelling by sea to the port of Jaffa where they hired camels or donkeys. By Good Friday, on 10 April 1846, there were 20,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem. They rented any dwelling they could find or slept in family groups beneath the stars. To pay for their long journey nearly all of them had brought some merchandise, a handmade crucifix or ornament, strings of beads or pieces of embroidery, which they sold to European tourists at the holy shrines. The square before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focus of their pilgrimage, was a busy marketplace, with colourful displays of fruit and vegetables competing for space with pilgrims’ wares and the smelly hides of goats and oxen left out in the sun by the tanneries behind the church. Beggars, too, collected here. They frightened strangers into giving alms by threatening to touch them with their leprous hands. Wealthy tourists had to be protected by their Turkish guides, who hit the beggars with heavy sticks to clear a path to the church doors.

In 1846 Easter fell on the same date in the Latin and Greek Orthodox calendars, so the holy shrines were much more crowded than usual, and the mood was very tense. The two religious communities had long been arguing about who should have first right to carry out their Good Friday rituals on the altar of Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where the cross of Jesus was supposed to have been inserted in the rock. During recent years the rivalry between the Latins and the Greeks had reached such fever pitch that Mehmet Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, had been forced to position soldiers inside and outside the church to preserve order. But even this had not prevented fights from breaking out.

On this Good Friday the Latin priests arrived with their white linen altar-cloth to find that the Greeks had got there first with their silk embroidered cloth. The Catholics demanded to see the Greeks’ firman, their decree from the Sultan in Constantinople, empowering them to place their silk cloth on the altar first. The Greeks demanded to see the Latins’ firman allowing them to remove it. A fight broke out between the priests, who were quickly joined by monks and pilgrims on either side. Soon the whole church was a battlefield. The rival groups of worshippers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines. The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshippers of either side. By the time the church was cleared by Mehmet Pasha’s guards, more than forty people lay dead on the floor.

‘See here what is done in the name of religion!’ wrote the English social commentator Harriet Martineau, who travelled to the Holy Lands of Palestine and Syria in 1846.

1846.This Jerusalem is the most sacred place in the world, except Mekkeh, to the Mohammedan: and to the Christian and the Jew, it is the most sacred place in the world. What are they doing in this sanctuary of their common Father, as they all declare it to be? Here are the Mohammedans eager to kill any Jew or Christian who may enter the Mosque of Omar. There are the Greeks and Latin Christians hating each other, and ready to kill any Jew or Mohammedan who may enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And here are the Jews, pleading against their enemies, in the vengeful language of their ancient prophets.

The rivalry between the Christian Churches was intensified by the rapid growth in the number of pilgrims to Palestine in the nineteenth century. Railways and steamships made mass travel possible, opening up the region to tour-groups of Catholics from France and Italy and to the devout middle classes of Europe and America. The various Churches vied with one another for influence. They set up missions to support their pilgrims, competed over purchases of land, endowed bishoprics and monasteries, and established schools to convert the Orthodox Arabs (mainly Syrian and Lebanese), the largest but least educated Christian community in the Holy Lands.

‘Within the last two years considerable presents have been sent to Jerusalem to decorate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Russian, French, Neapolitan and Sardinian governments,’ reported William Young, the British consul in Palestine and Syria, to Lord Palmerston at the Foreign Office in 1839.

There are many symptoms of increasing jealousy and inimical feeling among the churches. The petty quarrels that have always existed between the Latin, Greek and Armenian convents were of little moment so long as their differences were settled from time to time by the one giving a larger bribe to the Turkish authorities than the other. But that day passes by, for these countries are now no longer closed against European intrigue in church matters.

Between 1842 and 1847 there was a flurry of activity in Jerusalem: the Anglicans founded a bishopric; the Austrians set up a Franciscan printing press; the French established a consulate in Jerusalem and pumped money into schools and churches for the Catholics; Pope Pius IX re-established a resident Latin patriarch, the first since the Crusades of the twelfth century; the Greek patriarch returned from Constantinople to tighten his hold on the Orthodox; and the Russians sent an ecclesiastical mission, which led to the foundation of a Russian compound with a hostel, hospital, chapel, school and marketplace to support the large and growing number of Russian pilgrims.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent more pilgrims to Jerusalem than any other branch of the Christian faith. Every year up to 15,000 Russian pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem for the Easter festival, some even making the long trek on foot across Russia and the Caucasus, through Anatolia and Syria. For the Russians, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects of intense and passionate devotion: to make a pilgrimage to them was the highest possible expression of their faith.

In some ways the Russians saw the Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of ‘Holy Russia’ was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity and with the Holy Sepulchre as its mother church. ‘Palestine’, wrote one Russian theologian in the 1840s, ‘is our native land, in which we do not recognize ourselves as foreigners. Centuries of pilgrimage had laid the basis of this claim, establishing a link between the Russian Church and the Holy Places (connected with the life of Christ in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) which many Russians counted more important – the basis of a higher spiritual authority – than the temporal and political sovereignty of the Ottomans in Palestine.

Nothing like this ardour could be found among the Catholics or Protestants, for whom the Holy Places were objects of historical interest and romantic sentiment rather than religious devotion. The travel writer and historian Alexander Kinglake thought that ‘the closest likeness of a pilgrim which the Latin Church could supply was often a mere French tourist with a journal and a theory and a plan of writing a book’. European tourists were repelled by the intense passion of the Orthodox pilgrims, whose strange rituals struck them as ‘barbaric’ and as ‘degrading superstitions’. Martineau refused to go to the Holy Sepulchre to see the washing of the pilgrims’ feet on Good Friday. ‘I could not go to witness mummeries done in the name of Christianity,’ she wrote, ‘compared with which the lowest fetishism on the banks of an African river would have been inoffensive.’ For the same reason, she would not go to the ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when thousands of Orthodox worshippers squeezed into the Holy Sepulchre to light their torches from the miraculous flames that appeared from the tomb of Christ. Rival groups of Orthodox-Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Serbians and Russians – would jostle with each other to light their candles first; fights would start; and sometimes worshippers were crushed to death or suffocated in the smoke. Baron Curzon, who witnessed one such scene in 1834, described the ceremony as a ‘scene of disorder and profanation’ in which the pilgrims, ‘almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed’.

It is hardly surprising that a Unitarian such as Martineau or an Anglican like Curzon should have been so hostile to such rituals: demonstrations of religious emotion had long been effaced from the Protestant Church. Like many tourists in the Holy Land, they sensed that they had less in common with the Orthodox pilgrims, whose wild behaviour seemed barely Christian at all, than with the relatively secular Muslims, whose strict reserve and dignity were more in sympathy with their own private forms of quiet prayer. Attitudes like theirs were to influence the formation of Western policies towards Russia in the diplomatic disputes about the Holy Land which would eventually lead to the Crimean War.

Unaware of and indifferent to the importance of the Holy Lands to Russia’s spiritual identity, European commentators saw only a growing Russian menace to the interests of the Western Churches there. In the early 1840s, Young, now the British consul, sent regular reports to the Foreign Office about the steady build-up of ‘Russian agents’ in Jerusalem – their aim being, in his view, to prepare a ‘Russian conquest of the Holy Lands’ through sponsored pilgrimage and purchases of land for Orthodox churches and monasteries. This was certainly a time when the Russian ecclesiastical mission was exerting its influence on the Greek, Armenian and Arab Orthodox communities by financing churches, schools and hostels in Palestine and Syria (an activism resisted by the Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg, which rightly feared that such activities might antagonize the Western powers). Young’s reports about Russia’s conquest plans were increasingly hysterical. ‘The pilgrims of Russia have been heard to speak openly of the period being at hand when this country will be under the Russian government,’ he wrote to Palmerston in 1840. ‘The Russians could in one night during Easter arm 10,000 pilgrims within the walls of Jerusalem. The convents in the city are spacious and, at a trifling expense, might be converted into fortresses.’ British fears of this ‘Russian plan’ accelerated Anglican initiatives, eventually leading to the foundation of the first Anglican church in Jerusalem in 1845.

But it was the French who were most alarmed by the growing Russian presence in the Holy Lands. According to French Catholics, France had a long historical connection to Palestine going back to the Crusades. In French Catholic opinion, this conferred on France, Europe’s ‘first Catholic nation’, a special mission to protect the faith in the Holy Lands, despite the marked decline of Latin pilgrimage in recent years. ‘We have a heritage to conserve there, an interest to defend,’ declared the Catholic provincial press. ‘Centuries will pass before the Russians shed a fraction of the blood that the French spilled in the Crusades for the Holy Places. The Russians took no part in the Crusades … . The primacy of France among the Christian nations is so well established in the Orient that the Turks call Christian Europe Frankistan, the country of the French.

To counteract the growing Russian presence and cement their role as the main protector of the Catholics in Palestine, the French set up a consulate in Jerusalem in 1843 (an outraged Muslim crowd, hostile to the influence of the Western powers, soon tore the godless tricolour from its mast). At Latin services in the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the French consul began to appear in full dress uniform with a large train of officials. For the midnight Christmas Mass in Bethlehem he was accompanied by a large force of infantry furnished by Mehmet Pasha but paid for by France.

Fights between the Latins and the Orthodox were as common at the Church of the Nativity as they were at the Holy Sepulchre. For years they had squabbled about whether Latin monks should have a key to the main church (of which the Greeks were the guardians) so that they could pass through it to the Chapel of the Manger, which belonged to the Catholics; whether they should have a key to the Grotto of the Nativity, an ancient cave beneath the church thought to be the place where Christ was born; and whether they should be allowed to put into the marble floor of the Grotto, on the supposed location of the Nativity, a silver star adorned with the arms of France and inscribed in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary’. The star had been placed there by the French in the eighteenth century, but had always been resented as a ‘badge of conquest’ by the Greeks. In 1847 the silver star was stolen; the tools used to wrench it from the marble floor were abandoned at the site. The Latins immediately accused the Greeks of carrying out the crime. Only recently the Greeks had built a wall to prevent the Latin priests from accessing the Grotto, and this had ended in a brawl between the Latin and Greek priests. After the removal of the silver star, the French launched a diplomatic protest to the Porte, the Ottoman government in Constantinople, citing a long-neglected treaty of 1740 which they claimed secured the rights of the Catholics to the Grotto for the upkeep of the silver star. But the Greeks had rival claims based on custom and concessions by the Porte. This small conflict over a church key was in fact the start of a diplomatic crisis over the control of the Holy Places that would have profound consequences.

Along with the keys to the church at Bethlehem, the French claimed for the Catholics a right to repair the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, also based on the treaty of 1740. The roof was in urgent need of attention. Most of the lead on one side had been stripped off (the Greeks and the Latins each accusing the other side of having done this). Rain came through the roof and birds flew freely in the church. Under Turkish law, whoever owned the roof of a house was the owner of that house. So the right to carry out the repairs was fiercely disputed by the Latins and the Greeks on the grounds that it would establish them in the eyes of the Turks as the legitimate protectors of the Holy Sepulchre. Against the French, Russia backed the counterclaims of the Orthodox, appealing to the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, signed by the Turks after their defeat by Russia in the war of 1768–74. According to the Russians, the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji had given them a right to represent the interests of the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire. This was a long way from the truth. The language of the treaty was ambiguous and easily distorted by translations into various languages (the Russians signed the treaty in Russian and Italian, the Turks in Turkish and Italian, and then it was translated by the Russians into French for diplomatic purposes). But Russian pressure on the Porte ensured that the Latins would not get their way. The Turks temporized and fudged the issue with conciliatory noises to both sides.

The conflict deepened in May 1851, when Louis-Napoleon appointed his close friend the Marquis Charles de La Valette as ambassador in the Turkish capital. Two and a half years after his election as President of France, Napoleon was still struggling to assert his power over the National Assembly. To strengthen his position he had made a series of concessions to Catholic opinion: in 1849 French troops had returned the Pope to Rome after he had been forced out of the Vatican by revolutionary crowds; and the Falloux Law of 1850 had opened the way to an increase in the number of Catholic-run schools. The appointment of La Valette was another major concession to clerical opinion. The Marquis was a zealous Catholic, a leading figure in the shadowy ‘clerical party’ which was widely viewed as pulling the hidden strings of France’s foreign policy. The influence of this clerical faction was particularly strong on France’s policies towards the Holy Places, where it called for a firm stand against the Orthodox menace. La Valette went well beyond his remit when he took up his position as ambassador. On his way to Constantinople he made an unscheduled stop in Rome to persuade the Pope to support the French claims for the Catholics in the Holy Lands. Installed in Constantinople, he made a point of using aggressive language in his dealings with the Porte – a tactic, he explained, to ‘make the Sultan and his ministers recoil and capitulate’ to French interests. The Catholic press rallied behind La Valette, especially the influential Journal des débats, whose editor was a close friend of his. La Valette, in turn, fed the press with quotations that inflamed the situation and enraged the Tsar, Nicholas I.

In August 1851 the French formed a joint commission with the Turks to discuss the issue of religious rights. The commission dragged on inconclusively as the Turks carefully weighed up the competing Greek and Latin claims. Before its work could be completed, La Valette proclaimed that the Latin right was ‘clearly established’, meaning that there was no need for the negotiations to go on. He talked of France ‘being justified in a recourse to extreme measures’ to support the Latin right, and boasted of ‘her superior naval forces in the Mediterranean’ as a means of enforcing French interests.

It is doubtful whether La Valette had the approval of Napoleon for such an explicit threat of war. Napoleon was not particularly interested in religion. He was ignorant about the details of the Holy Lands dispute, and basically defensive in the Middle East. But it is possible and perhaps even likely that Napoleon was happy for La Valette to provoke a crisis with Russia. He was keen to explore anything that would come between the three powers (Britain, Russia, Austria) that had isolated France from the Concert of Europe and subjected it to the ‘galling treaties’ of the 1815 settlement following the defeat of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis-Napoleon had reasonable grounds for hoping that a new system of alliances might emerge from the dispute in the Holy Lands: Austria was a Catholic country, and might be persuaded to side with France against Orthodox Russia, while Britain had its own imperial interests to defend against the Russians in the Near East. Whatever lay behind it, La Valette’s premeditated act of aggression infuriated the Tsar, who warned the Sultan that any recognition of the Latin claims would violate existing treaties between the Porte and Russia, forcing him to break off diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. This sudden turn of events alerted Britain, which had previously encouraged France to reach a compromise, but now had to prepare for the possibility of war.

The war would not actually begin for another two years, but when it did the conflagration it unleashed was fuelled by the religious passions that had been building over centuries.


More than any other power, the Russian Empire had religion at its heart. The tsarist system organized its subjects through their confessional status; it understood its boundaries and international commitments almost entirely in terms of faith.

In the founding ideology of the tsarist state, which gained new force through Russian nationalism in the nineteeth century, Moscow was the last remaining capital of Othodoxy, the ‘Third Rome’, following the fall of Constantinople, the centre of Byzantium, to the Turks in 1453. According to this ideology, it was part of Russia’s divine mission in the world to liberate the Orthodox from the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and restore Constantinople as the seat of Eastern Christianity. The Russian Empire was conceived as an Orthodox crusade. From the defeat of the Mongol khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the sixteenth century to the conquest of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Siberia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia’s imperial identity was practically defined by the conflict between Christian settlers and Tatar nomads on the Eurasian steppe. This religious boundary was always more important than any ethnic one in the definition of the Russian national consciousness: the Russian was Orthodox and the foreigner was of a different faith.

Religion was at the heart of Russia’s wars against the Turks, who by the middle of the nineteenth century had 10 million Orthodox subjects (Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Moldavians, Wallachians and Serbs) in their European territories and something in the region of another 3 to 4 million Christians (Armenians, Georgians and a small number of Abkhazians) in the Caucasus and Anatolia.

On the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire a defensive line of fortresses stretched from Belgrade in the Balkans to Kars in the Caucasus. This was the line along which all of Turkey’s wars with Russia had been fought since the latter half of the seventeenth century (in 1686–99, 1710–11, 1735–9, 1768–74, 1787–92, 1806–12 and 1828–9). The Crimean War and the later Russo-Turkish war of 1877–8 were no exceptions to the rule. The borderlands defended by these fortresses were religious battlegrounds, the fault-line between Orthodoxy and Islam.

Two regions, in particular, were vital in these Russo-Turkish wars: the Danube delta (encompassing the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia) and the Black Sea northern coast (including the Crimean peninsula). They were to become the two main theatres of the Crimean War.

With its wide rivers and pestilent marshes, the Danube delta was a crucial buffer zone protecting Constantinople from a land attack by the Russians. Danubian food supplies were essential for the Turkish fortresses, as they were for any Russian army attacking the Ottoman capital, so the allegiance of the peasant population was a vital factor in these wars. The Russians appealed to the Orthodox religion of the peasantry in an attempt to get them on their side for a war of liberation against Muslim rule, while the Turks themselves adopted scorched-earth policies. Hunger and disease repeatedly defeated the advancing Russians, as they marched into the Danubian lands whose crops had been destroyed by the retreating Turks. Any attack on the Turkish capital would thus depend on the Russians setting up a sea route – through the Black Sea – to bring supplies to the attacking troops.

But the Black Sea northern coast and the Crimea were also used by the Ottomans as a buffer zone against Russia. Rather than colonize the area, the Ottomans relied on their vassals there, the Turkic-speaking Tatar tribes of the Crimean khanate, to protect the borders of Islam against Christian invaders. Ruled by the Giray dynasty, the direct descendants of Genghiz Khan himself, the Crimean khanate was the last surviving outpost of the Golden Horde. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century its army of horsemen had the run of the southern steppes between Russia and the Black Sea coast. Raiding into Muscovy, the Tatars provided a regular supply of Slavic slaves for sale in the sex-markets and rowing-galleys of Constantinople. The tsars of Russia and the kings of Poland paid tribute to the khan to keep his men away.

From the end of the seventeenth century, when it gained possession of Ukraine, Russia began a century-long struggle to wrench these buffer zones from Ottoman control. The warm-water ports of the Black Sea, so essential for the development of Russian trade and naval power, were the strategic objects in this war, but religious interests were never far behind. Thus, after the defeat of the Ottomans by Russia and its allies in 1699, Peter the Great demanded from the Turks a guarantee of the Greek rights at the Holy Sepulchre and free access for all Russians to the Holy Lands. The struggle for the Danubian principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) was also in part a religious war. In the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1710–11 Peter ordered Russian troops to cross the River Pruth and invade the principalities in the hope of provoking an uprising by their Christian population against the Turks. The uprising did not materialize. But the idea that Russia could appeal to its co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire to undermine the Turks remained at the centre of tsarist policy for the next two hundred years.

The policy took formal shape in the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–96). After their decisive defeat of the Ottomans in the war of 1768–74, during which they had reoccupied the principalities, the Russians demanded relatively little from the Turks in terms of territory, before withdrawing from the principalities. The resulting Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji granted them only a small stretch of the Black Sea coastline between the Dnieper and Bug rivers (including the port of Kherson), the Kabarda region of the Causasus, and the Crimean ports of Kerch and Enikale, where the Sea of Azov joins the Black Sea, although the treaty forced the Ottomans to surrender their sovereignty over the Crimean khanate and give independence to the Tatars. The treaty also gave Russian shipping free passage through the Dardanelles, the narrow Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. But if the Russians did not gain a lot of territory, they gained substantial rights to interfere in Ottoman affairs for the protection of the Orthodox. Kuchuk Kainarji restored the principalities to their former status under Ottoman sovereignty, but the Russians assumed the right of protection over the Orthodox population. The treaty also granted Russia permission to build an Orthodox church in Constantinople – a treaty right the Russians took to mean a broader right to represent the sultan’s Orthodox subjects. It allowed the Christian merchants of the Ottoman Empire (Greeks, Armenians, Moldavians and Wallachians) to sail their ships in Turkish waters with a Russian flag, an important concession that allowed the Russians to advance their commercial and religious interests at the same time. These religious claims had some interesting pragmatic ramifications. Since the Russians could not annex the Danubian principalities without incurring the opposition of the great powers, they looked instead to win concessions from the Porte that would turn the principalities into semi-autonomous regions under Russian influence. Shared religious loyalties would, in time, they hoped, lead to alliances with the Moldavians and Wallachians which would weaken Ottoman authority and ensure Russian domination over south-east Europe should the Ottoman Empire collapse.

Encouraged by victory against Turkey, Catherine also pursued a policy of collaboration with the Greeks, whose religious interests she claimed Russia had a treaty right and obligation to protect. Catherine sent military agents into Greece, trained Greek officers in her military schools, invited Greek traders and seamen to settle in her new towns on the Black Sea coast, and encouraged Greeks in their belief that Russia would support their movement for national liberation from the Turks. More than any other Russian ruler, Catherine identified with the Greek cause. Under the growing influence of her most senior military commander, statesman and court favourite Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine even dreamed of re-creating the old Byzantine Empire on the ruins of the Ottoman. The French philosopher Voltaire, with whom the Empress corresponded, addressed her as ‘votre majesté impériale de l’église grecque’, while Baron Friedrich Grimm, her favourite German correspondent, referred to her as ‘l’Impératrice des Grecs’. Catherine conceived this Hellenic empire as a vast Orthodox imperium protected by Russia, whose Slavonic tongue had once been the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire, according (erroneously) to the first great historian of Russia, Vasily Tatishchev. The Empress gave the name of Constantine – after both the first and the final emperor of Byzantium – to her second grandson. To commemorate his birth in 1779, she had minted special silver coins with the image of the great St Sophia church (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, cruelly converted into a mosque since the Ottoman conquest. Instead of a minaret, the coin showed an Orthodox cross on the cupola of the former Byzantine basilica. To educate her grandson to become the ruler of this resurrected Eastern Empire, the Russian Empress brought nurses from Naxos to teach him Greek, a language which he spoke with great facility as an adult.

It was always unclear how serious she was about this ‘Greek Project’. In the form that it was drawn up by Count Bezborodko, her private secretary and virtual Foreign Minister, in 1780, the project involved nothing less than the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, the division of their Balkan territories between Russia and Austria, and the ‘re-establishment of the ancient Greek empire’ with Constantinople as its capital. Catherine discussed the project with the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1781. They agreed on its desirability in an exchange of letters over the next year. But whether they intended to carry out the plan remains uncertain. Some historians have concluded that the Greek project was no more than a piece of neoclassical iconography, or political theatre, like the ‘Potemkin villages’, which played no real part in Russia’s foreign policy. But even if there was no concrete plan for immediate action, it does at least seem fairly clear that the project formed a part of Catherine’s general aims for the Russian Empire as a Black Sea power linked through trade and religion to the Orthodox world of the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem. In the words of Catherine’s favourite poet, Gavril Derzhavin, who was also one of Russia’s most important statesmen in her reign.


To advance through a Crusade, 
To purify the Jordan River,
To liberate the Holy Sepulchre,
To return Athens to the Athenians,
Constantinople – to Constantine

And re-establish Japheth’s Holy Land.a‘Ode on the Capture of Izmail’


It was certainly more than political theatre when Catherine and Joseph, accompanied by a large international entourage, toured the Black Sea ports. The Empress visited the building sites of new Russian towns and military bases, passing under archways erected by Potemkin in her honour and inscribed with the words ‘The Road to Byzantium’. Her journey was a statement of intent.

Catherine believed that Russia had to turn towards the south if it was to be a great power. It was not enough for it to export furs and timber through the Baltic ports, as in the days of medieval Muscovy. To compete with the European powers it had to develop trading outlets for the agricultural produce of its fertile southern lands and build up a naval presence in the warm-water ports of the Black Sea from which its ships could gain entry to the Mediterranean. Because of the odd geography of Russia, the Black Sea was crucial, not just to the military defence of the Russian Empire on its southern frontier with the Muslim world, but also to its viability as a power on the European continent. Without the Black Sea, Russia had no access to Europe by the sea, except via the Baltic, which could easily be blocked by the other northern powers in the event of a European conflict (as indeed it would be by the British during the Crimean War).

The plan to develop Russia as a southern power had begun in earnest in 1776, when Catherine placed Potemkin in charge of New Russia (Novorossiia), the sparsely populated territories newly conquered from the Ottomans on the Black Sea’s northern coastline, and ordered him to colonize the area. She granted enormous tracts of land to her nobility and invited European colonists (Germans, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs) to settle on the steppelands as agriculturalists. New cities were established there – Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa – many of them built in the French and Italian rococo style. Potemkin personally oversaw the construction of Ekaterinoslav (meaning ‘Catherine’s Glory’) as a Graeco-Roman fantasy to symbolize the classical inheritance that he and the supporters of the Greek project had envisaged for Russia. He dreamed up grandiose neoclassical structures, most of which were never built, such as shops ‘built in a semicircle like the Propylaeum or threshold of Athens’, a governor’s house in the ‘Greek and Roman style’, law courts in the shape of ‘ancient basilicas’, and a cathedral, ‘a kind of imitation of St Paul’s outside the walls of Rome’, as he explained in a letter to Catherine. It was, he said, ‘a sign of the transformation of this land by your care, from a barren steppe to an ample garden, and from the wilderness of animals to a home welcoming people from all lands’.

Odessa was the jewel in Russia’s southern crown. Its architectural beauty owed a great deal to the Duc de Richelieu, a refugee from the French Revolution, who for many years served as the city’s governor. But its importance as a port was the work of the Greeks, who were first encouraged to settle in the town by Catherine. Thanks to the freedom of movement afforded Russian shipping by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, Odessa soon became a major player in the Black Sea and Mediterranean trade, to a large degree supplanting the domination of the French.

Russia’s incorporation of the Crimea followed a different course. As part of the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, the Crimean khanate had been made independent of the Ottomans, although the Sultan had retained a nominal religious authority in his role as caliph. Despite their signature on the treaty, the Ottomans had been reluctant to accept the independence of the Crimea, fearing it would soon be swallowed up by the Russians, like the rest of the Black Sea coast. They held on to the powerful fortress of Ochakov at the mouth of the Dnieper river from which to attack the Russians if they intervened in the peninsula. But they had little defence against Russia’s policy of political and religious infiltration.


The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, was a bitter humiliation for the Turks. It was the first Muslim territory to be lost to Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier of the Porte reluctantly accepted it. But other politicians at the Sultan’s court saw the loss of the Crimea as a mortal danger to the Ottoman Empire, arguing that the Russians would use it as a military base against Constantinople and Ottoman control of the Balkans, and they pressed for war against Russia. But it was unrealistic for the Turks to fight the Russians on their own, and Turkish hopes of Western intervention were not great: Austria had aligned itself with Russia in anticipation of a future Russian-Austrian partition of the Ottoman Empire; France was too exhausted by its involvement in the American War of Independence to send a fleet to the Black Sea; while the British, deeply wounded by their losses in America, were essentially indifferent (if ‘France means to be quiet about the Turks’, noted Lord Grantham, the Foreign Secretary, ‘why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil’).

Ottoman forbearance broke four years later, in 1787, shortly after Catherine’s provocative procession through her newly conquered Black Sea coastal towns, which came just as the Turks were facing further losses to the Russians in the Caucasus.b Hopeful of a Prussian alliance, the pro-war party at the Porte prevailed, and the Ottomans declared war on Russia, which was then supported by its ally Austria with its own declaration of war against Turkey. At first the Ottomans had some success. On the Danube front, they pushed back the Austrian forces into the Banat. But military help from Prussia never came, and after a long siege the Turks lost their strategic fortress at Ochakov to the Russians, followed by Belgrade and the Danubian principalities to an Austrian counter-offensive, before the Russians took the important Turkish forts in the Danube estuary. The Turks were forced to sue for peace. By the Treaty of Iai, in 1792, they regained a nominal control of the Danubian principalities, but ceded the area of Ochakov to Russia, thereby making the Dniester river the new Russo-Turkish boundary. They also declared their formal recognition of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. But in reality they never fully accepted its loss and waited for revenge.


In Russia’s religious war against its Muslim neighbours, the Islamic cultures of the Black Sea area were regarded as a particular danger. Russia’s rulers were afraid of an Islamic axis, a broad coalition of Muslim peoples under Turkish leadership, threatening Russia’s southern borderlands, where the Muslim population was increasing fast, partly as a result of high birth rates, and partly from conversions to Islam by nomadic tribes. It was to consolidate imperial control in these unsettled borderlands that the Russians launched a new part of their southern strategy in the early decades of the nineteenth century: clearing Muslim populations and encouraging Christian settlers to colonize the newly conquered lands.

Bessarabia was conquered by the Russians during the war against Turkey in 1806–12. It was formally ceded by the Turks to Russia through the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812, which also placed the Danubian principalities under the joint sovereignty of Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The new tsarist rulers of Bessarabia expelled the Muslim population, sending thousands of Tatar farmers as prisoners of war to Russia. They resettled the fertile plains of Bessarabia with Moldavians, Wallachians, Bulgarians, Ruthenians and Greeks attracted to the area by tax breaks, exemptions from military service, and by loans to skilled craftsmen from the Russian government. Under pressure to populate the area, which brought Russia to within a few kilometres of the Danube, the local tsarist authorities even turned a blind eye to the runaway Ukrainian and Russian serfs, who arrived in growing numbers in Bessarabia after 1812. There was an active programme of church-building, while the establishment of an eparchy in Kishinev locked the local Church leaders into the Russian (as opposed to the Greek) Orthodox Church.

The Russian conquest of the Caucasus, too, was part of this crusade. To a large extent, it was conceived as a religious war against the Muslim mountain tribes, the Chechens, Ingush, Circassians and Daghestanis, and for the Christianization of the Caucasus. The Muslim tribes were mainly Sunni, fiercely independent of political control by any secular power but aligned by religion to the Ottoman sultan in his capacity as ‘supreme caliph of Islamic law’. Under the command of General Alexander Ermolov, appointed as governor of Georgia in 1816, the Russians fought a savage war of terror, raiding villages, burning houses, destroying crops and clearing the forests, in a vain attempt to subjugate the mountain tribes. The murderous campaign gave rise to an organized resistance movement by the tribes, which soon assumed a religious character of its own.

The main religious influence, known as Muridism, came from the Naqshbandiya (Sufi) sect, which began to flourish in Daghestan in the 1810s and spread from there to Chechnya, where preachers organized the resistance as a jihad (holy war) led by the Imam Ghazi Muhammad, in defence of shariah law and the purity of Islamic faith. Muridism was a powerful mixture of holy and social war against the infidel Russians and the princes who supported them. It brought a new unity to the mountain tribes, previously divided by blood-feuds and vendettas, enabling the imam to introduce taxes and universal military service. The imam’s rule was enforced through the murids (religious disciples), who provided local officials and judges in the rebel villages.

The more religious the resistance grew, the more the Russian invasion’s religious character intensified. The Christianization of the Caucasus became one of the primary goals, as the Russians rejected any compromise with the rebel movement’s Muslim leadership. ‘A complete rapprochement between them and us can be expected only when the Cross is set up on the mountains and in the valleys, and when churches of Christ the Saviour have replaced the mosques,’ declared an official Russian document. ‘Until then, force of arms is the true bastion of our rule in the Caucasus.’ The Russians destroyed mosques and imposed restrictions on Muslim practices – the greatest outcry being caused by the prohibition of the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. In many areas, the destruction of Muslim settlements was connected to a Russian policy of what today would be known as ‘ethnic cleansing’, the forced resettlement of mountain tribes and the reallocation of their land to Christian settlers. In the Kuban and the northern Caucasus, Muslim tribes were replaced by Slavic settlers, mainly Russian or Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks. In parts of the southern Caucasus, the Christian Georgians and Armenians sided with the Russian invasion and took a share of the spoils. During the conquest of the Ganja khanate (Elizavetopol), for example, Georgians joined the invading Russian army as auxiliaries; they were then encouraged by the Russians to move into the occupied territory and take over lands abandoned by the Muslims after a campaign of religious persecution had encouraged them to move away. The province of Erivan, which roughly corresponds to modern Armenia, had a largely Turkish-Muslim population until the Russo-Turkish war of 1828–9, during which the Russians expelled around 26,000 Muslims from the area. Over the next decade they moved in almost twice that number of Armenians.

