Siege of Sevastopol

On this day in 1854, the Siege of Sevastopol got under way with allied artillery and naval bombardment of the Crimean capital. The siege, which had technically begun the previous month, saw French and British armies attempting to take the port city of Sevastopol from Russia during the Crimean War. Although the most famous names associated with this conflict are those of Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy, the thousands of soldiers from Britain included many members of our clan.

The 19th-century Crimean conflict is not well remembered these days, but it was significant in a number of ways. Historian Orlando Figes observes that it was both “the earliest example of a truly modern war” — making use of industrial technologies and weapons; being recorded for the folks at home by reporters and photographers on the spot; and foreshadowing the kind of trench warfare that would characterise WWI — and “the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry, with . . . truces in the fighting to clear the dead and wounded from the killing fields”[1] and military commands primarily drawn from the upper levels of society.

More importantly, it was a turning point in European history. Although it had its roots in Russia’s relations with (and general European interference in) the Muslim east, it upset the political balance in Europe, creating new tensions that ultimately led to the First World War. Crimea, Figes writes, was “located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world” and was “continuously in contention”.[2] Russia’s long-held belief that Moscow was the Third Rome, destined to rule Christendom, required that Constantinople be retaken from the Muslim Ottomans and Turks. Conflicts over Ottoman treatment of Greeks earlier in the century had been tempered by Tsar Alexander’s commitment to his treaty agreements, but his brother Nicholas I was more concerned with his perceived responsibility for his co-religionists.[3] Taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Russia invaded, declaring itself the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Muslim territories. The tsar apparently expected Prussia and Austria (his erstwhile allies) and Britain (which, like Russia, was at odds with the French) to support him. But Russian control of the area threatened these countries more than the Ottomans, and they gave the tsar a deadline to withdraw his forces. While Europe sought a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, the Ottomans — against the advice of everyone — declared war on Russia. This left Britain and France, who had pledged support, little option but to “set aside their ongoing enmity [with each other] and support another former enemy, the Ottoman Turks”.[4] British, Turkish and French troops began arriving in Crimea in August 1854.

From the beginning, this war was characterised by a “catalogue of misunderstandings and misapprehensions”.[5] For example, an early opportunity to end the siege was missed because the French and English weren’t sure who was supposed to act first. The campaign was also badly planned, at least on the British side (the French army — having more recently fought a war — was somewhat better organised). British military command took for granted that the men would be home before winter, so they didn’t bother to learn about the severity of Crimean winters before sending their thousands of soldiers to war without adequate food, clothing or shelter.[6] Through bad communication, and sometimes the incompetence of commanders, lives were lost that might have been saved. On the other hand, the war was marked on all sides by acts of courage and an ability to improvise that won the admiration of enemies and countrymen alike.

Of the numerous Macalisters who took part in the Siege of Sevastopol, nine were awarded the Baltic Star for naval service, and at least 36 received awards for their infantry and support service.[7] Macalisters serving in English, Irish and Scottish regiments fought in all of the three major battles (Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman) during the siege. Many of these died in battle, or because of it, and others were severely wounded. But illnesses such as cholera and exposure to the elements killed more British soldiers than battle did. By the end of November, the 46th Regiment of Foot (of which Charles McAlister, future 14th of Loup, was captain[8]), had buried 10 percent of its men, according to Lt.-Col. Colin Campbell[9]; on the first of December Campbell reported that eighty-five men from the 46th had died of a bowel complaint; of the men still living, McAlister is named among “those who have suffered most”.[10]

Despite six naval bombardments of the city, seemingly endless trench warfare at the city’s edge and two full-fledged battles nearby, it was not until September of 1855 that the city was taken, effectively ending the war.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Figes, Orlando, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), pp. xix-xx.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Ibid., pp. 35-6 

[4] Brudenell, Anna Maria, “Lessons in leadership: the Battle of Balaklava, 1854” in Military Review (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 77+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

[5] History of the 46th Regiment, 1854-1858

[6] Figes, p. 197

[7] Ancestry.com. UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010; UK, Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[8] Hart, H. G., The Army List and Militia List Exhibiting the Rank, Standing, and Various Services of Every Regimental Officer in the Army serving on full Pay . . . (London: John Murray, 1858), pp. 133ff.

[9] Campbell, Colin Frederick, Letters from Camp to His Relatives during the Siege of Sebastopol (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1894), p. 28.

[10] Ibid., pp. 34-5

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