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The News from The Crimea[356]

Frederick Engels

Our columns this morning are filled with the stirring news of sanguinary battles in the Crimea, including the capture of Sevastopol, the destruction of its principal forts and of a great part of the Russian fleet, and the final surrender of Prince Menchikoff, and the remains of his defeated and more than decimated forces as prisoners of war. If these reports are strictly correct, for nearly forty years the world has witnessed no such gigantic bloodshed, nor any martial event pregnant with consequences so momentous. As to the correctness of the news, that is a point on which some light may perhaps be thrown by carefully separating what we know officially and positively from what we have only from vague and uncertain sources.

We must, then, distinguish the statements into two classes those relating to the battle of the Alma, fought on Sept. 20, and those announcing the capture of Sevastopol itself. According to the dispatches of Lord Raglan and Marshal St. Arnaud, the allied armies on the 20th stormed the Russian intrenched camp on the hights to the south of the river Alma, and forced the Russians to retreat. The British took two guns. The French, in their dispatch, mention no trophies at all. The French loss was about 1,400; British the same. The Russians were estimated at 45,000 to 50,000 men; their loss at 4,000 to 6,000. These dispatches are evidently written in the full flush of a maiden victory. The 50,000 Russians present on the Alma contrast very strongly with the 45,000 troops which were said to be the maximum of what was spread over the length and breadth of the Crimea. The two guns taken in an intrenched camp, defended by a "numerous heavy artillery," look like very insignificant trophies when it is considered that it is almost impossible to save guns out of field-fortifications when once carried. Still more ominous is Marshal St. Arnaud's silence about the taking of guns by the French.

Supposing Menchikoff had actually concentrated 45,000 to 50,000 men in the intrenched camp on the Alma, what would it prove? Either that he had far more troops than was expected, being able to bring so many to the open field, or that the fortifications of Sevastopol were so weak on the land side that he could not hold the place, except by defeating the allies in the open field; or, thirdly, that he made a tremendous mistake in exposing his troops to an open battle, and to the demoralisation consequent upon a decisive defeat.

If we are to trust the earlier reports the Russian camp on the Alma mustered not more than 10,000 men. These might have been reenforced, but to bring them up even to 25,000 or 30,000 men the Russians must have made considerable effort. With 50,000 men within easy reach of the Alma, or within fifteen miles of the place of landing, how are we to account for their not having pounced upon the allies in the very act of debarkation?

The country between the Old Fort, where the allies landed, and Sevastopol is intersected by three watercourses, forming, by their deep ravines, as many military positions. The one nearest to Sevastopol is the Chornaya, emptying itself into the eastern end of the bay of Sevastopol. While Fort Severnaya defends the northern shore of this bay, that rivulet, or rather its deeply-cut valley forms a sort of natural ditch on the east of the town. There, then, is naturally the last important position for the defense. The next river is the Kacha, running east and west a few miles to the north of Severnaya; and again about twelve miles to the northward runs the Alma. Of the three lines of defense, in spite of tactical advantages which may exist, and which cannot be judged at this distance, it is hardly to be supposed that the Russians should have chosen the first and the remotest for a pitched battle in which the fate of Sevastopol could have been decided. The absence of the main body of the allied cavalry, however, might have encouraged the Russians to send a strong corps into the intrenchments of the Alma, as their own momentary superiority in that arm would secure them against flank movements of the hostile horse. The impossibility of making use of this arm when once cooped up in Sevastopol may have acted as an inducement.

The Russian defeat on the Alma becomes still more reduced in its tactical extent when more closely examined. The Russians are not fond of intrenching themselves in open walls. They prefer, wherever they have time and intend furious resistance, closed square redoubts. To save the artillery from such redoubts is impossible, as soon as the assault is actually carried through. But even from that class of works, technically known as lunettes, open at the gorge, there is almost no chance of saving artillery in the face of a storming enemy. For, if the guns be withdrawn at the very moment of the assault, the defense deprives itself of its own weapon; the ditch once crossed, who is to drag the guns from the embankments or the platform, who to re-limber them and drive off under the close fire of the enemy?

