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What was the Crimean War? – An Easy Introduction

Updated: Mar 23, 2023


A painting of "The Attack on the Malakoff" by William Simpson based on the Crimean War

So, what was the Crimean War?


The Crimean War was a conflict that was fought between the years 1853 and 1856. The main battles of the conflict were fought in Crimea, but other battles took place in areas such as the Balkans and Turkey, plus naval battles in the Black Sea, the Baltic and more. But let’s be frank, they couldn’t call it the “Mainly-Fought-In-Crimea-But-There-Were-Also-Battles-In-The-Balkans-Turkey-And-Various-Seas War” could they? So they just called it the Crimean War, since that’s where most of the fighting took place.


Map of the Black Sea during the Crimean War

But where actually is Crimea?


Crimea is a peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea. If you’re wondering what a peninsula is, it’s a bit like an island, but with a tiny bit of land that keeps it attached to a bigger chunk of land. If you look at a modern map, the Crimean Peninsula sticks out into the Black Sea with water surrounding it on almost all sides, except for a little bit of land which connects it to the bottom of Southern Ukraine.


Who fought in the war then?


The Crimean War was initially fought between Russia and Turkey. As fighting continued and tensions rose, France and England decided they wanted in on the conflict too. So they joined Turkey’s side against Russia in 1854. By 1855, Sardinia had also joined the war, joining the Allied forces on Turkey’s side. By 1856, Austria wanted in on the not-so-fun party too but decided to join too late and before they knew it, the war was over.


A photograph of a British Army camp in the Crimean War - Courtesy of James Robertson and Felice Beato

Why did the Crimean War start?


Wars always seem to start when everyone wants their own thing, everything goes too far and before you know it you’re having a big fight. It’s like having an argument on the playground; Jody fell out with Marshall because Marshall was being mean to Katie. But Jody doesn’t really care about Katie, she just doesn’t like Marshall very much and has been looking for a reason to fall out with Marshall for ages because he stole her favourite pencil. But it wasn’t actually her pencil in the first place, it was mine. And I don’t care about their silly arguments. I just want my pencil back so I can draw an awesome picture of a monster with five heads and three arms!


Okay… What’s this got to do with the Crimean War?


Oh sorry! It has nothing to do with the Crimean War. I got distracted. Stupid Jody.


Yes, yes, stupid Jody. Now please can you focus and tell us how the Crimean War started?


Of course! In the case of the Crimean War, the argument was all about religion. Some people were Catholic Christians and some were Orthodox Christians. Russia wanted to protect the Orthodox Christians across Turkey’s Empire (known as the Ottoman Empire). But Turkey was having none of it so Russia used force to get control of a number of places that were previously ruled by Turkey. Turkey was miffed by this and declared war on Russia.


As tensions rose, France and England started to get worried about their trade routes with Turkey and nearby India and joined the conflict too.


Wounded soldiers are loaded onto boats - Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

That sounds messy – how did the war end?


As I mentioned earlier, Austria was threatening to join the war too, on Turkey’s side. The tide had turned against Russia who had suffered many defeats and unsuccessful assaults. In March 1856, the Treaty of Paris was signed to mark the agreement from all sides to end the war. Russia was forced to hand back the places they had taken control of and all warring countries removed their ships and troops from the Black Sea.


How many people died in the war?


Around 500,000 people died in the Crimean War (though some people think that the death toll is even higher). Sadly, a huge number of those 500,000 people didn’t even die in the fighting, they died from illness and disease because living conditions were so terrible.


Portrait of Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen

Did anything good come from the war?


Yes, you may have heard of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Both women became famous during the Crimean War because of the work they did to help soldiers throughout the conflict. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born woman, travelled to Crimea and set up a hotel that she used as a base to feed soldiers and treat the wounded. Florence Nightingale took a group of nurses to a military hospital in Scutari where she started her ground-breaking work on improving hospital conditions, making important developments in military medicine and changing the role of nurses for the better.

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