The Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-56) is mostly remembered for three things: the Charge of the Light Brigade, mismanagement in the British army and Florence Nightingale. The war was fought between Russia and the allied powers of Britain, France and Turkey. It began because of British and French distrust of Russia’s ambitions in the Balkans. The battle at Balaclava (which included the Charge of the Light Brigade) was one example of mismanagement and there was a public outcry over the conditions the soldiers faced in the military hospitals. The war was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The scandal surrounding British losses through disease in the Military Hospitals led to a Royal Commission into Military Hospitals.

The Crimean War was fought because of the regional importance of the area and also because of religious differences. In the lead up to the war, France, Russia, Britain and Turkey were all competing for influence in the Middle East, and Britain and France were particularly concerned over the potential threat to their trade routes and Russia’s expansion in the region.

Russia moved against Turkey, who then declared war on Russia on 5th October 1853. The British and French responded quickly. In March 1854, they declared war on Russia, expecting a quick victory because of their naval supremacy. They prepared an assault on Russian forces in the Crimea to seize the naval base at Sevastopol. The landings were unopposed by the Russians but W H Russell, an Irish journalist writing for The Times, witnessed the flaws in the organisation of the joint forces and problems with supplies, troops and transport.

The first battle of the war took place on 22nd September, at Alma. The Battle of Alma saw the combined British and French armies attack a Russian force that was occupying high land above the River Alma. The Russians were forced to flee their positions and the move to take Sevastopol continued the following day. The Russian army lay to the east of Sevastopol in order both to defend its supply lines and to threaten the British lines of communication. On 25th October, the Russians moved towards the British lines between their base at Balaclava and Sevastopol. This move resulted in the Battle of Balaclava and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.

On the 25th October, 1854, The commander of the Heavy Brigade of cavalry spotted the Russians regrouping their cavalry and so led the Heavy Brigade on an uphill charge before the enemy could complete its preparations. The Russians were duly forced back.

Meanwhile the Light Brigade, commanded by Major-General the Earl of Cardigan, was awaiting orders. The Light Brigade, together with the Heavy Brigade, made up the cavalry division which was commanded by Lieutenant-General the Earl of Lucan.

The order which came through to the Light Brigade stated: ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.’

The order was brought initially to Lucan by Captain Nolan, a cavalry officer serving with the Quarter Master General, Brigadier-General Airey. Lucan passed the order on to Cardigan who, in response, led a charge up the length of the valley between two rows of Russian artillery. They were bombarded from all sides and suffered heavy casualties.

It was a terrible blunder and only a charge by French cavalry saved the Light Brigade from total destruction. The Russians did not break through the British lines but they retained their guns and their position.

The Russians made a further attempt to defeat the British with a surprise attack at Inkerman on 5th November. The British held on, then continued to besiege Sevastopol. Finally, following a major assault in September 1855, the Russians evacuated the city.

The Crimean War ended in the spring of 1856. However the mismanagement of the war, the disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the conditions the soldiers endured in the military hospitals, continued to be examined.

The interpretation of the order that led to the Charge of the Light Brigade was debated and continues to be, to this day. It has been disputed what the assumed target was and why those involved in the charge acted in the way they did. After the charge the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Raglan, blamed Lucan, but blame can be attributed to all those involved.

Raglan’s order was vague, Airey’s drafting of the order was ambiguous, Nolan failed to explain the order to Lucan properly, Lucan failed to question his commander’s intent and Cardigan failed to clarify the order from Lucan. Lucan also failed to provide the support from the rest of the cavalry and the horse artillery mentioned in the order.

During the war, the first hospital train was built and Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the first prefabricated hospital. W H Russell’s reports for The Times revealed the true depth of mismanagement and suffering in army, particularly during the winter of 1854.

The dreadful conditions and lack of medical supplies for troops caused a public outcry and led to Florence Nightingale being appointed to introduce female nurses into the military hospitals in Turkey.

