Naval War in the Pacific, 1854-55.
A forgotten element of the Russian War of 1854-56
The war against Russia of 1854-56 is generally remembered today as “the Crimean War”, after the campaign fought by the armies of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia to seize the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sebastopol. The war in the Crimea is well-recorded and well-known – with its (in)famous incidents like the Charge of the Light Brigade, the sufferings of the soldiers through disease, cold and maladministration and the work of Florence Nightingale. But we tend to forget that from Britain’s point of view, the war against Russia was primarily going to be a naval war – Britain’s land forces were only a supporting element in the land operations carried out in the Crimea. Elsewhere, the huge Russian Empire was to be attacked at any accessible point by sea – and that largely meant by the Royal Navy, acting in accord with smaller French squadrons. There were naval campaigns in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855, far to the north in the White Sea in 1854 and 1855, around the Black Sea and (most successfully) in the Sea of Azoff in 1855. Most of these have been forgotten and surely the most forgotten of them all is the series of naval operations waged in the Pacific in 1854 and 1855.
In terms of a meaningful effort against Russia, at a time when Russian expansion eastwards across Siberia was still in its infancy, there were few Russian settlements on her Pacific coast which might merit the attention of allied warships. The only sizeable Russian towns in the region were Okhotsk and Petropavlovsk, along with the fur and fish trading port of Sitka in Alaska. Smaller fishing and trading settlements were hardly worth any effort, as were communities on Sakhalin Island or around the estuary of the river Amur, former Chinese territory which had only recently come under Russian control. The port of Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula and sheltered in Avocha Bay, was the largest Russian settlement on the Pacific coast. Founded in 1740 by the Russian explorer Vitus Behring, after whom the Behring Sea and Straits were named, the port was developing as a fishing and whaling port, a base for voyages into the Arctic seas and as a link with Russian settlements in Alaska. In 1854, it was also an anchorage of the small Russian Pacific squadron.
Had it not been for the fact of a Russian naval presence in the northern Pacific the region might well have been left alone by the allies, since it was so remote and of little economic significance. Added to that, British (and French) knowledge of the region was minimal and sea charts just about non-existent. Nevertheless, a Russian squadron did exist, though its exact size and location were unknown, and would have to be dealt with, since there was some concern that Russian warships might “injure” British whalers or traders in the Pacific or moving to and from the USA, China and Australia. It was therefore decided in the summer of 1854 that Anglo-French naval forces would indeed operate against Russian interests in the region. The aim, as in the other naval theatres, was to seek out and destroy Russian warships, to attack shore-based military targets and to disrupt trade, which largely meant the fishing and whaling industry and trade with Russian Alaska.
The Russian naval presence in the north western Pacific was very small. Her fleet in the region in 1854 was commanded by Rear Admiral Putyatin, a highly experienced explorer, diplomat and naval officer who had under his command only the aged 60-gun frigate Pallas, the frigate Aurora (44), and the armed transport Dvina (12). Putyatin knew very well that his enemy could deploy a far greater force against him and wisely sought to avoid a naval engagement. The frigate Pallas was sent for safety far up the River Amur, whilst the Aurora and Dvina were dispatched to Petropavlovsk where they could not only find refuge but also help in the defence of the port.
The allied squadron deployed to operate in the north Pacific was drawn from warships usually on the China Station or patrolling the American Pacific coast, which could be rapidly diverted for operations against Russian interests. The chosen ships concentrated at Honolulu late in July 1854, the combined force comprising:
President, (flagship), a 50-gun frigate under Capt. R. Burridge.
Pique, 40, a fifth-rate frigate under Capt. Sir F. W. E. Nicolson, Bart.
Trincomalee, 24, a Leda-class frigate under Capt. W. Houstoun.
Amphitrite, 24, a Leda-class frigate, under Capt. C. Fredericks.
Virago, 6, a paddle steamer under Commander E, Marshal.
French : La Forte, 60 (flagship) frigate under Capt. de Miniac.
L’Eurydice, 32, frigate under Capt. de la Grandière.
