3.17 Exploration: The Crimean War

The Politics of the Nineteenth Century

Views of the ruined interior of the Great Redan. James, Robertson. "The Crimean War." 1854 – 1856.
Views of the ruined interior of the Great Redan, one of the six main redoubts which defended Sevastopol, showing broken parapets and abandoned guns. James, Robertson. “The Crimean War.” 1854 – 1856. Wikimedia. June 6, 2014.


The Crimean War began as a conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, but it had long-lasting consequences for most of Europe. This war would be a turning point in European history and it would destroy the uneasy peace that the Concert of Europe had established.

In 1853, the Ottoman Empire was weakening. Russia, seeking to expand, wanted access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus; in order to achieve this, it first needed to remove the Ottomans from Europe. The problem was that any Russian movement toward the Bosporus would threaten British colonies in India, Egypt, and Cyprus. Also, France, now under the control of Napoleon III (seeking to improve his empire’s prestige), found Russia’s aggressive stance threatening.

The Catalyst

Ramirez, Valentin. "Seige of Sevastapol."
Ramirez, Valentin. “Seige of Sevastapol.” July 24, 2004. Wikimedia. June 7, 2007.

The catalyst for war was an argument over which nation would protect the Holy Places in Palestine. Catholic monks under the protection of the French had guarded the Holy Places since the 16th century when a treaty with the Ottoman Empire had guaranteed them this right. This protection lapsed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and, now, Napoleon III wanted to resume this guarantee. At the same time, the Russians wanted to take over the duty in order to protect the Orthodox Christians right to pilgrimage. Tsar Nicholas I believed that the historical enmity of England and France would prevent an alliance in opposition to his wishes; additionally, he thought that no European power would be willing to support the Muslim Ottomans against a Christian nation. He was wrong on both counts. Watch these film clips on the start of the Crimean War that incorporate primary source material from diaries, photographs and interviews of men and women who served on the front lines of the Crimean front.

The War Begins

Krassovsky, Nicholas. "Russian Black Sea Fleet After the Battle of Synope." 1853.
Krassovsky, Nicholas. “Russian Black Sea Fleet After the Battle of Synope.” 1853. Wikimedia. May 25, 2008.

When the Crimean War began it was a glorious endeavor. The British and French were convinced that this was the fulfillment of their destiny. This alone would show the superiority of Western Civilization, at least that’s what they thought. What they found when they reached Constantinople to defend the Ottomans was a completely foreign culture and one that many simply did not understand. The British and French troops focused on a siege on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Watch this film clip and listen to the words of those who were there as they describe just how foreign the Ottomans really were.



Disease and Death

Simpson, William. "Embarkation at Balaklava." April 24, 1855.
Simpson, William. “Embarkation at Balaklava.” April 24, 1855. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. August 30, 2010.

Neither side in the conflict were particularly successful militarily, but soon the threat came less from bloodshed on the battlefield and more from the dangers of disease. Governments failed to provide combatants with supplies, sanitation, or adequate medical care. Conditions in the campus were horrific. Hospitals were set up in empty building shells, but had no water, no beds, and no dishes. As a result the war had a significant price – more than a million men died in the three year war, more than two-thirds from disease and starvation.6

The positive outcome of these conditions, if it could be described as positive, was the adoption of new nursing techniques under the supervision of Florence Nightingale.

“Cholera in the Crimean War.” The Reason Why: The Crimean War. 1997. Films on Demand. 2:59.


War’s End

In the midst of the war, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia died and his son, Alexander, became Tsar Alexander II. Due to the rising casualty figures, Alexander sought peace. The result was the Treaty of Paris of 1856. The war was basically meaningless. Russia lost territory, the Concert of Europe was destroyed. The Crimean War ends on the battlefield with threats of Austrian intervention. Examine the Crimean War exhibition at the British National Archives to learn more about this tragic and wasteful war and watch the video clip that follows.


British National Archives. “The Crimean War.” The National Archives. Accessed March 30, 2020. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/crimea/.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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