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Criticism of the French Conduct of The War

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

London, March 17. Now that the pamphlet of Jérôme Bonaparte (junior)[a] has revealed the fact that the Crimean expedition was an invention of Louis Napoleon himself, that he had worked it out in every detail without consulting others, that he had sent it to Constantinople in his own handwriting in order to avoid the objections of Marshal Vaillant—since all this has become known, a large proportion of the most flagrant military blunders of this expedition is explained by the dynastic needs of its author. In the war council at Varna it had to be forced upon the generals and admirals present by S[ain]t-Arnaud's direct appeal to the authority of the "Emperor", who, in turn, publicly branded the opposing views as "timid counsel". Once in the Crimea, Raglan's really "timid counsel" —to march to Balaklava—was eagerly adopted by St.-Arnaud, as it led, although not directly into Sevastopol, at least close to its gates. The frantic efforts to push the siege ahead, though without sufficient means; the eagerness to open fire which made the French neglect the solidity of their works to such a degree that their batteries were silenced by the enemy in a couple of hours; the over-exertion of the troops in the communication trenches which is now proved to have contributed as much towards the destruction of the British army as did the Commissariat, the Transport Service, the Medical Department, etc.; the rash and useless cannonade from October 17 to November 5; the neglect of all defensive works—all this has been sufficiently explained. The Bonaparte dynasty required the capture of Sevastopol, and in the shortest time; and the allied army was to carry it out. Canrobert, if successful, would be made Marshal of France, Count, Duke, Prince—whatever he desired, with unlimited powers in financial matters. If unsuccessful, his career was at an end. Raglan was enough of an old woman to give way to the self-interests of his colleague.

These, however, are not the most important consequences of the imperatorial plan of operation. Nine French divisions or 81 battalions have been engaged in this hopeless affair. It is recognised to be almost hopeless; the greatest efforts, the most lavish sacrifices have accomplished nothing; Sevastopol is stronger than ever; the French trenches, as we now know from an authentic source, are still fully four hundred yards from the Russian works, while the British trenches are twice as far away. General Niel, sent, by Bonaparte to inspect the siege works, has declared that an assault is not to be thought of; he has shifted the principal point of attack from the French to the British side, thereby causing not only a delay in the siege, but directing the main attack toward a suburb which, even if taken, is still separated from the town by the inner harbour. In short, there is plan after plan, dodge after dodge, to keep up, not the hope of success, but the mere semblance of such a hope. And when things have come to this pass, when a general war on the continent is imminent, when a new expedition to the Baltic is being prepared—an expedition which, this time, must do. something and therefore must dispose of far more landing troops than in 1854—at this moment Bonaparte is sending five fresh infantry divisions to the Crimean swamp where men vanish and regiments disappear a if by magic. Indeed, he is determined to go there himself, and go there he will, unless an improbable peace or significant events at the Polish border decide otherwise. That is the situation to which Bonaparte's first strategic experiment has reduced Bonaparte and "imperial" France. What drives him is not only obstinacy, but the fatalistic instinct that the destiny of the French empire will be decided in the trenches at Sevastopol. Up to now, there has been no Marengo to justify the second edition of the 18th Brumaire.[86]

It may be regarded as historical irony that, however meticulously the restored empire copies its model, it is forced everywhere to do the opposite of what Napoleon did. Napoleon attacked the very heart of the states on which he made war; present-day France has attacked Russia in a cul-de-sac. It did not aim at great military operations, but at a fortunate coup de main, a surprise attack, an adventure. In this change of purpose lies the whole difference between the first and the second French empire and their respective representatives. Napoleon used to enter the capitals of modern Europe as conqueror. His successor moved French garrisons into the capitals of ancient Europe, Rome, Constantinople and Athens under various pretexts—the protection of the Pope, the protection of the Sultan, the protection of the King of the Hellenes[b] —in fact, there has been no increase in power, but merely a dispersal of strength. Napoleon's art consisted in concentration, that of his successor in dispersal. When Napoleon was obliged to conduct a war in two different theatres, as in his wars against Austria, he concentrated by far the greater part of his fighting force along the decisive line of operation (in the wars with Austria this was the line between Strasbourg and Vienna), while leaving a comparatively minor fighting force in the secondary theatre of war (Italy), confident that, even if his troops should be defeated here, his own successes along the principal line would hinder the progress of the enemy army more certainly than any direct resistance. His successor, however, scatters the fighting force of France over many areas, concentrating a part in the very place where the least significant results—if any—must be achieved with the greatest sacrifices. Besides the troops in Rome, Athens, Constantinople and the Crimea, an auxiliary force is to be despatched to the Polish border in Austria, and another to the Baltic Sea. Thus the French army must be active in at least three theatres of war, separated from each other by at least a thousand miles. By this plan, the entire French fighting force would be as good as disposed of even before the war had seriously begun in Europe. Napoleon, if he found that an undertaking he had begun was not feasible (as at Aspern), would rather than persist in it, find some new turn, lead his troops in a surprise move to a fresh point of attack, and, by a brilliant manoeuvre crowned with success, make even temporary defeat appear to be but a contribution to final victory. It was only at the time of his decline, after 1812 had shaken his self-confidence, that the energy of his will turned into blind obstinacy which made him hold on to positions (as at Leipzig) which his military judgment must have rejected. His successor, however, is forced to begin where his predecessor ended. What with one was the result of unaccountable defeats, was the result of unaccountable good fortune with the other. For one his own genius became the star in which he believed; for the other, his belief in his star has to serve as a substitute for his lack of genius. One defeated a real revolution, because he was the only man to carry it through; the other defeated the newly revived recollection of a past revolutionary epoch, because he bore that unique man's name, and hence was himself a recollection. It would be easy to demonstrate that the pretentious mediocrity with which the Second Empire is conducting this war is reflected in its internal administration, that here, too, semblance has taken the place of essence, and that the "economic" campaigns were in no way more successful than the military ones.

Written on March 17, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 133, March 20, 1855
Marked with the sign X
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in MECW


[a] De la conduite de la guerre d'Orient....—Ed.

[b] Pope Pius IX, Sultan Abdul Mejid and King Otto I.—Ed.

[86] On the Eighteenth Brumaire (November 9) 1799 a coup d'état was staged in France which resulted in the establishment of Napoleon Bonaparte's military dictatorship. On June 14, 1800 Napoleon's troops defeated an Austrian army at Marengo (Northern Italy). This first major victory by Napoleon after the coup consolidated his power.

The second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire—Louis Bonaparte's counter-revolutionary coup d'état of December 2, 1851—led to the establishment of the Bonapartist Second Empire in France.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.90-93), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME0868en.html