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The Attack on Sevastopol[348]

Frederick Engels

At last it seems possible that the French and English may strike a serious blow at the power and prestige of Russia, and we in this country are accordingly looking with renewed interest to the movement against Sevastopol, the latest intelligence from which is detailed in another column[349]. As a matter of course, the British and French journals make a great parade about this undertaking, and if we can believe them, nothing grander was ever heard of in military history; but those who look at the facts in the case at the inexplicable delays and senseless apologies attending the setting out of the expedition, and all the circumstances preceding and attending it will refuse to be imposed upon. The termination of the enterprise may be glorious, but its origin would rather seem to be disgraceful.

Look at the past history of the allied armies in Turkey. At first these very heroic, but also exceedingly cautious warriors intended to land at Enos, on this side of the Dardanelles, and to approach that peninsula[a] only after everything should have turned out to be quite safe. Before this daring feat, however, was accomplished, they stretched their courage to an unexpected extent, and risked a landing on the Thracian Chersonesus at Gallipoli. But this was merely done in order to have the defensive works across the peninsula completed in less time, thus securing to themselves that most essential of all requisites, a base of operations. All the while the Turks on the Danube were facing those formidable opponents whose presence in Wallachia was the pretext for those learned maneuvers of the allies; and they were facing them, too, with considerable success. But as more ships and more troops arrived, it was found out that the Dardanelles and peninsula cannot harbor them all. Thus another hole is made in the scientific arrangements agreed upon between Paris and London. A portion of the troops had actually to endure the dangers and risks of a landing at that very exposed spot, Constantinople! To remedy this, the fortification of this town was at once taken in hand. Fortunately, a good deal of time was spent in all these operations, and thus the main object was secured not to gain time, but to lose it. Then it was ascertained that a division might, with little risk, be sent to Varna, to garrison that important place, for surely the Turks, who so gloriously defended it in 1828, had since then made such progress in European discipline, that the defense of such a post could no longer be entrusted to them. The division was sent accordingly, and one or two divisions more. When finely every pretext for keeping the troops in the Bosphorus was fairly worn out, the grand combined army was very leisurely concentrated at Varna. This was done at the same time when an Austrian army appeared like a menacing thunder cloud on the flank and rear of the Russians, and when thus, by political combinations, the base of the allied operations was at once transferred, for the moment, from Constantinople to Transylvania and Galicia. Without this, there is every reason to believe there would never have been an allied army in Bulgaria. The proof of it is in their behavior during the siege of Silistria. Everybody knows that there was the turning point of the campaign, and that in such an emergency, when both parties have been straining their powers to the utmost, the smallest extra weight added on one side, will in nine cases out of ten, turn the balance in its favor. Yet, during this decisive siege, there were 20,000 English and 30,000 French soldiers, "the flower of the two armies," smoking their pipes, and very quietly getting themselves in trim for the cholera at a very few days' march from the fortress. And, but for the havoc made by disease among the Russians, and for the unaccountable bravery of a handful of Arnauts ensconced in a ditch plowed by shells in every direction, Silistria would have fallen into the hands of the enemy. There is no instance in the history of war of an army within easy reach, thus cowardly leaving its allies to shift for themselves. No expedition to the Crimea, and no victory will ever clear away that stain from the honor of the French and English commanders. Where would the British have been at Waterloo if old Blücher, after his defeat at Ligny, two days before, had thus conscientiously acted in the manner of Raglan and St. Arnaud?[350]

The handful of Arnauts in the skirmishing ditch of Arab Tabiassi proved a match for the skill, intellect and military strength of Russia. No relieving army drove the Russians across the Danube; their own foolishness, the valor of the defenders, the marsh fever, the passive weight of the Austrians on the Dniester and of the allies on the Devna (for who could think they would act as they did?) made them finally abandon the siege, and give up both the campaign, the Principalities and the Dobrodja. After this great success, the allied generals of course thought of following it up always according to the rules of that strategic system which they had hitherto applied with so much effect. Consequently, Lord Cardigan led the British cavalry to the Danube, on a reconnoitering expedition, in which they saw no Russians, lost many horses, and earned nothing but sickness and ridicule; while General Espinasse, mainly known by his betrayal of the National Assembly on December 2, 1851[351], led his division into the Dobrodja for no other purpose than having a couple of fine regiments half destroyed by cholera, and bringing the germ of that epidemic into the allied camp. The great invasion of cholera which ensued among the allies at Varna was thus the well earned result of their fine strategic combinations. The soldiers fell off by thousands before they had even seen an enemy; they died like flies in a camp where, unattacked and undisturbed, they were enabled to live in comparative luxury. Discouragement, distrust in their commanders, disorganization ensued, not so much among the English, who suffered less and who have more power of endurance, as among the French, whose national character is more apt to give way to such influences, especially while their commanders hold them in a state of inactivity. But there was visible in the riots that actually broke out among the French troops, the natural effect of the abnormal state in which they have existed since 1849. The French soldier has been taught by the Bourgeoisie he rescued from the terrors of the revolution, to look upon himself as the savior of his country and of society at large. He has been petted by Louis Bonaparte as the instrument that restored the Empire. He was treated all the while in a way which taught him to command and made him forget to obey. Superior as he was instructed to consider himself to civilians, he very soon got a notion that he was at least equal to his commanders. Every effort was used to make him a pretorian, and all history shows that pretorians are but degenerate soldiers. They begin by commanding to the civilians, they next proceed to dictating to their generals, and they end by being thoroughly thrashed.

