England,  ER,  France,  Western Europe

The Great Storm of 1854

‘The Gale off the Port of Balaklava. 14 Nov 1854’ by R Carrick, 1855. Photo Credit- National Army Museum Copyright

In 1853, Britain was embroiled with its allies in an invasion of the Crimean peninsula in order to destroy the naval base at Sevastopol.  It was four on one fight of Britain, France, the Otttoman Empire and Sardinia against Russia, which was making territory incursions into Modavia and Wallachia in the Balkans.  This war turned into a three year slog which was characterized as a “notoriously incompetent international butchery” by historian Alexis Troubetkoy.  By the fall of 1854, the supply situation for both sides were looking bleak.  The Allies had only prepared for a summer campaign, so winter supplies were badly needed.  A fleet, of both British and French ships, set out for Balaclava harbor.  What they did not realize was a storm was coming.

Weather reporting at that time was in its infancy.  If you wanted to know what the weather was like, you stuck your head out the window.  There were some advances in measuring barometric pressure, but there was nothing formal.  The navy certainly did not take any heed of it.  On November 14, 1854, the Allied supply fleet was in the Black Sea with all of the supplies for the winter campaign.  A fierce gale blew up and began battering the fleet. Many people referred to this as a hurricane, however, meteorologists reserve that turn for storms in the Atlantic.  At that time there was no definition of Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.  The best they had at the time was the Beaufort Wind Scale, created in 1805.  The definition of the force numbers in the Beaufort Scale are as follows:

Force 8: Fresh Gale, 39-46 mph winds; small branches break off trees, walking is very difficult.

Force 9: Strong Gale, 47-54 mph winds; branches break, slight damage to buildings, shingles blown off.
Force 10: Whole Gale, 55-63 mph winds; some trees blown down, considerable damage to buildings.

Force 11: Storm, 64-74 mph; widespread damage to trees and buildings.

Force 12: Hurricane, 75+ mph; extreme destruction; severe and extensive damage.

British lithograph published March 1855, after a water-colour by William Simpson, shows winter military housing under construction with supplies borne on soldiers’ backs. A dead horse, partially buried in snow, lies by the roadside. Photo Credit- Library of Congress

Eye witness accounts of the storm from Henry Clifford’s Letters and Sketches from the Crimea report tents being collapsed, trees being damaged and taking shelter in a ruined house.  Along with this and other accounts, some experts theorize that this would have been a Gale Force of 9 or 10.  We have no way of being sure, however.  At any rate gale force winds assailed the ships, and in the end 30 ships were destroyed or damaged.  This included the French warship Henri IV and the British ship HMS Black Prince.  Also at the bottom of the Black Sea were the winter supplies, including warm uniforms, food, coal and shelter.  Just as the Russian winter was beginning to set in.  Cholera and typhus broke out in the camps and men froze to death in the trenches.  Dysentery swept through the camp.  Illness and cold killed more men than battle.

The British tried to cover all this up by sending pictures of happy soldiers back to the home front, but the letters from the soldiers told the tale.  An example was a letter to his aunt from Captain WP Richards from outside Sebastopol.  He writes:

Since I commenced this we have had a terrible storm of wind, rain, and snow, giving us a taste of what the winter will be. We have suffered great loss, in the first place, eight store ships, three of them steamers, were wrecked outside Balaklava, and 300 lives lost, not only this, they contained almost all the winter clothing sent for us, so God knows what we shall do, as it will take at least two months to get more from England.

It is calculated that property to the amount of three millions was lost, amongst which I will mention 9,000 gallons of rum and from four to six million rounds of mine and musket armaments, immense quantities of beef, pork, biscuit, hay, barley, sugar, and clothes for the troops, a large quantity of siege ammunition, which was much wanted, in addition to this the wind blew a perfect hurricane, levelled nearly every tent, mine amongst the number, the consequence was that everything got wet in our tents, and half our things spoilt, it was bitterly cold also.

I am afraid we are in for a bad business, as Lord Raglan has wasted time awfully, and they intend wintering out here, and hutting the troops, but they have made up their minds much too late. We ought to have been under cover now, instead of which, they have only just sent for the timber to make our huts. The horses also will never be able to stand the cold,
each battery loses two or three of a night from the cold and wind. The road to Balaklava is nearly impassable so that even if we get provisions sent regularly, I do not see how we are to bring them seven miles up, as we shall not have any horses fit to drag shortly.”

People at home were horrified.  Extras had been collected from civilians to help the troops, but those were either lost or poached by officers.  To add insult to injury, the Great Storm which had sunk the fleet had been tracked.  A report from the state-supported Paris Observatory indicated that barometric readings showed that the storm has passed across Europe in about four days.  A telegram from Vienna to the Crimea could have sent warnings to the fleet and saved both lives and materials.   A weather service was made a priority and was started in Great Britain literally the next week.


Sources available on request