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The Campaign in The Crimea[380]

Frederick Engels

Our readers cannot but be struck with the novel spirit breathing through the intelligence from the seat of war in the Crimea, received by the Baltic yesterday, and published in our columns this morning. Hitherto an overweening and arrogant confidence has distinguished the comments of the British press, and the reports of British and French correspondents concerning the movements and prospects of the war. But now this has given way to a feeling of anxiety and even of alarm. It is confessed on all hands that there is no such superiority as has been claimed on the part of the allied armies over their antagonists. That Sevastopol is stronger, Menchikoff an abler General, and his army far more formidable than was supposed; and that instead of certain and decisive victory, the French and English now stand exposed to possible failure and disgrace. Such is the feeling expressed by our correspondent at Liverpool, himself an Englishman, alive to all the patriotic impulses and prejudices of his country[a]; and this feeling is equally manifested by the very energetic action of both the French and English Governments. Desperate efforts are made to hurry reenforcements to Sevastopol; the United Kingdom is drained of its last soldier; many steamships are taken up as transports; and 50,000 French troops are sent forward, all in the hope of arriving at the scene of action before it shall be too late to take part in the final, decisive struggle.

We published on Saturday a copious quantity of documents, relating principally to the earlier stages of the siege, and the partially effective but yet disastrous cooperation of the fleets[b]; and we now add the official reports concerning Liprandi's murderous attack on the allies near Balaklava, with other accounts of the subsequent progress of operations, all of them, we must say, quite unfavorable to the allies[c]. From a careful examination of these documents we conclude that though the position is, as we have often stated[d], a difficult and even precarious one, it is hardly so bad as is implied by our Liverpool correspondent. We do not think that they are in danger of any worse disaster than a compulsory retreat and embarkation. And, on the other hand, there is still the possibility of their carrying the town by a desperate and sanguinary assault. But however this may be, it must, we think, be decided long before the reenforcements leaving France and England can reach the Crimea. The campaign is evidently near its turning point; the movements, the errors and the omissions which have shaped its character and generated its results, are made; we are in possession of authentic and indisputable information as to the principal facts; and we accordingly propose succinctly and briefly to review the course of the contest.

It is now established that when the allies landed at Old Fort, Menchikoff had under his command in the field only forty-two battalions and two regiments of cavalry, besides some Cossacks, while Sevastopol was garrisoned by the marines and sailors of the fleet. These forty-two battalions were of the 12th, 16th and 17th divisions of infantry; and supposing each battalion to have had its full complement of 700 men, there were in all 29,400 men of infantry; with 2,000 Hussars, the Cossacks, artillery, sappers and miners; in all some 32,000 men in the field. With these he could not oppose the landing of the allies, as by so doing he would have exposed his troops, without a sufficient reserve, to the fire of the allied fleets. A powerful army, which could afford to have sacrificed a part of its strength, might have detached a force to open a petty war of surprises and night attacks against the invaders while landing; the Russians, in this instance, required every man for the great battle to come; besides, the Russian foot soldier is the clumsiest fellow alive for petty war operations; his forte is action in column by close order. As to the Cossacks, on the other hand, their mode of warfare is too petty, and is effective in proportion only as the chance of plunder increases. Besides, the campaign of the Crimea seems to prove that the regularization of the Cossacks, which has been gradually carried out for the last thirty years, has broken their individual spirit of enterprise, and reduced them to a subdued condition, in which they are spoiled for irregular and not yet fit for regular service. They seem incapable now either of outpost and detached duty, or of charging an enemy in line. The Russians, then, were quite right in reserving every sabre and bayonet for the battle of the Alma.

