Farsi    Arabic    English   

The Battle of The Alma[366]

Frederick Engels

The official accounts of the battle of the Alma have finally arrived, and the dispatches of the commanders, the reports of English journalists who were present, and of several naval officers, are given at great length in our columns this morning[367], confirming in every important respect the conclusions we drew from the first telegraphic reports of the action[a]. The following are the facts as they appear to- have occurred:

About three miles from the coast, the river Alma makes a bend so as to form a crescent, the two horns of which point toward the North. The southern side of the river, generally formed by cliffs about 300 feet high, here offers an amphitheater sloping down, more or less gently, toward the stream. This slope, supported on the right and left by abrupt high cliffs forming the edges of the plateau, was selected by the Russians as their position. If repulsed, their superior cavalry could always cover the retreat on the level ground of the plateau, which also offered almost everywhere facilities for carrying off the artillery. On a sort of terrace midway between the plateau and the valley of the river, the Russians had placed their main body of infantry, protected, on the left, by the steep cliffs, considered impracticable, and on the right by equally steep cliffs, by a redoubt on the terrace, and a heavy enfilading battery on the commanding hights. Admiral Hamelin maintains that this battery was mounted with twelve 32-pounders, but how such heavy ordnance could have been carried off during the retreat, as it most assuredly was, remains a secret to be explained by that officer. The ground in front of the Russian position, intersected by vineyards and rocks, was favorable to the defense, and rendered still more difficult by abattis and other artificial obstacles, which, however, from the want of wood in the country, cannot have been very formidable. On the high plateau, behind and on both flanks of the Russians, were placed their reserves and cavalry. In front, their skirmishers extended beyond the river Alma, occupying the villages of Alma and Bourliouk.

Against this strong position the allies advanced on the 20th; the French had the right, the English the left wing. Early in the morning the French sent General Bosquet's division (the 2d) with eight Turkish battalions along the sea-shore to climb the cliffs on that side, under the protection of the guns of the steamers, and thus to turn the Russian left. The English were to execute a similar movement against the enemy's right. They, however, could not be protected by ships, and had the principal mass of the enemy's cavalry against them on the plateau, so that this part of the plan of attack was not executed. The French, under Bosquet, in the meantime succeeded in climbing the rocky edge of the plateau, and while the Russian troops on this elevation were shelled by the heavy guns of the steamers, the third French division under Prince Napoleon advanced in front against the Russian left. Further off, the Russian center and right were attacked by the English. Next to Prince Napoleon's came the second English division under Sir De Lacy Evans, the commander of the British Legion in Spain during the Carlist War[368]. He was supported by General England (3d division), while the extreme left wing of the allies was formed by the British light division under Sir G. Brown, supported by the division of Guards under the Duke of Cambridge. The reserve (4th division, Sir G. Cathcart, and cavalry division, Earl of Lucan) maneuvered in the rear of the left to prevent any outflanking attempts of the enemy.

The battle appears to have been distinguished by the feature, that its first phase—that of skirmishing along the whole line, while the real decisive maneuvers are carried on behind this covering curtain—was very much shortened. The position of the Russians was, indeed, so clearly defined, and their powerful artillery so placed, that any lengthened skirmishing would have not only been useless to the allies but positively damaging. The French appear to have had to expose themselves for a while to this galling fire, the English being the last in line; but, this once carried out, the French columns and the English extended line advanced steadily into the difficult ground before them, dislodged the Russians from the villages of Alma and Bourliouk (the latter of which was burned by the retreating force, so as to prevent its being used as shelter by the allies); passed the river and pressed up the hights without any unnecessary formalities. Here the combat on many points of the ground, in the vineyards, among the rocks and abattis, partook of the character of the battles between Verona and Castiglione in 1848[369]. No regular advance was possible; a thick, irregular cloud of skirmishers, mostly acting independently, worked their way up to the first terrace, where the Russian lines awaited them. In the meantime, General Bosquet succeeded in establishing one of his brigades on the plateau, whence he menaced the Russian left; a brigade of the fourth division (Forey's) was sent to his assistance, while Forey's second brigade supported Napoleon's division. Thus the French made good a position by which the Russian left was seriously compromised. On the Russian right, Sir George Brown took the Russian redoubt—the key of that part of their position on the terrace; and though an advance of the Russian reserve from the hights for a moment dislodged him, an attack of the Highlanders (Cambridge's division) finally secured the possession of this work. Thus the left wing of the Russians was turned, and their right wing was broken. The center, completely engaged along its front, could only beat a retreat up the slope toward the plateau, which, once reached, they found themselves secure from any serious attack by the presence of their cavalry and horse-artillery, in a country eminently adapted for the employment of these two arms. Nevertheless, some disorder must have reigned for a while on their left when outflanked by Bosquet; the French reports are unanimous as to that point, and the fact that Menchikoff's carriage here fell into the hands of the French, fully proves On the other hand, the carrying off of all their artillery, even of the heavy siege-guns in the battery on the right (the French took no guns, the English but three, and those probably dismounted), proves the great order in which the retreat, generally speaking, was executed, as well as the wise resolution of Menchikoff, to break off the struggle as soon as the scales had turned against him.

