South African Military History Society


The Crimean War of 1854-56 was the subject of the extended main lecture at the society's 8th February lecture meeting. The speaker, Robin Smith, described how attempts by imperial Russia to inherit the crumbling empire of Turkey - the sick man of Europe, as the Russian Tsar Nicholas dubbed that country - persuaded Britain and France to go to war in alliance with Turkey to protect their interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
Hostilities began on the western shores of the Black Sea around the town of Varna in what is now Bulgaria. The objective was to prevent a Russian crossing of the Danube. This was, however, an unhealthy area for military operations, so it was decided that an invasion of the Crimean peninsula, with the objective of capturing and destroying the huge Russian naval base at Sebastopol, would be more effective at curbing Russia's imperial ambitions. The Tartar kingdom of the Crimea had been annexed to the Russian Empire only 60 years previously. It had a mild and comparatively healthy climate, and its restricted land access limited the Russians' ability to supply and reinforce their troops.
Overwhelming allied naval superiority ensured against access by sea.

A British general, Lord Raglan, commanded the allied armies. Already in his sixties, Raglan had served in the Peninsular War as an aid to the Duke of Wellington, but had never commanded so much as a company in the field. He was the younger brother of Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, and had lost an arm at Waterloo. A landing was made on the beach at Calamita Bay, about 70km north of Sebastopol on the west coast of the Crimea. The date was 14th September 1854. The armies then marched south to their first obstacle, the Alma River, where a substantial Russian army awaited them. The Battle of the Alma was a resounding allied victory, and a considerable surprise for the Russians. The allies then marched south to cut off Sebastopol on the landward side. Meanwhile, the Russians, aghast at their defeat at the Alma, split their forces into two sections, one left to garrison Sebastopol, the other moved eastward to harass the rear of the allied besiegers.

The British established a supply port at Balaclava on the south-eastern coast about 12km from Sebastopol. The Russians, approaching from the north-east, attacked the British positions north of the port in what came to be known as the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October. Among the three cavalry charges that took place on that day the most famous is the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Brigade was at no more than 40 per cent of its strength, the remainder having mainly fallen victim to cholera and typhus. Among the five regiments that took part, the combined strength amounted to only one regiment on a war footing. From his vantage point overlooking the battle, the orders Lord Raglan sent to the commander of the cavalry division, Lord Lucan, were vague and open to misinterpretation. Nor did he take account of the fact that the vision of the men in the valley was restricted. A further complication was that the messenger, Captain Lewis Nolan, appears to have pointed out the wrong objective to Lucan. The order that finally reached the Brigade's commander, Lord Cardigan, Lucan's brother-in-law, resulted in a long charge against a battery of Russian guns sited nearly 3km away.
Russian guns and riflemen lined the heights flanking the valley, but the Brigade reached its objective and even rode through the Russian battery to emerge as much as 1km on the other side. At this point most of the riders turned back in the face of advancing Cossack cavalry. The battery was destroyed and of the more than 660 men who took part in the charge, about 500 survived. However, the loss of more than 450 horses meant that the Brigade was no longer a fighting force.

In the next few days the British fought two more major engagements, at Little Inkerman the day after the charge, and then at Inkerman on 5th November. Both were victories that owed little to good generalship, Inkerman was fought in the early morning in mist and fog, and British losses were so severe that the French had to take the right flank in the subsequent siege operations against Sebastopol.
Meanwhile, winter intervened and its privations proved to be a worse adversary than the Russians.
Operations ceased until warmer weather arrived along with the British Army's greatcoats. The Russians evacuated Sebastopol in September1855, one year after the allied landing. The war ended with the peace that was signed in Paris later that year. But the Russians were to attack Turkey again within 20 years, and this time Britain and France did not come to the rescue.

The Crimean War was the first in history to endure press coverage, and to give birth to that distinctive modern journalist, the war reporter. The Times sent William Howard Russell to the Crimea, and there is no denying that his dispatches had a major impact on opinion at home, and subsequently on British military attitudes. This was especially true in the help his reports gave to the activities of Florence Nightingale. Her efforts on behalf of the British sick and wounded evacuated to her hospital in Scrutari, at the entrance to the Black Sea, brought about a revolution in the attitude of the military establishment towards caring for the casualties of war.

Tour: Rustenburg Military History Study Group - British Naauwpoort-West Base; 24th (6km; 4 hours) or 25th (3km, easy stages) March 2001.
Starts 9am each day; R50 pp; bring good walking shoes, own lunch, drinks and folding chair.
Details and map to Syferbult (start at silos) from Mike Hardisty (011) 447-8574. Bookings to Melissa (014)59 22844 office hours or e-mail:



8 March
CR John Sutton - The British South African Police in the Anglo-Boer War
ML Hendrik van Eck - Sir Charles Warren's Campaign in the Northern Cape
19 April
ML Neil Lee - The Bayeaux Tapestry


8 March
DDH Phillip Everitt - Sidi Rezegh - A "Personal Reminiscence"
ML Brig. Jim Parker - The Conflict in Northern Ireland

Cape Town

8 March
Lt Col "Dickie" Bullen - The Longest Retreat: The Retreat from Burma January to May 1942

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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