From 1853 to 1856, three of Europe’s great powers reengaged in war after more than thirty years of peace. The Crimean War, triggered by a series of disputes over who had authority over the Holy Land, was the result of numerous factors. It saw France, Britain, and the Ottoman empire declare war against Russia and was to be one of the most devastating conflicts the world had ever seen resulting in the death of over half a million people. Approximately sixty percent of these deaths were the result of disease and it is for this reason that the war is depicted in historiography as a disease-ridden blood bath.[1]

Whilst such a depiction is undoubtedly true, it should not be the only image one should have when picturing the war. As Yakup Bektas points out, the war was ‘a theatre of exuberant technological enterprise’, yet technology is often undervalued or unmentioned in historiography despite its significant influence throughout the war.[2] However, renowned military historian Williamson Murray is one who has gone as far to conclude that it was ‘superior Allied technology’ that ultimately led to Russian defeat in the Crimean War.[3] His argument discusses how the Allied forces developed and employed new technologies in order to gain a significant advantage on the battlefield. The impact the rifle, steamships, and telegraphy are all discussed in an attempt to provide a revisionist view on the role they played throughout the war. This essay intends to discuss Murray’s argument, addressing said technologies in the order he gives them, whilst also looking into whether there were deficiencies in Russian technology, and whether other technologies might have been included in order to strengthen his discussion. This essay aims solely to address Murray’s discussion; it does not intend to cover other factors that may have affected the outcome of the war.

Murray begins with a brief explanation of the outbreak of the war. Avoiding the trigger of the dispute over the Holy Land, he instead focuses on Russian aggression in trying to take advantage of the ‘weak state’ that was the Ottoman Empire.[4] This raised objections from both the French and British who could not allow the Russians to ‘pick up the pieces’ from the collapse of Turkey. The British in particular felt threatened over the possibility of Russia having direct entry into the Mediterranean. In 1854, Russia invaded Ottoman territory by crossing the Danube resulting in the French and British declaring war. However, before any fighting occurred, Austria intervened demanding that Tsar Nicholas I withdraw his troops from the Ottoman territory. The Tsar complied, removing the casus belli, but French and British leaders felt they needed to reprimand the Russians, which resulted in the Crimean War.

The development of the rifle is the first new technology discussed by Murray and he praises it highly in giving the Allies the edge on the battlefield. In previous wars, muskets had been the Allies’ primary fire-arm; a muzzle loaded weapon, which used spherical bullets. As well as having a limited range of just 200 yards, its accuracy was severely limited; in the Napoleonic wars, only 1 in 450 musket rounds had an impact on the battlefield.[5] However, this all changed in the late 1840s with the French invention of the ‘Minié’ rifle which completely outclassed the musket.[6] This rifle had a spiral groove barrel, a breech loading system, and used the newly developed cone-shaped rounds. These lead bullets were hollowed out at the bottom, which allowed the explosive charge to push out the flanges making a secure enough fit that the rifling created spin and direction.[7] This in turn had a great effect on the rifle’s range allowing it to fire effectively over five hundred yards. Its accuracy was also greatly increased, resulting in 1 in every 16 bullets having an effect on the battlefield during the Crimean War.[8] The rifle was undoubtedly a significant upgrade from the musket and Murray argues that the ability of the Allies to produce and utilise the weapon gave them an incredible advantage on the battlefield.

Russia were at a great disadvantage. They were unable to produce the rifle on a large scale and so at the turn of the war they were still predominantly armed with ancient flintlock muskets; around 530,000 muskets and only 6,000 rifles.[9] It cost them dearly at the Battle of Inkerman where the Minié rifle, ‘completely dominated the battlefield and the Russians suffered 12,000 casualties, the Allies only 3,000.’[10] Sergeant Timothy Gowing of the Royal Fusiliers, who was at Inkerman, agrees about the power of the weapon during the battle explaining that, ‘the Minié ball rifles told heavily upon the crowded ranks.’[11] Historian Hosking also agrees stating, ‘Their small arms were outclassed by the new rifles at the disposal of the British and French troops, which could fire both farther and more accurately.’[12] This range caused considerable problems for Russian cavalry. Considering it took horseback cavalry three minutes to charge 800 yards, they took much greater casualties due to the Minié.[13]