Now look at what occurred at Varna. When whole battalions dropped down on the burning sands, writhing in the agonies of cholera, the old soldiers began to compare the adventurers who now are at their head, with the old commanders that led them successfully through those very African campaigns which the heroes of the modern Lower Empire affect so much to disdain[352]. Africa was a hotter country than Bulgaria, and the Sahara is a good deal less pleasant than even the Dobrodja; but no such mortalities ever marked the paths of African conquest as attended the repose of Devna, and the easy reconnoitering marches around kustendje. Cavaignac, Bedeau, Changarnier, Lamoricière led them through greater dangers, with far less loss, at a time when Espinasse and Leroy St. Arnaud were still buried in the obscurity from which political infamies only could raise them. Accordingly the Zouaves, the men who had done most work and smelt most powder, the best representatives of the African army, rose in a body and shouted: "À bas les singes! II nous faut Lamoricière!"[353] Down with the apes! give us Lamoricière! His Imperial Majesty, Napoleon III, the head and soul of this actual official apery of a great past, must have felt, when this came to his knowledge that the cry of the Zouaves was for him "the beginning of the end." At Varna, it had a magic effect. We may say it was the chief cause of the expedition to the Crimea.

After the experience of this summer's campaigning, or rather promenading, from Gallipoli to Scutari, from Scutari to Varna, from Varna to Devna, Aladyn and back again, nobody will expect us to treat seriously the pretexts put forth by the allied commanders, why the expedition, after being so long delayed, was finally so hurriedly undertaken. One instance will sufficiently show what their arguments are worth. The delay was owing, it was said, to the French siege artillery not having arrived. Well, when the cholera riots occurred, and Leroy St. Arnaud saw that he must now play his best card and that without delay, he sent to Constantinople for Turkish siege artillery and ammunition, and it was got ready and embarked in a very short time; and if the French siege train had not arrived in the meantime, they would have sailed without it. But the Turkish siege artillery was ready many a month before, and thus all the delays that had occurred are proved to have been needless.

Thus we see that this grandiloquent expedition to the Crimea, with six hundred ships and sixty thousand soldiers, with three siege-trains and nobody knows how many field-pieces, instead of being the deliberate result of skilful movements, prepared scientifically long beforehand, is nothing but a hurried coup de tête[b], undertaken to save Leroy St. Arnaud from being massacred by his own soldiers; poor old soft Lord Raglan not being the man to resist, especially as any longer delay would bring his army down to the same state of discipline and despondency which has already seized the French troops.

The irony of events, as a German writer has it, is still at work in contemporary as much as in past history, and poor Lord Raglan is its present victim. As to Leroy St. Arnaud, nobody ever treated him as a commander. He is a member of the swell mob of too long standing—this notorious old companion of female thieves and swindlers—this worthy acolyte of the man whom "Debt, not Destiny," hurried on to the expedition of Boulogne[354]. In spite of the censorship, his character and antecedents are known well enough in gossiping Paris. The twice cashiered Lieutenant the Captain who robbed the regimental cash-box when Paymaster in Africa, is known well enough, and whatever he may accomplish in the Crimea, his successful expedition to a London pawn-shop with his landlady's blankets, followed up by his well-executed retreat to Paris, will still form his chief title to military glory. But poor Raglan, the Duke of Wellington's Adjutant-General, a man grown hoary among the theoretical labors and minute details of a staff-command, no doubt actually believes in the motives he gives for his actions. And upon him falls the full weight of the curious fact that the whole of the campaign has been so scientifically planned, so skilfully executed, that ten thousand men, or about one in seven, died before they saw an enemy, and that the whole of these elaborate proceedings have served only to bring about a helter skelter expedition into the Crimea at the close of the season. There is nothing so pungent as this very "irony of events."

For all that the expedition may be successful. The allies almost deserve it, for nothing would hold up to greater contempt the way in which they have previously carried on the campaign. So much fuss, such an expenditure of caution, such a profusion of science, against an enemy who succumbs to an undertaking which has for its end, not his destruction, but the preservation of their own army; this would be the greatest condemnation the allies could pass upon themselves. But then, they are not yet in Sevastopol. They have landed at Eupatoria and at Staroye Ukreplienie[c]. Thence they have respectively fifty and twenty miles march to Sevastopol. Their heavy artillery is to be landed close to the latter place, to save the trouble of land-carriage; the landing then is far from completed. The force of the Russians is not exactly known, but there is no doubt it is large enough to allow them to be stronger than the allies on most points in the immediate vicinity of Sevastopol. The hilly ground and the bay cutting into the land some ten miles deep, will force the allies to expand on a very long line as soon as they attempt to invest the fortress. To break their line cannot, with a determined commander, be a matter of great difficulty. We do not of course know what the land-defenses of the place are; but what we know of old Menchikoff, leads us to presume that he will not have lost his time.

