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The Capture of Bomarsund[292]
(Article I)

Frederick Engels

The allied armies have at length begun to act. They have taken Bomarsund. On the 3d or 4th ult., the French troops and British marines were landed on the island of Åland; on the 10th, the place was invested; on three succeeding days the batteries were erected and armed; on the 14th fire was opened; on the 15th the two round towers were taken by storm, one by the French, the other by the English; on the 16th, after a short engagement in which the allies lost very few men, the large casemated fort surrendered. This short way of proceeding certainly looks rather spirited. From all the information we possessed, it was to be expected that a regular siege, with at least one parallel and about a fortnight of open trenches, would be necessary to reduce the place. Even The London Times, which for a long time had talked in a way as if the allied infantry had but to charge the stone walls with the bayonet in order to make them crumble, had to admit, that after all a siege was inevitable, and that this tedious operation would probably last a fortnight.

If, then, the attack has been brought to a successful issue in about a week from the investment, and on the sixth day after breaking ground, the natural inference is that the besiegers must have found far less difficulty than they expected. What it was that facilitated the attack, we of course can merely guess until the detailed accounts of the siege arrive; but there, are many circumstances which may have operated in their favor. A considerable number of the garrison were Finlanders, and in part even Ålanders. They certainly were not very much inspired with Russian patriotism, and if the reports from deserters may be trusted, they were even resolved not to fight if they could help it. The inhabitants of the island appear to have received the allies, as soon as they saw they were about to attack Bomarsund seriously, as deliverers from the Russian yoke, and must have given them all kinds of information and assistance. But the main point, after all, must have been something very defective in the construction of the fortress itself. As no ground plans of it are to be had, and all our knowledge of it is derived from views and sketches, and from non-professional (at least as far as engineering is concerned) descriptions, which are necessarily very vague, and as both views and descriptions are of a somewhat conflicting nature in the details, we cannot pretend to state where the defect lay.

To judge from the sketches, however, the two round towers flank each other by their fire in a certain degree; but as in every round fortification the guns must have a radiating position, and their fire must be exceedingly eccentric, the smaller the fort, and with it the number of guns, the greater becomes the eccentricity and the less effectual is the fire. Montalembert, therefore, took great care not to propose the employment of such towers unless this eccentricity was counteracted by the strong support which each tower would receive from its neighbors on the right and left and from the main fortress in the rear. If five or six such towers could concentrate their fire on one point, the fire would then become as concentric and effectual as it would be eccentric and weak before. Montalembert, besides, knew very well that in the last stages of a siege, whenever it comes to storming, infantry fire is the most effectual that can be brought to bear on the assailants. Therefore, beside the contrivances in his towers for admitting infantry defense, he generally connected the separate towers by a sort of covered way or trench, not for safe communication only, but also for infantry fire. What such a trench can do, we have just seen at Arab Tabiassi, where the whole flanking defense was confined to such a trench, and where the Russians were driven back, time after time, by a mere handful of Arnauts[a]. Finally, Montalembert tried to make his towers entirely safe against a coup de main[b]. He surrounded them with a ditch, with a covered way, and sometimes considered them merely as the réduit, or last reserved position in a large, strong redoubt. This was his maturest plan, and evidently the best. It has been adopted with more or less alteration in almost all recent fortifications where the smaller towers of Montalembert were adopted. Beside these difficulties of access he has the whole of the lower storey or cellar of the tower arranged for infantry defense in a very ingenious way.

Now, in every one of these respects the Russians appear to have omitted important features. The time occupied by the breaching fire, twenty to thirty hours, is evidently too short to enable even thirty-two pounders to effect a practicable breach, unless, indeed, the masonry was of a nature not usually seen in fortifications. It may, therefore, be presumed that the towers were taken by scaling, the soldiers entering through the embrasures, and by bursting open the gates. This presupposes a very ineffectual flanking fire, and as it appears that the large fort has no batteries in the rear to assist the towers, each tower was flanked by the fire of the other only. This fault is the greater, as from the sketches it would appear that the ground was very uneven, allowing storming parties to creep up, covered by accidents of ground, to a pretty close proximity. Then, to judge from the sketches and from the event, preparations against a coup de main must have been altogether neglected. There is no trace of a redoubt thrown up around the towers, and the redoubts which the Russians had constructed in front of them were abandoned almost without resistance. There was, it is said, a ditch around each tower; but it must have been very shallow with no contrivances for infantry defense within it. The towers once taken, the larger fort, which they command, was necessarily at the mercy of the Allies. It consequently fell, very likely with no more than a show of resistance.

