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The Anglo-French War Against Russia[343]

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

[Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 385, August 20, 1855]

London, August 17. The Anglo-French war against Russia will undoubtedly always figure in military history as "the incomprehensible war". Big talk combined with' minimal action, vast preparations and insignificant results, caution bordering on timidity, followed by the foolhardiness that is born of ignorance, generals who are more than mediocre coupled with troops who are more than brave, almost deliberate reverses on the heels of victories won through mistakes, armies ruined by negligence, then saved by the strangest of accidents—a grand ensemble of contradictions and inconsistencies. And this is nearly as much the distinguishing mark of the Russians as of their enemies. If the British have destroyed an exemplary army through the maladministration of the civil servants and the slothful incompetence of the officers; if the French have had to run useless risks and suffer enormous losses simply because Louis Napoleon affected to run the war from Paris, the Russians for their part have suffered similar losses as a result of maladministration and foolish but peremptory orders from Petersburg. Ever since the Turkish wars of 1828-29 Tsar Nicholas's military talents have been "passed over in silence" even by his most servile eulogists. If the Russians have Todtleben, who is not a Russian, they have on the other hand Gorchakov and [other]... ovs who in no respect yield to the S[ain]t-Arnauds and Raglans in the matter of incompetence.

One would have supposed that now, at any rate, when so many minds are occupied in drawing up plausible plans for attack and defence, and given this ever increasing mass of men and material, some breath-taking idea must needs be born. Not a bit of it, however. The war drags on and its prolongation serves only to enlarge the area over which it is being fought. The greater the proliferation of new theatres of war, the less the activity in each of them. We now have six: the White Sea, the Baltic, the Danube, the Crimea, the Caucasus and Armenia. What has been happening throughout this stupendous area can be told in the space of one column.

Of the White Sea, the Anglo-French wisely say nothing at all. Here they have only two practicable military aims: to prevent the coastal and other trade of the Russians in these waters and, if possible, to capture Archangel. The former has been attempted, but only up to a point; this year as well as last the Allied squadrons always arrived too late and sailed away too soon. The second object, the seizure of Archangel, has never been embarked upon. Instead of carrying out this, its real task, the blockading squadron has scattered to carry out slovenly attacks on Russian and Lapp villages and the destruction of what little the needy fishermen possess. The excuse proffered by English correspondents for these ignominious goings-on is the morose irritability of a squadron that feels itself incapable of getting down to serious work! Some defence!

On the Danube nothing is happening. The delta of this river is not even being cleared of the brigands who infest it. Austria holds the key to the door that leads into Russia from this side and seems determined to hang on to it.

In the Caucasus all is quiet. The formidable Circassians, like all barbarian and independent mountain-dwellers, seem to be perfectly content with the withdrawal of the Russian mobile column from their valleys and to have no desire to descend into the plain save on looting forays. They know how to fight only on their own territory and seem, furthermore, far from delighted at the prospect of annexation by Turkey.

In Asia Turkey may be seen as she really is—her army there fully reflects the decayed state of the empire. It was deemed necessary to call on the Frankish giaour for assistance; but the Franks[a] could do nothing there save throw up field-works. All their attempts at making the troops adopt civilised methods of warfare failed utterly. The Russians have invested Kars and are apparently prepared to attack it systematically. It is difficult to see how the town can be relieved, unless Omer Pasha lands at Batum with 20,000 men and attacks the Russians in the flank. It is incomprehensible, and by no means a feather in the Russians' cap, that they should have acted so cautiously and hesitantly in the face of such an ill-disciplined adversary, when they had 20,000-30,000 good troops at their disposal. Whatever successes they may score in this theatre of war, the most they can achieve is the capture of Kars and Erzerum, for a march on Constantinople through Asia Minor is quite out of the question. For the dine being, therefore, the war in Asia is of no more than local interest and, since it is hardly possible, given the inaccuracy of existing maps, to express from afar an accurate tactical and strategical opinion, we shall not pursue the matter further. There remain the two principal theatres of war, the Crimea and the Baltic.

[Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 387, August 21, 1855]

London, August 18. In the Crimea the siege drags on lethargically[b]. The French and British were at work throughout the whole month of July on the new approaches to the Redan and the Malakhov and, though we were repeatedly given to understand that they had moved "quite close" to the Russians, we now learn that on August 4 the head of the sap was no closer than 115 metres to the Russian main ditch, and perhaps not even as close as that. It is certainly satisfactory to see Hotspur Pélissier[c] brought down to the acknowledgement that his "system of assault" has failed, and that regular siege works must pave the way for his columns; but for all that, to leave 200,000 men quiet in their tents to wait for the completion of these trenches, and to die in the meantime of cholera and fever, is singular management. If as—the Paris papers maintain—the Chernaya cannot be crossed in view of the impregnable Russian position on the far side, something useful might at least be achieved by a sea-borne expedition to Eupatoria and an attempt to force the Russians on this side into the open field and to find out their real strength and the state of their resources. As matters now stand the Turkish, Sardinian and half the French and British armies have been reduced to the role of passive onlookers. Hence a large part of them could be used for diversions. But the only diversions we have heard of are those created every evening at Astley's Amphitheatre, in Surrey Gardens and Cremorne Gardens where, amidst a storm of applause from the patriotic cockneys[d], the Russians suffer frightful defeats.

The Russians must by now have received all their reinforcements and will be at maximum strength during the period that lies immediately ahead. The British are sending out a few more regiments, the French have despatched 10,000-15,000 men with more to follow and all in all 50,000-60,000 fresh troops are to be added to the allied forces in the Crimea. On top of that the French Government has registered or bought a large number of river steamers (variously put at between 50 and 100), all of which are to be used for an expedition in the Black Sea. Whether they are intended for the Sea of Azov or the entry to the Dnieper and the Bug, where Ochakov, Kinburn, Kherson and Nikolayev would constitute objects of attack, remains to be seen. We mentioned on a previous occasion that some bloody affrays might be expected towards the middle of August, for at that time the Russians, after receiving reinforcements, would again seize the initiative[e]. Under General Liprandi they have in fact carried out a sortie directed against the French and Sardinians on the Chernaya and been beaten off with heavy loss[344]. Allied losses have not been stated and must therefore have been very considerable. Something more than telegraphic reports will be needed if this affair is to be discussed in greater detail.[f]

Finally, in the Baltic, "a great blow has been struck"[g]! Vide the English press. Bombardment of Sweaborg[345]! Destruction of Sweaborg! Earthworks and all other installations lie in ruins! Sweaborg has actually ceased to exist! Glorious triumph for the Allies! The Navy is in an indescribable state of enthusiasm! And now let us consider the facts as they are[h]. The Allied fleets, six liners, four or five large frigates (blockships[i]), and about thirty mortar-vessels and gunboats, crossed over from the Revel to Sweaborg on August 7. On the 8th they took up their positions. The vessels of light draft. passed through the shoals and rocks west of the fortress, where no large ship can pass, and apparently drew up at long range from the islands on which Sweaborg is situated. The large vessels remained outside, and as far as we can judge out of range of the forts. Then the gunboats and mortar-vessels opened fire. No direct firing appears to have been attempted. It was all shelling from mortars or shell guns at the highest elevation practicable. The bombardment lasted forty-five hours. As to the amount of damage inflicted it is not possible to estimate without detailed accounts from both parties. The arsenal and various magazines of powder (apparently small ones) were destroyed. The "town" of Sweaborg (so far as we know, only a few houses inhabited by people connected with the fleet or the works) was burnt. As to the fortifications themselves, the damage done to them cannot but be insignificant, for the fleets, as both Admirals state, had not a man killed, only a few wounded, and no loss whatever in matériel[j]. No better proof could be given that they kept out of harm's way. In that case they might bombard, but could not act by direct fire, by which alone fortifications can be destroyed. Dundas, who is far more honest and collected in his report than the French Admiral, according to the Moniteur's rendering of the text which may have been coloured in Paris, avers that the damage inflicted was confined to the three islands (out of the seven constituting Sweaborg) which are situated west of the main entrance to the bay of Helsingfors. An attack on the main entrance does not even seem to have been attempted. It seems that the large vessels looked on and did nothing, and the decisive act in such an attack—the landing of troops to possess themselves of the works and destroy them—was entirely out of the question. Thus the damage inflicted falls upon stores and storehouses exclusively—that is, upon matters easily replaced; and if the Russians avail themselves of their time and means, Sweaborg may in three weeks be in as good a condition as ever. Militarily speaking, it has not suffered at all; the material results of the whole affair are hardly worth its cost; and it seems to have been undertaken merely because the Baltic fleet must do something before it comes home for the season, partly because Palmerston wanted to conclude the parliamentary session with a firework. Unfortunately the event occurred 24 hours too late for this purpose. Such was the glorious destruction of Sweaborg by the Allied fleets. We shall revert to the matter as soon as detailed reports are to hand[k].

