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Five things you didn't know about the Crimean War…

The Crimean War is associated with the futile charge of the Light Brigade, the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Florence Nightingale. But how much more do you know about the war and the events involved? Delve into the new exhibition Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimea to find out.

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The Crimean War

In Europe currently, the word Crimea is usually connected with recent political and military events concerning Russia's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. The battle for the land is, however, part of a long history of warfare that stretches back over hundreds of years. The Crimean War in 1853-5 is one of several major conflicts that have been fought there.

The Ottomans declared war on Russia on 4 October 1853; 6 months later on 27 March 1854 Britain also declared war. The allies (Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire) landed in the Crimea on 14 September 1854 and made their way towards Sevastopol, encountering the Russians in several major battles en route including Alma (20 September), Balaklava (25 October) and Inkerman (5 November). Almost a year later, on 9 September 1855, after numerous other battles and skirmishes, Sevastopol fell to the allies.

Valley of the Shadow of Death©

Who was the first war photographer?

Roger Fenton was an accomplished and respected photographer sent by one of the leading publishers at the time to the Crimea. The publishers saw the war as an opportunity to sell new images to a public hungry for information.

Arriving several months after the major battles were fought, Fenton focused on creating moving portraits of the troops, as well as capturing the stark, empty battlefields on which so many lost their lives. 

Seen through a series of exhibitions across the country in 1855-6, this was the first time that photographs of a war zone had ever been presented to the British public. Fenton created the genre of war photography, and showed people the futility of war.

Sir William Howard Russell (1820-1907)©

Where did the Charge of the Light Brigade take place?

Many people have heard of the 'Charge of the Light Brigade', often from the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. But have you heard of William Howard Russell, the reporter who was sent to cover the war in February 1854? It was his narrative of the actions of the light cavalry brigade during the Battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854, which inspired Tennyson to write the poem.

Half a league,
half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson


Perhaps Fenton's most well-known photograph, 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death', is not in fact the location of the charge of the Light Brigade. The well-known phrase, is from Psalm 23, which many people in the mid-19th century would have been familiar with. The photograph demonstrates the power of the camera at war. The scene is still and almost barren, but the power of the imagination draws the viewer into the landscape. 



The Old Post Office, Balaklava©

Why was Balaklava important?

Did you know the knitted headgear known as a balaclava takes its name from city of Balaklava, where British soldiers first wore them during the Crimean War to help protect them from the extremely cold weather?

When the British and French armies moved south to besiege Sevastopol, the British chose Balaklava as their base. The army took over the town, setting up its own infrastructure and constructing a military railway to transport the supplies as close as possible to the front lines.

When Fenton arrived in the Crimea on 8 March 1855, he disembarked at Balaklava. He took his first photographs on 15 March and spent the next two weeks exploring the port, including photographing the Post Office which was set up by the British Army. He likened the port to 'the emptying of Noah's ark', noting the chaos and confusion which he managed to convey in his photographs. 


Photographic Van©

How do you take photographs in a war zone in the 19th century?

Fenton certainly wouldn't have been able to get out a digital camera and email his photographs back to his publisher a few seconds after taking his shots! So how did he manage to take so many pictures in the middle of a war zone in 1855?

A lot of equipment and planning is the short answer. Fenton took five cameras, 700 glass plates (for creating negatives), and various chemicals and tools with him. His travelling darkroom was a converted wine merchant's van.

Most of the Fenton photographs on display in the exhibition Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimea have been in the Royal Collection since 1855. They were probably acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for their son the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. All of the Fenton photographs featured in the exhibition are originals, printed in 1855–6 from glass plate negatives. Find out more about photographic processes used at the time.

The photographs were extraordinarily popular with the Victorian public. One publication stated that two million visitors had seen the photographs in exhibitions around the country by the end of March 1856.


Corporal Michael McMahon©

When was the first Victoria Cross awarded?

From the beginning of the war Queen Victoria had expressed her concern for the troops fighting on her behalf. In 1854, the Queen sent books and supplies out to the Crimea to help raise morale. After wounded soldiers began to return to Britain in early 1855, the Queen initiated an unprecedented series of meetings with the veterans and wounded soldiers, including visiting Chatham Military Hospital on a number of occasions.

Queen Victoria was also central in the creation of a new medal – the Victoria Cross. The medal recognised exceptional valour and crucially was not connected to military rank. The first Victoria Crosses were awarded by Queen Victoria on 26 June 1857 in Hyde Park to 62 men out of a total of 111 Crimean recipients. Today the award remains Britain’s highest honour.

What next?

If these five facts piqued your interest you can see the photographs and find out more in our exhibition, Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimea, currently open at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

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The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.