On the banks of this river, the 32,000 Russians were attacked by 55,000 allies. The proportion was almost one to two. When about 30,000 allies had been engaged, Menchikoff ordered the retreat. Of the Russians, up to then, not more than 20,000 were engaged; a further attempt to hold the position would have converted the Russian retreat into a complete rout, for it would have required the engaging of the whole Russian reserve in the battle. The success of the allies, with their tremendous numerical superiority, being established beyond doubt, Menchikoff broke off the battle, covered his retreat by his reserves, and after overcoming the first disorder created on his left by Bosquet's flank movement retired unpursued and unmolested, "in proud order," from the field. The allies say they had no cavalry for the pursuit; but since we know that the Russians had but two regiments of Hussars—less, if anything, than the allies—this excuse falls to the ground. As at Zorndorf, at Eylau, at Borodino[381], the Russian infantry, though beaten, behaved up to the character given them by General Cathcart, who commanded a division against them, and who pronounced them "incapable of panic!"

But if the Russian infantry remained cool and unterrified, Menchikoff himself was panic-struck. The great numerical force of the allies, coupled with their unexpected decision and impetuosity in the attack, deranged, for a moment, his plans. He abandoned the idea of retreating into the interior of the Crimea, and marched to the south of Sevastopol, in order to hold the line of the Chernaya. This was a great and unpardonable mistake. Overlooking, from the hights of the Alma, the whole allied position, he must have been able to make out the strength of his opponents within 5,000 men. He must have known that, whatever was their relative superiority over his own forces, they were not strong enough to leave an army to observe Sevastopol while following him into the interior. He must have known that if the allies were two to one against him on the sea-shore, he could bring two against their one at Simferopol. And yet he marched, as he himself confesses, to the south side of Sevastopol. But, after this retreat had been effected, without any molestation from the allies, and his troops had rested a day or two on the hills behind the Chernaya, then Menchikoff resolved to redress his mistake. He did this by a perilous flank movement from the Chernaya to Bakshiserai. It was contrary to one of the first rules of strategy; yet it promised great results. When a blunder is once committed in strategy, you can seldom get over its consequences. The question then merely is, whether it is less disadvantageous to abide by them or to get over them by a second, but intentional, erroneous movement. In this case we think Menchikoff was perfectly right in risking a flank-march within reach of the enemy, in order to get out of his absurdly "concentrated" position around Sevastopol.

But in this contest between strategical mediocrities and routine generals, the movements of hostile armies assumed forms hitherto unknown in warfare. The fancy for flank-marches, like the cholera, was epidemic in both camps. At the same time that Menchikoff resolved on a flank-march from Sevastopol to Bakshiserai, Saint Arnaud and Raglan took it into their heads to move from the Kacha to Balaklava. The rear of the Russians and the van of the British met at Mackenzie's farm (so called from a Scotchman, later an admiral in the Russian service), and, as a matter of course, the van beat the rear. The general strategical character of the flank-march of the allies having already been criticised in The Tribune[e], we need not now revert to it.

On the 2d or 3d of October Sevastopol was invested, and the allies took up that very position from which Menchikoff had just extricated himself. From that moment the memorable siege of Sevastopol began, and at the same time a new era in the campaign. Hitherto the allies, by their uncontested superiority, had it all their own way. Their fleets, commanding the sea, insured their landing. Once landed, their superior numbers, and certainly also their superior storming qualities, insured the victory at the Alma. But now the equilibrium of forces, which sooner or later is sure to be brought about in operations distant from their base and in an enemy's country, began to develop itself. Menchikoff's army, it is true, did not show itself yet; but it made necessary the placing of a reserve on the Chernaya, fronting to the east. Thus the actual besieging army was seriously weakened, and reduced to numbers not much superior to those of the garrison.

Want of energy, want of system, especially in the cooperation of the different departments of the British land and sea forces, difficulties of ground, and, above all, an invincible spirit of routine, inherent, it appears, in the British administrative and scientific departments, delayed the commencement of actual siege operations to the 9th of October. At last the trenches were opened on that day, at the enormous distance of from 1,500 to 2,500 yards from the Russian works. Such a thing was never seen nor heard of in any previous siege. It proves that the Russians were still able to dispute the ground around the fortress, to the distance of at least a mile; and they actually held it up to the 17th. On the morning of that day the siege-works were far enough advanced to allow the allies to open their fire. Probably this would have been delayed a few days longer, as the allies were by no means in a fit position to do so with success on that day, had it not been for the arrival of the glorious news that all England and France were rejoicing at the capture of Sevastopol on the 25th of October. This news, of course, exasperated the armies, and, in order to tranquilize them, the fire had to be opened. But it turns out that the allies brought 126 guns against 200 or 250. Now, the great axiom of Vauban, which has been again and again used by the Anglo-French to keep public opinion quiet, viz:

"that a siege is an operation of mathematical certainty and success, a mere matter of time, unless interrupted from without."