The bravery of the allied troops appears to have been very great. There are few examples of a battle consisting, like this, of an almost uninterrupted, slow but steady advance, and offering none of the vicissitudes and incidents which give such a dramatic interest to most other great battles. This single fact is sufficient to prove at least a considerable numerical superiority on the part of the allies, and to show that the allied generals in their reports have far overrated the strength of the Russians. We shall recur to this presently.

The generalship of the allies was good, but shows more confidence in the valor of their troops and the assistance of the fleet than in the inventive capacities of the generals themselves. It was, so to say, a plain, homely sort of battle, of a purely tactical nature, destitute in a rare degree of all strategical features. The flank maneuver of Bosquet was a very natural conception, and well executed by the African soldiers, who had been taught how to do such work in the defiles of the Atlas. The British broke the Russian right by unsophisticated hard fighting, facilitated, very likely, by good regimental and brigade maneuvering; but the monotony of the British advance in two successive long lines was broken by the obstacles of the ground alone, not by grand maneuvers intended to mislead or surprise the enemy.

Prince Menchikoff had well selected his position. He does not, however, appear to have made all the use of his cavalry he might have done. Why was there no cavalry on the left, to precipitate Bosquet's isolated brigade down the cliffs again as soon as it attempted to form? The breaking off of the battle, the disengaging [of] his troops from fire, the carrying off of his artillery, and the retreat in general, appear to have been carried out in a highly creditable style, and do more honor to his generalship than the victory does to that of the allied generals.

As to the forces engaged, the allies had under fire three French and four English divisions, besides their artillery, leaving one French and one English division, and all the cavalry, in reserve, besides eight Turkish battalions, which were sent to support Bosquet, but arrived after the close of the action. Now, the French having left stronger detachments and suffered greater losses at Varna than the British, the divisions may be considered almost equal on the day of the battle—the French about 6,000, the British about 5,500 strong, each. This would give an infantry force actually engaged of 40,000 infantry, with a reserve of about 16,000 men, including the Turks, which appears to agree with the statements as to the force of the expedition, deducting for the sick and for detachments. The Russians are stated by Marshal St. Arnaud to have mustered two divisions of the line, the 16th and 17th, with two brigades of reserve (soldiers on furlough, recalled to duty), the 14th and 15th, besides the 6th battalion of rifles. This force would comprise forty-nine battalions if the brigades had the full number of battalions. Every battalion counting 700 men (they have never mustered stronger in this war, although in the Hungarian war they were fifty men stronger) would give a total of 34,300 men. But the above are about as many regular land troops as we knew to be in and about Sevastopol, and it is most likely that five or six battalions at least were left behind as a garrison in that fortress. This would bring the Russians to a strength of 30,000 infantry, which may have been about the correct number. Their cavalry is said to have mustered 6,000 sabres, but of course a good number of them were mere Cossacks. This marked superiority of the allies deprives the victory of that excessive glory which, as our readers will see in our extracts from the English papers[370], it is attempted to attach to it. The bravery appears to have been equal on both sides; and certainly the allied generals, were they ever so flushed with victory, never thought of marching into Sevastopol after their success, without any further delay or opposition, banners flying and bands playing.

