Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Crimean War

"All the world wonder'd."

— Tennyson

R USSIA had helped Austria to quiet discontented Hungary. She felt therefore that Austria would stand by her, through any scheme of foreign conquest, she might pursue. Since the days when Peter the Great had made his country famous, every Tsar had cast longing eyes towards Turkey, with its world-famed capital Constantinople. In the beautiful harbour of the Bosphorus, a Russian navy could lie peacefully at anchor, with numerous possibilities before her. Such dreams of greatness, now filled the head of the Tsar Nicholas. Turkey was woefully weak. The Turkish empire was dying, thought the Tsar.

"We have on our hands a sick man—a very sick man," he now told England. "The sick man is dying. We must come to some understanding."

He suggested that England should take Egypt and Crete, while Russia would undertake to protect the Turkish provinces in Europe. England rejected the proposal. A Russian fleet in the Bosphorus would endanger her route to the East.

But matters reached a crisis in 1853. The Turkish fleet was lying at anchor in the Black Sea, when the Russian fleet bore down upon it, destroyed the ships, and killed 4000 Turkish sailors. The news raised a universal outcry in Europe, and within a few months, England and France, on behalf of Turkey, were at war with Russia. They determined to attack Russia in the Crimea. Here at Sebastopol, lay her great naval and military headquarters, here was her key to the Black Sea. But the land, which the allied armies were about to invade, was as unknown to them, as it had been to Jason and the Argonauts when they voyaged thither in search of the Golden Fleece. They landed in September 1854 near a spot, where the river Alma flows into the Black Sea, without opposition from the Russians, who were posted in great strength on the heights across the river.

The English were commanded by Lord Raglan, a man of sixty-six. He had been among the first to mount the breaches at the storming of Badajoz; he had lost his right arm at Waterloo.

The Commander-in-Chief of the French forces was Marshal St Arnauld, able, brilliant, and heroic, but smitten of a mortal disease, of which he soon died.

"With such men as you," he said to his generals, "I have no orders to give. I have but to point to the enemy."

The allies crossed the Alma under deadly Russian fire and scrambled up the heights, amid a searching rain of musketry. Their desperate courage alone won the day. They stormed the Russian position, till the Russians broke and fled. It was the first great European battle since Waterloo. Then English and French stood opposed to one another—now they stood together, and victorious, against the Russians.

They now turned to Sebastopol, hoping to attack it by land and sea at the same time. But a brilliant idea had already occurred to the Russian genius, General Todleben, who was defending Sebastopol. Under the very eyes of the allies, he sank seven Russian war-ships in the entrance of the harbour, till only the tops of their masts were visible. This prevented any attack by sea, and the allies marched on to Balaklava, into whose harbour their ships could sail with safety.

It was yet early on the morning of October 25. Fleecy clouds hung about the low mountain-tops, the blue patch of sea beyond Balaklava, shone in the morning sun, while flashes gleamed from the masses of armed men in the plains. At half-past ten, like a grey cloud, the Russian cavalry galloped to the brow of the hill, that cut the Balaklava plain in two. In all their pride and glory, they swept along the heights, while the British waited breathlessly below. Lord Raglan stood on a hill, overlooking the plain. The battle had already begun, when he sent down a young officer, named Nolan, with a message, that the cavalry must attack at once.

"Attack? Attack what? Where are the guns?" cried the bewildered recipient of this order.

Nolan threw back his head, and pointing to the line of Russians on the heights: "There, my lord, are the Russians; there are your guns."

The order was given to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. He was startled. Never had such a thing been asked of cavalry before, never had man been told to lead his soldiers to such certain death. He must cross a mile and a half of open plain under deadly fire. He knew there must be a blunder, but discipline forbade him to question.

"The Brigade will advance," he said, casting his eyes over his splendid body of cavalry.

The men too were startled by the order. But it was—

"Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred."

Suddenly right across the front of the galloping Brigade, rode a horseman, waving his arms madly and crying out words they could not hear. Nolan had discovered the deadly blunder—but it was too late. Another moment, he was shot down, and on

"Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred."

Scourged by a cross fire from the Russians, men and horses fell thick. Still the Brigade never checked speed, never faltered. With steel flashing above their heads, and a British cheer that wrung the hearts of those that watched, they rode to within eighty yards of the great Russian battery. They dashed between the gleaming cannon, and cut down the gunners as they stood. Then through clouds of smoke, the few survivors made their way back—

"All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred."

When the little band of heroes had formed up, Lord Cardigan rode forward: "Men," he cried, "it is a great blunder, but it is no fault of mine."

"Never mind, my lord," was the brave answer; "we are ready to go again."

All Europe, all the world, rang with wonder and admiration at the useless, but splendid charge. Lord Raglan owned with pride, that it was perhaps the finest thing ever attempted. While from the French general were wrung the immortal words, "It is magnificent, but it is not war."

This was but one incident in the battle of Balaklava, in which the Russians were again defeated.

The battle of Inkerman followed a few days later. For nine long hours on a Sunday in November, the battle raged through rain, darkness, and fog, till once again the allies were victorious, the Russians defeated.

Meanwhile the siege of Sebastopol was lingering on. Winter was rapidly approaching. On November 14 a violent storm wrecked twenty-one ships in Balaklava Bay, and the warm clothing and blankets for sick and wounded men, went to the bottom of the sea. Snow followed, and the sufferings of the English and French soldiers were intense. Men were frost-bitten in the trenches outside Sebastopol; they had tents for shelter, rags for clothing, and insufficient food. It was no wonder they died by hundreds and thousands.

Their bitter cry reached England, and she responded readily. Florence Nightingale, with a little band of nurses, made her way to Constantinople and thence to Scutari, where the great Turkish barracks had been turned into a hospital. The story of her wonderful work among the sick and dying soldiers is well known. Hitherto the soldiers had been nursed by orderlies, often ignorant and rough, though well-meaning. Now, for the first time, women undertook the work, which they have managed ever since. Well indeed might the American poet Longfellow exclaim, as he pictured the "dreary hospitals of pain," the "glimmering gloom," and the English woman, with her little lamp softly passing from bed to bed, while the "speechless sufferer" turned to kiss her shadow, as it fell on the darkened walls:—

"A Lady with a Lamp shall stand

In the great history of the land."

Through that long winter, the siege of Sebastopol dragged on, though the trenches were growing nearer and nearer to the doomed city. With the return of summer, fresh efforts were made to take it, and two famous assaults on the Redan and Malakoff forts were repulsed by the Russians. At last, on September 8, the French succeeded in taking the Malakoff fort, and the fate of Sebastopol was sealed. Skilfully and silently, the Russians crept from the town, and retreated by a bridge of boats, blowing up their forts and sinking their boats, leaving the city, they had defended so splendidly for 349 days, like a second Moscow, in flames.

So the Crimean War ended. Russia's dreams of possessing Turkey were ended too for the present, and the Black Sea was declared neutral, its ports being thrown open to every nation.

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