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Today, we remember little about what we call the Crimean war (1853-1856), even though it was the largest war ever fought in history up to that moment. It prefigured many of the elements that would later reappear in the two world wars of the 20th century, so much that we might call it “World War 0.” It included fossil fuels as the ultimate cause of conflicts, an enhanced role of propaganda, the tendency of leaders of losing control of the wars they have started, and the origin of the “Russophobia” still common in the West in our times. These elements may tell us a lot about what could be a “World War III” in our future. Above, you can see a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855. It makes clear that defending Crimea is not a trifling matter for the Russians, who lost some 400.000 men in the Crimean war.

There is much material scattered on the Web about the Crimean war, but nothing that I found really satisfactory in digging out the real reasons for the disaster that it was. So, this is an attempt of mine to create some order out of the chaos. It is not meant to be anything definitive: if you find the time to read it, it is up to you to judge.

One of the curious thigns of the Crimean war of 1853-1856 is that we remember so little about it. Ask anyone what the war was about, who won, who lost, and even who fought it and the answers are likely to be vague, at best. It seems that the only thing remembered today about that war is the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava. It is as if we remembered the 2nd world war only for the episode of saving private Ryan.

Yet, the Crimean war was the largest ever fought up to that time. It was a global engagement that involved practically all the major military powers of the time, nearly two million combatants, and a number of casualties that can be estimated as between half a million and a million. In many ways, the Crimean war prefigured the world wars that would take place during the 20th century, especially for the increasingly important role of propaganda. For this reason, we could rightly call it “world war 0”.

But why this war? And why was it so thoroughly forgotten, at least in the West? For anything that happens there has to be a reason and, also in this case, there are reasons. We may find them in a mix of economic factors and in the monumental incompetence of some leaders. But we have to start from the beginning.

Many of the struggles of the 19th century can be understood in view of the role of coal in history. Starting with the late 18th century, coal created the industrial revolution in those countries that had coal resources. That, in turn, generated an economic surplus that was used in large part to build up military power and – with it – empires. The two largest empires of the 19th century were the British and the Russian one; the first dominating the seas, the second the Eurasian landmass. England had the largest coal resources in the world and it was also the most industrialized country in those times. Russia was not so thoroughly industrialized as Britain, but it had enormous human and mineral resources that made it a major player in the world domination game. At that time, it became common to speak of “the Great Game,” also well known as “Bolshoya Ikra” in Russian. And from the languages used to define the game, you can understand who were the players. It is still being played today, even though the capital of the Sea Empire has moved from London to Washington.

While the coal-powered empires were expanding, the regions that didn’t have coal resources were in deep trouble. Of course, coal could be imported, but that implied having a system of canals that could distribute coal everywhere. No canals, no industry. No industry, no military power. That was the situation of the Ottoman Empire, called at the time “the sick man of Europe.” But the old Empire was not sick: it was starved of coal. It didn’t produce any and it controlled lands too dry to be suitable for waterways. It was a problem created by geology and, as such, it was not affected by politics. So, the Ottoman Empire was destined to be carved up among the coal-powered states, a process that would be completed with the first world war.

It was clear to both Russia and Britain that the Great Game was about competing for the spoils of the Ottoman State. The Russians were coming down from the North, in Central Asia and in the Balkans. The British were working their way up from the South, in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Region. In a series of wars fought during the 18th century, the Russians had reached the shores of the Black Sea. During the reign of Catherine II, the Russians defeated once more the Ottoman Empire and, in 1783, they annexed the Crimean Khanate, once a protectorate of the Ottomans.

For the Russians, Crimea was not just one more piece of land for their already vast empire. With the military harbor of Sevastopol, Crimea was a springboard for further expansion southward. Sevastopol also gave to the Russian the possibility of projecting their naval power into the Mediterranean sea. Of course, the British didn’t like the idea of sharing the Mediterranean with the Russians, but it seems that they had to put up with that. After all, if the Russians were at work at weakening the Ottoman Empire from the North, that gave to the British better chances to advance from the South. That was the situation until the French rocked the boat around 1850, starting a quarrel over a trivial question about the rights of the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, eventually leading to a major, world-wide war.

In those times, France was another powerful empire. It had been one of the first states to engage in the large-scale use of coal and, during the early 19th century, it had become the dominating power in Central and Western Europe. That was the origin of the disastrous adventure of Napoleon in Russia, in 1812: it was the attempt of eliminating a major rival in the domination of Europe. Napoleon’s colossal mistake was typical of leaders everywhere and of all times: overestimating the military might he commanded.

Mistakes tend to generate more mistakes and that’s true for individuals as well as for empires. Some 40 years after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, France had rebuilt its military strength and Europe was set for a new military confrontation. As before, it was the result of economic factors and of the poor judgment of the people who controlled the most powerful states of that time. This time, the blunders were made mainly by Louis Napoleon, who had styled himself as “Emperor of the French” and taken the title of “Napoleon III.”

