You are here
The Anglo-French coalition that fought Russia was an unlikely combination. The partners had been at war for close on five hundred years. After 1815 relations had often been hostile, and yet they managed to concert policy and strategy to invade and defeat Russia - the continental superpower of the age. But the clash of strategic cultures, incompatible war aims and continuing long-term rivalries made the coalition fragile. Long before the war ended both anticipated it would soon fail.
By Professor Andrew Lambert, for RUSI.org
Between 1815 and 1914 Britain operated as a unique global power, with its national security, prosperity, and influence based on the 'Two Power Standard' - the maintenance of a navy equal to the next two most powerful navies, normally France and Russia. With naval mastery secure Britain did not need to enter binding alliances with other major powers to ensure its safety. However, in the case of land warfare, Britain would need partners to combat the mass armies of the other great powers, and preferred to obtain this support through coalitions. This meant forming temporary political and military alliances directed at specific, limited objectives on a 'case by case' basis. As a result, the Crimean War featured an unlikely strategic combination, a limited maritime strategy based upon the British model but with an operational core of a large-scale land campaign dominated by French soldiers.
The catalyst for the Crimean coalition was provided by the Russian occupation of Turkish Danubian Principalities (modern Romania) in July 1853. Although both Britain and France sent their fleets to the Dardanelles because of the threat a Russo-Turkish conflict posed to regional interests, neither wanted war. Britain preferred to uphold the status quo. While France was only seeking a diplomatic victory, hoping to gain British support in order to recover its dominant role in European politics. Thus, the common interest that formed the coalition, preserving Turkey, was essentially negative. The British remained deeply suspicious of France throughout the conflict, and had no wish to replace Russian influence at Istanbul with that of France. Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty went so far as to call the alliance with France 'unnatural.'
Unnatural or not, if Britain and France were going to persuade Russia to abandon its claims against Turkey they needed to concert strategy. With the land route through Germany blocked by Austro-Prussian neutrality, Graham adapted British defence policy into an allied grand strategy, shifting previous British planning for an attack on the French base at Cherbourg to one on Sevastopol. The French and British armies would be combined to form the expeditionary arm of a predominantly maritime strategy. The French accepted British maritime plans because they had no specific objective in going to war, beyond la gloire, and the sooner that was secured the better. The formation of a coalition was more important than the actual details of strategy, not least because the two powers had renounced the right to acquire any territory.
Graham's plan stressed economy, to allow Britain to simultaneously carry out the conflict with Russia while sustaining the long-term battleship arms race with France. However, the scheme was based on the assumption that early success at Sevastopol would release resources to the Baltic theatre, where he planned to attack another, larger Russian fleet. Both powers assumed Russia would submit after the destruction of Sevastopol, the fleet, and possibly some Baltic ports. This reflected a very limited understanding of Russia and its strategic history..
War by agreement
The most obvious sign of the fundamental lack of trust at the heart of the Crimean coalition was the command structure. In February 1854, less than a month before the outbreak of war, Louis-Napoleon proposed that the French would take command of the land forces, conceding command of the navies to Britain. The Cabinet and Queen were horrified at the thought of British troops being ordered into battle by a French general, their concern heightened by the limitations of the designated French commander, Marshal St. Arnaud. The British proposed following the precedent of the two admirals already operating as joint and equal commanders in the Black Sea. This compromise left four allied commanders to wage war by consensus. The French achieved a majority by placing their admiral under the command of their general.
