The Crimean War was the largest war fought between the end of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1815 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and resulted in a casualty toll higher than that of the American Civil War, with approximately 650,000 deaths.[1] Initiated by a flimsy pretext, the Russians were adamant about fighting the Ottoman Turks in 1853. However, after only a brief interlude of fighting, Russia was forced to negotiate peace with the Allies (comprising France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia), ultimately ending with the Treaty of Paris in 1856. This supplication for peace greatly compromised Russia’s power status within Europe and, most importantly, the authority of the tsar within her own empire.[2] There are several reasons proposed as to why Russia’s position ended in failure, including the vastness of its empire, insufficient railway and communication systems, inferior weapons, internal social struggles, and appalling sanitary conditions resulting in the rampant spread of disease. Whether it was just one of these factors, or a combination of all of them which ended Russia’s dream of defeating the Ottomans remains to be seen.

            Russia’s entrance into the Crimea was sparked off by a religious argument with France. Essentially, France and Russia had disagreements about which country should rightfully repair the cupola of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.[3] This dispute quickly escalated into the greater issue of Russian war against the Ottomans when, having failed to obtain equal rights with the French, the Russians occupied territories within the Ottoman Empire in July 1853.[4] Soon after this decision on Russia’s part to attack the Ottomans, Britain and France decided to enter into the foray by declaring war against Russia on 27 and 28 March, respectively.[5] Several years of disjointed victories and defeats on both sides resulted in a preliminary peace between all belligerents, to be solidified on 13 March 1856 with the Treaty of Paris. Very few concessions were either given or gained on either side at the conclusion of this conflict, which has led many scholars to describe the Crimean War as a near-pointless war.

            On paper at least, Russia’s army appeared quite impressive, as one would likely imagine in an empire the size of Russia. Size can be an advantage, but can also prove to effect a heavy burden. This was the particular case with Russia. While numerically Russia had the largest army, much of it was ineffectual. The total regular army contained roughly just over one million men, which was the maximum amount that the country could support, due to the low productivity of its serf-based agricultural system.[6] Furthermore, the majority of the men were conscripted serfs, who had little or no previous military experience and who likely resented the twenty-five year ‘life-sentence’ forced upon them.  In addition, most of these troops were not even to be deployed in the main area of fighting in the Crimea, but were instead used to protect the vast undefended borders that would haunt Russia through most of its empire days. With a large part of the army left in Russia to be used for internal political control and future troop training, 270,000 troops stationed in St Petersburg to defend against French and English attacks, and a large garrison left in Poland to deal with any revolts from the local populace and to combat any prospective Austrian invasions from Galicia should they enter the war, Russia was left with only approximately 50,000 Russian troops to be deployed at the Crimean front.[7] This put the Russian army at a severe disadvantage to the numbers claimed by the Allies: 120,000 French, 27,000 English and 400,000 Ottoman troops.[8]

            Directly linked to this idea of an ineffectual military was Russia’s lack of a coherent transportation and communication system. In addition to having fewer troops than was needed to fight in the Crimea, there was the subsequent problem of how to supply those that were there. Russia had a virtually nonexistent railway infrastructure. On the eve of the Crimean War, when virtually every other European country had complete networks of railway lines, Russia was just completing its first major line between Moscow and St Petersburg.[9] By 1853, when the conflict actually began, Russia had only 400 miles of railway, all just surrounding the two cities.[10] Perhaps this lack of foresight into the future of railway dependence can be slightly explained by the fact that it cost Russia the exorbitant amount of 150,000 rubles for each of the 400 miles of track that it laid down. With costs this high, it is reasonable to conclude that the state simply did not have to financial means to supply the remainder of the empire with railway lines at this time. Regardless, the lack of suitable transportation made properly supplying the Russian army nearly impossible. During the spring thaw and torrential rains of the early summer months in the steppes of the Northern Crimea, the roads unfortunately turned into an impassable sea of mud, over which the horse or ox-cart supply wagons moved at a speed of only one-half mile per hour.[11] To put this into some perspective, it should be remembered that the capital and military headquarters of St Petersburg was located some 1300 miles away from the fighting. The amount of time that supplies would have taken to reach the front lines, if they managed to reach it at all, is staggering.

What is ironic about Russia’s failure to build proper railways is illustrated by the fact that England did manage to do so. Despite being faced with formidable obstacles, such as ground composed mostly of hard rock, and elevation rising over a distance of three miles to a height of 630 feet, the English managed to construct a railway line near Balaklava, known as the Grand Crimean Railway.[12] As William Howard Russell states: “If the war is a great destroyer, it is also a great creator.”[13] What he basically meant was that in light of all the destruction that occurs to towns during the course of war, rebuilding must inevitably take place. England’s ongoing rail and road construction filled this niche nicely. Theoretically then, the Tsar should have been indebted to the Allies for the newly constructed railway in the Crimea, which was something that he himself had never been able to provide, and also for the new roads that had been built between Balaklava, Kamiesch and Sevastopol.[14] So, perhaps one good thing about Russia’s decision to engage in war was that it received new railways and roads from it.

            Another factor that contributed to Russia’s eventual surrender was the use of inferior and antiquated weapons. In the late 1840s, a new Minié rifle was developed by the French, and quickly adopted by the British in 1851.[15] This rifle had the key advantage of having a longer range than previous rifles, roughly 800 yards, compared to the 200 yards provided by the old smooth-bore, muzzle-loading muskets.[16] Incidentally, it was these inferior muskets that the Russian army had possession of, which put them at a distinct disadvantage to their Allied counterparts. In fact, as the old musket could only fire around two rounds a minute at best, about half the rate of the new modern rifle, the Russians were forced to rely secondarily on the bayonet, providing that they could even get close enough to their enemies to use it.[17] Not only did Russia not have the most up-to-date weaponry in their possession, they also had only three weapons factories in the country with which to make the muskets they did have. This meant that there was no way that Russia would be able to produce enough weapons to accommodate her forces in the Crimea, and was instead forced to order additional weapons from the United States in 1854.[18] Unfortunately, these did not arrive until after Russia was forced to surrender. Therefore, the picture becomes a bit clearer as to why Russia had difficulties in making her dream of victory in the Crimea come to fruition.

