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The Reports of Generals Simpson, Pélissier and Niel

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

London, September 27. The reports of Generals Simpson, Pélissier and Niel[a], and especially the despatches from British newspaper correspondents in the Crimea, form a vast and complex documentary material, and it is a time-consuming process to sift it judiciously. For this reason we shall be able to examine the events of September 7 and 8 in detail only in our next report[b]. We may note, however, that the British press is almost unanimous, and rightly so, in its condemnation of General Simpson and the higher English commanders acting under him. The joke making the rounds of the Russian army, that "L'armée anglaise est une armée des lions, commandée par des ânes" (The English army is an army of lions led by asses) has been thoroughly vindicated by the assault on the Redan. A London newspaper is demanding a new Sevastopol committee, forgetting that the miserable leadership of the British army is the inevitable result of rule by an antiquated oligarchy. All preparations miscarried from the very start. The English trenches were still so far (250 yards) from the Redan ditch that the troops had to run the gauntlet of enemy fire without cover for a quarter of an hour and were out of breath when they arrived. French engineers had drawn attention to this defect beforehand; however, the answer they received from the English was:

"If we were to advance another couple of yards then we should come to an angle which would expose us to enfilading fire by the Flagstaff bastion and thus great losses."

In the first place this risk of losses was undeniably smaller than that incurred by the exposure of the troops during the assault. Furthermore the enfilading fire could have been countered partly by traverses and bends in the trenches and partly by setting up counter-batteries. All the remonstrations of the French foundered against Simpson's thick-skinned obstinacy, however. What is more, whereas the French trenches were broad, spacious and capable not only of absorbing vast military forces but also of concealing them, the British trenches were narrow and so constructed that every Briton with a touch of corpulence immediately attracted the attention of the Russian commanders to himself. The wide stretch of ground the British troops had to run across meant that, instead of directly throwing themselves upon the enemy after reaching the object of their attack, they first of all sought cover and engaged in musket fire, which gave the Russians time to rally. The miserable inadequacy of the British preparations is also revealed by the fact that once their troops had gained control of the rampart, no one thought of spiking the Russian cannon positioned there. They had with them neither workers with the necessary instruments nor artillery troops who could have done the job with no extra instruments. General Simpson's tactical arrangements before and during the assault take the cake, however. (During the assault, as we learn from the [report] of a Daily News correspondent, Simpson, who suffered from a cold in the head, sat wrapped in a wide cape, in an easy chair in the Greenhill[c] battery.) He had detailed an assault party of 200 men, a covering party of 320 men and a total operational force of not more than 1,000 men against the fearsome Redan, against which the English attacks had broken for six months. When the English had broken through the salient of the Redan they were exposed to murderous fire from the redoubt, which had been transformed into a stronghold, and from the casemates positioned behind it on the flanks. With sufficient numbers they could have by-passed the redoubt, which would have put a speedy end to the battle. No reinforcements arrived on the scene, however, even though Colonel Windham sent for them urgently three times and eventually had to go himself to search for them. Thus the troops remained on the parapet for three fatal hours, twice forcing their way inside only to be slaughtered uselessly one by one, and finally had to retreat in great disorder. The inadequate number of troops with which Simpson, disposing of masses which would have sufficed twenty-fold, originally undertook the assault, the holding back of the necessary reserves during the action, the useless and wanton sacrifice of the brave assault troops—all this amounts to one of the greatest scandals known to modern military history. Simpson would inevitably have faced a court martial under the first Napoleon.

