Today in European history: the Battle of Sinop (1853)

Apart from the Charge of the Light Brigade (the actual charge, but also the poem), the Crimean War (1853-1856) is perhaps best known (at least by some of us) as the first “modern” war, in that it was during the Crimean War when later military staples like rail, telegraphs, trenches, and rifled firearms and artillery first got tested on a major battlefield. Oh, and it also led to the development of modern professional nursing, triage, and anesthetics, but who’s counting? The 1853 Battle of Sinop is noteworthy for the way it helped pioneer another development in military technology, but it’s also important in that it was the war’s first major battle, and Russia’s victory in this battle paradoxically paved the way for it to eventually lose the war.

A Russian stamp commemorating the Battle of Sinop, issued in 2003 (Wikimedia)

The Crimean War was the culmination of several trends in European politics at the time: years of Russian expansion in Eastern Europe, perennial British fears of that Russian expansion, new French Emperor Napoleon III’s desire to make France the leading continental power as his (far more successful, as it turns out) uncle had done. Then there was the condition of the Ottoman Empire, which was pretty ragged by the 1850s. The empire was barely hanging on financially thanks to the demands of its foreign creditors, and as a result its military had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The Ottomans were a belligerent in the war, to be sure, but really the Empire’s role was more object than participant. Should Russia be allowed to put the “Sick Man of Europe” (it was never that sick, but the mid-19th century was definitely a low point) out of his misery and absorb his territory, or would that be so disruptive to the European balance of power that it was incumbent upon other nations to step in and stop it? Russia answered that question one way, and France and Britain answered it the other way, and that difference of opinion meant war.

Technically, the war began in July 1853, when Russia simply annexed some Ottoman territory along the Danube, and the Ottomans responded by declaring war. Britain and France, which had been floating credit to Istanbul just to keep the empire going, told Russian Tsar Nicholas I that they would stay out of the fighting provided that Russia did not take any offensive military action, and Russia stayed within that limitation for a few months. An Ottoman offensive into the Caucasus began to get some traction, however, and when Sultan Abdülmecid I ordered convoys to sail through the Black Sea to resupply the invasion force, the Russian navy was ordered to interdict them.

A Russian fleet (three ships of the line, a frigate, and a steamer, which isn’t really much of a “fleet” but whatever), under the command of Pavel Nakhimov (d. 1855), began to interfere with Ottoman shipping in the Black Sea, though one major convoy did get through to the Caucasus. Given that it was November, and the seas were choppy, the second major Ottoman convoy stopped to wait out the nasty weather at Sinop. Nakhimov maneuvered his ships into a blockade around the port. Sure that the Russian ships wouldn’t dare challenge the harbor defenses to try to get at his convoy, the Ottoman commander, Osman Pasha (d. no later than 1860), simply left his ships at anchor and made no move to break out of the blockade (which was not a particularly massive one–even after being reinforced Nakhimov had only about 10 ships at his command). Osman also figured that Nakhimov would abide by the rules of naval warfare, which stipulated that you couldn’t attack ships at anchor and couldn’t attack a ship of a lower class (so Nakhimov’s ships of the line weren’t “supposed” to attack Osman’s frigates, which were the biggest ships he had).

Osman got a very clear lesson in the value of the unwritten rules of war when Nakhimov ordered his ships into the harbor and began firing on the Ottoman vessels. Since the Ottoman ships were at anchor and thus couldn’t move, Nakhimov was able to maneuver his fleet so that the Ottoman vessels were between the Russian ships and Sinop’s harbor batteries, which lessened their effectiveness considerably. Nakhimov had far more guns than the Ottomans did, so this was a fight that wouldn’t have lasted very long anyway. But the Russians also had a significant technological edge, in that their battleships carried several Paixhans guns, which fired explosive shells rather than solid, non-explosive cannonballs.

