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The Holy War[306]

Frederick Engels

The war has at last opened on the Danube, a war of religious fanaticism on both sides, of traditional ambition with the Russians, of life and death with the Turks. As was to have been expected, Omer Pasha has been the first to begin positive hostilities; it was in the line of his duty to make some demonstration toward the forcible expulsion of the invaders from the Ottoman territory; but it is by no means certain that he has thrown from thirty to fifty thousand men across the Danube, as is rumored from Vienna, and there is reason to fear that if he has done so he has committed a fatal blunder. On the shore he leaves, he has ample resources of defense and a good position; on the shore he seeks he has inferior power of attack and no retreat in case of disaster. The report of his crossing with such numbers must therefore be doubted till more positive advices.

While the struggle in Europe is commenced under disadvantageous circumstances for the Turks, the case is otherwise in Asia. There, the frontier territories of Russia and Turkey divide themselves, in a military point of view, into two quite distinct theaters of operation. It is the high ridge, or rather concatenation of ridges, connecting the Caucasus with the table-land of Central Armenia, and dividing the waters that run toward the Black Sea from those which the Araxes leads to the Caspian Sea, or the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf; it is this ridge which formerly parted Armenia from Pontus that now forms the partition of the two distinct districts where the war is to be waged. This range of abrupt and generally barren rocks, is traversed by very few roads the two principal of which are those from Trebizond and Batum to Erzerum. Thus for all military purposes, the hills in question may be considered as nearly impassable, forcing both parties to have distinct corps on either side, operating more or less independently of each other.

The country on the shore of the Black Sea is intersected by a number of rivers and mountain torrents, which form as many military positions for defense. Both the Russians and the Turks have fortified posts on important points. In this generally broken country (the valley of the river Rioni is the only one which forms anything like a plain), a defensive war might be carried on with great success against a superior army (as very few positions are liable to be turned on the land side, on account of the mountains), were it not for the cooperation of the respective fleets. By advancing, and, in case of need, landing troops upon the flank of the enemy, while the army engages him in front, a fleet might turn all these strong positions, one by one, and neutralize, if not destroy, fortifications which, on neither side of the frontier, are very respectable. Thus the possession of the Black Sea coast belongs to him who is master of the Sea; or, in other words, unless the allied fleets cooperate actively with the Turks, it will in all likelihood belong to the Russians.

The country in the interior, on the inland side of the mountains, comprises the territory in which thé Euphrates, the Araxes and the Kura (Cyrus) take their rise; the Turkish province of Armenia is on the' one, the Russian province of Georgia on the other side of the frontier. This country, too, is extremely mountainous and generally impassable to armies. Erzerum on the part of the Turks, Tiflis on the part of the Russians, may be said to be the two immediate bases of operations, with the loss of which the possession of the whole neighboring country would be inevitably lost. Thus the storming of Erzerum by the Russians decided the Asiatic campaign of 1829.

But what is the immediate basis of operation for one party, will be the direct object of operations to the other. Thus the roads connecting Tiflis and Erzerum will be the lines of operations for both. There are three roads; one by the upper Kura and Akhalzikh, the other by the upper Araxes and Erivan, the third in the midst between these two, across the mountains by way of Kars. All these roads are guarded on either side by fortified towns and posts, and it would be difficult to say which would be, for Turks or Russians the most eligible. Suffice it to say that the road by Akhalzikh is the one which would lead a Turkish army most directly upon the insurgent districts of the Caucasus, but that very advance of the Turks would be turned by a Russian corps advancing from Batum up the valley of the Chorokh by Olti upon Erzerum; the road from Batum joins that from Tiflis only about 15 miles from Erzerum, which would enable a Russian corps advancing in the direction alluded to, to cut off the communication of the Turks, and, if strong enough, to take possession even of Erzerum, the fortifications of which are of a merely Asiatic character and not capable of serious resistance.