Murray explains that was also the case at the Battle of Alma where, ‘well-aimed fire from their rifles were able to slaughter the Russians… well before the advancing lines came within range of enemy muskets.’[14] Orlando Figes agrees writing that 2,000 British Coldstream Guards refused orders to charge the Russian hill top position. Instead they used their initiative to form up into two lines and release fourteen volleys of Minié rifle shot, stunning the Russian infantry into retreat.[15] He states further that the rifle would, ‘prove decisive in all the early battles of the Crimean War.’[16] This devastating fire power was not lost on Russian military engineer Eduard Totleben who explains how Allied troops were, ‘full of confidence once they found out the accuracy and immense range of their weapons.’ He adds further that the ability of the Allies to fire over 1,000 paces allowed them to engage in a ‘murderous fusillade.’[17] Historian Andrew Lambert concurs reiterating that the Russians had, ‘nothing to counter the long-range fire of minié rifle.’[18] What was even worse for the Russians, was that even if they wanted to produced more rifles, they simply didn’t have the capability to do so. With only three weapons factories in the country there was no way that Russia would be able to produce enough weapons, around 60,000 per annum, to accommodate her forces in the Crimea.[19] Overall, there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that the rifle had a crucial impact on the battlefield. This does strengthen the discussion of Murray’s that ‘superior Allied technology’ defeated Russia in the Crimean War.

The second technology discussed by Murray is the development of steam ships. He explains that the ability of the Allies to utilise them in both a logistical and military manner was of equal importance to the that of the rifle during the conflict. In the logistical sense, steam power dramatically reduced the time needed to get supplies and troops to the Crimea. With sides increasingly relying on their ability to supply their forces, utilising steam power allowed them to move supplies with remarkable ease.[20]. However, in order to allow safe passage of their steam ships, the Allies needed to dominate the seas. Whilst the Russians could not match the superior naval strength of the Allies, their ability to inflict serious damage was not underestimated. The devastating fire power produced at the ‘Massacre of Sinope’ showed them that the Russians had the capacity, for example from shore installations on the Crimean coast, to deal considerable damage to the Allied fleet.[21] A fleet of wooden warships would have faced the same risks of annihilation as befell the Turkish vessels at Sinope.[22] In 1854, with this knowledge in mind, a series of tests were run by the French to create an armoured vessel that could withstand the shell fire it would be exposed to during an attack. The vessel was the ironclad, which was named after its four-inch-thick metal armour. Approximately 170 feet long and with sixteen fifty-pound guns, it was the first prototype for future naval warships. By the end of 1854, the French had created five ironclads and had shared their plans with the British who in turn created five more.

Now that the Allies had their protected warship, they began to make a greater impact on both the naval and ground battlefields. Murray states that Allied troops would not have had the success at Alma had their fleet not been able to secure a safe landing area prior to the attack. H.P. Collins agrees arguing that the successful Allied landing at Alma was due to the Allies’ effective use of steam power.[23] When discussing other battles such as those at Kinburn and Bomarsund, the influence of the ironclad was even greater. At Kinburn, ironclad batteries were able to resist the previously devastating Russian fire; French ironclad Dévastation was hit 75 times, Lave 66 and Tonnante a similar number, each emerging from the battle with no more than minor dents in their armour plating.[24] Murray argues that this new technology had, like the rifle, made previous technology almost redundant. Renowned historian Nicholas Riasanovsky agrees noting that ‘Russia’s Black Sea fleet, composed of wooden sailing vessels, could not compete with the steam-propelled warships of the Allies.’[25] The Russian navy was no longer capable of putting up any sort of opposition as is shown in the First Sea Lord’s Estimates on the 16th of February 1855 who stated ‘the great naval arsenal of Cronstadt… was visited by a force inferior to the force there stationed. Battle was repeatedly offered, and as repeatedly declined.’[26] With no opposition on the seas, the Allied ships were now free to transport supplies from Europe with relative ease, an ability that Murray argues was crucial in the defeat of Russian in the war. As stated by historian John Quarstein, ‘technology now ruled the waves’ and the argument discussed by Murray that advanced naval technology played a major factor in the defeat of Russia seems to be comprehensive.[27]