This great axiom is based upon that other axiom of the same engineer that

"in a siege the fire of the attack can be made superior to that of the defense."

Now, here at Sevastopol, we have exactly the reverse; the fire of the attack, when opened, was decidedly inferior to that of the defense. The consequences were very soon made apparent. In a couple of hours the Russians silenced the fire of the French batteries and kept up an almost equal contest, throughout the day, with the English. To create a diversion, a naval attack was made. But it was neither better conducted nor more successful. The French ships, attacking the Quarantine Fort and Fort Alexander, supported the land attack upon these forts; and had it not been for their aid, there is no doubt the French would have been far more roughly handled. The English ships attacked the north side of the harbor, including Fort Constantine and the Telegraph Battery, as well as a temporary battery constructed to the north-east of Constantine. That cautious man, Admiral Dundas, had ordered his ships to anchor at 1,200 yards from the forts he is evidently a friend of the long-range system. Now it is an old established fact that in a combat between ships and batteries on shore, the ships are beat unless they can close up within 200 yards or less to the batteries, so that their shot is certain to tell, and with the - greater effect. Consequently, Dundas got his ships knocked about in a terrible manner and would have suffered a glorious defeat, had it not been for Sir Edmund Lyons, who, it appears, almost in defiance of orders, got three ships-of-the-line as close as he could to Fort Constantine and did it some damage in exchange for what he received. As, however, the British and French Admirals' reports have not yet said a single word about the actual damage done to the forts, we must conclude that here, as well as [at] Bomarsund, Montalembert Coast forts and casemated batteries—proved a match for twice their number of guns on board ship. This is the more remarkable, as it is now pretty certain that the exposed masonry of these forts, as was already partially proved at Bomarsund, cannot withstand the breaching fire of heavy ship guns, established on shore, for more than twenty-four hours.

The French were almost silent for a couple of days afterward. The English, having established their batteries at a greater distance from the Russian lines, and mounting heavier calibers than their allies, were enabled to maintain their fire and to silence the upper tier of guns in a masonry redoubt. The naval attack was not renewed the best proof of the respect inspired by the casemated forts. The Russians made a defense which very much undeceived the conquerors of the Alma. For every dismounted gun a fresh one was brought up. Every embrasure destroyed during the day by the enemy's fire was restored during the night. Earthworks against earthworks, the contest was very nearly equal, until measures were taken to give the allies the superiority. Lord Raglan's ridiculous order "to spare the town" was revoked, and a bombardment opened which, by its concentric effect upon crowded masses of troops, and by its harassing nature, must have done the garrison great harm. Skirmishers were, besides, sent out in advance of the batteries, to pick off, from any covered position they could find, the Russian gunners, As at Bomarsund, the Minié rifle did its work well. In a few days, what with the heavy guns and the Minié rifles, the Russian artillerymen were mostly put hors de combat[f]. So were the sailors from the fleet, the portion of the garrison best instructed in the use of heavy guns. The usual resource of besieged garrisons had then to be resorted to: the infantry were commanded to serve the guns, under the superintendence of the remaining artillerymen. But their fire, as may be imagined, was almost without effect, and thus the besiegers were enabled to push their trenches nearer and nearer the place. They have opened, it is stated, their third parallel at 300 yards from the outworks. We do not know yet what batteries they have erected in this third parallel; we can only say that a third parallel, in regular sieges, is always made at the foot of the glacis of the works attacked, that is, about 50 or 60 yards from the ditch. If this distance has been exceeded before Sevastopol, we can ,but see in this fact a confirmation of a report contained in several British papers, that the irregularity of the lines of defense, instead of giving the British engineers fresh scope for their inventive capacities, has but disconcerted these gentlemen who can demolish, upon the most approved principle, a regular bastioned front, but who seem to be badly off as soon as the enemy deviates from the rule prescribed by the best authorities on the subject.