After the war, she wrote a report and used statistical evidence to prove that more men had died from disease than from their wounds. She instigated a Royal Commission into the health of the army, which led to many reforms.

Nurse Anne Morton worked in the linen room at the General Hospital, and in her spare time sketched a series of drawings. She was not a great draftsman but the images she produced are a unique record of nurses at work, the surroundings of the hospital and Florence’s room. They are one of the few first-hand records of what it was like inside Scutari Hospital and are a vital insight into the way Florence and her nurses lived and worked.

The Nurses’ Register reports that Anne was highly thought of and it comments that she would be suitable to be ‘a Superintendent if…required.’ She returned to London in 1856 and worked at King’s College hospital but caught typhus and died in 1865.

The album is in a private collection, but is currently on loan to the Museum. It is reproduced here with kind permission of the owner.

Alexis Soyer, the celebrated chef, volunteered his services at the Crimea after seeing a soldier’s letter in The Times asking how best to cook Army rations.

He was born in Meaux-en-Brie on 4th February 1810 and by the age of seventeen had become a famous chef in France. He came to England and in 1838 was offered the chance to set up a huge kitchen at the new Reform Club in London. The kitchen tested new technology like gas-powered, temperature-controlled ovens and steam-powered dumb waiters.

He published cookery books and devised kitchen gadgets. In 1849 he began to market his ‘magic stove’, a small spirit-fuelled stove that could cook a full meal but could be stored in your pocket.

On 2nd February 1855, he wrote to The Times offering to go to the Crimea at his own expense to advise on cooking for the army. He worked in close liaison with Florence to correct the diets in the hospitals and travelled with her to Balaclava in May 1855. He reorganised hospital kitchens, invented new dishes from standard rations and organised that each regiment had a trained chef who would collect rations and prepare food for the men. He designed more efficient cooking utensils, including the ‘Scutari teapot’ and the ‘Soyer Field Stove’ which the British Army was still using 120 years later.

Like Florence, Soyer caught ‘Crimean fever’ but remained in the Crimea until the end of the war. He was ill when he returned home and wrote his final book ‘Culinary Campaign’ in 1857. He died of fever on 5th August 1858 and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery..

Selimiye Barracks at Scutari is an imposing building in modern Uskudar, Turkey. It stands on the Asian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus. The site of the Barracks has a long military history, first becoming a centre for trade and a strategic military base in the Byzantine period.

The first construction of the barracks was completed in 1806, but the landmark stone building that stands today was completed in 1827; with only a few additions and alterations it remains essentially unchanged.

When the British joined the Crimean War they were accommodated at the Selimiye Barracks, which was considered spacious and well equipped. Despite the war being fought on the Crimean peninsula hundreds of miles away, shiploads of wounded soldiers were transported back to the barracks and the British Military Hospital set up there. The hospital did not have the capacity to cope with the huge number of casualties.

Reports flooded back to Britain about the appalling conditions. This provoked the nursing expedition led by Florence Nightingale to introduce female nurses into the British Military Hospitals. The nurses’ quarters were in the wings flanking the tower facing the Selimiye Mosque, and Florence’s bedroom and study was in the tower, although it’s not clear which tower.

When the war ended the barracks was handed back to the Ottoman army. It continued to be used for training and quartering troops, until around 1923 when it was left empty. Only being used occasionally, it fell into disrepair. In 1963 it was extensively repaired and is today home to the First Army, as its Peace Headquarters. The northwest tower now houses the museum named in commemoration of Florence Nightingale. Over two floors the museum contains memorabilia of Florence, current artefacts related to nurses and nursing and army memorabilia. The barracks are still an active military base, and security is high so visits to the museum must be organised in advance and are accompanied by military guards.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Here’s a virtual movie of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading his much celebrated poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. The Charge of the Light Brigade is an 1854 narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson about the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. He was the poet laureate of the United Kingdom at the time of the writing of the poem.