By James, Brian
History Today , Vol. 58, No. 3
History has long been concerned with the beginnings of wars, investigating causes which have led to conflict between nations. Less attention has been paid to the circumstances in which wars are brought to an end. Therefore more than 150 years have passed with little examination of the apparent political and military absurdity, that within two weeks of settling on plans for a Royal Navy strike virtually certain to have brought a swift victory in the Russian, or 'Crimean' war, Britain agreed an armistice in February 1856 which gave her almost none of her declared war aims.
But recent research has uncovered a stark explanation: Britain and France, having united in a war to stop the southward expansion of a militaristic Russia, were now utterly at odds as to how to proceed. France, satisfied with the performance of her troops at Sevastopol, saw nothing further worth fighting for, while Britain remained determined to use the Royal Navy to gain the victory within her grasp. Worse, so deep had distrust now bitten that Lord Palmerston's government had become fearful that the nation's greatest danger now loomed not from its enemy, Russia, but from its ally, France.
Palmerston's suspicions would have been heightened as armistice talks began when Napoleon III's anglophobe ministers reneged on promises to back Britain's aggressive demands on Russia, leaving Britain to contemplate continuing alone. These attacks had been planned for some months; both in the Crimea and in the Baltic. He would also have learned that France had already commenced secret approaches to Russia to join in a postwar alliance--with Britain excluded--aimed at domination of Europe.
As a result, Britain's sudden fear was that sending its navy and troops to the Baltic to finish off Russia would invite an opportunistic cross-Channel invasion by France to avenge Trafalgar and Waterloo. Only a threat as serious and imminent as this serves to explain Britain's abandonment of the planned naval campaign to demolish the fortress at Kronstadt, which shielded Russia's capital, St Petersburg, from attack from the sea. The plans to do this were so well advanced that by November 1855 an armada of nearly 250 RN warships, many especially built, was under orders to assemble in the Solent. Heavy munitions had begun to be loaded on board mortar vessels early in 1856.
Evidence of this panic includes written warnings on January 25th, 1856, by Queen Victoria and Lord Cowley, her ambassador to Paris, that if Britain launched its naval assault on St Petersburg, while ignoring French determination to end the war, some form of hostilities with France would be an inevitable consequence. It also includes a letter from Foreign Secretary Clarendon in March 1856 warning that Britain was being manoeuvred into a peace that would not last. He argued that all the guns captured in the Crimea should be carried back hurriedly to reinforce Malta and Gibraltar--this at a time when only France had fleets capable of threatening these British bases.
The most startling paper was a letter of February 1855 from Palmerston to Clarendon vetoing a suggestion that Napoleon travel in person to lead his troops besieging Sevastopol. That, declared Palmerston, 'would be dangerous for the emperor and even more dangerous for Britain'. Only Napoleon's presence at home was keeping firebrand anti-British military leaders of France in check (men risen to general and admiral rank now, but who had been ensigns and midshipmen on those two terrible days for French pride). Palmerston feared 'a political convulsion in France' while the greater part of Britain's army and navy were far from home. Then, in a jaw-dropping sentence, Palmerston continued, 'we should have a pretty good security for their good behaviour by the fact that their own army in Crimea would be cut off from Britain if our superior naval force were to refuse to assist . …