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Progress of The Turkish War

Frederick Engels

The news from the seat of war, brought by the steamer Humboldt, confirms the report previously received by the Europa that the Turks, after having again and again made good their position at Oltenitza, against heavy odds, and with hard fighting, finally retired across the river about the 14th ult. and took up their position in their former entrenchments at Turtukai. We presume that when we receive our letters and journals this will be explained, but at present we do not altogether understand the reason for the movement. It is stated in the dispatch that it was accomplished without molestation, which precludes the supposition that it was the result of any decided advantage gained by Prince Gorchakoff, unless indeed we are to believe that the Russian commander had succeeded in mustering for his second attack on that place twice the force that he had brought against it on the first. But the truth is, that he had no such corps of 45,000 men for such a purpose, as will appear on a careful review of all the facts in our possession. It is also stated that the Turks return to Turtukai, in order not to expose themselves to the danger of a surprise at Oltenitza in winter, when retreat across the river would be difficult; but this statement contradicts the fact that they are acting on the offensive without a check hitherto and with undeniable preponderance of forces. Besides, their left wing is not only maintained at Widin, on the Wallachian side of the Danube, but is even strengthened, which indicates anything but a general retrograde movement on their part. And, taking the hypothesis of a projected movement, with a large force, across the river at Braila or Galatz, which is probably true, we are at a loss to understand why Omer Pasha should withdraw his troops from the strong position at Oltenitza simply because he was about, with another body of men, to move decisively against the Russian left flank. But the perplexities of the case will be better understood by referring to the events of the campaign since its beginning.

It is certain first of all that the Turks were allowed to cross the river without serious opposition, both at Widin and Turtukai. There was nothing surprising in this, as military experience has established the impossibility of preventing an active enemy from crossing a river, however large; and also, that it is always most advantageous to attack him after he has got part of his troops across thus falling upon them with a superior force, and while they have only one line of retreat and that encumbered. But that the Turks should establish themselves upon the left bank of the Danube; that in every action fought they should come off victorious; that they should keep possession of Oltenitza, not more _ than forty miles from Bucharest, for ten days without the Russians being able to dislodge them from that important position; and that they should finally retire from it unmolested and of their own accord all this shows that the proportionate strength of the Turkish and Russian forces opposed to each other in that quarter has been greatly mistaken.

We know pretty accurately what forces the Turks had to dispose of; but as to the forces of the Russians, we have always been obliged to grope in the dark. Two army Corps, it was stated, had crossed the Pruth, and part of a third followed them shortly afterward. Supposing this to be correct, the Russians could not have less than 150,000 men in the Principalities. Now, however, when events have already shown that there is no such Russian force in Wallachia now at last we receive an authentic account, by way of Vienna, of what they really have there[a]. Their forces consist of:

1.The Fourth Army Corps, under Gen. Dannenberg, consisting of the following 3 divisions of infantry:
A The 10th Division (Gen. Simonoff)16,000 men
B The 11th Division (Gen. Pawloff)16,000 men
C The 12th Division (Gen. Liprandi)16,000 men
D One battalion of riflemen1,000 men
2.One brigade of the 14th Division, belonging to the Fifth Army
Corps, and commanded by Gen. Engelhardt8,000 men
Total, Infantry57,000 men
3.Two divisions of light horse, commanded by Gen. Nirod and Gen. Fischbach,
together8,000 men
and 10 regiments of Cossacks.6,000 men
making in all14,000 men
4.One division of artillery, of about one battery (12 guns) for every infantry regiment, or altogether 170 to 180 guns.

It also appears, that the Fifth Army Corps, that of Gen. Lüders, is not even concentrated at Odessa, but has part of its troops at Sebastopol, and part in the Caucasus; that the Third Army Corps under Gen. Osten-Sacken, is still in Volhynia, or at least has but just crossed the Pruth, and cannot be brought down to the theater of war in less than three or four weeks; and that the Russian cavalry of reserve mostly heavy horse are behind the Dnieper, and will require five or six weeks to march to the place where they are wanted. This information is no doubt correct; and if it had been before us six weeks ago we should have said that Omer Pasha ought to pass the Danube, no matter where or how, but the sooner the better.

There is, in fact, nothing which can rationally explain the foolhardiness of the Russians. To march with something like 80,000 men into a cul-de-sac like Wallachia, to stop there a couple of months, to have, as the Russians themselves have confessed, about 15,000 men sick in hospital, . and to trust to good luck, without getting further reenforcements, is a thing that has never been done, and that nobody had any right to suspect in people like the Russians, who are generally so very cautious, and always take care to be on .the safe side. Why, this whole available army in Wallachia, after deducting detachments, would only come to some 46,000 men, who might, besides, be wanted at different points!

But such is the fact, and we can only explain it by an absolute confidence on the part of the Russians in the diplomatic intrigues of their friends in the British Government, by an unwarranted contempt for their opponents, and by the difficulties which the Russians must find in concentrating large bodies of troops and large masses of stores at a point so remote from the center of their Empire.

