Farsi    Arabic    English   

The Russians in Turkey[250]

Frederick Engels

The certainty of war, and the probability that each steamer that now arrives from Europe will report the maneuvers of armies and the results of battles, render it more than ever necessary accurately to understand the respective positions and forces of the combatants, and the various facts which will govern the movements of the campaign. This necessity we propose to meet by a succinct analysis of the elements of offense and defense on both sides, and of the leading strategic considerations which are likely to have weight on the minds of the opposing commanders.

The Russian troops occupying the Danubian Principalities consisted, at the beginning, of two infantry corps and the usual amount of reserve cavalry and artillery. An infantry corps in Russia, counts three divisions, or six brigades of infantry, several regiments of light cavalry, and a brigade of artillery, which, altogether, should amount to about 55,000 men, with about a hundred guns. To every two infantry corps there is a "reserve cavalry corps" and some reserve artillery, including heavy siege artillery. Thus, the original army of occupation amounts, upon paper, to something like 125,000 men. A third infantry corps has since begun to cross the Pruth, and we may, therefore, after all due deductions, consider the Russian forces concentrated on the Danube to number from 140,000 to 150,000 fighting men. How many, in a given moment, may be able to rally around the standards, depends upon the sanitary condition of thé district, the greater or less efficiency of the Russian commissariat, and other circumstances of a similar nature which it is impossible correctly to estimate at a distance.

From all the information at our command, the Turkish army opposed to the Russians on the Danube, may be estimated at the very outside, at 110,000 to 120,000 men. Before the arrival of the Egyptian contingent, it was generally asserted not to surpass 90,000 men. There is, then, as far as we can judge, an evident inferiority of numbers on the part of the Turks. And as to the intrinsic value and quality of either army, an equal superiority on the part of the Russians must be admitted. It is true that the Turkish artillery, formed by excellent French and Prussian officers, enjoys a high reputation, while the Russian gunners are notoriously poor marksmen; but in spite of all recent improvements, the Turkish infantry cannot be compared to Russian grenadiers, and Turkish horsemen still lack that discipline and steadiness in battle which will allow of a second and a third charge after the first has been repulsed.

The Generals, on both sides, are comparatively new men. The military merits of Prince Gorchakoff, the Russian commander, and the reasons why the Emperor appointed him to that post, we have already had occasion to state to our readers[251]. An honest man, and a zealous partisan of Russia's "manifest destiny," it yet remains to be seen whether he can conduct a campaign of such magnitude as that now opening. Omer Pasha, the Turkish Generalissimo, is better known, and what we know of him is generally favorable. His expeditions against Kurdistan and Montenegro were, the first successful under difficult circumstances; the second, exceedingly well planned, and certain of almost bloodless success, but for the interference of diplomacy[252]. The chief superiority, then, which can be found on the side of the Turks is, perhaps, that of generalship; in most other respects the Russians have the advantage.

Though the Turks have declared war, and are perhaps, more vehement in their disposition to come to blows than the Russians, it seems evident, that as the weaker party, they will find the greater advantage in defensive, and the Russians in offensive action. This of course excludes the chances which may arise from glaring mistakes in the arrangements of either General. If the Turks were strong enough for the offensive, their tactics would be plain. They would then have to deceive the Russians by false maneuvers on the upper Danube, concentrate their forces rapidly between Silistra and Orsova, cross the lower Danube, fall upon the enemy where his position is weakest, namely, at the narrow strip of land forming the frontier between Wallachia and Moldavia; and then separating the Russian troops in both Principalities from each other, repel with concentrated forces the corps in Moldavia, and crush that which would find itself isolated and cut off in Wallachia. But as all the chances of an offensive movement are against the Turks, they could reasonably undertake a similar operation in consequence only of egregious blunders on the part of the Russian General.

If the Russians seize the opportunity for offensive action, they have two natural obstacles to pass before they penetrate to the heart of the Turkish Empire; first the Danube and then the Balkan. The passage of a large river, even in presence of a hostile army, is a military feat so often performed during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, that every lieutenant now-a-days can tell how it is to be done. A few feigned movements, a well-appointed pontoon train, some batteries to cover the bridges, good measures for securing the retreat, and a brave vanguard, are about all the conditions required. But the crossing of a great mountain range, and especially one provided with so few passes and practicable roads as the Balkan, is a more serious operation. And when this mountain range runs parallel to the river, at a distance of no more than forty or sixty miles, as the Balkan does to the Danube, the matter becomes more serious still, as a corps defeated on the hills may, by active pursuit, be cut off from its bridges and thrown into the river before succor can arrive; an army, thus defeated in a great battle, would be inevitably lost. It is this proximity and parallel direction of the Danube and the Balkan which forms the natural military strength of Turkey. The Balkan, from the Macedo-Servian frontier to the Black Sea, that is the Balkan proper, "Veliki Balkan," has five passes, two of which are high roads, such as high roads are in Turkey. These two are the passes of Ikhtiman, on the road from Belgrade, through Sofia, Philippopolis and Adrianople to Constantinople, and of Dobrol, on the road from Silistra and Shumla. The other three, of which two are between the above and the third towards the Black Sea, may be considered as impracticable for a large army, with the impediments of war. They may give passage to smaller corps, perhaps even to light field artillery, but they cannot be made the lines of operation and of communication for the main body of the invaders.