The third technology addressed in Murray’s discussion is telegraphy. The importance of communication was becoming ever clearer as war evolved throughout the nineteenth century, and the Crimean War was no exception. With the aid of the telegraph, governments, thousands of miles away, could send orders swiftly to their commanders on the battlefield. They began to use it to coordinate their war effort, gather intelligence, and more effectively direct their fighting.[28] However, whilst it was undoubtedly effective for the British, it does by no means strengthen Murray’s point that ‘superior Allied technology’ defeated Russia in the conflict. From the evidence that will be shown, the Russian utilisation of telegraphy convincingly outclassed that of the Allies. Bektas points out that in 1854, the fastest message to London took around five days: two days to Varna by steamer and three days by horse from there to their first telegraph station in Bucharest.[29]. Whilst this was not an unacceptable time, Russia was much more efficient as Beauchamp points out. He states that when the war began, Russia already had a telegraph line between Sevastopol and Moscow via Odessa. He adds further that the system proved invaluable to the Russian army in the early stages of the war as it could convey short messages to Moscow in just two days.[30] If Russia could deliver messages in less than half the time of the Allies, then it is they who were superior in this particular technology.

What counters Murray’s argument further, is the evidence that suggests that the telegraph was a double-edged sword. Telegraphy gave newspapers the opportunity to receive reports from the Crimea, allowing them to publish news from the front to the general public. Although it allowed a wealth of information to reach each respective country, it also had the ability to be used against the Allies. There was serious concern in Britain and France that the Russians were collating accurate intelligence of the movements of Allied troops via each country’s newspapers. It was possible for Russian agents in London and Paris to telegraph back to their capital the reports and news in the daily press of those cities.[31] This proves that as much as telegraphy helped the Allies in their victory over Russia, the argument to suggest that their technology was superior is, in this case, false. Russia were arguably ahead in establishing communication systems and therefore benefitted from the telegraph to a greater extent.

Whilst undiscussed in any detail by Murray, the development of the railway played a crucial role in the conflict. Like communication, logistics were playing an increasingly vital role on both sides of the war. Ammunition and weaponry were key components to winning any battle and so getting them to the front line was of the utmost importance. From the evidence that will be shown, it is clear to see that the Allies, in particular the British, utilised the railroad to its greater advantage.

Russian logistical situation was extremely bleak. With regard to railways, despite her grand ambitions, there was not one railway south of Moscow.[32] With over 1300 miles between the military headquarters of St Petersburg, and the fighting in the Crimea, moving soldiers and supplies by foot was extremely time consuming.[33] This became significantly worse during periods of torrential rain in the Northern area of the Crimea, when roads became even slower due to their susceptibility of becoming a mire. This reduced the speed of carted vehicles to a measly one and a half miles per hour.[34]

Russia were not the only ones who were having logistical problems due to impassable roads. In the opening chapters of his book, leading scholar Brian Cooke explains how similarly susceptible roads were used by the British to move artillery and supplies to the designated siege point above Sebastopol, approximately seven miles from their headquarters in Balaklava. However, after expectations to take the city during the first siege fell through, the Allies were forced to retreat and the war was prolonged into the winter of 1854. This winter brought with it devastating weather and made the previously vital roads useless.[35] After a dismal attempt to metal the road failed, a solution had to be found. As stated by Colonel Anthony Sterling, ‘The principal want of our army is a regularly-organised baggage train’, this is something that railway pioneers Peto, Brassey and Betts aimed to provide.[36]