To be a credible Emperor, Louis Napoleon needed the kind of prestige that can only come from military victories. Possibly, he would have liked to avenge the defeat of his uncle against the Russians in 1812 but, of course, he couldn’t even dream to have the French army march on Moscow again. Still, he thought that the Russians were the enemies of France and he endeavored to build up a coalition that would fight Russia. He couldn’t understand that the game in mid 18th century was not anymore the game that had been played at the time of the first Napoleon. Louis Napoleon was making the mistake that Lao Tzu described by saying that “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” That was exactly what was to happen with the Crimean war.


The escalation that led to an all-out war was probably something that none of the leaders involved in it could control, or perhaps even understand. It was an ominous presage of what would happen 60 years later, when Europe exploded in the first world war. Perhaps it was an even more ominous presage of what propaganda can do when the Western press started describing the Russians as ugly savages, as you see in the image, from 1855. In those times, propaganda wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today, but the idea is always the same: they are bad and we are good.

Eventually, the Ottomans declared war on Russia in October 1853, knowing that they were supported by France and Britain. Then, the war exploded along a ring of fire that followed the Russian borders, from the White Sea in the North-West, to the Kamchatka peninsula in the East. At the beginning, the idea of attacking Crimea doesn’t seem to have been in the plans of the coalition. But, once they had built up a military force in the Black Sea, someone must have realized that the harbor of Sevastopol could have been an excellent objective to demonstrate the coalition’s superior power. The idea suited Louis Napoleon very nicely: by conquering Sevastopol he could claim to have avenged the French defeat of 1812. In September of 1854, British, French and Ottoman troops landed in Crimea with an ambitious objective: taking Sevastopol.

They succeeded, but at a very high price. In August 1855, after nearly one year of struggle, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol after having destroyed most of what was left intact after the allied bombardment. The fall of Sevastopol effectively put an end to the war. There followed negotiations and the treaty of Paris (1856) that basically recognized that neither side wanted to continue fighting. By all means, the outcome of the Crimean war was a military defeat for the Russians but the only obligation that was imposed on them was to demilitarize Crimea.

At the same time, the war had been a military success for the coalition, but the costs had been enormous and the tangible results nearly zero. The allies had suffered tremendous losses and they couldn’t possibly have kept the occupation of Crimea for a long time. Not many years later, in 1870, with France defeated by Prussia, there was no coalition that could stop the Russian from returning and re-militarizing Sevastopol – which they did. By 1877, Russia and Turkey were again at war on one another and, this time, the Western European powers didn’t intervene to help Turkey. Rather, Britain profited from the occasion to snatch Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire.

As it normally the case for wars, the whole Crimean war was fought for nothing. But perhaps, in this case, the futility of the whole enterprise was more evident than in others. It may be for this reason that, in the following years, most people in the West made an effort to forget everything about this ill-fated war. The only memory of it left was the colorful and dramatic charge of the 600 at Balaclava. We still remember that episode, today.

But mistakes, as we saw, keep begetting mistakes and a typical source of mistakes for leaders is their tendency to see the world in terms of “friends” and “enemies”. After the Crimean war was over, it seems that the bad guys of the story were identified not so much with the Russians, but with those European states which had refused to join the coalition against Russia: Austria and the Kingdom of Naples. These two states were singled out as worth punishing, in particular by Louis Napoleon. In 1859, the French engaged in a military campaign aimed at expelling the Austrians out of Italy, and they succeeded. One year later, Louis Napoleon did nothing to prevent Piedmont from defeating and annexing the Kingdom of Naples, creating the “Kingdom of Italy” in 1861.

In these actions, Luis Napoleon had shot himself (and France) in both feet. He hadn’t understood the growing role of Prussia (another coal-powered empire) in central Europe and that weakening Austria meant giving to Prussia a chance to expand even more. At the same time, the new Italian state was a competitor of France for domination in the Mediterranean region and would stop France from further expanding in North Africa. Maybe Louis Napoleon thought that Italy would have become a French protectorate, as Piedmont had been. It was another colossal mistake: ten years later, Italy was allied with Prussia in a war against Austria and France. At Sedan, in 1870, Prussia dealt a deadly blow to the French imperial dreams. From then on, the German Empire was to be the top dog of Western Europe. It still plays this role, today.

You see how a chain of events affecting Europe originated from the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Starting from that event, we could play the “what if?” game. What if Louis Napoleon had not pushed for war against Russia? What if he had prevented the Italian unification from occurring? It is one of the fascinating games you can play with history, and I have done that here and here. Perhaps all that happens in history is a game that leaders play with the lives of their subjects. And, in this game, Crimea seems to be often playing an important role, even in modern times.

