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Crimea in Finland

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Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland, Matthew Kirk, describes the impact of the Crimean War on that country and how it is being commemorated.

A couple of years ago, before we came to live in Finland, a friend said ‘of course you’ll be there for all the Crimean War anniversaries’. A little surprised, I gently pointed out that Finland was well over a thousand miles north of the Crimea. ‘I know’ he said, witheringly, ‘but it was in what is now Finland that the Crimean War was won’.

In fact, in the nineteenth century, it was not called the Crimean War. It was called the Russian War. It was fought on two main fronts – the one we all remember in the Crimea, and the one we don’t in the Baltic. And yet, the campaign in the Baltic was notable both for the way it was fought and for its impact on the war with Russia.

The British fleet in the Baltic was visible on several occasions from the great naval fortress of Kronstadt, guarding the sea approach to St Petersburg – it is said that the Tsar could see the sails from the Peterhof Palace. Too close for comfort. After the actions of the British and French fleets in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855, the threat of an attack on Kronstadt in 1856, emulating the eventual fall of Sebastopol in 1855, was very real. It must have loomed large in the Tsar’s mind as he went into the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

There were two great actions in the Baltic: the destruction of the fortress at Bomarsund in the Åland Islands in 1854 and the bombardment of Suomenlinna off Helsinki in 1855. Other actions in 1854 were largely north up the Gulf of Bothnia. In 1855, most of the fleet’s actions took place along the Gulf of Finland, towards Kronstadt and St Petersburg.

The military success – in keeping between 200,000 and 300,000 high quality Russian troops tied down several months’ march away from the Crimea – was vital. So was the blockade, which bankrupted the Russian state and caused internal unrest. The British successes owed much to new technology: steam-powered ships used for the first time in conflict; mortar shells; rifled cannon; long-range rockets and so on. On the Russian side, Mr Alfred Nobel’s ‘infernal machine’ – the underwater chemical contact mine – probably had more effect through the preoccupation it caused British naval commanders than by the actual damage it caused to ships. It was a new era of communication, too. The first undersea cable across the Channel had been laid in 1851 – the commanders could now send a steamer to Danzig, from where direct telegraphic communication with London was possible within forty-eight hours.

The Crimea calls to mind epic military incompetence, gloriously futile death, illness and bravery, the skill of some officers compensating for the weaknesses of their commanders. It marked the end of a military era. The Baltic campaign had some of the same elements and others: for example, the era of the great sea fortress ended with the Baltic campaign. But it was all less extreme and more successful. Above all, fewer people died, on both sides.

The fleet sailed on March 11th, 1854, under the command of the hugely popular Vice Admiral Sir Charles Napier. War had not yet been declared, and there had been no action in the Crimea. The key novelty – the steamship – was untried in action. The fleet’s mission was to blockade Russian trade from the Baltic ports. The nation expected great things. The first weeks of the fleet’s presence in the – still partially frozen – Baltic saw a number of merchant prizes captured.

Up the coast, around the end of May, ships under the command of Rear Admiral Plumridge attacked coastal ports, to destroy shipping and Russian supplies. Such raids were not ordered and were against the wishes of Parliament. They were, however, careful of the local population, burning ships, tar stocks, and maritime stores. Despite this, the first such raid, on Raahe, caused outcry at home. The Quakers raised money for the people of Raahe, with which a new road was built. You can still walk along Kveekarinkatu – Quaker Street – today. At Oulu the population were ready – they had scuttled the ships and separated Russian Imperial property from their own. Stores of timber and tar were burnt – much of the tar reputedly already paid for by the British, for whom it was a vital component of the same timber-built warships that were attacking them.

The third raid, at Kokkola, marked the first serious setback. Kokkola harbour was too shallow for the warships to approach. So boats went in, out of range of their mother ships. They came under attack, not just from Russian forces, but also the local population, organised by a merchant Anders Donner. A farmer, Matti Kankkonen, captured a paddle-box boat from HMS Vulture. The boat – the only vessel of the Royal Navy in captivity anywhere in the world – can still be seen in the English Park at Kokkola. The room in the Finnish President’s Palace in which the President greets visiting dignatories, including newly arrived Ambassadors, is dominated by a painting of Matti Kankkonen. Nineteen prisoners were invited to a ball in Kokkola after the attack, at which they proved something of a hit with the local ladies. When I first visited Kokkola a year ago, the Mayor told me that the British had offered to pave the roads of the city in the late 1940s if they would give us our boat back. ‘Look’ he said, with pride, from his office ‘our roads are all paved. What are you offering now?’

