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From Sevastopol[145]

Frederick Engels

The mails of the America; received here on Saturday evening, once more enable us to lay before our readers some clear account of the state of the war in the Crimea, though still the contradictory and indefinite nature of the official reports as well as of the newspaper letters renders our task no easy one. It is manifest that the failure of Vienna was attended by greater alertness and activity in the allied camp at Sevastopol, and that though the bombardment may be said to have been given up on April 24, yet the fortnight succeeding was not wholly unimproved. Still it is very difficult to say what advantages have been gained; indeed one writer pretends that the Russian advanced works, Selenghinsk, Volhynsk and Kamtchatka, as well as the rifle trenches in front of the whole line, have been abandoned by the defense[146]. As this is certainly the very utmost advantage obtained by the Allies we will for the present assume it to be true. Some correspondents report that the Flagstaff bastion itself had been stormed by the French and a lodgment effected therein[a], but this deserves no credit. It is a mere ignorant exaggeration of the affair of April 21, when the French, by blowing up mines, formed an advanced trench in front of that bastion.[b]

We will then assume it to be correct that the Russians are thrown back upon their original line of defense, although it is very remarkable that no reports of the occupation of Mount Sapun and the Mamelon by the Allies have yet been received. But even if the redoubts on these hills are no longer in the hands of the Russians, nobody can dispute the great advantages they have drawn from them. They have held Sapun from Feb. 23, and the Mamelon Kamtschatka redoubt from March 12 to the end of April, during which time the allied trenches were either enfiladed or taken under close front fire by them, while the key of the whole position—Malakoff—was completely sheltered by them during the fifteen days' cannonade. After having turned them to such good use, the Russians could afford to lose them.

The various night attacks by which the Allies made themselves masters of the Russian rifle-trenches and counter-approaches, need not be described here, no more than the sally undertaken by the Russians to recover them. Such operations possess no tactical interest except for such as know the ground from personal inspection, being mainly decided by the intelligence, the dash and tenacity of the subaltern officers and soldiers. In these qualities the Anglo-French are superior to the Russians, and consequently they have made good their footing in some places close to the Russian works[c]. The distance between the combatants has been reduced, here and there, to the range of hand-grenades, that is to some twenty or thirty yards from the Russian covered way, or from forty to sixty yards from the main rampart. The Russians say the besiegers are at thirty sagenes[d] or sixty yards from it[e]. This is the case especially in front of the Flagstaff bastion, the Middle bastion and the Redan, where the ground forms dead angles, with hollows so situated that the Russian guns cannot be sufficiently depressed to plunge their shot into them. As the Russian artillery is anything but silenced, the communications with these hollows and the turning them into a complete system of trenches is a matter of great difficulty, and the flanking fire of the Russians will be very sorely felt by the Allies[f]. Indeed, so long as the allied batteries are about four or five hundred yards to the rear of the advanced trenches, it is not to be explained how they expect to hold such exposed positions against sallies undertaken on a sudden and with a sufficient force; and after the acknowledged failure of the bombardment it will be some time before new and more advanced batteries can be brought into play.

This sudden advance of the Allies to the very foot of the Russian ramparts, different as it looks from their previous sloth and indecision, is yet quite of a piece with it. There never was either system or steady consistency in the conduct of this siege; and as a siege is essentially a systematic operation in which every step gained must be at once turned to some fresh advantage, under penalty of proving fruitless, it is plain that the Allies have conducted this upon the worst possible plan. Notwithstanding the disappointment in the minds of the allied generals when they first beheld the place, notwithstanding the errors committed last Autumn, during what we may call the first siege, they might yet have made greater progress. We leave the north side of the town entirely out of the question, as the allied generals did so themselves. They had once for all made up their minds to attack the south side separately and to run the risk of getting into a place commanded by a fortress to them inaccessible. But here an alternative arises: either the allied generals felt themselves strong enough to take the south side, and then they must now admit that they were unpardonably mistaken; or they felt themselves too weak, and then why did they not procure reenforcements? The fact is now beyond denial that blunder has succeeded blunder in this "memorable and unparalleled" siege. The hardships of the Winter-quarters appear to have imparted a spirit of unconquerable drowsiness, apathy and languor to both army and generals. When the Russians, in February, boldly came out of their lines and formed fresh ones in advance, it should have been a sufficient incentive to them to muster up their energies; yet Canrobert could use this very serious admonition to no other purpose than to cool the zeal of the Zouaves by an attack which he knew beforehand could lead to no good. The work in the trenches was resumed, but more in order to form covered roads for storming columns than to push the batteries nearer to the enemy. Even after six months spent before the place, every act shows that no definite plan had been settled, no point of chief attack singled out, nay, that the old fixed idea of taking Sevastopol by a coup de main[g] still reigned supreme in the heads of the Allies, crossing every sensible proposal, frustrating every attempt at systematic progress. And what little was done was executed with three times the slowness of regular siege operations, while the inconsistency and want of plan characterizing the whole, did not even impart to it the certainty of success inherent in such regular operations.[h]