L’Artémise, 30, corvette under Capt. L’Evéque.
L’Obligado, 18, brig under Capt. Rosenavat.
The French contingent was under Rear Admiral Auguste Fébvrier-Despointes (1796-1855) but overall command lay with the British Rear Admiral David Price commanding the British squadron in the Pacific. On 9 May 1854, Price issued instructions from President, then at Callao in Peru, to his subordinate commanders requiring that “we should forthwith commence and execute all such hostile measures as may be in our power … against Russia and against ships belonging to the Emperor of Russia or to his subjects or others inhabiting within any of his countries, territories or domains”. Having detached the Amphitrite, Trincomalee and L’Artémise to cruise for commerce protection off California, the allied squadron still mounted over 200 guns, with 2,000 men, and was what one writer called “a very respectable force of ships to meet the Russians with”. The allies headed first for the Russian fur-trading port of Sitka in Alaska, hoping to find the Russian squadron there. When nothing was found, the combined fleet turned for the Kamchatka Peninsula and on 28 August 1854 arrived in Avocha Bay.
Such is the distance between St. Petersburg and Petropavlovsk that the governor of Kamchatka, Rear Admiral Zavoyko, had only heard that a state of war existed between in mid July. Although Petropavlovsk had some established fortifications, the Admiral lost no time in strengthening its defences, realising that the port would be an obvious target for a naval attack. He ordered the construction of new entrenchments, batteries, banks and ditches and enrolled local men to form a “town guard”. Merchant ships in the bay were dispersed and the Russian warships in the port, the recently-arrived Aurora and Dvina were withdrawn into the bay, moored in such a way that their guns would serve as additional batteries defending the approaches to the port; both ships’ crews were landed to join the defenders. Nevertheless, Zavoyko had only 67 heavy guns and less than 1,000 armed men to defend the entire town. He could then do no more than wait for an enemy to appear.
Having found no worthy targets over the past weeks, Admiral Price arrived off Petropavlovsk on 29 August and reconnoitred the port on the steamer Virago . He found it defended by four small batteries and a larger fort, mounting five heavy guns and itself defended by flank batteries of twelve 36-pounders. Price decided to attack the port on 30 August. Early that morning, the ships were cleared for action and the President, Pique, La Forte, L’Eurydice and L’Obligado entered the harbour. But after only a few rounds had been fired, a disaster occurred. Just after the firing began, Price retired to his cabin on the President and shot himself in the heart; he died some hours later. Whether it was the accidental discharge of his own pistol, as was tactfully suggested at the time, or the suicide attempt of an aged officer overwhelmed by his responsibilities will never be known but the tragedy of his sudden death naturally caused the complete disruption of the planned attack. Overall command of the British ships was transferred to Captain Sir Frederick Nicolson of the Pique, who postponed the attack until the next day. Thereafter, the French Admiral Fébvrier-Despointes directed operations; he too was to die aboard his flagship La Forte in 1855.
On the 31 August, the allied squadron again entered the harbour and began the bombardment of Petropavlovsk in earnest. But indecision ruined any chance of success. Fearful of serious damage to the ships, the French Admiral kept them at long range – too far to do any serious damage to well-defended batteries. The main target was an 11-gun battery which was actually silenced by fire from La Forte and President. The Russian ship Aurora returned a damaging fire from behind her defended position, though she suffered severely from the allied response. Finally, a landing party from Virago under Capt. C. A. Parker, RM, actually captured one shore battery and spiked its guns before withdrawing. But by nightfall little had been achieved and the squadron again withdrew; overnight, the Russians repaired the damage to their batteries ready for the next onslaught.
In council with his officers, Fébvrier-Despointes decided to launch a combined land and sea assault on 4 September. While the warships bombarded the sea defences, a Naval Brigade of 700 sailors and 100 marines from the Pique and the Eurydice, nearly half of the entire manpower of the allied squadron, would land to seize gun positions north of the port prior to an attack on the town itself. This force was placed under the command of Capt. de la Grandière of L’Eurydice, with Capt. Burridge of the President and the Marine contingent again under Capt. Parker. The President, Virago and La Forte would occupy the attention of the batteries while the shore parties, carried aboard Virago, dealt with the batteries at close quarters and would then attack the town.
