The Crimean War (1855)

The Crimean war

The Crimean War: In the midst of a technological storm

This conflict, as questionable were its goals, saw for the first time cargo ships and armored batteries demonstrates their usefulness, as well as the Paixhans carronades, well adapted the parabolic fire of fortification bombardment. The Russian demonstrated themselves at Sinope, at the very opening of the War, as deadly and efficient these new explosive shells could be, wiping out the almost entire Turkish fleet with insignificant casualties on their side.

The battle of Navarino (1827) by A. L. Garneray, another Russian victory on the Ottoman Empire and the last large sail ships of the line naval battle.

Battle of Sinope 1853
Prelude: The battle of Sinope (1853), where the Russian fleet anhiliated the Turkish Ottoman fleet using the brand new Paixhans explosive shells.

The Crimean War is rooted in the willingness of the Russian empire to put an end to the domination of the Ottoman Empire, “The sick man of Europe”, while guaranteeing itself access to the Black Sea. Ths Russians seen themselves-the tradition was passed through the Cossack struggle since the XVIth century- as the champions of oppressed peoples against the Ottoman empire. The British, which had long-term commercial treaties with the “sublime door”, see the Russian ambitions over the black-sea and Constantinople, as a threat to their free trade in this area. Napoleon III, as did the Tsar, are challenging themselves to see who would offer protection to the holy places of Jerusalem.

The French were also reserved for the favor of this protection to themselves. Annoyed, the Tsar turned to the British, offering an alliance to put an end to Turkish rule over the holy places. The latter refused, fearing that the Russians could have an access in the Mediterranean. The Tsar then decided to make the law for itself and attacked the Turkish fleet in the Black Sea (Sinope) and invaded Rumania (Ottoman territory) and the Caucasus, were also black oil and coal were abundant, needed to the emerging Russian industry. Against all odds, Napoleon III, willing to equal the glory of his great-uncle, saw an opportunity and asked for an alliance with London, for the first time since the Crusades. War is declared on March 27, 1854.

Turkish Ottoman ship pf the line Mahmudieh
The Mahmudiye, the Ottoman Turk fleet flagship. With 128 guns she was one of the most awesome ship in the world. But at Sinope, the Russian explosive shells prevailed above any classic projectiles.


A combined fleet headed by Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief of the allied forces, rallied in the Mediterranean and landed troops in the Crimean peninsula at Eupatoria. After losing many men by illness, the real landing took place at the North of Sebastopol. A decisive victory is achieved on the Alma, and the allies marched on the fortress of Sebastopol, beginning a long siege of two years, burying in trenches. The situation remains hopelessly frozen, despite the coastal bombings and reinforcement of the Piedmontese and Sardinians, the interior remains inaccessible. The Russians desperately counter-attacked but were repelled each time with heavy losses in both sides.

Diorama of the siege of Sevastopol and painting of Roubault
Diorama of the siege of Sevastopol and painting of Roubault.

The famous charge of the British Light Brigade, originated in a misunderstanding, although unfructiful, became legendary under the pen of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Soon after, the battle of Balklava, south of Sebastopol, really took the brunt of allied forces. The real attack came on September 8, 1855, when Marshal MacMahon at the head of his Zouaves stormed Fort Malakoff. From this breakthrough, the Allies eventually bring down the place. But the Russians have previously withdrew, crossing the strait on a pontoon bridge and blew up the remaining magazines. The Allied engineers ensured that the fortifications were erased for good, preventing any return of the Russians there. On March 30, 1856, the Tsar asked for and obtained peace, signed in Paris. The prestige and influence of Napoleon III has been strengthened and thus, convincing him to carry two other campaigns, one successful, the Italian war against Austria, and one which achieved nothing, the Mexican adventure. But his confidence over his army and his own capabilities proved eventually fatal against the Prussians in 1870…

The bombardment of Bomarsund in the Baltic
The bombardment of Bomarsund in the Baltic

For the Russians, as the Emperor himself stated, this was only a minor defeat (“sebastopol is not moskow”). The Russians will remained in the Caucasus and eventually seized once again the Crimean peninsula. But the conflict showed how was important to equal modern, industrialzed countries like Great Britain and France, leading to a stream of reforms by his successor, Nikolai II. However, the “sick man of Europe” never recovered. With the loss of its most formidable fleet, what was left began to crumble, and the Ottoman empire losed all its territories in the Balkans, and others after, until the first world war, where it was reduced to the territory of nowadays Turkey.

Authors Crimean map
Author’s Crimean map

Maritime Operations

On the maritime side of this war, we will saw a panorama of no less than four naval powers, as they were in 1852. Both Great Britain and France were unrivalled because of their wealthiness and industrial might, although France was still much more rural than industrial per capita, with export/imports and steel production far beyond the United Kingdom, its engineers made it possible to built the very first steamship of the line, the Napoleon. This ship was launched in 1850 and was part of the French squadron. It demonstrated, as well as the armoured prams (Devastation class) combined with heavy mortars and Paixhans shells, how efficient this combination could be against fortifications.

French floating batteries in action at Kinburn. Below, Lave, one of the devastation-class batteries engaged.


Soon after the Crimean war, the British admiralty ordered several ships of the line to be converted also. In 1870, steamships were the bulk of both fleet, by far. The Russian fleet however, was less impressive and much more classical. Its only innovation -which proved decisive however- was the adoption of Paixhans shells. On the paper, the Turkish fleet was even larger, but many of its ships lacked of everything, including trained gunmen and crewmen. Her ships were sitting ducks at Sinope. They were mercilessly hammered and took so much punishment in so few time, that the new weapon was seen as a naval revolution. Indeed it was, until the appearance of breech-loading rifled guns firing profiled armor-piercing shells.

The British Royal Navy in 1855

The French Fleet in 1855

The Russia Fleet in 1855

The Turkish Fleet in 1855