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Movements of the Armies in Turkey

Frederick Engels

Several important military movements have recently taken place in the seat of war in Turkey, which more clearly define the positions and plans of the respective parties. The Russians to whom we first advert because they are the attacking party, and as such must be regarded as taking the initiative have continued to extend their line of operations toward the West. Brigade after brigade has been sent in the direction of Widin, on the upper Danube; and now the front of the Russian army may be said to extend from Kalafat, opposite Widin, to Orasch, opposite Orsova, in a direction which equally menaces the road to Constantinople, and that to Servia and Macedonia. The first movement toward Kalafat was sufficient to establish the certainty of a Russian diversion toward the centers of the Slavonic and Greek population of Turkey. It made it probable, at the same time, that the plan of the campaign would be defensive action and mere demonstrations on the direct road to Constantinople, with energetic offensive action on the road to Sofia, in Servia and Macedonia. However, when these movements were made, the Turks had not declared war. This event has since taken place, and appears to have irritated the Czar[a] to such a degree that he is likely to impart a far more energetic impulse to his troops than was previously to be expected. Not only is Prince Paskiewich called to the command of the Russian forces, but he is also said to bring with him 40,000 soldiers from the army in Poland, who next to the guards and grenadiers, are considered the best troops in the Russian pay. Such reenforcements would establish a superiority for the Russian arms which might justify offensive action, both on the Upper and Lower Danube, while at the same time they might be considered as a counterpoise against any French and British forces, that, according to rumor, are likely to be sent to the support of Turkey. At all events, these Russian reenforcements cannot arrive on the Danube in time for operations this season. From Warsaw to Bucharest, by way of Dubno, Chotin and Jassy, the distance is eight hundred miles across a country in which an army cannot move more than eight or ten miles a day. It will then be three months or till the beginning of January before these fresh troops can take up their positions; and considering the season of the year, it is even probable that it will take them longer. These troops, then, must remain entirely in the background until the beginning of the spring campaign.

The Russian forces, now in the Principalities, have been. estimated at from 130,000 to 150,000 men, Supposing they have lost by sickness and desertion from 20,000 to 30,000, they still maintain a numerical superiority over the Turks opposed to them. For if we know but little more of the actual strength of the Russians than what may be concluded from the number of divisions and brigades marched into Turkey, and , from the effective numbers they ought to show on their rolls, the numbers of the Turkish forces on the Danube are very well known through the reports of British, French and Piedmontese officers sent there by their respective Governments. Now, all these reports agree in this fact, that even after the arrival of the Egyptian contingent, the Turkish active army, under Omer Pasha, did not number more than 110,000 combatants, of whom only 80,000 were regulars. Behind them, at Adrianople, an army of reserve was being formed which was to consist of 80,000 Redifs (old soldiers called in again), but of the state of this reserve we have no positive information. The fact, then, is this, that on the day when the first shot will be fired, Omer .Pasha will command an army numerically inferior to that of his opponent, and that nothing but blunders on the part of his enemy, or capital generalship on his own part, will save him from defeat.

We have equally good information as to the position and the defensive preparations of the Turks. Three lines have been fortified: first, the Danube, to prevent its being passed by the enemy; second, that from Varna to Shumla; third, that a few leagues in the rear of the second, on the river Kamčiya, where is the fort which guards the passes of the Balkan. These fortifications are described by the foreign officers as formidable, and likely to frustrate any attempt of an enemy to carry them. Now, with all respect for the important art of field fortification, and for the judgment of the officers who give this report, we may be allowed to say that such opinions must be received with great caution. How many field-works considered to be impregnable have been carried, after a few rounds of grape-shot, on the first assault; and who does not know that the most celebrated field-works ever constructed, the lines of Torres Vedras[304], were strong, not by their passive capacity of resistance but because Wellington had 100,000 men to defend them, while Masséna could only bring 30,000 men to the attack? Single, detached field-works, as in mountain passes for instance, have often done great service; but never in modern times has a superior army, commanded by an able General, been defeated in a general action on account of the passive resistance offered by field-works. And then the manner in which field-works are defended is almost everything; but half-disciplined troops, or soldiers without any discipline, are of little avail behind breastworks when a vigorous shower of grape is directed upon them.

But let us look at the three lines of defense the Turks have fortified. The first is that of the Danube. Now, to fortify the line of the Danube can only mean to erect such works as will prevent the Russians from crossing that river. The course of the Danube, from Orsova to the sea, is nearly 600 miles long; to fortify such a line effectually and to garrison the fortifications, would require six times as many men as the Turkish General can command, and if he had them he would commit the greatest blunder should he put them to such a use. We conclude then that this first line of fortifications must be confined to works between Rustchuk and Orsova, by which the passage of the river is molested, but not effectually prevented.

