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The Siege of Sevastopol[375]

Frederick Engels

Next to the battle of the Alma, the principal achievement of the allies in the Crimea has been Lord Raglan's famous flank march from the Alma to Balaklava, by which he changed the apparent object of the campaign from the capture and occupation of Sevastopol to a coup de main[a] against a portion, and the weaker portion, too, of the fortifications, including, of course, the destruction of the Russian fleet, dockyards and arsenals, but involving the withdrawal of the allied forces as soon as this object should be attained. That such must be the case, was plain, from the entire movement in question. It was an abandonment of the idea of attacking the northern front of the fortress, which is the commanding front, where alone an attack could really be decisive; and thus it was a patent confession of incompetence on the part of the expedition to accomplish what was laid down in its program, the complete capture and occupation of the place. Nevertheless, as we said[b], this very march has been glorified as a most brilliant stroke of generalship through columns on columns of high-sounding phrases and rhetorical gibberish; and even the great journals of London, with their correspondents on the spot, did not discover the truth till a month afterward, when the Government seems to have given them a hint of it. Thus, The London Times of October 28, for the first time opening its eyes to the true state of the case, gently indicates that the minor object of the campaign may be the only one accomplished, and that the forts on the north side of the bay, if they do not voluntarily surrender, can hardly be taken. But The Times hopes they will behave respectably, and surrender, inasmuch as all dependent fortifications ought to give in when once the main body of the place is taken[c]. But the truth is that it is not the North Fort which depends upon the town of Sevastopol, but the town of Sevastopol which depends upon the North Fort, and we fear the argument of our cotemporary will hardly suffice to take so strong a fortress.

It is true that since the "glorious march" in question nothing has been done by the allies of which anybody could boast much, and, therefore, our transatlantic cotemporaries are not to blame for making the most of it[376]. As for the siege itself so far as it has proceeded, it is one of those things of which they may well think that the less said the better. But as we are bound to nothing but impartiality in the premises, we shall not be so delicate. The truth is that the war in general being an exceedingly curious war, this siege is one of its most curious points. The great feature of the war appears to be a belief that fieldworks are impregnable. First at Oltenitza, the old-fashioned way of cannonading was employed for a couple of hours and then the works were stormed but without success. At Kalafat the Russians did not even dare to make an attack. At Silistria a mere earthwork bore the brunt of the battle, and held out, even when almost leveled, against the frantic onslaught of the enemy. Now at Sevastopol a simple line of fieldworks is honored with more extensive breaching batteries, and with far heavier artillery, than were ever brought to bear against the most regular fortress. This siege is a striking proof of the fact that in the same proportion as the materiel of warfare has, by industrial progress, advanced during the long peace, in the same proportion has the art of war degenerated. A Napoleon, on seeing the batteries before Sevastopol, bristling with eight- and ten-inch guns, would burst out in a fit of irresistible laughter. But this is not the whole story by a great deal.

About the 1st of October, the allies were in position, but it was not till the 8th or 9th that the first ground was broken, and fire was not opened till the 17th. The reason of this delay was that the guns could not be brought up sooner. There were only four or five miles of ground to go over—all good, hard soil, with little undulation, and part of it a passable road. But they had no draught cattle. No draught cattle in the Crimea the richest country for cattle in the whole world! Why, there were more bullocks in the valley of Baidar, within sight from the hights off the Chernaya, than would have been required to drag all the united fleet across the hills. But the valley of Baidar was open to the Cossacks, and the allied cavalry, in protecting a razzia, might be exposed to these formidable opponents. Besides, the allies must keep on good terms with the inhabitants, and not seize their property. With such excuses, our English cotemporaries seek to hide the truth that Raglan and Canrobert, while blockading Sevastopol on the south, are themselves blockaded by Menchikoff's outposts on the Chernaya[377]. And yet, that they are so is proved by the simple fact that the allied soldiers, up to the latest report, were compelled to live upon salt meat, no fresh meat being at hand.

On the 3d of October five Russian battalions crossed the Chernaya near Inkerman, and were allowed to enter the fortress from the south, as "this could but be favorable to the allies." An original mode of making war! The enemy, represented as beaten, demoralized, dejected, sends 3,000 men into Sevastopol, under the very nose of the allies. He must have had a reason for doing so. But if he has reasons for sending them, Raglan has his reasons for bowing them in. He supposes the place to be overcrowded, though upon what grounds, is not clear. At all events, beside the four square miles inclosed within the Russian lines, there is the whole of the north shore and all the country lying behind it, to which any excess of troops may be sent in ten minutes. To represent a place as overcrowded, which is blockaded on one side only, is certainly the hight of absurdity.

