The Crimean War (1854-56) between Russia on one side and the alliance of Great Britain, France and Turkey on the other was not only fought in the Crimean peninsula. It was also fought in the Baltic Sea, and mainly along the Finnish coasts of the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia.
Why in Finland?
Why were hostilities expanded to Finnish waters? After all, these regions were quite remote from the Holy Places of Jerusalem, a dispute over which had sparked off the war. Similarly they were distant from the gates of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and from the main routes to Central Asia, the object of rivalry between Imperial Russia and Britain since the Napoleonic wars.
A major reason was the threat to Britain of the Russian Baltic Fleet located in the Gulf of Finland within only a few days’ sail from the British coasts. But while blocking Russia’s access to the North Sea and endeavouring to cut her supply lines, the British fleet also proceeded to destroy much of her naval defences as well as her merchant fleet.
At that time Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian empire and a part of the defence system protecting St Petersburg, the capital, at the head of the Gulf of Finland. Moreover, Finnish vessels formed the great bulk of the empire’s merchant fleet while Finnish towns on the Gulf of Bothnia were major shipping centres and suppliers of shipbuilding materials and provided 35 per cent of all tar imported by the British themselves. It was therefore Finland, which was to bear the brunt of the British-French naval assaults in the Baltic in the summers of 1854 and 1855.
The Arrival of the British Fleet
News from Hamburg on the approaching British Baltic fleet of 49 vessels was received in Finland in late March 1854 and by April the fleet had arrived at the gateways of the Baltic. On 8 April some British ships could be detected on the Helsinki horizon for the first time, and from then onwards people were eagerly following their movements in the open sea.
Apart from building blockades to the main sea routes into the Gulfs of Finland and Bothnia the Allied forces seemed, however, to do very little during the first few weeks of hostilities even if the Helsinki waters were free from ice in the last week of April and the upper part of the Gulf of Bothnia in late May. This created some impatience among the British officers and demands for action were also voiced in Britain.
“Take, Burn or Destroy”
In Finland the authorities had quietly been preparing for the hostilities since early 1854 onwards and more Russian troops were sent to Finland. In Sveaborg (the present Suomenlinna in front of Helsinki) some thousand men were strengthening its fortifications while scores of gunboats were being built and guns cast. A chain of observation posts was set up along the entire Finnish coast.
However, the news of the transfer of official archives from the capital Helsinki to inland Finland, caused panic among Finnish people, and a few were also aware that out of 32 coastal towns as many as 21 would be vulnerable to attacks by the enemy’s steam powered battleships and gunboats which were able to penetrate narrow passages inaccessible to big men-of-war. Finnish history is riddled with wars, but attacks from the sea had been rare, and attacks from the west almost unheard of.
These fears seemed justified as the news spread of British attacks in May-June 1854 on merchant towns in the Gulf of Bothnia in order “to take, burn or destroy” all equipment and materials potentially useful for military purposes.
Within less than three weeks in that region the British fleet destroyed altogether, according to their own reports, 46 vessels; 40,000-50,000 barrels of pitch and tar; 6,000 square yards of rough pitch; stacks of timber, spars, planks and deal, sails, rope and various kinds of naval stores, of a total value at that time of some £300,000 to £400,000. No notice was taken of the protests by Finns that much of the materials were actually British property as they were already paid for and only awaited shipping!
The burning of tar warehouses and ships in Oulu (Uleåborg) and Raahe (Brahestad) led to international criticism, and in Britain a Mr Gibson demanded in the House of Commons an explanation by the First Lord of the Admiralty of “a system which carried on a great war by plundering and destroying the property of defenceless villagers.” Nevertheless the British carried out naval attacks on Finnish coastal towns throughout the sailing seasons of 1854 and 1855, destroying much of the naval supplies as well as many of the optical telegraph communication points and coastal fortresses.
Midnight Battle in Kokkola (Gamla Karleby) 7.6.1854
Apart from verbal protests the British had experienced no resistance in Oulu and Raahe. But once news of their fate reached other towns they took precautions by hiding and sinking their vessels and throwing timber into the sea. In Kokkola (Gamla Karleby) the local burghers decided to meet the enemy with arms.
On Wednesday evening 7 June the 16-gun paddle-frigate HMS Odin and the 6-gun paddle-frigate HMS Vulture steamed to Kokkola and lowered into the water nine boats with 17 officers and 180 men. Protected by a negotiation flag the British suggested that as they had been ordered to destroy all contraband of war – ships, tar, pitch and planks – it would be sensible to hand them over voluntarily.
When the representatives of the town refused to oblige, the British began to prepare for an attack and one of the boats set out, at 11 pm, to explore the surroundings in the light summer night. But when it came close to the Halkokari dock, it was fired on by the defenders who had been hiding behind boards constructed between the warehouses.
The skirmish lasted about an hour. When the British withdrew from the scene one of their boats got firmly stuck on an old wreck and became war booty, which is still on display in the town. Altogether the British lost in the fight more than a quarter of their manpower, 52 men from the Vulture, dead, wounded or missing. All the wounded stayed for treatment in Kokkola whereas eleven able bodied prisoners were sent via Helsinki to St Petersburg together with the British flag and a bronze cannon taken from the captured boat.