The proposal was a seven-mile-long railway that would built by British navvies from Balaklava to the siege point. After everything had been planned, arranged, supplied, and transported to the peninsula, the navvies began construction. The Illustrated Times reported the rapid speed of the construction, ‘the railway was progressing at a rate of a quarter of a mile a day.’[37] In just seven weeks they had it completed. When fully functional, it allowed the British to supply more of both artillery and its ammunition to the siege line. Compared to the first bombardment at Sebastopol, they now had more than three times the ten and thirteen inch mortars, giving them a much greater fire power. The Times reported the significance of the railway in besieging the town explaining that due to a storm, ‘it was computed that ten days would be lost in the siege.’[38] The ability of the train line to reduce the siege time was not lost on Lord Raglan’s chief engineer Sir John Burgoyne, who believed it was impossible to overate the services rendered by the railway or its effect in shortening the time of siege. It was clear that the railway played a crucial role, it gave the British the ability to cause more than double the casualties than the previous bombardment.[39] A New York Times reporter stated that, ‘so heavy had been the fire of the besieging batteries, and so terrible was the loss of life in the town of Sebastopol, that the air was reported to be tainted by the number of unburned dead.’[40] When you consider this was written about the first siege, one cannot imagine how devastating the second must have been. The significance of the railway is summed up by Michael Robbins who states clearly that it ‘made a valuable contribution to the fall of Sebastopol.’[41] Overall the central Crimean railway, if added to Murray’s discussion, would have boosted the strength of his view that ‘superior Allied technology’ defeated Russia.

In conclusion, as said by Murray himself, ‘technology and science were now crucial to battlefield success. The side that recognised and utilised such changes in its military forces would enjoy an important advantage over its opponents.’[42] From the evidence shown in Murray’s discussion and in the works of others, it is quite evident that technology played this crucial role throughout the conflict. The rifle revolutionised the capabilities of the Allies, allowing their infantry to dominate the battlefield. Steam locomotives gave them the ability to move troops and supplies at unprecedented speeds. The railway allowed them to fully utilise their artillery, moving ammunition with greater ease. However, whilst telegraphy was undoubtedly instrumental for the Allies, it was not a superior technology when compared to Russia’s system, therefore it is not particularly relevant within this discussion. That aside, overall the argument that ‘superior Allied technology’ defeated Russia throughout the war is comprehensive and one that revisionists must take into account when revisiting the events of the Crimean War.

[1] C. Ponting, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London, 2004), 334.

[2] Y. Bektas, ‘The Crimean War as a Technological Enterprise’, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 3 (2017), 1.

[3]  W. Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, in G. Parker (ed.), The Cambridge History of Warfare (New York, 2005), 222.

[4] Ibid., 221.

[5] Ponting, The Crimean War, 23.

[6] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 221.

[7] Ibid., 221.

[8] Ponting, The Crimean War, 23.

[9] Ibid., 23.

[10] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 222.

[11] T. Gowing, Voice from the Ranks: a personal narrative of the Crimean Campaign (Nottingham, 1895).

[12] G. Hosking, Russia and the Russians: From Earliest Times to 2001 (London, 2001) 285.

[13] J. S. Curtis, Russia’s Crimean War (Durham, 1979), 324.

[14] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 222.

[15] O. Figes, The Crimean War (New York, 2010), 214.

[16] Ibid., 214.

[17] E. Totleben, Opisanie Oborony G. Sevastopolia, 3 vols (St Petersburg, 1863-78).

[18] A. Lambert, The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy, 1853-1856 (Manchester, 1990), 122.

[19] Lambert, The Crimean War, 122.

[20] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 221.

[21] G. A. Obson, ‘The First of the Iron Clads. The Armoured Batteries of the 1850s’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 50 (1964), 189.

[22] G. A. Obson, ‘The Crimean gunboats’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 51 (1965), 103.

[23] H. P. Collins, ‘The Crimea: The Fateful Weeks’, Army Quarterly, 71 (October 1955), 86-96.

[24] H. W. Wilson, Ironclads in Action: A Sketch of Naval Warfare from 1855 to 1895 (London, 1896).

[25] N. V. Riasanovsky and M. D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, (eds.) (New York, 2005), 322.

[26] Hansard Parliamentary Debates (1855), vol. 136.

[27] J. Quarstein, A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood (Stroud, 2007), 46.

[28] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 222.

[29] Y. Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847– 1880’, Technology and Culture, 41 (2000), 673.