But everything was expected from the late opening of the fire. That was the great excuse for all delays and do-nothingisms. Though it is difficult to say what was expected from this grand event—from batteries at from 600 to 1,000 yards from their object, at last the fire did open. About 150 rounds per gun the first two or three days, then 120 rounds, then 80, then 50, finally 30 were fired; after which the cannonade was suspended. The effect was hardly visible, except in the used-up guns and emptied magazines of the Allies. Five days cannonading with full force would have done more harm to the Russians and opened more chances of advantage to the Allies than fifteen days of a fire beginning with great fury and slackening down as fast as it was begun. But with their ammunition spent and their guns rendered unserviceable, would the Allies have been in a position to seize these favorable chances? Quite as much as now, while the Russians, from witnessing the slackening of the fire and from being spared the infliction of a hail of 50,000 projectiles per day during five successive days, are in a far better position than they would have been[i]. This prolongation of the cannonade, by reducing its intensity is so great and unaccountable a deviation from all military rules, that political reasons must be at the bottom of it. When the first and second days' fire had disappointed the expectations of the Allies, the necessity of keeping up a semblance of a cannonade during the Vienna Conferences must have led to this useless waste of ammunition.

The cannonade ends, the Vienna Conferences are suspended, the telegraph is completed. At once the scene changes. Orders arrive from Paris to act promptly and decisively. The old system of attack is given up; partial assaults, lodgments by mining explosions, a struggle of rifles and bayonets, succeed the resultless roar of artillery. Advanced points are gained and even maintained against a first sally of the besieged. But unless it is found practicable to construct batteries within short distances from the Russian lines, and to make these lines too hot for the besieged, nothing is gained. The advanced points cannot be held without great and daily repeated losses, and without regularly recurring combats of doubtful and wavering issue. And supposing even that these batteries of the second and third parallel are to be constructed, and that it was necessary for their opening first to dislodge the Russians from their rifle-trenches—how long will it be before these fresh batteries will have guns enough to reply successfully to that Russian fire which in two cannonades has proved equal to that of the Allies? The nearer the batteries are placed to the enemy's works, the more destructive a crossfire can be concentrated upon them, and the more confined becomes the space for placing guns; in other words, the more equal becomes the fire of the attack to that of the defense, unless the latter has been previously subdued by the more distant batteries, which here is not the case.[j]

How, then, has it been possible for the Russians so successfully to withstand the attacks of the Allies? First, by the mistakes and vacillations of the Allies themselves; secondly, by the bravery of the garrison and the skill of the directing engineer, Col. Todtleben; thirdly, by the natural strength of the position. For it must be admitted that the position is a strong one. The bad maps which up to a very recent period have alone been accessible represented Sevastopol as situated at the lower end of a slope and commanded by the heights in the rear; but the latest and best maps prove that the town stands on several rounded, isolated hills, separated by ravines from the slope of the plateau, and actually commanding quite as much of it as has any command over the town. This disposition of the ground seems fully to justify the hesitation to assault the place in September last; though it has appeared much too imposing to the allied generals, who did not even attempt to make the enemy show what strength he could muster for the defense. The Russian engineer has turned these natural advantages to the greatest possible use. Wherever Sevastopol presents a slope toward the plateau, two and even three rows of batteries have been constructed on its sides, one above the other, doubling and trebling the strength of the defense. Such batteries have been constructed in other fortifications (for instance on the slope of Mont Valérien at Paris), but they are not generally approved of by engineers, who call them shell-traps. It is true that they offer a larger object of aim to the besieger, whose shot may hit the battery above or below, if they miss the one they are fired at, and they will always cause greater losses to the defense on this account; but where a fortress is not even invested, like Sevastopol, such a drawback counts for nothing against the enormous strength they impart to the defending fire. After this siege of Sevastopol, we fancy we shall have very few complaints about these shell-traps. For fortresses of the first order, containing plenty of material and difficult to invest, they can be most advantageously used where the ground favors them. Beside these shell-traps, the Russians have deviated in another point from the usual engineering routine. According to the old-fashioned systems of bastioned fortifications, fifteen or seventeen bastions would have been insufficient to encircle the place and would have defended it very badly. Instead of this, there are only six bastions on projecting heights, while the curtains connecting them are broken in such angular lines as to give a flanking fire independent of that of the bastions, and heavy guns from these salient points sweep the ground in front. These curtains are armed with guns for nearly their whole extent, which again is an innovation, as the curtains in regular bastioned fortresses are generally armed with one or two guns only for special purposes, and the whole of the defense by fire is intrusted to the bastions and demi-lunes. Without entering into further technical details, it will be seen from the above that the Russians have made the most of their means, and that if ever the Allies should come into possession of the Flagstaff or Malakoff bastions, they may be sure to find a second and a third line of defense before them which they will have to put all their wits together to reduce.

