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The Crimean War

Frederick Engels

As we write, the field operations in the Crimea, to which we alluded some days since as in preparation[a], must have commenced. With these operations, the war, so far as it is confined to the peninsula, enters into a new and probably decisive stage of development. The rapid arrival of the Piedmontese and French reserves, and particularly the sudden change by which Canrobert left his command for that of a single corps, while Pélissier takes the command in chief, are sure indications that the time for a change in the tactics of the Allies is at hand.

For a general description of the ground to which the theater of operations is to be transferred and a general statement of the forces about to be engaged we refer to our former article. It will be recollected that the Russian army of observation in communication with the north side of Sevastopol has its main position on the plateau between Inkermann and the point where the road from Balaklava to Sympheropol crosses the mountain-ridge, separating the valleys of the Chernaya and the Belbek. This position, of great natural strength, has been completely intrenched by the Russians. It extends for about four miles between the head of the bay of Sevastopol and the impassable range of mountains, and the Russians will be able to concentrate there at least 50,000 or 60,000 men, of infantry and artillery, which number is fully sufficient for the defense.

To attack this position in front would require a great numerical superiority and involve terrible sacrifices, while the Allies cannot afford either. Even if they succeeded in carrying the intrenchments, their losses would be so severe as to disable them from an energetic continuance of the campaign. They must therefore attempt to draw a number of Russians away from it and to find means to turn it. For this purpose the mysterious expedition to Kertch was sent out. About 15,000 allied troops embarked, were seen by the Russians to pass Yalta, sailed to Kertch, and returned again. Why they did not attempt a landing is sought to be explained by a telegraphic order from Paris. At all events, this mere apology for a demonstration must be pronounced an utter failure; no General in his senses would be induced to divide his troops by an expedition which does not venture to show even a semblance of fight. An attempt on Kaffa, if even it was under contemplation at headquarters, seems also to have been finally abandoned. To transport troops to Eupatoria and sally forth from that place cannot be under consideration, else the Piedmontese and French reserves would have been sent thither at once. And, as there is no other harbor or good roadstead on the coast between Balaklava and Kaffa, nor between Sevastopol and Eupatoria, the idea of turning the Russians by sea seems to have been finally given up, and nothing remains but to turn them by land, which, as we have already stated, must prove an exceedingly difficult operation.

There is, beside the road occupied by the Russians above Inkermann, but one other high road leading from Balaklava to Sympheropol. It runs along the south coast as far as Alushta, where it turns to the interior, passes the mountains east of Chatyr Dagh or Tent Mountain, the highest in the Crimea, at a point 2,800 feet above the sea and descends to Sympheropol by the valley of the Salghir, the main river of the Crimea. From Balaklava to Alushta there are four marches, from Alushta to Sympheropol three together—about 95 English miles. But as no side-roads exist allowing the troops to march in several parallel columns, the whole army would have to advance on this one road in one enormously extended column, requiring them to march at least for four or five days in one continuous defile. Near Alushta and on the pass there are some old fortifications, and we may be sure that the pass itself will be found strongly intrenched. Instead of seven days the army would perhaps require twelve before even the pass of Chatyr Dagh could be crossed—time enough for the Russians to make an attempt on the corps remaining to protect the siege, or to march with the greater part of their forces against the enemy and meet him with superior numbers on debouching from the hills, while light, movable columns sent along the foot-paths of the Upper Katsha and Alma would fall upon his flank and rear. The greatest fault of a flank movement by way of Alushta would, however, be its utter want of a base of operations. The open roadstead of Alushta forbids the idea of turning that place even into a temporary base; so that even before Alushta is passed, Russian light infantry descending by the foot-paths across the hills, may interrupt the communication with Balaklava quite effectually.