[30] Ken Beauchamp, A History of Telegraphy: Its Technology and Application (London, 2001), 14.

[31] Bektas, ‘The Crimean War as a Technological Enterprise’, 12.

[32] Jelavich, B., St Petersburg and Moscow, Tsarist and Soviet Foreign Policy, 1814-1974 (Indiana, 1974), 119.

[33] V. T. Bill, ‘The Early Days of Russian Railroads’, Russian Review, 15 (1956), 14.

[34] D. L. Ransel, ‘Pre-Reform Russia: 1801-1855’ in G. L. Freeze (ed.), Russia: A History (Oxford, 2002), 168.

[35] Cooke, B. The Grand Crimean Central Railway, The Railway That Won a War: The Story of the Railway Built by the British in the Crimea during the War of 1854–1856 (Knutsford, 1990) 8.

[36] A. Sterling, The Highland Brigade in the Crimea (1895), 27.

[37] Ibid., 48.

[38] The Times (21 July 1855).

[39] Cooke, The Grand Crimean Central Railway, 146.

[40] ‘The Siege of Sebastopol’, The New York Times (17 Nov 1854).

[41] Robbins, ‘The Balaclava Railway’, 28.

[42] Murray, ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, 223.


Primary Sources:

Gowing, Timothy, Voice from the Ranks: a personal narrative of the Crimean Campaign (Nottingham, 1895).

Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 136 (London, 1855).

The Siege of Sebastopol, The New York Times, (17 November, 1854)

Sterling, Anthony, The Highland Brigade in the Crimea (1895)

The Times, (7 November, 1854)

The Times, (21 July, 1855)

Totleben, Eduard, Opisanie Oborony G. Sevastopolia, 3 vols. (St Petersburg 1863-78)

Wilson, Herbert Wrigley, Ironclads in Action: A Sketch of Naval Warfare from 1855 to 1895 (London, 1896)

Secondary Sources:

Beauchamp, K., A History of Telegraphy: Its Technology and Application (London, 2001)

Bektas, Y., ‘The Crimean War as a Technological Enterprise’, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 3 (2017)

Bektas Y., ‘The Sultan’s messenger: cultural constructions of Ottoman telegraphy, 1847– 1880’, Technology and Culture, 41 (2000)

Bill, V. T., ‘The Early Days of Russian Railroads’, Russian Review, 15 (1956)

Collins, H. P., “The Crimea: The Fateful Weeks,” Army Quarterly, 71 (1955)

Cooke, B. The Grand Crimean Central Railway, the Railway that won a war: the story of the railway built by the British in the Crimea during the war of 1854–1856 (Knutsford, 1990)

Curtis, J. S., Russia’s Crimean War (Durham, 1979)

Figes, O., The Crimean War (New York, 2010)

Hosking, G., Russia and the Russians: From Earliest Times to 2001 (London, 2001)

Jelavich, B., St Petersburg and Moscow, Tsarist and Soviet Foreign Policy, 1814-1974 (Indiana, 1974)

Lambert, A., The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy, 1853-1856 (Manchester, 1990)

Murray, W., ‘The Industrialization of War 1815-1871’, in G. Parker (ed.), The Cambridge History of Warfare (New York, 2005)

Obson, G. A., ‘The Crimean gunboats’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 51 (1965)

Obson, G. A., ‘The First of the Iron Clads. The Armoured Batteries of the 1850s’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 50 (1964)

Ponting, C., The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London, 2004)

Quarstein, J., A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood (Stroud, 2007)

Ransel, D. L., ‘Pre-Reform Russia: 1801-1855’ in Gregory L. Freeze, eds., Russia: A History (Oxford, 2002)

Riasanovsky, N. V. and Steinberg, M. D (eds.), A History of Russia (New York, 2005)

Robbins, M., ‘The Balaclava Railway’, Journal of Transport History, 1 (1953)

Works Consulted:

Gardiner, R., Steam, Steel and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905 (Edison, 2001)

McNeil, W. H., The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago, 1982)

Royle, T., The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (Basingstoke, 2000)