After a siege that lasted nearly 11 months, the fate of Sevastopol was settled when the Royal Navy occupied the Sea of Azov, cutting Russian supply lines to the Crimea. Without food, ammunition and fodder for the cavalry, Russia could no longer hold the fortress. It fell on 9 September 1855 after a brilliant French assault. This triumph was enough for Napoleon III: having restored military glory, he wanted to end the conflict and focus on redrawing the map of western Europe and expanding the borders of the French empire. Also, among his subjects, the war had become deeply unpopular as the human cost had mounted.
As for the British, they concentrated on destroying Sevastopol dockyard to ensure that Russia would not command the Black Sea for a generation. With Sevastopol lost, and Russia facing bankruptcy, domestic unrest and further defeats, the new tsar Alexander II was forced to admit defeat. Russia could not resist a sophisticated maritime-economic offensive that left the coast open to further attacks, including a widely publicised plan for the Royal Navy to escalate the war by bombarding St Petersburg the following spring. The pressure on Russia increased when Sweden joined the allied coalition in November 1855, and Austria threatened to follow. By early 1856, the tsar was ready to talk.
Coming to terms
With the resulting Treaty of Paris, Russia recognised the political and territorial integrity of the Ottoman empire; demilitarised the Black Sea; gave up its claims to guarantee the civil rights of Christians in Ottoman areas; and opened the Danube River for international trade. Britain then demanded the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands, which enabled the Royal Navy to dominate the Baltic. The peace, however, came just as industrial mobilisation was transforming British strategic power. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was left to regret lost opportunities to push Russia out of recently conquered regions in the Caucasus, the Baltic and beyond.
Signed on 30 March 1856, the treaty appeared to be a triumph for Napoleon III’s empire. But the victory parade at Spithead on England’s south coast three weeks later told a different story. Queen Victoria reviewed the fleet that had been assembled to attack St Petersburg, accompanied by diplomats, press reporters and large crowds.
The unparalleled display of force served to emphasise that the war had been won by British maritime and economic power, with the support of French and Ottoman troops. It sustained British deterrence for decades: mobilising a ‘Baltic’ fleet halted Russian invasions of Turkey and Afghanistan in the years that followed. Britain would not have to fight another great power for 58 years, and so could focus on economic expansion and domestic reform.
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Redrawing the map
In the Crimean War, the first major conflict of the industrial era, Britain and France dominated the seas with steam-powered ships and land battles with modern rifles – tools that Russia lacked. This was the first war when correspondents reported from the front line via telegraph cables and photographers captured images of conflict. It saw the first use of mass-produced weapons, armoured warships, submarine mines and railway lines. Britain’s immense merchant fleet sustained campaigns in four distant theatres, while the war inspired the development of modern nursing and new items of clothing, including the cardigan and the balaclava.
Elsewhere, the lessons of the war shaped the strategy, tactics and sartorial styles of the American Civil War shortly afterwards. In 1861, Union troops adopted the uniforms, kepis (caps) and facial hair of the elite French regiments that captured Sevastopol. In Britain, the ceremonial uniforms of the Guards, Horse Guards and Royal Horse Artillery remain those of the Crimea.
Russia ceased to be a great power for several decades, turning inwards to rebuild a shattered economy and build the industries and infrastructure for modern war, including the abolition of serfdom to release the necessary manpower. Russia’s retreat opened the flood gates of nationalism in eastern and central Europe; the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia joined the Allies in 1855 to agitate for Italian unification, a project completed within a decade. Yet the most significant consequence of Russian weakness would be Otto von Bismarck’s creation, in 1871, of a German empire that would dominate European politics for the next half century; a dominance founded on the ruins of Napoleon III’s empire.
Still, Russia remained aggressive, seizing a huge block of territory from Imperial China in 1858 and continuing to advance against weaker foes in Central Asia until every independent regime between Moscow and the Chinese border was destroyed. Ultimately, it would be Russian ambitions in the Balkans that sparked World War I.
Want to know more? Read our ultimate guide to the Crimean War.
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed