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The Siege of Sevastopol[130]

Frederick Engels

The siege of Sevastopol continues to drag on its weary course, barren of events and decisions, scarcely enlivened, now and then, by some resultless encounter or desultory attack, every one of which looks exactly like all its predecessors and successors. Always excepting the superiority evinced by the defense in the engineering department, it is certain that very few campaigns have been carried on for an equal length of time with such a degree of mediocrity in the commanding officers as has now been developed. The whole affair is becoming a public nuisance to the world in general, and to those, in particular, who have to expose, in the Press, the different phases assumed by this eminently stationary operation.[a]

The French and English reports of the affair of March 23 we published some days ago; a Russian detailed report we have not yet received. As usual, the dispatches of the Allied Generals are conceived in so obscure a style that we cannot learn anything distinct from them. With the help of private letters published in Europe and the reports of newspaper-correspondents, of which we now have several at hand, we are enabled to make out the following summary view of the facts.

The "right attack" of the Allies, directed against the south-eastern fronts of Sevastopol, from the head of the inner harbor to that of the Careening Bay, has been carried forward to the distance of some 600 yards from the first Russian line, by three lines of approaches or zig-zags, connected with each other at their ends by what is called the second parallel. Beyond this, the three zig-zags are still being pushed forward, though irregularly and slowly, and it is intended to unite them by a third parallel, and to form, on the central approach, a place d'armes, or covered rallying-ground, spacious enough to hold a reserve force. Of these three approaches, the middle one is in the hands of the English, and the right and left are occupied by the French. These two flank approaches have been pushed on rather quicker than the central one, so that the French trenches here are, perhaps, fifty yards nearer to the place than the position occupied by the English.

Before daybreak of the 23d of March, a considerable Russian force, amounting to about twelve battalions, advanced from the town upon the siege-works. Well aware that the trenches had been constructed with an utter neglect of the habitual and prescribed precautions, that their flanks were neither thrown back sufficiently nor defended by redoubts, that consequently a bold dash upon the extreme flanks of the parallel must lead the assailants into the trenches, the Russians began their attack by a sudden and rapid movement, by which the eastern and western extremities of the parallel were turned. A front attack occupied the trench-guard and their reserves, while the outflanking columns, gallantly but vainly resisted by the French, descended into the works and swept the trench until they came upon the central position defended by the British. The British lines being secure from serious annoyance in front, were not molested until the fusillade going on to the right and left had brought up part of their reserves; and even then, the front attack was of no great vehemence, as the strength of the sortie was concentrated in the turning columns. But these too, from the great extent of trench they had overrun, had already spent their first ardor, and when they came upon the British, their officers had to bear constantly in mind the chance of ultimate retreat. Accordingly, the struggle very soon came to a point where each party held its ground, and that is the moment when a sallying detachment should look out for a safe retreat. This the Russians did. Without attempting seriously to dislodge the British, they maintained the fight until most of their troops had got a fair start homeward, and then the rearguard, heavily pressed, by this time, by the French and British reserves, made the best of its way toward Sevastopol.

The Russians must have expected to find many guns and a deal of ammunition and other material in the second parallel, for to destroy such could have been the only purpose of this sortie. But there was very little of the sort, and thus the only advantage they gained by the attack was the certainty that at this distance from their own lines they might still, in the first hour or two of a sortie, and before the enemies' reserves could come up, show the strongest front. This is worth something, but hardly worth the losses of such an attempt. The material damage done to the siege-works was repaired in a day or two, and the moral effect gained by this sortie was null. For, as every sortie must necessarily end in a retreat, the besiegers will always believe that they have been the victors; and unless the losses of the besieged are disproportionately small compared with those of the besiegers, the moral effect is generally more encouraging to the latter than otherwise. In this instance, when Raglan and Canrobert were more than ever in want of an apparent success, this sally, with its comparatively worthless fruits, and its final precipitate retreat, was a real godsend for them. The French troops give themselves enormous credit for having followed up the enemy to the very lines of Sevastopol—which in such a case is not so difficult, as the guns of the place cannot play for fear of hitting their own troops; while the British, passing over in silence their exceptional retired position, which gave them the character of a reserve more than that of a body of troops in the front line of battle, are again, with less cause than ever, blustering about their own invincibility and that unflinching courage which forbids the British soldier ever to give way a single inch. The few British officers in the hands of the Russians, taken in the midst of these unflinching soldiers and carried off safely into Sevastopol[b], must know what all these big words mean.