But it was in the Crimea that the religious character of Russia’s southern conquests was most clear. The Crimea has a long and complex religious history. For the Russians, it was a sacred place. According to their chronicles, it was in Khersonesos, the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of the Crimea, just outside modern Sevastopol, that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’. But it was also home to Scythians, Romans, Greeks, Goths, Genoese, Jews, Armenians, Mongols and Tatars. Located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world of the Ottomans and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Crimea was continuously in contention, the site of many wars. Religious shrines and buildings in the Crimea themselves became battlefields of faith, as each new wave of settlement claimed them as their own. In the coastal town of Sudak, for example, there is a St Matthew church. It was originally built as a mosque, but subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by the Greeks as an Orthodox church. It was later converted into a Catholic church by the Genoese, who came to the Crimea in the thirteenth century, and then turned back into a mosque by the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until the Russian annexation, when it was reconverted into an Orthodox church.

The Russian annexation of the Crimea had created 300,000 new imperial subjects, nearly all of them Muslim Tatars and Nogais. The Russians attempted to co-opt the local notables (beys and mirzas) into their administration by offering to convert them to Christianity and elevate them to noble status. But their invitation was ignored. The power of these notables had never been derived from civil service but from their ownership of land and from clan-based politics: as long as they were allowed to keep their land, most of them preferred to keep their standing in the local community rather than serve their new imperial masters. The majority had ties through kin or trade or religion to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them emigrated there following the Russian takeover.

Russian policy towards the Tatar peasants was more brutal. Serfdom was unknown in the Crimea, unlike most of Russia. The freedom of the Tatar peasants was recognized by the new imperial government, which made them into state peasants (a separate legal category from the serfs). But the continued allegiance of the Tatars to the Ottoman caliph, to whom they appealed in their Friday prayers, was a constant provocation to the Russians. It gave them cause to doubt the sincerity of their new subjects’ oath of allegiance to the tsar. Throughout their many wars with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century, the Russians remained terrified of Tatar revolts in the Crimea. They accused Muslim leaders of praying for a Turkish victory and Tatar peasants of hoping for their liberation by the Turks, despite the fact that, for the most part, until the Crimean War, the Muslim population remained loyal to the tsar.

Convinced of Tatar perfidy, the Russians did what they could to get their new subjects to leave. The first mass exodus of Crimean Tatars to Turkey occurred during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787–92. Most of it was the panic flight of peasants frightened of reprisals by the Russians. But the Tatars were also encouraged to depart by a variety of other Russian measures, including the seizure of their land, punitive taxation, forced labour and physical intimidation by Cossack squads. By 1800 nearly one-third of the Crimean Tatar population, about 100,000 people, had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire with another 10,000 leaving in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806–12. They were replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, many of them refugees from the Ottoman Empire who wanted the protection of a Christian state. The exodus of the Crimean Tatars was the start of a gradual retreat of the Muslims from Europe. It was part of a long history of demographic exchange and ethnic conflict between the Ottoman and Orthodox spheres which would last until the Balkan crises of the late twentieth century.

The Christianization of the Crimea was also realized in grand designs for churches, palaces and neoclassical cities that would eradicate all Muslim traces from the physical environment. Catherine envisaged the Crimea as Russia’s southern paradise, a pleasure-garden where the fruits of her enlightened Christian rule could be enjoyed and exhibited to the world beyond the Black Sea. She liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name: she thought that it linked Russia to the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium. She gave enormous tracts of land to Russia’s nobles to establish magnificent estates along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the carriers of a new Christian civilization in this previously heathen land.

Urban planning reinforced this Russian domination of the Crimea: ancient Tatar towns like Bakhchiserai, the capital of the former khanate, were downgraded or abandoned completely; ethnically mixed cities such as Theodosia or Simferopol, the Russian administrative capital, were gradually reordered by the imperial state, with the centre of the city shifted from the old Tatar quarter to new areas where Russian churches and official buildings were erected; and new towns like Sevastopol, the Russian naval base, were built entirely in the neoclassical style.

Church-building in the newly conquered colony was relatively slow, and mosques continued to dominate the skyline in many towns and villages. But in the early nineteenth century there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains, Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries. It was all part of a deliberate effort to reclaim the Crimea as a sacred Christian site, a Russian Mount Athos, a place of pilgrimage for those who wanted to make a connection to the cradle of Slavic Christianity.

The most important holy site was, of course, the ruin of Khersonesos, excavated by the imperial administration in 1827, where a church of St Vladimir was later built to mark the notional spot where the Grand Prince had converted Kievan Rus’ to Christianity. It was one of those symbolic ironies of history that this sacred shrine was only a few metres from the place where the French forces landed and set up their camp during the Crimean War.

 Eastern Questions

The Sultan rode on a white horse at the head of the procession, followed by his retinue of ministers and officials on foot. To the sound of an artillery salute, they emerged from the main Imperial Gate of the Topkapi Palace into the midday heat of a July day in Constantinople, the Turkish capital. It was Friday, 13 July 1849, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Sultan Abdülmecid was on his way to reinaugurate the great mosque of Hagia Sophia. For the past two years it had been shut down for urgent restorations, the building having fallen into chronic disrepair after many decades of neglect. Riding through the crowd assembled in the square on the northern side of the former Orthodox basilica, where his mother, children and harem awaited him in gilded carriages, the Sultan arrived at the entrance of the mosque, where he was met by his religious officials and, in a break from Islamic tradition which specifically excluded non-Muslims from such holy ceremonies, by two Swiss architects, Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, who had overseen the restoration work.

The Fossatis led Abdülmecid through a series of private chambers to the sultan’s loge in the main prayer hall which they had rebuilt and redecorated in a neo-Byzantine style on the orders of the Sultan, whose insignia was fixed above the entry door. When the dignitaries had gathered in the hall, the rites of consecration were carried out by the Sheikh ül-Islam, the supreme religious official in the Ottoman Empire, who was (wrongly) equated with the Pope by European visitors.

It was an extraordinary occasion – the sultan-caliph and religious leaders of the world’s largest Muslim empire consecrating one of its most holy mosques in chambers rebuilt by Western architects in the style of the original Byzantine cathedral from which it was converted following the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks. After 1453 the Ottomans had taken down the bells, replaced the cross with four minarets, removed the altar and iconostasis, and over the course of the next two centuries plastered over the Byzantine mosaics of the Orthodox basilica. The mosaics had remained concealed until the Fossati brothers had discovered them by accident while restoring the revetments and plasterwork in 1848. Having cleared a part of the mosaics on the north aisle vault, they showed them to the Sultan, who was so impressed by their brilliant colours that he ordered all of them to be liberated from their plaster covering. The hidden Christian origins of the mosque had been revealed.

Realizing the significance of their discovery, the Fossati brothers made drawings and watercolours of the Byzantine mosaics, which they presented to the Tsar in the hope of receiving a subvention for the publication of their work. The architects had previously worked in St Petersburg, and the elder brother, Gaspare, had originally come to Constantinople to build the Russian embassy, a neoclassical palace completed in 1845, where he was joined by Giuseppe. This was a time when many European architects were constructing buildings in the Turkish capital, many of them foreign embassies, a time when the young Sultan was giving his support to a whole series of Westernizing liberal reforms and opening up his empire to the influence of Europe in the pursuit of economic modernization. Between 1845 and 1847 the Fossatis were employed by the Sultan to erect a massive three-storey complex for Constantinople University. Built entirely in the Western neoclassical style and placed awkwardly between the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet mosques, the complex was burned down in 1936.

The Tsar of Russia, Nicholas I, was bound to be excited by the discovery of these Byzantine mosaics. The church of Hagia Sophia was a focal point in the religious life of tsarist Russia – a civilization built upon the myth of Orthodox succession to the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia was the Mother of the Russian Church, the historic link between Russia and the Orthodox world of the eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Lands. According to the Primary Chronicle, the first recorded history of Kievan Rus’, compiled by monks in the eleventh century, the Russians were originally inspired to convert to Christianity by the visual beauty of the church. Sent to various countries to search for the True Faith, the emissaries of the Grand Prince Vladimir reported of Hagia Sophia: ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is not such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among them, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. The reclamation of the church remained a persistent and fundamental aim of Russian nationalists and religious leaders throughout the nineteenth century. They dreamed of the conquest of Constantinople and its resurrection as the Russian capital (‘Tsargrad’) of an Orthodox empire stretching from Siberia to the Holy Lands. In the words of the Tsar’s leading missionary, Archimandrite Uspensky, who had led the ecclesiastical mission to Jerusalem in 1847, ‘Russia from eternity has been ordained to illuminate Asia and to unite the Slavs. There will be a union of all Slav races with Armenia, Syria, Arabia and Ethiopia, and they will praise God in Saint Sophia.

The Tsar rejected the Fossatis’ application for a grant to publish plans and drawings of the great Byzantine church and its mosaics. Although Nicholas expressed great interest in their work, this was not the time for a Russian ruler to get involved in the restoration of a mosque that was so central to the religious and political claims of the Ottoman Empire on the former territories of Byzantium. But at the heart of the conflict that eventually led to the Crimean War was Russia’s own religious claim to lead and protect the Christians of the Ottoman Empire, a demand that centred on its aspiration to reclaim Hagia Sophia as the Mother Church and Constantinople as the capital of a vast Orthodox imperium connecting Moscow to Jerusalem.

The Fossatis’ studies would not be published until more than a century later, although some drawings of the Byzantine mosaics by the German archaeologist Wilhelm Salzenberg were commissioned by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the brother-in-law of Nicholas I, and published in Berlin in 1854.5 It was only through these drawings that the nineteenth-century world would learn about the hidden Christian treasures of the Hagia Sophia mosque. On the Sultan’s orders, the figural mosaic panels were re-covered with plaster and painted in accordance with Muslim religious customs prohibiting the representation of humans. But the Fossatis were allowed to leave the purely ornamental Byzantine mosaics exposed, and they even painted decorations matching the surviving mosaic patterns onto whitewashed panels covering the human images.

The fortunes of the Byzantine mosaics offered a graphic illustration of the complex intermingling and competing claims of Muslim and Christian cultures in the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Constantinople was the capital of a sprawling multinational empire stretching from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, from Aden to Algeria, and comprising around 35 million people. Muslims were an absolute majority, accounting for about 60 per cent of the population, virtually all of them in Asiatic Turkey, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula; but the Turks themselves were a minority, perhaps 10 million, mostly concentrated in Anatolia. In the Sultan’s European territories, which had been largely conquered from Byzantium, the majority of his subjects were Orthodox Christians.

From its origins in the fourteenth century, the empire’s ruling Osman dynasty had drawn its legitimacy from the ideal of a continuous holy war to extend the frontiers of Islam. But the Ottomans were pragmatists, not religious fundamentalists, and in their Christian lands, the richest and most populous in the empire, they tempered their ideological animosity towards the infidels with a practical approach to their exploitation for imperial interests. They levied extra taxes on the non-Muslims, looked down on them as inferior ‘beasts’ (rayah), and treated them unequally in various humiliating ways (in Damascus, for example, Christians were forbidden to ride animals of any kind). But they let them keep their religion, did not generally persecute or try to convert them, and, through the millet system of religious segregation, which gave Church leaders powers within their separate, faith-based ‘nations’ or millets, they even allowed non-Muslims a certain measure of autonomy.

The millet system had developed as a means for the Osman dynasty to use religious élites as the intermediaries in newly conquered territories. As long as they submitted to Ottoman authority, ecclesiastical leaders were allowed to exercise a limited control over education, public order and justice, tax collection, charity and Church affairs, subject to the approval of the Sultan’s Muslim officials (even for such matters, for example, as the repair of a church roof). In this sense, the millet system not only served to reinforce the ethnic and religious hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire – with the Muslims at the top and all the other millets (Orthodox, Gregorian Armenian, Catholic and Jewish) below them – which encouraged Muslim prejudice against the Christians and the Jews; it also encouraged these minorities to express their grievances and organize their struggle against Muslim rule through their national Churches, which was a major source of instability in the empire.

Nowhere was this more apparent than among the Orthodox, the largest Christian millet with 10 million of the Sultan’s subjects. The patriarch in Constantinople was the highest Orthodox authority in the Ottoman Empire. He spoke for the other Orthodox patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. In a wide range of secular affairs he was the real ruler of the ‘Greeks’ (meaning all those who observed the Orthodox rite, including Slavs, Albanians, Moldavians and Wallachians) and represented their interests against both the Muslims and the Catholics. The patriarchate was controlled by the Phanariots, a powerful caste of Greek (and Hellenized Romanian and Albanian) merchant families originally from the Phanar district of Constantinople (from which they derived their name). Since the beginning of the eighteenth century the Phanariots had provided the Ottoman government with the majority of its dragomans (foreign secretaries and interpreters), purchased many other senior posts, assumed control of the Orthodox Church in Moldavia and Wallachia, where they were the main provincial governors (hospodars), and used their domination of the patriarchate to promote their Greek imperial ideals. The Phanariots saw themselves as the heirs of the Byzantine Empire and dreamed of restoring it with Russian help. But they were hostile to the influence of the Russian Church, which had promoted the Bulgarian clergy as a Slavic rival to Greek control of the patriarchate, and they were afraid of Russia’s own ambitions in Ottoman Europe.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century the other national Churches (Bulgarian and Serb) gradually assumed an equal importance to the Greek-dominated patriarchy in Constantinople. Greek domination of Orthodox affairs, including education and the courts, was unacceptable to many Slavs, who looked increasingly to their own Churches for their national identity and leadership against the Turks. Nationalism was a potent force among the different groups of Balkan Christians – Serbs, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Wallachians and Greeks – who united on the basis of their language, culture and religion to break free from Ottoman control. The Serbs were the first to win their liberation, by means of Russian-sponsored uprisings between 1804 and 1817, leading to the Turkish recognition of Serb autonomy and eventually to the establishment of a principality of Serbia with its own constitution and a parliament headed by the Obrenovi dynasty. But such was the weakness of the Ottoman Empire that its collapse in the rest of the Balkans appeared to be only a question of time.


Long before the Tsar described the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’, on the eve of the Crimean War, the idea that it was about to crumble had become a commonplace. ‘Turkey cannot stand, she is falling of herself,’ the Prince of Serbia told the British consul in Belgrade in 1838; ‘the revolt of her misgoverned provinces will destroy her.

That misgovernment was rooted in the empire’s failure to adapt to the modern world. The domination of the Muslim clergy (the mufti and the ulema) acted as a powerful brake on reform. ‘Meddle not with things established, borrow nothing from the infidels, for the law forbids it’ was the motto of the Muslim Institution, which made sure that the sultan’s laws conformed to the Koran. Western ideas and technologies were slow to penetrate the Islamic parts of the empire: trades and commerce were dominated by the non-Muslims (the Christians and Jews); there was no Turkish printing press until the 1720s; and as late as 1853 there were five times as many boys studying traditional Islamic law and theology in Constantinople as there were in the city’s modern schools with a secular curriculum.

The stagnation of the economy was matched by the proliferation of corrupt bureaucracy. The purchasing of offices for the lucrative business of tax-farming was almost universal in the provinces. Powerful pashas and military governors ruled whole regions as their personal fiefdoms, squeezing from them as many taxes as they could. As long as they passed on a share of their revenues to the Porte, and paid off their own financial backers, no one questioned or cared much about the arbitrary violence they employed. The lion’s share of the empire’s taxes was extracted from the non-Muslims, who had no legal protection or means of redress in the Muslim courts, where the testimony of a Christian counted for nothing. It is estimated that by the early nineteenth century the average Christian farmer and trader in the Ottoman Empire was paying half his earnings in taxes.

But the key to the decline of the Ottoman Empire was its military backwardness. Turkey had a large army in the early nineteenth century, and it accounted for as much as 70 per cent of treasury expenditure, but it was technically inferior to the modern conscript armies of Europe. It lacked their centralized administration, command structures and military schools, was poorly trained and was still dependent on the recruitment of mercenaries, irregulars and tribal forces from the periphery of the empire. Military reform was essential, and recognized as such by reformist sultans and their ministers, particularly after the repeated defeats by Russia, followed by the loss of Egypt to Napoleon. But to build a modern conscript army was impossible without a fundamental transformation of the empire to centralize control of the provinces and overcome the vested interests of the 40,000 janizaries, the sultan’s salaried household infantry, who represented the outmoded traditions of the military establishment and resisted all reforms.

Selim III (1789–1807) was the first sultan to recognize the need to Westernize the Ottoman army and navy. His military reforms were guided by the French, the major foreign influence on the Ottomans in the final decades of the eighteenth century, mainly because their enemies (Austria and Russia) were also the enemies of the Ottoman Empire. Selim’s concept of Westernization was similar to the Westernization of Russia’s institutions carried out by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, and the Turks were conscious of this parallel. It involved little more than the borrowing of new technologies and practices from foreigners, and certainly not the adoption of Western cultural principles that might challenge the dominant position of Islam in the empire. The Turks had invited the French to advise them, partly because they assumed they were the least religious of the European nations and therefore the least likely to threaten Islam – an impression gained from the anti-clerical policies of the Jacobins.

Selim’s reforms were defeated by the janizaries and the Muslim clergy, who were opposed to any change. But they were continued by Mahmud II (1808–39), who built up the military schools established by Selim to undermine the janizaries’ domination of the army by promoting officers on a meritocratic basis. He pushed through reforms of military dress, introduced Western equipment, and abolished the janizaries’ fiefdoms in an effort to create a centralized European-style army into which the Sultan’s household guards would eventually be merged. When the janizaries rebelled against the reforms, in 1826, they were put down, with several thousand killed by the Sultan’s new army, and then liquidated by imperial decree.

As the Sultan’s empire weakened to the point where it seemed in danger of imminent collapse, the great powers intervened increasingly in its affairs – ostensibly to protect the Christian minorities but in reality to advance their own ambitions in the area. European embassies were no longer content to limit their contacts to the Ottoman administration, as they had done previously, but took a hand directly in the empire’s politics, supporting nationalities, religious groups, political parties and factions, and even interfering in the Sultan’s appointment of individual ministers to promote their own imperial interests. To advance their country’s trade they developed direct links with merchants and financiers and established consuls in the major trading towns. They also began to issue passports to Ottoman subjects. By the middle of the nineteenth century as many as one million inhabitants of the Sultan’s empire were using the protective powers of the European legations to escape the jurisdiction and taxes of the Turkish authorities. Russia was the most active in this respect, developing its Black Sea commerce by granting passports to large numbers of the Sultan’s Greeks and allowing them to sail under the Russian flag.

For the Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire, Russia was their protector against the Turks. Russian troops had helped the Serbs to gain autonomy. They had brought Moldavia and Wallachia under Russian protection, and liberated the Moldavians from Turkish rule in Bessarabia. But the Russians’ part in the Greek independence movement showed how far they were prepared to go in their support of their co-religionists to exert their hold over Turkey’s European territories.

The Greek revolution really began in Russia. In its early stages it was led by Greek-born Russian politicians who had never even been to mainland Greece (a ‘geographical expression’ if ever there was one) but who dreamed of uniting all the Greeks through a series of uprisings against the Turks, which they planned to begin in the Danubian principalities. In 1814 a Society of Friends (Philiki Etaireia) was set up by Greek nationalists and students in Odessa, with affiliated branches established soon thereafter in all the major areas where the Greeks lived – Moldavia, Wallachia, the Ionian islands, Constantinople, the Peloponnese – as well as in other Russian cities where the Greeks were strong. It was the Society that organized the Greek uprising in Moldavia in 1821 – an uprising led by Alexander Ypsilantis, a senior officer in the Russian cavalry and the son of a prominent Phanariot family in Moldavia that had fled to St Petersburg on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war in 1806. Ypsilantis had close connections to the Russian court, where he had received the patronage of the Empress Maria Fedorovna (the widow of Paul I) from the age of 15. Tsar Alexander I had appointed him his aide-de-camp in 1816.

There was a powerful Greek lobby in the ruling circles of St Petersburg. The Foreign Ministry contained a number of Greek-born diplomats and activists of the Greek cause. None was more important than Alexandru Sturdza from Moldavia, a Phanariot on his mother’s side, who became the first Russian governor of Bessarabia, or Ioannis Kapodistrias, a Corfu nobleman who was appointed Russia’s Foreign Minister jointly with Karl Nesselrode in 1815. The Greek Gymnasium in St Petersburg had been training Greek-born youths for military and diplomatic service since the 1770s, and many of its graduates had fought in the Russian army against the Turks in the war of 1806–12 (as did thousands of Greek volunteers from the Ottoman Empire, who fled to Russia at the war’s end). By the time Ypsilantis planned his uprising in Moldavia, there was a large cohort of Russian-trained, experienced Greek fighters on which he could count.

The plan was to start the uprising in Moldavia and then move to Wallachia. The insurgents would combine their attacks with the pandur (guerrilla) militia led by the Wallachian revolutionary Tudor Vladimirescu, another veteran of the Tsar’s army in the Russo-Turkish war of 1806–12, whose peasant followers were in practice more opposed to their Phanariot rulers and landlords than they were to the distant Ottomans. The Treaty of Bucharest had placed the principalities under the joint sovereignty of Russia and the Ottoman Empire. They did not have any Turkish garrisons but the local hospodars were allowed to maintain small armies, which Ypsilantis expected to join the uprising as soon as his army of Greek volunteers from Russia crossed the River Pruth. Ypsilantis hoped that the revolt would spark a Russian intervention to defend the Greeks once the Turks took repressive measures against them. In the Moldavian capital of Iai he appeared in a Russian uniform and announced to the local boyars that he had ‘the support of a great power’. There was certainly a great deal of support in the élite circles of St Petersburg, where philhellenic sentiment ran high, as well as among military and Church leaders. The Russian consulates in the principalities even became recruiting centres for the revolt. But neither Kapodistrias nor the Tsar knew anything about the preparations for the uprising, and both men denounced it as soon as it began. However much they might have sympathized with the Greek cause, Russia was the founder of the Holy Alliance, the conservative union formed with the Austrians and Prussians in 1815, whose raison d’être was to combat revolutionary and nationalist movements on the European continent.

Without Russian support, the Greek uprising in the principalities was soon crushed by 30,000 Turkish troops. The Wallachian peasant army retreated to the mountains, and Ypsilantis fled to Transylvania, where he was arrested by the Austrian authorities. The Turks occupied Moldavia and Wallachia, and carried out reprisals against the Christian population there. Turkish soldiers looted churches, murdered priests, men, women and children and mutilated their bodies, cutting off their noses, ears and heads, while their officers looked on. Thousands of terrified civilians fled into neighbouring Bessarabia, presenting the Russian authorities with a massive refugee problem. The violence even spread to Constantinople, where the patriarch and several bishops were publicly hanged by a group of janizaries on Easter Sunday 1821.

As news spread of the atrocities, causing ever-stronger Russian sympathy for the Greek cause, the Tsar felt increasingly obliged to intervene, despite his commitment to the principles of the Holy Alliance. As Alexander saw it, the actions of the Turks had gone well beyond the legitimate defence of Ottoman sovereignty; they were in a religious war against the Greeks, whose religious rights the Russians had a duty to protect, according to their interpretation of the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. The Tsar issued an ultimatum calling on the Turks to evacuate the principalities, restore the damaged churches, and acknowledge Russia’s treaty rights to protect the Sultan’s Orthodox subjects. This was the first time any of the powers had spoken out on behalf of the Greeks. The Turks responded by seizing Russian ships, confiscating their grain, and imprisoning their sailors in Constantinople.

Russia broke off diplomatic relations. Many of the Tsar’s advisers favoured war. The Greek revolt had spread to central Greece, the Peloponnese, Macedonia and Crete. Unless the Russians intervened, they feared that in these regions it would be repressed with similar atrocities to those in the principalities. In 1822 Ottoman troops brutally crushed a Greek uprising on the island of Chios, hanging 20,000 islanders and deporting into slavery almost all the surviving population of 70,000 Greeks. Europe was outraged by the massacre, whose horrors were depicted by the French painter Eugène Delacroix in his great masterpiece The Massacre of Chios (1824). In the Russian Foreign Ministry, Kapodistrias and Sturdza argued for military intervention on religious grounds. In a rehearsal of the arguments employed in 1853 for Russia’s invasion of the principalities, they reasoned that the defence of Christians against Muslim violence should outweigh any considerations about the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. To support revolts in, say, Spain or Austria, they maintained, would be a betrayal of the principles of the Holy Alliance, because these two nations were both ruled by lawful Christian sovereigns; but no Muslim power could be recognized as lawful or legitimate, so the same principles did not apply to the Greek uprising against the Ottomans. The rhetoric of Holy Russia’s duty to its co-religionists was also employed by Pozzo di Borgo, the Tsar’s ambassador to France, though he was more interested in promoting Russia’s strategic ambitions, calling for a war to expel the Turks from Europe and establish a new Byzantine Empire under Russian protection.

Such ideas were widely shared by high officials, army officers and intellectuals, who were increasingly united in the early 1820s by their Russian nationalism and at times by an almost messianic commitment to the Orthodox cause. There was talk of ‘crossing the Danube and delivering the Greeks from the cruelties of Muslim rule’. One leader in the southern army called for a war against the Turks to unite the Balkan Christians in a ‘Greek Kingdom’. The pro-war lobby also had supporters at the court, where the legitimist principles of the Holy Alliance were more strictly recognized. The most enthusiastic was Baroness von Krüdener, a religious mystic who encouraged Tsar Alexander to believe in his messianic role and campaigned for an Orthodox crusade to drive the Muslims out of Europe and raise the cross in Constantinople and Jerusalem. She was dismissed from the court and ordered by the Tsar to leave St Petersburg.

Alexander was far too committed to the Concert of Europe to give serious consideration to the idea of unilateral Russian intervention to liberate the Greeks. He stood firmly by the Congress System established at Vienna by which the great powers had agreed to resolve major crises through international negotiation, and realized that any action in the Greek crisis was bound to be opposed. By October 1821 a European policy of international mediation over Greece had already been coordinated by Prince Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister and chief conductor of the Concert of Europe, together with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. So when the Tsar appealed to them for support against Turkey, in February 1822, it was agreed to convene an international congress to resolve the crisis.

Alexander called for the creation of a large autonomous Greek state under Russian protection, much like Moldavia and Wallachia. However, Britain feared that this would be a means for Russia to advance its own interests and intervene in Ottoman affairs on the pretext of protecting its co-religionists. Austria was equally afraid that a successful Greek revolt would set off uprisings in parts of central Europe under its control. Since Alexander prized the Austrian alliance above all, he held back assistance to the Greeks, while continuing to urge collective European action to help them. None of the powers would support the Greeks. But two things happened in 1825 to change their minds: first, the Sultan called in Mehmet Ali, his powerful vassal in Egypt, to put down the Greeks, which the Egyptians did with new atrocities, giving rise to an ever-growing wave of pro-Greek sympathy and ever-louder calls for intervention in liberal Europe; and then Alexander died.


The new tsar – the man responsible, more than anyone, for the Crimean War – was 29 when he succeeded his brother to the Russian throne. Tall and imposing, with a large, balding head, long sideburns and an officer’s moustache, Nicholas I was every inch a ‘military man’. From an early age he had developed an obsessive interest in military affairs, learning all the names of his brother’s generals, designing uniforms, and attending with excitement military parades and manoeuvres. Having missed out on his boyhood dream of fighting in the war against Napoleon, he prepared himself for a soldier’s life. In 1817 he received his first appointment, Inspector-General of Engineers, from which he derived a lifelong interest in army engineering and artillery (the strongest elements of the Russian military during the Crimean War). He loved the routines and discipline of army life: they appealed to his strict and pedantic character as well as to his spartan tastes (throughout his life he insisted on sleeping on a military campbed). Courteous and charming to those in his intimate circle, to others Nicholas was cold and stern. In later life he grew increasingly irritable and impatient, inclined to rash behaviour and angry rages, as he succumbed to the hereditary mental illness that troubled Alexander and Nicholas’s other older brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, who renounced the throne in 1825.

More than Alexander, Nicholas placed the defence of Orthodoxy at the centre of his foreign policy. Throughout his reign he was governed by an absolute conviction in his divine mission to save Orthodox Europe from the Western heresies of liberalism, rationalism and revolution. During his last years he was led by this calling to fantastic dreams of a religious war against the Turks to liberate the Balkan Christians and unite them with Russia in an Orthodox empire with its spiritual centres in Constantinople and Jerusalem. Anna Tiutcheva, who was at his court from 1853, described Nicholas as ‘the Don Quixote of autocrats – terrible in his chivalry and power to subordinate everything to his futile struggle against History’.

Nicholas had a personal connection to the Holy Land through the New Jerusalem Monastery near Moscow. Founded by Patriarch Nikon in the 1650s, the monastery was situated on a site chosen for its symbolic resemblance to the Holy Land (with the River Istra symbolizing the Jordan). The ensemble of the monastery’s churches was laid out in a sacred topographical arrangement to represent the Holy Places of Jerusalem. Nikon also took in foreign monks so that the monastery would represent the multinational Orthodoxy linking Moscow to Jerusalem. Nicholas had visited the monastery in 1818 – the year his first son, the heir to the throne, was born (a coincidence he took to be a sign of divine providence). After the monastery was partially destroyed by fire Nicholas directed plans to reconstruct its centrepiece, the Church of the Resurrection, as a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, even sending his own artist on a pilgrimage to make drawings of the original, so that it could be rebuilt on Russian soil.

None of Nicholas’s religious ambitions were immediately obvious in 1825. There was a gradual evolution in his views from the first years of his reign, when he upheld the legitimist principles of the Holy Alliance, to the final period before the Crimean War, when he made the championing of Orthodoxy the primary goal of his aggressive foreign policy in the Balkans and the Holy Lands. But from the start there were clear signs that he was determined to defend his co-religionists and take a tough position against Turkey, beginning with the struggle over Greece.

Nicholas restored relations with Kapodistrias, whose active support for the Greek cause had forced him to resign from the Foreign Ministry and leave Russia for exile in 1822. He threatened war against the Turks unless they evacuated the Danubian principalities, and accepted plans from his military advisers to occupy Moldavia and Wallachia in support of the Greek cause. The Tsar was closely guided by his Foreign Minister, Karl Nesselrode, who had lost patience with the Concert of Europe and joined the war party, not out of love for the Greek rebels, but because he realized that a war against the Turks would promote Russian goals in the Near East. At the very least, reasoned Nesselrode, the threat of Russian intervention would force the British into joining Russia in efforts to resolve the Greek Question, if only to prevent the Tsar from exercising overwhelming influence in the region.

In 1826 the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the allied forces against Napoleon, who was now a senior statesman in the British government, travelled to St Petersburg to negotiate an Anglo-Russian accord (later joined by France in the Treaty of London in 1827) that would mediate between the Greeks and Turks. Britain, Russia and France agreed to call for the establishment of an autonomous Greek province under Ottoman sovereignty. When the Sultan rejected their proposals, the three powers sent a combined naval force under the command of the fiery British philhellene Admiral Edward Codrington, with instructions to impose a resolution by peaceful means if possible, and ‘by cannon’ as a last resort. Codrington was not known for diplomacy, and in October 1827 he destroyed the entire Turkish and Egyptian fleets in the battle of Navarino. Enraged by this action, the Sultan refused any further mediation, declared a jihad, and rejected the Russian ultimatum to withdraw his troops from the Danubian principalities. His defiance played into Russia’s hands.

