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

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

Apart from the Charge of the Light Brigade (the actual charge, but also the poem), the Crimean War (1853-1856) is best known 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 in a major engagement. Oh, and it also led to the development of modern professional nursing, triage, and anesthetics, but who’s counting? The 1853 Battle of Sinop was the war’s first major battle, and it’s also notable for a technological innovation. On top of that, its outcome had a major impact on the conduct of the rest of the war.

The Crimean War, which saw its first major hostilities in the harbor of the Anatolian port city of Sinop, was the product of several European trends. You had years of Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe. You had a perennial British fear of Russian expansionism. You had new French Emperor Napoleon III’s desire to make France the leading European power, just as his (far more successful, as it turns out) uncle had done. And you had the Ottoman…well, you had the Ottomans barely hanging on financially, forced to field only a tiny military in response to the demands of its foreign creditors and thus extremely vulnerable to external pressure. The Ottomans were a belligerent in the war, to be sure, but really the Empire’s role was more as the object of the fighting than a participant in it.

The war turned on one fundamental issue. Should Russia be allowed to put the “Sick Man of Europe” (it was never really as sick as the standard historical narrative suggests, but the mid-19th century was definitely an ebb) out of his misery and absorb his territory? Or would that be so disruptive to the balance of power that it was incumbent upon the other major European states to step in and prevent 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 on Russia. Britain and France, which had been floating credit to Istanbul just to keep the empire going (in order to serve as a check on Russia), told Russian Tsar Nicholas I that they would stay out of this emerging conflict 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 Abdulmejid I ordered a convoy to sail through the Black Sea to resupply his army in the Caucasus, the Russian navy was ordered to interdict it.

A Russian fleet (well, three ships of the line, a frigate, and a steamer, which isn’t much of a fleet but let’s call it one anyway) 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, a second major Ottoman convoy stopped to wait out the nasty weather at Sinop. Nakhimov maneuvered his ships into a blockade around the port. Secure in the belief 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, given that Nakhimov had only about 10 ships at his command, and that only after being reinforced). Osman also figured that Nakhimov would abide by the (unwritten) rules of naval warfare, which stipulated that you couldn’t attack ships at anchor and couldn’t attack a ship of a lower class. In other words, Nakhimov’s ships of the line weren’t “supposed” to attack Osman’s frigates, which were the biggest ships in the Ottoman convoy.

So Osman got a valuable lesson in the value of the (unwritten) rules of naval warfare 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 defenses, which lessened the effectiveness of the harbor guns considerably. Nakhimov also had far more artillery pieces 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 ships 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 maybe a couple of forward-facing guns mounted on them. 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. It was only at Lepanto that the idea of the “ship of the line” really began to come into fashion.

The adoption of explosive shells by navies similarly lagged. 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. At sea, though, there was no indirect fire. If you’ve seen just about any movie about naval combat during the age of sail, you know that ships of the line pulled up alongside one another and fired directly from close range. The kind of explosive shells used on land would pose a major risk for exploding prematurely when fired by powerful naval guns, would deal serious damage to any ship trying to fire them. So navies stuck with much safer, but less damaging, inert weapons like solid shot, chain shot, and canisters.

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 wood of an enemy ship, so the lit fuse might actually ignite the hull, and even if that didn’t happen the shell (or, rather, several shells, all at once) would then explode, dealing hot metal 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, a Russian copy of them) was, as I say, devastating, and the already outgunned Ottoman fleet was rendered 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. Naval warfare would never be the same.

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.

Ironically, Russia’s victory at Sinop laid the groundwork for it to lose the war. Britain and France, which—let’s be honest—were itching for an excuse to jump in and do something to contain Russia, determined that Sinop was the offensive action that they’d warned Tsar Nicholas against taking, despite the fact that attacking a convoy headed to supply an army that has invaded your own territory is, by almost any definition, an act of defensive warfare. Needless to say it seems certain that France, or Britain, wouldn’t have hesitated to take the same action the Russians took if they’d been in a similar situation, and would have loudly and forcefully insisted that they were acting in self-defense. Nevertheless, they did jump into the war in December, and although it took a couple of years and several hundred thousand deaths, they soundly defeated the Russians. Thanks to them, the Ottomans were able to hang on until World War I.