In 1828 and 1829, the Russian forces operated upon the line from Silistra by Dobrol to Adrianople, Ainadjik, this route being the shortest and most direct from the Russian frontier to the Turkish Capital, offers itself as the most natural to any Russian army which comes from the north, is supported by a fleet in undisputed possession of the Black Sea, and whose object is to bring matters to a speedy decision by a victorious march upon Constantinople. In order to pass by this road, a Russian army, after having passed the Danube, has to force a strong position flanked by the two fortresses of Shumla and Varna, to blockade or to take both of these fortresses, and then to pass the Balkan. In 1828, the Turks risked their main strength in this position. They were defeated at Kulevcha[253]; Varna and Shumla were taken, the defense of the Balkan was but feeble, and the Russians arrived at Adrianople, very much enfeebled, it is true, but yet having encountered no resistance, as the Turkish army was completely dissolved and not a brigade at hand for the defense of Constantinople. The Turks committed, on that occasion, a great mistake. A range of mountains, as every officer understands, must not be defended by a defensive position in front of it, nor by dividing the defending armies so as to block up all the passes; but by taking up a central position behind it, by observing all the passes, and when the enemy's intentions are clearly developed, by falling with concentrated forces upon the heads of his columns as they emerge from the various ravines of the mountain range. The strong position across the Russian line of operations between Varna and Shumla led the Turks to make that decisive stand there, which, with more concentrated strength and against an enemy necessarily weakened by sickness and detachments, they ought to have made in the plain of Adrianople.

Thus we see that in the defense of the line from Silistra to Adrianople the passage of the Danube ought to be defended without risking a decisive action. The second stand should be made behind, not between, Shumla and Varna, and no decisive action risked unless the chances of victory are very great. Retreat across the Balkan is the next step leaving the passes defended by detachments, capable of as much resistance as may appear advisable without bringing on a decisive engagement. In the meantime the Russians will weaken themselves by blockading the fortresses, and, if they follow their anterior practice, they will again take these fortresses by storm, and lose a great many men by the operation; for it is a curious fact, and characteristic of the Russian army, that up to the present time it has, unaided, never been able to lay a regular siege. The want of skilful engineers and artillerists, the impossibility of creating in a barbarous country large magazines of war, material for sieges, or even to carry across immense tracts of country whatever material may exist, have always driven the Russians to the necessity of carrying every fortified place by assault after a short, violent, but seldom very effective cannonade. Thus Suwaroff took Ismail and Otchakov[254]; thus, in 1828 and 1829, the Turkish fortresses in Europe and Asia were stormed; and thus they carried Warsaw in 1831[255]. In either case the Russian army will arrive at the passes of the Balkan in a weakened condition, while the Turks have had time to concentrate their detachments from all sides. If the invaders are not repelled while attempting to cross the Balkan, by a dash of the whole Turkish army, the decisive battle may be fought under the walls of Adrianople, and then, if the Turks are defeated, they will at least have exhausted all the chances left them.

But a Russian victory at Adrianople can, under present circumstances, decide very little. The British and French fleets are at Constantinople, and in their teeth no Russian General can march. upon that capital. The Russians, arrested at Adrianople, unable to rely on the support of their fleet, which itself would be menaced, would soon fall victims by thousands to disease, and have to retrace their steps beyond the Balkan. Thus, even in victory, they would be defeated as regards their great object in the war. There is, however, another line of operations which they may, perhaps, more advantageously take. It is indicated by the route which leads from Widin and Nikopolis, by way of Sofia, to Adrianople. Apart from political considerations, it would never enter the head of any sensible Russian General to follow this route. But so long as Russia can depend on Austria so long as the approach of a Russian army to the Serbian frontier, combined with Russian intrigues in Serbia, may excite insurrectionary movements in that country, in Montenegro, and among the predominant Greco-Slavic population of Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria so long as the crowning operation of a strictly military campaign, the taking of Constantinople, is out of the question, from the presence of a European fleet so long this plan of campaign will be the only one which the Russians can adopt with much chance of success, and without forcing England and France to determined hostile action by too direct a march upon Constantinople.