Over the years, Empires changed names but the strategic struggle for the domination of the world remained unchanged. During the first world war, taking advantage of the turmoil in Russia, German forces took control of Crimea in April 1918. That was a short-lived occupation and the Germans withdrew in November. Tzarist Russia disappeared and in 1920 the Red Army occupied Crimea after that it had been briefly in control first of the anti-Bolshevik White Army and then also invaded by the French. During the second world war, history repeated itself once more. The Axis forces attacked Crimea in 1941 and managed to take Sevastopol after an extended siege. Then, the Red Army took back Sevastopol in 1944. A pattern seemed to appear in all these events: Western armies seemed to be always able to occupy Crimea, but never to hold it for a long time.

The British Empire waned in the following decades, replaced by the US empire, The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, replaced by the Russian Federation. But the importance of Crimea and the military port of Sevastopol remained unchanged. In our times, the focus of the struggle has moved more and more from traditional warfare to the kind of “hybrid” warfare that includes propaganda, infiltration, and psyops. In 1954, the administration of Crimea had been transferred to another Soviet country, Ukraine. When the Ukraine coup of 2014 moved the country to the Western sphere of influence, it seemed that the West had found an easy way to gain control of Crimea. It didn’t work as planned. Less than one year later, Russia took back Crimea in a bloodless counter-operation of hybrid warfare. Again, we see how the the West, apparently, can take Crimea but can’t hold it.

Unsurprisingly, the return of Crimea to Russia (obrazovanje in Russian) in 2014 was not taken kindly in the West and that led to another round of hybrid warfare, this time based on economic sanctions. The struggle is still ongoing and the small peninsula of Crimea remains one of the major friction points of the world’s strategic balance. Apart from the importance of the military port of Sevastopol, Crimea has the characteristic of being part of Russia but, at the same time, to be disconnected from the Russian mainland and to be vulnerable to attack from the sea. These characteristics make it a possible target for an aggressive Western leader. At the same time, the importance of Crimea for Russia is so high that no Russian leader could even dream to abandon Crimea before trying to defend it with all the available means. This is a recipe for disaster, today as it was at the time of Louis Napoleon. Whether it will take us to another world war, WW3, is all to be seen, but it can’t be excluded.

Appendix: the viewpoint from Italy

A little known part of this story is the role of the Kingdom of Naples in the 19th century Crimean war. The Kingdom had a long story of friendship with Russia and, some 50 years before, Russia had sent troops to Naples to help (unsuccessfully) the Kingdom to repel an attack from France. It seems that the Russians saw the Southern Italian kingdom as their gateway to the Mediterranean region and maintained good relations with it. At the time of the Crimean war, there was no formal alliance between the Kingdom of Naples and Russia, but when the British asked to the King of Naples to send troops to Crimea to join the Anti-Russia alliance, the King refused. He didn’t know that, in doing so, he was signing the death sentence for the kingdom. Even when it was clear that Russia was losing, the King of Naples refused to make the about-face that the Austrian empire did at the last moment. That turned the Kingdom of Naples into a pariah in the eyes of both the French and the British. Instead, the Kingdom of Piedmont (more exactly, the Kingdom of Sardinia) had been smarter and had sent an expeditionary corps to support the anti-Russian coalition. We can perhaps understand something of how harsh the Crimean war was if we note that, of the 15,000 troops sent to Crimea from Piedmont, it is reported that only about 2500 returned to their homes all in one piece.

So, much of what happened in Italy after the Crimean War can be explained by these simple facts. The French and the British felt that the Kingdom of Piedmont was to be rewarded for its help, while the Kingdom of Naples was to be punished for the opposite reasons. The Kingdom of Naples had no coal and no waterways to import it, and it was in a desperately weak position. The defeat of Russia in Crimea had made it impossible for the Russians to send help to Naples and the kingdom found itself completely isolated against the industrialized, coal-powered Kingdom of Piedmont, well supported by Britain. There came the expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily in 1860, whose ships were protected by the British fleet. The Neapolitan army was defeated, the kingdom was invaded by the Piedmontese from the North and that was the end of the Kingdom of Naples and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything) His blog is Cassandra’s Legacy where this article was originally published


  1. Bob Stuart says:

    That really is a significant puzzle piece. I’m very glad to have read it. WW I was actually underway before the assassination of the Archduke brought all the allies in. England was fighting to prevent completion of the Baghdad – Berlin RR, which would have made oil available to the German Fleet, etc.

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Crimean war has not been discussed much. But its significant role in shaping industrial conflicts cannot be under- estimated. The vast resources of Russia have been a source of discontent in the west. There were attempts to subdue Russian emperors and grab natural resources. This war was a prelude for later world wars which were fought mainly to dominate weaker countries and plunder their natural resources