When the landing was first reported, we said that disease would be the worst enemy of the allies if the campaign should be lengthened[d]. Disease is there in its worst forms, coupled, at least as far as the British are concerned, with the very worst sort of attendance. Indeed, to such an extent have the sick been neglected from this cause, that Lord Raglan has been obliged to issue a very peremptory reprimand to the medical staff. But this is not all. The doctors are at Constantinople, the medical stores at Varna, and the sick at Balaklava. Is not this a splendid illustration of the new military doctrine lately held forth by Louis Bonaparte at Boulogne, that every army, to have a good position, must be placed in a triangle?[e] The sickness increases with the roughness of the season, the regiments dwindle down—a British regiment, sent out 1,000 strong, now cannot count more than 600 men under arms and the slowness of operations goes on its even course. The routine of the Horse Guards[378], the fruit of forty years' peaceful schooling, is not to be upset by trifles of that sort. Perish the army, but let Sevastopol be taken according to Her Majesty's regulations!

In common sieges the besiegers usually try to place their first batteries as near as possible to the enemy's works, and six or seven hundred yards is considered a great distance. But in a grand siege like this, particularly if against mere fieldworks, just the reverse should be done, according to Raglan. The enemy allows us to come within seven hundred yards, but we must never do what the enemy wants us to do. So says Raglan, and opens his batteries at 2,500 and 3,000 yards distance—a fact we could not believe did the reports leave it possible to doubt. Next he comes down to 1,500 and 1,200 yards, and then states, as a reason for not opening fire, that breaching batteries, to be effective, must be within three or four hundred yards from the works to be breached! The distant batteries are to have Lancaster[379] and long-range ten-inch guns, since it seems the British artillerists are of opinion that these guns are like telescopes, only good at a great distance. Indeed, this long-range question, which is perfectly in its place for naval armaments, has caused more confusion and humbug than real good when applied to land artillery; we have an example of it in these ridiculous batteries.

The landward fortifications of Sevastopol, which have provoked all these outbursts of genius and perspicacity, are as follows: On the western side (attacked by the French) one or two faces of the Quarantine Fort are exposed. Behind this is a loopholed wall running up toward the head of the Quarantine Bay, and ending on a hill, in a round tower which forms a reduit for an earthwork constructed around it. Thence a wall of three feet average thickness is continued to the upper end of the harbor, thus inclosing Sevastopol on the south-west. This wall is said to be incapable of any defense, although it might easily have been made so; it is, therefore, protected by small earthworks lying in front of it. From the end of the harbor eastward to the Careening Bay (the British front of attack) there are no regular defenses whatever, except two towers surrounded and sheltered by lunettes, in a similar manner with the one described above. There are besides some earthworks of irregular form, the whole forming an entrenched camp of no great pretensions, if we are to believe the published plans of Captain Biddulph, sketched on the spot. At all events they show only one line of defenses, consisting of works open in the rear; there are no closed redoubts, of which as a general thing the Russians are so exceedingly fond. But we cannot believe that this is the case; if this was the only line to take, the British ought long since to have taken it with the bayonet. There must be a second line of redoubts behind it.

The whole of the Russian works have been armed with heavy guns from the fleet the best use the Russians could make of them. Yet their practice with them is despicable. They fire away whole days and nights at the enemy, and make one hit for a hundred rounds. Perhaps it was this very bad practice which induced Lord Raglan to open his trenches at the safe distance of 3,000 yards. After three days' bombardment by the allied fleets and armies, it is stated that the British, on their side, had made one breach, while the French had not yet completed theirs[f]. As soon as this was completed, the assault was to take place. That it should take 200 guns of immense caliber three or four days to breach such defenses would be incredible, had we not very good authority for the respectful distance at which the allied batteries had been constructed. So much for the results already achieved; but whatever event may crown the operations, it is certain that the siege of Sevastopol will stand unparalleled in military history.

Written on October 30, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4236, November 15;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 989, November 17, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Sudden attack in force.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, p. 485.—Ed.

[c] The Times, No. 21884, October 28, 1854, leader.—Ed.

[d] See this volume, pp. 475-76.—Ed.

[e] Speech of Napoleon III before the troops at Boulogne on September 2, 1854. Le Moniteur universel, No. 248, September 5, 1854.—Ed.

[f] General Canrobert to Drouyn de Lhuys, October 13, 1854. The Times, No. 21885, October 30, 1854.—Ed.

[375] This article is entered in the Notebook as "Dienstag. 31. Oktober, Belagerung von Sebastopol". Eleanor Marx included it in The Eastern Question.

[376] This sentence shows signs of interference by the Tribune editors.

[377] This sentence shows signs of interference by the Tribune editors.

[378] Horse Guards—an old building in London erected in the mid-eighteenth century in the district of government offices between St. James' Park and Whitehall; general headquarters of the English army at that time.

[379] Lancaster—an eight-inch gun with an oval rifled bore named after its inventor and first used by the British during the Crimean war.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.505-509), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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