Naval warfare always lagged behind land warfare in terms of gun technology. Until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Mediterranean navies were still using galleys, whose design and tactics would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks, with the addition of maybe a couple of forward-facing guns. This was a couple of centuries after cannon had started to become indispensable to warfare on land, and yet navies were still fighting mostly ramming-and-boarding battles like they had been in the fifth century BC.  The adoption of explosive shells by navies similarly lagged, but in this case it was a real technological issue rather than just an inexplicable case of collective stagnation.

Explosive shells were dangerous to handle and fire, seeing as how they were prone to, you know, exploding. On land they were employed in “indirect fire” weapons like mortars, which were less powerful than direct fire cannon, so the danger of a shell going off in the gun or just outside the gun was minimized. And in the event that an accidental explosion did occur, the damage on land would most likely be disruptive but not catastrophic. At sea, there was no such thing as indirect fire. Ships of the line faced each other side-to-side and fired directly at each other from close range. The kind of explosive shells used on land would pose a major risk in that kind of engagement, when fired by powerful naval guns, and could potentially do serious damage to the ship trying to fire them. And an accident on a boat could sink the boat, which is far more catastrophic than the damage most explosions on land might cause.

It was a French general named Hans-Joseph Paixhans who solved the problem. I am no engineer so I won’t pretend to understand what he did, but Paixhans is credited with developing a gun that fired shells whose fuses would ignite upon firing but would then burn beyond the time it took them to reach the other ship. These shells were designed to embed in the wooden hull of the enemy ship, at which point the burning fuse might actually ignite the hull, and even if it didn’t the shell (or, rather, several shells, all at once) would then explode, dealing shrapnel all over the place to devastating effect. Paixhans’ guns were powerful enough to be used as direct fire weapons, and his shells were safe enough to be employed at sea. Nakhimov’s use of these guns (or, more likely, Russian copies) was, as I say, devastating, and the already outgunned Ottoman fleet was even more disadvantaged by their use. With the effectiveness of these weapons demonstrated in battle, they became the basis of all naval artillery moving forward.

After the Ottoman ships were all either destroyed or rendered useless, the Russians turned their attention to the shore defenses and destroyed those as well. They lost a few dozen men (the highest estimates get into the mid-200s), compared to thousands of Ottomans killed. Osman Pasha was taken prisoner.

“Battle of Sinop,” by 19th century Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky (Wikimedia)

As I said above, Russia’s victory at Sinop contained the germ of its ultimate defeat. Russia’s action–attacking a convoy headed to supply an army that has invaded its territory–is, by almost any definition, an act of defensive warfare. But for Britain and France, which–let’s be honest–were itching for an excuse to jump in and do something to contain Russia, Sinop became the offensive action that they’d warned Tsar Nicholas against taking. They both entered the war in December, and although it took a couple of years and several hundred thousand casualties, they eventually defeated the Russians.

Author: DWD

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4 thoughts

  1. The middle decades of the nineteenth century brought a revolution in military technology. From today’s perspective we consider it all prelude to the First World War. At the time it was tregarded as akin to science fiction (another emerging concept!). The potential, to a world conditioned by Napoleonic experience, seemed miraculous. The issue affected all wars of the day from the Crimean to the US Civil war to the New Zealand wars and beyond.

    1. Matthew, thanks for this! I consider the Crimean War as a precursor to the American Civil War from a military tech perspective, but my knowledge of the New Zealand wars is embarrassingly slim. I think I may need to check out your book!

      1. Thank you! Yes, the NZ Wars paralleled the US Civil War very closely in terms of fortification technology and scale of battlefield, along with the tactics therein – and for good reason. We didn’t have the locomotive/logistic support, but the introduction of the Enfield rifle and ogival bullet here matched the way the US battlefields expanded on the back of technology. (If you want my “NZ Wars”, it’s also available on Amazon. It’s the third book I’ve written on the NZ Wars – and the slimmest – but a good quick intro. My “Two Peoples, One Land”, which was my more scholarly one, is out of print and I’m yet to find a way of republishing it).

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