"Guns in intrenchments must be considered as lost when the intrenchments themselves can no longer be held; the only thing you can do is to sell them as dearly as possible,"

says General Dufour in his Manual of Field Fortifications[a]. The fact that the Russians lost but two guns is a proof that the camp was not defended to the last extremity, and that, perhaps, only one or two intrenchments were actually taken at the point of the bayonet. The remainder cannot have been defended with that arm, but must have been all but abandoned, before the storming column were in the ditch. The retreat of the Russians appears to have been executed in good order; their cavalry would protect them, and the impossibility of bodies of allied cavalry rapidly crossing the Alma and ravine would give them an advantage. But then, the saving of almost all their artillery is a sufficient proof that they broke off the battle before any great blow had thrown them into disorder.

This is all we know about the victory on the hights to the south of the Alma which was announced in England on the 1st inst. by the thunder of cannon and the ringing of bells, proclaimed at the Royal Exchange on Saturday evening, Sept. 30, at 10 o'clock by the Lord Mayor, preceded by a trumpeter sounding his bugle; cheered at the theaters, and registered by The London Times as the anticipated effect of the Archbishop of Canterbury's[b] thanksgivings prayer[c]. Correspondents announce that Marshal St. Arnaud had been unable to mount on horseback. Historians relate the same of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. The victory of the Alma was perhaps due to the same circumstance as the defeat of Waterloo.

We come now to the class of more startling news referring to the capture of Sevastopol[d]. The first announcement of this event reached London from Bucharest by telegraph, is dated from the latter town Sept. 28. It stated that Sevastopol had fallen into the hands of the allies after a combined attack by sea and by land. It purported to be derived in the first place from a French steamer dispatched from Sevastopol to Constantinople with this intelligence, which steamer was fallen in with by another French steamer en route for Varna. If the capture of the fortresses took place on the 25th, as is asserted, the news could have reached Varna in the night from the 26th to the 27th, and could have been conveyed to Bucharest by noon on the 28th—the distance between Varna and Bucharest being somewhat more than 100 miles and generally traversed by couriers in 24 hours. This was the news on which Bonaparte founded his address to the camp of Boulogne, which will be found in another column[357]. But it turns out that no courier arrived at Bucharest before September 30. The second news of the fall of Sevastopol, which is at least within topographical probability, is only dated from Bucharest at the very day on which Bonaparte made his announcement. This telegraphic dispatch, received by the Austrian Government at 6 p.m. on Oct. 1, and communicated to The Times by the Austrian Minister at London[e] on the 3d, is published by the Moniteur of the same day, with the remark that

"it had been forwarded to the French Government by M. de Buol, who had commanded M. de Hübner to congratulate the French Emperor, in the name of the Emperor of Austria, on the glorious success which had attended the French arms in the Crimea."[f]

It should be observed that the value of this intelligence entirely rests upon the verbal statement of the courier sent from Constantinople to Omer Pasha, which courier, not finding Omer Pasha at Bucharest, started again for Silistria, where Omer Pasha then had his quarters. According to the statement of this courier, Sevastopol had been taken, 18,000 Russians killed, 22,000 made prisoners, Fort Constantine destroyed, the other forts with 800 guns captured, six Russian ships-of-war sunk, and Prince Menchikoff retired to the head of the bay, with the remainder of the squadron, declaring that he would blow them up rather than make an unconditional surrender. The allies had allowed him six hours for consideration. Constantinople was to be illuminated for ten days.

After what we have witnessed of Russian fortifications at Åland[g], and after the success of the allies on the Alma, a surrender of Sevastopol within something like a fortnight offered strong probabilities. But who can think of an army of 50,000 men having had the good fortune to save almost all its artillery out of a lost battle, commanded by the most daring officer[h] who has yet appeared on the Russian side during this campaign, who can think of such an army laying down their arms after the first attack on the town? Nevertheless, this war has already offered such improbabilities and extraordinary features that we must not be reluctant to "march from surprise to surprise," as Napoleon did at the receipt of Sebastiani's dispatches from Constantinople in 1807[358]. The allies have done everything throughout the war to meet with an unprecedented disaster. Why should it not have pleased fortune to force upon them a triumph without comparison? History, never without a grain of irony, perhaps desired to reserve to the world the curious treat of lodging in a modest tower of the Bosphorus that old Muscovite Rodomonte who but a year ago left the capital of the dying man with the proud threat of swallowing up his empire. What a bitter punishment for the proud and arrogant Menchikoff, the fomenter and beginner of the war, to return to Constantinople a prisoner!

