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The Great Event of The War[374]

Frederick Engels

The details of the successful general assault at Sevastopol, on the 8th ult., are now fully known to us, through the official reports of the allied commanders, and the correspondence of the European journals, the most important of which have already occupied a place in our paper. Of course these interesting statements have been read quite universally, and it is not necessary that we should recapitulate the facts they contain. What we desire to do is to give our readers a clear idea of the conditions under which the assault took place, and to explain why, on that occasion, the Allies met with such opposite results at different points of the attack.[a]

According to Gen. Niel[b], the French had pushed their trenches at all points quite close to the Russian works. Opposite the Little Redan of the Careening bay (Bastion No. 1), and the Malakoff (Bastion No. 2), the head of the sap was no more than twenty-five yards distant from the Russian ditch. At the Flagstaff (Bastion No. 4), the distance 'was thirty; at the Central (Bastion No. 5), forty yards. On all these points, therefore, the storming columns were close to the works to be stormed. The English, on the other hand, had given up sapping as soon as they had arrived at 240 yards from the Great Redan (Bastion No. 3)[c]. This was due to the spirit of routine still predominant in the English army. As soon as they had pushed their trenches to that distance, they found that on going any further they would be enfiladed from the Flagstaff bastion, which projects a good deal beyond the other Russian works. Now, there is a general rule in the theory of sieges not to trace any portion of the trenches so that its prolongation will meet any point occupied by the enemy, as this would lay it open to enfilading fire.

This is of course right enough when one can do without such faulty tracing. But here, where this enfilading fire could not be avoided (the general plan of the siege and the nature of the ground precluding the idea of taking the Flagstaff bastion separately beforehand), it was evidently better to make faulty trenches than none at all. The theoretical rules in fact provide plenty of remedies for such an unavoidable evil. Traverses and the compound sorts of sap are prescribed in such a case. The French engineer officers, it seems, remonstrated with their English comrades, telling them that, although they might lose many men in pushing their trenches under such adverse circumstances, yet it was better to lose them now in completing a work which would all but secure the success of an assault, than to lose them during an assault, the result of which might be very doubtful from the want of covered approaches. But the British engineers knew better. The result shows them to have been grossly in the wrong.[d]

The French general distributed his forces as follows: Against the key of the whole position, the Malakoff, M'Mahon's division; to its right, against the curtain connecting it with Bastion No. 1, the division of La Motterouge; on the extreme right, against Bastion No. 1 itself, Dulac's division. The Malakoff being the only point which, in case of serious resistance, it was necessary to force at all risks, M'Mahon had for his reserve a division of Guards under Mellinet[e]. So much for the French attack on the Karabelnaya side. On the town-side, the Flagstaff bastion forming a sort of advanced citadel on very strong ground, and having interior works of considerable strength, was not to be immediately attacked in front; but the Central bastion was to be assaulted by Levaillant's division, which, in case of success, was to be followed up by d'Autemarre's division, ordered to turn the gorge of the Flagstaff bastion, to assail which in front, at that moment, Cialdini's Piedmontese brigade was concentrated in the trenches. The position between the Malakoff and the Flagstaff bastion was held by the English. They were to attack the Redan.

The Malakoff was to be assailed first, and after its capture, the remaining columns were to advance on their respective objects of attack. The Malakoff was a large redoubt on the top of the commanding hill of that name, closed on all sides, but having wide apertures to the rear for admitting reenforcements. It was connected by a curtain with the Great and Little Redans to its right and left; they, too, were closed redoubts, containing smaller works, intended for reduits; while the rear faces, the embrasures of which looked into the interior of the redoubts, formed a coupure. The gorges of these coupures were again connected with the Malakoff by a second or interior curtain, forming a second line of defense. The interior of the Great and Little Redans was pretty free from obstructions, and therefore completely commanded by the artillery of the coupures and reduits. But the Malakoff redoubt, on which the fire of the enemy had been concentrated ever since the Mamelon was taken, was crammed, alongside the ramparts, with hollow traverses. affording bomb-proof shelter to the gunners and troops on duty, while the interior was filled with large blockhouses, roofed bomb-proof, serving as barracks, and completely unfit for defense. When first the news of the taking of the Malakoff. arrived, we stated that undoubtedly the Russians had committed the same error as in the construction of the Kamtchatka redoubt on the Mamelon, viz.: that in order to save themselves from the enemy's fire, they evidently had made the interior of the fort unfit for defense against an assault, by cutting it up into small compartments[f]. Our opinion is now fully borne out[g]. The labyrinth of the Malakoff, like that of the Mamelon, proved quite indefensible; in ten minutes it was taken, never to be recaptured.