The British selected Lord Raglan for its military command because of his senior rank, fluent French, and tact, attributes he would need to maintain good relations with French marshals and his irascible naval colleague Admiral Sir James Dundas. However, a command structure that required four joint and equal commanders to agree was wholly out of step with Graham's ambitious strategy, which relied on quick, decisive movements. At critical points it proved impossible for the allies to agree on a positive course of action. Instead they settled on half measures and delay. Operational and tactical indecision marked every stage of the build up and invasion of the Crimea in September 1854, and reached a tipping point when the allied fleets were called upon to bombard the harbour defences of Sevastopol on 17 October 1854. It remains a classic example of how not to conduct coalition operations. The attack was intended to be a diversion: suitably cautious plans were developed by the Admirals, only to be changed by the French general. Before the naval diversion even began the land attack had failed, leading the fleets to fight a costly action for no purpose, because no-one on shore bothered to tell them it was no longer necessary.
Strategy and command
Failure of the original grand raid before the gates of Sevastopol provoked recrimination and desire to apportion blame. Lord Aberdeen's ministry was the first casualty, falling in January 1855 soon to be replaced by a new coalition under Lord Palmerston. Failure swiftly tore aside the flimsy veil of cooperation between coalition forces, and revived old rivalries. Graham refused to help the French find transport shipping, to teach them how difficult it would be to stage an invasion, until the cabinet forced his hand. However, the fundamental result of the failure before Sevastopol was to reopen the debate on strategy and highlight the incompatibility of aims.
The British remained committed to a maritime strategy. Russia would be blockaded, attacked on all its coasts, and its naval bases destroyed. Throughout 1854, the British had focused their Black Sea theatre effort on Sevastopol, as the main operation. When that operation stalled they favoured widening the attack, to cut Russian logistics supply lines into the Crimean from the River Don and the Sea of Azov, and clearing the Caucasian coast to assist Chechen rebels. France, as a land power, had no interest in destroying the Russian fleet, or a campaign in the Caucasus to protect British India. They wanted to recover their military prestige before reasserting diplomatic primacy in Europe. Revenge for 1812 would be sweet, but only if it could be obtained on the field of battle. Louis-Napoleon required the French army to win a 'decisive' battle, and decided to go to the Crimea himself and take supreme command.
The British considered the French strategy dangerous, so ministers and the monarch played on Bonapartist insecurity, inviting the Emperor to London. Napoleon and his Empress arrived in April. Flattery and pomp, together with pressure from his own supporters, ensured Louis-Napoleon did not go to the Crimea. Proving that one key to any successful coalition is to know the foibles of the allied leaders and how to exploit them.
Over the winter of 1854-55, the French army was heavily reinforced, while the British could do little more than replace losses. They only retained equal status because Lord Raglan had earned the trust of the French generals, despite his unfortunate habit of referring to the Russians as 'the French'. When Napoleon pressed Marshal Canrobert to carry out his 'decisive' battle strategy, Raglan thwarted him by playing on Canrobert's natural caution. In April 1855, he persuaded Canrobert to release 8,000 men to capture Kertch and open the Sea of Azov for the allied fleets. To the disgust of the British, Canrobert unilaterally recalled the French element of the expedition after it had sailed, following fresh orders sent from Paris on the newly laid telegraph line.
Finding himself in an impossible position, Canrobert resigned the command to General Pelissier. Pelissier ignored the Emperor and his telegraph; deciding he would grind his way into Sevastopol by a regular siege. Recognizing the importance of British goodwill, Pelissier carried out the Kertch operation and then, with the concurrence of Raglan, set up a battle of attrition, in which the allies had the advantage of logistics, firepower, and initiative, despite being thousands of miles from home, camped outside a Russian city.
The key to this strategy lay in the Sea of Azov, where ten British gunboats destroyed the food and fodder that was meant to sustain the Russian army in the Crimea. Within three months starvation and disease so weakened the Russians that they could no longer sustain the battle for Sevastopol. Pelissier used tactics that presaged the carnage of the First World War; small attacks and feints kept large Russian reserves in the front line, where they were decimated by superior allied artillery. After inflicting casualties in excess of 1,000 a day for much of August and early September, on 9 September 1855, the French took the Malakhoff, the key to the defence of Sevastopol. Raglan had died in June, and with him went any significant British influence on the campaign. His successors lacked the skill, tact, and status to maintain an artificial role in the allied command.
