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That Bore of a War[245]

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

It is now very near a twelvemonth since a small Turkish corps, two battalions, succeeded in crossing the Danube near Turtukai, opposite Oltenitza, threw up intrenchments there, and being attacked by the Russians, repulsed them in a very spirited little affair, which, being the first engagement in the war, took the style and title of the Battle of Oltenitza. There the Turks alone were opposed to the Russians; they had no British or French troops behind them as a reserve, and could not even expect any support from the allied fleets. And yet they held their ground on the Wallachian side of the river for a fortnight at Oltenitza, and for the whole winter at Kalafat.

Since then, England and France have declared war against Russia; sundry exploits, of a doubtful nature it is true, have been achieved. Black Sea fleets, Baltic fleets, and an army of now nearly a hundred thousand English and French soldiers are there to assist the Turks or to make diversions in their favor. And the upshot of all this is nothing but a repetition of the Oltenitza business on a larger scale, but rather less successfully than last year.

The Russians laid siege to Silistria. They went about it stupidly but bravely. They were defeated day after day, night after night; not by superior science, not by Captain Butler or Lieutenant Nasmyth, the two British officers present who, according to The Times, saved Silistria[a]. They were defeated by the ignorance of the Turks, an ignorance extending so far as not to know when a fort or rampart ceases to be tenable, and sticking doggedly to every inch of ground, every molehill which the enemy appears to covet. They were defeated, besides, by the stolidity of their own Generals, by fever and cholera; finally by the moral effect of an allied army menacing their left, and an Austrian army menacing their right wing. When the war began, we stated that the Russian army had never been able to lay a regular siege, and the ill-managed operations before Silistria show that they have not improved since. Well, they were defeated; they had to decamp in the most discreditable way imaginable; they had to raise the siege of an incomplete fortress in the midst of a fine season, and without any troops coming to relieve the garrison. Such an event occurs not more than once in a century; and whatever the Russians may try to do in the autumn, the campaign is lost, disgracefully lost for them.

But now for the reverse of the medal. Silistria is free. The Russians retreat to the left bank of the Danube. They even prepare for, and gradually execute the evacuation of the Dobrodja. Hirsova and Matchin are dismantled. The Sereth seems to be the line to which the Russians trust for the defense, not of their conquests, but of their own territory. Omer Pasha, the wily old Croat, who can hold his tongue or tell a lie as well as anybody, "in the execution of his duty," at once sends a corps to the Dobrodja and another to Rustchuk, thus engaging the two wings of the Russians at once. There were far better maneuvers possible at the time, but poor old Omer appears to know the Turks and the allies better than we do. The correct military move to be made would have been to march through the Dobrodja or by Kalarash upon the communications of the enemy; but after what we have seen, we cannot even accuse Omer of having missed a good opportunity. We know that his army is very badly cared for—provided with almost nothing—and cannot, therefore, execute rapid movements which would remove it to a distance from its base, or open up fresh lines of operation. These movements, decisive as they are in their effect, when undertaken by a sufficient force, are not within the reach of an army which lives from hand to mouth, and has to pass through a barren country. We know that Omer Pasha went to Varna, imploring the aid of the allied generals, who at that time had 75,000 capital soldiers there, within four days' march of the Danube; but neither St. Arnaud nor Raglan thought proper to come up to where they could meet the enemy. Thus Omer could do no more than he has done. He sent 25,000 men toward the Dobrodja, and marched with the rest of his army to Rustchuk. Here his troops passed from island to island until the Danube was crossed, and then, by a sudden march to the left, took Giurgevo in the rear, and forced the Russians to quit it. On the next day the Russians were drawn up on some hights to the north of Giurgevo, where the Turks attacked them. A sanguinary battle ensued, remarkable for the number of English officers who, with rare success, competed for the honor of being shot first. They all got their bullets, but with no benefit to anybody, for it would be preposterous to think that the sight of a British officer being shot could inflame a Turkish soldier to invincibility. However, the Russians having a mere advanced guard on the spot—a brigade, the two regiments of Kolyvan and Tomsk—got beaten, and the Turks made good their footing on the Wallachian bank of the Danube. They at once set about fortifying the place, and as they had British sappers, and as at Kalafat they did very well for themselves, there is no doubt that they were making a formidable position of it. But thus far they were allowed to go, and no further. That Emperor of Austria who now for eight months has been trying hard to act the part of an independent man, steps in at once. The Principalities have been promised to his troops as a feeding ground, and he intends to have them. What business have the Turks there? Let them go back to Bulgaria. So down comes the order from Constantinople to withdraw the Turkish troops from the left bank, and to leave "all that plot of land" to the tender mercies of the Austrian soldiers. Diplomacy is above strategy. Whatever may. come of it, the Austrians will save their own frontiers by occupying a few yards of ground, beyond; and to this important end even the necessities of the war must give way. Besides, is not Omer Pasha an Austrian deserter? And Austria never forgets. In Montenegro she interrupted his victorious career; and she repeats the process again, to make the renegade feel that he is not yet out of the allegiance of his lawful sovereign.

