Farsi    Arabic    English   

The War On The Danube[351]

Frederick Engels

As we have already observed, the retreat of the Turks from Oltenitza appears to indicate the conclusion of the first epoch of the Turko-Russian war; with it at least a first and distinct series of operations, beginning with the passage at Kalafat, seems to be concluded, to make room either for the tranquility of winter quarters, or for the execution of new plans not yet developed. The moment seems opportune for a- review of the campaign up to that epoch, the more so as the official and non-official reports of the only action of consequence fought on the Danube, the Russian attack upon the Turkish tête-du-pont[a] at Oltenitza, are just come to hand.

On the 28th of October the Turks crossed from Widin to Kalafat. They were hardly disturbed in their occupation of this point, except by reconnoitering skirmishes; for when the Russians were on the point of concentrating an effective force at Krajova for the attack on Kalafat, they were disturbed by the news of a second and more dangerous advance of the Turks, who, on the 2d of November, had crossed the Danube at Oltenitza, whence they seriously menaced the Russian communications. Simulated and secondary attacks were at the same time made by the Turks on the whole line of the Danube from Widin to Oltenitza, but these either found the Russians well prepared, or were not undertaken with a sufficient force to deceive the enemy and lead him into any serious error.

The corps at Kalafat therefore, remained unmolested and gradually received reinforcements, which are said to have swelled it to something like 24,000 men. But as this corps has neither advanced or suffered a repulse, we may for the present leave it out of consideration.

The passage at Oltenitza took place according to Omer Pashas report[b] in the following way. Oltenitza is a village situated near the confluence of the Arges River and the Danube. Opposite the mouth of the Arges there is an island in the Danube; on the southern bank of this river the village and fort of Turtukai are situated, on a steep bank rising to some 600 or 700 feet, on the top of which elevation the fort of Turtukai is constructed. The guns of Turtukai, therefore, form a most effective support to any corps crossing the river at this point. On the ist Nov. the Turks crossed over to the island and there threw up solid entrenchments during the night. On the 2d they crossed from this island to the Wallachian shore, east of the Arges. Two battalions, with 100 horsemen and two guns passed in boats to the Wallachian side; a few gun-shots from Turtukai drove the Russian outposts from a lazaretto building situated near the riverside, and this building, which was immediately taken possession of by the Turks, proved a great advantage to them. It was massively constructed, with vaulted chambers, thereby offering, with hardly any additional labor, all the advantages of that great desideratum in field fortification, a réduit. Consequently the Turks at once began throwing up entrenchments from the Arges to the Danube; four hundred men were kept constantly employed, galianes and fascines having been prepared beforehand. From all the reports we receive, we can only conclude that these entrenchments were continuous lines, cutting off entirely every communication from the Russian positions to the Turkish points of landing. Fortification by continuous entrenched lines has been long since generally condemned and found ineffective; but the special destination of this entrenchment as a bridge-head, the fact that a capital réduit was found ready-made, the want of engineers among the Turks, and other circumstances peculiar to the Turkish army, may have rendered it, after all, more advisable to employ this antiquated system. In the Arges the Turks found a number of boats which were at once employed, together with what they had before, in the construction of a bridge across the Danube. All these works were nearly completed by the morning of Nov. 4.

At Oltenitza, then, the Turks had a mere bridge-head on the left bank of the Danube; the Turkish army had not crossed the river, nor has it done so since; but it had a safe débouché on the left bank, which might be turned to account the very moment when a sufficient force was concentrated at Turtukai. They had the means, beside, of taking either the right or the left of the Arges; and, finally, all their operations in the vicinity of the river were protected by ten heavy guns in the fort on the hights of Turtukai, whose range, consequent upon this elevated position and the narrowness of the river at that point, extended at least half a mile beyond the bridge-head.

The bridge-head was occupied by three battalions of the line (2,400 men), two companies of guards (160 men), two of sharp shooters (200 men), 100 cavalry and some artillery, who attended to the 12 heavy guns placed in the Lazaretto. The right wing of the entrenchment was enfiladed and flanked by the guns of Turtukai, which besides could sweep the whole of the plain in front of the center of the bridge-head. The left wing, resting on the River Arges, was flanked by the battery on the island, but part of this ground was thickly studded with brush-wood, so as to offer considerable shelter to the Russians in approaching.