The march by Alushta, therefore, can hardly be undertaken. Its risks far outweigh its possible advantages. There is, however, another way of turning the Russians. If in the march by Alushta all the advantages offered to the Allies by the high road are far outweighed by the means of attack given to the Russians by the foot-paths, cannot these same foot-paths be turned to the same advantage by the Allies? This would imply an entirely different operation. In this case the Allies would place the main body of their field-troops, including the corps destined to invest the north side of Sevastopol, directly opposite the Russian camp above Inkermann, forcing their opponents thereby to keep the great body of their troops concentrated in the intrenchments. Meantime, Zouaves, Chasseurs, Light Infantry, British Rifles, and even the mounted Chasseurs d'Afrique, and what can be got together of mountain-artillery, would be formed into as many columns as there are foot-paths leading from the valley of Baidar and from the South Coast near Alupka, 30 miles from Balaklava, into the valleys of the Belbek and Katsha. A night march would conveniently bring the troops destined to turn the extreme Russian left across the valley of Baidar to the South Coast, where the enemy could no longer perceive them. Another march would bring them to Alupka. Above Alupka is the steep range of the Yaila mountains, forming on their northern slope an elevated plain about 2,000 feet above the sea, affording good pasturage for sheep, and descending by rocky precipices into the glens of the rivulets Biuk Uzen and Uzen Bash, which by their junction form the Belbek river. Three foot-paths lead up to this plain near Alupka, and pass into the glens of the two Uzens. All this ground is perfectly practicable for infantry such as the Zouaves and Chasseurs, who in Africa have got accustomed to mountain warfare of a far more difficult character. Then, from the valley of the Upper Chernaya, better known as the Baidar Valley, at least two foot-paths lead to the valley of the Upper Belbek, and finally one branches off from the Balaklava and Sympheropol road just before the mountain pass, and traverses the ridge three miles south-east of Mackenzie's farm, leading immediately to the left of the Russian intrenched position. Now if these paths be ever so difficult they must be practicable for the French light troops from Africa. "Where a goat passes, a man can pass; where a man, a whole battalion; where a battalion, a horse or so may get through with a little trouble; and finally, you will perhaps manage even to pass a field-gun."[b] In fact we should not be at all astonished if these sheep-tracks and foot-paths marked on the maps, should even turn out to be country roads, bad enough, but quite practicable for a flanking movement, in which even artillery might accompany the columns. In that case the turning should be carried out with as large a force as possible, and then the Russians will soon have to give up their intrenchments, even without a serious front attack. But if these paths should be impracticable for field-guns (rockets and mountain howitzers can go anywhere), the turning parties will take -the character of mere movable columns, drive back the Russian troops as far as they can from the upper valleys of the Belbek, pass into that of the Katsha, menace the Russian rear, intercept their communications, destroy their convoys, collect trustworthy information, reconnoiter the country, draw upon themselves as many Russian detachments as possible, until that road which offers the least difficulties is made so far practicable as to admit of the passage of artillery. Then a strong force may be sent after them, and the Russian rear be so seriously menaced as to force an evacuation of the intrenchments. That an advance of mere infantry and light cavalry across these mountains on the left flank and rear of the Russians can have that effect we do not believe, as they could not seriously menace the Russian communications without descending into a country where artillery regains its full effect, and thereby secures the advantage to the party possessed of it. But there is no doubt that with a little ingenuity artillery can be made to follow the turning columns. At Jena[157], Napoleon exhibited what can be done with a simple foot-path winding up a steep hill; in five hours the road was wide enough for guns, the Prussians were taken in flank, and the next day's victory secured. And where a Crimean araba can pass, a field-gun can pass too; some of the pathways in question, particularly those from the Chernaya to the Belbek, appear to be such old araba country roads.

But to carry out such a movement the possession of sufficient forces is the first condition. The Russians will certainly have the advantage of numbers and of the better knowledge of the ground. The first may be done away with by a bold advance of Omer Pasha from Eupatoria to the Alma. Though the Russian superiority in cavalry will not allow him to move fast or far, yet by good maneuvering and well-secured communications he may force Prince Gorchakoff to detach more infantry against him. But for the Allies to depend upon any such collateral operation would be a matter of great uncertainty. In order to carry out, therefore, the advance from Balaklava, the best thing for them would be to transfer (as they were some time since reported to have done[c]), a day or two before the actual attack, some 20,000 Turks to the Chersonese, where they would be worth twice their number in Eupatoria. This would allow them to attack the Russians with nearly 110,000 men, including about 6,000 cavalry, to which force the Russians could oppose about 65,000 or 75,000 infantry (including 15,000 to 20,000 men from the garrison of the north side) and 10,000 cavalry. But as soon as the turning corps should begin to tell upon the left flank and rear of the Russians, the force to be opposed to it would be comparatively weak, as the drafts from the north side could not expose themselves to be cut off from their intrenched camp around the citadel; and therefore the Allies, being enabled to employ the whole of their available field-army wherever they like, would have a great superiority. In this case then they might with certainty count upon success; but if they attack the Russians single-handed, and the numerical proportions of both armies as stated by the most trustworthy authorities be correct, they stand but little chance. Their flanking corps would be too weak, and might be entirely neglected by the Russians, who by a bold sally from their lines could drive the weakened Allies down the precipices into the Chernaya.