It is entirely useless to enter into the military details of this present stage of the campaign. The actions possess little tactical interest, being plain, straightforward front attacks; the movements of troops on either side are ruled more by diplomatical than strategical motives. Most likely we shall see the campaign closing without any great enterprise, for on the Danube there is nothing prepared for a grand offensive, and as to the taking of Sevastopol, of which we hear so much, the beginning will probably be delayed until the season is so far advanced that it must be postponed till next year.

It would seem that whoever may have had any conservative leanings in Europe must lose them when he looks at this everlasting Eastern Question. There is all Europe, incapable, convicted for the last sixty years of incapability to settle this puny little strife. There they are, France, England, Russia, going actually to war. They carry on their war for six months; and unless by mistake, or on a very shabby scale, they have not even come to blows. There they are, eighty or ninety thousand English and French soldiers at Varna, commanded by old Wellington's late military secretary[b], and by a Marshal of France[c] (whose greatest exploits, it is true, were performed in London pawnshops) there they are, the French doing nothing and the British helping them as fast as they can; and as they may think this sort of business not exactly honorable, the fleets are come up to Baltshik Roads to have a look at them and to see which of the two armies can enjoy the dolce far niente[d] with the greatest decorum. And yet, although the allies have hitherto only been eating up the provisions upon which the Turkish army had calculated, idling away day after day at Varna for the last two months, they are not yet fit for duty. They would have relieved Silistria if required by about the middle of May next year. The troops that have conquered Algeria and learned the theory and practice of war on one of the most difficult theaters in existence[246], the soldiers who fought the Sikhs on the sands of the Indus, and the Kaffirs in the thorny bush of South Africa[247], in countries far more savage than Bulgaria there they are, helpless and useless, fit for nothing in a country which even exports corn!

But if the allies are miserable in their performances, so are the Russians. They have had plenty of time to prepare. They have done whatever they could, for they knew from the beginning what resistance they would find. And yet, what have they been able to do? Nothing. They could not take a yard of contested ground from the Turks; they could not take Kalafat; they could not beat the Turks in one single engagement. And yet they are the same Russians who, under Münnich and Suvoroff conquered the Black Sea coast from the Don to the Dniester. But Schilder is not Münnich, Paskievich is not Suvoroff, and though the Russian soldier can bear flogging with the cane beyond all others, yet when it comes to habitual retreating, he loses his steadiness as well as anybody else.

The fact is, that conservative Europe—the Europe of "order, property, family, religion"—the Europe of monarchs, feudal lords, moneyed men, however they may be differently assorted in different countries—is once more exhibiting its extreme impotency. Europe may be rotten, but a war should have roused the sound elements; a war should have brought forth some latent energies, and assuredly there should be that much pluck among two hundred and fifty millions of men that at least one decent struggle might be got up, wherein both parties could reap some honor, such as force and spirit can carry off even from the field of battle. But no. Not only is the England of the middle classes, the France of the Bonapartes, incapable of a decent, hearty, hard-fought war; but even Russia, the country of Europe least infected by infidel and unnerving civilization, cannot bring about anything of the kind. The Turks are fit for sudden starts of offensive action, and stubborn resistance on the defensive, but seem not to be made for large combined maneuvers with great armies. Thus everything is reduced to a degree of impuissance and a reciprocal confession of weakness, which appears to be as reciprocally expected by all parties. With governments such as they are at present, this Eastern war may be carried on for thirty years, and yet come to no conclusion.