On the Continent the evil of patrimonial jurisdiction has been attacked, and rightly. However, the unpaid English magistracy[372] is nothing but a modernised, constitutionally flavoured version of patrimonial jurisdiction. Read the following literal extract from an English provincial newspaper

"Last Tuesday[d] Nathaniel Williams, an elderly labourer, [...] was brought before a bench of magistrates, at Worcester and fined 5s., with 13s. costs, for cutting a small amount of wheat, belonging to himself, on Sunday, the 26th of August. He pleaded that it was a work of necessity—that the wheat would have been spoilt if he had not cut it—that he was employed from morning till night in farm labour. Nothing helped. The magistrates liberally interlarded with Reverends[e] were inexorable".[f]

Just as here the priests judge their own case, so do the factory-owners, the squires[g] and the other privileged estates which compose the unpaid magistracy.

We have taken the following extract from the private letter of an Englishman (a Whig) at present in Paris:

"Today's warlike article (dated September 24) in the Constitutionnel[h] seems to have discouraged the Paris bourgeoisie a great deal; and in three different districts, all of great commercial importance, however, I heard the same comments, almost in the same words: There you have it! For almost a year they told us that once Sevastopol were taken it would be possible to open peace negotiations. Now that Sevastopol has been taken we are told that this is a purely military matter and that peace cannot be contemplated before the whole Crimea has fallen. Things will carry on in this way and heaven knows when peace will come. All this is expressed in the most dejected manner. To be just, one has to admit that apart from the question of national glory, the present war has come at an inopportune time for France for many reasons. Every week the autumn reports turn out to be worse than was assumed the preceding week. At the moment for instance the price of bread in Rouen is 26 sous the four-pound loaf, which is the same as 3 francs or 60 sous in Paris. In Bordeaux the municipal council has already been forced to approve a large sum for subsidies should the price of a four-pound loaf rise to I franc, considered a famine price in the Gironde. This situation is gradually spreading over the whole area of the country. The internal situation in France is thus extremely delicate, the partisans of the revolution are scattered over the country in terrifying numbers, and if the emergency becomes unbearable they may well gather thousands around their banners. The new organisation of the departmental and municipal councils was an enormous blunder. The system has fatal effects[373]. In many departments at this moment no departmental council exists; and the mayors appointed by the Government are now constantly forced to dissolve their municipal councils. Almost every day you can read an official announcement that the mayor of this or that town has dissolved the municipal council; or that Prefect N.N. has dissolved the general council. The reasons are not made public; but, although all comments in public are prohibited, the fact itself nevertheless agitates the department in which it takes place. In many respects this would make the presence of older and more experienced soldiers desirable."[i]

Written on September 27, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 457, October 1, 1855
Marked with the sign x.
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] Simpson's report of September 9 (The Times, No. 22166, September 22, 1855), Pélissier's of September 11 and 14 and Niel's of September 11 (The Times, No. 22170, September 27, 1855).—Ed.

[b] The assault on the southern side of Sevastopol was analysed by Engels in the article promised here. There are two versions of this article, one was published in the New-York Daily Tribune (see this volume, pp. 546-52) and another in the Neue Oder-Zeitung (wherever the latter differs from the English version this is pointed out in footnotes to the English text).—Ed.

[c] The reference is to the Mamelon.—Ed.

[d] September 18, 1855.—Ed.

[e] Marx and Engels use the English word and give the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

[f] This quotation coincides almost word for word with a passage in a letter to the editor from Worcester, signed "No Bitter Observer" (published in The Times, No. 22165, September 21, 1855). The letter was probably also published in a local newspaper.—Ed.

[g] The English word is used in the original.—Ed.

[h] Signed by the editor A. de Céséna.—Ed.

[i] Retranslated from the German.—Ed.

[372] The patrimonial court was a feudal court whose jurisdiction was based on the right of the landowners to try and punish their peasants.

The unsalaried magistrates were justices of the peace appointed from among members of the propertied classes.

[373] Under the laws on local administration adopted on July 7, 1852 and May 5, 1855 the general councils of the French departments were deprived of the right to elect their presidents, vice-presidents and secretaries. These were appointed by the head of state; the general councils were to meet in closed session; the prefects and the head of state had the right to dissolve the municipal councils, whose officials were appointed by the local prefects.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.542-545), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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