March 30, 2022

The Crimean War Comes to an End

The Crimean War Comes to an End

March 30, 1856. The Russian Empire signs the Treaty of Paris, bringing an end to the Crimean War.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of November 30th, 1853, in Sinop, a port in northern Turkey on the shores of the Black Sea.

Lying at anchor in the harbor is a small fleet of warships. Their sides are studded with cannons. Red flags flutter at their masts. These are ships of the Ottoman Empire. And they’re about to be under attack.

Sailors and soldiers scurry across the decks as a drum sounds an alarm indicating the enemy is approaching…

On the busy deck of the 44-gun flagship, Admiral Osman stands firm. He trains his telescope on the water beyond the bay. Through the morning haze, he can see a Russian fleet cutting through the waves towards him… well within range. So Osman raises his hand and gives the order to fire.

Cannonballs carve through the air toward the enemy. Most miss… but others find their targets.

Admiral Osman smiles grimly as cannonballs tear through sails and rigs, and punch through the wooden hulls of the Russian ships.

But still, the Russian fleet presses forward. As they draw near, Admiral Osman’s eyes go wide when he sees that the Russian ships are outfitted with a new kind of weapon: a state-of-the-art naval gun designed to fire explosive shells and not merely cannonballs.

Osman braces for the incoming onslaught as the Russian fleet gets into position… and unleashes fire.

This is the first time explosive shells have been used in the history of naval warfare, and the impact is devastating. The Battle of Sinop, as this event will come to be known, ends with a resounding victory for the Russians. They destroy the Ottoman fleet without losing a single ship.

And soon, this tussle between Russia and the Ottoman Empire will draw the great powers of Europe into a larger conflict known as the Crimean War. But this war will be different from others before it. New technologies like the telegram and the railway will join the explosive shell in transforming the way nations fight. Meanwhile, advances in photography and newspaper journalism will provide civilians at home with an unprecedented understanding of the price of war; one that will claim the lives of thousands before finally coming to an end on March 30th, 1856.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 30th: The Crimean War Comes to an End.

Act One: Going to War

It’s March 30th, 1854, exactly two years before the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

In a small hotel on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, a stocky journalist named Billy Russell hunches over a desk, writing his latest dispatch. The 34-year-old works for the London Times. And he’s been sent to Malta by his editor to report on the growing military build-up on the British-ruled island.

But as he works at his desk, Billy hears shouting in the streets. He looks out the window and sees a British soldier running past his hotel yelling at the top of his lungs, “War! It’s war!”. Billy knows exactly what war the soldier is referring to: a conflict involving Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire has ruled over vast swaths of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. But by the 1850s, the once formidable empire is crumbling, plagued by rebellions in its provinces and division among its people. In this moment of decline, one of the Ottoman Empire's enemies is trying to take advantage.

Sensing weakness, Tsar Nicholas I, the ambitious ruler of the Russian Empire, ordered his military into Ottoman territory. Soon, fighting broke out. The Tsar's Navy scored a string of victories, most notably at the battle of Sinop in the Black Sea.

But Russia's aggressive actions are a problem for two European powers further west: Britain and France. These two nations have no love for the Ottomans. But the last thing they want is for Russia to gain even more of a foothold on the Asian continent. And so, in late March of 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia. It didn’t take long for word to reach Malta.

Hearing the news, Billy Russell grabs his things and hurries out of his room. Heading out of the hotel, he finds the streets of the port city already thronged with excited British soldiers. They’ve been gathering on the island for weeks in preparation for the conflict and many have grown tired of waiting. Now, at last, they’re going to war. And the journalist Billy Russell is determined to go with them.

From Malta, Billy accompanies the British troops to Varna, on the West coast of the Black Sea. There, an armada of 400 British and French ships gather to transport the joint Allied armies across the sea to Crimea for a surprise attack on the port city of Sevastopol, the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. If the British and French can take the port, the Russians will no longer be able to threaten the Ottomans in the region and the war will be over.

The Allies land on the Crimean Peninsula on September 13th. But getting their vast army off the ships takes a grueling, chaotic six days. As a result, the element of surprise is lost. And by the time the Allied army marches on Sevastopol, the Russian defenses are ready. By the banks of the River Alma, just outside the city, the Russians make their stand.

Billy watches with amazement as the battle unfolds. He tries to remember as much detail as he can so he can write about it and tell people back home. Across the narrow Alma river, Russian soldiers hold a position on the hills. Billy sees puffs of white gun smoke as the Russians fire on the advancing Allied troops. He can barely breathe through the air thick with the smell of gunpowder and blood.

Billy is desperate to write down everything before he forgets. Luckily, he finds a notebook on the body of a dead soldier and, as he lurches across the battlefield on his horse, he scribbles down notes of the chaos he is witnessing. For a time, Billy’s not sure who’s winning or losing. But by the end of the day, it’s clear to Billy that the Allies are pushing the Russians back. Billy rejoices that he’ll be able to tell his readers back home about a great British victory at the Battle of the Alma River.

Still, the war in Crimea is far from over. The bulk of the Russian forces escape to fight another day. The Allies march toward their primary objective, the naval base at Sevastopol. But the Russians have no intention of giving up the port without a fight. A brutal siege is about to begin. And Billy Russell will be there to witness it.

Act Two: Siege Warfare

It’s October 25th, 1854, almost a year and a half before the end of the Crimean War.