The arrangements of the French for this assault on the Malakoff were admirable. Everything was foreseen and provided for. A new sort of bridges, the description of which is not forthcoming, was used to cross the ditch; they were laid down in less than a minute. No sooner had the assault commenced than the sappers constructed a flying sap from the trenches to the ditch, cut large passages through the Russian breastworks, filled up the ditch opposite, and formed a practicable road into the interior of the Malakoff redoubt by which supports, reserves and even field-guns could move up. As soon as the whole of the redoubt was taken, the passages in the gorge were rapidly closed, embrasures cut, field-guns brought up, and in a couple of hours, before the Russians could seriously attempt to reconquer the work, it was completely turned against them, and they came too late. Gunners were ready to spike the guns if necessary, and the detachments of infantry carried short-handled trenching-tools in their waist-belts.

This attack was under the immediate superintendence of Marshal Pélissier and Gen. Niel. Whether the other attacks were equally well organized we are not told; but they were generally unsuccessful, and that of the Central bastion especially. This assault seems to have been undertaken by Gen. de Salles with quite insufficient forces, for as soon as the French arrived at the Russian parapet they were compelled to seek shelter behind it; the assault degenerated into a skirmishing fire, and was necessarily repulsed. What this means Gen. Simpson has taken good care to show us in his assault on the Redan[h]. The attack on the Little Redan was most bloody, and the position well defended by the Russians, who here alone defeated five French brigades.

We have on former occasions noticed the absurd system prevalent in the British army, of forming their storming columns so weak that they can but count as forlorn hopes in case they meet with anything like serious resistance[i]. That blunder was conspicuous in Lord Raglan's plan of attack on the 18th of June[375]; and it seems Gen. Simpson was determined even to outdo his late chief[j]. The salient angle of the Redan had suffered from the English fire, and it was determined to direct the assault against this portion as soon as the Malakoff should be fully secured by the French. Accordingly, Gen. Simpson had storming parties told off from the second and light divisions, amounting, all in all, to about 1,800 men—or the half of two brigades! The other two brigades of these divisions were to act as supports, and the third and fourth divisions were to form the reserves; and beside these, the Guards and Highland divisions were on the spot—altogether a force of 25,000 men; and out of these the actual assault was confided to about 1,800, supported later on by about 2,000 more! Now, these 1,800 men, unlike the French, who could jump out of their trenches into the Russian ditch, had to perform a journey of 250 yards across open ground, exposed to the flanking fire from the curtains of the Redan. They fell in heaps, but they advanced, passed the ditch by escalade, penetrated into the salient angle, and here they found themselves at once opposed to a tremendous fire of grape and musketry from the coupure and reduits in the rear of the Redan. The consequence was that they dispersed, seeking shelter behind the traverses, and commenced firing on the Russians exactly as the French did at the Central bastion. This would not have done any harm, had the supports and reserves only advanced and followed up, in close attack, the advantages already gained. But hardly a man came, and those who came, came in driblets. and irregularly. Three times Brigadier Windham, who commanded, sent officers to ask for the advance of troops in regular formation, but none were brought. All the three officers were wounded in crossing the plain. At last he went himself, and prevailed upon Gen. Codrington to send another regiment; when all at once the British troops gave way, and abandoned the Redan. The Russian supports had come up, and swept the place clean out. Then Father Simpson, who still had 20,000 men intact, resolved to attempt another assault next morning!