The result of the battle, though morally great for the allies, can hardly produce any profound dejection in the Russian army. It is a retreat like that of Lützen or Bautzen; and if Menchikoff, from his flanking position at Bakshiserai, understands as well how to draw the allies after him as Blücher did before the battle of the Katzbach[371], they may yet learn that such fruitless victories are of no great use to the gainer. Menchikoff is yet in force at their rear, and till they have defeated him a second time and entirely driven him away, he will still be formidable. Almost everything now will depend upon the arrival of reenforcements of the allied reserve on one hand, and of the Russian troops from Perekop, Kerch and Anapa on the other. Whoever is first the stronger, may strike a great blow. But Menchikoff has this advantage that he can at any time elude an attack by falling back, while the allies are tied to the spot where their dépôts, camps and parks are.

For the moment, Sevastopol, though invested on one side, appears safe, the superiority of the allies not being marked enough to make front in two directions. But should their reserve of 20,000 men arrive sooner than Menchikoff's support,—as appears almost certain from our dispatch by the Niagara, received last night by telegraph from Halifax[372]—a few days may decide much. A place like Sevastopol, if once seriously and vigorously attacked, cannot be expected to hold out a fortnight against open trenches. The reserve had all sailed from Varna and should have arrived by the 4th or 5th, though our Halifax dispatch does not mention their arrival; at any rate before the 16th or 18th, therefore, Sevastopol can hardly be expected to fall. There are chances that an active campaign in the open field might prolong its holding out for some time longer; but unless Menchikoff, with his moveable army in the rear of the allies, should gain some important advantage in the field, or unless sickness decimates the allied troops, it must certainly fall. But we may be sure, from the preparations and temper of the Russians that it will not be taken without desperate resistance, and terrible bloodshed; the sanguinary details of the battle on the Alma will certainly be exceeded in their kind by those of the storm and capture of Sevastopol.

Written on October 9, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4219, October 26;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 983, October 27
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 685, October 28, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, pp. 477-82.—Ed.

[366] This article is entered in the Notebook as "Dienstag. 10. Oktober. Schlacht bei Alma". On that day Marx wrote to Engels: "First my compliments on your most glorious and sound criticism. It is pity that this fait d'armes [feat of arms] could not appear in the London press. Your position in this field would have been assured through such a move" (present edition, Vol. 39).

[367] The words: "and the dispatches of the commanders, the reports of English journalists who were present, and of several naval officers, are given at great length in our columns this morning" were added by the Tribune editors.

[368] The British Legion in Spain was a force recruited in England to support the Government of Maria Cristina during the Carlist war (see Note 227↓). This force of 10,000 men commanded by General Evans took part in military operations in 1835-37.

[369] This refers to a battle between the Piedmontese army and the Austrian troops in Northern Italy during the Austro-Italian war of 1848-49.

[370] The words "as our readers will see in our extracts from the English papers" were added by the Tribune editors.

The battle of Lützen (Saxony) between Napoleon I's army and the Russian and Prussian forces took place on May 2, 1813; the battle between the allied army and the French at Bautzen (Saxony) took place on May 20-21 of the same year. In both cases Napoleon forced the allied troops to retreat though he sustained great losses; in both cases also the retreat was an orderly one.

[371] The battle of the Katzbach between the French army and the allied troops took place on August 26, 1813. A successful manoeuvre allowed Blücher to inflict a serious defeat on the French.

[372] The words "as appears almost certain from our dispatch by the Niagara, received last night by telegraph from Halifax", and lower: "though our Halifax dispatch does not mention their arrival" were added by the Tribune editors.

[227] The Carlists—a reactionary clerico-absolutist group in Spain consisting of adherents of the pretender to the Spanish throne Don Carlos, the brother of Ferdinand VII. Relying on the military and the Catholic clergy, and also making use of the support of the backward peasants in some regions of Spain, the Carlists launched in 1833 a civil war which in fact turned into a struggle between the feudal-Catholic and liberal-bourgeois elements and led to the third bourgeois revolution (1834-43).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.492-499), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME0815en.html