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Progress of The Turkish War[369]

Frederick Engels

After a long delay we are at last in possession of official documents in relation to the two victories which Russia so loudly boasts of and so liberally rewards[a]. We allude, of course, to the destruction of the Turkish squadron at Sinope and the engagement near Akhalzikh[370], in Asia. These documents are the Russian bulletins; but the fact that the Turkish official organ has maintained a profound silence on the subject, when its communications, if it had any to make, should have reached us before those from St. Petersburg, makes it certain that the Porte has nothing agreeable to publish. Accordingly we proceed, on the information we have, to analyse the events in question, in order to make our readers acquainted with the real state of the case.

The battle of Sinope was the result of such an unparalleled series of blunders on the part of the Turks that the whole affair can only be explained by the mischievous interference of Western diplomacy or by collusion with the Russians of some parties in Constantinople connected with the French and English Embassies. In November, the whole Turkish and Egyptian fleet proceeded to the Black Sea, in order to draw the attention of the Russian Admirals from an expedition sent to the coast of the Caucasus in order to land supplies of arms and ammunition for the insurgent mountaineers. The fleet remained eighteen days at sea without meeting with a single Russian man-of-war; some say the Russian squadron never left Sebastopol during all that time, whereby the expedition to the Caucasus was enabled to effect its object; others report that, being well informed of the plans of the Turks, it withdrew eastward, and merely watched the vessels conveying stores, which, in consequence, never reached the Caucasian shore, and had to return to Sinope, while the main fleet reentered the Bosphorus. The great amount of powder on board the Sinope squadron, which caused the explosion of several of them at a comparatively early period of the engagement, appears to be a proof that the latter version is correct.

Thus seven Turkish frigates, two steamers, three sloops, and one or two smaller ships, together with some transports, were abandoned in the harbor of Sinope, which is little better than an open roadstead, formed by a bay open towards the sea, and protected by a few neglected and ill-constructed batteries, the best of which was a castle constructed at the time of the Greek Emperors, and most likely before artillery was known in Europe. How it happened that a squadron of some three hundred guns, mostly of inferior caliber, was thus abandoned to the tender mercies of a fleet of three times its force and weight of metal, at that point of the Turkish shore, which from its proximity to Sebastopol is most exposed to a Russian attack, while the main fleet was enjoying the tranquil ripple of the Bosphorus, we have yet to learn. We know that the dangerous position of this squadron was well appreciated and warmly debated at headquarters; that the discordant voices of Turkish, French and British admirals, were loudly heard in the councils of war, and that the ever-meddling ambassadors were there also, in order to speak their minds upon the matter, but nothing was done.

In the meantime it appears, according to one statement, that an Austrian steamer reported at Sebastopol the position of the squadron. The Russian official report maintains on the contrary, that Nachimoff while cruising off the coast of Asia, descried the squadron, and took measures to attack it. But, if the Russians descried the Turks at Sinope, the Turks from the tower and minarets of the town must necessarily have descried the Russians long before. How then came it to pass that the Turkish batteries were in such bad trim, when a couple of days' labor might have done a great deal toward their repair? How happened it that the Turkish vessels were at anchor in places where they obstructed the fire of the batteries, and were not shifted to moorings more fit to meet the threatened danger? There was time enough for all this; for Admiral Nachimoff states that he first sent to Sebastopol for three three-deckers before he ventured the attack. Six days, from November 24 to November 30, would not have been allowed to elapse without some effort on the part of the Turks: but indeed, the report of the Turkish steamer Taïf, which escaped to Constantinople, amply proves that the Turks were taken by surprise[b]. So far, then, the Russian report cannot be correct.

Admiral Nachimoff had under his command three ships-of-the-line, one of them a three-decker, six frigates, several steamers, and six or eight smaller vessels, a force of at least twice the weight of metal of the Turkish squadron. Yet he did not attack until he got three more three-deckers, which, by themselves, should have been quite sufficient to perform the exploit. With this disproportionate superiority he proceeded to the assault. A fog, or as some say, the use of the British flag, enabled him to approach unmolested to a distance of 500 yards. Then the fight began. The Russians, not liking to stand under canvas on a lee shore, dropped their anchors. Then the firing from the two moored fleets, without any naval maneuvers, and having rather the character of a cannonade on shore, went on for four hours. The possibility of doing away with all naval tactics, with all movements, was very favorable to the Russians, whose Black Sea fleet, manned almost exclusively with "land-lubbers," and especially with Polish Jews, might have had very poor success if opposed to the well-manned Turkish ships in deep water. Four hours were required by the Russians before they could silence the feeble ships of their opponents. They had, besides, this advantage, that any stray shot on their part would do harm either in the batteries or in the town, and what a number of misses, in comparison to the hits, they must have made, appears from the almost total destruction of the place, accomplished long before the hostile fleet was silenced. The Russian report says only the Turkish quarter was burnt down, and that the Greek quarter escaped as if by miracle. This is, however, contradicted by better authority, which states that the whole town is in ruins.

Three Turkish frigates were burnt during the action; four were run ashore and burnt afterwards, along with one steamer and the smaller vessels. The steamer Taïf, however, cut her cables, boldly steamed through the Russian lines, and escaped to Constantinople, although chased by Admiral Korniloff with three Russian steamers. Considering the clumsiness of Russian naval maneuvers, the bad position of the Turkish fleet in front, and in the line of fire, of their own batteries, and above all the absolute certainty of destruction, it would have perhaps been better if the whole Turkish squadron had got under weigh and borne down as far as the wind permitted upon the enemy. The ruin of some, which could by no means be avoided, might have saved at least a portion of the squadron. Of course the direction of the wind must have decided as to such a maneuver, but it seems doubtful whether Osman Pasha ever thought of such a step at all.

