Letter From Crimea: the 1854 War Begins on the Alma and Continues Today

This is the thirteenth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The heights above the River Alma in western Crimea on which British and French forces in 1854 attacked Russian positions at the beginning of the Crimean War. Sevastopol is about twenty miles south. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

To the River Alma

Because I was wet from biking in the rain, I decided to search for a taxi to drive me, my bicycle, and my bags to the battlefields of the Alma River, which are along the Crimean Black Sea coast.

My plan had merit, but to the best of my knowledge, Bakhchysarai does not have taxis—or if it is does, they were off that morning.

The Alma battlefields are fifteen miles from Bakhchysarai, but to have gotten there on the bicycle would have involved a climb over a steep ridge line and riding on some narrow, twisting lanes, neither of which I fancied in the rain.

Eventually in my great taxi hunt I found the offices of a tourist company, one that has mini-vans to take tourists around to the nearby Tatar monasteries. The clerk behind the desk said he was interested to take me not just to the Alma, but then to Sevastopol, another twenty miles to the south.

We agreed on a price, but before we could set off for the Alma, the driver needed to stop at his mother’s house—the reason wasn’t clear—and then to collect a package at another address.

Finally, an hour later, the taxi crossed the Alma River—think of a dried-up stream in summer—and took me up the hillside that saw the first engagement in the 1853-56 Crimean War between Russian and Allied (British, French, and Sardinian) forces—not unlike the NATO coalition today that seeks to reduce Russian influence in the Black Sea.

All Against Russia—Except Prussia and Austria

In 1853, it was easy for the allies to imagine Russia, much as we do today, as an outlaw nation that is a threat to world peace. In his history Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854 – 1856, Trevor Royle writes: “In the House of Lords, Lord Lyndhurst captured the general mood when he described Russia as a ‘barbarous nation’ and called for its destruction.”

It was fitting that the Balkans were the locale early engagements in the Crimean conflict. In the failed diplomacy that led to the declarations of war, the outstanding questions were which of the great powers would control the Balkans in the event that the Ottoman Empire were to collapse. Austro-Hungary, Russia, and Britain all had strategic interests in the region.

Another cause of the war was control of the Holy Land, where, in the event of an Ottoman collapse, Russia craved a bigger role in Christian (read Allied colonial) affairs.

Another reason Napoleon III moved toward war was to avenge his uncle’s (Napoleon I) defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon restorations that followed. In 1853, by aligning France with Britain in a war against Russia, Napoleon III hoped to get retribution for the 1814 Russian occupation of Paris. (Vladimir Putin would have us believe that it’s only the West that is always invading Russia, but Russia has attacked Europe many times, including in 1848, 1877, 1914, 1944, 1956, and 1968—in addition to 1853.)

Causes of the Crimean War

What turned a regional conflict into a European war was a 1853 naval engagement at the Turkish Black Sea port of Sinope, where the Russian fleet from Sevastopol made short work of Sultan Osman’s ships of the line. Instead of this being yet another chapter in the endless war story between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Sinope was transmogrified into “a massacre,” something that the western allies would use to avenge.

In his excellent history, The Crimean War, Alan Palmer writes:

Without Nakhimov’s [the Russian admiral] victory at a remote roadstead in Asia Minor there would have been no such mood among the British people. Sinope, the last occasion upon which wooden vessels were in combat, was no more a great naval engagement than Navarino [a 1827 naval battle during the Greek war of independence] had been. Yet it was, none the less, an historic event. The idea of a general crusade against Tsarist tyranny, popular that winter with radicals in Britain and in France, was conceived long before Nakhimov’s gunfire echoed along the Anatolian shore; but it was to avenge Sinope and prevent similar naval sorties that the principal expedition of the war set its sights on the destruction of Sebastopol.

Palmer also quotes from a London Times editorial, in which it was stated that “The English people are resolved that Russia shall not dictate conditions to Europe, or convert the Black Sea, with all the various interests encompassing its shores, into a Russian lake.” Sound familiar?

The Russians Invade the Principalities

Before Sinope, Russian troops had marched into what were then called “the Principalities” (Moldavia and Wallachia in eastern Romania) to threaten Silistra and the mouth of Danube, vital interests of the Austrian empire.

Sounding very much like Vladimir Putin today in Ukraine, the then Russian tsar Nicholas I said: “By the occupation of the Principalities we desire such security as will ensure the restoration of our dues. It is not conquest that we seek but satisfaction for a just right so clearly infringed.”

Amazingly, given that the Ottomans had a ragtag army, the Turks managed to hold the line on the Danube, which allowed time for the Allies (mostly Britain and France) to land troops near Varna (now in Bulgaria) and stiffen the resistance, although any military observer of the bumbling Allied operations in this campaign should have had a clue that perhaps these regiments were not quite up to the bigger job of invading Russia.

Nevertheless, following the 1853 campaign along the Danube—and some naval operations in the Baltic that failed to capture Kronstadt near St. Petersburg—the Allies landed infantry regiments in 1854 in Crimea north of Sevastopol, at what was unfortunately known as Calamity Bay (the classical Greeks, who once colonized Crimea, would have taken this to be a bad omen).