Nicholas had long suspected that the British were unwilling to go to war for the Greek cause. He had been considering an occupation of the principalities to force the Turks into submission, but feared that would encourage the British to renounce the Treaty of London. Now the Sultan’s rejection of his ultimatum had given him a legitimate excuse to declare war against Turkey without the British or the French. Russia would fight on its own to secure a ‘national government in Greece’, Nesselrode wrote to Kapodistrias in January 1828. The Tsar sent money and weapons to Kapodistrias’s revolutionary government, and received from him an assurance that Russia would enjoy an ‘exclusive influence’ in Greece.

In April 1828 a Russian attack-force of 65,000 fighting men and Cossacks crossed the Danube and struck in three directions, against Vidin, Silistria and Varna, on the road to Constantinople. Nicholas insisted on joining the campaign: it was his first experience of war. The Russians advanced quickly (the land was full of forage for their horses) but then got bogged down in fighting around Varna, where they succumbed to the pestilent conditions of the Danube delta and suffered severe losses. Half the Russian soldiers died from illness and diseases during 1828–9. Reinforcements soon got sick as well. Between May 1828 and February 1829 a staggering 210,000 soldiers received treatment in military hospitals – twice the troop strength of the whole campaign.19 Such huge losses were not unusual in the tsarist army, where there was little care for the welfare of the serf soldiers.

Renewing the offensive in the spring of 1829, the Russians captured the Turkish fortress of Silistria, followed by the city of Edirne (Adrianople), a short march from Constantinople, where the cannons of the nearby Russian fleet could be heard. At this point the Russians could easily have seized the Turkish capital and overthrown the Sultan. Their fleet controlled the Black Sea and the Aegean, they had reinforcements on which they could draw from Greek or Bulgarian volunteers, and the Turkish forces were in complete disarray. In the Caucasus, where the Russians had advanced simultaneously, they had captured the Turkish fortresses of Kars and Erzurum, opening the way for an attack on Turkish territories in Anatolia. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire appeared so imminent that the French King Charles X proposed partitioning its territories between the great powers.

Nicholas, too, was convinced that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was at hand. He was prepared to hasten its demise and liberate the Balkan Christians, provided he could get the other powers, or at least Austria (his closest ally with interests in the Balkans), on his side. As his troops advanced towards the Turkish capital, Nicholas informed the Austrian ambassador in St Petersburg that the Ottoman Empire was ‘about to fall’, and suggested that it would be in Austria’s interests to join Russia in the partition of its territories in order to ‘forestall the people who would fill the vacuum’. The Austrians, however, mistrusted Russia and chose instead to preserve the Concert of Europe. Without their support, Nicholas held back from dealing the fatal blow to the Ottoman Empire in 1829. He was afraid of a European war against Russia should his attack on Turkey move the other powers to unite in its defence, and even more afraid that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would result in a frantic rush by the European powers to seize Turkish territories. Either way, Russia would lose out. For this reason, Nicholas abided by the viewpoint of his cool and calculating Foreign Minister: that it would best serve Russia’s interests to keep the Ottoman Empire in existence, but in a weakened state, where its dependence on Russia for survival would enable the promotion of Russian interests in the Balkans and the Black Sea area. A sick Turkey was more useful to Russia than a dead one.

Consequently, the Treaty of Adrianople was surprisingly kind to the defeated Turks. Imposed by the Russians in September 1829, the treaty established the virtual autonomy of Moldavia and Wallachia under Russian protection. It gave the Russians some islands in the mouth of the Danube, a couple of forts in Georgia and the Sultan’s recognition of their possession of the rest of Georgia as well as the south Caucasian khanates of Erivan and Nakhichevan, which they had wrested from the Persians in 1828, but compared to what the Russians might have forced out of the defeated Turks, these were relatively minor gains. The two most important clauses of the treaty secured concessions from the Porte that had been wanted by all the signatories of the Treaty of London: Turkish recognition of Greek autonomy; and the opening of the Straits to all commercial ships.

The Western powers did not trust these appearances of Russian moderation, however. The treaty’s silence on warship movements through the Straits led them to conclude that Russia must have gained some secret clause or verbal promise from the Turks, allowing them exclusive control of this crucial waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Western fears of Russia had been growing since the outbreak of the Greek revolt, and the treaty fuelled their Russophobia. The British were especially alarmed. Wellington, by now the Prime Minister, thought the treaty had transformed the Ottoman Empire into a Russian protectorate – an outcome worse than its partition (which at least would have been done by a concert of powers). Lord Heytesbury, the British ambassador in St Petersburg, declared (without any intended irony) that the Sultan would soon become as ‘submissive to the orders of the Tsar as any of the Princes of India to those of the [East India] Company. The British may have totally supplanted the Mughal Empire in India, but they were determined to stop the Russians doing the same to the Ottomans, presenting themselves as the honest defenders of the status quo in the Near East.

Fearful of the perceived Russian threat, the British began to shape a policy towards the Eastern Question. To prevent Russia from gaining the initiative in Greece, they gave their backing to the independence of the new Greek state, as opposed to mere autonomy under Turkish sovereignty (which they feared would make it a dependant of Russia). British fears were not unwarranted. Encouraged by the Russian intervention, Kapodistrias had been calling on the Tsar to expel the Turks from Europe and create a larger Greece, a confederation of Balkan states under Russian protection, on the model once proposed by Catherine the Great. However, the Tsar’s position was seriously weakened by the assassination of Kapodistrias in 1831, followed by the decline of his pro-Russian party and the rise of new Greek liberal parties aligned with the West. These changes moderated Russian expectations and cleared the way for an international settlement at the Convention of London in 1832: the modern Greek state was established under the guarantee of the great powers and with Britain’s choice of sovereign, the young Otto of Bavaria, as its first king.


The ‘weak neighbour’ policy dominated Russia’s attitude to the Eastern Question between 1829 and the Crimean War. It was not shared by everyone: there were those in the Tsar’s army and Foreign Ministry who favoured a more aggressive and expansionist policy in the Balkans and the Caucasus. But it was flexible enough to satisfy both the ambitions of Russian nationalists as well as the concerns of those who wanted to avoid a European war. The key to the ‘weak neighbour’ policy was the use of religion – backed up by a constant military threat – to increase Russian influence within the Sultan’s Christian territories.

To enforce the Treaty of Adrianople, the Russians occupied Moldavia and Wallachia. During the five years of the occupation, from 1829 to 1834, they introduced a constitution (Règlement organique) and reformed the administration of the principalities on relatively liberal principles (far more so than anything allowed in Russia at that time) to undermine the remaining vestiges of Ottoman control. The Russians tried to ease the burden of the peasantry and win their sympathy through economic concessions; they brought the Churches under Russian influence; recruited local militias; and improved the infrastructure of the region as a military base for future operations against Turkey. For a while, the Russians even thought of turning occupation into permanent annexation, though they finally withdrew in 1834, leaving behind a significant Russian force to control the military roads, which also served to remind the native princes who took over government that they ruled the principalities at the mercy of St Petersburg. The princes placed in power (Michael Sturdza in Moldavia and Alexander Ghica in Wallachia) had been chosen by the Russians for their affiliations with the tsarist court. They were closely watched by the Russian consulates, which often intervened in the boyar assemblies and princely politics to advance Russia’s interests. According to Lord Ponsonby, the British ambassador to Constantinople, Sturdza and Ghica were ‘Russian subjects disguised as hospodars’. They were ‘merely nominal governors … serving only as executors of such measures as may be dictated to them by the Russian government’.

The desire to keep the Ottoman Empire weak and dependent sometimes required intercession on behalf of the Turks, as happened in 1833, when Mehmet Ali challenged the Sultan’s power. Having helped the Sultan fight the Greek rebels, Mehmet Ali demanded hereditary title to Egypt and Syria. When the Sultan refused, Mehmet Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha marched his troops into Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. His powerful army, which had been trained by the French and organized on European principles, easily swept aside the Ottoman forces. Constantinople lay at the mercy of the Egyptians. Mehmet Ali had modernized the Egyptian economy, integrating it into the world market as a supplier of raw cotton to the textile mills of Britain, and even building factories, mainly to supply his large army. In many ways, the invasion of Syria was prompted by a need to expand his base of cash crops, as Egyptian exports came under pressure from competitors in the globalized economy. Yet Mehmet also came to represent a powerful religious revival among Muslim traditionalists and an alternative to the more accommodating religious leadership of the Sultan. He called his army the Cihadiye – the Jihadists. According to contemporary observers, had he seized the Turkish capital, Mehmet Ali would have established a ‘new Muslim empire’ hostile to the growing intervention of the Christian powers in the Middle East.

The Sultan appealed to the British and the French, but neither showed much interest in helping him, so he turned in desperation to the Tsar, who promptly sent a fleet of seven ships with 40,000 men to defend the Turkish capital against the Egyptians. The Russians considered Mehmet Ali a French lackey who posed a significant danger to Russian interests in the Near East. Since 1830 the French had been engaged in the conquest of Ottoman Algeria. They had the only army in the region capable of checking Russian ambitions. The Russians, moreover, had been disturbed by reports from their agents that Mehmet Ali had promised to ‘resurrect the former greatness of the Muslim people’ and take revenge on Russia for the humiliation suffered by the Turks in 1828–9. They were afraid that the Egyptian leader would stop at nothing less than ‘the conquest of the whole of Asia Minor’ and the establishment of a new Islamic empire supplanting the Ottomans. Instead of a weak neighbour, the Russians would be faced by a powerful Islamic threat on their southern border with strong religious connections to the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus.

Alarmed by the Russian intervention, the British and French moved their fleets to Besika Bay, just beyond the Dardanelles, and in May 1833 brokered an agreement known as the Convention of Kütahya between Mehmet Ali and the Turks by which the Egyptian leader agreed to withdraw his forces from Anatolia in exchange for the territories of Crete and the Hijaz (in western Arabia). Ibrahim was appointed lifetime governor of Syria but Mehmet Ali was denied his main demand of a hereditary kingdom for himself in Egypt, leaving him frustrated and eager to renew his war against the Turks should another chance present itself. The British strengthened their Levant fleet and put it on alert to serve the Sultan if Mehmet Ali threatened him again. Their arrival on the scene was enough to force the Russians to withdraw, but only after they had, in recognition of Russia’s role in rescuing the Ottoman Empire, managed to extract from the Sultan major new concessions through the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, signed in July 1833. The treaty basically reaffirmed the Russian gains of 1829, but it contained a secret article guaranteeing Russia’s military protection of Turkey in exchange for a Turkish promise to close the Straits to foreign warships when demanded by Russia. The effect of the secret clause was to keep out the British navy and put the Russians in control of the Black Sea; but more importantly, as far as the Russians were concerned, it gave them an exclusive legal right to intervene in Ottoman affairs.

The British and the French soon found out about the secret clause after it was leaked by Turkish officials. There was outrage in the Western press, which immediately suspected that the Russians had obtained not just the right to close the Straits to other powers but also the right to keep them open to their own warships – in which case they would be able to land a major force in the Bosporus and seize Constantinople in a lightning strike before any Western fleet would have time to intervene (the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol was only four days’ sailing from the Turkish capital). In fact, the secret clause had left this point unclear. The Russians claimed that all they had wanted from the controversial clause was a means of self-defence against the possibility of an attack by France or Britain, the major naval powers in the Mediterranean, whose fleets could otherwise sail through the Straits and destroy the Russian bases at Sevastopol and Odessa before their entry into the Black Sea was discovered in St Petersburg. The Straits were ‘the keys to Russia’s house’. If they were unable to close them, the Russians would be vulnerable to an attack on their weakest frontier – the Black Sea littoral and the Caucasus – as indeed they were when Turkey and the Western powers attacked during the Crimean War.

Such arguments were discounted in the West, where Russia’s good intentions were increasingly mistrusted by informed opinion. Now, almost every Russian action on the Continent was interpreted as constituting part of a reactionary and aggressive plan of imperial expansion. ‘No reasonable doubt can be entertained that the Russian Government is intently engaged in the prosecution of those schemes of aggrandizement towards the South which, ever since the reign of Catherine, have formed a prominent feature of Russian policy,’ Palmerston wrote to Lord John Ponsonby in December 1833.

The cabinet of St Petersburg, whenever its foreign policy is adverted to, deals largely in the most unqualified declarations of disinterestedness; and protests that, satisfied with the extensive limits of the empire, it desires no increase of territory, and has renounced all those plans of aggrandizement which were imputed to Russia …

But notwithstanding these declarations, it has been observed that the encroachments of Russia have continued to advance on all sides with a steady march and a well-directed aim, and that almost every transaction of much importance, in which of late years Russia has been engaged, has in some way or other been made conducive to an alteration either of her influence or of her territory.

The recent events in the Levant have, indeed, by an unfortunate combination of circumstances, enabled her to make an enormous stride towards the accomplishment of her designs upon Turkey, and it becomes an object of great importance for the interests of Great Britain, to consider how Russia can be prevented from pushing her advantage further, and to see whether it be possible to deprive her of the advantage she has already gained.

The French statesman François Guizot maintained that the 1833 treaty had converted the Black Sea into a ‘Russian lake’ guarded by Turkey, the Tsar’s ‘vassal state’, ‘without anything hindering Russia herself from passing through the Straits and hurling her ships and soldiers into the Mediterranean’. The chargé d’affaires in St Petersburg lodged a protest with the Russian government warning that if the treaty led to Russia intervening in ‘the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire, the French government would hold itself wholly at liberty to adopt such a line of conduct as circumstances might suggest’. Palmerston empowered Ponsonby to summon the British fleet from the Mediterranean for the defence of Constantinople, if he felt that it was threatened by Russia.

The events of 1833 were a turning point in British policy towards Russia and Turkey. Until then, Britain’s main concern in the Ottoman Empire had been to preserve the status quo, mainly from fears that its breakup would affect the balance of power in Europe and possibly lead to a European war, rather than from any firm commitment to the sovereignty of the Sultan (their support for Greece had not demonstrated much of that). But once the British woke up to the danger that the Ottoman Empire might be taken over by the Egyptians at the head of a powerful Muslim revival, or, even worse, that it might become a Russian protectorate, they took an active interest in Turkey. They increasingly intervened in Ottoman affairs, encouraging economic and political reforms by which the British hoped to restore the health of the Ottoman Empire and expand their influence.

Britain’s interests were mainly commercial. The Ottoman Empire was a growing market for the export of British manufactures and a valuable source of raw materials. As the dominant industrial power in the world, Britain generally threw its weight behind the opening up of global markets to free trade; as the dominant naval power, it was prepared to use its fleet to force foreign governments to open up their markets. This was a type of ‘informal empire’, an ‘imperialism of free trade’, in which Britain’s military power and political influence advanced its commercial hegemony and curtailed the independence of foreign governments without the direct controls of imperial rule.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the Ottoman Empire. Ponsonby was at pains to stress the economic dividends of increased British influence in Constantinople. ‘Protection given to our political interests’, the ambassador wrote to Palmerston in 1834, ‘will throw open sources of commercial prosperity perhaps hardly to be hoped for from our intercourse with any other country upon earth.’ By this time there was a large and powerful body of British traders with extensive interests in Turkey who put growing pressure on the government to intervene. Their viewpoint was expressed in influential periodicals, such as Blackwood’s and the Edinburgh Review, both of which depended on their patronage; and it found an echo in the arguments of Turcophiles, such as David Urquhart, the leader of a secret trade mission to Turkey in 1833, who saw a huge potential for British commerce in the development of the Ottoman economy. ‘The progress of Turkey,’ Urquhart wrote in 1835, ‘if undisturbed by political events, bids fair to render it, in a few years, the largest market in the world for English manufacturers.

In 1838, through a series of military threats and promises, Britain imposed on the Porte a Tariff Convention which in effect transformed the Ottoman Empire into a virtual free-trade zone. Deprived of tariff revenues, the Porte’s ability to protect its nascent industries was seriously handicapped. From this moment the export of British manufactured goods to Turkey rose steeply. There was an elevenfold increase by 1850, making it one of Britain’s most valuable export markets (surpassed only by the Hanseatic towns and the Netherlands). After the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846, British imports of cereals from Turkey, chiefly from Moldavia and Wallachia, increased as well. The advent of ocean steamships, steam river-boats and railroads opened up the Danube for the first time as a busy commercial highway. The river’s trade was dominated by British merchant ships exporting grain to western Europe and importing manufactures from Britain. The British were in direct competition with the merchants of Odessa, Taganrog and other Black Sea ports, from which the grain of Russia’s breadbasket in the Ukraine and south Russia was exported to the West. The cereal export market was increasingly important to Russia as the value of its timber trade declined during the steam age. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Black Sea ports were handling one-third of all Russian exports. The Russians tried to give their traders an advantage over their British rivals through their control of the Danube delta after 1829 by subjecting foreign ships to time-consuming quarantine controls and even allowing the Danube to silt up and become once more unnavigable.

On the eastern side of the Black Sea the commercial interests of Britain were increasingly bound up with the port of Trebizond, in north-eastern Turkey, from which Greek and Armenian merchants imported large quantities of British manufactured goods for sale in the interior of Asia. The growing value of this trade to Britain, observed Karl Marx in the New York Tribune, ‘may be seen at the Manchester Exchange, where dark-complexioned Greek buyers are increasing in numbers and importance, and where Greek and South Slav dialects are heard along with German and English’. Until the 1840s, the Russians had a near-monopoly of trade in manufactured goods in this part of Asia. Russian textiles, rope and linen products dominated the bazaars of Bayburt, Baghdad and Basra. But steamships and railways made it possible to open up a shorter route to India – either through the Mediterranean to Cairo and then from Suez to the Red Sea, or via the Black Sea to Trebizond and the Euphrates river to the Persian Gulf (sailing ships could not readily cope with the high winds and monsoons of the Gulf of Suez or with the narrow waters of the Euphrates). The British favoured the Euphrates route, mainly because it ran through territories ruled by the Sultan (as opposed to Mehmet Ali); developing the route was seen as a way to increase British influence and check the growing power of Russia in this part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1834 Britain received permission from the Porte for General Francis Chesney to survey the Euphrates route. The survey was a failure, and British interest in the route declined. But plans for a Euphrates Valley Railway from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf via Aleppo and Baghdad were revived in the 1850s, when the British government was looking for a way to increase its presence in an area where they perceived a growing Russian threat to India (the railway was never developed by the British, for lack of financial guarantees, but the Baghdad Railway built by Germany from 1903 followed much of the same route).

The danger Russia posed to India was the bête noire of British Russophobes. For some, this would become the underlying aim of the Crimean War: to stop a power bent not just on the conquest of Turkey but on the domination of the whole of Asia Minor right up to Afghanistan and India. In their alarmed imagination there were no bounds on the designs of Russia, the fastest growing empire in the world.

In truth, there was never any serious danger of the Russians reaching India in the years before the Crimean War. It was much too far and difficult to march an army all that way – though the Russian Emperor Paul I had once entertained a madcap scheme to send a combined French and Russian force there. The idea had been taken up again by Napoleon in his talks with Tsar Alexander in 1807. ‘The more unrealistic the expedition is,’ Napoleon explained, ‘the more it can be used to terrorize the Englishmen.’ The British government always knew that such an expedition was not feasible. One British intelligence officer thought that any Russian invasion of India ‘would amount to little more than the sending of a caravan’. But while few in official British circles thought that Russia was a serious threat to India, this did not prevent the Russophobic British press from whipping up that fear, emphasizing the potential danger posed by Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus and its ‘underhand activities’ in Persia and Afghanistan.

The theory made its first appearance in 1828, in a pamphlet, On the Designs of Russia, written by Colonel George de Lacy Evans (a general by the time he took up the command of the British army’s 2nd Infantry Division during the Crimean War). Speculating on the outcome of the Russo-Turkish war, de Lacy Evans conjured up a nightmare fantasy of Russian aggression and expansion, leading to the conquest of the whole of Asia Minor and the collapse of British trade with India. De Lacy’s working principle – that the rapid growth of the Russian Empire since the beginning of the eighteenth century proved the iron law that Russian expansion must continue until checked – reappeared in a second pamphlet he published, in 1829, On the Practicality of an Invasion of British India, in which he claimed, without any evidence of Russia’s actual intentions, that a Russian force could be built up on India’s north-west frontier. The pamphlet was widely read in official circles. Wellington took it as a warning and told Lord Ellenborough, the president of the Board of Control for India, that he was ‘ready to take up the question in Europe, if the Russians [should] move towards India with views of evident hostility’. After 1833, with Russia’s domination of the Ottoman Empire seemingly secured, these fears took on the force of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1834 Lieutenant Arthur Connolly (who coined the term ‘the Great Game’ to describe Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia Minor) published a best-selling travelogue, Journey to the North of India, in which he argued that the Russians could attack the north-west frontier if they were supported by the Persians and Afghans.

The Russians had in fact been steadily increasing their presence in Asia Minor in line with their policy of keeping neighbours weak. Russian agents advised Persia on foreign policy and organized support for the Shah’s army. In 1837, when the Persians took the Afghan city of Herat, many British politicians had no doubt that it was part of Russia’s preparation for an invasion of India. ‘Herat, in the hands of Persia,’ wrote a former British ambassador to Tehran, ‘can never be considered in any other light than as an advanced point d’appui for the Russians toward India.’ The Russophobic press criticized the inactivity of British governments that had failed to see the ‘underhand’ and ‘nefarious’ activities of the Russians in Persia. ‘For several years,’ warned the Herald, ‘we have endeavoured to make them understand that the ambitious designs of Russia extended beyond Turkey and Circassia and Persia, even to our East Indian dependencies, which Russia has not lost sight of since Catherine threatened to march her armies in that direction, and rally the native Indian princes round the standard of the Great Mogul.’ The Standard called for more than watchful vigilance against Russia: ‘It is of little use to watch Russia, if our care and exertion are to end with that exercise of vigilance. We have been watching Russia during eight years, and within that time she has pushed her acquisitions and military posts nearly 2000 miles on the road to India.

The view that Russia, by its very nature, was a threat to India became widespread among the British broadsheet-reading classes. It was expressed by the anonymous author of a widely read pamphlet of 1838 called India, Great Britain, and Russia, in a passage that is reminiscent of the domino theory of the Cold War:

The unparalleled aggressions of Russia in every direction must destroy all confidence in her pacific protestations, and ought to satisfy every reasonable inquirer that the only limit on her conquests will be found in the limitation of her power. On the West, Poland has been reduced to the state of a vassal province. In the South, the Ottoman sovereign has been plundered of part of his possessions, and holds the rest subject to the convenience of his conqueror. The Black Sea cannot be navigated but by permission of the Muscovite. The flag of England, which was wont to wave proudly over all the waters of the world, is insulted, and the commercial enterprise of her merchants crippled and defeated. In the East, Russia is systematically pursuing the same course: Circassia is to be crushed; Persia to be made first a partisan, then a dependent province, finally an integral part of the Russian Empire. Beyond Persia lies Afghanistan, a country prepared by many circumstances to furnish a ready path for the invader. The Indus crossed, what is to resist the flight of the Russian eagle into the heart of British India? It is thither that the eyes of Russia are directed. Let England look to it.


To counteract the perceived Russian threat, the British attempted to create buffer states in Asia Minor and the Caucasus. In 1838 they occupied Afghanistan. Officially, their aim was to reinstall the recently deposed Emir Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne, but after that had been achieved, in 1839, they maintained their occupation to support his puppet government – ultimately as a means of moving towards British rule – until they were forced to withdraw by tribal rebellions and disastrous military reverses in 1842. The British also stepped up their diplomatic presence in Tehran, attempting to wean the Persians off the Russians through a defensive alliance and promises of aid for their army. Under British pressure the Persians left Herat and signed a new commercial treaty with Britain in 1841. The British even considered the occupation of Baghdad, believing that it would be welcomed by the Arabs as a liberation from the Turks, or at least that any resistance would be undermined by the division between Sunni and Shia, who in the words of Henry Rawlinson, the British consul-general in Baghdad, ‘could always be played off against each other’. An army officer of the East India Company and a distinguished orientalist who first deciphered the ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions of Behistun, Rawlinson was one of the most important figures arguing for an active British policy to check the expansion of Russia into Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan. He thought that Britain should set up a Mesopotamian empire under European protection to act as a buffer against Russia’s growing presence in the Caucasus and prevent a Russian conquest of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys on the route to India. He even advocated sending the Indian army to attack the Russians in Georgia, Erivan and Nakhichevan, territories the British had never recognized as Russian, as the Turks had done through the Treaty of Adrianople.

Rawlinson was also instrumental in getting British aid to the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus, whose war against the Russians gained new force from the charismatic leadership of the Imam Shamil after 1834. To his followers Shamil seemed invincible: a warlord sent by God. There were stories of his legendary bravery, his famous victories against the Russians, and of his miraculous escapes from certain capture and defeat. Having such a leader gave new confidence to the Muslim tribes, uniting them around the imam’s call for a jihad against the Russian occupation of their lands. The strength of Shamil’s army derived from its close ties with the mountain villages: this enabled them to carry out the guerrilla-type operations which so confounded the Russians. With the support of the local population, Shamil’s army was ubiquitous and practically invisible. Villagers could become soldiers and soldiers villagers at a moment’s notice. The mountain people were the army’s ears and eyes – they served as scouts and spies – and everywhere the Russians were vulnerable to ambush. Shamil’s fighters literally ran circles around the tsarist army – launching sudden raids on exposed Russian troops, forts and supply lines before vanishing into the mountains or merging with the tribesmen in the villages. They seldom engaged with the Russians in the open, where they knew they ran the risk of being defeated by superior numbers and artillery. It was difficult to cope with such tactics, especially since none of the Russian commanders had ever come across anything like them before, and for a long time they simply threw in ever-growing numbers of their troops in a fruitless effort to defeat Shamil in his main base in Chechnya. By the end of the 1830s Shamil’s way of fighting had become so effective that he began to appear as invincible to the Russians as he did to the Muslim tribes. As one tsarist general lamented, Shamil’s rule had acquired a ‘religious-military character, the same by which at the beginning of Islam Muhammed’s sword shook three-quarters of the Universe’.


But it was in Turkey that the British sought to create their main buffer state against Russia. It did not take them long to realize that by ignoring the Sultan’s call for help against the Egyptian invasion they had missed a golden opportunity to secure their position as the dominant foreign power in the Ottoman Empire. Palmerston said it was ‘the greatest miscalculation in the field of foreign affairs ever made by a British cabinet’. Having missed that chance, they redoubled their efforts to influence the Porte and impose on it a series of reforms to resolve the problems of its Christian population which had given Russia cause to intervene on their behalf.

The British were believers in political reform and thought that with their gunboats in support they could export their liberal principles across the globe. In their view, the reform of the Ottoman Empire was the only real solution to the Eastern Question, which was rooted in the decay of the Sultan’s realm: cure the ‘sick man’ and the problem of the East would go away. But the motives of the British in promoting liberal reforms were not just to secure the independence of the Ottoman Empire against Russia. They were also to promote the influence of Britain in Turkey: to make the Turks dependent on the British for political advice and financial loans, and to bring them under the protection of the British military; to ‘civilize’ the Turks under British tutelage, teaching them the virtues of British liberal principles, religious toleration and administrative practices (though stopping short of parliaments and constitutions, for which the Turks were deemed to lack the necessary ‘European’ qualities); to promote British free-trade interests (which may have sounded splendid but was arguably damaging to the Ottoman Empire); and to secure the route to India (where Britain’s free-trade policies were not of course pursued).

The British were encouraged in their reformist mission by the outward signs of Westernization they had noted in the culture of the Turks during the last years of Mahmud’s reign. Although the Sultan’s military reforms had yielded limited success, changes had been made in the dress and customs of the Ottoman élites in the Turkish capital: the tunic and the fez had replaced robes and turbans; beards had been removed; and women had been brought into society. These cosmetic changes were reflected in the rise of a new type of Turkish official or gentleman, the European Turk, who had picked up foreign languages, Western habits, manners and vices, while in other ways remaining rooted in the traditional culture of Islam.

Travellers to Turkey were impressed by the manifestations of progress they observed in Turkish manners, and their writings transformed British attitudes. The best-selling and most influential of these publications was undoubtedly Julia Pardoe’s The City of the Sultan; and Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1836, which sold over 30,000 copies in four editions between 1837 and the start of the Crimean War. Pardoe set out to correct what she saw as the prejudices of earlier accounts by travellers to the Ottoman Empire. On the surface Turkey seemed to conform to all the European stereotypes – exotic, indolent, sensual, superstitious, obscurantist and religiously fanatical – but on closer inspection it was seen to possess ‘noble qualities’ that made it fertile soil for liberal reform. ‘Who that regards with unprejudiced eyes the moral state of Turkey can fail to be struck by the absence of capital crime, the contented and even proud feelings of the lower ranks, and the absence of all assumption and haughtiness among the higher?’ The only obstacle to the ‘civilization of Turkey’, Pardoe argued, was ‘the policy of Russia to check every advance towards enlightenment among a people she has already trammelled, and whom she would fain subjugate’.

By the 1840s such ideas were the common currency of numerous travelogues and political pamphlets by Turcophiles. In Three Years in Constantinople; or, Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1844, Charles White encouraged the idea of Britain setting out to ‘civilize the Turks’ by citing examples of improvements in their habits and behaviour, such as the adoption of Western dress, the decline of religious fanaticism, and a growing appetite for education among the ‘middling and inferior classes’. Among these two classes

the ascendancy of good over evil is unquestionable. In no city are social or moral ties more tenaciously observed than by them. In no city can more numerous examples be found of probity, mild single-heartedness, and domestic worth. In no city is the amount of crime against property or persons more limited: a result that must be attributed to inherent honesty, and not to preventive measures.

Closely connected to such ideas was a romantic sympathy for Islam as a basically benign and progressive force (and preferable to the deeply superstitious and only ‘semi-Christian’ Orthodoxy of the Russians) that took hold of many British Turcophiles. Urquhart, for example, saw the role of Islam, much as the Turks would have it seen themselves, as a tolerant and moderating force which kept the peace between the warring Christian sects in the Ottoman Empire:

What traveller has not observed the fanaticism, the antipathy, of all these sects – their hostility to each other? Who has traced their actual repose to the toleration of Islamism? Islamism, calm, absorbed, without spirit of dogma, or views of proselytism, imposes at present on the other creeds the reserve and silence which characterise itself. But let this moderator be removed, and the humble professions now confined to the sanctuary would be proclaimed in the court and the military camp; political power and political emnity would combine with religious domination and religious animosity; the empire would be deluged in blood, until a nervous arm – the arm of Russia – appears to restore harmony, by despotism.

Some of these ideas were shared by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe (1786–1880), known as Stratford Canning until his elevation in 1852, who served no less than five times as Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople, directly guiding the reform programme of the young Sultan Abdülmecid and his main reformist minister Mustafa Reshid Pasha after 1839. The first cousin of George Canning, who had been Foreign Secretary and briefly Prime Minister before his death in 1827, Stratford Canning was a domineering and impatient character – a consequence perhaps of never having had to wait for advancement (he was only 24, fresh out of Eton and Cambridge, when he took up his first office as Minister-Plenipotentiary in Constantinople). It is an irony that at the time of his first appointment as ambassador to the Porte, in 1824, Stratford had a profound dislike of Turkey – the country he said it would be his mission to save ‘from itself’. In his letters to his cousin George, he wrote of a ‘secret wish’ to expel the Turks ‘bags and baggage’ from Europe, and confessed that he ‘had a mind to curse the balance of Europe for protecting those horrid Turks’. But Stratford’s Russophobia far outweighed his dislike of the Turks (in 1832, the Tsar, knowing this, took the extraordinary step of refusing to receive him as ambassador in St Petersburg). Russia’s growing domination of Turkey persuaded Stratford that only liberal reform could save the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike Urquhart and the Turcophiles, Stratford Canning had limited knowledge of Turkey. He did not speak Turkish. He did not travel widely in the country, spending nearly all his time in the seclusion of the British embassy at Pera or its summer residence in Therapia. Stratford had no faith in modernizing the old Turkish institutions, and no sympathy for or even understanding of Islam. In his view the only hope for Turkey was to be given a complete injection of European civilization – and Christian civilization at that – to rescue it from religious obscurantism and steer it on the path towards rational enlightenment. He, too, was encouraged by the signs of Westernization in Turkish dress and manners that he observed on his second posting as ambassador, in 1832. They convinced him that, if the Turks were not perfectible, at least they could be improved. ‘The Turks have undergone a complete metamorphosis since I was last here, at least as to costume,’ he wrote to Palmerston.