The main landing initially went well, though the site was badly chosen, overlooked as it was by a hill which turned out to be well-defended. Gunfire from President and Virago silenced two shore batteries and the immediate land objective, Battery No. 4 was quickly taken. However, it was found simply to have been abandoned by its crew, who spiked its guns and withdrew to another battery. The warships maintained their barrage, but the shore party soon got into difficulties and the entire attack collapsed. In face of the enemy landing, Russian defenders had been positioned on the wooded hill overlooking the route of the advance and in concealed positions in thick brush-land. As the Naval Brigade and Marines pushed inland, impeded by brambles and undergrowth, they were met with heavy and accurate fire from concealed positions, followed by a counter-attack by Russian sailors. Captain Parker and two French officers, including Capt. Lefebvre of L’Eurydice, were amongst the first killed and nine other British and French officers were quickly wounded. With these losses amongst their leaders and under heavy fire, the rest fell back and a retreat to the shore was ordered.
By the time the fighting stopped, 107 British and 101 French sailors and marines had been killed or wounded in what was an ignominious repulse. In terms of the Russian War, these were significant losses in a small-scale action. The survivors soon regained the ships and although a desultory firing continued until nightfall, nothing significant was achieved. The warships withdrew beyond range in the evening to repair and to treat the wounded and overnight the Russians again re-occupied or repaired their damaged gun positions.
Needless to say, this setback in the Far East was greeted with amazement in Britain, where the failure to achieve anything concrete against so remote an enemy was scarcely credited. There is no doubting the bravery of the officers and men on both sides but it is equally clear that the landing was badly thought-out, with little accurate information on the nature and strength of the enemy positions they were attacking.
After the allied dead were buried on Tarinski island the squadron simply left the area, its commanders considering it too weakened to renew the attack. The Russians reported 115 casualties and damage to the town’s fish warehouse and thirteen other buildings from the naval bombardment. Although Virago and President managed to capture the Russian schooner Anadis and the ten-gun transport Sitka on 7 September, these were slender rewards achieved at great cost. The British element sailed for winter stations in Vancouver Island and the French to San Francisco.
There were no further naval operations in the Pacific in 1854. The debacle forced a complete restructuring of the allied squadron operating in the region and the deployment of more warships to the theatre. Rear Admiral H. W. Bruce, commanding Britain’s Pacific squadron, was appointed to the command in November 1854 but nothing was done until the better weather of the spring of 1855. Admiral Bruce was given the President, flagship, the Pique, Trincomalee, Dido, Amphitrite, Brisk, screw, Encounter and Barracouta. The French element, under Rear Admiral Fourichon, comprised as in 1854 La Forte, L’Alceste, L’Eurydice and L’Obligado.
In April 1855, Admiral Bruce ordered the Encounter and Barracouta simply to watch Petropavlovsk and report enemy movements. The city had in fact been heavily re-fortified early in 1855 but the allied plans for a renewed attack were suddenly rendered obsolete. The city’s defenders, under the Russian military commander in the Pacific, Nikolai Muraviev, were well aware of the danger they faced from a renewed onslaught by a more powerful force. In a remarkably audacious move, they cut passages through the ice to release their trapped ships and under cover of snow and fog on 17 April 1855, the entire Russian garrison of about 800 was withdrawn from the town and shipped to safety in the estuary of the Amur. The civil population (about 1300 people) fled overland to take refuge in the inland village of Avatcha, far from the danger of naval gunnery. The town’s guns were spiked, removed or buried. It was all swiftly and effectively carried out, without the allied observers even being aware of the movement.