This feeble attack of the English on the Redan stamps their Crimean generals with the indelible mark of incapacity. They appear to have an innate tendency to surpass each other in blundering. Balaklava and Inkerman[376] were great feats in that respect; but the 18th of June and the 8th of September, outstrip them by far. So carelessly was the assault arranged that while the English held the salient of the Redan, not even the guns found in it were spiked, and therefore these very guns plied the English on their retreat as lustily with grape and case-shot as they had done during their advance. As to attempts at forcing a proper lodgment, neither Simpson nor the newspaper correspondents mention any such thing. In fact the first precautions appear to have been neglected.[k]

The attacks on the Redan, Central bastion and Little Redan were, it is true, mere demonstrations to a certain degree. But the attack on the Redan still had an importance of its own. That was a position by which the conquest of the Malakoff became immediately decisive, because if the Malakoff commands the Redan by its height, the Redan commands the access to the Malakoff, and when once taken, would have taken in flank all Russian columns marching to recapture that hill. The conquest of the Malakoff induced the Russians to quit the whole of the south side; the conquest of the Redan would have obliged them to evacuate at least the Karabelnaya in haste, and before they could organize that well-arranged system of destruction by fire and explosion under shelter of which they made good their retreat. The English, then, have actually failed to do what their allies had a right to expect from them, and on a very important point, too[l]. And not only have the generals failed, but the soldiers, too, were not what they had formerly been. Mostly young lads recently arrived in the Crimea, they were too eager to look out for shelter, and to fire instead of attacking with the bayonet. They lacked discipline and order; the different regiments got mixed, the officers lost all control, and thus the machine was out of train in a few minutes. Yet it must be acknowledged that, for all that, they held out in the Redan for nearly two hours in dogged, passive resistance while no support was coming up; but then we are not accustomed to see the British infantry sink down to the level of the Russians, and seek their only glory in passive bravery.

The palm of the day belongs to Generals Bosquet and M'Mahon. Bosquet commanded the whole of the French assault on the right, and M'Mahon had the division which took and held the Malakoff. This was one of those rare days in which the French really out-did the English in the point of bravery. In every other point they had shown their superiority over them long before. Are we, then, to conclude that the English army has degenerated, and that its infantry cannot boast any longer of being, in close order, the first infantry of the world? It would be premature to say so; but certainly, of all men in the world, the British generals in the Crimea are the best fitted to ruin the physical and moral character of the army; and on the other hand, the raw material for soldiers which has now been for some time introduced into the ranks, is far inferior to what it used to be. The British people had better look to this; two defeats in three months form a novel feature in British military history.

Of the Russians we can only say that they fought with their accustomed passive bravery, and in the assault made to retake the Malakoff even displayed great active courage. What their tactical arrangements were, we have no means of judging until their report is published. One thing is certain, namely, that the Malakoff was completely taken by surprise. The garrison were enjoying their dinner, and not any portion of them, except the artillery at the guns, appear to have been under arms and ready to meet an attack.

If we now look at what has been done since the taking of the south side, we find from Gorchakoff's reports[m] that 20,000 allied troops (of what nation is not said) have gone to Eupatoria, and that at the same time strong reconnoitering parties are pushed against the Russian left in the valley of Baidar, where the Russian advanced troops were compelled to retire towards Urkusta, in the direction of the valley of the upper Chulin, another tributary to the Chernaya. The corps of 30,000 men, now at Eupatoria, are rather weak, and could not venture to any great distance from the place. But others may follow. At all events, field operations have commenced, and another fortnight must decide whether the Russians can hold their ground, or whether they must leave the whole of the Crimea a prey to the Allies.[n]

Written on September 28, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4519, October 13, 1855,
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1084, October 16,1855, as a leading article;
the German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 463, October 4, 1855,
marked with the sign x.
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune.


[a] Instead of this paragraph the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "Five French divisions and units of two English divisions were engaged on September 8. According to their own admission, the Allies lost 10,000 men out of about 45,000, i.e. almost one man in four. The Russian losses cannot be estimated."—Ed.