They are now in a middle state from turbans to hats, from petticoats to breeches. How far these changes may extend below the surface I will not take upon myself to say. I know no conceivable substitute but civilization in the sense of Christendom. Can the sultan attain it? I have my doubts. At all events it must be an arduous and slow process, if not an impracticable one.

On and off for the next quarter of a century, Stratford lectured the Sultan and tutored his reformist ministers about how to liberalize Turkey along English lines.

Mustafa Reshid (1800–58) was a perfect illustration of the European Turk that Stratford Canning hoped to see emerge in the forefront of Ottoman reform. ‘By birth and education a gentleman, by nature of a kind and liberal disposition, Reshid had more to engage my sympathies than any other of his race and class,’ Stratford Canning wrote in his memoirs. A short and stocky man with lively features framed by a black beard, Reshid had been the Porte’s ambassador in London and Paris, where he cut a striking figure in French theatres and salons, before becoming Foreign Minister in 1837. He spoke both French and English well. Like many Turkish reformers of the nineteenth century, Reshid had connections to the European Freemasons. He was admitted to a London lodge during the 1830s. Flirting with Freemasonry was a way for Western-oriented Turks like Reshid to embrace secular ideas without giving up their Muslim faith and identity or laying themselves open to the charge of apostasy from Islam (a crime that carried the death sentence until 1844). Inspired by the West, Reshid wanted to transform the Ottoman Empire into a modern monarchy, in which the sultan would reign but not rule, the power of the clergy would be limited, and a new caste of enlightened bureaucrats would run the affairs of the imperial state.

In 1839, the 16-year-old new Sultan Abdülmecid issued a decree, the Hatt-i Sharif of Gülhane (Noble Decree of the Rose Chamber), announcing a number of reforms, the first in a series, the Tanzimat reforms, which would span the entire period of his reign (1839–61) and lead eventually to the establishment of the first Ottoman parliament in 1876. The decree was the work of Reshid Pasha, who had drafted it in his London residence in Bryanston Square and shown it first to Stratford Canning for his personal approval on his brief second posting as ambassador to Britain in 1838. The English values of the Magna Carta were clearly evident in its wording. The Hatt-i Sharif promised everyone in the Sultan’s empire security of life, honour, property, regardless of their faith; it stressed the rule of law, religious toleration, the modernization of the empire’s institutions, and a just and rational system of centralized taxation and military conscription. In essence, the decree assumed that the commonwealth would be promoted by giving guarantees of personal liberty to the empire’s most dynamic elements, the non-Muslim millets, whose unfair treatment by the Muslim majority had created instability.

How far the decree was motivated by a desire to enlist British support for the Ottoman Empire at a time of crisis is a matter of controversy. There was certainly an element of English window dressing in the liberal language of the Hatt-i Sharif, whose final wording also owed much to Ponsonby, the British ambassador. But this does not mean that the Hatt-i Sharif was insincere, reluctantly conceded as a tactical device to secure British support. At the heart of the decree was a genuine belief in the need to modernize the Ottoman Empire. Reshid and his followers were convinced that to rescue the empire they ultimately needed to create a new secular concept of imperial unity (Ottomanism) based on the equality of all the Sultan’s subjects, regardless of their faith. It was a mark of the seriousness with which the reformers took their task, as well as a sign of their concern to pacify the potential opposition of conservatives, that the concessions of the Hatt-i Sharif were couched in terms of the defence of Islamic traditions and the precepts of the ‘glorious Koran’. Indeed, the Sultan and many of his most prominent reformist ministers, including Mustafa Reshid and Mehmet Hüsrev, the Grand Vizier in 1839–41, had close connections to the Naqshbandi lodges (tekkes), where a strict emphasis on the teachings of Islamic law was preached. In many ways the Tanzimat reforms were an attempt to create a more centralized but more tolerant Islamic state.

The Ottoman government did very little to implement its lofty declarations, however. Its promise to improve the conditions of the Christian population was the main sticking point, inciting as it did the opposition of the traditional Muslim clergy and conservatives. There were only minor improvements. The death penalty for apostasy was renounced by the Sultan in 1844, although a small number of Muslims who had converted to Christianity (and Christians who had reversed conversion to Islam) were still executed on the authority of local governors. Blasphemy continued to be punished by the death sentence. Christians were admitted to some of the military schools and were liable to conscription, but since they were not likely to be promoted to the senior ranks, most chose to pay a special tax for exemption from service. From the late 1840s Christians were allowed to become members of the provincial councils that checked the work of governors. They also began to sit on juries alongside Muslims in the commercial courts where Western legal principles were liberally applied. But otherwise there was not much change. The slave trade continued, most of it involving the capture of Christian boys and girls from the Caucasus for sale in Constantinople. The Turks continued to regard the Christians as inferior, and thought that Muslim privileges should not be given up. The informal rules and practices of the administration, if not all the written laws, continued to ensure that the Christians were treated as second-class citizens, although they were rapidly emerging as the dominant economic group in the Ottoman Empire, which became a growing source of tension and envy – especially when they evaded taxes by acquiring foreign passports and protection.

Returning to Constantinople for his third term as ambassador in 1842, Stratford Canning became increasingly despondent about the prospects of reform. The Sultan was too young, and Reshid too weak, to stand up to the conservatives, who gradually gained the upper hand against the reformers in the Council (Divan) of the Porte. The reform agenda was increasingly entangled in personal rivalries, in particular between Reshid and Mehmet Ali Pasha,c one of Reshid’s reformist protégés, who served as ambassador in London from 1841 to 1844, and then as Foreign Minister from 1846 to 1852, when he replaced Reshid as Grand Vizier. Such was Reshid’s jealousy of Mehmet Ali that, by the early 1850s, he had even joined the Muslim opposition to granting equal rights to the Sultan’s Christian subjects in the hope of stopping his rival. The reforms were also hampered by practical difficulties. The Ottoman government in Constantinople was far too distant and too weak to force through laws in a society without railways, post offices, telegraphs or newspapers.

But the main obstacle was the opposition of traditional élites – the religious leaders of the millets – who felt beleaguered by the Tanzimat reforms. All the millets protested, especially the Greeks, and there was a sort of secularist coup in the Armenian one; but the reforms were most opposed by Islamic leaders and élites. This was a society where the interests of the local pashas and the Muslim clergy were heavily invested in the preservation of the traditional millet system with all its legal and civil disabilities against the Christians. The more the Porte attempted to become an agency of centralization and reform, the more these leaders stirred up local grievances and reactionary Muslim feeling against a state which they denounced as ‘infidel’ because of its increasing dependence on foreigners. Incited by their clergy, Muslims demonstrated against the reforms in many towns: there were acts of violence against Christians; churches were destroyed; and there were even threats to burn the Latin Quarter in Constantinople.

For Stratford Canning, who was no friend of Islam, this reaction raised a moral dilemma: could Britain continue to support a Muslim government that failed to stop the persecution of its Christian citizens? In February 1850 he was thrown into despair after hearing of ‘atrocious massacres’ of the Christian population in Rumelia (in a region later part of Bulgaria). He wrote in gloomy terms to Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, explaining that ‘the great game of improvement is altogether up for the present’.

The master mischief in this country is dominant religion … Though altogether effete as a principle of national strength and reviving power, the spirit of Islamism, thus perverted, lives in the supremacy of the conquering race and in the prejudices engendered by a long tyrannical domination. It may not be too much to say that the progress of the empire towards a firm re-establishment of its prosperity and independence is to be measured by the degree of its emancipation from that source of injustice and weakness.

Palmerston agreed that the persecution of the Christians not only invited but even justified the policy pursued by the Russians. In his view, it gave Britain little choice but to withdraw support for the Ottoman government. Writing to Reshid the following November, he foresaw that the Ottoman Empire was ‘doomed to fall by the timidity and weakness and irresolution of its sovereign and his ministers, and it is evident we shall ere long have to consider what other arrangement can be set up in its place’.

British intervention in Turkish politics had meanwhile brought about a Muslim reaction against Western interference in Ottoman affairs. By the early 1850s Stratford Canning had become far more than an ambassador or adviser to the Porte. The ‘Great Elchi’, or Great Ambassador, as he was known in Constantinople, had a direct influence on the policies of the Turkish government. Indeed, at a time when there was no telegraph between London and the Turkish capital and several months could pass before instructions arrived from Whitehall, he had considerable leeway over British policy in the Ottoman Empire. His presence was a source of deep resentment among the Sultan’s ministers, who lived in terror of a personal visit from the dictatorial ambassador. Local notables and the Muslim clergy were equally resentful of his efforts on behalf of the Christians, and saw his influence on the government as a loss of Turkish sovereignty. This hostility to foreign intervention in Ottoman affairs – by Britain, France or Russia – would come to play an important role in Turkish politics on the eve of the Crimean War.


The Russian Menace

The Dutch steamer pulled into the docks at Woolwich late on a Saturday evening, 1 June 1844. Its only passengers were ‘Count Orlov’ – the pseudonym of Tsar Nicholas – and his entourage of courtiers who had travelled incognito from St Petersburg. Ever since Russia’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection in 1831, Nicholas had lived in fear of assassination by Polish nationalists opposed to Russian rule in their homeland, so it was his custom to travel in disguise. London had a large community of Polish exiles, and there were concerns for the Tsar’s safety from the moment the trip had been discussed with the British government in January. To increase his personal security, Nicholas had told no one of his travel plans. Stopping only briefly in Berlin, the Tsar’s coaches sped across the Continent, without anyone in Britain even knowing of his imminent arrival until he had boarded the steamer in Hamburg on 30 May, less than two days before his landing at Woolwich.

Even Baron Brunov, the Russian ambassador in London, was not told the precise details of the Tsar’s itinerary. Not knowing when his steamer would arrive, Brunov had spent the whole of Saturday at the Woolwich docks. Finally, at ten o’clock in the evening, the steamer pulled in. The Tsar disembarked – barely recognizable in a grey cloak he had worn during the Turkish campaign of 1828 – and hurried off with Brunov to the Russian embassy at Ashburnham House in Westminster. Despite the late hour, he sent a note to the Prince Consort requesting a meeting with the Queen at her earliest convenience. Accustomed as he was to summoning his ministers at all hours of the day and night, it had not occurred to him that it might be rude to wake Prince Albert in the early hours of the morning.

This was not the Tsar’s first trip to London. He had fond memories of his previous visit, in 1816, when as a 20-year-old and still a Grand Duke, he had been a great success with the female half of the English aristocracy. Lady Charlotte Campbell, a famous beauty and lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales, had declared of him: ‘What an amiable creature! He is devilish handsome! He will be the handsomest man in Europe.’ From that trip, Nicholas had gained the impression that he had an ally in the English monarchy and aristocracy. As the despotic ruler of the world’s greatest state, Nicholas had little sense of the limitations on a constitutional monarchy. He presumed that he could come to Britain and decide matters of foreign policy directly with the Queen and her most senior ministers. It was ‘an excellent thing’, he told Victoria at their first meeting, ‘to see now and then with one’s own eyes, as it did not do always to trust to diplomatists only’. Such meetings created ‘a feeling of friendship and interest’ between reigning sovereigns, and more could be achieved ‘in a single conversation to explain one’s feelings, views and motives than in a host of messages and letters’. The Tsar thought that he could strike a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Britain about how to deal with the Ottoman Empire in the event of its collapse.

Nor was this the first attempt that Nicholas had made to enlist the support of another power in his partition plans for the Ottoman Empire. In 1829 he had suggested to the Austrians a bilateral division of its European territories to forestall the chaos which he feared would follow its collapse, but they had turned him down to preserve the Concert of Europe. Then, in the autumn of 1843 he again approached the Austrians, resurrecting the idea of a Greek empire backed by Russia, Austria and Prussia (the Triple Alliance of 1815) to prevent the British and the French from dividing the spoils of the crumbling Ottoman Empire between themselves. Insisting that Russia did not want to expand into the Balkans, Nicholas proposed that the Austrians should be given all the Turkish lands between the Danube and the Adriatic, and that Constantinople should become a free city under Austrian guardianship. But nothing he said had been able to dispel Vienna’s deep mistrust of Russia’s ambitions. The Austrian ambassador in St Petersburg believed that the Tsar was trying to engineer a situation where Russia could use the excuse of defending Turkey to intervene in its affairs and impose its own partition plans by military force. What the Tsar really wanted, the ambassador maintained, was not a Greek empire backed by the three powers but a ‘state tied to Russia by interests, principles and religion, and governed by a Russian prince. Russia can never lose sight of this aim. It is a necessary condition for the fulfilment of her destiny … Present-day Greece would be swallowed up in the new state. Deeply suspicious, the Austrians would have nothing to do with the Tsar’s partition plans without the agreement of the British and the French. So Nicholas now came to London in the hope of winning over Britain to his point of view.

On the face of it, there was not much to suggest that Nicholas could forge a new alliance with Britain. The British were committed to their liberal reform plans to save the Ottoman Empire, and saw the ambitions of the Russians as a major threat. But the Tsar was encouraged by the diplomatic rapprochement between Russia and Britain during recent years, prompted by their shared alarm at France’s growing involvement in the Middle East.

In 1839 the French had given their support to a second insurrection by the Egyptian ruler Mehmet Ali against the Sultan’s rule in Syria. With French backing, the Egyptians defeated the Ottoman army, raising renewed fears that they would march against the Turkish capital, as they had done six years before. The young Sultan Abdülmecid appeared too weak to resist Mehmet Ali’s renewed demands for a hereditary dynasty in Egypt and Syria, especially after the Ottoman navy defected to the Egyptians at Alexandria, and once again the Porte was forced to ask for foreign help. In 1833 the Russians had intervened on their own to rescue the Ottoman Empire, but in this second crisis they looked to work with Britain for the restoration of the Sultan’s rule – their aim being to come between the British and the French.

Like the Russians, the British were alarmed by the growing French involvement in Egypt. This was where Napoleon had threatened to bring down the British Empire in 1798. France had invested heavily in the booming cotton cash crop and industrial economy of Egypt during the 1830s. It had sent advisers to help train the Egyptian army and navy. With French support, the Egyptians were not only a major threat to Turkish rule. As head of a powerful Islamic revival movement against the intervention of the Christian nations in the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet Ali was also an inspiration to the Muslim rebels against tsarist rule in the Caucasus.

Consequently, Russia and Britain with Austria and Prussia urged Mehmet Ali to withdraw from Syria and accept their terms for a settlement with the Sultan. These terms, set down in the London Convention of 1840 and ratified by the four powers with the Ottoman Empire, allowed Mehmet Ali to establish a hereditary dynasty in Egypt. To ensure his withdrawal, a British fleet sailed to Alexandria, and an Anglo-Austrian force was sent to Palestine. For a while the Egyptian leader held out, in the expectation of French support; there were scares of a war in Europe when the French government rejected the peace terms proposed by the four powers and pledged to help Ali. But at the final moment the French, unwilling to be drawn into war, backed down and Mehmet Ali withdrew from Syria. By the terms of a subsequent London Convention of 1841, which the French signed reluctantly, Mehmet Ali was recognized as the hereditary ruler of Egypt in exchange for his recognition of the Sultan’s sovereignty in the rest of the Ottoman Empire.

The importance of the 1841 Convention extended beyond securing Mehmet Ali’s surrender. Agreement had also been reached to close the Turkish Straits to all warships except those of the Sultan’s allies during wartime – a very big concession by the Russians because potentially it allowed the British navy into the Black Sea, where it could attack their vulnerable southern frontiers. By signing the convention, the Russians had given up their privileged position in the Ottoman Empire and their control of the Straits, all in the hope of improving relations with Britain and isolating France.

From the Tsar’s point of view, propping up the Sultan’s power could only be a temporary measure. With the French weakened by their support for this insurrection, and Russia having reached what Nicholas believed was a new understanding with the British in the Middle East, he concluded that the London Convention opened the possibility of a more formal alliance between Russia and Britain. The election of a Conservative government headed by Sir Robert Peel in 1841 gave the Tsar some added grounds to be hopeful on this score, for the Tories were less hostile to the Russians than the previous Whig administration of Lord Melbourne (1835–41). The Tsar was convinced that the Tory government would listen favourably to his suggestion that Russia and Britain should take the lead in Europe and decide the future of the Ottoman Empire. In 1844, confident that he could bring the British round to his partition plans, the Tsar departed for London.

The suddenness of his June arrival took everybody by surprise. There had been vague talk of his visit since the spring. Peel had welcomed the idea at a banquet for the Russian Trading Company in the London Tavern on 2 March, and three days later Lord Aberdeen, the Foreign Secretary, had sent a formal invitation via Baron Brunov, reassuring the Tsar that his presence would ‘dispel any Polish prejudices’ against Russia in Britain. ‘For such a reserved and nervous man as Aberdeen to speak so confidently on this matter is significant,’ Brunov wrote to Nesselrode. As for the Queen, at first she was reluctant to receive the Tsar, on the grounds of his long-standing conflict with her uncle Leopold, king of the newly independent Belgium, who had attracted many Polish exiles to his army during the 1830s. Determined to uphold the legitimist principles of the Holy Alliance, Nicholas had wanted to restore the monarchies deposed by the French and Belgian revolutions of 1830, and had been prevented only by the outbreak of the Polish uprising in Warsaw in November of that year. His threats of intervention had earned him the mistrust of West European liberals, who labelled him the ‘gendarme of Europe’, while the Polish rebels who fled abroad after the suppression of their uprising had found a welcome refuge in Paris, Brussels and London. These were the developments that worried Queen Victoria, but eventually she was persuaded by her husband, Prince Albert (who was also a nephew of King Leopold), that a visit by the Tsar would help to mend relations between the ruling houses on the Continent. In her invitation to the Tsar, Victoria had said that she would welcome him in late May or early June, but no date had been set. In mid-May it was still not clear if Nicholas would come. In the end, the Queen learned of his arrival a few hours before his steamer landed at Woolwich. Her staff were thrown into a panic, not least because they were expecting a visit from the King of Saxony on the same day, and hasty preparations to receive the Tsar needed to be improvised.

The Tsar’s impromptu visit was one of many signs of a growing rashness in his behaviour. After eighteen years on the throne he had begun to lose those qualities that had characterized his early rule: caution, conservatism and reserve. Increasingly affected by the hereditary mental illness that had troubled Alexander in his final years, Nicholas became impatient and impetuous, and inclined to impulsive behaviour, like rushing off to London to impose his will on the British. His erratic nature was noted by Prince Albert and the Queen, who wrote to her uncle Leopold: ‘Albert thinks he is a man inclined to give way too much to impulse and feeling which makes him act wrongly often.

The day after his arrival, the Queen received the Tsar at Buckingham Palace. There was a meeting with the dukes of Cambridge, Wellington and Gloucester, followed by a tour of London’s fashionable West End streets. The Tsar inspected the building work at the Houses of Parliament, which at that time were being reconstructed after the fire of 1834, and visited the newly finished Regent’s Park. In the evening the royal party travelled by train to Windsor, where they remained for the next five days. The Tsar astonished the servants with his spartan habits. The first thing his valets did on being shown his bedroom at Windsor Castle was to send to the stable for some straw to stuff the leather sack which served as the mattress of the military campbed on which the Tsar always slept.

Because the Queen was heavily pregnant and the Saxe-Coburgs were in mourning for Prince Albert’s father, there was no royal ball in the Tsar’s honour. But there were plenty of other amusements: hunting parties; military reviews; outings to the races at Ascot (where the Gold Cup was renamed the Emperor’s Plate in honour of the Tsard); an evening with the Queen at the opera; and a glittering banquet where more than sixty guests ate their way through fifty-three different dishes served from the Grand Service, possibly the finest collection of silver-gilt dining plate in the world. On his last two evenings, there were large dinners where the male guests dressed in military uniform, in line with the wishes of the Tsar, who felt uncomfortable en frac and admitted to the Queen that he was embarrassed when not dressed in a uniform.

As an exercise in public relations, the Tsar’s visit was a great success. Society women were charmed and delighted by his good looks and manners. ‘He is still a great devotee to female beauty,’ noted Baron Stockmar, ‘and to his old English flames he showed the greatest attention.’ The Queen also warmed to him. She liked his ‘dignified and graceful’ demeanour, his kindness to children, and his sincerity, though she thought him rather sad. ‘He gives Albert and myself the impression of a man who is not happy, and on whom the burden of his immense power and position weighs heavily and painfully,’ she wrote to Leopold on 4 June. ‘He seldom smiles, and when he does, the expression is not a happy one.’ A week later, at the end of the trip, she wrote again to her uncle with a penetrating assessment of the Tsar’s character:

There is much about him which I cannot help liking, and I think his character is one which should be understood, and looked upon for once as it is. He is stern and severe – with fixed principles of duty which nothing on earth will make him change; very clever I do not think him, and his mind is an uncivilized one; his education has been neglected; politics and military concerns are the only things he takes great interest in; the arts and all softer occupations he is insensible to, but he is sincere, I am certain, sincere even in his most despotic acts, from a sense that that is the only way to govern.

Lord Melbourne, one of the most anti-Russian of the Whigs, got on very well with Nicholas at a breakfast at Chiswick House, the centre of the Whig establishment. Even Palmerston, the former Whig spokesman on foreign policy, who was well known for his hard line against Russia, thought it was important for a ‘favourable impression of England’ to be given to the Tsar: ‘He is very powerful and may act in our favour, or bring us harm, depending on whether he is well disposed or hostile towards us.

During his stay in England the Tsar had a number of political discussions with the Queen and Prince Albert, with Peel and Aberdeen. The British were surprised by the frankness of his views. The Queen even thought he was ‘too frank, for he talks so openly before people, which he should not do, and with difficulty restrains himself’, as she wrote to Leopold. The Tsar had come to the conclusion that openness was the only way to overcome British mistrust and prejudice against Russia. ‘I know that I am taken for an actor,’ he told Peel and Aberdeen, ‘but indeed I am not; I am thoroughly straightforward; I say what I mean, and what I promise I fulfil.

On the question of Belgium, the Tsar declared that he would like to mend his relations with Leopold, but ‘while there are Polish officers in the service of the king, that is completely impossible’. Exchanging views with Aberdeen, ‘not as an emperor with a minister, but as two gentlemen’, he explained his thinking, voicing his resentment of Western double standards against Russia:

The Poles were and still remain in rebellion against my rule. Would it be acceptable for a gentleman to take into service people who are guilty of rebellion against his friend? Leopold took these rebels under his protection. What would you say if I became the patron of [the Irish independence leader Daniel] O’Connell and thought of making him my minister?

When it came to France, Nicholas wanted Britain to join Russia in a policy of containment. Appealing to their mistrust of the French after the Napoleonic Wars, he told Peel and Aberdeen that France ‘should never be allowed again to create disorder and march its armies beyond its borders’. He hoped that with their common interests against France, Britain and Russia might become allies. ‘Through our friendly intercourse,’ he said with feeling, ‘I hope to annihilate the prejudices between our countries. For I value highly the opinion of Englishmen. As to what the French say of me, I care not. I spit on it.

Nicholas particularly played on Britain’s fear of France in the Middle East – the main subject of his talks with Peel and Aberdeen. ‘Turkey is a dying man,’ he told them.

We may endeavour to keep him alive, but we shall not succeed. He will, he must, die. That will be a critical moment. I foresee that I shall have to put my armies into motion and Austria must do the same. In this crisis I fear only France. What does she want? I expect her to make a move in many places: in Egypt, in the Mediterranean, and in the East. Remember the French expedition to Ancona [in 1832]? Why could they not undertake the same in Crete or Smyrna? And if they did wouldn’t the English mobilize their fleet? And so in these territories there would be the Russian and the Austrian armies, and all the ships of the English fleet. A major conflagration would become unavoidable.

The Tsar argued that the time had come for the European powers, led by Russia and Britain, to step in and manage a partition of the Turkish territories to avoid a chaotic scramble over their division, possibly involving national revolutions and a Continental war, when the Sultan’s empire finally collapsed. He impressed on Peel and Aberdeen his firm conviction that the Ottoman Empire would soon cave in and that Russia and Britain should act together to plan for that eventuality, if only to prevent the French from taking over Egypt and the eastern Mediterannean, a concern uppermost in British thinking at that time. As Nicholas told Peel.

I do not claim one inch of Turkish soil, but neither will I allow that any other, especially the French, shall have an inch of it … . We cannot now stipulate as to what shall be done with Turkey when she is dead. Such stipulations would only hasten her death. I shall therefore do all in my power to maintain the status quo. But we should keep the possible and eventual case of her collapse honestly and reasonably before our eyes. We ought to deliberate reasonably, and endeavour to come to a straightforward and honest understanding on the subject.

Peel and Aberdeen were ready to agree on the need to plan ahead for the possible partition of the Ottoman Empire, but only when that need arose, and they did not see that yet. A secret memorandum containing the conclusions of the conversations was drafted by Brunov and agreed (though not signed) by Nicholas and Aberdeen.

The Tsar left England with the firm conviction that the conversations he had held with Peel and Aberdeen were statements of policy, and that he could now look forward to a partnership with Britain the aim of which was to devise a coordinated plan for the partition of the Ottoman Empire whenever that should become necessary to safeguard the interests of the two powers. It was not an unreasonable assumption to make, given that he had a secret memorandum to show for his efforts in London. But in fact it was a fatal error for Nicholas to think that he had a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the British government on the Eastern Question. The British saw the conversations as no more than an exchange of opinions on matters of concern to both powers and not as something binding in any formal sense. Convinced that all that mattered was the viewpoint of the Queen and her senior ministers, Nicholas failed to appreciate the influence of Parliament, opposition parties, public opinion and the press on the foreign policy of the British government. This misunderstanding was to play a crucial role in the diplomatic blunders made by Nicholas on the eve of the Crimean War.

The Tsar’s visit to London did nothing to dispel the British mistrust of Russia that had been building for decades. Despite the fact that the threat of Russia to British interests was minimal, and trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries were not bad at all in the years leading up to the Crimean War, Russophobia (even more than Francophobia) was arguably the most important element in Britain’s outlook on the world abroad. Throughout Europe, attitudes to Russia were mostly formed by fears and fantasies, and Britain in this sense was no exception to the rule. The rapid territorial expansion of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century and the demonstration of its military might against Napoleon had left a deep impression on the European mind. In the early nineteenth century there was a frenzy of European publications – pamphlets, travelogues and political treatises – on ‘the Russian menace’ to the Continent. They had as much to do with the imagination of an Asiatic ‘other’ threatening the liberties and civilization of Europe as with any real or perceived threat. The stereotype of Russia that emerged from these fanciful writings was that of a savage power, aggressive and expansionist by nature, yet also sufficiently cunning and deceptive to plot with ‘unseen forces’ against the West and infiltrate societies.

The documentary basis of this ‘Russian menace’ was the so-called ‘Testament of Peter the Great’, which was widely cited by Russophobic writers, politicians, diplomats and military men as prima facie evidence of Russia’s ambitions to dominate the world. Peter’s aims for Russia in this document were megalomaniac: to expand on the Baltic and Black seas, to ally with the Austrians to expel the Turks from Europe, to ‘conquer the Levant’ and control the trade of the Indies, to sow dissent and confusion in Europe and become the master of the European continent.

the Turks from Europe, to ‘conquer the Levant’ and control the trade of the Indies, to sow dissent and confusion in Europe and become the master of the European continent.The ‘Testament’ was a forgery. It was created sometime in the early eighteenth century by various Polish, Hungarian and Ukrainian figures connected to France and the Ottomans, and it went through several drafts before the finished version ended up in the French Foreign Ministry archives during the 1760s. For reasons of foreign policy, the French were disposed to believe in the authenticity of the ‘Testament’: their main allies in Eastern Europe (Sweden, Poland and Turkey) had all been weakened by Russia. The belief that the ‘Testament’ reflected Russia’s aims formed the basis of France’s foreign policy throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Napoleon I was particularly influenced by the ‘Testament’. His senior foreign policy advisers freely cited its ideas and phraseology, claiming, in the words of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the Foreign Minister of the Directory and the Consulate (1795–1804), that ‘the entire system [of the Russian Empire] constantly followed since Peter I … tends to crush Europe anew under a flood of barbarians’. Such ideas were expressed even more explictly by Alexandre d’Hauterive, an influential figure in the Foreign Ministry who had the confidence of Bonaparte:

Russia in time of war seeks to conquer her neighbours; in time of peace she seeks to keep not only her neighbours but all the countries of the world in a confusion of mistrust, agitation and discord … All that this power has usurped in Europe and Asia is well known. She tries to destroy the Ottoman Empire; she tries to destroy the German Empire. Russia will not proceed directly to her goal … but she will in an underhanded manner undermine the bases [of the Ottoman Empire]; she will foment intrigues; she will promote rebellion in the provinces … In so doing, she will not cease to profess the most benevolent sentiments for the Sublime Porte; she will constantly call herself the friend, the protectress of the Ottoman Empire. Russia will similarly attack … the house of Austria … Then there will be no more the court of Vienna [sic]; then we, the Western nations, we will have lost one of the barriers most capable of defending us against the incursions of Russia.

The ‘Testament’ was published by the French in 1812, the year of their invasion of Russia, and from that point on was widely reproduced and cited throughout Europe as conclusive evidence of Russia’s expansionist foreign policy. It was republished on the eve of every war involving Russia on the European continent – in 1854, 1878, 1914 and 1941 – and was cited during the Cold War to explain the aggressive intentions of the Soviet Union. On the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 it was cited in the Christian Science Monitor, Time magazine and the British House of Commons as an explanation of the origins of Moscow’s aims.

Nowhere was its influence more evident than in Britain, where fantastic fears of the Russian threat – and not just to India – were a journalistic staple. ‘A very general persuasion has long been entertained by the Russians that they are destined to be the rulers of the world, and this idea has been more than once stated in publications in the Russian language,’ declared the Morning Chronicle in 1817. Even serious periodicals succumbed to the view that Russia’s defeat of Napoleon had set it on a course to dominate the world. Looking back on the events of recent years, the Edinburgh Review thought in 1817 that it ‘would have seemed far less extravagant to predict the entry of a Russian army into Delhi, or even Calcutta, than its entry into Paris’. British fears were supported by the amateur opinions and impressions of travel writers on Russia and the East, a literary genre that enjoyed something of a boom in the early nineteenth century. These travel books not only dominated public perceptions of Russia but also provided a good deal of the working knowledge on which Whitehall shaped its policies towards that country.

