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Progress of The War

Frederick Engels

While the diplomats assembled at Vienna are discussing the fate of Sevastopol, and the Allies are trying to make peace on the best terms they can, the Russians in the Crimea, profiting by the blunders of their opponents, as well as by their own central position in the country, are again taking the offensive on every point. It is a curious state of things, considering the boasts with which the Allies began their invasion, and looks like a vast satire on human presumption and folly. But though it thus has its comic side, the drama is deeply tragic, after all; and we once more invite our readers to a serious examination of the facts, as they are disclosed by ,our latest advices received here on Sunday morning by the America's mails.[114]

At Eupatoria, Omer Pasha is now actually hemmed in on the land side. Their superiority in cavalry permits the Russians to place their picquets and videttes close to the town, to scour the country by patrols, intercepting supplies, and in case of a serious sally, to fall back upon their infantry. Thus they are doing what we predicted they would do—holding the superior force of Turks in check by a body perhaps not more than one-fourth or one-third their number[a]. Accordingly Omer Pasha is waiting for additional cavalry to come up, and in the meantime has been to the Anglo-French camp to inform his allies that for the present he can do nothing, and that a reenforcement of some 10,000 French troops, would be very desirable. No doubt it would; but no less desirable to Canrobert himself, who, by this time, must have found out that he has both too many troops, and too few—too many for the mere carrying on of the siege, such as it is, and for the defense of the Chernaya; but not enough to debouch from the Chernaya, drive the Russians into the interior, and invest the North Fort. To send 10,000 men to Eupatoria, would not enable the Turks to take the field with success; while their absence would cripple the French army at the time when, with the reinforcements arriving in spring, it is expected to take the field.

The siege is now becoming a very sorry affair, indeed. The night attack of the Zouaves on Feb. 24, was even more disastrous in its results than we stated a week ago[b]. It appears from Canrobert's own dispatch that he did not know what he was about when he ordered this attack. He says:

"The purpose of the attack being now attained, our troops retired, as nobody ever could think of our establishing ourselves on a point so completely commanded by the fire of the enemy."[c]

But what was the purpose thus attained? What was there to do if the point could not be held? Nothing whatever. The destruction of the redoubt was not accomplished, and could not have been accomplished under the enemy's fire, even if the Zouaves, as the first report pretended, had for a moment exclusive possession of the work. But that they never had; the Russian report denies it most positively, and Canrobert does not pretend to anything of t he kind. What, then, was meant by this attack? Why, plainly this: that Canrobert, seeing the Russians establishing themselves in a position very embarrassing and equally humiliating to the besiegers, without any reflection, without giving himself the trouble of examining the probable issue of the affair, sent his troops to the charge. It was a downright, useless butchery, and will leave a serious stain upon Canrobert's military reputation. If any excuse an be found, it is only in the .supposition that the French troops having become impatient for the assault, the General intended giving them a slight foretaste of what the assault would be. But this excuse is quite as discreditable to Canrobert as the charge itself.

By the affair of Malakoff the Russians ascertained their superiority on the ground immediately in front of their defenses. The work situated on the crest of the hill, and vainly attacked by the Zouaves, is called by them the Selenghinsk redoubt, from the regiment which defended it. They at once proceeded to follow up their advantage and act upon the certitude thus obtained. Selenghinsk was enlarged and strengthened, guns were brought up to it, though they must have passed under the heaviest fire of the besiegers, and counter-approaches were made from it, probably with a view to erect one or two minor works in its front. On another spot, too, in front of the Korniloff bastion, a series of new redoubts was also thrown up 300 yards in advance of the old Russian works. From former British reports, the possibility of such a step seems astonishing, for we were always told the Allies had thrown up their own trenches at less than that distance from the Russian lines. But as we were enabled to state, upon first-rate professional authority about a month since, the French lines were still some 400 yards from the Russian outworks, and the British even twice that distance. Now, at last, The Times' correspondent's[d] letter of March 16 confesses that even up to that date the British trenches were still 600 to 800 yards off, and that, in fact, the batteries .about to open upon the enemy were but the same which opened their fire on the 17th of October last![e] This, then, is that great progress in the siege—that pushing forward the trenches, which cost two-thirds of the British army their lives!

