Origin of the Crimean War

Source: Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade (Penguin Books, 1958), pp. 134-136

[Tsar] Nicholas was looking out for an excuse to attack Turkey, and in the summer of 1853 he found his excuse at Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity there, traditionally built over the stable where Christ was born, was the scene of violent clashes between monks of the Orthodox Church, supported by Russia, and monks of the Roman Catholic Church, supported by France; and since Palestine was in the Turkish Empire, the police in the church were Turkish Mohammedans. The Orthodox denied the right of the Roman Catholics to place a silver star over the manger and to possess a golden key to the church door, and this summer of 1853 a serious riot took place; the Roman Catholics succeeded after a prolonged struggle in placing their star over the manger, but not before several Orthodox monks had been killed. The Tsar instantly asserted that the Turkish police had deliberately allowed the Orthodox monks to be murdered, and marched into the Danubian provinces of Turkey, proclaiming himself the protector of the Orthodox Christian subjects of the Sultan from Turkish persecution. By October 1853 Turkey and Russia were at war.

England remained neutral. But when on November 30th the Russian fleet sailed out of Sebastopol, took the Turkish fleet by surprise at Sinope and wiped it out, the English were transported with rage, and angry mobs paraded the London streets. By the end of January 1854 war was plainly inevitable.


Meanwhile, an extraordinary bellicosity had seized [England]. Grave doubts were entertained in well-informed quarters on the wisdom and the probable outcome of the war, the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against it. The Times was against it, the Queen and the Prince Consort were uncertain. But the people were intoxicated. Memories of past victories went to their heads, the names of Waterloo and Trafalgar were on every lip, crowds paraded the streets delirious with excitement, inflated with national pride. “When people are inflamed in that way they are no better than mad dogs,” wrote Cobbett and so in March 1854, shouting, cheering, singing, the nation swept into war.

On March 27th the Queen’s message of war was read in the Commons, and next day war was declared. The precise causes and objects of the war remained obscure. It was puzzling to find the British nation fighting on the side of Mohammedans against Christians, even if Palmerston was right when he said that that had nothing to do with the question. Mr Disraeli’s explanation did not seem much more satisfactory: he remarked that he thought we were going to war to prevent the Emperor of all the Russias from protecting the Christian subjects of the Sultan of Turkey. And John Bright told the House of Commons that he could see no adequate reason for the conflict. The voice of the people, however, found expression in a less distinguished member, a Mr John Ball, who assured the House that the real justification of the war was vast, high and noble: “the maintenance in civilized society of the principles of right and justice”.