One of the earliest and most controversial of such travelogues was A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia in the Year 1817 by Sir Robert Wilson, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who had served briefly as a commissioner in the Russian army. Wilson made a number of extravagant claims – incapable of demonstration or disproof – which he presented as the fruit of his inside knowledge of the tsarist government: that Russia was determined to drive the Turks from Europe, conquer Persia, advance on India, and dominate the world. Wilson’s speculations were so wild that in some quarters they were ridiculed (The Times suggested that Russia might advance to the Cape of Good Hope, the South Pole and the Moon) but the extremity of his argument guaranteed attention for his pamphlet, and it was widely debated and reviewed. The Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review – the most read and respected journals in government circles – agreed that Wilson had overestimated the immediate threat of Russia but nonetheless praised him for raising the issue and thought that the conduct of that country henceforth merited the ‘careful scrutiny of distrust’.16 In other words, the general premise of Wilson’s extreme views – that Russian expansionism was a danger to the world – was now to be accepted.

From this point on the phantom threat of Russia entered into the political discourse of Britain as a reality. The idea that Russia had a plan for the domination of the Near East and potentially the conquest of the British Empire began to appear with regularity in pamphlets, which in turn were later cited as objective evidence by Russophobic propagandists in the 1830s and 1840s.

The most influential of these pamphlets was On the Designs of Russia, previously discussed, by the future Crimean War commander George de Lacy Evans, which first laid out the danger posed by Russia’s activities in Asia Minor. But this pamphlet was notable for another reason as well: it was here that de Lacy Evans advanced the earliest detailed plan for the dismemberment of the Russian Empire, a programme that would be taken up again by the cabinet during the Crimean War. He advocated a preventive war against Russia to block its aggressive intentions. He proposed attacking Russia in Poland, Finland, the Black Sea and the Caucasus, where it was most vulnerable. His eight-point plan reads almost like a blueprint of the larger British aims against Russia during the Crimean War:

1. Cut off trade to Russia so that the nobles would lose their profits and turn against the tsarist government.

2. Destroy the naval depots at Kronstadt, Sevastopol, etc.

3. Launch a series of ‘predatory and properly supported incursions along her maritime frontiers, especially in the Black Sea, within the shores of which, and even in the rear of her line of military posts, she has a host of unsubdued, armed, indomitable mountaineer enemies …’.

4. Help the Persians to reclaim the Caucasus.

5. Send a large corps of troops and a fleet to the Gulf of Finland ‘to menace the flanks and reserve of the Russian armies of Poland and Finland’.

6. Finance revolutionaries to ‘create insurrections and a serf war’.

7. Bombard St Petersburg, ‘if that be practicable’.8. Send arms to Poland and Finland ‘for their liberation from Russia’.


David Urquhart, the famous Turcophile, also advocated a preventive war against Russia. No writer did more to prepare the British public for the Crimean War. A Scotsman educated at Oxford in Classics, Urquhart first encountered the Eastern Question in 1827, when, at the age of 22, he enrolled in a group of volunteers to fight for the Greek cause. He travelled widely in European Turkey, became enamoured of the virtues of the Turks, learned Turkish and modern Greek, adopted Turkish dress, and quickly gained a reputation as something of an expert on Turkey through his reports on that country which were published in the Morning Courier during 1831. Making use of a family friendship with Sir Herbert Taylor, private secretary to King William IV, Urquhart got himself attached to Stratford Canning’s mission to Constantinople to negotiate a final settlement of the Greek boundary in November 1831. During his time there he became convinced of the threat posed by Russian intervention in Turkey. Encouraged by his patrons at the court, he wrote Turkey and Its Resources (1833), in which he denied that the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse and highlighted the commercial opportunities awaiting Britain if it gave aid to Turkey and protected it from Russian aggression. The success of the book earned Urquhart the favour of Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary in Lord Grey’s government (1830–34), and a new appointment to the Turkish capital as part of a secret mission to examine the possibilities for British trade in the Balkans, Turkey, Persia, southern Russia and Afghanistan.

In Constantinople, Urquhart became a close political ally of the British ambassador, Lord John Ponsonby, an ardent Russophobe who was unshakeable in his conviction that Russia’s aim was the subjugation of Turkey. Ponsonby urged the British government to send warships into the Black Sea and to aid the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus in their fight against Russia (in 1834 he even won from Palmerston a ‘discretionary order’ granting him authority to summon British warships into the Black Sea if he deemed it necessary but this was soon cancelled by the Duke of Wellington, who thought better of giving so much power to make war to such a notorious Russophobe). Under the influence of Ponsonby, Urquhart became increasingly political in his activities. He did not stop at writing but actually did things to make war against the Russians more likely. In 1834 he visited the Circassian tribes, pledging British support for their war against the Russian occupation, an act of provocation against Russia that obliged Palmerston to recall him to London.

There, Urquhart stepped up his campaign for British military intervention against Russia in Turkey. A pamphlet he had written with Ponsonby, England, France, Russia and Turkey, was published in December 1834. It went through five editions within a year and received very positive reviews. Encouraged by this success, in November 1835 Urquhart launched a periodical, The Portfolio, in which he aired his Russophobic views, of which the following is typical: ‘The ignorance of the Russian people separates them from all community with the feelings of other nations, and prepares them to regard every denunciation of the injustice of their rulers as an attack upon themselves, and the Government has already announced by its Acts a determination to submit to no moral influences which may reach it from without.

In another act of provocation Urquhart published in The Portfolio what purported to be copies of Russian diplomatic documents captured from the palace of Grand Duke Constantine, the governor of Poland, during the Warsaw insurrection in November 1830 and passed on by Polish émigrés to Palmerston. Most, if not all, of these documents were fabricated by Urquhart, including a ‘suppressed passage of a speech’ in which Tsar Nicholas was said to have declared that Russia would not stop its repressive measures until it had achieved the complete subjugation of Poland, and a ‘Declaration of Independence’ supposedly proclaimed by the Circassian tribes. But such was the climate of Russophobia that they were widely accepted as authentic documents by the British press.

In 1836 Urquhart returned to Constantinople as secretary of the embassy. His growing fame and influence in British diplomatic and political circles had forced Palmerston to bring him back into office, although his role in the Turkish capital was rather limited. Once again, Urquhart took up the Circassian cause and attempted to stir up a conflict between Russia and Britain. In his most brazen act yet, Urquhart conspired to send a British schooner, the Vixen, to Circassia in deliberate contravention of the Russian embargo against foreign shipping on the eastern Black Sea coast imposed as part of the Treaty of Adrianople. The Vixen belonged to a shipping company, George and James Bell of Glasgow and London, that had already clashed with the Russians over their obstructive quarantine regulations on the Danube. Officially, the Vixen was transporting salt, but in fact it was loaded with a large supply of weapons for the Circassians. Ponsonby in Constantinople had been informed of the ship’s intended journey and did nothing to discourage it; nor did he reply to the Bells’ enquiries about whether the Foreign Office recognized the embargo and whether Britain would defend their shipping rights, as Urquhart had assured them that it would. The Russians were aware of Urquhart’s plans: in the summer of 1836 the Tsar had already complained to the British ambassador in St Petersburg after one of Urquhart’s followers had travelled to Circassia and promised British support for their war against Russia. The Vixen sailed in October. As Urquhart had anticipated, a Russian warship seized the Vixen on the Caucasian coast, at Soujouk Kalé, prompting loud denunciations of the Russian action and calls for war in The Times and other newspapers. Ponsonby urged Palmerston to send a fleet into the Black Sea. Although he was reluctant to recognize Russia’s embargo or its claims to Circassia, Palmerston was nevertheless not ready to be pushed into a war by Urquhart, Ponsonby and the British press. He acknowledged that the Vixen had contravened Russian regulations, which Britain recognized, but only in so far as these related to Soujouk Kalé, not to the whole Caucasian coastline.

Recalled once again from Constantinople, Urquhart was dismissed from the foreign service and charged with a breach of official secrecy by Palmerston in 1837. Urquhart always claimed that Palmerston had known about the Vixen plan. For years he harboured a deep grudge against the Foreign Secretary for supposedly betraying him. As Britain moved towards entente with Russia, Urquhart became increasingly frustrated and extreme in his Russophobia, calling for an even stronger anti-Russian line – not discounting war – to defend Britain’s trade and its interests in India. He even accused Palmerston of being in the pay of the Russian government, a charge taken up by his supporters in the press, including in The Times, a major influence on middle-class opinion, which joined the Urquhart camp in opposition to the ‘pro-Russian’ foreign policy of Palmerston. In 1839 a long series of letters to The Times by ‘Anglicus’ – a pseudonym of Henry Parish, one of Urquhart’s acolytes – almost took on the status of editorials, warning of the dangers of any compromise with an empire bent on the domination of Europe and Asia.

Urquhart continued his attacks on Russia in the House of Commons, to which he was elected in 1847 as an independent candidate (taking as his colours the green and yellow of Circassia). By this time Palmerston was the Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s Whig administration, which took office in 1846, following the split of the Conservatives over the repeal of import tariffs on cereal products (the Corn Laws). Urquhart renewed his charges against him. In 1848 he even led a campaign to impeach Palmerston for his failure to pursue a more aggressive policy against Russia. In a five-hour speech in the House of Commons, Urquhart’s main ally, the MP Thomas Anstey, accused him of a shameful foreign policy that had endangered Britain’s national security by failing to defend the liberty of Europe against Russian aggression – in particular, the constitutional liberties of Poland, whose maintenance had been made a condition for the transfer of the Polish kingdom to the Tsar’s protection by the other powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Russia’s brutal crushing of the Warsaw uprising in 1831 had obliged Britain to intervene in Poland in support of the rebels, even at the risk of a European war against Russia, Anstey maintained. In self-defence, Palmerston explained why it had been unrealistic to take up arms in favour of the Poles, while laying out the general principles of liberal interventionism which he would call on again when Britain entered the Crimean War:

I hold that the real policy of England – apart from questions which involve her own particular interests, political or commercial – is to be the champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done.

Urquhart’s Russophobia may have been at odds with Britain’s foreign policy in the 1840s but it had considerable support in Parliament, where there was a powerful lobby of politicians who backed his calls for a tougher line against Russia, including Lord Stanley and Stratford Canning, who replaced Ponsonby as ambassador to Constantinople in 1842. Outside Parliament, Urquhart’s backing for free trade (the major reform issue of the 1840s) won him a broad following among Midlands and northern businessmen, who were persuaded by his frequent public speeches that Russian tariffs were a major cause of Britain’s economic depression. He also had the support of influential diplomats and men of letters, including Henry Bulwer, Sir James Hudson and Thomas Wentworth Beaumont, co-founder of the British and Foreign Review, which became increasingly hostile to Russia under Urquhart’s influence.

As the decade wore on, a mood of growing Russophobia was to be found in even the most moderate intellectual circles. Highbrow periodicals like the Foreign Quarterly Review, which had previously discounted the ‘alarmist’ warnings of a Russian threat to the liberty of Europe and British interests in the East, succumbed to the anti-Russian atmosphere. Meanwhile, among the broader public – in churches, taverns, lecture halls and Chartist conventions – hostility to Russia was rapidly becoming a central reference point in a political discourse about liberty, civilization and progress that helped shape the national identity.


Sympathies for Turkey, fears for India – nothing fuelled Russophobia in Britain as intensely as the Polish cause. Championed by liberals throughout Europe as a just and noble fight for freedom against Russian tyranny, the Polish uprising – and its brutal suppression – did more than any other issue to involve the British in the affairs of the Continent and exacerbate the tensions that led to the Crimean War.

Poland’s history could hardly have been more tormented. During the previous half-century the large old Polish Commonwealth (the Kingdom of Poland united with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) had been partitioned no less than three times: twice (in 1772 and 1795) by all three neighbouring powers (Russia, Austria and Prussia) and once (in 1792) by the Russians and the Prussians on the grounds that Poland had become a stronghold of revolutionary sentiment. As a result of these partitions the Polish kingdom had lost more than two-thirds of its territory. Despairing of ever regaining their independence, the Poles turned to Napoleon in 1806, only to see their territory further carved up on his defeat. In 1815, in the Treaty of Vienna, the European powers established Congress Poland (an area roughly corresponding to the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw) and placed it under the protection of the Tsar on condition that he maintain Poland’s constitutional liberties. But Alexander never fully recognized the new state’s political autonomy – it was a tall order to combine autocracy in Russia and constitutionalism in Poland – while the repressive rule of Nicholas I further alienated many Poles. Throughout the 1820s the Russians violated the terms of the treaty – rolling back the freedoms of the press, imposing taxes without the consent of the Polish parliament, and using special powers to persecute the liberals opposed to tsarist rule. The final straw came in November 1830 when the viceroy of Poland, the Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Constantine, issued an order to conscript Polish troops for the suppression of revolutions in France and Belgium.

The uprising began when a group of Polish officers from the Russian Military Academy in Warsaw rebelled against the Grand Duke’s order. Taking arms from their garrison, the officers attacked the Belvedere Palace, the main seat of the Grand Duke, who managed to escape (disguised in women’s clothes). The rebels took the Warsaw arsenal and, supported by armed civilians, forced the Russian troops to withdraw from the Polish capital. The Polish army joined the uprising. A provisional government was established, headed by Prince Adam Czartoryski, and a national parliament was called. The radicals who took control declared a war of liberation against Russia and in a ceremony to dethrone the Tsar proclaimed Polish independence in January 1831. Within days of the proclamation, the Russian army crossed the Polish border and advanced towards the capital. The troops were led by General Ivan Paskevich, a veteran of the wars against the Turks and the Caucasian mountain tribes, whose brutal measures of repression made his name a byword for Russian cruelty in Poland’s national memory. On 25 February a Polish force of 40,000 men fought off 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw. But Russian reinforcements soon arrived and gradually wore down the Polish resistance. They surrounded the city, where hungry citizens began to loot and riot against the provisional government. Warsaw fell on 7 September after heavy fighting in the streets. Rather than submit to the Russians, the remainder of the Polish army, some 20,000 men, fled to Prussia, where they were captured by the Prussian government, another ruler of annexed Polish territory and an ally of Russia; Prince Czartoryski made his way to Britain, while many other rebels escaped to France and Belgium, where they were welcomed as heroes.

The reaction of the British public was just as sympathetic. After the suppression of the uprising, there were mass rallies, public meetings and petitions to protest against the Russian action and demand intervention by Britain. The call for war against Russia was joined by many sections of the press, including The Times, which asked in July 1831: ‘How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?’ Associations of Friends of Poland were set up in London, Nottingham, Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh to organize support for the Polish cause. Radical MPs (many of them Irish) called for British action to defend the ‘downtrodden Poles’. Chartist groups of working men and women (engaged in the struggle for democratic rights) declared their solidarity with the Polish fight for freedom, sometimes even stating their readiness to go to war for the defence of liberty at home and abroad. ‘Unless the English nation rouses itself,’ declared the Chartist Northern Liberator, ‘we shall see the damnable spectacle of a Russian fleet armed to the teeth and crammed with soldiers, daring to sail through the English Channel, and probably to anchor at Spithead or Plymouth Sound!’

The fight for freedom in Poland captured the imagination of the British public, who readily assimilated it to the ideals they liked to think of as ‘British’ – in particular, a love of liberty and the commitment to defend the ‘little man’ against ‘bullies’ (the principle upon which the British told themselves they went to war in 1854, 1914 and 1939). At a time of liberal reforms and new freedoms for the British middle class, powerful emotions were stirred by this association with the Polish cause. Shortly after the passing of the parliamentary Reform Act in 1832, the editor of the Manchester Times told a meeting of the Association of Friends of Poland that the British and the Poles were fighting the same battle for freedom:

It was our own fight (Hear, hear). We were fighting abroad upon the same principle as we were fighting against the boroughmongers at home. Poland was only one of our outposts. All the distresses of England and the continent might be traced to the first division of Poland. If that people could have remained free and unshackled, we should never have seen the barbarian hordes of Russia ravaging all Europe; and the Kalmyks and Cossacks of the despot bivouacking in the streets and gardens of Paris … Was there a single sailor in our navy, or a single marine, who would not rejoice to be sent forth to lift up his hand in the cause of freedom and in aid of the unfortunate Poles? (Cheers) The expense would not be great to blow the castle of Kronstadt around the Russian despot’s ears. (Cheers) In a month … our navy should have swept every Russian merchant vessel from every sea upon the face of the globe. (Cheers) Let a fleet be sent to the Baltic to close up the Russian ports, and what would the Emperor of Russia be then? A Kalmyk surrounded by a few barbarian tribes (Cheers), a savage, with no more power upon the sea, when opposed by England and France, than the Emperor of China had (Cheers).

The presence of Prince Czartoryski, ‘Poland’s uncrowned king’, in London increased British sympathy for the Polish cause. The fact that the exiled Pole was a former Russian foreign minister gave his warnings about Russia’s menace to Europe even greater credibility. Czartoryski had entered the foreign service of Tsar Alexander I at the age of 33 in 1803. He thought that Poland could regain her independence and a good deal of her land by fostering friendly relations with the Tsar. As a member of the Tsar’s Secret Committee he had once submitted an extensive memorandum aiming at the complete transformation of the European map: Russia would be protected from the Austrian and Prussian threat by a restored and reunited Kingdom of Poland under the protection of the Tsar; European Turkey would become a Balkan kingdom dominated by the Greeks with Russia in control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles; the Slavs would gain their freedom from the Austrians under the protection of Russia; Germany and Italy would become independent nation states organized on federal lines like the United States; while Britain and Russia together were to maintain the equilibrium of the Continent. The plan was unrealistic (no tsar would consent to the restoration of the old Polish-Lithuanian kingdom).

After Poland’s national aspirations were dashed with Napoleon’s defeat, Czartoryski found himself in exile in Europe, but returned to Poland in time for the November uprising. He joined the revolutionary executive committee, was elected president of the provisional government, and convened the national parliament. After the suppression of the insurrection, he fled to London, where he and other Polish émigrés carried on the fight against Russia. Czartoryski tried to persuade the British government to intervene in Poland and, if necessary, to fight a European war against Russia. What was now at hand, he told Palmerston, was an unavoidable struggle between the liberal West and the despotic East. He was vocally supported by several influential liberals and Russophobes, including George de Lacy Evans, Thomas Attwood, Stratford Canning and Robert Cutlar Fergusson, who all made speeches in the House of Commons calling for a war against Russia. Palmerston was sympathetic to the Polish cause and joined in condemnations of the Tsar’s actions, but, given the position of the Austrians and Prussians, who were unlikely to oppose Russia as they also owned chunks of Poland, he did not think it ‘prudent to support by force of arms the view taken by England’ and risk ‘involving Europe in a general war’. The appointment of the anti-Russian Stratford Canning as ambassador to St Petersburg (an appointment refused by the Tsar) was about as far as the British government would go in demonstrating its opposition to the Russian actions in Poland. Disillusioned by Britain’s inaction, Czartoryski left for Paris in the autumn of 1832. ‘They do not care about us now,’ he wrote. ‘They look to their own interests and will do nothing for us.

Czartoryski next took up residence at the Hôtel Lambert, the centre of the Polish emigration in Paris and in many ways the seat of the unofficial government of Poland in exile. The Hôtel Lambert group kept alive the constitutional beliefs and culture of the émigrés who gathered there, among them the poet Adam Mickiewicz and the composer Frédéric Chopin. Czartoryski maintained close relations with British diplomats and politicians calling for a war against Russia. He developed a strong friendship with Stratford Canning, in particular, and no doubt influenced his increasingly Russophobic views during the 1830s and 1840s. Czartoryski’s chief agent in London, Władisław Zamoyski, a former aide-de-camp to the Grand Duke Constantine who had played a leading part in the Polish uprising, kept good ties to Ponsonby and the Urquhart camp – he even helped to finance the Vixen adventure. Through Stratford Canning and Zamoyski, there is no doubt that Czartoryski exercised a major influence on the evolution of Palmerston’s thinking during the 1830s and 1840s, when the future British Crimean War leader gradually came round to the idea of a European alliance against Russia. Czartoryski also cultivated close relations with the liberal leaders of the July Monarchy in France, in particular with Adolphe Thiers, the Prime Minister of 1836–9, and François Guizot, the Foreign Minister of the 1840s and last Prime Minister of the July Monarchy, from 1847 to 1848. Both French statesmen realized the value of the Polish émigré as a friendly link to the British government and public opinion, which at that time were cool in their relations towards France. In this sense, through his exertions in London and Paris, Czartoryski was to play a signficant part in bringing about the Anglo-French alliance that would go to war with Russia in 1854.

Czartoryski and the Polish exiles of the Hôtel Lambert group also played a significant role in the rise of French Russophobia, which gained strength in the two decades before the Crimean War. Until 1830, French views of Russia were relatively moderate. Enough Frenchmen had been to Russia with Napoleon and returned with favourable impressions of its people’s character to counteract the writings of Russophobes, such as the Catholic publicist and statesman François-Marie de Froment, who warned against the dangers of Russian expansionism in Observations sur la Russie (1817), or the priest and politician Dominique-Georges-Frédéric de Pradt, who represented Russia as the ‘Asiatic enemy of liberty in Europe’ in his best-selling polemic Parallèle de la puissance anglaise et russe relativement à l’Europe (1823). But the Tsar’s opposition to the July 1830 Revolution had made him hated by the liberals and the Left, while Russia’s traditional allies, the legitimist supporters of the Bourbon dynasty, had strong Catholic opinions, which alienated them from the Russians on the question of Poland.

The image of Poland as a martyred nation was firmly established in the French Catholic imagination by a series of works on Polish history and culture in the 1830s, none more influential than Mickiewicz’s Livre des pèlerins polonais (Book of Polish Pilgrims), translated from the Polish with a preface by the extreme Catholic publicist Charles Montalembert, and published with the addition of a ‘Hymn to Poland’ by the priest and writer Félicité de Lamennais. French support for Poland’s national liberation was strongly reinforced by religious solidarity, which extended to the Ruthenian (Uniate) Catholics of Belarus and western Ukraine, territories once dominated by Poland, where Catholics were forcibly converted to the Russian Church after 1831. The religious persecution of the Ruthenians attracted little attention in France during the 1830s, but when that persecution spread to Congress Poland in the early 1840s Catholic opinion was outraged. Pamphlets called for a holy war to defend the ‘five million’ Polish Catholics forced by Russia to renounce their faith. Encouraged by a papal manifesto – ‘On the Persecution of the Catholic Religion in the Russian Empire and Poland’ – in 1842, the French press joined in condemnations of Russia. ‘Since today all that remains of Poland is its Catholicism, the Tsar Nicholas has picked on it,’ declared the influential Journal des débats in an editorial in October 1842. ‘He wants to destroy the Catholic religion as the last and strongest principle of Polish nationality, as the last freedom and sign of independence that this unhappy people has, and as the last obstacle to the establishment in his vast empire of a unity of laws and morals, of ideas and faith.’

French anger at the Tsar’s persecution of the Catholics reached fever pitch in 1846, when reports arrived of the brutal treatment of the nuns of Minsk. In 1839, the Synod of Polotsk, in Belarus, had proclaimed the dissolution of the Greek Catholic Church, whose pro-Latin clergy had actively supported the Polish insurrection of 1831, and ordered all its property to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church. The leader of the Polotsk Synod was a pro-Russian bishop called Semashko, who had previously been chaplain to a convent of 245 nuns in Minsk. One of his first acts on taking over the episcopate was to order the nuns to submit to the Russian Church. According to the reports that arrived in France, when the nuns refused, Semashko had them arrested. With their hands and feet bound in irons, the nuns were taken to Vitebsk, where fifty of them were imprisoned and forced to perform heavy manual labour in their iron chains, and suffered dreadful torture and beatings by the guards. Then, in the spring of 1845, four of the sisters managed to escape. One of them, the abbess of the convent, Mother Makrena Mieczysławska, then aged 61, made her way to Poland, where she was helped by the Archbishop of Poznan, and then taken by his Church officials to Paris. She recounted her appalling tale to the Polish émigrés of the Hôtel Lambert group. Makrena next brought her account to Rome, and met with Pope Gregory XVI just before the Tsar’s visit to the Vatican in December 1845. It is said that Nicholas emerged from his audience with the Pope covered with shame and confusion, having had his denials of the persecution of the Catholic Ruthenians refuted by documents in which he himself had praised the ‘holy deeds’ of Semashko.

The story of the ‘martyred nuns’ of Minsk was first published in the French newspaper Le Correspondant in May 1846 and retold many times in popular pamphlets. It quickly spread throughout the Catholic world. Russian diplomats and government agents in Paris tried to discredit Makrena’s version of events, but a medical examination by papal authorities confirmed that she had indeed been beaten over many years. The story had a powerful and lasting impact on French Catholics as an illustration of how the Tsar was ‘spreading Orthodoxy to the West’ and converting Catholics ‘by force of arms’. This idea was a major influence on French opinion in the Holy Lands dispute against Russia.

The fear of religious persecution was matched by the fear of a gargantuan Russia sweeping away European civilization. One of Czartoryski’s fellow-exiles, Count Valerian Krasinki, was the author of a series of pamphlets warning of the dangers to the West of a Russian Empire stretching from the Baltic and Adriatic seas to the Pacific Ocean. ‘Russia is an aggressive power,’ Krasinki wrote in one of his most widely circulated books, ‘and a single glance at the acquisitions she has made in the course of one century is sufficient to establish this fact beyond every controversy.’ Since the time of Peter the Great, he argued, Russia had swallowed up more than half of Sweden, territories from Poland equal to the size of the Austrian Empire, Turkish lands greater in size than the Kingdom of Prussia, and lands from Persia equal to the size of Great Britain. Since the first partition of Poland in 1772, Russia had advanced her frontier 1,370 kilometres towards Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Munich and Paris; 520 kilometres towards Constantinople; to within a few kilometres of the Swedish capital; and it had taken the Polish capital. The only way to safeguard the West from this Russian menace, he concluded, was through the restoration of a strong and independent Polish state.

The perception of Russian aggression and threat was amplified in France by the Marquis de Custine, whose entertaining travelogue La Russie en 1839 did more than any other publication to shape European attitudes towards Russia in the nineteenth century. An account of the nobleman’s impressions and reflections from a journey to Russia, it first appeared in Paris in 1843, was reprinted many times, and quickly went on to become an international best-seller. Custine had travelled to Russia with the specific purpose of writing a popular travel book to make his name as a writer. He had previously tried his hand at novels, plays and dramas without much success, so travel literature was his last chance to make a reputation for himself.

The Marquis was a devout Catholic with many friends among the Hôtel Lambert group. Through one of his Polish contacts, who had a half-sister at the Russian court, he gained entrée to the highest circles of St Petersburg society and even had an audience with the Tsar – a guarantee of Western interest in his book. Custine’s Polish sympathies turned him against Russia from the start. In St Petersburg and Moscow he spent a lot of time in the company of liberal noblemen and intellectuals (several of them converts to the Roman Church) who were deeply disenchanted with the reactionary policies of Nicholas I. The suppression of the Polish uprising, which came just six years after the crushing of the Decembrist revolt in Russia, had made these men despair of their country ever following the Western constitutional path. Their pessimism no doubt left its mark on Custine’s dark impressions of contemporary Russia. Everything about it filled the Frenchman with contempt and dread: the despotism of the Tsar; the servility of the aristocracy, who were themselves no more than slaves; their pretentious European manners, a thin veneer of civilization to hide their Asiatic barbarism from the West; the lack of individual liberty and dignity; the pretence and contempt for truth that seemed to pervade society. Like many travellers to Russia before him, the Marquis was struck by the huge scale of everything the government had built. St Petersburg itself was a ‘monument created to announce the arrival of Russia in the world’. He saw this grandiosity as a sign of Russia’s ambition to overtake and dominate the West. Russia envied and resented Europe, ‘as the slave resented his master’, Custine argued, and therein lay the threat of its aggression:

An ambition inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could find nourishment only in the miseries of an entire nation, ferments in the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive, greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other nations: the glory, the riches, which are the objects of its hopes, console it for the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, sunk to his knees, dreams of world domination.

Russia had been put on earth by Providence to ‘chastise the corrupt civilization of Europe by the agency of a new invasion’, Custine argued. It served as a warning and a lesson to the West, and Europe would succumb to its barbarism ‘if our extravagances and iniquities render us worthy of the punishment’. As Custine concluded in the famous last passage of his book:

To have a feeling for the liberty enjoyed in the other European countries one must have sojourned in that solitude without repose, in that prison without leisure, that is called Russia. If ever your sons should be discontented with France, try my recipe: tell them to go to Russia. It is a journey useful to every foreigner; whoever has well examined that country will be content to live anywhere else.

Within a few years of its publication, La Russie en 1839 went through at least six editions in France; it was pirated and republished in several other editions in Brussels; translated into German, Danish and English; and abridged in pamphlet form in various other European languages. Overall it must have sold several hundred thousand copies, making it by far the most popular and influential work by a foreigner on Russia on the eve of the Crimean War. The key to its success was its articulation of the fears and prejudices about Russia widely held in Europe at that time.

Throughout the Continent there were deep anxieties about the rapid growth and military power of Russia. The Russian invasion of Poland and the Danubian principalities, combined with Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans, gave rise to fears of a Slavic threat to Western civilization that La Russie had expressed. In the German lands, in particular, where Custine’s book was very well received, it was widely argued in the pamphlet press that Nicholas was plotting to become the emperor of the Slavs throughout Europe, and that German unity could not be gained without a war to push back Russian influence. Such ideas were further fuelled by the appearance of Russland und die Zivilisation, a pamphlet published anonymously in various German editions in the early 1830s and translated into French as the work of Count Adam Gurowski in 1840. As one of the earliest published expressions of a pan-Slav ideology, the pamphlet excited much discussion on the Continent. Gurowski maintained that European history until the present time had known just two civilizations, the Latin and German, but that Providence had assigned to Russia the divine mission of giving to the world a third, Slavic, civilization. Under German domination, the Slav nations (Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Slovenes and so on) were all in decline. But they would be united and reinvigorated under Russian leadership, and would dominate the Continent.

In the 1840s Western fears of pan-Slavism focused specifically on the Balkans, where Russian influence seemed to be on the rise. The Austrians were increasingly wary of Russia’s intentions in Serbia and the Danubian principalities, as were the British, who set up consulates in Belgrade, Braila and Iai to promote British trade and keep a check on Russia. Of particular concern was Russia’s interference in Serbian politics. In 1830 Serbia had become self-governing under Ottoman sovereignty, with Prince Milos of the Obrenovi family as its hereditary prince. The ‘Russian Party’ in Belgrade – Slavophiles who wanted Russia to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy in support of Balkan Slavs – quickly built up its support among Serbian notables, the clergy, the army and even among members of the Prince’s court, who were disgruntled with his dictatorial policies. The British responded by buttressing the Milos regime, on the grounds that a pro-British despot was preferable to a Russian-controlled oligarchy of Serbian notables, and exerted pressure on the Prince to strengthen his position through constitutional reforms. But Russia used its influence to threaten Milos with rebellion, and to extract from the Ottoman authorities in 1838 an Organic Statute as an alternative to the British constitutional model. The Statute granted civil liberties but established life-appointed noble councillors rather than elected assemblies to counteract the power of the Prince. Since most of the councillors were pro-Russian, the tsarist government was able to exert considerable pressure on the Serbian government during the 1840s.

What the Tsar’s motives in the Balkans were is difficult to say. He insisted that he was opposed to any pan-Slav or nationalist movement that challenged the legitimate sovereigns of the Continent, the Ottomans and Milos included. The aim of his intervention in the Balkans was merely to stamp out the possibility of national revolutions arising there which might spread to the Slav nations under his own rule (the Poles in particular). At home, he openly condemned the pan-Slavs as dangerous liberals and revolutionaries. ‘Under the guise of sympathy for the oppression of the Slavs in other states,’ he wrote, ‘they conceal the rebellious idea of union with these tribes, despite their legitimate citizenship in neighbouring and allied states; and they expect this to be brought about not through God’s will but from violent attempts that will make for the ruin of Russia herself. The ‘Russian Party’ were deemed a major threat by Nicholas and kept under a close watch by the Third Section, the political police, during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1847 the Brotherhood of Sts Cyril and Methodius, the centre of the pan-Slav movement in Kiev, was closed down by the police.