Under such circumstances, there was plenty of room for erecting these new Russian works in the intermediate space between the two lines of batteries; but it nevertheless remains a most unparalleled act, the boldest and most skilful thing that was ever undertaken by a besieged garrison. It amounts to nothing less than opening a fresh parallel against the Allies, at from 300 to 400 yards from their works; to a counter-approach on the grandest scale against the besiegers, who thereby are at once thrown back into a defensive state, while the very first essential condition of a siege is that the besiegers shall hold the besieged in the defensive. Thus the tables are completely turned, and the Russians are strongly in the ascendant.

Whatever blunders and fantastical experiments the Russian engineers may have made under Schilder, at Silistria[115], the Allies have, here at Sevastopol, evidently a different set of men to deal with. The justness and rapidity of glance—the promptness, boldness, and faultlessness of execution, which the Russian engineers have shown in throwing up their lines around Sevastopol—the indefatigable attention with which every weak point was protected as soon as discovered by the enemy—the excellent arrangement of the line of fire, so as to concentrate a force, superior to that of the besiegers, upon any given point of the ground in front the preparation of a second, third and fourth line of fortifications in rear of the first—in short, the whole conduct of this defense has been classic. The late offensive Advances on Malakoff hill and to the front of the Korniloff bastion are unparalleled in the history of sieges, and stamp their originators as first-rate men in their line. It is but just to add that the Chief Engineer at Sevastopol is Col. Totleben, a comparativeIy obscure man in the Russian service. But we must not take the defense of Sevastopol as a fair specimen of Russian engineering. The average between Silistria and Sevastopol is nearer the reality.

People in the Crimea, as well as in England and France, now begin to discover, though very gradually, that there is no chance of Sevastopol being taken by assault. In this perplexity the London Times has applied to "high professional authority," and has been informed that the proper thing to do is to act on the offensive, either by passing the Chernaya, and effecting a junction with Omer Pasha's Turks, before or after a battle against the Russian Army of Observation, or by a diversion against Kaffa, which would force the Russians to divide themselves[f]. As the allied army is now supposed to number from 110,000 to 120,000 men, such movements should be in t heir power. Now, nobody knows better than Canrobert and Raglan that an advance beyond the Chernaya and a union with Omer Pasha's army would be most desirable; but, unfortunately, as we have proved over and over again[g], the 110,000 to 120,000 Allies on the hights before Sevastopol do not exist, and have never existed. On the 1st of March they did not number above 90,000 men fit for duty. As to an expedition to Kaffa, the Russians could wish for nothing better than to see the allied troops dispersed over three different points, from 60 to 150 miles distant from the center one, while at neither of the two points which they now hold have they sufficient strength to perform the task before them! Surely, the "high professional authority" must have been hoaxing The Times in seriously advising it to advocate a repetition of the Eupatoria expedition!

Written about March 30, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4366, April 17, 1855
and in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1032, April 17, 1855 as a leading article
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, pp. 82-85.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 115-16.—Ed.

[c] Canrobert's dispatch of February 27, 1855 was published in The Times, No. 22008, March 22, 1855.—Ed.

[d] W. H. Russell.—Ed.

[e] The Times, No. 22014, March 29, 1855.—Ed.

[f] See "The last accounts from the Crimea...", The Times, No. 22012, March 27, 1855.—Ed.

[g] See, e.g., this volume, pp. 32-33.—Ed.

[114] This paragraph, especially its concluding part, shows signs of interference by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune.

[115] The siege of Silistria (Silistra)—a fortress on the south bank of the Danube in Bulgaria—by Russian troops was one of the major operations in the Danubian theatre during the Crimean War. The siege began in the first half of May 1854, but in the fourth week of June the Russian troops withdrew beyond the Danube in view of the hostile attitude of Austria, which had concentrated considerable forces behind the Russian lines. A description of the fighting in this area was given in the articles "The Russian Retreat" by Marx and Engels and "The Siege of Silistria" by Engels (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 253-57 and 234-45).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.132-135), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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