In London, Palmerston wanted to exploit the successful Sea of Azov to clear the entire Crimean peninsula, but the French were not interested. They had already obtained their objective, battlefield triumph, and the British could not insist because their Crimean army was still only 40,000 men, a sixth of the French force. Once the original maritime strategy broke down, superior manpower gave the French the right to direct allied strategy in the Black Sea, leaving the Royal Navy reliant on the support of allied armies, under French direction, rather than conducting maritime campaigns that served British interests. Little wonder the British were anxious to find separate theatres of action from their allies once Sevastopol fell. The failure of the original grand raid exposed the fundamental divergence of aim between the coalition partners, providing Russia with a golden opportunity to exploit the critical weakness of any coalition, the political cohesion between the partners. Fortunately for Britain, France had to fight until Sevastopol fell. The fall of Sevastopol effectively ended the war for the French. They had recovered their prestige and wanted to cement their achievement in a peace settlement. However, the British, embarrassed by military failures, wanted another campaign so the army could recover some of the aura of Waterloo, and their national arm, the Royal Navy, could destroy Kronstadt and threaten St Petersburg. Having entered the war to reduce Russian power around the world, they were hardly going to be satisfied with Sevastopol. This conflict of interests made the diplomacy of war termination more than usually fraught with tensions. It also required the British to shift the emphasis of the war effort to the Baltic.
The winter of 1855-56 provided an opportunity for diplomacy. Although France publicly remained in the war, Louis-Napoleon was anxious for peace, concocting a compromise plan with Austria in mid-October. Given the choice between a humiliating, but not disastrous peace, or the near inevitability of major defeats, loss of territory, and even the destruction of St. Petersburg, Tsar Alexander II agreed to the terms, reassured that the French would limit British demands.
The peace congress assembled in Paris to mark the triumph of Louis-Napoleon and the resurgence of France, but by then the coalition had already collapsed. Peace was signed on 30 March 1856. The British celebrated the victory with a fleet review at Spithead on St. George's Day (23 April). The political and military representatives of the major powers watched as the Great Armament conducted a mock attack on Southsea Castle. The Russians, the Americans, and most particularly the French, could be in no doubt that Kronstadt, New York, and Cherbourg were the real targets.
With peace settled, Palmertson had no qualms about allowing the wartime coalition to cool. British interests would have been damaged by Louis-Napoleon's radical plans to redraw the map of Europe, and Palmerston preferred to resume Britain's historic balancing role. He also explained why the coalition had not reduced underlying Anglo-French tension, or ended the naval race: 'When we consider the different interests of England and France, the different characters and habits of the two countries, we ought rather to be thankful at having got so much out of the alliance, and to have maintained it for so long, than to be surprised or disappointed at its approaching end'.
The painful experience of coalition war-making in 1854-56 reflected the completely different strategic ideas of Britain and France: maritime attrition opposed to military annihilation. The British recognized the limits of any coalition but could not obviate them. Lack of military manpower, global security interests, and an underlying hostility toward their partner all hampered the development of British strategy. This would have been well known to the statesmen of 1854, some of whom could recall the contrast between the muddled British planning of 1803-6, while the Third Coalition existed, when partners had to be cultivated, and the ruthless, dynamic effort against Copenhagen in 1807, when all hope of coalition appeared to be gone. Coalition war plans are inevitably a compromise.
By early 1855, British theatre commanders and other officers who had to deal with their partners at a high level were frustrated by the novel experience of coalition war-making. Different working methods and aims of the partners provided little to sustain the coalition in the face of adversity. Only the military imperative of impending disaster and the political need to win kept them on the same side, and then only until Sevastopol fell. Thereafter, the coalition fell apart almost as rapidly as it had been created. The application of so much power without a clear political program led to results that neither partner had anticipated.
Professor Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI