The Crimean War was a struggle between Russia and Britain, along with its allies, over Russian expansion into the Ottoman-controlled territories of the Black Sea. The war was part of the so-called Eastern Question, or what should be done about the weakened Ottoman Empire.
Eager for territorial gains in the Balkans and control of warm water ports in the Black Sea, Russia wanted the Ottoman Empire to die as quickly as possible. Britain, wishing to thwart Russian ambitions, often stepped in to bolster the Ottomans in their conflict with Russia.
France and Austria-Hungary wavered on these diplomatic issues, but generally supported the British. Although they supported the Ottoman sultan against Russia during the 19th century, Britain and France both took territories away from the Ottomans in North Africa, Egypt, and along the Arabian Peninsula.
They also demanded that the Ottomans institute political and economic reforms regarding Christian minorities within the empire and permit increased European involvement in Ottoman territories.
The tanzimat, a series of Ottoman reforms, was in many ways an attempt to address these demands. Along with the so-called Great Game over Russian and British expansion into Afghanistan, the Eastern Question was one of the major diplomatic issues of the mid to late 19th century.
The events that led to the Crimean War started in Palestine, where the Russians had placed themselves as the protectors of Eastern Orthodox Christians and the French served as the protectors of the Catholic Christians. In 1847 the golden star that rested in the church in Bethlehem built over the spot where Jesus had allegedly been born disappeared.
The Orthodox and Catholics both blamed one another for the theft; seeking to bolster French prestige, Napoleon III had another star made that was transported amid great pomp and ceremony to the church.
When the Eastern Orthodox refused entry to the church, the dispute was referred all the way to Sultan Abdul Majid I. Both the French and Russians professed to be insulted by the rather tepid responses of the Ottoman government, and the Russians demanded that the Ottomans formally accept their protection over all Orthodox subjects in the empire.
During negotiations, the Russian czar, Nicholas I, remarked that the Ottoman Empire was a “sick man” and the empire subsequently became known as “The Sick Man of Europe.”
When no resolution was forthcoming, the Russians declared war against the Ottoman Empire and destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Bay of Sinope in 1853. In defense of the Ottomans, Britain declared war against Russia in 1854 and was joined by France and Piedmont-Sardinia.
Britain and its allies landed forces in the Crimea and lay siege to Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Russia lost the city in 1855.
In a secondary front, the British and French also established a blockade of the Baltic Sea to prevent goods entering or leaving Russia.
In 1854 the British suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Balaclava made famous by the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade. Casualties in the war were high, and many died from poor health care in the field. The nursing practices and improvements in sanitary conditions made by Florence Nightingale during the war laid the foundation for improved medical care in field hospitals.
After extensive negotiations, the war ended with the Peace of Paris in 1856. Under the treaty, the sultan and the Great Powers guaranteed the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire; the sultan was to protect the minorities within the empire; the Black Sea was to be neutralized; and the waters of the Danube River were to be open to all.
In addition, Russia got the Crimean Peninsula and parts of Bessarabia. Under a separate treaty, Britain, Austria, and France agreed to guarantee the Ottoman Empire, thereby prolonging its life.