CRIMEAN WAR 1853 to 1856

In Britain, the Crimean War is mainly remembered for the Charge of the Light Brigade, maladministration in the British army, and Florence Nightingale. However, this war, fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia, is far more complex.

Many wars have been fought on the grounds of the strategic importance of a region; many wars have been fought over religious differences. The Crimean War was the result of both factors.

The causes of war
During the years leading up to the Crimean War, France, Russia and Britain were all competing for influence in the Middle East, particularly with Turkey. Religious differences were certainly a catalyst in the Crimean War. Control of access to religious sites in the Holy Land had been a cause of tension between Catholic France and Orthodox Russia for a number of years and in 1853, the conflict came to a head with rioting in Bethlehem, which was then part of the Ottoman empire ruled by Turkey. A number of Orthodox monks were killed during fighting with French monks. Tsar Nicholas I blamed the Turks for these deaths.

'The sick man of Europe'
Tsar Nicholas I demanded that the dispute be resolved in favour of the Orthodox Church and sent his representative to Constantinople (now Istanbul) with a number of demands. These were not met however and Nicholas mobilised the Russian army against Turkey, which was beginning to lose control of its empire. Nicholas referred to Turkey and its weakening empire as the 'sick man of Europe' and historians have argued that he had ambitions of his own in the eastern Mediterranean. The British and French, for their part, were concerned about Russian expansion in the region and the potential threat to their trade routes.

Russia attacks Turkey
Turkey declared war on Russia following its incursion into Moldovia in July 1953. In November, the Russians destroyed the Turkish fleet on Turkey's Black Sea coast. The British and French declared war on Russia a few months later. Expecting, with their naval supremacy, a quick victory they prepared for an all-out assault on Russian forces and to seize the naval base at Sevastopol.

But it was not till the end of 1855, that the Russians evacuated Sevastopol, which British and French troops had besieged for almost a year. The Crimean War ended in the spring of 1856. Wrangling over the details of the Charge of the Light Brigade and who was at fault continued into the following decade.

One of the significant features of the Crimean War was the dreadful conditions and neglect endured by the troops. Not only were living conditions very poor, but medical supplies for troops in the field were also inadequate. W.H. Russell's reports for The Times revealed the true depth of suffering and maladministration, particularly during the winter of 1854. These accounts upset Queen Victoria, who described them as these 'infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers'. Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that 'the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country'.

Public outcry concerning the care of the soldiers eventually led to a number of nurses, including Florence Nightingale, being sent to the hospital at Scutari, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Another famous woman who cared for the sick and wounded was Mary Seacole, who came from Jamaica.

In 2004 remembrance ceremonies were held in Ukraine to mark the 150th anniversary of the war. Flowers were laid on a mass grave in Sevastopol; representatives from Britain, France, Turkey and Russia came together for a ceremony of reconciliation. Britain also unveiled a new monument to its war dead in the area once used as the base camp for the Light Brigade.

The port of Sevastopol is a major naval base and has been home to the Black Sea Fleet since Soviet times. Following the collapse of the USSR, the fleet was divided up between Russia and Ukraine. Agreement was reached granting Russia a lease for the use of Sevastopol as a base until 2017. Its continuing presence there has been a focus of tension between Russia and Ukraine.

This tension has taken a new twist as the Ukrainian president looks to strengthen ties with Nato. Russian protesters took to the streets to disrupt preparations for Nato-led naval exercises off Crimean shores in summer 2006. Some months later, Crimean voters rejected NATO membership in an unofficial referendum which was declared illegitimate by the authorities in Kiev.