When on Nov. 4, the Russians attacked the Turkish lines they had, according to Omer Pasha, 20 battalions, 4 regiments of cavalry and 32 guns, altogether about 24,000 men. It appears they formed in the following order: twelve battalions and 14 guns opposite the center of the bridge-head; two battalions and two guns in the wood to the left (Russian right) on the river Arges, six battalions, en échélon, with four guns against the Turkish right, toward the Danube, their line being prolongated and outflanked by the cavalry. The center first formed a column of attack, after the fire of the Russian guns had been kept up for a time; the two wings followed; then the artillery, which had first fired at a distance of some 1,200 yards from the parapets came up to effective grape range (600 to 700 yards), and the columns of attack were hurried forward. As may be anticipated, the column of the Russian left (nearest the Danube) was shattered by the fire of the Turtukai guns; that of the center very soon shared the same fate; that of the right (on the Arges) was crushed by the fire from the island, and appears to have been far too weak to do any good. The attack was once or twice repeated, but without the ensemble of the first assault, and then the Russians had enough of it. They had marched resolutely up to the brink of the ditch (which must not be too literally understood), but the Turkish fire proved overwhelming before they came to a hand-to-hand fight.

During the fight Omer Pasha sent a battalion of regulars across the river to act as reserve. Thus the Turks engaged may be estimated at 3,600 infantry, with 44 heavy guns.

The forces of the Russians are less easily ascertained. While Omer Pasha speaks of twenty battalions, two British officers in his camp agree in reducing the force actually engaged to some 8,000 men. These two statements are not exactly contradictory. The Russians might have some twenty battalions in order of battle, and yet from the nature of the ground, or from contempt of their opponents, the actual mass of the attacking columns might not exceed eight battalions at a time; and a circumstance which the British officers do not mention, but which Omer Pasha reports, shows that the Russians had ample reserves. It is this, that every fresh attack was headed by a fresh battalion drawn from the reserves for the purpose. Besides, the reports of the two "officers of her Majesty's guards" bear in every line the stamp of that ignorant and inexperienced self-sufficiency which belongs to subalterns of the privileged corps of all armies.

Upon the whole, therefore, we think Omer Pasha's statement entitled to credit. There may have been eighteen or twenty Russian battalions present during the action, of which ten or twelve may successively have been brought to act, although from six to eight thousand may be the number of those who at a given time advanced simultaneously and ineffectually upon the Turkish entrenchments. The loss of the Russians, which must have amounted at least to 1,500 or 2,000, also proves what numbers they must have brought into the field. They were finally repulsed, leaving 500 muskets, plenty of baggage and ammunition, and 800 killed and wounded in the hands of the Turks, and retreated partially in disorder.

If we look at the tactics of this conflict on either side, we are surprised to find a gross blunder committed by the Russians, which was deservedly expiated by their signal defeat. They showed a contempt of their adversaries which has been seldom equaled. They had to attack pretty strong lines, with a capital réduit flanked by ten heavy guns on the island, commanded by twenty-two guns at Turtukai, which also commanded the ground in front of the lines; altogether, forty-four, or at least thirty-eight guns, all or mostly of heavy metal. Now every officer knows that in, attacking a field fortification, you have first by your artillery to silence its guns and the batteries that may support it; then to destroy, as much as possible, the parapets, palisades and other defenses; then, by approaching your batteries still closer to the attacked works, to sweep the parapets with a continued hail-storm of grape-shot, until at last you can risk launching your columns of attack upon the half-demolished work and its demoralized defenders. In order to do all this, you must have a decided superiority in the number and caliber of your artillery. But what do we see the Russian attempt? To storm a bridge-head, defended by artillery superior to their own in number, superior in caliber, and still more superior in practice, after a short cannonade from twelve 12-pounders and twenty 6-pounders! This Russian cannonade can only be considered as a mere formality, a sort of civility offered to the Turks, for it could have no serious purpose; and if, as all reports agree, the Russian batteries advanced up to within 650 yards of the bridge-head, it is a wonder that we do not hear of a number of dismounted guns. At the same time we must acknowledge the bravery of the Russian troops, who were very likely for the first time exposed to fire and that under such adverse circumstances, yet advanced to within fifty yards of the Turkish lines before they were crushed by the superior fire poured in upon them.