Another movement on the part of the Allies has been suggested—an immediate assault on the south side of Sevastopol. We are even told that a peremptory order to undertake this assault had been telegraphed from Paris, and that Canrobert resigned because he did not feel warranted in executing a movement which in his opinion would imply a loss of 40,000 men. Now, from what we have seen of the military notions of Louis Bonaparte as displayed in his interference with the present campaign, it is not at all incredible that such an order should have been given. But what is less probable is that even a reckless sabreur[d] like Pélissier should lend himself to execute such an order. The last month must have given the French soldiers a pretty good idea of what the resistance is like which they are to meet with on storming. And an operation which cannot be carried out without the loss of some 40,000 men—above one-third of the whole army available for the assault—has certainly very few favorable chances of success. Pélissier may eagerly wish to pick up the Marshal's baton which has slipped from the hands of Canrobert, but we very much doubt whether he is enough of a Bonapartist to stake his fortune and reputation against such odds. For supposing even that the assault was successful; that not only the first line of defense but also the second line was taken; that even the barricades, crenellated houses and defensive barracks forbidding the approach to the shore forts—that these shore forts too were carried and the whole of the south side in the hands of the Allies, at a loss we will say of only 30,000 to a Russian loss of 20,000—what then? The Allies would have lost 10,000 men more than the Russians, the place would instantly have to be abandoned; and the campaign in the field would become even more difficult than before.

But there is one fact which at once precludes the idea of an immediate general assault. From some half-official reports we were induced in a former article on the siege[e] to admit, merely for argument's sake, that the Russians had been driven out of their new outworks in front of the place. We stated at the same time that we had every reason to doubt the correctness of such reports, as any such advantage gained would have been loudly and distinctly announced by the Allies. Now we are indeed positively informed by the Russians that the Kamtschatka (the Mamelon), Selenghinsk and Volhynsk redoubts are still in their possession, while evidence from the allied camp not only goes to confirm this, but also acknowledges that further outworks have been thrown up by the besieged. Thus the advantage gained by the Allies in pushing their advanced approaches nearer to the fortress has been fully made up for by the counter-approaches of the Russians, and the line where both parties can meet each other in equal strength is very distant yet from the main ditch. Now, an assault becomes advisable only when the line, where the force of the attack for common siege operations is equal to that of the defense, lies in the main ditch itself; otherwise it is clear that the storming columns would be broken down and shattered before they could reach the top of the breastwork. Thus as long as the Russians cannot be driven back across the main ditch, it will be impossible to assault the main rampart situated behind this main ditch. As to carrying the second line constructed behind that ditch, it is entirely out of the question at the present time.

There may be a chance for partial assaults on the left .or town side from the Quarantine to the Flagstaff Bastion where the main French attack is carried on. But here the policy of the French Government keeps us in utter darkness as to the extent and strength of the Russian outworks, and the recent Russian dispatches, of late being all telegraphic, contain no definite and detailed description. On the Flagstaff Bastion, however, it is acknowledged by the Russians themselves that the French works are close to the main rampart and that a mine has been sprung under it, though without any considerable results. Here, then, a local assault might be successful but from the salient position of this bastion and the commanding ground behind (the Russian Jasonovsky Redoubt[f]) it is very doubtful whether anything would be gained by the conquest of the bastion, which must have been isolated from the remainder of the works by one or two cross-ramparts in its rear, thereby preventing the storming columns from establishing themselves in it or at least from penetrating any further.

Thus whether the assault is attempted, or field operations are undertaken, the Allies will have to struggle with considerable difficulties. But at any rate the drowsy style of warfare pursued since the arrival of the Allies before Sevastopol is drawing to a close; and more stirring events and operations of real military interest may now be looked for.

Written about May 21, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4411, June 8, 1855;
Re-printed in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 718, June 16, 1855 as a leading article
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Here and below Engels refers to his article "The New Move in the Crimea" (see this volume, pp. 180-85).—Ed.

[b] A free rendering of one of Napoleon I's principles of mountain warfare.—Ed.

[c] The words in parenthesis were probably added by the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune.—Ed.

[d] War-horse.—Ed.

[e] See this volume, p. 170.—Ed.

[f] The New-York Daily Tribune has: "the Russian Garden Battery".—Ed.

[157] In the battle of Jena (October 14, 1806) the French army, commanded by Napoleon, routed the Prussian army, thus forcing Prussia to surrender.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.201-207), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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