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The Progress of The Turkish War

Frederick Engels

There is no longer a doubt that military operations have begun on the Danube. Omer Pasha has crossed that river at Widin, occupied Kalafat, a village on the opposite side, and marched his advanced guard upon Krajova, while another attack of the Turks, from Rustchuk, has been made upon the opposite town of Giurgevo, and a third and fourth attack in the direction of Braila and Turnu are spoken of. At the same time another engagement, in which the Russians were the attacking party, has taken place at Oltenitza. This last affair is reported by one of our dispatches to have lasted three hours and to have ended in the repulse of the Russians; while another dispatch, received from Vienna on the evening of the 8th inst., states that the battle lasted twenty-eight hours, and that even the result was not ascertained. The former account seems more likely to be true.

The results of the other rencontres are also variously stated. That at Giurgevo appears by all accounts to have been fruitless; of the effects of those near Braila and Turnu, we are ignorant; as to the advance from Kalafat, some telegraphs report advantages gained by the Turks and a repulse of the Russians others, the Turks to have been checked at once, and driven back upon Kalafat. The probabilities remain in favor of the first report.

What is certain, on the whole, is this: Omer Pasha, from reasons hereafter to be considered, has abandoned what we have before this declared to be the natural position of the Turks on this frontier, namely, the defensive[a]. He has taken offensive steps, and profiting by the withdrawal of the Russians from Lesser Wallachia, he crossed the Danube at the extreme left of his own position, at Widin , on the 28th of October; with what force, we are utterly at a loss to make out. However, as since then we have only heard of simulated or partial attacks of the Turks on other points, and as it would be a gratuitous madness to pass a river like the Danube in he face of a powerful enemy, with a force of no consequence, we may take it for granted that Omer Pasha has with him the main portion of his disposable active army. For, unless convinced by undoubtable intelligence, we will not believe that he has commit-led himself, so far as some dispatches maintain, by crossing the Danube with 7,000 men, and having no nearer supports or reserves than 8,000 men at Sofia, 150 miles off. Yet, as the main body of the Turkish army has but very lately been concentrated at Varna, Shumla and Rustchuk, we find it equally difficult to explain how Omer Pasha should all at once succeed in concentrating the gross of his army at Widin, 250 miles, on an average, distant from the above places.

The most probable solution is, that on seeing the advance of the Russians toward Widin, Omer. Pasha has shifted the position of his army in a considerable degree to the left; leaving the defense of the direct road to Constantinople to the garrisons of Rustchuk, Silistra, Varna and Shumla, he has taken Rustchuk for the support of his right, Widin for that of his left wing, Nicopolis for the rallying point of his center. In this position, extending from Rustchuk to Widin, some 200 miles, he has rallied to his left wing whatever troops he could collect with him, and passed the Danube, thus apparently turning the right wing of the Russians. He expected to fall upon their advance corps and to force them to retreat behind the river Shil, the passage of which he might either force in front, or by sending near Rahova another corps across the Danube, which would thus turn the Shil. The river Aluta, the second tributary of the Danube which runs across the road from Widin to Bucharest, might be forced in the same way, by throwing another portion of the Turkish center across the Danube at Nicopolis and Turnu, below the junction of this river with the Aluta. Finally, simulated attacks lower down, at Giurgevo and Braila, might contribute to lead the Russians into error as to the real points at which the Turks were arriving.

There can be hardly a doubt that, leaving political motives for a moment out of the question, such must have been the plans of Omer Pasha. The London Times[b] speaks of an actual passage of the Turks at Giurgevo; but this is an evident falsehood. There is not an ensign in any disciplined army who would commit such a blunder as to cross the greatest river in Europe where it is broadest and most difficult, too with two corps, at two different points, 250 miles asunder, in the presence of a respectable and concentrated enemy.

What, then, does Omer Pasha's maneuver amount to? It is an attempt to turn the flank of the enemy, and to roll up by simultaneous flank and front attacks his whole line of battle. Such a maneuver is perfectly justified when you can bring, unawares, your own main strength upon the enemy's flank; when your front is safe from attack; when your retreat, in case of a check, is secured; and when, by rolling up, from one flank to the other, the enemy's position, you cut off his communications with his base of operations. Now, in the present instance, the latter conviction is not fulfilled. On the contrary, while Omer Pasha's retreat may be menaced by the right wing of his corps in Wallachia being outflanked, and the road to Kalafat thus cut off (in which case his only retreat would be into Austria), the attack from Kalafat toward Bucharest does not at all interfere with the Russian line of retreat. It will be recollected that, upon that ground, we stated some time ago, the only useful line of attack for the Turks to be that from the Danube toward the Sereth, or the narrow strip of land which divides Bessarabia from the Austrian frontier[c]. Instead of the movement which would at once have menaced, if not interrupted the Russian line of communications, the Turks attack at the opposite end where, even in case of victory, no decisive success is to be expected. As to the Turkish front being safe from attack, that may be the case, insofar as the main operations taking place between Widin and Krajova or Slatina, the Russians are not likely to cross the Danube lower down unless they were bolder in their strategy than we know them to be. But at the same time, the Turkish front from Widin to Rustchuk is equally impeded by the large river which separates it from the enemy, and there must be comparative inaction in that quarter.

