The crimean war, which pitted the Franco-British against the Russians in the Black Sea, is one of the victorious campaigns of France which has most fallen into oblivion, due to the taboo of the Third Republic on Second Empire. However, there remains at least in all minds the famous expression " I'm there ! I stay there! ", The Virgin of Puy-en-Velay and the Alma Bridge which pays homage to the fighters of the eponymous battle. A look back at what is generally considered to be the first modern war of the 19th century.
From the Holy Places affair to the hot seas
It is a simple quarrel over the control of holy places that strained relations between the Old Russian Empire and the very young French Empire. The development of modern transport has increased the number of pilgrims in the Holy Land and the two empires are fighting a diplomatic war over who of the Catholics or Orthodox will place their monks in the holiest places of Christianity under Ottoman rule. Although this politico-religious quarrel was blunted, it was not enough to justify an armed conflict, and it was only a pretext on the part of the Russian Empire, which considered itself wronged to invade Moldova and Wallachia.
By this bellicose action, the Czar officially presented himself as the great defender of the Orthodox Slavs whom he wished to unite under his domination. In fact, he invaded vassal principalities of the Ottoman Empire, forcing the latter to declare war on it on October 4, 1853. Tzar Nicolas I expected from this war the dismantling of an already weakened Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Russians on the shores and straits of the Black Sea. Thus, the Russian fleet would have direct access to the warm seas, to the Mediterranean.
This prospect thwarts British interests who see the Russian fleet as a real danger to its sea route to India. The destruction of an Ottoman squadron by the Russian fleet at Sinop is helping to spread the psychosis. War therefore seems inevitable, especially as the UK finds an amazing ally: France. Indeed, while for centuries the two nations have not ceased to clash, here they are united by the Russian peril.
Napoleon III, emperor since 1852 only, must absolutely seek the political support of the United Kingdom, prove his good intentions. For that, and although he does not want war, a joint campaign seems a good diplomatic operation. After an ultimatum calling for the evacuation of the occupied territories, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Russia on March 27, 1854 in support of the Ottoman Empire.
Entering the war
On the Danube, which the Russians refuse to cross so as not to threaten Austria, the Turks continue to harass the occupier. It is a harsh war, marked by the atrocities of irregular troops like the Magreb bachi-bouzouks in the service of the Ottomans.
On the Franco-British side, we do not expect a long war. Everything suggests that the mere deployment of their forces will bring Russia to its senses. With this conviction, Napoleon III did not personally engage in this operation and entrusted the command to Marshal Armand de Saint-Arnaud. At first, the French landed in the Dardanelles and the British in Malta, awaiting supplies and the diplomatic choice of an Austria which hesitated to join the allies. On April 29, the Franco-British landed in Varna (Bulgaria), forcing the Russians to withdraw strategically by evacuating the Romanian provinces. The coalition troops for their part remained in a state of immobility while awaiting the choice of Austria, which left time to discuss the campaign plan to be adopted ... It was ultimately the plan proposed by Napoleon III which was retained, namely to march on the powerful naval base of Sevastopol held by the Russians in Crimea.
The war in the Crimea
The Franco-British, who landed in Crimea in mid-September 1854, encountered the Russians entrenched on the heights of the Alma river, determined to cut them off from Sevastopol. The shock took place on September 14, the Foreign Legion and other French troops attacked the Russians while the 3rd Zouave Regiment managed to bypass the Russians, climb the cliffs under cover of fleet fire, and to seize the Russian guns placed on the rear! Isolated, the Zouaves turned artillery pieces against their owners and resisted fiercely.
The brilliance of the Zouaves (hence the Zouave of the Pont de l'Alma in Paris ...) on their rear, the advance of the French, the overestimation of the number of British stretched out on a thin line of two ranks, pushes the Russians to let go and abandon the field. Russian losses are of the order of 5,709 killed and wounded, there are 2,002 on the British side, 503 on the Ottoman side and 1,340 in the French ranks.
The Siege of Sevastopol
The victory, however, is not exploited as it could have been, the Russian troops are hardly chased and can fall back as best they can on Sevastopol. The British arrive at the objective when the entrenchments are not completed, but do not mount an attack. On the French side, Marshal Saint-Arnaud, dying of cholera, had to entrust the command of operations to Marshal François de Canrobert. The lost time allows the Russians to dig in and scuttle a few ships to block the entrance to the port. Having failed to take advantage of the blow that was the battle of Alma, the Franco-British now find themselves in an impregnable position that they will besiege for eleven months! The allies organize a defensive blockade line with trenches, shelters and various positions for artillery fire.
For their part, the Russians use the cannons and artillerymen of their fleet to defend the city walls. From the start of the siege, the French ammunition depot was destroyed by the Russians, and the Russian depot destroyed by the British… The siege stalled, until the winter that made hell reign over this little piece of Crimea . Already victims of dysentery (due to badly smoked mutton), epidemics of scurvy and cholera, the besiegers experienced hunger and the harshness of the climate. Supplies did not become regular again until the spring with the construction from scratch of a railway line linking Balaklava to the besiegers and regularly supplying them with ammunition.
For their part, the Russians are sometimes forced to shoot handcrafted clay balls to make up for the lack of balls. At the same time, Sardinia allied with the Franco-British and sent reinforcements. On September 8, 1855, the French general Mac-Mahon succeeded in seizing the fortified position of Malakoff, considered essential to the capture of the city. It was on this occasion that he allegedly uttered the famous " I'm there ! I stay there! ". Three days later, the Russians evacuated the city after having destroyed its fortifications.
Military operations in Crimea are coupled with the deployment of the Franco-British fleet in the Baltic Sea where a gunship war is being waged. In addition to the technological innovations implemented on this occasion (sea mines and torpedoes), this operation mainly made it possible to secure the Russian ships and at least 30,000 men who could have brought relief to the besieged of Sebastopol.
Paris Congress puts an end to the Crimean War
France having refused to extend the conflict to Poland, so as not to enter into an all-out war against Russia, peace seems to take shape in 1855. Tzar Nicolas I, dying on March 2, is his heir son Alexander II which is forced to accept the Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1856. This treaty provides, among other things, for the recognition of the independence of the Ottoman Empire (interest of the British Empire) and the autonomy of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia , free movement on the Danube (Austrian interest) ... For France it is a military and diplomatic victory, the Paris Congress of 1855 seems to erase the Vienna Congress of 1815, the French Empire clearly reappears in the political game of European powers.
The Crimean War really appears to be one of the first modern wars with the use by the Franco-British of rifled-barreled weapons, shells, the railway for supply (but also for the construction of the Virgin Mary). du Puy-en-Velay, carried out with the melting of cannons taken from the Russians), electronic telegraph for communications, armored warships, sea mines, torpedoes ... It is also one of the first wars documented by photography , with photographers hired by the British government to feed the press.
To know more
- GOUTTMAN Alain, The Crimean War 1853-1856: the first modern war, Perrin, 2003.
- The Industrial Age: Crimean War, Civil War, German Unity: 1854-1871, by Brian Holden Reid. Otherwise, 2001.