Yet the Tsar was pragmatic in his adherence to legitimist principles. He applied them to Christian states but not necessarily to Muslim ones, if this involved siding against Orthodox Christians, as demonstrated by his support for the Greek uprising against the Ottoman Empire. As the years passed, Nicholas placed more importance on the defence of the Orthodox religion and Russia’s interests – which in his view were practically synonymous – than on the Concert of Europe or the international principles of the Holy Alliance. Thus, while he shared the reactionary ideology of the Habsburgs and supported their empire, this did not prevent him from encouraging the nationalist sympathies of the Serbs, Romanians and Ukrainians within the Austrian Empire, because they were Orthodox. His attitude towards the Catholic Slavs under Habsburg rule (Czechs, Slovenes, Slovaks, Croats and Poles) was less encouraging.

As for the Slavs within the Ottoman Empire, Nicholas’s initial reluctance to support their liberation gradually weakened, as he became convinced that the collapse of European Turkey was unavoidable and imminent and that the promotion of Russia’s interests involved building up alliances with the Slav nations in readiness for its eventual partition. The shift in the Tsar’s thinking was a change of strategy rather than a fundamental alteration of his ideology: if Russia did not intervene in the Balkans, the Western powers would do so, as they had in Greece, to turn the Christian nations against Russia and into Western-oriented states. But there is also evidence that in the course of the 1840s Nicholas began to feel a certain sympathy for the religious and nationalist sentiments of the Slavophiles and the pan-Slavs, whose mystical ideas of Holy Russia as an empire of the Orthodox increasingly appealed to his own understanding of his international mission as a Tsar:


Moscow, and the city of Peter, and the city of Constantine – 
These are the sacred capitals of Russian tsardom …
But where is its end? and where are its borders
To the North, to the East, to the South and toward sunset?
They will be revealed by the fates of future times …
Seven internal seas and seven great rivers!
From the Nile to the Neva, from Elbe to China –
From the Volga to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Danube …
This is Russian tsardom … and it will not disappear with the ages.

The Holy Spirit foresaw and Daniel foretold this.(Fedor Tiutchev, ‘Russian Geography’, 1849)


The leading pan-Slav ideologist was Mikhail Pogodin, a professor of Moscow University and founding editor of the influential journal Moskvitianin (Muscovite). Pogodin had an entry to the court and high official circles through the Minister of Education, Sergei Uvarov, who protected him from the police and brought many of his ministerial colleagues round to Pogodin’s idea that Russia should support the liberation of the Slavs on religious grounds. At the court Pogodin had an active supporter in Countess Antonina Bludova, the daughter of a highly placed imperial statesman. He also had a sympathetic ear in the Grand Duke Alexander, the heir to the throne. In 1838 Pogodin laid out his ideas in a memorandum to the Tsar. Arguing that history advanced by means of a succession of chosen people, he maintained that the future belonged to the Slavs, if Russia took upon itself its providential mission to create a Slavic empire and lead it to its destiny. In 1842 he wrote to him again:

Here is our purpose – Russian, Slavic, European, Christian! As Russians, we must capture Constantinople for our own security. As Slavs we must liberate millions of our older kinsmen, brothers in faith, educators and benefactors. As Europeans we must drive out the Turks. As Orthodox Christians, we must protect the Eastern Church and return to St Sophia its ecumenical cross.

Nicholas remained opposed to these ideas officially. His Foreign Minister, Karl Nesselrode, was adamant that giving any signs of encouragement to the Balkan Slavs would alienate the Austrians, Russia’s oldest ally, and ruin the entente with the Western powers, leaving Russia isolated in the world. But judging from the notes that the Tsar made in the margins of Pogodin’s writings, it appears that privately, at least, he sympathized with his ideas.


Western fears of Russia were intensified by its violent reaction to the revolutions of 1848. In France, where the revolutionary wave began in February with the downfall of the July Monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic, the Left was united by the fear of Russian forces coming to the aid of the counter-revolutionary Right and restoring ‘order’ in Paris. Everybody waited for the Russian invasion. ‘I am learning Russian,’ wrote the playwright Prosper Mérimée to a friend in Italy. ‘Perhaps it will help me to converse with the Cossacks in the Tuileries.’ As democratic revolutions spread through the German and Habsburg lands that spring, it seemed to many (as Napoleon had once said) that either Europe would become republican, or it would be overrun by the Cossacks. The Continental revolutions appeared destined for a life-or-death struggle against Russia and Tsar Nicholas, the ‘gendarme of Europe’. In Germany, the newly elected deputies of the Frankfurt National Assembly, the first German parliament, appealed for a union with France and for the creation of a European army to defend the Continent against a Russian invasion.

For the Germans and the French, Poland was the first line of defence against Russia. Throughout the spring of 1848, there were declarations of support and calls for a war for the restoration of an independent Poland in the National Assembly in Paris. On 15 May the Assembly was invaded by a crowd of demonstrators angry at the rumours (which were true) that Alphonse de Lamartine, the Foreign Minister, had reached an understanding with the Russians over Poland. To cries of ‘Vive la Pologne!’ from the crowd, radical deputies took turns to declare their passionate support for a war of liberation to restore Poland to her pre-partition frontiers and expel the Russians from all Polish soil.

Then, in July, the Russians moved against the Romanian revolution in Moldavia and Wallachia, which further inflamed the West. The revolution in the principalities had been anti-Russian from the start. Romanian liberals and nationalists were opposed to the Russiandominated administration that had been left in place by the departing tsarist troops following their occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1829–34. The liberal opposition was first centred in the boyar assemblies whose political rights had been severely limited by the Règlement organique imposed by the Russians before handing back the principalities to the sovereignty of the Ottomans. The rulers of the principalities, for instance, were no longer elected by the assemblies, but appointed by the Tsar. During the 1840s, when moderate leaders like Ion Campineanu were in exile, the national movement passed into the hands of a younger generation of activists – many of them boyar sons educated in Paris – who organized themselves in secret revolutionary societies along the lines of the Carbonari and the Jacobins.

It was the largest of these secret societies, the Fratja or ‘Brotherhood’, that burst onto the scene in the spring of 1848. In Bucharest and Iai there were public meetings calling for the restoration of old rights annulled by the Règlement organique. Revolutionary committees were formed. In Bucharest, huge demonstrations organized by the Fratja forced Prince Gheorghe Bibescu to abdicate in favour of a provisional government. A republic was declared and a liberal constitution promulgated to replace the Règlement organique. The Russian consul fled to Austrian Transylvania. The Romanian tricolour was paraded through the streets of Bucharest by cheering crowds, whose leaders called for the union of the principalities as an independent national state.

Alarmed by these developments, and fearing that the spirit of rebellion might spread to their own territories, in July the Russians occupied Moldavia with 14,000 troops to prevent the establishment of a revolutionary government like the one in Bucharest. They also brought up 30,000 soldiers from Bessarabia to the Wallachian border in preparation for a strike against the provisional government.

The revolutionaries in Bucharest appealed to Britain for support. The British consul, Robert Colquhoun, had been actively encouraging the national opposition against Russia, not because the Foreign Office wanted to promote Romanian independence but because it wanted to roll back the domination of Russia and restore Turkish sovereignty on a more liberal basis so that British interests could be better promoted in the principalities. The consulate in Bucharest had been one of the main meeting places for the revolutionaries. Britain had even smuggled in Polish exiles to organize an anti-Russian movement uniting Poles, Hungarians, Moldavians and Wallachians under British tutelage.

Recognizing that the only hope for Wallachian independence was to prevent a Russian intervention, Colquhoun acted as a mediator between the revolutionary leaders and the Ottoman authorities in the hope of securing Turkish recognition of the provisional government. He assured the Ottoman commissioner Suleiman Pasha that the government in Bucharest would remain loyal to the Sultan – a calculated deception – and that its hatred of the Russians would serve Turkey well in any future war against Russia. Suleiman accepted Colquhoun’s reasoning and made a speech to cheering crowds in Bucharest in which he toasted the ‘Romanian nation’ and spoke about the possibility of the ‘union between Moldavia and Wallachia as a stake in the entrails of Russia’.

This was a red rag to the Russian bull. Vladimir Titov, the Russian ambassador in Constantinople, demanded that the Sultan cease negotiations with the revolutionaries and restore order in Wallachia, or Russia would intervene. This was enough to bring about a Turkish volte-face at the start of September. A new commissioner, Fuad Efendi, was sent to put an end to the revolt with the help of the Russian General Alexander Duhamel. Fuad crossed into Wallachia and camped outside Bucharest with 12,000 Turkish soldiers, while Duhamel brought up the 30,000 Russian troops who had been mobilized in Bessarabia. On 25 September they moved together into Bucharest and easily defeated the small groups of rebels who fought them in the streets. The revolution was over.

The Russians took control of the city and carried out a series of mass arrests, forcing thousands of Romanians to flee abroad. British citizens too were arrested. No public meetings were allowed by the pro-Russian government installed in power by the occupying troops. To write on political matters became a punishable offence; even personal letters were perused by the police. ‘A system of espionage has been established here,’ Colquhoun reported. ‘No person is allowed to converse on politics, German and French newspapers are prohibited … The Turkish commissioner feels compelled to enjoin all to cease speaking on political subjects in public places.’

Having restored order in the principalities, the Tsar demanded for his services a new convention with the Ottomans to increase Russian control of the territories. This time his conditions were extortionate: the Russian military occupation was to last for seven years; the two powers would appoint the rulers of the principalities; and Russian troops would be allowed to pass through Wallachia to crush the ongoing Hungarian revolution in Transylvania. Suspecting that the Russians aimed at nothing less than the annexation of the principalities, Stratford Canning urged the Turks to stand firm against the Tsar. But he could not promise British intervention if it came to a war between Turkey and Russia. He called on Palmerston to deter Russia and demonstrate support for the Ottoman Empire by sending in a fleet – a measure he regarded as essential to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. If Palmerston had followed his advice, Britain might have gone to war with Russia six years before the Crimean War. But once again the Foreign Secretary was not prepared to act. Despite his hard line against Russia, Palmerston (for the moment) was prepared to trust the Tsar’s motives in the principalities, did not think that he would try to annexe them, and perhaps even welcomed the Russian restoration of order in the increasingly tumultuous and chaotic Ottoman and Habsburg lands.

Without support from Britain, the Turkish government had little option but to negotiate with the Russians. By the Act of Balta Liman, signed in April 1849, the Tsar got most of his demands: the rulers of the principalities would be chosen by the Russians and the Turks; the boyar assemblies would be replaced altogether by advisory councils nominated and overseen by the two powers; and the Russian occupation would last until 1851. The provisions of the Act amounted in effect to the restoration of Russian control and to a substantial reduction of the autonomy previously enjoyed by the principalities, even under the restrictions of the Règlement organique. The Tsar concluded that the principalities were henceforth areas of Russian influence, that the Turks retained them only at his discretion, and that even after 1851 he would still be able to enter them at will to force more concessions from the Porte.

The success of the Russian intervention in the Danubian principalities influenced the Tsar’s decision to intervene in Hungary in June 1849. The Hungarian revolution had begun in March 1848, when, inspired by the events in France and Germany, the Hungarian Diet, led by the brilliant orator Lajos Kossuth, proclaimed Hungary’s autonomy from the Habsburg Empire and passed a series of reforms, abolishing serfdom and establishing Hungarian control of the national budget and Hungarian regiments in the imperial army. Faced with a popular revolution in Vienna, the Austrian government at first accepted Hungarian autonomy, but once the revolution in the capital had been suppressed the imperial authorities ordered the dissolution of the Hungarian Diet and declared war on Hungary. Supported by the Slovak, German and Ruthenian minorities of Hungary, and by a large number of Polish and Italian volunteers who were equally opposed to Habsburg rule, the Hungarians were more than a match for the Austrian forces, and in April 1849, after a series of military stalemates, they in turn declared a war of independence against Austria. The newly installed 18-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph appealed to the Tsar to intervene.

Nicholas agreed to act against the revolution without conditions. It was basically a question of solidarity with the Holy Alliance – the collapse of the Austrian Empire would have dramatic implications for the European balance of power – but there was also a connected issue of Russia’s self-interest. The Tsar could not afford to stand aside and watch the spread of revolutionary movements in central Europe that might lead to a new uprising in Poland. The Hungarian army had many Polish exiles in its ranks. Some of its best generals were Poles, including General Jozef Bem, one of the main military leaders of the 1830 Polish uprising and in 1848–9 the commander of the victorious Hungarian forces in Transylvania. Unless the Hungarian revolution was defeated, there was every danger of its spreading to Galicia (a largely Polish territory controlled by Austria), which would reopen the Polish Question in the Russian Empire.

On 17 June 1849, 190,000 Russian troops crossed the Hungarian frontier into Slovakia and Transylvania. They were under the command of General Paskevich, the leader of the punitive campaign against the Poles in 1831. The Russians carried out a series of ferocious repressions against the population, but themselves succumbed in enormous numbers to disease, especially cholera, in a campaign lasting just eight weeks. Vastly outnumbered by the Russians, most of the Hungarian army surrendered at Vilagos on 13 August. But about 5,000 soldiers (including 800 Poles) fled to the Ottoman Empire – mostly to Wallachia, where some Turkish forces were fighting against the Russian occupation in defiance of the Balta Liman convention.

The Tsar favoured clemency for the Hungarian leaders. He was opposed to the brutal reprisals carried out by the Austrians. But he was determined to pursue the Polish refugees, in particular the Polish generals in the Hungarian army who might become the leaders of another insurrection for the liberation of Poland from Russia. On 28 August the Russians demanded from the Turkish government the extradition of those Poles who were subjects of the Tsar. The Austrians demanded the extradition of the Hungarians, including Kossuth, who had been welcomed by the Turks. International law provided for the extradition of criminals, but the Turks did not regard these exiles in those terms. They were pleased to have these anti-Russian soldiers on their soil and granted them political asylum, as liberal Western states had done on certain conditions for the Polish refugees in 1831. Encouraged by the British and the French, the Turks refused to bow to the threats of the Russians and the Austrians, who broke off relations with the Porte. Responding to Turkish calls for military aid, in October the British sent their Malta squadron to Besika Bay, just outside the Dardanelles, where they were later joined by a French fleet. The Western powers were on the verge of war against Russia.

By this stage the British public was up in arms about the Hungarian refugees. Their heroic struggle against the mighty tsarist tyranny had captured the British imagination and once again fired up its passions against Russia. In the press, the Hungarian revolution was idealized as a mirror image of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the British Parliament had overthrown King James II and established a constitutional monarchy. Kossuth was seen as a very ‘British type’ of revolutionary – a liberal gentleman and supporter of enlightened aristocracy, a fighter for the principles of parliamentary rule and constitutional government (two years later he was welcomed as a hero by enormous crowds in Britain when he went there for a speaking tour). The Hungarian and Polish refugees were seen as romantic freedom-fighters. Karl Marx, who had come to London as a political exile in 1849, began a campaign against Russia as the enemy of liberty. Reports of repression and atrocities by Russian troops in Hungary and the Danubian principalities were received with disgust, and the British public was delighted when Palmerston announced that he was sending warships to the Dardanelles to help the Turks stand up against the Tsar. This was the sort of robust foreign policy – a readiness to intervene in any place around the world in defence of British liberal values – that the middle class expected from its government, as the Don Pacifico affair would show.

The mobilization of the British and French fleets persuaded Nicholas to reach a compromise with the Ottoman authorities on the refugee issue. The Turks undertook to keep the Polish refugees a long way from the Russian border – a concession broadly in line with the principles of political asylum recognized by Western states – and the Tsar dropped his demand for extradition.

But just as a settlement was being reached, news arrived from Constantinople that Stratford Canning had improvised a reading of the 1841 Convention so as to allow the British fleet to move into the shelter of the Dardanelles if heavy winds in Besika Bay demanded this – exactly what transpired in fact when its ships arrived at the end of October. Nicholas was furious. Titov was ordered to inform the Porte that Russia had the same rights in the Bosporus as Britain had just claimed in the Dardanelles – a brilliant rejoinder because from the Bosporus Russian ships would be able to attack Constantinople long before the British fleet could reach them from the remote Dardanelles. Palmerston backed down, apologized to Russia, and reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the convention. The allied fleets were sent away, and the threat of war was averted – once again.

Before Palmerston’s apology arrived, however, the Tsar gave a lecture to the British envoy in St Petersburg. What he said reveals a lot about the Tsar’s state of mind just four years before he went to war against the Western powers:

I do not understand the conduct of Lord Palmerston. If he chooses to wage war against me, let him declare it freely and loyally. It will be a great misfortune for the two countries, but I am resigned to it and ready to accept it. But he should stop playing tricks on me right and left. Such a policy is unworthy of a great power. If the Ottoman Empire still exists, this is due to me. If I pull back the hand that protects and sustains it, it will collapse in an instant.

On 17 December, the Tsar instructed Admiral Putiatin to prepare a plan for a surprise attack on the Dardanelles in the event of another crisis over Russia’s presence in the principalities. He wanted to be sure that the Black Sea Fleet could prevent the British entering the Dardanelles again. As a sign of his determination, he gave approval to the construction of four expensive new war steamers required by the plan.

Palmerston’s decision to back down from conflict was a severe blow to Stratford Canning, who had wanted decisive military action to deter the Tsar from undermining Turkish sovereignty in the principalities. After 1849, Canning became even more determined to strengthen Ottoman authority in Moldavia and Wallachia by speeding up the process of liberal reform in these regions – despite his growing doubts about the Tanzimat in general – and bolstering the Turkish armed forces to counteract the growing menace of Russia. The importance he attached to the principalities was shared increasingly by Palmerston, who was moved by the crisis of 1848–9 to support a more aggressive defence of Turkey’s interests against Russia.

The next time the Tsar invaded the principalities, to force Turkey to submit to his will in the Holy Lands dispute, it would lead to war.

 The end of peace in Europe

The Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park on 1 May 1851. Six million people, a third of the entire population of Britain at that time, would pass through the mammoth exhibition halls in the specially contructed Crystal Palace, the largest glasshouse yet built, and marvel at the 13,000 exhibits – manufactures, handicrafts and various other objects from around the world. Coming as it did after two decades of social and political upheaval, the Great Exhibition seemed to hold the promise of a more prosperous and peaceful age based upon the British principles of industrialism and free trade. The architectural wonder of the Crystal Palace was itself proof of British manufacturing ingenuity, a fitting place to house an exhibition whose aim was to show that Britain held the lead in almost every field of industry. It symbolized the Pax Britannica which the British expected to dispense to Europe and the world.

The only possible threat to peace appeared to come from France. Through a coup d’état on 2 December 1851, the anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor in 1804, Louis-Napoleon, the President of the Second Republic, overthrew the constitution and established himself as dictator. By a national referendum the following November, the Second Republic became the Second Empire, and on 2 December 1852 Louis-Napoleon became the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III.

The appearance of a new French emperor put the great powers on alert. In Britain, there were fears of a Napoleonic revival. MPs demanded the recall of the Lisbon Squadron to guard the English Channel against the French. Lord Raglan, the future leader of the British forces in the Crimean War, spent the summer of 1852 planning the defences of London against a potential attack by the French navy, and that remained the top priority of British naval planning throughout 1853. Count Buol, the Austrian Foreign Minister, demanded confirmation of Napoleon’s peaceful intentions. The Tsar wanted him to make a humiliating disclaimer of any aggressive plans, and promised Austria 60,000 troops if it was attacked by France. In an attempt to reassure them all, Napoleon made a declaration in Bordeaux in October 1852: ‘Mistrustful people say, the empire means war, but I say, the empire means peace.

In truth, there were reasons to be mistrustful. It was hardly likely that Napoleon III would remain content with the existing settlement of Europe, which had been set up to contain France after the Napoleonic Wars. His genuine and extensive popularity among the French rested on his stirring of their Bonapartist memories, even though in almost every way he was inferior to his uncle. Indeed, with his large and awkward body, short legs, moustache and goatee beard, he looked more like a banker than a Bonaparte (‘extremely short, but with a head and bust which ought to belong to a much taller man’, is how Queen Victoria described him in her diary after she had met him for the first time in 1855).

Napoleon’s foreign policy was largely driven by his need to play to this Bonapartist tradition. He aimed to restore France to a position of respect and influence abroad, if not to the glory of his uncle’s reign, by revising the 1815 settlement and reshaping Europe as a family of liberal nation states along the lines supposedly envisaged by Napoleon I. This was an aim he thought he could achieve by forging an alliance with Britain, the traditional enemy of France. His close political ally and Minister of the Interior, the Duc de Persigny, who had spent some time in London in 1852, persuaded him that Britain was no longer dominated by the aristocracy but a new ‘bourgeois power’ that was set to dominate the Continent. By allying with Britain, France would be able to ‘develop a great and glorious foreign policy and avenge our past defeats more effectively than through any gain that we might make by refighting the battle of Waterloo’.

Russia was the one country the French could fight to restore their national pride. The memory of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, which had done so much to hasten the collapse of the First Empire, the subsequent military defeats and the Russian occupation of Paris were constant sources of pain and humiliation to the French. Russia was the major force behind the 1815 settlement and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in France. The Tsar was the enemy of liberty and a major obstacle to the development of free nation states on the European continent. He was also the only sovereign not to recognize the new Napoleon as emperor. Britain, Austria and Prussia were all prepared to grant him that status, albeit reluctantly in the case of the last two, but Nicholas refused, on the grounds that emperors were made by God, not elected by referendums. The Tsar showed his contempt for Napoleon by addressing him as ‘mon ami’ rather than ‘mon frère’, the customary greeting to another member of the European family of ruling sovereigns. Some of Napoleon’s advisers, Persigny in particular, wanted him to seize on the insult and force a break with Russia. But the French Emperor would not begin his reign with a personal quarrel, and he passed it off with the remark: ‘God gives us brothers, but we choose our friends.

For Napoleon, the conflict with Russia in the Holy Lands served as a means of reuniting France after the divisions of 1848–9. The revolutionary Left could be reconciled to the coup d’état and the Second Empire if it was engaged in a patriotic fight for liberty against the ‘gendarme of Europe’. As for the Catholic Right, it had long been pushing for a crusade against the Orthodox heresy that was threatening Christendom and French civilization.

It was in this context that Napoleon appointed the extreme Catholic La Valette as French ambassador to Constantinople. La Valette was part of a powerful clerical lobby at the Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry, which used its influence to raise the stakes in the Holy Lands dispute, according to Persigny.

Our foreign policy was often troubled by a clerical lobby (coterie cléricale ) which wormed its way into the secret recesses of the Foreign Ministry. The 2 December had not succeeded in dislodging it. On the contrary, it became even more audacious, profiting from our preoccupation with domestic matters to entangle our diplomacy in the complications of the Holy Places, where it hailed its infantile successes as national triumphs.

La Valette’s aggressive proclamation that the Latin right to the Holy Places had been ‘clearly established’, backed up by his threat of using the French navy to support these claims against Russia, was greeted with approval by the ultra-Catholic press in France. Napoleon himself was more moderate and conciliatory in his approach to the Holy Lands dispute. He confessed to the chief of the political directorate, Édouard-Antoine de Thouvenel, that he was ignorant about the details of the contested claims and regretted that the religious conflict had been ‘blown out of all proportion’, as indeed it had. But his need to curry favour with Catholic opinion at home, combined with his plans for an alliance with Britain against Russia, also meant that it was not in his interests to restrain La Valette’s provocative behaviour. It was not until the spring of 1852 that he finally recalled the ambassador from the Turkish capital, and then only following complaints about La Valette by Lord Malmesbury, the British Foreign Secretary. But even after his recall, the French continued with their gunboat policy to pressure the Sultan into concessions, confident that it would enrage the Tsar and hopeful that it would force the British to ally with France against Russian aggression.

The policy paid dividends. In November 1852 the Porte issued a new ruling granting to the Catholics the right to hold a key to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, allowing them free access to the Chapel of the Manger and the Grotto of the Nativity. With Stratford Canning away in England, the British chargé d’affaires in Constantinople, Colonel Hugh Rose, explained the ruling by the fact that the latest gunship in the French steam fleet, the Charlemagne, could sail at eight and a half knots from the Mediterranean, while its sister ship, the Napoleon, could sail at twelve – meaning that the French could defeat the technologically backward Russian and Turkish fleets combined.

The Tsar was furious with the Turks for caving in to French pressure, and threatened violence of his own. On 27 December he ordered the mobilization of 37,000 troops from the 4th and 5th Army Corps in Bessarabia in preparation for a lightning strike on the Turkish capital, and a further 91,000 soldiers for a simultaneous campaign in the Danubian principalities and the rest of the Balkans. It was a sign of his petulance that he made the order on his own, without consulting either Nesselrode, the Foreign Minister, Prince Dolgorukov, the Minister of War, or even Count Orlov, the chief of the Third Section, with whom he conferred nearly every day. At the court there was talk of dismembering the Ottoman Empire, starting with the Russian occupation of the Danubian principalities. In a memorandum written in the final weeks of 1852, Nicholas set out his plans for the partition of the Ottoman Empire: Russia was to gain the Danubian principalities and Dobrudja, the river’s delta lands; Serbia and Bulgaria would become independent states; the Adriatic coast would go to Austria; Cyprus, Rhodes and Egypt to Britain; France would gain Crete; an enlarged Greece would be created from the archipelago; Constantinople would become a free city under international protection; and the Turks were to be ejected from Europe.

At this point Nicholas began a new round of negotiations with the British, whose overwhelming naval power would make them the decisive factor in any showdown between France and Russia in the Near East. Still convinced that he had forged an understanding with the British during his 1844 visit, he now believed that he could call on them to restrain the French and enforce Russia’s treaty rights in the Ottoman Empire. But he also hoped to convince them that the time had come for the partition of Turkey. The Tsar held a series of conversations with Lord Seymour, the British ambassador in St Petersburg, during January and February 1853. ‘We have a sick man on our hands,’ he began on the subject of Turkey, ‘a man gravely ill; it will be a great misfortune if he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’ With the Ottoman Empire ‘falling to pieces’, it was ‘very important’ for Britain and Russia to reach an agreement on its organized partition, if only to prevent the French from sending an expedition to the East, an eventuality that would force him to order his troops into Ottoman territory. ‘When England and Russia are agreed,’ the Tsar told Seymour, ‘it is immaterial what the other powers think or do.’ Speaking ‘as a gentleman’, Nicholas assured the ambassador that Russia had renounced the territorial ambitions of Catherine the Great. He had no desire to conquer Constantinople, which he wanted to become an international city, but for that reason he could not allow the British or the French to seize control of it. In the chaos of an Ottoman collapse he would be forced to take the capital on a temporary basis (en dépositaire) to prevent ‘the breaking up of Turkey into little republics, asylums for the Kossuths and Mazzinis and other revolutionists of Europe’, and to protect the Eastern Christians from the Turks. ‘I cannot recede from the discharge of a sacred duty,’ the Tsar emphasized. ‘Our religion as established in this country came to us from the East, and these are feelings, as well as obligations, which never must be lost sight of.

Seymour was not shocked by the Tsar’s partition plans, and in his first report to Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, he even seemed to welcome the idea. If Russia and Britain, the two Christian powers ‘most interested in the destinies of Turkey’, could take the place of Muslim rule in Europe, ‘a noble triumph would be obtained by the civilization of the nineteenth century’, he argued. There were many in the coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, including Russell and William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wondered whether it was right to go on propping up the Ottoman Empire while Christians were being persecuted by the Turks. But others were committed to the Tanzimat reforms and wanted time for them to work. Procrastination certainly suited the British, since they were caught between the Russians and the French, whom they distrusted equally. ‘The Russians accuse us of being too French,’ the astute Queen Victoria remarked, ‘and the French accuse us of being too Russian.’ The cabinet rejected the Tsar’s notion that an Ottoman collapse was imminent and agreed not to plan ahead for hypothetical contingencies – a course of action likely in itself to hasten the demise of the Ottoman Empire by provoking Christian uprisings and inspiring repressions by the Turks. Indeed, the Tsar’s insistence on an imminent collapse raised suspicions in Westminster that he was plotting and precipitating it by his actions. As Seymour noted of his conversation with the Tsar on 21 February, ‘it can hardly be otherwise but that the Sovereign who insists with such pertinacity upon the impending fate of a neighbouring state must have settled in his own mind that the hour of its dissolution is at hand’.

In his later conversations with Seymour, Nicholas became more confident and even more revealing about his partition plans. He talked of reducing Turkey to a vassal state, as he had done with Poland, and of giving independence to the Danubian principalities, Serbia and Bulgaria, under Russian protection; and he claimed that he had the support of Austria. ‘You must understand,’ he told Seymour, ‘that when I speak of Russia, I speak of Austria as well. What suits the one, suits the other, our interests as regards Turkey are perfectly identical.’ Seymour for his part was increasingly put off by the Tsar’s ‘rash and reckless’ plans – he seemed prepared to gamble everything on a war against Turkey – and put them down to the arrogance of autocratic power accumulated over nearly thirty years.

The Tsar’s confidence was surely also based on his misapprehension that he enjoyed the support of the British government; he felt that he had formed a bond with Lord Aberdeen in 1844, when Aberdeen, now Prime Minister and the most pro-Russian of all the British leaders, was Foreign Secretary. Nicholas assumed that Aberdeen’s backing for Russia’s position in the Holy Lands dispute implied British agreement with his partition plans. In a dispatch from London in early February, the Russian ambassador Baron Brunov informed the Tsar that Aberdeen had remarked off the cuff that the Ottoman government was the worst in the world and that the British had little inclination to support it any longer. The report encouraged Nicholas to speak more freely to Seymour and (in the belief that an Anglo-French alliance was no longer to be feared) to take a more aggressive line against the French and the Turks in the spring of 1853. He had no idea of the growing isolation of Aberdeen within his own cabinet on the Eastern Question; no appreciation of the general drift in British policy against Russia.

To force the Sultan to restore Russia’s rights in the Holy Places, the Tsar dispatched his own envoy to Constantinople in February 1853. The choice of envoy was deliberate and itself a sign of his militant intentions for the mission. Instead of choosing a seasoned diplomat who might have furthered peace, Nicholas decided on a military man with a fearful reputation. Prince Alexander Menshikov was 65 years old, a veteran of the wars against the French in 1812, and an admiral in the war against the Turks in 1828–9, when he was castrated by a cannonball. He had experience as a naval minister involved in plans to seize the Turkish Straits, as governor-general of occupied Finland in 1831 and as a negotiator with Persia. Menshikov was a ‘remarkably well informed man’, in Seymour’s estimation, ‘with more independence of character than perhaps belongs to any of the Emperor’s associates, his peculiar turn of thought constantly showing itself by sarcastic observations which make him a little dreaded in St Petersburg’. But he lacked the necessary tact and patience to act as an appeaser with the Turks, which, as Seymour wrote, was noteworthy.

If it were necessary to send a military man to Constantinople the Emperor could hardly have made a better selection … than he has done; it is however impossible not to reflect that the choice of a soldier has in itself a certain significance, and that should a negotiation … prove ineffectual, the negotiator may readily become the commander who has authority to call in 100,000 soldiers and to place himself at their head.

