The Crimean War and The London Gazette

Michael Hargreave Mawson explores how the Crimean War played out in the pages of The London Gazette, during the first modern ‘media’ war.

Prelude to war

Crimean WarBy the 1850s, the Ottoman Empire was in an advanced state of decay – such, at least, was the opinion of many statesmen throughout Europe, and most importantly, of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. 

It was the Tsar’s belief that it was urgently necessary for Great Britain and Russia to make arrangements to deal with the demise of what he called the ‘sick man’ (the words ‘of Europe’ were added to the phrase some years later). The Tsar discussed his views with the British ambassador, and believed that his diplomatic circumlocutions had been fully understood by the British, and that he had been granted freedom of action.

Such was not the case, and when Russia mobilised and invaded the Danubian Principalities, all but annihilated an Ottoman fleet in the most one-sided naval battle in history, made a series of ever more outrageous demands for rights tantamount to sovereignty over Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and eventually rejected an ultimatum presented by the Four Powers (Great Britain, France, Prussia and Austria), Great Britain took up arms in defence of the Sultan (Gazette issue 21536), along with her ally, France.

News of fighting: telegraphic messages and official despatches

A British fleet had been in Turkish waters since the previous summer. The first regiments to sail for the east left in February 1854, and another fleet sailed for the Baltic Sea the following month. Soon, despatches began to be received in London, and these were published in full in the journal of record, The London Gazette.

The first despatches came from the commanders of the fleets in the Black Sea and the Baltic, for example, the report of ships flying a flag of truce being fired upon at Odessa in an ‘uncivilized act of aggression’ (Gazette issue 21552), and the report of the operations against Bomarsund (Gazette issue 2585).

Information reached the UK both by telegraphic message and through the traditional means of official despatches (including nominal rolls of the killed and wounded) written in longhand, and physically carried by a trusted officer to the War Office or Admiralty in London. Both types of communication were reproduced in The London Gazette.

Throughout the war, reports of engagements, major and minor, together with routine updates about the states of the army and the Black Sea and Baltic fleets, as well as details of less well-known engagements, such as those in Asia Minor, in the White Sea and in the Pacific (Gazette issue 21780) were sent back to England by these means, and were faithfully reproduced.

Promotions, awards and rewards

For officers of the British Army and Royal Navy, The London Gazette had always meant little more than a list of promotions. In the days and weeks that followed the declaration of war, the army was expanded to a ‘war establishment’, and a substantial brevet, affecting many hundreds of officers, was published (Gazette issue 21564).

By September 1854, the campaigning season in northern latitudes was over, and the Baltic fleet returned home, having done good service (a second fleet returned to the Baltic the following year). As a result, the first of many announcements of promotions for gallant or meritorious service in the war appeared (Gazette issue 21590). Such announcements appeared regularly thereafter; even as late as 1859, promotions were being gazetted as being for ‘meritorious services . . . in the Crimea’ (Gazette issue 22222).

There were two campaign medals issued for service against the Russians during the war, and five clasps. All were first officially announced in The London Gazette, as were new gallantry awards, such as the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (for example, Gazette issue 21648 for the announcement of the Crimea Medal, and clasps for Alma and Inkermann). Appointments to the Order of the Bath for distinguished service during the war were also published.

Prize money was awarded to officers and crews of Royal Navy ships which had captured Russian ships or equipment during the war, for example Gazette issue 21664, for the ‘intended distribution of proceeds arising from the Russian vessel Emelie, captured on the 5th May, 1854, by Her Majesty's ship Bulldog’.

Each of Britain's allies in the Crimea appointed selected members of the British forces to chivalric orders. Royal permission to accept and wear these orders was duly published in The London Gazette, with individual announcements still appearing as late as 21 September 1858 (Gazette issue 22184). Both France and Sardinia also awarded a number of medals to British recipients, though details of these awards were not published.

Peace and a day of thanksgiving

Notice that the Treaty of Paris, ‘definitively settling the Eastern question’, had been signed on 30 March 1856 was given in The London Gazette Extraordinary of the following day (Gazette issue 21865). The treaty was ratified within a month, and in April, this fact was announced, and a day of thanksgiving ‘on Sunday the fourth day of May next’, was proclaimed (Gazette issue 21877).

About the author

Michael Hargreave Mawson is an independent scholar, author, lecturer, and broadcaster, and is best known for the book ‘Eyewitness in the Crimea’. He is a member of the Society for Army Historical Research, the Orders and Medals Research Society and the Crimean War Research Society, on the committee of which he served from 1996 to 2005.

The Crimean War Research Society is the only organisation dedicated to the study of the war with Russia of 1853-56. Its aims are to honour and remember all those that fell in the war; to study the war in its entirety; to educate about the war; to preserve and promote the availability of contemporary documents; to preserve and publish personal histories and diaries; to record memorials, monuments and relics; and through its journal, The War Correspondent, to provide a medium for the publication of original research, analysis and comment about all aspects of the conflict.

Image: the Siege of Sebastopol, Crimean War, 1855

See also: The Crimean War: despatches, promotions and awards