The Turks, on the other hand, are 25,000 strong at Kalafat, in Lesser Wallachia, and are strengthening that force. As to the ulterior movements of this corps we know little. They seem not to have advanced even as far as Krajova, and indeed, to have done nothing more than occupy the neighboring villages. The reason for this is also doubtful, and we can only suppose that Omer Pasha is in some way controlled in his movements by the Council at Constantinople, which originally stationed those 25,000 men at Sofia. At any rate, as far as it is possible to judge at this distance, this corps is quite useless where it is, and its presence there is a mistake, since even for hypothetical and improbable use against the Servians, it is, as we have shown on a former occasion, either too large or too small[b]. It would apparently have been far better to move it lower down the Danube, for it crossed on Oct. 28, and up to Nov. 15 it had not advanced much, or in any way operated actively. These fifteen days might have been better employed in moving it 150 miles lower down the Danube, as far as Sistova, where it would have been in immediate connection with the left wing of the Turkish grand army, and a couple of marches more would have brought it down upon Rustchuk, the headquarters of the Turkish left. That these 24,000 men united with the main body would have been worth twice their number at Kalafat nobody can doubt; and events support this opinion, for, as before stated, we have not yet heard that during the nineteen days since they crossed the Danube, they have given any active support to Omer Pasha.

The attacks of the Turks at Nicopolis and Rustchuk were mere feints. They appear to have been well executed, with no more troops than was necessary, and yet with that vigor which is apt to lead an enemy into error as to the ulterior objects of the attacking party. The main attack was at Oltenitza. What force they brought there is even now uncertain. Some reports say that as early as the 11th the Turks had 24,000 men at Oltenitza, and the Russians 35,000 to oppose them. But this is evidently false. If the Russians were stronger than the Turks in the proportion of three to two, they would have very soon sent them back to the other side of the Danube, when the fact is that the 11th saw a Russian defeat.

It would seem now as much as ever that nothing but exceedingly bad generalship can prevent the Turks from driving Gorchakoff out of Wallachia. It is certain, however, that there have been some singular specimens of generalship on both sides. On the 2d of November the Turks crossed at Oltenitza evidently their main point of passage. On the 3d, 4th and 5th they successfully repulsed the attacks of the Russians, thereby establishing their superiority upon the left bank of the Danube. During these three days their reenforcements ought to have arrived, and they ought to have been at once in a position to march upon Bucharest. This was the way Napoleon acted, and every general since his time has known that rapidity of movement can in itself make up for deficiency of strength, inasmuch as you fall upon your opponent before he has time to concentrate his forces. Thus, as men say in trade, Time is money; so we may say in war, Time is troops. But here in Wallachia, this maxim is neglected. The Turks quietly keep possession of Oltenitza during nine days, from the 6th to the 15th, and excepting petty skirmishes, nothing at all is done, so that the Russians have time to concentrate their forces, to dispose them as maturely as possible, and if their line of retreat is menaced, to restore and secure it. Or are we to suppose that Omer Pasha intended merely to keep the Russians near Oltenitza till his main army had crossed lower down and entirely intercepted their retreat? Possibly, though this is an operation which, with 24,000 men at Kalafat and 24,000 at Oltenitza, presupposes some 50,000 more lower down toward Orsova. Now, if he had such a force there, as very possibly he may, they might have passed the time much better than in all these artificial and subtle maneuvers. In that case, why not throw 70,000 or 80,000 men in one mass across the Danube at Braila, and cut the Russians in Wallachia off at once from their communications? As we have said, it is probable that this movement is now to be made, but why this long delay, and why these complicated preliminaries, does not appear. With so great a preponderance of force all ready on the line of operations, there was no particular advantage to be gained by, deceiving Prince Gorchakoff. He should rather have been cut off and crushed at once.

As to the Turkish soldiers themselves, in the few engagements where they have acted, they have so far come out in capital style. The artillery has everywhere proved that the Emperor Nicholas did not exaggerate when he pronounced it among the best in Europe. A battalion of riflemen, organized only ten weeks before the beginning of hostilities, and armed with Minié rifles, then just arrived from France, has, during this short time, gained high proficiency in the skirmishing service, and furnished first-rate marksmen, who well know how to use that formidable weapon; at Oltenitza they had an opportunity of showing this by picking off almost all the superior officers of the Russians. The infantry in general must be quite capable of the ordinary line and column movements, and besides, must have attacked at Oltenitza with great courage and steadiness, as at least on two days out of three, the charge of the Turkish infantry decided the battle, and that at close quarters; and with the bayonet, the Russian infantry, it is well-known, are no contemptible opponents.

The news from Asia is even more decisively in favor of the Turks than that from Europe. It appears certain that there has been a general and combined rising of the Circassian tribes against the Russians; that they hold the Gates of the Caucasus, and that Prince Woronzoff has his communications cut off in the rear, while he is pressed by the Turkish forces in front. Thus the war everywhere opens with disasters for the Czar. Let us hope that such may be its history to the end, and that the Russian Government and people may be taught by it to restrain their ambition and arrogance, and mind their own business hereafter.

Written about November 18, 1853. Reproduced from the newspaper.
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3944, December 7, 1853, as a leader


[a] Below Engels makes use of the data from the report of the Vienna correspondent of The Times and the editorial in its No. 21587, November 16, 1853.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 457-58.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.471-476), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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