Menshikov’s mission was to demand from the Sultan the nullification of the November ruling in favour of the Catholics, the restoration of Greek privileges in the Holy Sepulchre, and reparation in the form of a formal convention or sened that would guarantee the treaty rights of Russia (supposedly dating back to the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji) to represent the Orthodox not just in the Holy Lands but throughout the Ottoman Empire. If the French resisted Greek control of the Holy Sepulchre, Menshikov was to propose a secret defensive alliance in which Russia would put a fleet and 400,000 Russian troops at the Sultan’s disposal, should he ever need them against a Western power, on condition that he exercised his sovereignty in favour of the Orthodox. According to his diary, Menshikov was given the command of the army and the fleet ‘and the post of envoy-plenipotentiary of peace or war’. His instructions were to combine persuasion with military threats. The Tsar had already approved plans to occupy the Danubian principalities and grant them independence if the Turks rejected Menshikov’s demands. He had ordered the advance of 140,000 soldiers to the frontiers of the principalities, and was prepared to use these troops with the Black Sea Fleet to seize Constantinople if that should be needed to force the Sultan into submission. There was a flamboyant review of the fleet at Sevastopol to coincide with Menshikov’s departure for the Turkish capital, where he arrived on the aptly named steam frigate Thunderer on 28 February. Cheered by a huge crowd of Greeks who had gathered at the port to welcome him, Menshikov was accompanied by a large suite of military and naval officers, including General Nepokoichitsky, chief of staff of the 4th Army Corps, and Vice-Admiral Vladimir Kornilov, chief of staff of the Black Sea Fleet, whose mission was to spy on the defences of the Bosporus and Constantinople in preparation for a lightning attack.

Menshikov’s demands stood little chance of being met in their original form. The fact that the Tsar had even thought they might succeed suggests how far removed he was from political reality. The draft of the sened prepared by Nesselrode went well beyond the dispute in the Holy Lands. In effect, Russia was demanding a new treaty that would reassert its rights of protection of the Greek Church throughout the Ottoman Empire and (in so far as the Orthodox patriarchs were to be appointed for life) without any control by the Porte. European Turkey would become a Russian protectorate, and the Ottoman Empire would in practical terms become a dependency of Russia, always threatened by her military might.

But whatever chances of diplomatic success the admiral might have had, they were ruined by the way Menshikov behaved in the Turkish capital. Two days after he arrived he broke with diplomatic precedent and insulted the Turks by appearing in civilian clothes and an overcoat instead of full uniform for his ceremonial welcome by the Porte. Meeting the Grand Vizier Mehmet Ali, Menshikov immediately demanded the dismissal of Fuad Efendi, the Foreign Minister, who had caved in to the French in November, and refused to begin negotiations until a new Foreign Minister, more amenable to Russia’s interests, had been appointed. In a calculated affront to Fuad, Menshikov refused to speak with him, in full view of a large crowd; it was an act to demonstrate that a minister hostile to Russia ‘would be humiliated and punished even in the midst of the sultan’s court’.

The Turks were appalled by Menshikov’s behaviour, but the build-up of Russian troops in Bessarabia was worrying enough to make them acquiesce to his demands. Swallowing their pride, they even allowed the Russian dragoman to interview Fuad’s successor, Rifaat Pasha, on behalf of Menshikov before appointing him as Foreign Minister. But Menshikov’s continued bullying, his threats to break off relations with the Porte unless it satisfied his demands at once, also alienated the Turkish ministers and made them more inclined to resist his pressure by turning to the British and the French for help. It was a question of defending Turkey’s sovereignty.

By the end of the first week of Menshikov’s mission, the gist of his instructions had been leaked or sold by Turkish officials to all the Western embassies, and a nervous Mehmet Ali had consulted with the French and British chargés d’affaires, secretly requesting them to call up their fleets to the Aegean in case they were needed to defend the Turkish capital against an attack by the Russians. Colonel Rose was particularly alarmed at Menshikov’s actions. He feared that the Russians were about to impose on the Turks a new Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, ‘or something worse’, by the occupation of the Dardanelles (a clear abrogation of the 1841 Straits Convention). He believed he had to act, without waiting until the return of Stratford Canning, who had resigned the ambassadorship in January but had been reappointed by the Aberdeen government in February. On 8 March Rose sent a message by fast steamer to Vice-Admiral Sir James Dundas in Malta calling on him to bring up his squadron to Urla near Izmir. Dundas refused to obey the order without confirmation from the government in London, where a group of ministers, who were later to become the ‘inner cabinet’ of the Crimean War,i met to discuss Rose’s appeal on 20 March. The ministers were concerned by the Russian military build-up in Bessarabia, by the ‘vast naval preparations at Sevastopol’, and the ‘hostile language’ used by Menshikov towards the Porte. Convinced that the Russians were preparing to destroy Turkey, Russell was inclined to let their fleets advance into the Bosporus and seize the Turkish capital so that Britain and France could use the defence of the Straits Convention as a reason to launch a full-out naval war against Russia in the Black Sea and the Baltic. Supported by Palmerston, Russell would have had the majority of the British public on his side. But the other ministers were more cautious. They were wary of the French, whom they still regarded as a military threat, and disagreed with Russell that an Anglo-French alliance would counteract the challenge of the French steam fleet to British maritime power. They took the view that the French had provoked the Russians, who deserved a concession in the Holy Lands, and trusted the assurances of Baron Brunov (‘as a gentleman’) that the Tsar’s intentions remained peaceful. On this basis they rejected Rose’s request for a squadron. It was not up to chargés d’affaires, it seemed to them, to call up fleets or decide matters of war and peace; and Rose had allowed himself to be swayed by ‘the alarm of the Turkish government … and the rumours that obtained general credit at Constantinople of the advancing army and fleet of Russia’. The ministers decided that they would wait for Stratford Canning to return to the Turkish capital and sort out a peaceful settlement.

News of Rose’s summons to Dundas arrived in Paris on 16 March.

In a cabinet meeting to discuss the situation three days later, Drouyn de Lhuys, the Foreign Minister, painted a picture of imminent catastrophe: ‘The last hour of Turkey has been tolled, and we must expect to see the double-headed eagle [of the Romanovs] planted on the towers of St Sophia.’ Drouyn rejected the idea of sending in a fleet, at least not until the British did, in case they should be isolated in Europe, which feared the reassertion of Napoleonic France. This was also the position of the other ministers, except Persigny, who claimed that Britain ‘would rejoice and join our side’ if France took a stand ‘to stop the march of Russia towards Constantinople’. For Persigny it was a question of national honour. The army that had carried out the coup d’état of 2 December was an ‘army of praetorians’ with a heritage of glory to defend. He warned Napoleon that if he temporized, as his ministers advised, ‘the first time you pass before your troops, you will see their faces saddened, the ranks silenced, and you will feel the ground shake beneath your feet. So, as you well know, to win back the army you must take some risks; and you, Messieurs, who would have peace at any price, you will be thrown into a terrible conflagration.’ At this point the Emperor, who had been wavering over what to do, succumbed to the argument of Persigny and ordered the advance of the French fleet, not as far as the Dardanelles, but to Salamis, in Greek waters, as a warning to the Russians that ‘France was not disinterested in what took place in Constantinople’.

There were three main reasons behind his decision to mobilize the fleet. First, as Persigny had intimated, there were rumours of a plot against Napoleon in the army, and a show of force was a good way to nip this in the bud. ‘I must tell you’, Napoleon wrote to Empress Eugénie in the winter of 1852, ‘that serious plots are afoot in the army. I am keeping my eye on all this, and I reckon that by one means or another, I can prevent any outbreak: perhaps by means of a war.’ Secondly, Napoleon was anxious to restore France as a naval power in the Mediterranean – for everybody knew, in the words of Horace de Viel-Castel, the director of the Louvre, that ‘the day when the Mediterranean is partitioned between Russia and England, France will no longer be counted among the great powers’. In a conversation with Stratford Canning, who passed through Paris on his way from London to Constantinople, Napoleon was concerned to highlight France’s interests in the Mediterranean. Stratford wrote this memorandum of their conversation on 10 March:

He said that he had no wish to make the Mediterranean a French lake – to use a well-known expression – but that he should like to see it made a European one. He did not explain the meaning of this phrase. If he meant that the shores of the Mediterranean should be exclusively in the hands of Christendom, the dream is rather colossal … . The impression left upon my mind … is that Louis Napoleon, meaning to be well with us, at least for the present, is ready to act politically in concert with England at Constantinople; but it remains to be seen whether he looks to the restoration of Turkish power, or merely to the consequences of its decay, preparing to avail himself of them hereafter in the interests of France.

But above all, it was Napoleon’s desire to ‘act … in concert with England’ and establish an Anglo-French alliance that led him to mobilize the fleet. ‘Persigny is right,’ he told his ministers on 19 March. ‘If we send our fleet to Salamis, England will be forced to do as much, and the union of the two fleets will lead to the union of the two nations against Russia.’ According to Persigny, the Emperor reasoned that the dispatch of the fleet would appeal to British Russophobia, win support from the bourgeois press and force the hand of the more cautious Aberdeen government to join France.

In fact, the British fleet remained at Malta while the French sailed from Toulon on 22 March. The British were furious with the French for escalating the crisis, and urged them not to advance beyond Naples, giving Stratford time to get to Constantinople and arrange a settlement, before moving their gunboats into the Aegean Sea. Stratford arrived in the Turkish capital on 5 April. He found the Turks already in a mood to stand up to Menshikov – nationalist and religious emotions had become highly charged – although there were divisions about how far they should go and how long they should wait for the military backing of the West. These arguments became entangled in the long-standing personal rivalry between the Grand Vizier Mehmet Ali and Reshid, Stratford’s old ally, who was then out of power. Hearing that Mehmet Ali was about to make a compromise with Menshikov, Stratford urged him to stand firm against the Russians, assuring him (on his own authority) that the British fleet would back him if need be. The key thing, he advised, was to separate the conflict in the Holy Lands (where Russia had a legitimate claim for the restoration of its treaty rights) and the broader demands of the draft sened that had to be rejected to maintain Turkish sovereignty. It was vital for the Sultan to grant religious rights by direct sovereign authority rather than by any mechanism dictated by Russia. In Stratford’s view, the Tsar’s real intention was to use his protection of the Greek Church as a Trojan horse for the penetration and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

The Grand Council heeded his advice when it met to discuss Menshikov’s demands on 23 April. It agreed to negotiate on the Holy Places but not on the broader question concerning Russia’s protection of the Sultan’s Orthodox subjects. On 5 May Menshikov came back with a revised version of the sened (without the life appointment of the patriarchs) but with an ultimatum that if it was not signed within five days he would leave Constantinople and break off diplomatic relations. Stratford urged the Sultan to hold firm, and the Ottoman cabinet rejected the ultimatum on 10 May. In a desperate bid to satisfy the Tsar’s demands without recourse to war, Menshikov gave the Turks four more days to sign the revised sened. During this reprieve, Stratford and Reshid engineered the dismissal of Mehmet Ali, allowing Reshid to take over at the Foreign Ministry. Following the advice of the British ambassador, Reshid was in favour of a firmer line against the Russians on the understanding that this was the surest way to reach a settlement on the religious question without compromising the sovereignty of the Sultan. Reshid asked for five more days from Menshikov. News had come from the Ottoman ambassador in London, Kostaki Musurus, that Britain would defend the sovereign rights of the Ottoman Empire, and this emboldened the new Turkish Foreign Minister, who needed time to win support for a firm stand against the Russians among his fellow-ministers.

On 15 May the Grand Council met again. The ministers and Muslim leaders were fired up with anti-Russian sentiment, much of it encouraged by Stratford, who had called on many of them personally to urge them to stand firm. The Council refused Menshikov’s demands. Receiving the news that evening, Menshikov replied that Russia would now break off relations with the Porte but that he would wait a few more days in the Turkish capital, citing storms in the Black Sea as a reason to delay his departure, though really he was hoping for a last-minute deal. Finally, on 21 May, the Russian coat of arms was taken down from the embassy and Menshikov departed for Odessa on the Thunderer.


The failure of the Menshikov mission convinced the Tsar that he needed to resort to military means. On 29 May he wrote to Field Marshal Paskevich that if he had been more aggressive from the start he might have been successful in extracting concessions from the Turks. He did not want a war – he feared the intervention of the Western powers – but he was now prepared to use the threat of war, to shake the Turkish Empire to its foundations, to get his way and enforce what he saw as Russia’s treaty rights to protect the Orthodox. He revealed his thinking (and state of mind) to Paskevich:

The consequence [of Menshikov’s failure] is war. However, before I get to that, I have decided to send my troops into the [Danubian] principalities – to show the world how far I would go to avoid war – and send a final ultimatum to the Turks to satisfy my demands within eight days, and if they don’t, I shall declare war on them. My aim is to occupy the principalities without a war, if the Turks do not meet us on the left bank of the Danube … If the Turks resist, I shall blockade the Bosporus and seize Turkish ships on the Black Sea; and I shall propose to Austria to occupy Herzegovina and Serbia. If that does not take effect, I shall declare the independence of the principalities, Serbia and Herzegovina – and then the Turkish Empire will begin to crumble, for everywhere there will be Christian uprisings and the last hour of the Ottoman Empire will sound. I do not intend to cross the Danube, the [Turkish] Empire will collapse without that, but I shall keep my fleet prepared, and the 13th and 14th Divisions will remain on a war footing in Sevastopol and Odessa. Canning’s actions … do not put me off: I must go by my own path and fulfil my duty according to my faith as befits the honour of Russia. You cannot imagine how much all this saddens me. I have grown old, but I would like to end my life in peace!

The Tsar’s plan was the result of a compromise between his own initial inclination to seize Constantinople in a surprise attack (before the Western powers could react) and the more cautious thinking of Paskevich. Paskevich had commanded the punitive campaign against the Hungarians and the Poles and was the Tsar’s most trusted military adviser. He was sceptical about such an offensive and fearful that it would entangle Russia in a European-wide war. The key difference between the two centred on their views of Austria. Nicholas put excessive faith in his personal link to Franz Joseph. He was convinced that the Austrians – whom he had saved from the Hungarians in 1849 – would join him in his threats against the Turks and, if necessary, in the partition of the Ottoman Empire. That is what had made him so aggressive in his foreign policy: the belief that with Austria on his side there could be no European war and the Turks would be forced to capitulate. Paskevich, by contrast, was doubtful about Austrian support. As he correctly understood, the Austrians could hardly be expected to welcome Russian troops in the principalities and the Balkans, where they already feared uprisings against them by the Serbs and other Slavs; they might even join the Western powers against Russia if these revolts materialized, if and when the Tsar’s troops crossed the Danube.

Determined to limit the Tsar’s offensive plans, Paskevich played to his pan-Slav fantasies. He persuaded Nicholas that it would be enough for Russian troops to occupy the principalities in a defensive war for the Balkan Slavs to rise up and force the Turks to give in to the Tsar’s demands. He spoke of occupying the principalities for several years, if necessary, and claimed that Russian propaganda would raise as many as 50,000 Christian soldiers for the Tsar’s army in the Balkans – enough to deter the intervention of the Western powers and at least neutralize the Austrians. In a memorandum to the Tsar in early April, Paskevich outlined his vision of the religious war that would unfold in the Balkans as the Russian troops advanced:

The Christians of Turkey are from warring tribes and, if the Serbs and Bulgarians have remained peaceful, it is only because they have not yet felt Turkish rule in their villages … But their warrior spirit will be roused by the first conflicts between Christians and Muslims, they will not stand for the atrocities that the Turks will carry out against their villages … when our armies begin the war. There is not a village, perhaps not a family, where there won’t be oppressed Christians … willing to join us in our fight against the Turks … .We will have a weapon that can bring the Turkish Empire down.

Towards the end of June the Tsar ordered his two armies in Bessarabia to cross the River Pruth and occupy Moldavia and Wallachia. Paskevich still hoped that the invasion of the principalities would not lead to a European war, but feared that the Tsar would not pull back from it if that should be the case, as he explained to General Gorchakov, the commander of the Russian forces, on 24 June. The Tsar’s troops advanced to Bucharest, where their command established headquarters. In every town, they posted copies of a manifesto from the Tsar in which it was stated that Russia did not want to make territorial gains and was only occupying the principalities as a ‘guarantee’ for the satisfaction of its religious grievances by the Ottoman government. ‘We are ready to stop our troops if the Porte guarantees the inviolable rights of the Orthodox Church. But if it continues to resist, then, with God on our side, we shall advance and fight for our true faith.’

The occupying troops had little understanding of the dispute in the Holy Lands. ‘We did not think of anything, we knew nothing. We let our commanders think for us and did what they told us,’ recalled Teofil Klemm, a veteran of the Danubian campaign. Klemm was just 18, a literate serf who had been chosen for training as an officer in Kremenchug in the Ukraine, when he was called up by the infantry in 1853. Klemm was unimpressed by the pan-Slav pamphlets that circulated widely among the troops and officers of the 5th Army Corps. ‘None of us were interested in such ideas,’ he wrote. But like every soldier in the Russian army, Klemm went off to battle with a cross around his neck and with an understanding of his calling as a fight for God.

The Russian army was a peasant army – serfs and state peasants were the main groups subject to the military draft – and that was its main problem. It was by far the biggest army in the world, with over a million infantry, a quarter of a million irregulars (mainly Cossack cavalry) and three-quarters of a million reservists in special military settlements. But even this was not enough to defend the enormous borders of Russia, where there were so many vulnerable points, such as the Baltic coast, or Poland, or the Caucasus, and the army could not recruit more without running down the serf economy and sparking peasant uprisings. The weakness of the population base in European Russia – a territory the size of the rest of Europe but with less than a fifth of its population – was compounded by the concentration of the serf population in the central agricultural zone of Russia, a long way from the Empire’s borders where the army would be needed at short notice in the event of war. Without railways it took months for serfs to be recruited and sent by foot or cart to their regiments. Even before the Crimean War, the Russian army was already overstretched. Virtually all the serfs eligible for conscription had been mobilized, and the quality of the recruits had declined significantly, as landowners and villages, desperate to hold on to their last able farmers, sent inferior men to the army. A report of 1848 showed that during recent levies one-third of the conscripts had been rejected because they had failed to meet the necessary height requirement (a mere 160 centimetres); and another half had been rejected because of chronic illness or other physical deficiencies. The only way to solve the army’s shortages of manpower would have been to widen its social base of conscription and move towards a European system of universal military service, but this would have spelled the end of serfdom, the foundation of the social system, to which the aristocracy was firmly committed.

Despite two decades of reform, the Russian military remained far behind the armies of the other European states. The officer corps was poorly educated and almost all the troops illiterate: official figures of the 1850s showed that in a group of six divisions, numbering approximately 120,000 men, only 264 (0.2 per cent) were able to read or write. The ethos of the army was dominated by the eighteenth-century parade-ground culture of the tsarist court, in which promotion, to quote Karl Marx, was limited to ‘martinets, whose principal merit consists of stolid obedience and ready servility added to accuracy of eyesight in detecting a fault in the buttons and buttonholes of the uniform’. There was more emphasis on the drilling and appearance of the troops than on their battleworthiness. Even during fighting there were elaborate rules for the posture, length of stride, line and movement of the troops, all set out in army manuals, which were quite irrelevant to the actual conditions of the battlefield:

When a battle formation is advancing or retiring it is necessary to observe a general alignment of the battalions in each line and to maintain correctly the intervals between battalions. In this case it is not enough for each battalion separately to keep alignment, it is necessary that the pace be alike in all battalions, so that the guidon sergeants marching before the battalions shall keep alignment among themselves and march parallel to one another along lines perpendicular to the common formation.

The domination of this parade culture was connected to the backwardness of the army’s weaponry. The importance attached to keeping troops in tight columns was partly to maintain their discipline and prevent chaos when there were large formations on the move, as in other armies of the time. But it was also necessitated by the inefficiency of the Russian musket and the consequent reliance on the bayonet (justified by patriotic myths about the ‘bravery of the Russian soldier’, who was at his best with the bayonet). Such was the neglect of small-arms fire in the infantry that ‘very few men even knew how to use their muskets’, according to one officer. ‘With us, success in battle was entirely staked on the art of marching and the correct stretching of the toe.

These outdated means of fighting had brought Russia victory in all the major wars of the early nineteenth century – against the Persians and the Turks, and of course in Russia’s most important war, against Napoleon (a triumph that convinced the Russians that their army was invincible). So there had been little pressure to update them for the needs of warfare in the new age of steam and the telegraph. Russia’s economic backwardness and financial weakness compared to the new industrial powers of the West also placed a severe brake on the modernization of its vast and expensive peacetime army. It was only during the Crimean War – when the musket was shown to be useless against the Minié rifle of the British and the French – that the Russians ordered rifles for their own army.

Of the 80,000 Russian troops who crossed the River Pruth, the border between Russia and Moldavia, less than half would survive for a year. The tsarist army lost men at a far higher rate than any of the other European armies. Soldiers were sacrificed in huge numbers for relatively minor gains by aristocratic senior officers, who cared little for the welfare of their peasant conscripts but a great deal for their own promotion if they could report a victory to their superiors. The vast majority of Russian soldiers were not killed in battle but died from wounds and diseases that might not have been fatal had there been a proper medical service. Every Russian offensive told the same sad tale: in 1828–9, half the army died from cholera and illnesses in the Danubian principalities; during the Polish campaign of 1830–31, 7,000 Russian soldiers were killed in combat but 85,000 were carried off by wounds and sickness; during the Hungarian campaign of 1849, only 708 men died in the fighting but 57,000 Russian soldiers were admitted to Austrian hospitals. Even in peacetime the average rate of sickness in the Russian army was 65 per cent.

The appalling treatment of the serf soldier lay behind this high rate of illness. Floggings were a daily aspect of the disciplinary system; beatings so common that entire regiments could be made up of men who carried wounds inflicted by their own officers. The supply system was riddled with corruption because officers were very badly paid – the whole army was chronically underfunded by the cashstrapped tsarist government – and by the time they had taken their profit from the sums they were allowed to buy provisions with, there was little money left for the rations of the troops. Without an effective system of supply, soldiers were expected to fend largely for themselves. Each regiment was responsible for the manufacturing of its uniforms and boots with materials provided by the state. Regiments not only had their own tailors and cobblers, but their own barbers, bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and metal workers, joiners, painters, singers and bandsmen, all of them bringing their own village trades into the army. Without these peasant skills, a Russian army, let alone an army on the offensive, would not have been feasible. The Russian soldier on the march drew on all his peasant know-how and resourcefulness. He carried bandages in his knapsack so that he could treat himself for wounds. He was very good at improvising ways to sleep in the open – using leaves and branches, haystacks, crops, and even digging himself into a hole in the ground – a crucial skill that helped the army to go on long marches without the need to carry tents.

As the Russians crossed the Pruth, the Turkish government ordered Omer Pasha, the commander of the Rumelian army, to strengthen the Turkish forts along the Danube and prepare for their defence. The Porte also called for reinforcements from the Ottoman dominions of Egypt and Tunis. By mid-August there were 20,000 Egyptian troops and 8,000 Tunisians encamped around Constantinople and ready to depart for the Danubian forts. A British embassy official described them in a letter to Lady Stratford de Redcliffe:

’Tis a pity you can’t see the Bosphorus about Therapia, swarming with ships of war, and the opposite heights crowned with the green tents of the Egyptian camp. Constantinople has itself gone back fifty years, and the strangest figures swarm in from the distant provinces to have a cut at the Muscov[ite]. Turbans, lances, maces, and battle-axes jostle each other in the narrow streets, and are bundled off immediately to the camp at Shumla for the sake of a quiet life.

The Turkish army was made up of many nationalities. It included Arabs, Kurds, Tatars, Egyptians, Tunisians, Albanians, Greeks, Armenians and other peoples, many of them hostile to the Turkish government or unable to understand the commands of their Turkish or European officers (Omer Pasha’s staff contained many Poles and Italians). The most colourful of the Turkish forces were the Bashi Bazouks, irregulars from North Africa, Central Asia and Anatolia, who left their tribes in bands of twenty or thirty at a time, a motley bunch of cavalrymen of all ages and appearances, and made their way to the Turkish capital to join the jihad against the Russian infidels. In his memoirs of the Crimean War, the British naval officer Adolphus Slade, who helped to train the Turkish navy, described a parade of the Bashi Bazouks in Constantinople before they were sent off to the Danubian front. They were mostly dressed in old tribal gear, ‘sashed and turbaned, and picturesquely armed with pistols, yataghan [Turkish sword] and sabre. Some carried pennoned lances. Each squadron had its colours and its kettle-drums of the fashion of those, if not the same, carried by their ancestors who had marched to the siege of Vienna.’ They spoke so many different languages that, even within small units, translators and criers had to be employed to shout out the orders of the officers.

Language was not the only problem of command. Many Muslim soldiers were unwilling to obey Christian officers, even Omer Pasha, a Croatian Serb and Orthodox by birth (his real name was Mihailo Latas) who had been educated in an Austrian military school before fleeing from corruption charges to the Ottoman province of Bosnia and converting to Islam. Jocular and talkative, Omer Pasha enjoyed the luxurious lifestyle that his command of the Rumelian army had afforded him. He dressed in a uniform decorated with gold braid and precious stones, kept a private harem, and employed an orchestra of Germans to accompany his troops (in the Crimea he had them play ‘Ah! Che la morte’ from Verdi’s recent opera Il Trovatore). Omer Pasha was not an outstanding commander. It was said that he had been promoted on the basis of his beautiful handwriting (he had been the writing-master of the young Abdülmecid and had been made a colonel when his pupil became Sultan in 1839). In this sense, despite his Christian birth, Omer Pasha was typical of the Ottoman officer class, which still depended on personal patronage for promotion rather than on military expertise. The military reforms of Mahmud’s reign and the Tanzimat had yet to create the foundations of a modern professional army, and the majority of Turkish officers were tactically weak on the battlefield. Many still adhered to the outmoded strategy of dispersing their troops to cover every bit of ground rather than deploying them in larger and more compact groups. The Ottoman army was good at ‘small-war’ ambushes and skirmishing, and excellent at siege warfare, but it had long lacked the discipline and training to master close-order formations using smooth-bore muskets, unlike the Russians.

In terms of pay and conditions there was a huge gulf between the officers and the soldiers, a divide even wider than in the Russian army, with many senior commanders living like pashas and their troops left unpaid for several months, sometimes even years, during a war. The Russian diplomat and geographer Pyotr Chikhachev reported on the problem when he worked at the Russian embassy in Constantinople in 1849. In his calculation, the annual cost of the Turkish infantry soldier (salary, rations and clothing) was 18 silver roubles; the equivalent costs for the Russian soldier were 32 roubles; for the Austrian, 53 roubles; for the Prussian, 60 roubles; for the French, 85 roubles; and for the British foot soldier, 134 roubles. European soldiers were shocked by the conditions of the Turkish troops on the Danubian front. ‘Poorly fed and dressed in rags, they were the most wretched specimens of humanity,’ according to one British officer. The Egyptian reinforcements were described by a Russian officer as ‘old men and country boys without any training for battle’.

The British were divided in their reaction to the Russian occupation of the principalities. The most pacific member of the cabinet was the Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen. He refused to see the occupation as an act of war – he even thought it had been partly justified to press the Porte to recognize the Russians’ legitimate demands in the Holy Lands – and looked for diplomatic ways to help the Tsar retreat without losing face. He certainly was not inclined to encourage Turkish resistance. His greatest fear was being drawn into a war against Russia by the Turks, whom he generally mistrusted. In February he had written to Lord Russell to warn against the sending of a British fleet to help the Turks:

These Barbarians hate us all, and would be delighted to take their chance of some advantage, by embroiling us with the other Powers of Christendom. It may be necessary to give them our moral support, and to endeavour to prolong their existence; but we ought to regard as the greatest misfortune any engagement which compelled us to take up arms for the Turks.

At the more belligerent end of the cabinet, Palmerston thought the occupation was a ‘hostile act’ that demanded immediate action by Britain ‘for the protection of Turkey’. He wanted British warships in the Bosporus to put pressure on the Russians to withdraw from the principalities. Palmerston was supported by the Russophobic British press, and by anti-Russian diplomats, such as Ponsonby and Stratford Canning, who saw the occupation of the principalities as an opportunity for Britain to make good on its failure to oppose the Russians on the Danube in 1848–9.

London had a large community of Romanian exiles from the previous Russian occupation of the principalities who formed an influential pressure-group for British intervention that enjoyed the support of several members of the cabinet, including Palmerston and Gladstone, and many more MPs who lobbied Parliament with questions about the Danube. The Romanian leaders had close connections to the Italian exiles in London and were part of the Democratic Committee established by Mazzini which by this time had also been joined by Greek and Polish exiles in the British capital. The Romanians were careful to distance themselves from the revolutionary politics of these nationalists, and were well aware of the need to tailor their arguments to the liberal interests of the British middle classes. With the support of several national newspapers and periodicals, they succeeded in getting across to the British public the idea that the defence of the principalities against Russian aggression was vitally important for the broader interests of liberty and free trade on the Continent. In a series of almost daily articles in the Morning Advertiser, Urquhart joined their calls for intervention in the principalities, although he was more concerned about the defence of Turkish sovereignty and Britain’s free-trade interests than about the Romanian national cause. As the Russian invasion of the principalities progressed, Romanian propagandists grew bolder and made direct appeals to the public on speaking tours. In all their speeches the main theme was the European crusade for freedom against Russian tyranny – a rallying cry that was at times extremely fanciful in its vision of a Christian uprising for liberty in the Ottoman Empire. Constantine Rosetti, for example, told a crowd in Plymouth that ‘an army of 100,000 Romanians stood ready on the Danube to join the soldiers of democracy’.

While the nature of the Russian occupation of the principalities remained unclear, the British government hestitated over where to send the Royal Navy. Palmerston and Russell wanted British warships in the Bosporus to prevent the Russian fleet attacking Constantinople; but Aberdeen preferred to hold the navy back in order not to threaten a negotiated peace. In the end a compromise was reached and the fleet was kept on a war footing at Besika Bay, just outside the Dardanelles, close enough, so the thinking went, to deter a Russian attack on the Turkish capital but not close enough to provoke a conflict between Britain and Russia. Then in July the Russian occupation of the principalities began to assume a more serious character. Reports reached the European capitals that the hospodars of Moldavia and Wallachia had been ordered by the Russians to break off relations with the Porte and to pay tribute to the Tsar instead. The news caused alarm because it suggested that Russia’s real intention was to take possession of the principalities on a permanent basis, despite the assurances of the Tsar’s manifesto to the contrary.

The reaction of the European powers was immediate. The Austrians mobilized 25,000 troops on their southern frontiers, mainly as a warning to the Serbs and other Habsburg Slavs not to rise up in support of the Russian invasion. The French put their fleet on a war footing, and the British followed them. Stratford Canning, who had first heard the news of the order to the hospodars, and who was eager to make amends for the failure of the British to make a stand against the last Russian invasion in 1848–9, called for decisive military action to defend the principalities. He warned the Foreign Office that ‘the whole of European Turkey, from the frontier of Austria to that of Greece’, was about to fall to the Russians; that if they crossed the Danube there would be uprisings by Christians everywhere in the Balkans; that the Sultan and his Muslim subjects were prepared for war against Russia, provided they could rely on the support of Britain and France; and that while it would be a misfortune for Britain to be dragged into a war whose consequences were so unpredictable, it would be better to deal with the danger of Russia now than later on, when it would be too late.

The threatening nature of the Russian occupation raised a bundle of security concerns for the European powers, none of which could afford to stand by while Russia dismantled the Ottoman Empire. Britain, France, Austria and Prussia (which basically followed Austria’s lead) now agreed to act together in a peace initiative. The diplomatic lead was taken by Austria, the key guarantor of the Vienna Settlement, of which it was the major beneficiary. The Austrians were heavily dependent on the Danube for their foreign trade and could not tolerate the Russian annexation of the principalities, yet could least afford a European war against Russia in which they were likely to bear the heaviest burden. What the Austrians proposed was probably impossible: a diplomatic solution that would allow the Tsar to drop his demands and withdraw from the principalities without losing face.