The Allies Set Sail for Calamity Bay

The landing beaches along Calamity Bay are about twelve miles southeast of Eupatoria, a pleasant Black Sea resort with beaches, Greek ruins, and vestiges of its Jewish and Tatar communities.

For weeks, prior to my travels, I brooded on how I might ride my bicycle from Eupatoria to Saki, near where the landings took place. I sent off to London for road maps and endlessly consulted Google.

In the end I decided to skip a detour to the invasion beaches, as behind them, I had read, the Russians were marshaling troops for their coming invasion of Ukraine, and the last thing I wanted was to be stopped on my bicycle at some checkpoint near Novofedorivka and explain my foreign passport. (In recent days either Ukrainian cruise missiles or saboteurs blew up nine Russian planes at the same base.)

Unprepared for War

What was extraordinary about the 1854 Allied landings on these shores, however, was the complete absence in Allied war rooms of accurate maps and reconnaissance, or a battle plan that made any sense.

It was as though the Allies figured that simply by showing up in Crimea (why am I thinking of NATO enlargement?) the Russians would concede, and the war would end, maybe after a few cavalry skirmishes.

Nor were the Allies prepared either for an amphibious assault or the ground campaign that would follow. The English landed with cavalry but no tents; for the French it was just the opposite.

In her splendid, if slightly out-of-date, history, The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil Woodham-Smith writes:

The British Army had alighted on the shore of the Crimea like a flock of birds, but without wings to fly away. They had no transport, no ambulances, no litters, no food; they knew nothing whatever of the country ahead of them; they had no base.

She adds: “In this spirit, thirsting for military glory, filled with confidence and excitement, as if, indeed, going to a hunt, the British Army embarked for war.”

Toward the Russian Gibraltar

Nominally, the goal of the invasion was the well defended Russian naval roadstead at Sevastopol—the Gibraltar of the Black Sea—and the Allies hoped that by seizing it, they could deprive Russia of a forward base from which to seize the Straits near Constantinople or become more of a Mediterranean power, much the way in the current Russian-Ukraine war, western strategists have fastened on the Sea of Azov as the nexus of Russia’s projected world power and domination. (Note to the Pentagon: it’s a backwater.)

Woodham-Smith adds:

[First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James] Graham had already written to Admiral Dundas emphasizing the importance of Russia’s main naval base: ‘Should any such opportunity present itself,’ the First Lord declared, ‘I conclude that you will have your eye on Sebastopol. That is a place where a blow might be struck which will be memorable in Europe, and which would settle the affairs of the East for some time to come.’

She describes the Allied invasion force heading for Sevastopol: “It was as if a cumbersome tortoise, three miles long and four miles wide, was ambling forward astride the one good coastal road that ran down from Eupatoria and across five river valleys before reaching Sebastopol itself.”

The Senseless Slaughter on the Alma River

The battlefields of the Alma are along an open slope on the south side of the river bed, up which British and French forces attacked the entrenched Russian positions.

There are monuments on the hillside, but nearly all are Russian, even though the battle was an Allied victory. Not much imagination went into the Allied attacks, which stormed straight into the Russian lines. Those lines (to be fair to the Allied commanders) eventually broke, and Russian troops retreated pell mell back to Sevastopol.

Woodham-Smith writes:

It was a battle forever memorable for the ferocious courage of the British troops and the extraordinary incompetence displayed by the Generals on both sides. What has been called the ‘characteristic insanity’ of the Crimean War reached its height at the Alma. Advantages were gained not through superior skill, but as a result of astonishing blunders made by each participant in turn; and the victory, won after a desperate and bloody struggle, was attributable solely to the fighting qualities of the British soldier. In the battle of the Alma the cavalry played no part. Furious and resentful, it was their fate to sit motionless in their saddles, onlookers once more.

More than five thousand soldiers on both sides died in the battle for the Alma, which decided nothing. The French refused to follow up the victory with an assault on Sevastopol—their men needed to go back and retrieve their knapsacks—while the British, despite being victorious, had no idea that the road to Sevastopol, if not the war’s end, lay open.

Spectators of War

In booking the taxi in Bakhchysarai, I thought I would have the car for much of the afternoon, so that despite the rain I could get a feel for the opening engagements of the Crimean War.

Instead, no sooner had we arrived at the Alma than the driver announced that he was tired of his commitment and was heading back to Bakhchysarai. Mercifully, I had only paid him half of the agreed fare, and we left it at that, as he unloaded my bags and bicycle from his trunk and piled them on a sidewalk.

I saw what I could on the Alma heights. I pushed my bicycle up the dirt track that climbed Kourganie Hill, behind which British cavalry had waited in vain to be called into action. And I followed a footpath around the positions that the Russians had defended, until they beat their retreat. Then I had to figure out how to get to Sevastopol, fifteen miles along what looked like a major road.

It seemed that I didn’t have many options other than riding my bicycle. At least then I might ford the rivers Katcha and Belbec, as the Allies had done, and on the ride, I could have wondered why Lord Raglan—the incompetent British commander—decided against a direct attack on Sevastopol and marched his forces around the naval base and harbor, to set up siege lines south of Sevastopol, outside Balaclava. But when it began raining again in earnest, I felt as foolish as the local spectators who came out from Sevastopol to take in the action “through opera-glasses with glasses of champagne within easy reach.”

Next: The Crimean port and naval base at Sevastopol . Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.