When in May 1855, the allies sailed into Petropavlovsk, it was immediately clear that the town was deserted. Landing parties destroyed the remaining batteries and burned the arsenal, magazines and a stranded Russian whaler found in the harbour, but no attempt was made to follow the Russian ships into the Amur, since they were reported to be very well-protected. The British press later levelled special criticism against the commanders of the Encounter and the Barracouta for allowing the entire garrison of Petropavlovsk to escape by ship. Having nothing else to achieve at Petropavlovsk, the allies crossed to Sitka but since it was found to be undefended and with no Russian shipping in port, it was left unharmed.
Despite the change of commanders and an increase in strength, the Pacific campaign of 1855 was another depressing failure, characterised by seemingly pointless (and certainly ineffective) patrols in largely unknown waters. They simply could not find the Russian pacific squadron – or at least, could not close with it – and unlike allied ships in the Baltic and Azoff seas made no attempt to damage the largely insignificant local trade or local communities. Sporadic naval operations by ships drawn from the China station continued throughout the year. In April, HMS Spartan was detached to patrol the Kuril Islands, with no result, and warships cruised in Japanese and Korean waters searching for Russian vessels. Allied warships visited the Japanese port of Hakodate and from there sailed north, “visiting” largely small local settlements on scattered islands; at Urup in the Kuril Islands, they seized the possessions of the Russian-American Company.
More alarmingly, Commodore Elliott with the forty-gun Sybille, the screw Hornet (17) and the Bittern (12), sighted a Russian squadron in Castries Bay on 20 May. They were identified as the Aurora, Dvina, (both escaped from the Amur), Oltenitza, (22), the six-gun Vostok and two other armed vessels. With his three small ships – and no charts or knowledge of the those waters – Elliott did not feel strong enough to enter the bay to try to “cut out” the enemy vessels and apart from Hornet lobbing a few long-range shells at the Dvina, nothing was done. Having failed to frighten or induce the Russian ships out of the bay to fight in the open, Elliott dispatched the Bittern to bring reinforcements and spent a fruitless week cruising with Hornet and Sybille watching Castries Bay. By the time Bittern returned with part of the China squadron under Admiral Stirling, the Russian vessels had escaped into the Amur, simply bypassing Elliott’s slight blockade – a fact which caused caustic comment in London. The Pique, Barracouta and Amphitrite, joined by the French vessels Sybille and Constantine, were then detached under Elliott to patrol the Sea of Okhotsk, unsuccessfully searching for the vanished Russian ships.
Admiral Bruce’s squadron, having cruised to no great effect in the estuary of the Amur and then amongst the Kuril Islands in August and September, simply dispersed as winter set in; most of the British vessels headed once more for the dockyards on Vancouver Island, whilst the French again sailed for San Francisco. The last act of the Pacific Campaign, if such it can be called, was the seizure by Barracouta of the brig Greta, which was found to have on board most of the crew of the Russian frigate Diana. The fifty-gun Diana had had an exciting time. Laden with ammunition and supplies intended to re-supply Petropavlovsk, she had come all the way from Cronstadt in 1854, eluding the allied blockade of the Baltic. After an epic journey around the world, she was eventually wrecked off the coast of Japan in November 1854. Greta was sent to Hong Kong as a prize.
That such powerful squadrons could do so little was beyond conception in Britain. The naval authorities on the spot were accused of “knight-errantry” in pointlessly cruising distant, largely uncharted seas with no apparent goal, in dividing their forces up into squadrons too small to tackle any sizeable Russian force which remained and especially in allowing the flight of the Russian squadron in Castries Bay. Unsurprisingly, there were no allied naval operations in the Pacific in 1856.
From the medal collector’s point of view, it is disappointing that no general medal was issued for the Russian War – only awards for the Baltic campaigns and the Black Sea/Crimea region. This means that naval and Royal Marine personnel who served only in the White Sea or in the Pacific in 1854-55 received no medal at all. Nevertheless, it is possible to find medals which relate their recipient to the Pacific campaigns – a long service medal whose papers perhaps show service in the Pacific or a medal group to someone who had been in the Pacific campaigns; many men who had served there in 1854-55 went on to see action in the China Wars of 1856-60. It is well worth checking a man’s service record to see if he was indeed one of those who had taken part in the long-forgotten Pacific campaign.