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The Capture of Bomarsund[293]
(Article II)

Frederick Engels

The particulars of the capture of Bomarsund, so far as published, are still couched in vague and unbusiness-like language. We do not, in fact, learn at what distance from the forts the breaching batteries were erected or the ships anchored during the naval attack. We hear no further details, such as might be expected, on the construction of the forts, now that the allied troops have possession of them. Indeed, almost every point of importance is passed over in order to amuse the public with the more picturesque and less professional part of the business. In so slovenly a manner are concocted even the official reports, that nobody can make out distinctly whether Fort Tzee (as they spell it), when taken by the French, had to be stormed or not, as it seems that hardly any one but the commanding officer[a] resisted.

The little we can make out is that, as we suspected from the sketches, the two towers were erected upon ground of so broken a nature that ravines, slopes and rocks formed natural approaches even up to their very ditches. In these ravines the allies could comfortably establish themselves, safe from the Russian shot, which passed over their heads; and being thus enabled to construct their batteries close to the place, at once began the siege with those which are generally the last used in such cases, namely, breaching batteries. That the Russians built their forts upon such ground, without at once leveling it up to at least six or eight hundred yards in front of them, proves that a serious land attack was never calculated upon by them. The breaching batteries must have been erected at no greater distance than five or six hundred yards from the forts, as the French battered them with sixteen-pounders, generally considered not heavy enough for breaching a wall even at one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards distance. Thirty-six hours' firing, however, so injured the tower that twelve hours' more would have brought down a whole front. The British battered Fort Nottich with sixty thirty-two-pounders of forty-five cwt. each.

These guns, according to Sir Howard Douglas's Naval Gunnery, are used with a regulation charge of seven lbs. powder, and would, at the distance of four to five hundred yards, make the ball penetrate from two to two and a half feet into solid oak. The French sixteen-pound guns, with a charge of five lbs., would have, at four to five hundred yards, a penetration into oak of from one and a half to two feet. If the British, as may be expected, increased the regulation charge to at least eight lbs., t here is no wonder that with twice the number of guns and double t he caliber, they laid one side of the fort open in less than twelve hours.

As to the sea attack, it was a mere diversion. Only Captain Pelham profited by the occasion to make a scientific experiment. lie used his long eight-inch pivot gun with all the steadiness and regularity of breaching fire, invariably hitting, as nearly as possible, the same place. These long eight-inch guns are the finest i11 the British navy. Their great weight of metal (ninety-five cwt.) permits a charge of sixteen pounds of powder to a solid shot of sixty-eight pounds. The effect of this shot, even at a distance of five or six hundred yards, is inconceivably greater than that of the eighteen or twenty-four-pound balls hitherto generally used in breaching batteries; and when properly used, could not fail to produce a tremendous result. Accordingly, Captain Pelham's steady firing very speedily unraveled the mystery of Russian granite fortresses. A few shots detached what hitherto appeared a large block of solid granite, but turned out to be a mere facing slab, the thickness of which was in no wise proportionate to its hight and width. Some more shots, and the next adjoining slabs fell in, and then followed an avalanche of rubbish, rattling down the walls, and laying bare the very heart of the fortress. It then was clear that the "granite" was nothing but show; that as soon as the comparatively thin slabs which faced the escarpe were knocked down, there was no solid masonry inside to resist the inroads of bullets. The walls, in fact, were mere casings, the interstices of which were filled up with all sorts of broken stones, sand, &c., having neither cohesion nor stability. If the main fortress was thus constructed, there is no doubt the masonry of the towers was equally bad, and the rapid breaching is fully explained. And these walls, of so little intrinsic strength, had by their imposing outside sufficed to keep the whole Anglo-French fleet at bay for nearly four months! The disappointment of Sir Charles Napier when he saw what they really were made of cannot, however, have been greater than that of the Czar, when he learned of what the "granite," for which he had so dearly paid, consisted. In the land attack, another feature is remarkable. We have already seen that broken ground surrounded the forts not only within gun-range, but even within musket-range. This was taken advantage of by the Chasseurs of Vincennes, who crept up very close, sheltering themselves behind stumps of trees, boulder stones, rocks, &c., and opened a murderous fire upon the embrasures of the casemates. As at a distance of four to five hundred yards their rifles have an unerring aim, and moreover, the sloping-side embrasures, like a tunnel, make every bullet which strikes them enter the central opening at the bottom, it may well be imagined how much the gunners in the fortress were annoyed while loading.

The Russians appear to have entirely neglected the commonest precautions against this rifle fire. They, too, had rifles. Why did they not post them behind the parapet of the roof of the tower, where they commanded the enemy's skirmishers? But the Finnish rifles at Bomarsund appear to have had no inclination to fight for the glory of Holy Russia. Finally, the French employed, besides the three breaching guns, some mortars and three howitzers. The mortars sent their shells at a high angle on the bomb-proof roof of the tower, trying to crush it by the combined force of the fall and the explosion. This, however, does not appear to have been of great effect. On the other hand, the French howitzers stuck to direct horizontal firing, and aimed at the embrasures. At the short distance of four or five hundred yards a long twenty-four-pound brass howitzer, throwing a shell of six inches diameter, might very well hit such an object as an embrasure once in three times; and every shell entering would disable the men at the gun, besides dismounting the gun itself. This fire, therefore, must have been very effective.

