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Crimea 1854-56

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This war is most important, as it was the only conflict fought by Britain against a modern European power between 1815 and 1914 and was characterised by major military incompetence. The war proved that, although the British Army was well-suited to Colonial warfare, there were serious deficiencies, particularly in generalship and in supply organisation, during a war with a modernising enemy. However, the war was redeemed by the fine fighting of junior officers and men, the battle of Inkerman being a classic example of this. There were a number of causes of the war, the main one being British fears of Russian expansion through the Dardanelles into the eastern Mediterranean, occasioned by the decay of the Turkish Ottoman empire ‘The sick man of Europe’. In alliance against Russia with France, Turkey and Piedmont the British expedition landed in the Crimea in September 1854, and four days later stormed the Russian position at the Alma River. After a severe battle, the Russians retreated into Sebastopol, but the Allies allowed them to escape. The British set up camp at Balaklava, where on 25th October 1854 they were attacked by the Russians. The ensuing battle is famous for the Charge of the Light and Heavy Brigades, and the action fought by the 93rd Highlanders (‘the thin red line’). Ten days later another major battle was fought at Inkerman, in which troops took part in hand-to-hand fighting for many hours, both sides suffering very heavy casualties. There followed a long, ten month siege, during which there were several major assaults on the fortified port of Sebastapol. Eventually the city fell, peace was concluded and the Allies withdrew their troops. The Crimean war is also memorable for the emergence of the modern newspaper correspondent in the form of William Henry Russell, whose graphic dispatches in The Times described the war in unflinching terms and did not spare criticism of the British commanders. In medical history it saw the beginnings of modern nursing, carried out by women under the redoubtable Florence Nightingale, ‘the lady with the lamp’ whose hospital at Scutari saved many lives once she had won her battle for hygiene with her male colleagues.

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