Kev Lochun looks at how blun­ders and out­rage tainted the 11-month siege of Rus­sia’s naval base at Sevastopol, where a Crimean win­ter proved as deadly as any gun or can­non

Your Family History - - Contents - Kev Lochun is a writer and ed­i­tor spe­cial­is­ing in sci­ence and his­tory

It lasted for a year, from the au­tumn of 1854: Kev Lochun looks at this de­ci­sive Crimean event.

The siege of Sevastopol was the defin­ing episode of Crimean War. Last­ing for 11 months from Oc­to­ber 1854 through to Septem­ber 1855, it is of­ten de­scribed as ‘the last of the clas­sic sieges’, a phrase that con­jures a sense of ro­man­tic hero­ism and omits that it was an en­tirely ap­palling af­fair: drawn out, badly or­gan­ised and crim­i­nally mis­man­aged by se­nior of­fi­cers. More men died from cold, hunger and dis­ease than the thun­der of shells, a scan­dal brought home to the Bri­tish pub­lic via eye­wit­ness press re­port­ing.

Most fa­mous were the mis­sives from The Times’ Wil­liam Howard Rus­sell, trav­el­ling with the army as what we would to­day de­scribe as an em­bed­ded jour­nal­ist. “These are hard truths, but the peo­ple of Eng­land must hear them,” he wrote in one scathing re­port. “They must know that the wretched beg­gar who wan­ders about the streets of Lon­don in the rain leads the life a prince com­pared with the Bri­tish sol­diers who are fight­ing here for their coun­try.”

What he and oth­ers wit­nessed beg­gared be­lief: one of the rich­est na­tions in the world had sent its hus­bands, broth­ers and sons into a bit­ter Crimean win­ter and then found it­self un­able to sup­ply them with ad­e­quate food, fuel and cloth­ing. It wasn’t that they lacked the sup­plies; much of what the sol­diers des­per­ately needed reached Bal­a­clava har­bour, just 9.5km from the siege, but were ‘lost’ in store­rooms on the quay. As the rank and file sat shiv­er­ing in wa­ter­logged trenches, the se­nior staff en­joyed their lux­u­ries – from cigars to, in one star­tling case, a pri­vate yacht.

Most as­tound­ing was the lack of fore­thought on med­i­cal care. It was Thomas Chen­ery, The Times’ cor­re­spon­dent in Con­stantino­ple (home to the in­fa­mously foul Scu­tari hos­pi­tal, where Florence Nightin­gale would be­come ‘the Lady with the Lamp’) who asked: “Not only are there not suf­fi­cient sur­geons, not only are there no dressers and nurses, but what will be said when it is known that there is not even linen to make bandages for the wounded?” The an­swer was wide­spread con­dem­na­tion and out­rage, which sparked mercy mis­sions of nurses out to the Crimea and contributed to the col­lapse of the Gov­ern­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1855.


The siege be­gan with prom­ise. The Bri­tish and their French al­lies had landed at Eu­pa­to­ria on 13 Septem­ber 1854, drubbed the Rus­sians at Alma on the 20th and ar­rived in the en­vi­rons of Sevastopol – home

to Tsar Ni­cholas I’s much­feared Black Sea Fleet – five days later. They spent three weeks qui­etly estab­lish­ing their trenches south of the six bas­tions that guarded the city; the feel­ing was that one good can­non­ade would send the walls tum­bling down.

Dawn broke on 17 Oc­to­ber with deaf­en­ing ex­plo­sions, as 120 Al­lied guns spat iron onto Sevastopol and shrouded it in a pall of black smoke, the Rus­sians re­tort­ing in kind with three times as many guns and with some suc­cess, strik­ing and blow­ing up a French bat­tery. The Bri­tish fared bet­ter, re­duc­ing the one bas­tion to ruins, but the in­fantry as­sault that should have fol­lowed never ma­te­ri­alised. By dawn the next day, the Rus­sians had re­paired the dam­age.

The Rus­sian field army, at large in the hills be­yond Sevastopol, went on the of­fen­sive, lead­ing to bat­tles at Bal­a­clava (and the ab­surd charge of the light brigade) on 25 Oc­to­ber and Inker­man on 5 Novem­ber; both re­pelled by the Al­lies, though at great cost. Un­daunted by these de­feats, Tsar Ni­cholas boasted that he would let ‘Gen­er­als Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary’ fin­ish them off. He was very nearly right.


Win­ter ar­rived in early Novem­ber with three days of freez­ing wind and rain,

30 ships in Bal­a­clava har­bour were wrecked, with the loss of 300 lives

cul­mi­nat­ing in a hur­ri­cane that flat­tened the men’s tents. 30 ships in Bal­a­clava har­bour were wrecked, with the loss of 300 lives and al­most all of the Bri­tish win­ter stores – still stashed in the holds. The next day, snow be­gan to fall. The track be­tween the har­bour and the be­siegers be­came im­pass­able for days at a time. Pack horses keeled over for lack of for­age, and the sol­diers took to burn­ing their salt meat ra­tions in lieu of fuel. There should have been wooden huts for them to sleep in, but they were nowhere to be found. Cholera whipped through the ranks, and there were out­breaks of ty­phus, ty­phoid and dysen­tery.