But while official incompetency is thus displaying itself all over Europe, in the south-western corner of that continent a movement breaks out which at once shows that there are still other forces more active than the official ones. Whatever may be the real character and the end of the Spanish rising, so much at least may be affirmed, that it bears to a future revolution the same relation as the Swiss and Italian movements of 1847 to the revolution of 1848[248]. There are two grand facts in it: first, the military, the actual rulers of the continent since 1849, have got divided among themselves, and have given up their calling of preserving order, for the purpose of asserting their own opinion in opposition to the Government. Their discipline taught them their power, and this power has loosened their discipline. Secondly, we have had the spectacle of a successful barricade fight. Wherever barricades had been raised since June, 1848[249], they had hitherto proved of no avail. Barricades, the resistance of the population of a large town against the military, seemed of no effect whatever. That prejudice has fallen. We have again seen victorious, unassailable barricades. The spell is broken. A new revolutionary era is rendered possible, and it is significant that while the troops of official Europe are showing themselves useless in actual war, they are at the same time defeated by the insurgent inhabitants of a town.

Written on July 29 and August 1, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4159, August 17;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 963, August 18
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 675, August 19, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, p. 329.—Ed.

[b] Raglan.—Ed.

[c] On Saint-Arnaud see this volume, pp. 230-33.—Ed.

[d] Sweet doing-nothing.—Ed.

[245] This article is entered in the Notebook as "Dienstag. 1. August. Krieg gegen Spain". It was reprinted by Eleanor Marx in The Eastern Question. Engels' authorship is also confirmed by Marx's letter to Engels of July 27, 1854.

[246] On the formation of the Kingdom of Greece see Note 66↓.
The conquest of Algeria, which in the eighteenth century was already a military feudal state independent of the Ottoman Empire, began in 1830. It met fierce armed resistance on the part of the Algerian population. By 1842 most of Algeria was conquered, but the Algerian people continued their struggle for independence.

A half-independence of Egypt—the so-called Egyptian crises 1831-33 and 1839-41) —conflicts between Mehemet Ali of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, with the European powers actively interfering. They ended with the introduction of a new statute for Egypt which remained dependent on the Turkish Sultan.

Aden was seized by England in 1839 and turned into a military naval base.

The Englishmen who covet Egypt—the reference is to the concession which the English obtained for the construction of the railway line from Alexandria to Suez and Cairo and to the plans for building the Suez canal (opened for navigation in 1869).

[247] The Sikhs—a religious sect which appeared in the Punjab (North-West India) in the sixteenth century. Their teaching on equality of people was used by the peasants who fought against the Hindu feudal lords and the Afghan invaders at the end of the seventeenth century. Subsequently a local aristocracy emerged among the Sikhs and its representatives ruled the Sikh state, which in the early nineteenth century included the Punjab and some border regions. In 1845-46 and 1848-49 Britain waged aggressive wars against thé Sikhs which ended with the subjugation of the Punjab. The conquest of the Punjab completed the British colonisation of India.

The Kaffirs—an obsolete name of the South-African people (Xhosas) against whom Britain waged wars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Kaffir wars). Under the 1853 treaty the Xhosas were compelled to cede part of their lands to Britain.

[248] See Frederick Engels, "The Movements of 1847", present edition, Vol. 6, pp. 520-29.

[249] The reference is to the uprising of the Paris proletariat of June 23-26, 1848, which was brutally suppressed by the French bourgeoisie. The defeat of the June uprising was a signal for a counter-revolutionary offensive in European countries.

[66] In the spring of 1821 a national liberation movement started in Greece which ended after a long struggle in Greece winning independence. As a result of Russia's victory in the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29, Turkey recognised Greece as an independent state. Forced by public pressure to give military aid to Greece, the ruling circles of the European powers imposed, however, a monarchist form of government on the country after its liberation. The final status of the Kingdom of Greece and its territory were determined by the protocols of March 22, 1829, February 3, 1830 and May 7, 1832 of the London Conference (1827-32). Greece included Morea, the Cyclades and the southern part of Greek mainland, between the mouths of the Spercheios and the Aspropotamo rivers.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.334-339), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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