If this courier spoke truth, the history of the Crimean campaign may be resumed in a very few words: On the 14th and 16th the army landed at Old Fort without meeting resistance; on the 19th it marched; on the 20th it won the battle of the Alma, and on the 25th captured Sevastopol.

The next steamer due from Liverpool is the Africa, which comes directly to this port, and does not touch at Halifax. We can hardly expect her to arrive before Friday, till when we cannot hope for absolute certainty on this most interesting question[359]. Meanwhile it will probably be most fashionable to believe implicitly the whole story of this Turkish courier, and we hope that those who thus receive it may not be taken down as much as our friend Louis Bonaparte was at Boulogne on the same subject. That imperial gentleman, as our readers may see by referring to another part of this paper, proclaimed the intelligence at a review the other morning, in a rather melodramatic style, in the clear and positive words Sébastopol est pris[i]. As he said this he, perhaps, appeared to himself a real Napoleon announcing a great victory to his troops. Unfortunately for the nephew, the uncle never stood in need of announcing a victory: he fought his own battles, and his soldiers, who saw the enemy fly, required no confirmation. More unfortunately, the announcement which Louis Bonaparte could not withhold had to be qualified in the evening by the sous-préfet[j] of Boulogne, who placarded a statement that some dispatch had arrived stating the capture of Sevastopol, but that its correctness could not be vouched for. The Emperor of the French was thus corrected by his own sous-préfet of Boulogne! It is a striking circumstance, also, that the official journal of the French Government[k] of October 3, the latest date, contains no confirmation of the reported great event. Still it may all prove true enough, and we wait with intense interest for positive intelligence.

Written on October 2 and 3, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4211, October 17
and the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 980, October 17;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 684, October 21, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] G. H. Dufour, De la fortification permanente, p. 309.—Ed.

[b] J. Sumner.—Ed.

[c] The Times, No. 21861, October 2, 1854, leader.—Ed.

[d] The telegrams here analysed were published in The Times, No. 21861, October 2, 1854.—Ed.

[e] Fr. Colloredo-Waldsee.—Ed..

[f] Telegram from Vienna of October 2, 1854. Le Moniteur universel, No. 276, October 3, 1854.—Ed.

[g] See this volume, pp. 384-88.—Ed.

[h] Presumably Liprandi.—Ed.

[i] "Sevastopol is taken." This report of October 1 from Vienna was published together with the speech of Napoleon III made in Boulogne on September 30, 1854, in Le Moniteur universel, No. 275, October 2, 1854.—Ed.

[j] Sub-prefect.—Ed.

[k] Le Moniteur universel.—Ed.

[356] This article is entered in the Notebook as "Dienstag. 3. Oktober. Sevastopol". When Marx prepared it for mailing to New York he added some facts from the reports published in the morning papers of October 3. The first sentence of the article bears signs of interference by the Tribune editors.

[357] The words "which will be found in another column" were added by the Tribune editors and refer to the item entitled "The News of the Victory" published in the same number. This item contained Napoleon III's address to the soldiers at the camp of Boulogne in connection with the news of the capture of Sevastopol by the allies, which later proved to be false.

[358] In 1806-07, during the reign of Selim III, the French ambassador Sebastiani succeeded in gaining exceptional influence over the Turkish Government. Napoleon I hoped to use the Turkish army as an ally in the war against Russia. However, in May 1807, there was a mutiny in Constantinople of Janissaries opposing the reforms being carried out in Turkey at the time, and on May 29, 1807, Selim III was dethroned.

[359] The first two sentences of this paragraph were added by the Tribune editors. There are signs of interference 'also in the fourth sentence.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.477-482), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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