Saturday, September 13, 2014

Origin of Names: Balaclava

Situated just south of Melbourne, a few streets back from the beaches of St Kilda, the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava is an unpretentious chunk of middle Australia. It has a large Jewish population, and perhaps is best known for the stretch of kosher restaurants and bakeries along Carlisle Street.

It also features an artistic depiction of the sailing ship The Lady of St Kilda, from which the adjoining suburb takes its name.

The Lady of St Kilda, depicted on a railway bridge in Balaclava.

But Balaclava has an interesting origin of name story of its own, which can be traced back to a fierce military conflict fought on the other side of the world. And like the root cause of many infamous conflicts throughout history, the starting point for this story largely rests with one man.

Tsar Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was a strong willed, militaristic man; determined, stubborn and nationalistic. His ascension to the Russian throne in 1825 had been unexpected; he had two older brothers, both of whom had been groomed as future rulers.

But his eldest brother Alexander had died of typhus and his other sibling, Constantine, refused the throne and decided to stay in Poland, where he had established himself as Governor. Nicholas assumed the throne on Christmas Day 1825, and immediately had to confront an armed revolt, agitating for Constantine's return. His brutal suppression of his opponents set the tone for a turbulent rule.

Surrounding himself with hawkish advisors, and expanding the Russian army to a million soldiers, Nicholas was soon eager to flex his military muscle. He did this through a series of interventions in neighbouring countries; helping to suppress revolts in Poland and Hungary. Emboldened by these successes - Nicholas was known as 'The policeman of Europe' for a time - the Tsar then turned his sights on a traditional Russian enemy; The Ottoman Empire.

Founded in Northern Anatolia in 1299 by the Turk Osman Bey, the Ottoman Empire expanded aggressively in the 14th and 15th centuries under a series of military rulers. It reached its apogee in 1683, when it encompassed Egypt, all of northern Africa, the West of the Arabian peninsula and south eastern Europe, including Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Hungary. In the north, it expanded as far as southern Russia, where an Ottoman aligned puppet state had been in place since the 1450's, much to Russia's chagrin.

By the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire's boundaries were receding as its power and influence waned. Corrupt, bloated and poorly administered, the Empire was in the middle of an extended collapse. The sharp mind of Nicholas I saw a clear opportunity to right an historic wrong; reclaiming traditional lands from a weakened foe. In early 1852 Nicholas mobilised his enormous army and positioned them to the south, threatening Ottoman positions in the Black Sea and Dardenelles.

A Russian military camp, Crimean campaign.

But the other great powers of Europe, France and England, were not about to stand back idly while one of their neighbours made such a bold grab for territory and influence. While not naturally allied with the Turks, the British and French had interests in the region, and were concerned about Russia gaining control of vital shipping routes.

In July 1853, the Russian Navy routed the Turkish fleet in a major battle in the Black Sea, which convinced France and England that they would have to intervene if the Russians were to be stopped. An expeditionary force of 60 000 was assembled, and by March 1854 France and England were formally allied with the Ottomans, and at war with Russia.

In  September 1854, French, English and Turkish troops landed on the Crimean peninsula, preparing to mount an attack on the principal Russian base at Sevastapol. While the British Navy blockaded Sevastapol, British troops took the smaller port city of Balaclava to the south as their base.

General Menshikov, commanding the Russian forces, saw Balaclava as a weak spot in the allied position. With only 4 500 troops guarding the city, Menshikov reasoned he could rout the entire allied advance if he could capture their principal port. He assembled a much a larger force, 25 000 strong, for an all out assault on the city. The attack was launched October 25, 1854.

Unforms of the 93rd regiment, Crimean war.

The Russian forces easily overwhelmed the outer defences of Balaclava, but met unexpectedly stiff resistance from the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, a Scottish regiment dug in on the outskirts of the city. Heavily outnumbered, and outgunned, the redoubtable Scots nevertheless managed to hold their positions and repel the Russian troops, a dramatic act of bravery immortalised by a Times journalist with the famous phrase; 'only a thin red line tipped with a line of steel stood between the Russian cavalry and the British base.'

Once The Thin Red Line checked the Russian advance, the British commanders sought to go on the offensive against the retreating Russian troops.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville jr.

British commander Lord Raglan sent his own cavalry out into the field, intending to have them attack Russian ground forces from the rear as they fled. However, a tragic miscommunication meant that the British light cavalry, the Light Brigade, were instead directed towards the wrong target; being sent towards an entrenched Russian artillery position at the end of a fortified valley. While the Light Brigade took to the charge with gusto, and inflicted casualties on their target, they came under heavy fire from three sides and were decimated. Of the 600 men in the brigade, less than 200 survived to return to the British lines.

The Battle of Balaclava then ended in stalemate, with the Russian advance beaten back, but the Allies unable to capitalise on their success.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

News of the Battle of Balaclava traveled slowly back to England, taking several weeks for dispatches to reach the local press, where it was greeted with a mixture of pride and outrage. The bravery of the British troops was instantly, and widely, lionised, but criticism of the British military commanders was severe; several generals were recalled from the front and forced to explain themselves before Parliament.

The Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read of the Battle of Balaclava in the newspaper and was moved to write a poem to honour the men who had fallen. Written (according to his nephew) in just a few minutes, it contains some of the most well known verse in the English language:

Stories of The Thin Red Line and The Charge of the Light Brigade would soon reach every corner of the British Empire, and monuments to the participants of both were erected worldwide.

Locally, the suburb of Balaclava was named to commemorate this famous battle, with a number of streets within the suburb continuing this trend. Among the streets so named:

The war in the  Crimea continued until 1856, when Russia was finally forced out of the peninsula and Ottoman rule restored, at a cost of nearly half a million soldiers lives (some 200 000 of them Turkish). The Treaty of Paris was signed, barring Russia from the Crimea and limiting Russian naval strength.

But conflict flared between the participants again only 20 years later, in the Russo - Turkish war, which saw Russia claim Crimea, along with a large swathe of Ottoman territory in Eastern Europe. 

Britain and France did not join the fight over the territory for a second time.


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! Balaclava shopping centre is where I buy my groceries and while I knew it was named for various battles and people in the Crimean War, I always assumed it was just the decision of some local council. We have other themed streets in the area. In Elwood, we have various streets named for poets. Shelley, Byron, Milton, Tennyson, etc. there ae lso streets in St Kilda and Elwood, near the beach, with sea names. And Glenhuntly Rd, which runs through from Elwood to Carnegie, is named for the ship Glenhuntly, which had some immigrant deaths from infectious disease.