The victory of Sinope has no glory for the Russians, while the Turks fought with almost unheard of bravery; not a single ship having struck its flag during the whole action. And this loss of a valuable portion of their naval force, the momentary conquest of the Black Sea, and the dejecting moral consequences of such an event upon the Turkish population, army and navy, is entirely due to the "good offices" of Western diplomacy, which prevented the Turkish fleet from standing out and protecting or fetching home the Sinope squadron. And it is equally due to the secret information given to the Russians enabling them to strike the blow with certainty and safety.

The second victory, of which the Russians boast, came off at Akhalzikh, in Armenia. The Turks have for some time past been checked in the offensive movements which they had effected on the Georgian frontier. Since the taking of Shefkatil, or St. Nicholas, not a place of any importance has been taken, nor any victory gained of more than ephemeral effect. And this in a country where the Russians must fight under all imaginable disadvantages, where their land communications with Russia are reduced to two roads infested by insurgent Circassians, where their sea communications might very easily be cut off or endangered, and where the Transcaucasian country occupied by them, with Tiflis for its centre, might be considered more as an independent state than as part and parcel of a mighty empire. How is this check of the Turkish advance to be explained? The Turks accuse Abdi Pasha of treason and have recalled him; and certainly it is very curious that Abdi Pasha is the only Turkish General in Asia, who has been allowed by the Russians to gain local and partial victories. But there are two mistakes on the part of the Turks which explain the want of success in the beginning and the actual defeat in due course afterward. They have spread and divided their army upon all the long line from Batum to Bayazid; their masses are nowhere strong enough for a concentric attack upon Tiflis, though part of them are at the present moment, enjoying the undisputed and useless possession of the city of Erivan. The country is barren and rocky, and it may be difficult to feed a large army there; but quick concentration of all resources and rapid movements are the best means against famine in an army. Two corps, one for covering Batum and attacking on the coastline, another for a direct march upon Tiflis through the valley of the Kura would have been sufficient. But the Turkish forces have been divided and subdivided without any necessity whatever, and to the almost entire disabling of every one of the different corps.

In the second place, the inactivity in which diplomacy held the Turkish fleet allowed the Russians to land two divisions of infantry (of the, 5th corps) in Mingrelia, and thus to reenforce Prince Woronzoff's Caucasian army by nearly 20,000 men. Thus strengthened, he not only arrested the Turks on the coast, but has now had the satisfaction of seeing a corps under Gen. Andronnikoff deliver the beleaguered fortress of Akhalzikh, and beat the enemy on the open field near that town. The Russians pretend that with about 10,000 men they have routed 18,000 Turks; of course we cannot rely upon such statements; but must confess that the great number of irregulars in the Turkish Anatolian army and the almost total absence of European officers, particularly in the higher commands and on the staff, must make them but a poor match for an equal number of Russians. The Russians pretend they have taken ten or twelve pieces of cannon, which may be true, as in that impassable country the vanquished party must necessarily abandon most of its guns; at the same time they confess they have made only 120 prisoners. This amounts to a confession that they have massacred almost all the wounded on the field of battle, they being necessarily left in their hands. Besides, they prove that their measures for pursuit and intercepting the retreat of at least part of the enemy must have been wretchedly planned. They had plenty of cavalry; a bold charge into the midst of the fugitives would have cut off whole battalions. But this action offers, so far as our reports go, but little military or political interest.

On the Danube, the Russians have done nothing more than repeat the affair by which they opened the campaign, at Matchin, a fort, or a projecting rock opposite Braila. They appear to have made little impression. We have also, on good authority, a detailed statement of the Turkish troops concentrated at Widin. They consist of 34,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 2,000 artillery, with 66 field-guns, besides heavy artillery on the walls of Widin, and on the redoubts of Kalafat. Thus, 40,000 Turks are wasted in order to occupy the direct route from Bucharest into Servia. Forty thousand men, chained down to extensive fortifications which they have to defend, are too few to withstand the attack of a large army, and a great deal too many to defeat roving expeditions of small bodies. With the force already collected at Shumla, these 40,000 men would there be worth twice their number elsewhere. Their absence, next to diplomatic interference, ruined the operation of Oltenitza. It is impossible that Omer Pasha should not know, that if he stands with 100,000 men between Silistra and Rustchuk, the Russians, in numbers sufficient to do mischief, will never attempt to pass by him in order to throw themselves into the mountains of Servia. Such a disposition of his troops cannot accord with his judgment, and he must chafe desperately at the maleficent influences which force it upon him.

Written about December 23, 1853
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3971, January 9, 1854, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 644, January 14, 1854


[a] The reference is to the publication of news, with comments, from Russian newspapers of December 23, 1853 in the English press, notably The Times, No. 21619 and The Morning Herald, No. 22349.—Ed.

[b] Published in Le Moniteur universel, No, 356, December 22, 1853.—Ed.

[369] This article was written by Engels on the basis of material in the British and French official press (The Times, The Morning Herald, Le Moniteur universel) which was biased in its appraisal of the military operations on the eve of the Western powers declaring war on Russia and in its comments on Russian reports during the Crimean war. This accounts for the inaccuracies in Engels' description of the battle of Sinope and his analysis of the balance of forces and the fighting power and actions of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Drawing on British newspapers Engels used information which stated incorrectly that the Black Sea fleet was tactically weak and its personnel consisted mainly of "fresh water sailors" and non-Russians. A considerable role in belittling the importance of the battle of Sinope was played by the political bias of this article directed against Russian Tsarism as the bulwark of reaction. The article was published in The Eastern Question.

[370] The battle of Akhalzikh in the Caucasian theatre of military operations took place on November 26, 1853.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.547-552), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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