The British Army is encamped near the town of Balaclava on the Crimean coast. It’s late, but 34-year-old war correspondent Billy Russell can’t sleep. The tent he’s lying in is freezing and the ground beneath him hard. But that’s not what’s keeping him awake.

Billy has been in Crimea with the British and their French allies for six weeks. Already, he’s sick and tired of the mismanagement that's costing young soldiers their lives. After their victory at the Battle of the Alma River, the Allies failed to press their advantage. They allowed the Russians to fall back and regroup.

The Allied troops pushed on to encircle the port of Sevastopol, Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea. But the bulk of the Russian Army escaped in-land and prepared for a counter-offensive to break the siege.

Early this morning, they launched their assault. The Russians attacked British positions near the town of Balaclava, just outside Sevastopol. In the chaotic battle that followed, Russian soldiers overran a British artillery position and began dragging the weapons away to their own lines. A brigade of light British Cavalry was ordered to attack the Russians and prevent the theft. But they were brutally mowed down in a hail of gunshots.

Billy Russell watched the disaster unfold from a nearby hilltop. Hours after the battle, lying in bed, it’s still all he can think about.

Finally, he sits up. He turns on his lantern and pulls out his pencil and notebook. Billy writes:

“They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendor of war…At the distance of 1,200 yards, the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame. The flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain. In diminished ranks, with a halo of steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow's death-cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ‘ere they were lost from view the plain was strewed with their bodies.”

Billy dispatches his description of the Charge of the Light Brigade to London as soon as he can. His vivid report stuns readers across Britain, where some in the public are already beginning to question the wisdom of this costly war in Crimea; but the bloody conflict is far from over. The Siege of Sevastopol, which began in October of 1854, will last another eleven months when in late September 1855, Billy finds himself walking alone through a deserted street. His feet crunch through a carpet of thick rubble. Around him, the buildings are little more than gaping shells, open to the sky. The doors and windows and roofs are gone, their walls scorched black by the flames that burnt away whatever had once been inside. A shop, a home, a school. They all look the same now. It seems to Billy like this whole city has been reduced to little more than ash and dust.

The final bombardment of the Siege of Sevastopol lasted three days. More than 300 cannons blasted the port day and night before the Allies made their assault. 60,000 troops attacked the stubborn Russian defenses north and south of the city. And at long last, the Russian resistance was broken and the port fell to the Allies.

Today, Billy walks down to the Sevastopol docks. Temporary huts have sprung up among the ruins to house the exhausted troops. Weary soldiers greet Billy as he passes. By now, he’s popular with the rank and file and he knows many of them by name. He's been with them throughout the long cold months of the siege, in freezing tents and flooded trenches. He’s seen the casualties, the sickness, and the horrors of the field hospitals. And he’s shared those stories with the world.

Reaching the harbor, Billy looks out over the water. He can see teams of British engineers scurrying among the docks and warehouses, making plans for the final destruction of the naval base in Sevastopol. It's enormous and the British engineers will have to work through the winter to destroy it. Billy doesn’t envy them. Crimean winters are not pleasant. Even now, in late September, Billy can feel a cold edge to the air. He wraps his coat tighter around him. He won’t be staying to watch the engineers work. Billy’s looking forward to going home.

By taking Sevastopol, the Allies have eliminated Russia’s primary naval base on the Black Sea. And without it, the Tsar won’t be able to threaten the Ottoman Empire. The victory will restore the balance of power so prized by the British and French. Still, even though the Crimean War is nearly over, the tensions in the region are just beginning. 

Act Three

It’s March 30th, 1856, in Paris, France.

Among the grand surroundings of the French Foreign Ministry on the banks of the River Seine, a peace conference is underway. Diplomats from Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire have gathered with their Russian counterparts to discuss an end to the Crimean War.

The fall of Sevastopol last September was the last major action in the conflict. It was a costly defeat for Russia; they lost their Black Sea Fleet and a major naval base. With Russia’s economy floundering and rebellions stirring in its provinces, the Russian Emperor feared that a continuation of the war might lead to a collapse of his regime. So, in March of 1856, he sued for peace.

There were some in Britain who wanted the allies to keep fighting and strike a deadly blow against the Russian Empire. But public opinion wasn’t behind the expensive, unpopular, and costly war. In large part because newspaper reports by journalists like Billy Russell opened the people’s eyes to the suffering of soldiers at the front.

Billy and his fellow journalists’ accounts of poor army leadership, terrible hardships in battle, and dreadful care for the wounded sparked protests in Britain and helped ensure that when Russia called for peace in 1856, the Allies accepted. As a result, today - at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris - the war is about to officially come to an end.

One by one, the diplomats sign the historic peace agreement. The Treaty of Paris, as it’s known, restores the Ottoman territories Russia seized during the conflict and bans Russian warships from the Black Sea. But it does little to resolve the deeper causes of the war – growing weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the ambitions of the Russians. In little over two decades, by 1877, the two nations will be at war once again.

By then, Billy Russell will be famous for his war reporting all across the globe; including the American Civil War in the early 1860s and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. But it’s the Crimean War that made his reputation. It was the first modern conflict, not just in the way it was fought, and with the weapons that were used, but in the way it was reported, and the way public opinion was swayed, and how that helped bring an end to the fighting on March 30th, 1856.


Next on History Daily. March 31st, 1889. After four years of planning and construction, the Eiffel Tower in Paris is completed and inaugurated on the anniversary of the French Revolution. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.