War in the Crimea? Looking Back to 1854

As events from the Crimea dot front pages of newspapers and webpages around the world, it is vital to examine previous events that have shaped the region.

In September 1854, a combined fleet of Turkish, French, and British ships narrowed in on the northern shores of the Crimean Peninsula, in an area known as Calamita Bay. Thousands of men were aboard, primed for the invasion of the Crimea, in order to make an imperialistic Russian Empire pay for its expansionist activities.

British Fleet before departing for the Crimea

With the Russian stronghold of Sevastopol only 60 miles to the south of their landing position, the men of both sides realized that battle was not far off.

On the evening of September 12, 1854, Times of London war correspondent William Howard Russell was stationed aboard an English transport steamer, the City of London. The ship was part of a multi-national fleet made up of hundreds of ships and steamers of all class and description.1 Vessels crowded outside the small inlet and waited for morning when the landings were scheduled to begin. Russell, one of the world’s first war correspondents, described the scene that night in his memoirs, written several years after the war:

The sunset was of singular beauty and splendor. Heavy masses of rich blue clouds hung in the west, through innumerable golden chasms of which the sun poured a flood of yellow glory over the dancing waters, laden with great merchantmen, with men-of-war staggering under press of canvas, and over line after line of black steamers, contending in vain to deface the splendor of the scene. When night came on, and all the ships’ lights were hung out, it seemed as if the stars had settled down on the face of the waters. Wherever the eye turned were little constellations twinkling far and near, till they were lost in faint halos in the distance. The only idea one could give of this strange appearance is that suggested by the sight from some eminence of a huge city lighted up, street after street, on a very dark night. Flashes of the most brilliant lightning, however, from time to time lifted the veil of night from the ocean, and disclosed for an instant ships and steamers lying at anchor as far as could be seen. About 8 o’clock, just as every one had turned in for the night, orders were sent on board to the deputy-quartermaster-general of each division respecting preparations for the disembarkation of the men. The men seemed in excellent health and spirits. The number of fever and cholera cases, though greater than we could have wished, was not sufficient to cause any very great alarm. No doubt the voyage had done the army good, and they all looked forward with confidence to their landing next day.2 

William Howard Russell

The landings began the next day, and a vast army began to assemble on the western shores of the Crimean. It was a grand start to a military campaign that would last more than two years, and result in more than a million casualties.

So on this day in early March almost 160 years after the events described, the Crimean Peninsula again faces the grim specter of military maneuvering.  The examples of the Crimean War should be heeded by both sides in this current game of international diplomacy. The Russians should be wary of their expansionist ideology, which has served as a destabilizing agent in the past. For those supporting the interim government in Ukraine, including nations from across Europe, the paramount concern is to prevent this current upheaval from spreading to the rest of the region.

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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js The key lessons from the Crimean War to be remembered in this modern crisis: preventing escalation of the conflict and controlling simmering ethnic and nationalist tension in the region.

1. Russell, Sir William Howard. The British Expedition to the Crimea. (London: George Routledge and Sons, Revised Edition, 1877). 70-71
2. Ibid., 74-75.

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