Judging these fortifications from what this short siege makes them appear to be, it would almost seem that their constructors never calculated upon a serious attack on the land side. They must have built the towers with a view merely to resisting the attacks of parties of marines, which at the most could not exceed a couple of thousands, and not muster in sufficient strength either to attempt an assault or to conduct to its close a regular siege. Consequently the water-front was the strongest, and the land-front, formed by the towers, more show than reality. And yet the result would almost show that a party of 1,000 marines might have stormed the towers many months ago, and thereby reduced the main fort!

As to the storming itself, it must have been done very well by both French and English. The English are well-known stormers; it is their favorite maneuver, and hardly ever fails them. The French prefer to charge a body of troops in the open field; and in sieges their mathematical turn of mind prefers the methodical march of that eminently French science which Vauban invented. But the ardor of a British veteran seems to have driven them on. There was at Bomarsund an old Colonel Jones the man who improved upon Vauban, when, with hardly half-sufficient means, and against brave and determined garrisons, at Badajos, Ciudad Rodrigo and Saint Sebastian, he contrived to shorten a siege by about one-third of its prescribed duration. Colonel Jones is not a common engineer. He does not, like the rest of his profession, see in a siege a mere school-festival in which the chief engineer is under examination, and must prove before the eyes of the army how far all the rules and regulations of formal sieges and of Vauban's "attaque des places fortes" are retained and properly arranged in his memory. He does not think that the whole army is there for the sake of the engineers, to protect them while they exhibit their tricks. Instead of this, Colonel Jones is first a soldier, and then an engineer. He knows the British soldier well, and knows what he can trust him with. And the short, determined, and yet unpretending way in which Bomarsund was taken in half the prescribed time, is so much like the breaching and storming of the Spanish fortresses that nobody but old Jones can be at the bottom of it. As to the French, they could never have invented this way of taking a fortress. It goes against their grain; it is too blunt, too destitute of manners and politeness. But they could not contest the authority of the man who had tried his irregular way of taking fortresses upon themselves fifty years before, and found it to answer in every case. And when they came to the storming, they appear not to have been behind the English in resolution.

It is singular that the Russians, who have prided themselves so much upon their storming capacities, from Perekop and Ochakov down to Warsaw and Bistritz, these Russians have been repulsed in every assault upon field-works, and, indeed, were not able, before Silistria, to reduce a field-work by a regular siege, and had to decamp without the fortress being relieved; while on the other hand, the very first act of the war was the storming by the Turks of a permanent Russian fortification St. Nikolai while the celebrated fortress of Bomarsund has been taken by assault almost without the honor of an open trench. We must not forget to note that the fleets appear not to have in any way effectually contributed to this victory. They seem, after all, to shun the neighborhood of casemated batteries as much as ever.

This success of the allies, however, is of such a nature that it will very likely induce them to do nothing more in the ensuing autumn. At all events, the grand expedition to Sevastopol has not vet sailed, and a few weeks more delay is already promised. Then it will be too late, and thus that repose and relaxation during the winter, which is so necessary after the fatigues of the camp at Varna, will be secured to the heroes of the allied forces.

Written on August 19, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4174, September 4;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 968, September 5
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 678, September 9, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, p. 279.—Ed.

[b] Sudden attack.—Ed.

[292] The two articles by Engels on the capture of Bomarsund which were published in the New-York Daily Tribune as leaders are directly connected with the previous one, "The Revolution in Spain.—Bomarsund" written by Marx. The first article is entered in the Notebook as "Dienstag. 22. August. Bomarsund". Both articles were published under the same title. Subtitles were provided by the editors of the present edition.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.379-383), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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