The expedition had left Varna on 7 September 1854 with no clear objective and uncertain where to land, the allies planning to capture Sevastopol in a coup de main, but this was dismissed and decided instead to land as far away as Evpatoria, which they reached on 13 September. Prince Alexander Sergeyevich Menshikov, the commander of the Russian forces in the Crimea, had been taken by surprise. He had not thought the allies would attack so close to the onset of winter, and had failed to mobilise sufficient forces to defend Crimea. He had only 38,000 soldiers and 18,000 sailors along the south-western coast, and 12,000 troops around Kerch and Theodosia.
The Allied forces started to land on the western coast of the Crimean peninsula some 45 kilometres north of Sevastopol, at Kalamita Bay on 14 September. The French disembarked first, and by nightfall General François Canrobert's 1st Division, General Pierre François Bosquet's 2nd Division and Prince Napoleon's 3rd Division were ashore with their artillery. The British landing took much longer to complete compared to the French, without plans for an unopposed landing, the infantry was landed first, when the sea was calm; but by the time the British tried to get their cavalry ashore, the wind was up, and the horses struggled in the heavy surf.
It took five days for the British troops and cavalry to disembark. Many of the men were sick with cholera and had to be carried off the boats. There were no facilities for moving baggage and equipment overland, so parties had to be sent out to collect carts and wagons from the local Tatar farms. There was no food or water for the men, except the three days’ rations they had been given at Varna, and no tents or kitbags were offloaded from the ships, so the soldiers spent their first nights without shelter, unprotected from the heavy rain or the blistering heat of the next days.
Despite the plans for a surprise attack on Sevastopol being undermined by the delays, six days later on 19 September the army finally started to head south, the French on the right of the allied line near the shore with the Turks following them and the British on the left further inland, with their fleets supporting them. The march involved crossing five rivers—the Bulganak, the Alma, the Kacha, the Belbek and the Chernaya. By mid-day, the Allied Army reached the Bulganak, and had the fist sight of the Russians, when a Cossack vanguard opened fire on the 13th Light Dragoons' scouting party. As the Light Brigade prepared to charge the Cossacks, Lord Raglan sent an order for the Brigade to retreat when a large Russian infantry force was discovered in a dip in the terrain ahead. The next morning, the Allied army would march down the valley to engage the Russians, whose forces were at the other side of the river, on the Alma heights.
At the Alma, Prince Menshikov, Commander-in Chief of the Russians forces in the Crimea, decided to make his stand on the heights above the south banks of the River Alma. Although the Russian Army was numerically inferior to the combined Franco-British army (35,000 Russian troops as opposed to 60,000 Franco-British troops), the heights they occupied were a natural defensive position—indeed the last natural barrier to the allied armies on their approach to Sevastopol. Furthermore, the Russians had more than 100 artillery field guns on the heights which they could employ with devastating effect from the elevated position, but there were none on the cliffs facing the sea, which were considered too steep for the enemy to climb.