The first attack, we are led to believe from statements in the British journals, and from the line of operations chosen by the allies, will be the fort commanding the town from a hill on the north side. This is called by the Russians Severnaya Krepost, the Northern Fort. If this fort is anything like solidly constructed, it is capable of lengthy resistance. It is a large square redoubt, constructed upon Montalembert's polygonal, or caponnière, system, the flanking defense being formed by a low casemated work lying at the bottom of the ditch in the middle of each side of the square, and sweeping the ditch both right and left. These works have the advantage of not being exposed to the direct fire of the enemy until he has come with his works to the very brink of the ditch. The proximity of this work to the main fortress allows it to be made use of offensively as a support and base for strong sorties, and altogether its presence must force the allies to confine their main operations to the northern shore of the bay.

But the experience of Bomarsund has taught us that nothing certain can be said about Russian fortifications until they are actually put to the test. The chances of success for the Crimean expedition cannot, therefore, now be ascertained with any probability. But this much is pretty certain, that if the operation should be of a protracted character, if the setting in of winter should cause a fresh irruption of sickness, if the troops should be wasted in hurried and unprepared attacks, like those of the Russians against Silistria, the French army, and most likely the Turkish army, will relapse into that state of dissolution which the former underwent at Varna, and the latter has more than once exhibited in Asia. The English are sure to hold together longer; but there is a point at which even the best disciplined troops give way. This is the real danger for the allies, and if the Russian resistance brings this state of things about, it must make a reembarkation before a victorious enemy a very hazardous thing. The expedition may very likely prove successful; but on the other hand, it may turn out a second Walcheren.[355]

Written on September 25, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4209, October 14, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the newspaper


[a] Gallipoli.—Ed.

[b] Impulsive act.—Ed.

[c] Stary Fort (Old Fort).—Ed.

[348] Engels wrote this article on September 25, drawing on the first reports of the allied landing at Eupatoria and at the Old Fort in the Crimea which were published in The Times on September 21-25, 1854. The article was entered in Marx's Notebook as "Dienstag. 26. September", then followed the word "Cars" which was changed to "Sev[astopol]". Marx presumably made this correction because he had mailed Engels' article on military actions in the Caucasus to New York on September 19. It was entered in Marx's Notebook as "Dienstag. 19. September". Marx's letter to Engels of September 22 shows that Engels wrote such an article and that Marx had received it by Tuesday, September 19, 1854. In the entry in his Notebook Marx at first mistakenly wrote "Cars" in reference to a latter article and then changed it to Sev[astopol]. Engels' article on Cars written on September 19 has been lost, as the steamship Arctic which carried it sank in the Atlantic on September 27, 1854.

The article "The Attack on Sevastopol" was published by Eleanor Marx in The Eastern Question.

[349] This sentence was changed by the Tribune editors. The reports on the movement of the allied troops to Sevastopol were printed on p. 6 of the same issue of the New-York Daily Tribune.

[350] On June 16, 1815 a battle between Napoleon's army and the Prussian forces commanded by Field Marshal Blücher took place at Ligny. Despite the defeat of the Prussians, Blücher escaped with his army from pursuit by the French and joined the Anglo-Dutch armies at Waterloo, where they fought the main body of the French army. The French were defeated after the arrival of the Prussian troops.

[351] On the night of December 1, 1851 a battalion from General Espinasse's regiment was ordered to guard the National Assembly; on December 2, General Espinasse, bribed by the Bonapartists, occupied with his troops the building where the Assembly was sitting, thus promoting the success of Louis Bonaparte's coup d'état.

[352] Lower Empire—a term used in historical literature to denote the Byzantine Empire, and also the Roman Empire during its decline; it came to be used to describe a state at the period of its decline and disintegration.

[353] Here a derogatory nickname for generals who supported Napoleon III. Marx informed Engels about this evidence of the growth of anti-Bonapartist sentiment in the French army on September 13, 1854. He wrote in greater detail about this on September 25 of the same year in his article for the New-York Daily Tribune.

[354] This refers to Louis Bonaparte's attempted coup d'état on August 6, 1840. Profiting by a certain revival of pro-Bonapartist sentiments in France, Louis Bonaparte landed with a handful of conspirators at Boulogne and tried to raise a mutiny among the local garrison. His attempt failed. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but escaped to England in 1846.

[355] The reference is to the expedition of the English fleet to the Scheldt estuary in 1809 during the war of the fifth coalition against Napoleonic France. Though the English captured the isle of Walcheren, they did not develop military operations and were obliged to abandon the island after losing about ten thousand men out of the forty-thousand-strong force through famine and disease.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.470-476), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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