The key to the theater of war in Asia, and on either side of the hills, then, is Batum, and considering this, as well as its commercial importance, we need not wonder at the efforts the Czar[a] has always been making to get hold of it. And Batum is the key of the theater of war, nay, of all Turkey in Asia, because it commands the only passable road from the coast to the interior —a road which turns all the Turkish positions in advance of Erzerum. And whichever of the two fleets in the Black Sea drives the other back into its harbors, that fleet commands Batum.

The Russians are perfectly aware of the importance of this post. They have sent, by land and by water, reinforcements to the Transcaucasian coast. A short time ago it might have been believed that the Turks, if weaker in Europe, enjoyed a decided superiority in Asia. Abdi Pasha, who commands the Asiatic army, was said to have collected 60,000 or 80,000, nay 120,000 men, and swarms of Bedouins, Kurds and other warlike irregulars were reported to flock daily to his standard. Arms and ammunitions were said to be in store for the Caucasian insurgents, and as soon as war was declared, an advance was to be made into the very heart of these centres of resistances to Russia. It may, however, be as well to observe that Abdi Pasha cannot possibly have more than about 30,000 regular troops, and that before the Caucasus is reached, with these, and with these alone, he will have to encounter the stubborn resistance of Russian battalions. His Bedouins and Kurdish horsemen may be capital for mountain warfare, for forcing the Russians to detach largely and to weaken their main body; they may 'do a great deal of damage to the Georgian and Colonist villages in the Russian territory, and even open some sort of an underhand communication with the Caucasian mountaineers. But unless Abdi Pasha's regulars are capable of blocking up the road from Batum to Erzerum, and can defeat whatever nucleus of an active army the Russians may be enabled to bring together, the success of the irregulars will be of a very ephemeral nature. The support of a regular army is now-a-days necessary to the progress of all insurrectionary or irregular warfare against a powerful regular army. The position of the Turks on this frontier would be similar to that of Wellington in Spain, and it remains to be seen whether Abdi Pasha will know to husband his resources as well as the British general did, against. an enemy decidedly his superior in regular warfare and the means of carrying it on. In 1829 the Russian forces in Asia, amounted, before Erzerum, to 18,000 men only, and considering the improvements that have since then taken place in the Turkish army (.although that of Asia has least participated in them), we should say the Russians would have a fair chance of success if they could unite 30,000 men in a body before the same place now.

Whether they will be able to do so or not, who can decide at the present time, when there is even less of real facts known, and more idle rumors spread as to the Russian army in Asia than as to that in Europe? The Caucasian army is officially computed at 200,000 men, at its full complement; 21,000 Cossacks of the Black Sea have been marched toward the Turkish frontier; several divisions are said to have been embarked from Odessa for Redut Kale, on the South Caucasian coast. But everybody knows that the Caucasian army does not count half its official complement, that the reenforcement sent beyond the Caucasus cannot, from obvious causes, have the strength reported by Russian papers, and from the conflicting evidence we receive, we are absolutely at a loss to make anything like an estimate of the Russian forces on the Asiatic frontier. But that we may say, that in all probability the forces of both parties (an immediate general insurrection of the Caucasians left out of the question), the forces will be pretty nearly balanced, that the Turks may, perhaps, be a little stronger than the Russians, and therefore will be, on this theater of war, justly entitled to undertake offensive operations.

The chances for the Turks are, indeed, far more encouraging in Asia than in Europe. In Asia they have but one important post to guard, Batum; and an advance, be it from Batum, or from Erzerum toward the Caucasus, opens to them in case of success a direct communication with their allies, the mountaineers, and may at once cut off the communication, at least by land, of the Russian army south of the Caucasus with Russia; a result which may lead to the entire destruction of that army. On the other hand, if defeated, the Turks risk losing Batum, Trebizond and Erzerum; but even if that be the case, the Russians will then not be strong enough to advance any further. The advantages are far superior to the loss to be undergone in case of defeat; and it is therefore, for sound and satisfactory reasons, that the Turks appear to have decided upon offensive warfare in those regions.

Written about October 27, 1853
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3925, November 15, I853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 636, November 19, 1853


[a] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[306] This article was published under the same title in The Eastern Question.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.430-434), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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