The mood in the camp was bleak, with spe­cial dis­dain re­served for the com­mis­sari­ats – the men who con­trolled the dis­tri­bu­tion of sup­plies. In one in­stance, 150 tonnes of fresh veg­eta­bles were left to rot in a ship’s hold be­cause no one had the cor­rect req­ui­si­tion form to un­load it; mean­while, there were sol­diers with scurvy who had to soak their emer­gency bis­cuit ra­tions in wa­ter be­fore they could bite on them with their loose teeth and swollen gums. Cases of scurvy might have been re­duced fol­low­ing the ar­rival of a con­sign­ment of lime juice in De­cem­ber, had any­one had the where­withal to ra­tion it out; in­stead it was placed in stor­age for a month.

The win­ter months saw sor­ties and raids, but no ma­jor bat­tles. Spring brought re­newed hope, bet­ter weather, more pro­vi­sions, and the com­ple­tion of a rail­way be­tween the har­bour and the siege lines, fi­nally eas­ing the prob­lem of mov­ing sup­plies if not the or­gan­is­ing of them. The first Al­lied bom­bard­ment of 1855 be­gan on 9 April: 500 guns fired for 10 days, drop­ping 160,000 shells on Sevastopol, but again there was no sub­se­quent as­sault. Again, the Rus­sians re­paired their walls.

On 7 June, af­ter a day and a half of shelling, the Al­lies man­aged to take con­trol of a pair of outer de­fences known as the Mamelon and the Quarry Pits, set­ting the stage for di­rect as­saults on the re­doubts guard­ing the city. The date was set for 18 June: the 40th an­niver­sary

The com­ple­tion of a rail­way fi­nally eased the prob­lem of mov­ing sup­plies

of Water­loo, a sym­bolic choice to heal old wounds be­tween the new al­lies.

For the French, it was a fi­asco. For rea­sons un­known, their com­man­der de­cided to launch his as­sault three hours early, with­out any soft­en­ing bom­bard­ment and with­out a word to the Bri­tish. The con­fused French­men ad­vanced piece­meal into the de­vour­ing Rus­sian cross­fires and were mas­sa­cred. The Bri­tish fol­lowed swiftly, but it was soon ap­par­ent that it was a hope­less en­deav­our; ap­prox­i­mately 3500 French and 1500 Bri­tish sol­diers were killed.

The fi­nal at­tack came al­most two months later. On 5 Septem­ber, the Al­lies shelled the city for three full days, con­tin­u­ing into the morn­ing of the 8th. As the steel storm sub­sided, the Rus­sians braced them­selves for an at­tack, re­mem­ber­ing the events of 7 June. It didn’t come. An hour passed, then two. They be­gan to re­lax – and were com­pletely caught off guard when the French leapt out of their trenches at mid­day and raced to­wards the Malakhov bas­tion, fol­lowed by a Bri­tish as­sault on a neigh­bour­ing bas­tion, Great Redan. Once more the Bri­tish at­tack fal­tered, but soon the Tri­col­ore flew over the para­pet of the Malakhov, and in a mo­ment siege was won.

With the loss of this one re­doubt, the French could fire across the city, and most of the Rus­sian de­fen­sive line. The Rus­sians be­gan evac­u­a­tions that evening, det­o­nat­ing mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions, store­rooms and any­thing else that could con­ceiv­ably have ben­e­fit­ted the Al­lies. By 8am the next morn­ing, the last de­fend­ers left, set­ting the fire to the city that an es­ti­mated 100,000 Rus­sians had died to pro­tect. Some 120,000 Bri­tish and French sol­diers had died to in­herit the ashes four days later.

The evac­u­a­tion of Bri­tish ca­su­al­ties at Sevastopol

Cap­tain Julius Robert’s mor­tar boats en­gag­ing the Quar­an­tine Bat­tery at Sevastopol on 15 Au­gust 1855

The bom­bard­ment of Sevastopol by HMS Rod­ney

A French map of the French (in blue) and English (red) lines at Sevastopol

A panorama of the siege from Bri­tish lines

A de­pic­tion of the siege by Rus­sian artist Grig­o­ryi Shukaev in 1856

The Siege of Sevastopol, by Franz Roubaud, painted be­tween 1902 and 1904

Sol­diers trans­port­ing win­ter cloth­ing, tim­ber for huts and other sup­plies to the Bri­tish camps

A con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tion of the siege by Ge­orge Bax­ter

The French as­sault at the Malakhov bas­tion, pic­tured by Wil­liam Simpson in 1855

Roger Fen­ton’s 1855 pho­to­graph of the ‘Val­ley of the Shadow of Death’, show­ing a mul­ti­tude of can­non­balls on an oth­er­wise empty bat­tle­field

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