RUSSIA is a great country in the east of Europe. But if you look at the map you will see that, although it is very large, it has not much seashore. That is bad for a country, for, unless it has seaports, its ships cannot easily sail to other countries with goods and bring back their goods in exchange.
To the south of Russia lies the Black Sea, but then as now half of the shore of that sea belonged to Turkey, and Turkey had the right to keep the ships of other nations out of the Black Sea. Russia was very angry at this, and formed plans to conquer Turkey and take possession of the country. The Emperor of Russia had another reason for wishing to fight with the Turks. The Turks, you know, are Mahometans, but many of the people who lived in Turkey had become Christian. The Emperor thought that these Christians were badly treated by the Turks, and he wished to protect them. This made the Sultan very angry, for he said that the Emperor was not really anxious about the happiness of the Christians, but merely wished to interfere with his rule.
The Russian Emperor hoped that the British would help him to fight the Turks, and he offered to divide Turkey, when conquered, with Britain.
But the British were on good terms with the Turks, and they had several reasons for not wishing Russia to conquer Turkey. So when war at last broke out, they sided with the Turks against the Russians, as did the French, who also thought that it would be a bad thing if Russia conquered Turkey.
For the first time, France and Britain, instead of fighting against each other, fought side by side. Lord Raglan led the British army, Marshal St. Arnaud the French. The war was fought in the Crimea, a little peninsula in the Black Sea, and from that it was called the Crimean War.
Both the French and the British sent fleets into the Black Sea, but they did not do much, as the war was chiefly fought on land round the fortress of Sebastopol, which the allies, as the armies of Britain, France, and Turkey were called, besieged. Ally comes from the same word as alliance, and means, "the friends" or "those who had joined together."
Britain had been at peace for forty years, and, although the soldiers had not forgotten how to fight, it seemed as if those in command had forgotten how to plan a war.
The winter in Russia is terribly cold, and the people who had charge of sending out clothes to the soldiers sent the things to the wrong places. So when the soldiers were shivering with cold at one place, great stores of warm clothing would be lying at another, perhaps not many miles off, but quite out of reach. Once a whole shipload of boots arrived, and, when they were unpacked, they were found to be all for the left foot. Terrible storms arose, too, which wrecked the ships which were bringing stores of food. These storms not only wrecked the ships, but they tore down and blew away the soldiers' tents, so that they had to sleep in the open air in the snow and bitter frost. They had nothing upon which to sleep except wet straw, and often they had no bed-clothes at all. And this in cold so dreadful that, if a man took hold of a piece of iron, it would freeze to his hand, so that he could not leave go without tearing away the skin.
So great was the suffering that many of the soldiers became sick and ill. The hospitals were soon filled, and many more died of disease than were killed by the Russians. In those days there were very few proper nurses, and the poor sick soldiers were very badly cared for, until a lady called Florence Nightingale went out to the Crimea, taking with her other ladies as nurses.
When Florence Nightingale and her nurses arrived in the Crimea, the dirt and horror of the hospitals were dreadful. The great wards were crowded from end to end with sick and wounded, dead and dying. No one did anything for the poor soldiers, their wounds even were often not dressed; they were brought there to die. But Florence Nightingale worked so hard that soon the hospitals were sweet and clean, and the men grew well instead of dying. The soldiers loved and adored her, and she never seemed to tire of working for them. Long after every one else had gone, she would walk through the wards carrying a lamp in her hand, moving softly from bed to bed, doing what she could for the poor wounded men. "She would speak to one and another," said one poor fellow afterwards, "and nod and smile to many more; but she could not do it to all, there were so many of us; but we could kiss her shadow as it fell, and lay our heads on our pillows again, content."
Once Florence Nightingale went out into the trenches among the soldiers to get a good view of Sebastopol. When it became known that she was there, they sent up such a shout that the Russians behind their strong battlements heard it and trembled, not knowing what it might mean. There was not a man there but honoured her as he would a queen. Florence Nightingale worked so hard that at last she, too, became ill of the terrible Crimean fever. Then there was sorrow indeed. Little could the men do for her who had done so much for them, but even in that wild place they found flowers to bring to her to cheer her loneliness. And she did not die, but still lived to bring joy to many.
Since Florence Nightingale worked among the soldiers in the Crimea, army nurses have worn red crosses upon their sleeves, as the crusaders did long ago. But those who wear the cross to-day do not go to battle to fight, but to help the wounded and the dying. Over the hospitals on the battlefield too flies the red cross flag, and no enemy ever fires at it or injures any one who wears the red cross badge.
The British soldiers were brave, and in spite of sickness and suffering they fought gallantly, but they were often badly led, and many mistakes were made. One dreadful mistake was made at a battle called Balaclava.
There was a brigade of cavalry called the Light Brigade. Lord Raglan sent a message to the officer in command, telling him to prevent the Russians carrying away some guns. The officer thought he was meant to charge right forward, and he did so. But it was a mistake. He and his men rode straight to death. For a mile and a half they rode with Russian guns in front of them, Russian guns on either side of them, thundering death. When their comrades saw what the Light Brigade was doing, they stood watching in horror and wonder, as six hundred men of the brigade rode down the lane of fire and smoke, and disappeared in the bank of smoke beyond.
It was horrible! What was happening to these gallant soldiers? They rode straight up to the Russian guns and drove the gunners away. But they could not stay there. The whole Russian army was arrayed against them, so they rode back again—back through that awful lane of shot and shell. Six hundred and seven men went, only one hundred and ninety-eight returned.
It was a splendid show of bravery, but utterly useless. What was the order given? What were the men meant to do? No one can answer the question. "It is magnificent," said a French officer who saw it, "but it is not war." Yet all the world saw what Britons could do in obedience to a command.
The siege of Sebastopol lasted about a year, during which time the Sardinians joined the allies. Sardinia was a very small kingdom, but the people were brave; they wanted to take a place among the great powers of Europe, and the allies were very glad to have their help. During the winter, too, the Russian Emperor died. He was so sad and disappointed because his soldiers were being beaten, that he did not care to live. He died of a broken heart. When the Emperor died, people hoped that the war would come to an end, but it did not. His son, the new Emperor, still carried it on.
At last the French and British made a fierce attack on Sebastopol, and, although they did not succeed in doing all they meant to do, the Russians felt that they could hold out no longer. Next morning Sebastopol was empty and in flames. The Russians had set it on fire and fled.
After this, the war soon came to an end, and a few months later peace was signed. Russia had failed, and Turkey was neither conquered nor divided.