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The New French Commander[164]

Frederick Engels

It is certain that Gen. Canrobert's resignation of the command of the French army in the Crimea did not take place a moment too soon. The morale of the army was already in a very unsatisfactory and doubtful state. After they had been made to undergo the hardships and dangers of an unparalleled Winter campaign, the soldiers had been kept in something like order and good spirits by the return of Spring and by ever-repeated promises of a speedy and glorious termination of the siege. But day after day passed away without making any progress, while the Russians actually advanced out of their lines and constructed redoubts on the disputed ground between the two parties. This roused the spirit of the French soldiers, the Zouaves mutinied, and the consequence was that on February 23 they were led to the butchery on Mount Sapun. A little more bustling—it can hardly be called activity—was then shown on the part of the allied commanders; but there was evidently no distinct aim, and no definite plan was followed up consistently.

Again, the spirit of mutiny among the French was kept down by the continued sallies of the Russians and by the opening of the second bombardment which was—positively for the last time—to end in the grand spectacle of the assault. But the fire went on, slackened, and slackened still more, and at last ceased without any attempt at an assault. Then came engineering operations, slow, difficult and barren of those results which keep up the spirits of soldiers. Soon they got tired again of nightly trench-fighting, where hundreds fell to no visible purpose. Again the assault was demanded, and again Canrobert had to make promises which he knew he could not fulfill. Then Pélissier saved him from a renewal of disorderly scenes by the night attack of the 1st of May; it is stated that not only did Pélissier plan this attack, but even execute it in spite of a counter-order from Canrobert arriving the moment the troops were put in motion. This affair is said to have revived the courage of the soldiers.

Meantime the reserve and the Piedmontese arrived. The Chersonese became crowded. The soldiers considered that these reenforcements enabled them to do anything. Why was nothing done? The expedition to Kertch was resolved upon, and sailed. But before it had reached the offing of that town a dispatch from Paris induced Canrobert to recall it. Raglan of course gave in at once. Brown and Lyons, the commanders of the British land and sea forces on this expedition, besought their French colleagues to attack the place in disobedience to the order; in vain—the expedition had to sail back, and it is even stated that Canrobert had in his hurry misread the order, which was merely conditional. Now the exasperation of the troops was no longer to be mastered. Even the English spoke in unmistakable terms; the French were in a state bordering on mutiny. Accordingly there was nothing left for Canrobert but to resign the command of an army over which he had lost all control and influence. The only possible successor was Pélissier. The soldiers were sick of these young generals, advanced to the highest honors in the quick hotbed of Bonapartism. They had all the while been clamoring for a leader of long standing of the old African school—a man who had held a responsible command in the Algerian wars, and held it with credit. Pélissier was almost the only man of the sort at the command of the Emperor; he had been sent there with the evident intention of being, sooner or later, made the successor of Canrobert. Whatever else his qualifications might be, he had the confidence of the troops, and that is a great deal.

But he takes his command under difficult circumstances. He must act, and speedily too, before the men lose the freshness of the enthusiasm which the certainty of immediate action must have inspired them with. The assault being impossible, nothing remains but to take the field, and that can be done only by turning the Russian position in the manner we have previously described[a]. Indeed, we find our views on this subject confirmed by a British officer in the London Morning Herald, who says that it is the general opinion among competent men that there is no other way to take the field with success.

There is however one very serious difficulty in carrying out this plan. The French with all their army have no more means of transport than will supply 30,000 men for a very short distance from the coast. As to the English, their means of transport would he exhausted if they had to supply one single division no further off than Chorgun on the Chernaya. How then is the field to be taken, in case of success the north side of Sevastopol invested, the enemy pursued to Bakshiserai and a junction effected with Omer Pasha? Of course the Russians will take very good care to leave nothing but ruins behind them, and a supply of carts, horses or camels can only be obtained after the Allies have completely routed their enemy. We shall see how Pélissier will extricate himself from this difficulty.

Written about May 24, 1855
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4414, June 12, 1855
Reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1049, June 15, 1855 as a leading article


[a] See this volume, pp. 201-07.—Ed.

[164] Marx included this article in an abridged and somewhat revised form in his report for the Neue Oder-Zeitung headlined "Prologue at Lord Palmerston's.—Course of the Latest Events in the Crimea", which is published in this volume as a joint article by Marx and Engels (see pp. 218-21).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.215-217), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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