The Russian destruction of the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853 sparked the war; painting by Ivan Aivazovsky.
By this time the British and the French were assembling their armies in the Varna area. They had begun to land their forces at Gallipoli at the beginning of April, their intention being to protect Constantinople from possible attack by the Russians. But it soon became apparent that the area was unable to support such a large army, so after a few weeks of foraging for scarce supplies, the allied troops moved on to set up other camps in the vicinity of the Turkish capital, before relocating well to the north at the port of Varna, where they could be supplied by the French and British fleets.
The two armies set up adjacent camps on the plains above the old fortified port – and eyed each other warily. They were uneasy allies. There was so much in their recent history to make them suspicious. Famously, Lord Raglan, the near-geriatric commander-in-chief of the British army, who had served as the Duke of Wellington’s military secretary during the Peninsular War of 1808–14 and had lost an arm at Waterloo,s would on occasion refer to the French rather than the Russians as the enemy.
From the start there had been disputes over strategy – the British favouring the landing at Gallipoli followed by a cautious advance into the interior, whereas the French had wanted a landing at Varna to forestall the Russian advance towards Constantinople. The French had also sensibly suggested that the British should control the sea campaign, where they were superior, while they should take command of the land campaign, where they could apply the lessons of their war of conquest in Algeria. But the British had shuddered at the thought of taking orders from the French. They mistrusted Marshal Saint-Arnaud, the Bonapartist commander of the French forces, whose notorious speculations on the Bourse had led many in Britain’s ruling circles to suppose that he would put his own selfish interests before the allied cause (Prince Albert thought that he was even capable of accepting bribes from the Russians). Such ideas filtered down to the officers and men. ‘I hate the French,’ wrote Captain Nigel Kingscote, who like most of Raglan’s aides-de-camp was also one of his nephews. ‘All Saint-Arnaud’s staff, with one or two exceptions, are just like monkeys, girthed up as tight as they can be and sticking out above and below like balloons.’
The French took a dim view of their British allies. ‘Visiting the English camp makes me proud to be a Frenchman,’ wrote Captain Jean-Jules Herbé to his parents from Varna.
The British soldiers are enthusiastic, strong and well-built men. I admire their elegant uniforms, which are all new, their fine comportment, the precision and regularity of their manoeuvres, and the beauty of their horses, but their great weakness is that they are used to comfort far too much; it will be difficult to satisfy their numerous demands when we get on the march.16
Louis Noir, a soldier in the first battalion of Zouaves, the élite infantry established during the Algerian War,t recalled his miserable impression of the British troops at Varna. He was particularly shocked by the floggings that were often given by their officers for indiscipline and drunkenness – both common problems among the British troops – which reminded him of the old feudal system that had disappeared in France.
The English recruiters seemed to have brought out the dregs of their society, the lower classes being more susceptible to their offers of money. If the sons of the better-off had been conscripted, the beatings given to the English soldiers by their officers would have been outlawed by the military penal code. The sight of these corporal punishments disgusted us, reminding us that the Revolution of 89 abolished flogging in the army when it established universal conscription … . The French army is made up of a special class of citizens subject to the military laws, which are severe but applied equally to all the ranks. In England, the soldier is really just a serf – he is no more than the property of the government. It drives him on by two contradictory impulses. The first is the stick. The second is material well-being. The English have a developed instinct for comfort; to live well in a comfortable tent with a nice big side of roast-beef, a flagon of red wine and a plentiful supply of rum – that is the desideratum of the English trooper; that is the essential precondition of his bravery … . But if these supplies do not arrive on time, if he has to sleep out in the mud, find his firewood, and go without his beef and grog, the English become battle-shy, and demoralization spreads through the ranks.
The French army was superior to the British in many ways. Its schools for officers had produced a whole new class of military professionals, who were technically more advanced, tactically superior and socially far closer to their men than the aristocratic officers of the British army. Armed with the advanced Minié rifle, which could fire rapidly with lethal accuracy up to 1,600 metres, the French infantry was celebrated for its attacking élan. The Zouaves, in particular, were masters of the fast attack and tactical retreat, a type of fighting they had developed in Algeria, and their courage was an inspiration to the rest of the French infantry, who invariably followed them into battle. The Zouaves were seasoned campaigners, experienced in fighting in the most difficult and mountainous terrain, and united by strong bonds of comradeship, formed through years of fighting together in Algeria (and in many cases on the revolutionary barricades of Paris in 1848). Paul de Molènes, an officer in one of the Spahi cavalry regiments recruited by Saint-Arnaud in Algeria, thought the Zouaves exerted a ‘special power of seduction’ over the young men of Paris, who flocked to join their ranks in 1854. ‘The Zouaves’ poetic uniforms, their free and daring appearance, their legendary fame – all this gave them an image of popular chivalry unseen since the days of Napoleon.’
The experience of fighting in Algeria was a decisive advantage for the French over the British army, which had not fought in a major battle since Waterloo, and in many ways remained half a century behind the times. At one point a third of the French army’s 350,000 men had been deployed in Algeria. From that experience, the French had learned the crucial importance of the small collective unit for maintaining discipline and order on the battlefield – a commonplace of twentieth-century military theorists that was first advanced by Ardant du Picq, a graduate of the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, the élite army school at Fontainebleau near Paris, who served as a captain in the Varna expedition and developed his ideas from observations of the French soldiers during the Crimean War. The French had also learned how to supply an army on the march efficiently – an area of expertise where their superiority over the British became apparent from the moment the two armies landed at Gallipoli. For two and a half days, the British troops were not allowed to disembark, ‘because nothing was ready for them’, reported William Russell of The Times, the pioneering correspondent who had joined the expedition to the East, whereas the French were admirably prepared with a huge flotilla of supply ships: ‘Hospitals for the sick, bread and biscuit bakeries, wagon trains for carrying stores and baggage – every necessary and every comfort, indeed, at hand, the moment their ship came in. On our side not a British pendant was afloat in the harbour! Our great naval state was represented by a single steamer belonging to a private company.’
The outbreak of the Crimean War had caught the British army by surprise. The military budget had been in decline for many years, and it was only in the early weeks of 1852, following Napoleon’s coup d’état and the eruption of the French war scare in Britain, that the Russell government was able to obtain parliamentary approval for a modest increase in expenditure. Of the 153,000 enlisted men, two-thirds were serving overseas in various distant quarters of the Empire in the spring of 1854, so troops for the Black Sea expedition had to be recruited in a rush. Without the conscription system of the French, the British army relied entirely on the recruitment of volunteers with the inducement of a bounty. During the 1840s the pool of able-bodied men had been severely drained by great industrial building projects and by emigration to the United States and Canada, leaving the army to draw upon the unemployed and poorest sections of society, like the victims of the Irish famine, who took the bounty in a desperate attempt to clear their debts and save their families from the poorhouse. The main recruiting grounds for the British army were pubs and fairs and races, where the poor got drunk and fell into debt.
If the British trooper came from the poorest classes of society, the officer corps was drawn mostly from the aristocracy – a condition almost guaranteed by the purchasing of commissions. The senior command was dominated by old gentlemen with good connections to the court but little military experience or expertise; it was a world apart from the professionalism of the French army. Lord Raglan was 65; Sir John Burgoyne, the army’s chief engineer, 72. Five of the senior commanders at Raglan’s headquarters were relatives. The youngest, the Duke of Cambridge, was a cousin to the Queen. This was an army, rather like the Russian, whose military thinking and culture remained rooted in the eighteenth century.