Written about May 8, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4401, May 28, 1855
Re-printed in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1045, June 1, 1855
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 716, June 2, 1855 as a leading article;
an abridged German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 217, May 11, 1855,
marked with the sign x
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Reports on the bombardment of the Flagstaff bastion by the Allies appeared in The Times, Nos. 22043-22045, May 2-4, 1855.—Ed.

[b] Instead of this opening paragraph the version published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "As far as the public is concerned, the opening of telegraphic communication from Balaklava to London and Paris has so far only served to make the information offered to it more confused.

"The British Government publishes nothing at all or at most vague assurances about successes achieved; the French Government publishes dispatches under the name of Canrobert, but cut and distorted to such an extent that it is almost impossible to glean anything from them. For example, the bastion against which the main French attack is directed was hitherto invariably called the Flagstaff Bastion or Bastion du Mat. Now we learn that great advantages have been gained in action against the Central Bastion, and then against Bastion No. 4. A careful collation of these dispatches with earlier reports, particularly Russian ones, has shown that what is meant is still our old acquaintance, the Bastion du Mat, but it is given different names and appellations. This kind of mystification is thoroughly tendentious and therefore, to a certain extent, also 'providential'.

"But if the telegraph holds no benefits for the public, it has indisputably brought some life to the allied camp. Beyond doubt the first dispatches received by Canrobert contained strict orders to act more resolutely and achieve some sort of success at any cost. An unofficial report asserts that the Russians have evacuated all advanced works, Selenghinsk, Volhynsk and Kamchatka, as well as the rifle trenches in front of their whole line."—Ed.

[c] In the Neue Oder-Zeitung the passage beginning with the words "After having turned them to such good use" and ending with the words "close to the Russian works" does not occur. The next sentence begins: "Through the Allies' latest successes the distance between the combatants...:"—Ed.

[d] An old Russian unit of length equal to 2.1336 metres.—Ed.

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

[f] This sentence and the end of the preceding one beginning with the words "where the ground forms dead angles" do not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[g] Sudden attack.—Ed.

[h] Instead of this paragraph the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "Even this sudden advance of the Allies is only another in the series of desultory moves characteristic of this siege, in which systematic blockade, assault in force and wishful coups de main go together in utter confusion. The very first bombardment of October 17 to November 5 was preceded by the Allies' decision to leave the north side of the town entirely out of account and attack the south side separately, thus running the risk of getting into a position commanded by a fortress impregnable to them. Moreover, in that first bombardment the fire, instead of being concentrated upon one or two points, was dispersed over an enormous front. The five months between the first and the second bombardment were not used to single out main points of attack, but merely to work out in detail, and with maximum sluggishness, the plan for a simultaneous attack on all points of a huge semicircle, which meant a repetition of the original error."—Ed.

[i] The last two sentences do not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[j] The German version of this article, published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, ends here.—Ed.

[145] An abridged and altered version of this article by Engels was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 217, on May 11, 1855, under the heading "Die Belagerung von Sebastopol" ("The Siege of Sevastopol"). It was marked with the sign x and dated May 8. The translation and editing were done by Marx. Footnotes indicate the passages where the German version differs from the English.

[146] The report turned out to be false. Engels stated this on the basis of verified data in his article "The Crimean War" (see this volume, pp. 201-07). The Russian fortifications mentioned were taken by the Allies on June 7, 1855.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.170-176), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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