The successful defence of Kokkola arouse much attention in Finland and Russia, and its key figures were decorated by the Tsar Nicholas I. Portraits of two of them, the merchant Donner and the yeoman farmer Kankkonen, were widely circulated in lithographs to Finnish homes while the original oils were hung in an imperial residence of Nicholas himself.
The Battles of Bomarsund 21.6. and 8.-16.8.1854
Bomarsund in the Åland Islands and Sveaborg in front of Helsinki formed the main Finnish strongholds of the Russian defence system in the Baltic, and the British fleet in the Baltic were instructed to do some reconnaissance of both fortresses and possibly attack the former.
This fortress had been an enigma for the British for little was known of what was going on in the Åland Islands. Yet, the isles dominated the eastern Baltic and, as their fortification had started in the 1810s, Bomarsund was potentially the most modern Russian fortress. Moreover, it could turn Russia into a real sea-power as the waters round it were free of ice for most of the year.
After a lengthy exploration of the surrounding seas the British deemed it opportune to attack the fortress on 21 June 1854. However, the defenders responded with such vigour that the British had to withdraw after a few hours, and so the battle is now remembered mainly as the one in which the first ever Victoria Cross was awarded for valour. In Finland it is recalled in a popular ditty Oolannin sota which emphasises the role of the Finnish defenders in producing the happy outcome of the June attack.
The Allied forces returned on 8 August, and the fortress was encircled on land by French artillery troops of 11,000 men and from the sea by the British fleet of four 60-gun block-ships, one 34-gun screw-frigate and a dozen smaller vessels. The actual attack was launched on 10 August and after fierce battles the last defenders surrendered on 16 August. The Allies then destroyed the Bomarsund fortress and transported the Finnish and Russian prisoners of war, some with their wives, to Britain and France.
In Britain the Battle of Bomarsund created much public enthusiasm as the operations in the Crimea had not been as successful as had been originally hoped. A coal mine opened in Northumberland a couple of weeks later was called Bomarsund in honour of the battle, and the neighbouring village still carries the same name.
The Battle of Sveaborg 9-13 August 1855
The battle of Sveaborg (the present Suomenlinna) in front of Helsinki took place about a year later on 9-13 August 1855.
Deemed old fashioned and in poor shape the Sveaborg fortress would have been significant for the Allies only as a bridgehead for a land battle. This would, however, have tied up troops while the outcome would have been uncertain bearing in mind the Russian manpower resources and the Finnish fighting capacity for defending their own country in a familiar terrain. Therefore the Allies limited themselves to bombarding the fortress and left the city itself unharmed.
According to the naval historian Basil Greenhill, this course of action was above all a political gesture aimed at providing good tidings for a British public unsatisfied with the secondary role the British troops were then playing in the Crimea. For the Russians it demonstrated that the Allies would soon be technically equipped enough to tackle Kronstadt also if necessary.
After the initial panic the burghers were able to follow the spectacle from the rocky hills of Helsinki without danger. Without knowing it they also witnessed the first ever occasion in history when the British had to sweep waters for mines as the Russians had laid some thousand of these in the immediate approaches to the fortress and the town.
As another historian A.J.P. Taylor once reminded his television audience that when the war ended in April 1856 it was not clear what would be the fate of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and few cared. By that time Finnish prisoners of war had been transported back to the Baltic shores from Lewes in Sussex where they had been treated very well as the leading Finnish paper Suometar reported as early as December 1854.
In the war years the Finnish merchant fleet had been reduced to some half of its pre-war size, but trading links between Britain and Finland were re-established and Britain became Finland’s biggest export partner following the development of the Finnish timber and pulp industries.
In Finland the Crimean War had revealed the backwardness of the existing communications system, and in June 1855 an electric telegraph link was established between St Petersburg and Helsinki and was soon to reach Northern Finnish towns as well. Together with the starting of the railway network a couple of years later this network helped to pull the country’s different provinces into a distinctive geographical unit while facilitating a wider and more speedy dissemination of news not only from different parts of the country but also from Europe and overseas.
Thus the Crimean War also helped, in an indirect way, to pave the way to Finland’s gaining of independence in 1917 as a truly European nation.
Backström, Åke, ”Vid Bomarsunds fall 1854 tillfångatagna finska officerare och civila tjänstemän”, Åländsk Odling. 46:e årgången. Årsbok 1986, 121-141 (Ålands folkminnesförbund Mariehamn)
Dodd, G., A Pictorial History of the Russian War 1854-5-6 with Maps, Plans and Wood Engravings (W. & R. Chambers, Edinburgh and London 1856)
Greenhill, Basil & Giffard, Ann, The British Assault on Finland 1854-55. A Forgotten Naval War (Conway Maritime Press, London 1988)
Turpeinen, Oiva, Oolannin sota. Suuriruhtinaan Suomi 1. (Tammi, Helsinki 2003)
by Marjatta Bell