Written on August 17 and 18, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, Nos. 385 and 387, August 20 and 21, 1855
An abridged English version of the second part of the article was published
as a leading article in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4483, September 1, 1855,
and reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1072, September 4, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the Neue Oder-Zeitung.
Published in English in full for the first time in MECW.


[a] A name frequently applied to West Europeans in the Middle East.—Ed.

[b] Instead of this sentence the New-York Daily Tribune has: "Our files of English, French and German journals, received yesterday morning by the mail of the Canada, shed no additional light on the battle of August 16, on the Chernaya, where Liprandi was repulsed by the Allied forces and a number of Russian prisoners taken. With regard to this affair, we must wait for the next steamer before we can receive any satisfactory details. It is rather suspicious, however, that so little was known about it at Paris and London previous to the sailing of the Canada. Had it been really as decisive as the English journals represent, something more than the very incomplete statements now in our possession would naturally have been made public.

"It appears that the assault on the Malakoff, which was expected to have taken place on the 15th, had to be postponed, and that the preliminary bombardment did not commence till the 17th. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that the siege works are not in so forward a state as the journals of Paris and London have reported."—Ed.

[c] Pélissier is ironically compared to Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403) called Hotspur, the eldest son of the first earl of Northumberland, as portrayed in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1.—Ed.

[d] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[e] See this volume, pp. 363-64.—Ed.

[f] Instead of this paragraph and the greater part of the preceding one, beginning with the words "If—as the Paris papers maintain—the Chernaya cannot be crossed", the New-York Daily Tribune has: "It must be confessed that from first to last, this has been a war of incapacities on both sides. Todtleben is the only man in either camp who has shown a spark of genius."—Ed.

[g] The words in quotation marks are given both in German and in English in the original.—Ed.

[h] Instead of the preceding part of this paragraph the New-York Daily Tribune has: "With regard to the attack on Sweaborg, we are also still without full official reports or newspaper correspondence. The facts, however, appear on a careful examination of all the information at hand to be as follows."—Ed.

[i] Marx uses the English term.—Ed.

[j] The reference is to the report of Admiral Dundas, which was published in The Times, No. 22134, August 16, 1855, and that of the French Admiral Penaud, published in Le Moniteur universel, No. 227, August 15, 1855.—Ed.

[k] The end of this paragraph from the words "partly because Palmerston wanted..." is omitted in the New-York Daily Tribune.—Ed.

[343] An English version of the second instalment of this article, written by Engels, appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune on September 1, 1855 as a leading article headlined "The War". It is considerably shorter than the German version and in some passages, particularly at the beginning, contains editorial changes. In all probability it was the Tribune editors who shortened the text considerably. Where the German differs substantially from the English, this has been indicated in the footnotes in the present volume.

[344] On August 16, 1855 Russian troops attacked the French and Sardinians on the river Chernaya about twelve kilometres southeast of Sevastopol in an attempt to weaken the Allies' siege of the city. However, the Russians were repulsed and suffered heavy losses due to inadequate preparation of the attack and errors on the part of the Russian command. Engels analysed this important episode of the Crimean War in his article "The Battle of the Chernaya" (see this volume, pp. 504-12).

[345] Sveaborg was a fortress situated on a group of islands at the entrance to the Helsinki harbour in the Gulf of Finland (modern Finnish name: Suomenlinna). The bombardment of Sveaborg by British and French ships described in the article took place on August 9 and 10, 1855.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.484-489), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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