The main condition, however, is not fulfilled in this instance.

We have a splendid historical example of this sort of maneuver in the battle of Jena[319]. Napoleon succeeded in bringing the mass of his forces unawares upon the left flank of the Prussians, and in eight hours rolled them up so completely, that the Prussian army was cut off from its retreat, and annihilated, and has never been heard of since as an army. But that took place on a ground twenty miles square and within twenty hours. Here we have a territory two hundred miles by fifty, with no roads, and the duration of every movement corresponding thereto. The surprise, the vigor and impetuosity of attack, to which Napoleon at Jena owed his complete success, must here, after a few efforts, literally stick fast in the mud. This will be more apparent if we look at the map. The Turks, from Kalafat, have to march upon Krajova. Here they meet with the first of those rivers, which descending from the Transylvanian Alps to the Danube, traverse Wallachia from north to south, and form as many lines of defense to be forced by an attacking army. The country is exactly similar in this respect to Lombardy, and the two rivers here in question, the Shil and Aluta, may be compared to the Mincio and Adige, whose military importance has so often been conspicuous.

Supposing the Turks force the passage of the Shil, which they may perhaps do, they will meet the first serious resistance on the Aluta, near Slatina. The Aluta is a much more formidable barrier by its width and depth; besides, with a little alacrity, the Russians may there concentrate an army capable not only of repelling all Turkish attacks, but of following up the victory at once. Indeed, a Russian victory at Krajova, unless very strongly defined, would not be of much importance, as in three forced marches the Turks could reach Kalafat and the Danube, and thus escape pursuit. But a Turkish defeat at Slatina, besides being more decisive from the greater mass of Russian troops collected there, would give the Russians five or six days of pursuit; and everybody knows that the fruits of a victory are not collected on the field of battle, but during the pursuit, which may bring about a total disorganization of the discomfited army. It is, then, not likely that Omer Pasha, if Gorchakoff wishes to oppose him there, will ever be able to cross the Aluta; for taking every chance in favor of the Turks, Omer Pasha cannot bring more than 25,000 men to the banks of that river, while Gorchakoff may easily collect 35,000 in good time. As to the flank attacks of the Turks from the southern shore of the Danube, they are tolerably harmless, if the attacking force does not dispose of a prodigious quantity of pontoons and other materials very rarely met with among the Turks. But supposing that even the Aluta were forced, and even the Arges, another important river further east, who will imagine that Omer Pasha can succeed in forcing the Russian retrenchments at Bucharest, and in putting to flight, in a pitched battle, an army which must certainly outnumber by about one-third the troops he could bring against it?

If the war, then, is conducted upon anything like military principles on the Russian side, Omer Pasha's defeat appears certain; but if it is carried on not according to military but to diplomatic principles, the result may be different.

The voluntary retreat of the Russians from the important military position of Kalafat, after so many troops had been sent there to menace Servia; the unresisted passage of the Danube by Omer Pasha; his comparatively unmolested and very slow movements in Lesser Wallachia (the country west of the Aluta); the insignificance, as far as we can judge, of the Turkish attacks on all other points; lastly, the strategical errors implied in the advance from Widin, and which nobody can for a moment suppose Omer Pasha to have overlooked all these facts seem to give some ground for a conclusion which has been adopted by some competent judges, but which appears rather fanciful. It is, that there is a sort of tacit understanding between the two opposing generals, by which Lesser Wallachia is to be ceded by the Russians to the Turks. The Aluta, say those who entertain this opinion, forms a very comfortable natural barrier, across which the two armies may look at each other the whole dreary winter long, while the diplomatists again busy themselves to find out a solution. The Russians, by receding so far, would not only show their generosity and peaceable feelings, but they would at the same time get a sort of right upon the usurped territory, as a joint occupation of the Principalities by Russians and Turks is a thing exceedingly in harmony with existing treaties. They would, by this apparent generosity in Europe, escape real dangers in Asia, where they appear to be worse off than ever, and above all, they would at any moment be strong enough to drive the Turks out of the strip of territory allowed to them on the left bank of the Danube. Curious but by no means satisfactory evidence in favor of this theory may be found in the fact that it is openly propounded by Vienna journals enjoying the confidence of the Court. A few days will show whether this view of the question is correct, -or whether actual war, in good earnest, is to be carried on. We shall be disappointed if the latter does not prove to be the case.

