How a Feud over Holy Places led to the First Modern War

Ironically, the conflict known as the first modern war, the Crimean War, began as a squabble over Holy Places.

The immediate cause of the Crimean War was French Emperor Napoleon III’s attempt to assert authority over shrines and churches in the Holy Land (modern Israel). Strangely, none of the fighting Crimea War was near Israel or Palestine.

Palestine, which included Jerusalem and other biblical sites, was part of the declining Ottoman Empire in the 1850s. Notably, many of Christianity’s holiest locations, including the Birthplace and Tomb of Christ, were in the staunchly Islamic Ottoman Empire.

Caesars Fighting over Christ’s Legacy

Christianity’s holiest sites sparked war because two emperors claimed authority over them. In his role as head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Czar Nicholas I claimed sovereign authority over the holy sites.

In an effort to distract Roman Catholic voters from his illegal seizure of power, French Emperor Napoleon III began claiming sovereign authority over the Holy Land. Napoleon III was claiming to be protector and leader of the world’s Catholics, just as Nicholas I claimed to be protector and leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

Hence, two-styled Caesars were fighting over Christ’s legacy. Their fight came at the expense of a third Caesar, Sultan Abdülmecid I. Ironically, both Nicholas I and Abdülmecid I claimed to be the modern heirs of the Ancient Roman emperors.

Predictably, power politics and strategic interests played a role in the Emperors’ fight over Christ’s legacy. The Russians wanted to seize the Ottoman territories in the Balkans and Asia Minor. Those territories included Constantinople, the Ottoman capitol, and the Dardanelles.

Access to the Seas

The Dardanelles are the straights that connect the Mediterranean and Black seas. Russia’s only ice-free port and principal naval base Sevastopol was on the Black Sea. Nicholas I needed the Dardanelles if he wanted his navy to reach the world’s oceans.

The French wanted controlled of Egypt and the Sinai, just south of Palestine. Control of the Sinai could allow the French to dig a canal across the Sinai to the Red Sea. Such a canal could allow French warships and merchantmen to enter the Indian Ocean.

One reason for the Suez Canal was that France’s main naval base, Toulon, on the Mediterranean Sea. Without a Suez Canal, the only way French warships from Toulon could reach the world’s oceans was by sailing past the British naval base at Gibraltar.

Another reason for Napoleon III’s sudden interest in the Holy Places was to complete his uncle Napoleon I’s goal of attacking British India through the Sinai, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean. Such an attack could allow Napoleon III to reconquer France’s lost Indian Empire. Without a Suez Canal, a French invasion of India was improbable.

The Turks wanted to protect their empire and preserve what power they had left. Without the Dardanelles and Constantinople, there would be no Ottoman Empire.

 The Crimean War

Napoleon III began the Crimean War by sending the warship Charlemagne to the Black Sea to “protect French interests.”

The Emperor sent the Charlemagne after Abdülmecid I rejected the French claim of sovereignty over the Holy Places. The warship’s presence forced the Sultan to sign a treaty acknowledging French sovereign over Palestine.

By sailing through the Dardanelles, the Charlemagne violated the London Straits Convention, a treaty that kept non-Ottoman warships out of the straights. In retaliation Nicholas I ordered his armies to cross the Danube and invade Ottoman territory.

To keep Russian armies from seizing Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Britain, France, and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy) declared war on Russia. The Crimean War, the first modern war, had begun.

The First Modern War

The Crimean War is called the first modern war because of all the firsts in that conflict. For example, the Crimean War was the first conflict in which they photographed battlefields.

The Crimean War also marked the first uses of armored warships and railroads in war. The British and French built special tracks to supply their forces at the Siege of Sevastopol.

Importantly, the Crimean War was the first conflict in which correspondents could send real-time accounts of the action to newsrooms back home via the telegraph. Hence, the Crimean War was the first war with daily newspaper coverage. For the first time, people in London and Paris were reading about battles as they occurred.

News stories about the neglect of wounded British soldiers prompted Florence Nightingale to invent nursing to help the troops. Similarly, the Crimea was the first war in which army surgeons used anesthesia (chloroform) to improve surgery. Some accounts claim triage the practicing of sorting casualties by the seriousness of wounds began in the Crimea.

Other Crimean War first include mass-produced rifles and better artillery shells. The failure of British naval artillery in the Crimea prompted British industrialist Henry Bessemer to develop a better process of steel for the construction of guns.

The fighting in the Crimea, particularly the trenches around Sevastopol, resembled World War I combat. All that was missing were the barbed wire and the machine guns.

Systematic Slaughter

As in the American Civil War, the war of maneuver gave way to long sieges, attrition, and systematic slaughter. The victor was the side that could kill the enemy the fastest.

Another similarity to America’s Civil War was high casualties. Around 500,000 people died in the Crimean War with the Russians suffering bulk of the casualties.

Ironically, the winner of the Crimean War was a power not involved in the struggle over the Holy Land: the British Empire. The British kept the Russians out of the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean Sea.

Moreover, when the French built the Suez Canal in 1869, the British quickly seized control of it. Napoleon’s path to India became Britain’s shortcut to India.

The Russians never got to Constantinople or the Dardanelles. Although British and French troops occupied the Turkish capitol after World War I. A new Czar Alexander II abandoned his father Nicholas I’s dream of a Balkan and Middle Eastern empire.

The Crimean War shows that even the legacy of the Prince of Peace could lead to a destructive war.