            Social unrest back home also added to Russia’s existing problems during the Crimean War. Inflation and peasant revolts impaired Russia’s ability to effectively concentrate on the war, and helped to spell the end for Russia’s Crimean ambitions. During the war, regular government revenues declined, leaving the government no choice but to finance the war by issuing more paper rubles, which caused rampant inflation.[19] Added to this governmental problem was the additional annoyance of peasant revolts. Over 800,000 serfs had been conscripted into the war, which dramatically affected the agricultural situation in Russia.[20] Due to the ‘backwardness’ of Russia’s agricultural-based society, any loss of serf workers would have resulted in shortages and upheaval. Indeed, this was exactly what occurred during the war years. The government was forced to use much-needed army men to quell the increasing unrest. These peasant revolts continued through the entirety of the Crimean War, ultimately ending only when the emancipation of serfdom was declared in 1861.

            One final factor that hindered Russia’s ability to defeat its adversaries was one that was actually shared by all countries involved: disease. Appalling sanitation across the battlegrounds resulted in an outbreak, or more accurately, several major outbreaks, of cholera. During the Crimean War, roughly four times as many men died from this disease as from military action.[21] In fact, the French losses from cholera were so alarming that at one point they blamed the air in the hospital, and vowed to clear out of the building and instead treat their cases in the field.[22] It was not uncommon for all sides to experience losses of a few hundred men overnight. In some cases, such as in Sevastopol, where 20,000 troops and seamen died, the number rose spectacularly. Unfortunately, this idea of poor sanitation was common among nearly all nineteenth-century armies. While in Balaklava, Russell described the macabre state of affairs within the town: “As to the town itself, words could not describe its filth, its horrors, its hospitals, its burials, its dead and dying Turks, its crowded lanes, its noisome sheds, its beastly purlieus, or its decay.”[23] This description appears to be fitting of the situation as a whole, for both the Allies and Russia.

            Once a great super-power in the European arena, Russia suffered a grievous setback to its authority when it was forced to capitulate in 1856 to the Allies. When all of the factors are considered, it almost appears as if Russia was doomed from the start. Owing to the sheer size of her empire, there was no feasible way in which to defend all of her borders effectively, which greatly limited the strength of the army that was sent to the front. In conjunction with this was the fact that Russia was not equipped with the most modern weapons, and was forced to rely on antiquated bayonet muskets to stave off the Allied forces. These two factors together spelled weakness and disaster for the Russian army. In addition, without an adequate railway and communication network, supplies and support could not efficiently reach the front lines, thus further weakening Russia’s position. All of this coupled with the added features of internal social disorder, including peasant uprisings, and epidemics of disease, essentially meant that Russia had no legitimate chance of ever winning the Crimean War.



Primary sources:

Russell, William Howard and Bentley, Nicolas, ed., Russell’s Despatches from the

Crimea: 1854-1856 (London, 1966).

Secondary sources:

Bill, Valentine Tschebotarioff, ‘The Early Days of Russian Railroads’, Russian Review,

15 (Jan., 1956), 14-28.

Goldfrank, David, ‘The Holy Sepulcher and the Origin of the Crimean War’, in Eric Lohr

and Marshall Poe, eds., The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917 (Boston, 2002), 491-505.

Hosking, Geoffrey, Russia and the Russians: From Earliest Times to 2001 (London,


Pintner, Walter McK., ‘Inflation in Russia during the Crimean War Period’, American

Slavic and East European Review, 18 (Feb., 1959), 81-87.

Ponting, Clive, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London, 2004).

Ransel, David L., ‘Pre-Reform Russia: 1801-1855’ in Gregory L. Freeze, ed., Russia: A

History (Oxford, 2002), 143-169.

Wright, Edward, ed., ‘Crimean War’, in Oxford Dictionary of World History (Oxford,



[1] Clive Ponting, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London, 2004), 334.

[2] Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: From Earliest Times to 2001 (London, 2001), 286.

[3] David Goldfrank, ‘The Holy Sepulcher and the Origin of the Crimean War’ in Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe, eds., The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917 (Boston, 2002), 491.

[4] Edward Wright, ed., ‘Crimean War’, in Oxford Dictionary of World History (Oxford, 2006), 159.

[5] Ponting, Crimean War, 19.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] David L. Ransel, ‘Pre-Reform Russia: 1801-1855’ in Gregory L. Freeze, ed., Russia: A History (Oxford, 2002), 168.

[10] Ponting, Crimean War, 21.

[11] Valentine Tschebotarioff Bill, ‘ The Early Days of Russian Railroads’, Russian Review, 15 (Jan., 1956), 14

[12] William Howard Russell and Nicolas Bentley, ed., Russell’s Despatches from the Crimea: 1854-1856 (London, 1966), 160.

[13] Ibid., 177.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ponting, Crimean War, 23.

[16] Ibid., 28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 204.

[19] Walter McK. Pintner, ‘Inflation in Russia during the Crimean War Period’, American Slavic and East European Review, 18 (Feb., 1959), 87.

[20] Ponting, Crimean War, 27.

[21] Ibid., 334.

[22] Russell, Russell’s Despatches, 53.

[23] Ibid., 154.

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