It appears, indeed, from the present position of the Russian army, that something of this sort is projected. Its right wing has been extended to Krajova, near the western frontier of Wallachia, and a general shifting of its array toward the upper Danube has taken place. As this maneuver is entirely out of the line of operations by Silistra and Shumla, it can only have for its object to put the Russians in communication with Servia, the center of Slavic nationality and Greek Catholicism in Turkey. A defensive position on the lower Danube, combined with an advance across the upper Danube toward Sofia, would be perfectly safe if supported by Austria, combined with a movement of the Turkish Slavonians in favor of national independence; and such a movement could not be more forcibly provoked than by a march of the Russian army into the very heart of the Slavonian population of Turkey. Thus, the Czar[a] will obtain far more easily and in a far less offensive manner what he has claimed throughout the controversy. This is the organization of all the Turkish Slavonians in distinct principalities, such as Moldavia, Wallachia and Servia now are. With Bulgaria, Montenegro and Macedonia under the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan[b] and the real protection of the Czar, Turkey in Europe would be confined to the environs of Constantinople and deprived of its nursery of soldiers, Albania. This would be a far better result for Russia than a decisive victory at Adrianople, followed by a dead stand of her armies. It is a result which appearances indicate that she is about to try for. Whether she is not mistaken in relying on the Slavonians of Turkey is a doubtful question, though there will be no cause of astonishment should they all declare against her.

First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3900, October 17, 1853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York weekly Tribune, No. 632, October 22, 1853


[a] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[b] Abdul Mejid.—Ed.

[250] This article was the first in a series in the New-York Daily Tribune on the preparation and course of the Crimean war. (Turkey declared war on Russia at the beginning of October 1853.) The articles were written by Engels, who gave a systematic account of the campaign drawing on available information, mostly from the West-European press. Many articles were published unsigned by the newspaper editors, as leaders.

The beginning of this article was combined with part of the first section of the article "Panic on the London Stock Exchange.—Strikes" and published under the title "The English Ministry Outwitted.— Panic" in The Eastern Question.

[251] A reference to the leader "Russian Designs in Turkey" published in the New-York Daily Tribune on September 17, 1853. The reference would appear to have been inserted by the newspaper editors.

[252] A reference to the Turkish military expedition under Omer Pasha to Kurdistan in 1846 to suppress an uprising against the Sultan. On the expedition of Omer Pasha to Montenegro see Note 217 ↓.

[217] In 1852 a conflict arose between Turkey and Montenegro, which demanded complete independence of the Sultan, whose vassal it remained nominally. The Porte rejected Russia's mediation on this issue, and at the beginning of 1853 the Turkish army under the command of Omer Pasha invaded Montenegro. The Austrian Government feared that if Russia entered the war to defend the Montenegrins that would cause unrest in the Slav regions of the Habsburg Empire, so it hastily dispatched Count Leiningen on a special mission to Constantinople (Marx mentions this mission below) to demand the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Montenegro and the restoration of the status quo. The concentration of Austrian troops on the Montenegrin border compelled the Porte to accept these demands.

[253] Turkish armies laid siege to Vienna in 1529 and 1683 but in both cases failed to take it. In 1683 it was saved by the army of the Polish King John Sobieski. The battle of Kulevcha (Bulgaria) took place on May 30, 1829, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29. The Turkish army was defeated.

[254] Alexander Suvorov took part in the siege of Ochakov but not in the storming of it on December 17, 1788 due to a wound received during the siege and also to disagreement with the commander-in-chief of the Russian army, Prince Potemkin, as to the conduct of the siege. On December 22, 1790 the Russian army commanded by Suvorov took the Turkish fortress of Izmail by storm and this contributed greatly to the victory of the Russians in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-91.

[255] The capture of Warsaw by Russian troops on September 8, 1831 was one of the final acts of Tsarist Russia, which together with Prussia and Austria suppressed the Polish national liberation insurrection of 1830-31. The majority of its participants were revolutionary nobles (the szlachcics) and most of its leaders came from the ranks of the aristocracy. In spite of its defeat, it was of major international significance because it diverted the forces of counter-revolution and thwarted their plans regarding the bourgeois revolution of 1 83 in France and the 1830-31 revolution in Belgium.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.335-340), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME0764en.html