Thus we see that the granite walls of Bomarsund turned out mere Russian humbug heaps of rubbish kept in shape by thin stone-facings, not fit to resist a good and steady fire for any time. If Nicholas had been cheated by their constructors, he has succeeded for all that in cheating the allies out of a whole campaign by these sham fortresses. The defense on the part of the Russians was, upon the whole, indifferent; and this may be traced to the pretty plainly pronounced disaffection of the Finnish troops. The attack of the allies was characterized by a resolution unheard of hitherto in their proceedings, and due, evidently, to General Jones. The difficulties overcome in moving and placing the guns, though exaggerated by Sir Charles Napier, were certainly great. The French attacked with breaching guns of too weak caliber and with mortars that could be of little use under the circumstances, but their mode of horizontal shell-firing and rifle-firing at the embrasures deserves high eulogium. The English, as usual, came down with the heaviest caliber they could move, gave plain, straight-forward and effective fire, underwent difficulties and stood fire with their usual steadiness, and carried their point without fuss, but also without any special distinction.

Bomarsund being taken, the question next arises, what is to be done with it? According to the latest dispatches from Hamburg, at a council of war held by the Admirals[b], the Generals-in-Chief of the expeditionary troops and the principal commanders resolved upon destroying all the fortifications and abandoning the island, if Sweden should not be inclined to occupy it and buy it at the price of a declaration of war against Russia. If this dispatch prove true, the expedition against the Åland Islands, so far from being a military move, as announced by the Moniteur[c], would prove simply a diplomatic one, undertaken with a view to entangle Sweden in a dangerous alliance with the same powers whose friendship, to use the words of Mr. Bright, "has brought upon Turkey in a single year such calamities as Russia in her wildest dreams of ambition never imagined."[d] The Swedish Court hesitates, the Swedish press warns the people against the Danaos et dona ferentes[e], but the Swedish peasants have already passed a motion that the Chamber should petition the King to take steps that Åland may never again become Russian. There is little probability that the petition of the peasants will be listened to, and we may expect soon to hear that the fortress has been blown up.

Written on August 26, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4182, September 13;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 941, September 15, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Teshe.—Ed.

[b] Napier and Parseval.—Ed.

[c] Review of current events. Le Moniteur universel, No. 232, August 20, 1854.—Ed.

[d] Mr. Bright's speech in the House of Commons on March 31, 1854. The Times, No. 21704, April 1, 1854.—Ed.

[e] Greeks, even bearing gifts. Virgil, Aeneid, II, 49.—Ed.

[293] This article is a continuation of Engels' first article on Bomarsund and only partly corresponds to the entry in the Notebook: "Dienstag. 29. August. Bomarsund. Einrücken der Oesterreicher in die Walachei. Zustand des Heeres zu Varna." The second part of the article dispatched to New York on August 29, 1854, was written by Marx. The article was heavily edited by the newspaper editors, who published the part concerning Bomarsund as a leader. From the rest of the article they took several sentences concerning the entry of the Austrian troops into Wallachia and included them in the review of the news brought by the steamboat St. Louis: "From the war there is nothing of great moment except it be the continued entry of the Austrians into the Principalities. We do not hear, however, that the Russians have ceased diplomatic relations at Vienna, though warlike preparations continue there on a large scale." It may also be assumed that material from the item "Zustand des Heeres zu Varna" was included as a separate paragraph in Pulszky's article published in the same number: "The news from the seat of war is very unsatisfactory. The cholera at the camp of Varna has demoralized the Anglo-French army, and though the sailing of the expedition to the Crimea or some other point was to have taken place on the 15th, it has been postponed—first to the 20th and then to the beginning of September. The French do not like the plan of the campaign, which was devised by the English, but still they have accepted it. As to the Turkish defeat at Kars, or according to other Petersburg dispatches at Bayazid we have now reliable information of a late date from the Turkish camp, and can positively assure you that no battle had taken place in July nor in the first days of August, and that, therefore, the defeat over and over reported in The Times is a fabrication in order to influence the exchange; indeed, the Turkish scrip, which was already at 7 per cent premium declined to six in consequence of the rumour, and even the English funds were heavy for a day. General Klapka is said to have been sent to the army of Kars; if such be the case, he will soon be in opposition with Guyon." It is not only the above-mentioned entry in the Notebook which gives ground to assume that this paragraph belonged to Marx, but also Marx's letter to Engels of September 2, 1854: "I am in a fix because in one of my latest articles I stated that the report of the Turkish defeat at Kars was an invention of Vienna." (The telegramme on the defeat of the Turkish army at Kars published in The Times on August 25, 1854 was dated from Vienna.) See also Marx's letter to Engels of August 26, 1854: "So far as I can gather from the papers, the Polish and Hungarian émigrés in the Turkish Asiatic army do nothing but engage in mischief, place-seeking and intrigues" (present edition, Vol. 39). It is impossible to ascertain to what extent the Tribune editors interfered with Marx's original text of these two paragraphs as the manuscript is not extant.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.384-388), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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