In Asia we begin to find out that both parties are a good deal weaker than was supposed. According to the Journal de Constantinople, the Turks had, on the 9th October, in Erzerum 10,000 men, as a reserve; in Batum, 4,000 regulars and 20,000 irregulars, intended, evidently, for an active army; in Bayazid, on the Persian frontier, 3,000 men; in Kars and Ardahan, the two most important points on the Russian frontier (next to Batum), advanced guards of, together,. 16,000 men[d]. These were to be reenforced in a few days by 10,000 or 12,000 fresh troops from Syria. This certainly is a very considerable reduction from what other reports led us to suppose; they are 65,000 instead of 100,000! But on the other hand, if the news by way of Constantinople is to be trusted, the main pass of the Caucasus, connecting Tiflis and Georgia with Russia, is in the hands of the mountaineers, Shamyl has driven the Russians back to within nine miles of Tiflis; and Gen. Woronzoff, commander in Georgia, has declared that in case of a Turkish war he could not hold that province unless reenforced by 50,000 men. How far these accounts may be correct we cannot judge; but the reenforcements sent in great haste by sea to Jerkum Kale, Redut Kale and other points on the Transcaucasian coast prove that the star of Russia does not shine very brilliantly in that quarter. As to the strength of these reenforcements, reports differ; it was first said 24,000 men had been sent, but where were the Russians to get ships for such an army? It now turns out that the 13th Division, the first of the 5th corps (General Lüders) has been sent thither; that would be some 14,000 men, which is more than likely. As to the story of the Cossacks of the Black Sea having rounded by land the western point of the Caucasus, and succeeded in passing undisturbed along the rocky and narrow shore toward Redut Kale, to the strength of 24,000 men (this seems to be a favorite number with the Russians), the longer we looked at it, the more incredible it seems. The Tchornomorski[e] Cossacks have plenty to do to guard the line of the Kuban and the Terek, and as to cavalry passing, single-handed and unattacked, in such force, a defile of one hundred and fifty miles, through a hostile population, where a few men might stop them or cut their column in two these things are only heard of in Russia, where up to the present day it is affirmed that Suwaroff beat Masséna at Zurich[320].

Here, then, is the best ground for ,the Turks to act. Rapid, concentrated attacks of the regulars on one main road to Tiflis along shore, if the Turks can hold out at sea; by Kars or Ardahan, in the interior, if they cannot accompanied by an indefatigable, energetic, sudden warfare, according to their own fashion, by the irregulars, would soon put Woronzoff in an inextricable position, open a communication with Shamyl, and ensure a general insurrection of the whole Caucasus. But here more than on the Danube boldness, rapidity, and ensemble of action is required. It remains to be seen whether these qualities belong to the Turkish commanders in that region.

Written about November 8, 1853. Reproduced from the newspaper.
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3934, November 25, 1853, as a leader


[a] See this volume, pp. 336 and 427.—Ed.

[b] No. 21579, November 7, 1853.—Ed.

[c] See this volume, pp. 336-37.—Ed.

[d] The figures are evidently taken from the report in The Times, No. 21578, November 5, 1853, which refers to the Journal de Constantinople of October 19, 1853. Instead of "on the 9th October" this sentence should read on the 19th October"; this is evidently a misprint in the newspaper.—Ed.

[e] Tchornoye morye is the Russian for the Black Sea.—Ed.

[319] In the battle of Jena on October 14, 1806 the Prussian troops were defeated by Napoleon's army. This resulted in Prussia's capitulation.

[320] On September 25-26, 1799 the French Army commanded by Masséna defeated the Russian corps under General Rimsky-Korsakov at Zurich. This defeat put the Russian troops commanded by Suvorov which were marching from Northern Italy to join Rimsky-Korsakov's corps in a very difficult position. However, despite the considerable numerical superiority of the enemy troops, Suvorov's army succeeded in dealing them several blows and reached the Upper Rhine region. In his work "Po and Rhine" written in 1859 Engels calls Suvorov's march over the Alps during this campaign "the most remarkable of all the Alpine crossings" (see this edition, Vol. 16).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.450-456), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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