As to the Turks, we cannot say much in favor of their tactics either. It was very well that Omer Pasha during the assaults did not crowd together more troops in the bridge-head than were necessary for its defense. But how is it that he did not concentrate a reserve, especially of cavalry, on the Turtukai end of the bridge and on the island? that, as soon as the repulse of the Russians was becoming manifest, he did not launch his cavalry on the beaten foe? and that, after all, he was satisfied with the moral effect of the victory and neglected to gather all its fruits, by which he might have decided the campaign? We can only find two excuses: firstly, that the system of continuous lines in field fortification does not easily admit of any vigorous offensive action after the repulse of the enemy, as the uninterrupted lines do not offer any wide space for sudden and energetic sallies of masses of troops; and secondly, that Omer Pasha either distrusted the capacity of his troops for fighting in the open field, or that he had not troops enough at hand to follow up the victory.

This leads us to the strategic questions connected with this action. If Omer Pasha had had at Oltenitza the troops who were lounging without anything to do at Kalafat, would he not have acted with more decision? How was it that a corps of 12,000 men, with a reserve of equal force, was directed upon Kalafat, to menace that point of the Russian position, where of all points it must have been most desirable to the Russians to be attacked? How came it that on the point where the Turks could gain decisive advantages these 24,000 men were not present?

But this is only one point. The Russians, it is now ascertained beyond doubt, could not muster more than 50,000 or 55,000 combatants in Wallachia at the end of October. Taking into consideration the want of roads, the intersected nature of the country, detachments not to be avoided, the regular wear and tear of an active army, the Russians, it is certain, could on no point muster more than 30,000 men in a single mass. Forty thousand Turks collected upon any given spot of Wallachia were sure to beat them, and there is no doubt that the Turks, if they had been so minded and taken proper steps in proper time, could have collected that body, or even twice as many, with comparative ease. But the interference of European diplomacy, irresolution in the Divan, vacillation in the Turkish policy towards Servia, and other similar considerations, appear to have produced a series of half-measures, which placed Omer Pasha in a very singular position when hostilities broke out. He knew the weakness of the Russians; he himself had a far superior army, eager to go to war; but his army was spread upon an extent of country three hundred and fifty miles long, and fifty to one hundred miles wide. The lameness of his operations in the first half of November was the necessary consequence of this. The passage at Kalafat, otherwise a mistake, thus became a sort of necessity, Widin being the natural point of concentration of some twenty thousand men, who without that passage would have been entirely inactive, being too far distant from the main army. This passage enabled them at least to paralyze a portion of the Russian forces, and to create a moral impression in favor of the Turks.

The passage at Oltenitza which was intended evidently as the main attack by which Bucharest was to be taken, and the Russians allured westward by the Kalafat operation, to be cut off from their retreat had no effect whatever, because the necessary forces for a march on Bucharest appear not to have been forthcoming. The moral effect of the combat at Oltenitza was certainly a great gain, but the inactivity after the victory an inactivity which lasted nine days, and ended in the voluntary retreat of the Turks behind the Danube, in consequence of the rains setting in—this inactivity and retreat may not destroy the flush of victory on the cheek of the Turkish soldier, but it undermines the reputation of the Turkish General, most probably more than he deserves, But here, if the original fault lies with the Divan, there must be some fault with Omer Pasha. To pass twelve days on the left bank of the Danube, to possess a bridge and a bridge-head strong enough to repel the united force of the Russians, to have behind him an army numerous and eager to fight and not to find means to carry 30,000 or 40,000 men across why, all this cannot have been done without some negligence on the part of the General. The Russians may be thankful for their escape. Never did a Russian army get out of a scrape half as bad as this with so little material damage. They deserved to be cut to pieces, and they are all safe. Whether they will ever be taken at such advantage again may well be doubted.

Written about December 2, 1853. Reproduced from the newspaper.
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3952, December 16, 1853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 641, December 24, 1853


[a] Bridge-head.—Ed.

[b] Published in The Times, No. 21600, December 1, 1853.—Ed.

[351] This article was published in The Eastern Question and attributed to Marx. At the beginning of the article Engels would seem to be referring to his article "Progress of the Turkish War", which appeared as a leader in the New-York Daily Tribune of December 7, 1853 (see this volume, pp. 471-76).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.516-522), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME0781en.html