The peace process involved an elaborate exchange of diplomatic notes between the European capitals with endless variations on the precise wording of a formula to satisfy the interests of Russia and underline the independence of Turkey. The culmination of this activity was the Vienna Note drafted by the foreign ministers of the four powers at a conference in Vienna on behalf of the Turkish government on 28 July. Like all diplomatic documents designed to end hostilities, the wording of the Note was deliberately vague: the Porte agreed to uphold the treaty rights of Russia to protect the Orthodox subjects of the Sultan. The Tsar saw the Note as a diplomatic victory and agreed to sign it at once ‘without modifications’ on 5 August. The trouble started when the Turks (who had not even been consulted on the drafting of the Note) asked for details to be clarified. They were concerned that the Note had not set proper limits on the Russian right to intervene in Ottoman affairs – a concern that was soon proved to be justified when a private diplomatic document was leaked to a Berlin newspaper showing that the Russians had interpreted the Note to mean that they could intervene to protect the Orthodox anywhere throughout the Ottoman Empire and not just in areas where a specific conflict had occurred, as in the Holy Lands. The Sultan suggested a couple of minor verbal alterations to the Note – forms of words but important to a government that was being asked to sign the Note as a concession to Russia or face the loss of two of its richest provinces. He also wanted the Russians to evacuate the principalities before the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, and a guarantee from the four powers that Russia would not invade them again. These were reasonable demands for a sovereign power to insist upon, but the Tsar refused to accept the Turkish modifications, on the grounds that he had agreed to sign the Note unchanged, although his suspicion that Stratford Canning had encouraged the Turks to dig in their heels was also not irrelevant. In early September the Vienna Note was reluctantly abandoned by the four powers and, with Turkey on the brink of declaring war on Russia, negotiations had to start again.

In fact, contrary to the Tsar’s suspicions, Stratford Canning had played a minor role in the Turkish decision to reject the Note. The British ambassador was well known for his fierce defence of Turkish sovereignty and his hatred of Russia, so it was not surprising that he was held responsible for the unexpected refusal of the Turks to go along with the diplomatic solution imposed on them by the Western powers to appease the Tsar. The idea that Stratford had pushed the Turks towards a war against Russia was later taken up by the Foreign Office, which took the view that the ambassador might have persuaded the Turks to accept the Note, if he had gone about it in the right manner, but that he had chosen not to because ‘he is himself no better than a Turk, and has lived there so long, and is animated with such personal hatred of the [Russian] Emperor, that he is full of the Turkish spirit; and this and his temper together have made him take a part directly contrary to the wishes and instructions of his government’. Looking back on the failure of peace on 1 October, Foreign Secretary Lord George Clarendon concluded that it would have been better to have had a more moderate man than Stratford as ambassador in the Turkish capital. The game of deceit the Russians played ‘called forth all his Russian antipathies and made him from the first look to war as the best thing for Turkey. In fact no settlement would have been satisfactory to him that did not humiliate Russia. But this was unfair to Stratford, who took the blame for the failure of the government. The truth is that Stratford did his best to get the Porte to accept the Note, but his influence on the Turks was steadily declining in the summer months, as Constantinople was swept by demonstrations calling for a ‘holy war’ against Russia.

The invasion of the principalities stirred a powerful combination of Muslim feeling and Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman capital. The Porte had roused the Muslim population against the invasion, and now could not contain the ensuing religious emotions. The language of the metropolitan ulema was increasingly belligerent, raising fears among the devout that the invaders would destroy their mosques and build churches in their place. Meanwhile the Porte kept the public ignorant about the Vienna initiative, claiming that any peace would come ‘solely from the Tsar’s awe of the Sultan’ – an idea that encouraged nationalist feelings of Muslim superiority. Rumours circulated that the Sultan was paying the British and French navies to fight for Turkey; that Europe had been chosen by Allah to defend the Muslims; that the Tsar had sent his wife to Constantinople to beg for peace and had offered to repay Turkey for the invasion of the principalities by giving up the Crimea. Many of these rumours were engineered or promoted by the recently dimissed Grand Vizier Mehmet Ali to undermine Reshid. By the end of August, Mehmet Ali had emerged as the head of a ‘war party’, which had gained the ascendancy within the Grand Council. Backed by Muslim leaders, he enjoyed the support of a large group of younger Turkish officials, who were nationalist and religious, and opposed to Western intervention in Ottoman affairs, but calculated, nonetheless, that if they could involve the British and the French on their side in a war against Russia, this would be hugely to their advantage and might even reverse a hundred years of military defeats by the Russians. To secure the support of the Western fleets, they were prepared to promise sound administration to interfering Europeans like Stratford, but they rejected the Tanzimat reforms, because they saw the granting of more civil rights to Christians as a potential threat to Muslim rule.

The war mood in the Turkish capital reached fever pitch during the second week of September, when there was a series of pro-war demonstrations and a mass petition with 60,000 signatures calling on the government to launch a ‘holy war’ against Russia. The theological schools (medrese) and mosques were the organizing centres of the protests, and their influence was clearly marked in the religious language of the posters that appeared throughout the capital:

O Glorious Padishah! All your subjects are ready to sacrifice their lives, property and children for the sake of your majesty. You too have now incurred the duty of unsheathing the sword of Muhammad that you girded in the mosque of Eyyub-i Ansari like your grandfathers and predecessors. The hesitations of your ministers on this question stem from their addiction to the disease of vanity and this situation has the possibility (God forbid) of leading us all into a great danger. Therefore your victorious soldiers and your praying servants want war for the defence of their clear rights, O My Padishah!

There were 45,000 religious students in the medrese of the Turkish capital. They were discontented as a group – the Tanzimat reforms had reduced their status and career prospects by promoting graduates of the new secular schools – and this social grievance gave a cutting edge to their protests. The Turkish government was terrified of the possibility of an Islamic revolution if it failed to declare war against Russia.

On 10 September, thirty-five religious leaders submitted a petition to the Grand Council, which discussed it the next day. According to the London Times:

The petition was principally composed of numerous quotations from the Koran, enjoining war on the enemies of Islam, and contained covert threats of disturbance were it not listened to and complied with. The tone of the petition is exceedingly bold, and bordering on the insolent. Some of the principal Ministers endeavoured to reason with those who presented it, but the answers they obtained were short and to the point. ‘Here are the words of the Koran: if you are Mussulmans you are bound to obey. You are now listening to foreign and infidel ambassadors who are the enemies of the Faith; we are the children of the Prophet; we have an army and that army cries out with us for war, to avenge the insults which the Giaours have heaped upon us.’ It is said that on each attempt to reason with these fanatics, the Ministers were met by the answer ‘These are the words of the Koran.’ The present Ministers are undoubtedly in a state of alarm, since they look upon the present circumstance (a very unusual event in Turkey) as but the commencement of a revolution, and fear to be forced at the present inopportune juncture into a war.

On 12 September the religious leaders gained an audience with the Sultan. They gave him an ultimatum: either declare war or abdicate. Abdülmecid turned for help to Stratford and the French ambassador, Edmond de Lacour, who both agreed to bring up their fleets if they were needed to put down a revolution in the Turkish capital.

That evening, the Sultan called a meeting of his ministers. They agreed to declare war against Russia, although not until the Porte had time to firm up the support of the Western fleets and put down the religious protests in Constantinople. The policy was formally agreed at an enlarged session of the Grand Council on 26–7 September attended by the Sultan’s ministers, leading Muslim clerics and the military establishment. It was the religious leaders who insisted on the need to fight, despite the hesitations of the military commanders, who had their doubts about the capacity of the Turkish forces to win a war against Russia. Omer Pasha thought that 40,000 more troops would be needed on the Danube, where it would require several months to prepare the forts and bridges for a war against Russia. Mehmet Ali, who had recently been appointed commander-in-chief of the army, would not say whether it was possible to win against Russia, despite his association with the ‘war party’. Nor would Mahmud Pasha, the grand admiral of the navy, who said the Turks could match the Russian fleet but would not take responsibility for these words if later called to account for a defeat. In the end, it was Reshid who came round to the viewpoint of the Muslim leaders, perhaps sensing that to oppose war at this late stage would spark a religious revolution and destroy the Tanzimat reforms, upon which the support of the Western powers in any war with Russia would depend. ‘Better to die fighting than not to fight at all,’ declared Reshid. ‘God willing, we will be victorious.

Opposing forces

In March 1854, for Britain to declare war on Russia in support of Turkey appeared both wise and necessary. The underlying reasons were long term, part of the so-called Eastern Question - the disintegration of the Turkish Empire, which stretched from the Alps to Egypt. Russia, and in particular her Black Sea fleet, represented a menacing unknown quantity in this equation, the Tsar in repeated conversations with the British ambassador describing Turkey as ripe for rich picking, 'the sick man of Europe'. For the past 200 years Russia had been spreading territorial tentacles outwards from Moscow, southwards into the Ukraine and in 1783 to the Crimea. There Sevastopol provided a warm-water port from which the fleet could sail through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits into the eastern Mediterranean, directly to threaten British trade routes with the Levant and India.

Overland probes in the Caucasus west of the Caspian Sea underlined Russian desire for even further expansion into the Near East. But these advances were too distant to perturb Europe. Incursions across the Danube into the Balkans towards Constantinople, occupation of which would allow Russian warships their free passage into the Mediterranean, were altogether a different matter. Only international diplomatic pressure had halted Russian troops uncomfortably close to the Turkish capital in 1829. An even more serious crisis evolved in 1833. With Asia Minor threatened by the advance of rebel forces into Syria under Ibrahim, son of the pasha of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, the Sultan turned to Russi help: 'A drowning man will clutch at a serpent,' his foreign minister observed. Nicholas I's price for moral and diplomatic support, without firing a shot or in any way actively intervening, was Turkish agreement to close the Straits to foreign warships on Russia's request.

Not for nine years could Britain engineer the expulsion of the Egyptians from Syria and fashion a new agreement whereby the Straits would be closed to all warships in time of peace. Russia's exclusive influence had therefore been removed, but this incident re-emphasised the Tsar's designs on the Straits. Despite his comments about Turkey's pseudo-medical condition, in 1844

Nicholas I protested to Prince Albert that 'he did not want an inch of Turkish territory'. Palmerston thought this 'a great humbug ... one is denying the teaching of history if one believes that Russia is not thinking of extending to the south'.


Disputed areas

Most of the Sultan's subjects in south-eastern Europe, between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, were Christian. Alleged ill treatment of them by the Turks, whose military and political might was now quite visibly crumbling, provided a ready excuse for external intervention. Aware of Russian aspirations, other European powers needed to be vigilant. The Tsar, however, counted on lethargy among his potential opponents, whose co-operation, seen to effect in 1829 and 1841, might one day fail through inertia or preoccupation with more pressing problems.

As another diplomatic crisis developed in 1852, this seemed likely. Nicholas I looked for neutrality at the very least from Prussia and Austria, both of which had benefited from his help to crush internal liberal revolutions between 1848 and 1851. France had acute troubles at home, having deposed her king in 1848, and experienced the coup d'etat three years later that made Louis Napoleon into Emperor Napoleon III. Britain, the Tsar calculated, was isolated. He had not counted on the strength of commercial self-interest - in Britain's case, protection of the Indian trade routes; in France's, the opportunity for further markets and financial investment in Turkey. Furthermore, a diplomatic or military triumph over Russia would enhance the new French Emperor's credentials both nationally and internationally.

Unresolved disputes in 1852 and 1853 between Catholic monks (backed by France) and Orthodox monks (supported by Russia) over guardianship of holy places in Jerusalem, then part of the Turkish Empire, were the occasion, not the cause, of the Crimean War. Underlying tensions of

long-standing origin were fundamentally responsible. The Tsar refused to accept Turkish attempts at compromise and dispatched a mission to the Porte wit demands for recognition of Russia's guardianship over the whole of Turk 14 million Christian subjects. To Princ A. S. Menshikov, who led this mission

Nicholas wrote: 'if Turkey did not yield, then the ambassador extraordinary [Menshikov] must threaten the destruction of Constantinople and the occupation of the Dardanelles'. Meanwhile, Nicholas I was proposing a partition of European Turkey between Britain, Austria and Russia, with France taking Crete. Reputedly, only firm rejection from Field Marshal I. F. Paskevich stopped the Tsar from using the Black Sea fleet to force the Straits and land troops on the shores of the Bosphorus. So much for no territorial claim.

Prompted by Britain and France, the Sultan rejected Menshikov's demands, and on 8 June 1853 the British Mediterranean fleet at Malta was ordered to 'the neighbourhood of the Dardanelles ... for the protection of Turkey against an unprovoked attack and in defence of her independence'. On 2 July, scarcely a month after departure of the abortive mission from Constantinople, Russian troops crossed the Pruth river to enter Moldavia and Wallachia (modern Romania, then two provinces under Turkish suzerainty). Their orders were to obtain 'by force, but without war ... [Russia's] just demands ... [as] various arbitrary

acts of the Porte have infringed the rights [of Christians]'. Russia was going 'to the defence of the Orthodox religion'.

Allied deliberations

Representatives of the major European nations met to determine what they should do. As a deterrent, Austria moved forces to her south-eastern border. But after Russia ignored an ultimatum to leave the Turkish provinces, on 23 October Turkey declared war. At this point, no intervention by Britain seemed necessary, for the Turks had 100,000 men along the Danube blocking the way south. They soon gave a good account of themselves. Crossing the river, the Sultan's troops occupied fortified positions on the north bank, and during the opening days of November they drove off determined Russian assaults on Oltenitza.

The situation changed dramatically on 30 November. A weak Turkish squadron was surprised in Sinope harbour on the southern coast of the Black Sea, 350 miles (560km) east of Constantinople, by a strong Russian flotilla including six ships of the line, two frigates and four steamers. The Russians took advantage of poor visibility to destroy the Turkish ships with a reported loss of 4,000 men. A lone steamer escaped to carry the news to Constantinople, whence two British warships set off to render belated Harrowing reports of struggling swim raked by Russian cannon, as they left their stricken vessels, provoked massive pro-Turkish public demonstrations in Britain. It emerged that the Russians had used explosive shells, a lethal invention that was somehow deemed underhand and unfair. Moreover, the Turkish admiral had apparently been lulled into a false sense of security, because Russia had announced that her immediate interests were confined to the Danubian provinces.

The press dubbed what had happened 'a foul outrage ... a massacre'. In London, the Morning Advertiser accused Britain and France of interfering diplomatically only 'to betray unfortunate Turkey'. Members of the British government, it claimed, were 'imbecile men, the minions of Russia', adding: 'Has Justice ceased to occupy her throne in the English heart? Has the national honour lost its hold on the people of this realm?' The Westminster Review drew attention to 'our passage to India', informing its readers that 'our merchants will rue the blind folly in declining to stop him [the Tsar]'. The Times proclaimed that 'an aggressive posture was not only moral, Christian and patriotic, but self-evidently judicious, businesslike and manly' - a potent combination of sentiments. Punch published a cartoon of the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, blacking the Tsar's boots. The Spectator referred to 'war with the most powerful and unscrupulous state in Europe, or peace on degrading terms'.

Drift to war

Lord Palmerston, the Home Secretary, represented a broad swathe of opinion in declaring that 'something must be done to wipe away the stain [of Sinope]', seen in twenty-first-century terms as a crime against humanity. Thus, on 3 January 1854, British and French naval squadrons entered the Black Sea with Turkish connivance. Eight days later a formal note to St Petersburg demanded that all Russian warships return to equivalent to a declaration of war.' The Tsar did not reply. Even before the formal declaration of war on 28 March, British troops had begun to leave south-coast ports amid scenes of wild enthusiasm, and British and French officers were in Turkey to inspect the defences of Constantinople and plan for allied intervention.

Prospects for a peaceful solution had not yet altogether gone. British, French, Prussian and Austrian representatives were still in diplomatic conclave, Napoleon wrote personally to Nicholas 1, and a Quaker delegation went from London to St Petersburg. Aberdeen optimistically, though futilely, held that 'I, for one, deny ... that war is inevitable.' But the British a French declarations came almost simultaneously, and on 10 April the tw countries signed a treaty of alliance (a to five days later by Turkey). Next day, Tsar in turn declared war on Britain and Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865). Home Secretary in 1854, Palmerston was keen to confront Russia. Benefiting from public dissatisfaction at failure to take Sevastopol, he became Prime Minister in February 1855. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

France, protesting that 'Russia fights not for the things of this world, but for the Faith'. Commenting on British enthusiasm for war, Charles Greville (Clerk to the Privy Council) prophetically wrote in his diary: 'Before many months are over, people will be heartily sick of it, as they are now hot upon it.' Years later, the pacifist John Bright observed: 'When people are inflamed in that way, they are no better than "mad dogs".'

 A just war

Three months before Britain went to war, on 24 December 1853 Sir James Graham (First Lord of the Admiralty) focused attention on the Crimea. He argued that command of the Black Sea, which would preserve the integrity of Turkey and deny Russian warships passage through the Straits, could be secured only by
'the entire destruction of Sebastopol [sic] with its naval and military establishments'. But the known strength of the port's massive seaward fortifications, which protected the entrance to the harbour, ruled out a successful naval attack without the assistance of a land force. Graham and the Duke of Newcastle (Secretary of State for War and the Colonies) therefore began to visualise such a combined operation with Sevastopol as the prize. In the wake of public and political reaction to the Sinope affair, events moved ahead speedily.


On 7 February, the Master-General of the Ordnance, Lieutenant-General Lord Raglan (soon promoted general and, before the end of the year, field marshal) was verbally offered the post of 'General Officer Commanding the Forces eastwards of Malta'. Six days later the Cabinet approved his appointment. Some reservations were expressed about his age (65) and lack of campaign experience after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Since 1819 he had held a series of high-ranking staff appointments but, in truth, he had never commanded in the field. However, he had served at the Duke of Wellington's side, first as his
aide-de-camp (ADC) then as Military Secretary from 1808 to 1815, and he had been on the staff of the British Embassy Paris from 1814 to 1818, besides leading
diplomatic mission to Spain in 1823. He and delicate situations, such as threats to public order in London during presentation of the third Chartist petition to Parliament in 1848. He was not only familiar with France, but also fluent in the French language. This made him an ideal choice for dealing with a touchy ally. His tact would be fully extended in dealing with three successive French commanders and a proud Turkish Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), sensitive to any perceived slight. Diplomacy, as much as military acumen, would be required for the forthcoming campaign.
Initially, on 8 February, the Cabinet agreed to dispatch 10,000 troops to Malta, although Newcastle acknowledged that more would be needed if 'a trial of strength' with Russia were to develop. By mid-March, Britain, France and Turkey were informally looking to national contingents of 5,000 with which to invade the Crimea. Raglan chose his own immediate staff (adjutant-general, quartermaster-general and military secretary) and ADCs, but he could only recommend officers to command divisions and brigades. He did not always get his way. The Cabinet would not approve Sir George Brown as his second-in-command, and Raglan's protests at putting the volatile lords Lucan and Cardigan in close proximity were overridden.
Urbane, thoughtful and courteous, Raglan inspired fierce loyalty in those close to him. But he disliked ostentation - invaluable for a commander in projecting himself to a wider spectrum of his own troops and those of his allies. A thoroughly decent man who accepted command of the Expeditionary Force as a matter of patriotic duty, he wloath to exert his authority, preferring a appeal to reason.
Lieutenant-General Sir George Brown took charge of the Light Division. A st disciplinarian, he had fought in the Peninsular War and since 1815 he had held a series of senior staff appointments, including that of Adjutant-General at the Horse Guards. He had quarrelled, however, with Wellington's successor as C-in-C (Lord Hardinge) and resigned.
Lieutenant-General the Duke of Cambridge, the Queen's 35-year-old cousin who had never seen action, commanded them1st Division of infantry after royal pressure for his appointment. He had served in the Hanoverian Army, briefly led the 17th Lancers during the Chartist troubles, then held administrative posts in Corfu and Ireland. Lieutenant-General Sir George de Lacy Evans had the 2nd Division. With experience, like Brown and Raglan, in the Peninsular War, he had also served in India and with the British Legion during the Carlist Wars in Spain. But his radical politics and tendency to fall out with senior officers had stunted his career. Major-General Sir Richard England, vetoed as Raglan's deputy, Cathcart received a 'dormant commission' by which he would assume command should Raglan be incapacitated; but that was not widely known.
Each of the five infantry divisions comprised two brigades of three battalions, making a total of about 4,000 men per division. The Light and 4th divisions contained an additional rifle battalion.
The Cavalry Division was under Major- General (soon local Lieutenant-General) Lord Lucan (54), its Heavy Brigade being led Brigadier-General th e Hon. James Scarl
(55) and the Light Brigade by Lucan's brother-in-law, Major-General Lord Car (57). Each brigade comprised five regi totalling 1,000 sabres. Of the three cav commanders, only Lucan had battle experience. Curiously, that had been when attached to the staff of the Russian force that crossed the Danube into the Balkans in 1828-29, with some sources placing him in command of a cavalry formation in the latter stages of that campaign.
Two field artillery batteries with 6pdr or 9pdr guns were attached to each infantry division, except the Light, which had one field battery and one troop of horse artillery. The Cavalry Division had one troop of horse artillery with it. Heavier guns (up to 32pdrs) were allocated for siege purposes, enhanced before Sevastopol by naval 68pdrs and revolutionary, rifled Lancaster guns. The experienced Royal Engineer Lieutenant- General Sir John Fox Burgoyne (71) would join Raglan's staff in an advisory capacity before the Crimean landings. Excluding the Heavy Brigade, which did not land with the main body, officially 26,095 men of all ranks invaded the Crimea under Raglan's command, supported by 60 guns.
The British fleet in the Black Sea, comprising 16 warships with a total of 645 guns, was commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir James Dundas, with Rear-Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons in command of its in-shore squadron. Once it became clear that the Russian navy had been blockaded in Sevastopol, a Royal Navy brigade went ashore with guns from several ships to swell the besieging force.


Marshal St Arnaud (52), who had seen active service in Algeria and supported Louis Napoleon during his coup d'état in 1851, led the French Expeditionary Force. Brown thought him 'a strange, flighty fellow and one it will not do to take at his word'; years (the Emperor's cousin, 32) and E. F. Forey
(49). When the French landed in the Crimea, St Arnaud had 25,000 infantry, 2,800 other troops (some sources put the combined total at 30,200) and 68 guns, but no cavalry. Thus the only cavalry available to the allied commanders in the first phase of the invasion was the British Light Brigade.
Under the separate command of Vice- Admiral F. A. Hamelin, though subject to greater control by the land force commander than his British counterpart, the French fleet initially comprised 12 battleships and steamers (totalling 780 guns), increasing to 25 warships before the landings in the Crimea


The Turks landed 7,000 infantry and attached them to the French for the march south. Their C-in-C, Omar Pasha, remained at Shumla with a large force in reach of the Danube, deeply suspicious that a renewed advance into the Balkans might take place once the allies had been committed to the Crimea, Eventually, some 30,000-35,000 Turks would serve on the Crimean peninsula, mainly in defence of Eupatoria or in the siege lines before Sevastopol. Omar Pasha spoke French, German and Italian, though heavily accented, and his background was extraordinary. Formerly a Croat named


Aware of the problems associated with a divided allied command, Bosquet remarked: 'The Russians have one enormous advantage over us: their army has only one chief.' That was an illusion. The Crimean peninsula had two Russian commanders-in-chief: in the west, Prince A. S. Menshikov; for eastern Crimea and north-west Caucasus, General P. F. Khomutov, who controlled 12,000 men and the supply route into Sevastopol from the Sea of Azov via Kertch and Theodosia.
Menshikov had no authority over Khomutov and, although his command included the Black Sea Fleet as well as land forces, several more junior officers had effective autonomy beneath him. Vice-Admiral V. A. Kornilov, chief of staff to the Black Sea fleet and an excellent organiser, commanded the garrison of Sevastopol with his subordinate naval commander, Vice- Admiral P. F. Nachimov (victor at Sinope, senior to Kornilov but reluctant to take the garrison post). Lieutenant-General F. F. von Moeller, Menshikov's most experienced divisional commander, acted in a similar capacity for the army. Lieutenant-Colonel F. E. I. Todleben, a 37-year-old engineer, was in charge of making the port's land fortifications effective.
An accomplished linguist and well read, Prince A. S. Menshikov had wide civil and military experience. He had served in the Napoleonic Wars, been seconded to the Foreign Ministry, held naval rank and appointments including Chief of the Naval Staff, been Minister for the Navy and Governor-General of Finland. The year before Britain and France declared war, the diplomat General B. D. A. de Castelbajac referred to Menshikov's 'simple and polished manners', love of 'women, gambling, horses, good and bad company ... witty and caustic repartee'. Menshikov's disdainful treatment of the Sultan during his mission to Constantinople in 1854, which Nicholas I's physician believed 'simply furnished him with a fresh excuse for witticisms and jokes', underlined his aristocratic demeanour and intolerance of those he considered inferior. Critics held that he rarely, if ever, consulted others, although he was careful to cultivate the Tsar. A Russian academic, Professor Tarle, has concluded that Menshikov viewed all appointments as his due. Flexibility of outlook and self-criticism were anathema to him. They were qualities much needed in
the months ahead.
When the allies landed on 14 September 1854, excluding Khomutov's command and units still in transit from Bessarabia and mainland Russia, Menshikov had
38,000 soldiers and 18,000 seamen at his disposal. The previous day, 600 Congreve rockets had arrived to enhance his artillery capability. When 11 French foragers were captured on 15 September and revealed that the allied force exceeded 50,000, Menshikov asked Khomutov for another Cossack cavalry regiment, the Moskov infantry regiment and an additional field battery.
Until now, he had suspected that the landings near Eupatoria were a feint to draw troops away from Sevastopol and lay it open to a coup de main. Not including
5,000 civilian workmen, the total of strength of the Sevastopol garrison once the siege developed was later known to be 30,850 - a mixture of militia battalions, one regular battalion of infantry, artillery and marine personnel, supplemented by seamen from warships withdrawn into harbour from the Black Sea. However, when the allies landed near Eupatoria estimates of the number of Russian troops on the Crimean peninsula varied wildly. For the Russians, work rapidly took place to strengthen the defences of Sevastopol, and within a fortnight of the invasion 172 guns (many of them heavier than those of the besiegers) were in place
to combat an assault from the southern upland. Eastwards across the Tchernaya, at the end of September Menshikov had a field army of approximately 30,000 men (including regiments withdrawn from Sevastopol), which would be further reinforced via the Perekop peninsula in the north and Sea of Azov to the east.
The numbers on both the allied and Russian sides would vary greatly during the forthcoming hostilities, due to battle casualties, disease and reinforcements. But when the allies invaded on 14 September 1854, the forces facing one another on the peninsula were each about 60,000 men.

Chronology of  The Crimean War


28 February Menshiko's mission arrives at Constantinople

21 May Menshikov leaves Constantinople

8 June British fleet leaves Malta for eastern Mediterranean

2 July Russian troops cross Pruth river to invade Moldavia and Wallachia

14 October British and French fleets anchor in the Dardanelles

23 October Turkey declares war on Russia 30 November 'Massacre' at Sinope ; Turkish flotilla sunk

24 December Sir James Graham (Fir t Lord of the Admiralty ) calls for destruction of Sevastopol



3 January British and French fleets enter Black Sea

11 January Russia warned that warships in Black Sea must return to Sevastopol

13 February Cabinet approves Lord Raglan's appointment as C-in-C, British Expeditionary Force

22 February First troops leave England

27 February Russia must undertake within six days to withdraw from Moldavia and Wallachia by end of April

11 March Baltic fleet leaves Portsmouth

26 March First French troops leave for Turkey

27 March France declares war on Russia

28 March Britain declares war on Russia

30 March Vanguard of Bri Expeditionary Force at Malta Gallipoli


8 April British troops at G French already there

10 April Britain and France sign treaty of alliance; Raglan leaves London

15 April Turkey formally joins the allies

22 April Naval bombardment of Odessa

29 April Raglan reaches Constantinople

7 May St Arnaud lands at Gallipoli

11 May Siege of Silistria starts

23 May Britain, France, Austria and Prussia guarantee Turkish independence

25 May French troops sail for Varna

29 May British troops sail for Varna

22 June British naval squadron blockades the White Sea

23 June Siege of Silistria raised

2 July Russians recross Pruth river, vacating Moldavia and Wallachia

16 July Raglan receives Cabinet dispatch requiring invasion of the Crimea

18 July Allied Council of War to discuss invasion

21 July Mouth of Katcha river chosen as landing area

10 August Serious fire in Varna delays invasion; cholera also prevalent

24 August Embarkation commences; bad weather further disrupts timetable

31 August Anglo-French naval squadron attacks Petropavlosk


5 September Raglan reaches Balchik Bay; French commander (St Arnaud) already gone

9 September Raglan carries out another reconnaissance

19 September Advance on Sevastopol commences; skirmish at the Bulganek river


20 September Battle of the Alma

23 September Southward advance resumes; Russian warships sunk to block Sevastopol harbour entrance

25 September Flank march commences; Canrobert succeeds St Arnaud as French C-in-C

27 September Siege of Sevastopol begins

29 September St Arnaud dies of cholera at sea

2 October British naval brigade lands

13 October Patriotic Fund founded for wives and orphans of servicemen lost in the Crimea

17 October First Bombardment of Sevastopol

25 October Battle of Balaclava

26 October Skirmish of Little Inkerman

4 November Florence Nightingale reaches Scutari

5 November Battle of Inkerman

6 November Allied Council of War decides to continue siege

14 November The Great Storm



2 January Sardinia joins allies

5 January Omar Pasha lands in the Crimea with Turkish reinforcements

25 January J. A. Roebuck's resolution, critical of the conduct of the war, leads to resignation of Lord Aberdeen's government

5 February Lord Palmerston Prime Minister

17 February Russian attack on Eupatoria

24 February More Russian ships sunk at Sevastopol

2 March Death of Nicholas I; succeeded by Alexander II

5 March Sevastopol Select Comm commences work

4 April Second Baltic fleet leaves England

9 April Second Bombardment of Sevastopol

3 May Abortive first expedition sails for Kertch

22 May Kertch expedition relaunched

6 June Third Bombardment of Sevastopol

7 June Capture of the Quarries and the Mamelon

11 June White Sea again blockaded

13 June French troops leave Kertch

14 June British troops leave Kertch, Turkish garrison remains

17 June Fourth Bombardment of Sevastopol

18 June Failed attacks on the Great Redan and Malakov; report of Sevastopol Committee to Parliament

28 June Death of Lord Raglan; succeeded by Sir James Simpson

16 August Battle of the Tchernaya

17 August Fifth Bombardment of Sevastopol

5 September Sixth Bombardment of Sevastopol

6 September Omar Pasha leaves Crimea

8 September French capture Malakov; British fail at the Great Redan

9 September Allies occupy southern Sevastopol

7 October Combined force sails for the Dnieper river

17 October Capture of Kinburn on the Dnieper

11 November Sir William Codrington succeeds Simpson as British C-in-C

15 November Ammunition explosion in French lines

25 November Surrender of Kars

16 December Austrian peace plan submitted to St Petersburg



16 January Tsar accepts peace terms

29 January Last major Russian bombardment across Sevastopol Bay from the north

28 February Armistice signed in Paris

The Crimean War: A History

 From "the great storyteller of modern Russian historians" ( Financial Times ) comes the definitive account of the forgotten war that shaped the modern age.



The Charge of the Light Brigade

2002 movie

 Tony Richardson's revisionist version of the oft-filmed romance of empire stars Trevor Howard as the arrogant Lord Cardigan.



"The Crimean War. A History"  Orlando Figes


"The Crimean war" John Sweetman









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