In the meantime, the great strategists of the British press have gone on declaring, with considerable emphasis, that before the storming of Sevastopol could be thought of, the new outworks erected by the Russians must needs be taken; and that they hoped they would be taken shortly. This assertion is certainly as true as it is common-place; but the question is, How are they to be taken, if the Allies could not prevent their being completed under their very batteries? The attack upon the Selenghinsk redoubt[c] showed clearly enough that, with great sacrifice of life, such a work can be taken for a moment; but of what use that is to be, when it cannot even be held for the time necessary to destroy it, it is not easy to see. The fact is, that these new Russian works[d], being flanked and commanded in the rear by their main line, cannot be taken unless the same means are put into operation against them as against the main line. Approaches will have to be made up to a convenient distance, covered parallels with places d'armes will have to be completed, and batteries to engage the Russian main line will have to be erected and armed, before an assault of, and lodgment in, these outworks can be seriously thought of. The London Times, which was foremost in its outcry for the capture of these works, has not attempted to specify the new method by which this very desirable but very difficult object was to be accomplished "within the very few hours" within which it expected, the other day, to hear of the feat having been performed. But unfortunately, hardly had that journal uttered this fond hope[e], when a letter arrived from its Crimean correspondent stating that the new Russian outworks not only appeared quite untakable, but that they were evidently the first landmarks only of an intended further advance of Russian counter-approaches[f]. The rifle-pits in front of the Mamelon redoubt[g] have been connected with each other by a regular trench, thus forming a new line of defense. Between the Mamelon redoubt and Mount Sapun, or the Selenghinsk redoubt, a rather curiously-shaped trench has been dug out, forming three sides of a square and enfilading part of the French approaches, by which, in part, it is said again to be enfiladed. The situation and line of this new work are, however, so incompletely described that neither its exact position nor its intended use can be as yet clearly made out[h]. Thus much is certain, that a complete system of advanced works is contemplated by the Russians, covering Malakoff on both sides and in front, and aiming, perhaps, even at an ultimate attempt at a lodgment in the allied trenches, which, if obtained, would of course be tantamount to a breaking through of the siege lines on that side. If during six months the Allies have barely held their ground, and rather strengthened than advanced their batteries, the Russians have in one single month advanced considerably upon them and are still advancing. Surely, if many a defense has been quite as glorious as that of Sevastopol, not a single siege can be shown in the annals of war, since that of Troy, carried on with such a degree of incoherence and stupidity.

Written about April 15, 1855
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4377, April 30, 1855
Re-printed in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1036, May 1, 1855 as a leading article;
the German version was first published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 179, April 18, 1855,
marked with the sign x


[a] This sentence does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[b] The words "Colonel Kelley and others" are added in commas in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[c] The Neue Oder-Zeitung further has: "(on Mount Sapun)".—Ed.

[d] The Neue Oder-Zeitung further has: "which form an integral part of the Russian defences".—Ed.

[e] The Times, No. 22028, April 14, 1855.—Ed.

[f] This refers to a report by W. H. Russell published anonymously in The Times, No. 22028 (second edition), April 14, 1855.—Ed.

[g] The Neue Oder-Zeitung further has: "(called Kamchatka by the Russians)".—Ed.

[h] This sentence and the end of the preceding one beginning with the words "by which, in part" do not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[130] A German version of this article dated April 15, 1855 appeared in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 179, on April 18 under the heading "Die Affäre vom 23. März" ("The March 23 Affair"). The text was translated and edited by Marx. Footnotes indicate the passages where the German version differs from the English.

The reference to the publication of the French and English reports on the events of March 23, 1855 (second paragraph of the English version) was added by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.151-155), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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