The second position from Shumla to Varna is exactly the same in which the Turks were routed in 1829, and in which they are again sure to be annihilated if they there accept a decisive battle. The position appears to possess striking advantages for defense, and to be susceptible of great additional strength by art; and the position on the Kamčiya, to the rear of Varna and Shumla, appears to be still stronger, and has the advantage of forcing the enemy to leave troops behind to blockade those fortresses. But both have this disadvantage, that they have a narrow pass in their rear as the only means of retreat, which outweighs, for an inferior army, all other advantages, and which would make it an egregious mistake to accept a battle unless the inferior army were as sure as the British were at Waterloo that at the decisive moment an allied army would fall upon the flanks of the attacking enemy.[305]

As to Omer Pasha we have no means of judging to what use he really intends turning these fortifications. We cannot doubt but he knows very well that his part in the war will be chiefly defensive; and he is, therefore, perfectly justified in strengthening his defensive position by all the means which the art of fortification places at his disposal. We do not know, whether he intends these fortifications to frighten the Russians from passing the Danube at those points by which Constantinople is most directly menaced or whether he proposes to accept a decisive battle in them. It is said that he has disposed his army in such a manner that at whatever point toward Shumla the Russians shall cross the river, he will be prepared to fall upon the head of their main column and beat it before support can arrive. In that case, the second line of fortifications would form a secure retreat if the operation should be frustrated. But the truth is that a great defensive battle on any of the three lines would be a mistake; for either the Russians will concentrate all their forces for the attack, and then Omer Pasha will stand but a poor chance; or they will divide themselves, and then he ought to leave his fortified lines in order to fall upon one of their columns. The best use to which he could turn these fortifications, and the only one consistent with the modern system of warfare, would be to use them as a provisional base for offensive operations against detached Russian columns, on their passing the Danube; to check the Russian advance by a more or less obstinate defense of each line; and to hold, by means of the third line, the most important passes of the Balkan as long as this can be done without a general engagement. At the same time it cannot be denied that any army, and particularly the Turkish army, would be exceedingly demoralized by the abandonment without a battle, of these fortifications; for if they cannot hold out behind ditches and bulwarks, how are they to beat the Russians in the open field? This is the way the private soldier always reasons, especially if only half-disciplined; and therefore, if the fortifications in question actually have the importance ascribed to them, we cannot but consider them more dangerous to the Turks themselves than to the Russians.

But the Russians have fortified themselves, too, in Wallachia? Certainly, and their case is different. They are the attacking party; their fortifications merely -serve to cover retreat and check pursuit in case of disaster; and they have four lines of rivers, one behind the other, crossing their line of retreat, and forming as many lines of defense. These lines are, the Danube, the Arges, the Buzeu and the Sereth. Here is a fair case for precautionary fortifications; here are natural lines of defense which form, to a European army, no obstacle for retreat, while with a little artificial improvement they may become serious obstacles to pursuit; and above all, here is no intention of accepting a general battle with only one line of retreat in the rear. The Russian fortifications, as far as we can judge, belong decidedly to the European system of warfare, while the Asiatic spirit predominates in those of the Turks. This same unreflecting character is the ruling feature of the general position of the latter. They defend Constantinople by placing themselves across the nearest road which leads to it, while the Russians appear to direct their first attack, not upon that city, but upon the central parts of the peninsula, where Turkish dominion is most vulnerable, and where, after all, for a Russian army lies the shortest way to the capital.

There is, however, one thing which we must not forget. The Russian army is, and ever has been, slow and cautious in its movements. It will most probably not act during the winter season. A few skirmishes may take place in order to secure this or that island of the Danube to either party. But unless the Czar commands extraordinary activity which command would most likely be frustrated by the passive pedantry of his generals there is very little chance of decisive maneuvers before spring. The Danube might be passed but the Balkan cannot be traversed, and between the two, the position of the Russian army would be most dangerous.

In the meantime, the Turks have sent their fleet to Varna. Admiral Slade, an Englishman, who commands it, appears to be in high spirits. But that movement, too, is full of risk. The Russian fleet, indeed, appears inferior to the Turkish in everything but numbers; but as long as the Russians have two guns and two ships of the line to one of the Turks, the latter cannot venture an action out of the reach of their strand batteries. And in that case, the fleet would be safer and better placed in the Bosphorus, where it is not likely the Russians will blockade it. Once at Varna, the Turkish fleet is exposed to be deprived of all possibility of movement; while in the Bosphorus, it retains its freedom of action, and might be used for expeditions to Trebizond, to the Caucasian coast, or against detached positions of the Russian fleet.

In every respect, then, we are unwillingly compelled to believe the Russians to be superior to the Turks. Whether Omer Pasha, who is really an able soldier, will succeed by his personal qualities in changing the balance, remains to be seen. Old Paskiewich, however, although a slow, is an experienced general, and will not easily be caught.

Written about October 21, 1853
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily "Tribune, No. 3919, November 8, 1853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 635, November 12, 1853


[a] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[304] A reference to the fortified lines near the town of Torres Vedras (Portugal) built in 1810 on Wellington's orders to protect Lisbon from the French troops.

[305] During the 1815 campaign in Belgium Napoleon hoped by defeating the Prussians at Ligny on June 16 to isolate them from Wellington's Anglo-Dutch army and rout the allied armies separately. However, when the French attacked Wellington's army and tried to outflank it at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Prussian troops commanded by Blücher, who had evaded pursuit, joined in the battle and decided the outcome in favour of the allies.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.424-429), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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