The humiliation at Kokkola brought an end to the ‘take, burn, and destroy’ raids. From then on, the fleet concentrated on more serious military objectives. One of the most significant was the great fortress at Bomarsund in the Åland Islands off the south-west coast of Finland. Today, on a narrow strait between Sund and Prästo stand the remains of an unfinished, but impressive, fortress the Russians had built. It was first attacked on June 21st, 1854, by a small force led by Captain William Hall of HMS Hecla. Mate Charles Lucas was on the upper deck of the Hecla when a live shell landed on the deck. All were ordered to fall flat on the deck, but Lucas picked the shell up and tossed it over the side. This was the first act of bravery for which the Victoria Cross was awarded. On June 21st, this year I unveiled a memorial in stone from Bomarsund to Lucas and his comrades.

That attack damaged the fortifications, but left Bomarsund armed. The main attack, in early August, owed its success to the meticulous survey work by the real hero of the Baltic campaign, Captain Bartholomew Sulivan of HMSLightning. Sulivan’s surveys, along with the ability to manœuvre steam ships along channels thought unnavigable by sail, gave the fleet a vital edge. They could approach the fortress along channels not thought navigable by warships, and then bombard. While the guns of the fortress had longer range, they were aiming at the pin-point targets of ships. The ships had simply to hit the much larger target of the fortress. And so ended the era of the naval stronghold.

At Bomarsund, the fleet decided to land men and create shore batteries as well. The main fort was complete, but only 66 of its 120 guns were in place. Only three of its intended fourteen defensive towers had been built. It took the combined British and French force three days to render the impregnable fortress a death trap. The Russian General Bodisco surrendered. In Notvik Tower, the Russians served tea to their British attackers. The British and French blew the place to bits, destroying in days what it had taken the Russians twenty years to build.

But at home Admiral Napier was blamed for the lack of decisive success (for which he lacked the resources he had requested). They said he should have attacked Suomenlinna, or perhaps even Kronstadt. After bringing the fleet home before ice bound the Baltic, Napier gave up the command to Rear Admiral the Hon Richard Dundas.

1855 saw actions along the Gulf of Finland, towards St Petersburg. At Hanko, a Russian force reputedly attacked despite a flag of truce. At Kotka, sailors – who were ordered to burn barracks buildings but also to have care for the local population – found an old lady in a deserted barracks. They carried her to the orthodox church, which today celebrates Maria Purpur with a statue for saving the church.

At Loviisa Captain Yelverton found the great Svartholm island fortress already abandoned. He destroyed it anyway. (It has now been rebuilt.) The closest action to St Petersburg was at Viipuri, just round the coast.

The British Embassy stands today on a granite outcrop looking across the water to the magnificent fortress of Suomenlinna, built for the Swedish King by Augustin Ehrensvärd in the late 1700s. Supposed to be the largest maritime fortress ever built, Suomenlinna, controls the narrow strait of the King’s Gate which gives access to the great natural harbour of Helsinki.

The last great action of the Baltic campaign happened in early August 1855. The combined British and French fleet, with its steam power and advanced munitions, was able to stand off the fortress and bombard it for four days. The fleet suffered little, but the fortress, on the receiving end of 1,100 tons of iron fired by 111 tons of gunpowder, suffered substantial damage and high casualties. Residents of Helsinki, initially concerned about the possibility of invasion, eventually gathered to watch the bombardment from rocks around where the British Embassy now stands.

I had a personal encounter with the Baltic fleet in August of last year. A Finnish Naval launch took me to the garrison island of Isosaari (not normally open to foreign visitors), beyond Suomenlinna, to lay a wreath on a grave there. Former servicemen from the Embassy joined me in paying our respects to Leading Seaman George Quinnell, killed by a cannon-ball on HMS Amphion in June 1854 while the vessel was trying to  approach Suomenlinna from behind. Quinnell was a popular seaman, and therefore buried on land not at sea. The grave had last been visited by British representatives nearly fifty years before. We found the grave – paid for in the early twentieth century by an English lady married to a Finn – in excellent order. A man approached me and said that he lived on the island for part of the year and looked after Quinnell’s grave. He introduced himself as Yrjö, the Finnish equivalent of George. ‘We Georges must look after each other’, he said.



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