[b] General Niel's report of September 11, 1855, published in The Times, No. 22170, September 27, 1855.—Ed.

[c] In the Neue Oder-Zeitung: "Despite remonstrations by French engineers, the English had given up sapping 240 yards from the Great Redan (Bastion No. 3). The stupidity of this has already been discussed.—Ed.

[d] This paragraph and part of the preceding one beginning with the words "This was due to the spirit of routine" do not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[e] The beginning of this sentence up to and including the words "at all risks" does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[f] See this volume, pp. 519-23.—Ed.

[g] In the Neue Oder-Zeitung: "This view has now been fully borne out by General Niel's report."—Ed.

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

[i] See this volume, pp. 313-19 and 328-32.—Ed.

[j] Instead of this sentence the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "That method of procedure stems from the fact that most of the fortresses the English had to deal with, including Wellington in Spain, were built according to the Italo-Spanish system and therefore could seldom accommodate more than 500 men. Everything is traditional with the English and so is their method of assault, even though the conditions for it disappeared long ago. Thus Lord Raglan emulated the old Wellington method on June 18, we know with what success. Instead of drawing a lesson from his misfortune Simpson deemed it his duty not only to emulate Raglan but even to outdo him."—Ed.

[k] Instead of the passage beginning with the words "The salient angle of the Redan had suffered from the English fire" (third sentence of the preceding paragraph) the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "On September 8, Simpson had 25,000 men on the spot. Out of these he confided the actual assault to 1,800."—Ed.

[l] Instead of this sentence the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "Through the blunders of its general the English army made a full victory impossible." The rest of this paragraph is omitted.—Ed.

[m] Report of September 11, 1855 in Russky Invalid, No. 211, September 16, 1855.—Ed.

[n] Instead of the last three paragraphs the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "The palm of the day belongs to generals Bosquet and Mac-Mahon. Bosquet commanded the whole of the French assault on the right, and Mac-Mahon was in charge of the division that held the Malakhov.—The Russians fought with their usual passive bravery. The Malakhov was obviously taken by surprise. The garrison were having dinner, and only the artillery were at their guns, ready to meet an attack."—Ed.

[374] An abridged German version of this article was prepared for the Neue Oder-Zeitung by Marx. It was dated September 29, 1855 and appeared under the heading "Zur Erstürmung Sebastopols" ("The Assault on Sevastopol") on October 4, 1855. The first paragraph in the New-York Daily Tribune version contains changes made by the editors.

The English version was included, under the same heading, in The Eastern Question.

[375] On June 18, 1855, one of the major battles of the Crimean War was fought at Sevastopol, ending in defeat for the Allies. The nearly nine-month-long siege of the city, the destruction caused by the bombardment, and the capture by French and British troops on June 7, 1855 of the outlying fortifications, the Selenghinsk and Volhynsk redoubts and the Kamchatka lunette (which had been erected by the defenders in the course of the siege) induced the Allied command to undertake a full-scale assault on the Southern (Korabelnaya) part of the city. It was launched on the fortieth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815. The assault was preceded by massive bombardment of the city from land and sea. Despite the Allies' substantial superiority in numbers, their attack, launched along the whole line of Russian fortifications at dawn on June 18, 1855, was repulsed at every point. The attackers suffered heavy losses. The fighting on June 18 showed the strength of Sevastopol's defences and the staunchness of the Russian troops. Marx gave a detailed account of the battle in his report "The Mishap of June 18.—Reinforcements"; Engels described it in his articles "From Sevastopol" and "The Late Repulse of the Allies" (see this volume, pp. 297-301, 313-19 and 328-32).

[376] The battle of Balaklava took place on October 25, 1854. Units of the Russian army tried to cut off the British and Turkish troops taking part in the siege of Sevastopol from their base in Balaklava. They succeeded in inflicting serious losses on the enemy, especially on the British cavalry, but failed to achieve their main objective. For a description of this battle see Engels' article "The War in the East" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 518-27).

In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.546-552), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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