The southern attack once decided upon, the parallel and its batteries should have' been directed against one, or at most two well-defined fronts of the defenses. Two of the outer forts next to each other—or, at the very outside, three—should have been attacked with concentrated forces; and, once demolished, then all the other outworks would have been useless. In this way, the allies, by bringing all their artillery to bear upon one point, could have easily established at once a great superiority of fire, and shortened the siege considerably. As far as can be judged from plans and maps, the front, from the Quarantine Fort to the upper end of the inner harbor, or the front against which_ the French now direct their efforts, would have been the best to attack, as its demolition would lay the town itself completely open. The one hundred and thirty guns of the allies would have at once insured them a superiority of fire on this limited front. Instead of this, the desire to let each army act independently of the other produced this unprecedented mode of siege, in which the whole of the ramparts, extending over a length of three miles, is simultaneously cannonaded on its whole extent. Such a thing has never been seen before. Who ever heard of an attack which allowed the defense to bring into play at once, from plain bastioned works and lunettes the enormous mass of two hundred and fifty guns? A single bastioned front can hardly mount twenty guns; and in an ordinary siege no more than three or four fronts can contribute to the defense. Unless the allied engineers can show, hereafter, very substantial reasons for their curious proceedings, we must conclude that they were unable to find out the weakest points of the defenses, and, therefore, in order not to miss them, fired upon every portion of the line.

In the meantime, reenforcements arrive to both parties. Liprandi's harassing and partially successful attacks on the allied outposts have shown the presence of a stronger Russian force than Menchikoff had led to Bakshiserai. As yet, he does not, however, appear strong enough for a relieving battle. Considering the progress made by the besiegers, considering that the damage done to the defense increases in a geometrical ratio as the besiegers approach the ramparts, considering that the outworks still hold out, but that the inner wall appears to be weak, we may expect that something decisive will have occurred from the 9th to the 15th of November; that either the south side of the town has fallen, or that the allies have suffered a decisive defeat and been obliged to raise the siege. But it must be recollected that all such predictions depend upon circumstances which cannot be fully known beforehand at such a distance from the spot.

Written on November 9, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4246, November 27;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 992, November 28
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 690, December 2, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Report of the Liverpool correspondent, New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4246, November 27, 1854.—Ed.

[b] New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4245, November 25, 1854.—Ed.

[c] "Reported Battle on Fourth of November, etc.", New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4246, November 27, 1854.—Ed.

[d] See this volume, pp. 496-97.—Ed.

[e] See this volume, pp. 505-06.—Ed.

[f] out of action.—Ed.

[380] Engels' article, which was entered in the Notebook as "Freitag. 10. November. Ubersicht der Crimean Campaign", was mailed to New York on November 11, 1854 by the Canada. It arrived in New York with delay because the Canada collided with another ship off the American coast, so the Tribune editors changed two first paragraphs in it using the November European press later reports.

[381] Engels enumerates battles in which the Russian troops showed great courage and staunchness.
The battle of Zorndorf, which took place on August 25, 1758 between the Russian and the Prussian armies was one of the major battles in the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Repeated Prussian attacks were repulsed with great valour by the Russians who inflicted severe losses on the enemy by counter-attacks and artillery fire.
The battle of Preussisch-Eylau (Eastern Prussia) on February 7-8, 1807 between the French and Russian troops was one of the bloodiest during the war of the fourth coalition against France. Despite heavy losses Napoleon's army failed to achieve a decisive victory.
The battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812 was a major engagement in the Patriotic war against Napoleon in which the Russian troops displayed high fighting qualities and inflicted heavy losses on the French. The outcome of the battle changed the course of the war in Russia's favour and led to the defeat of Napoleon's army despite the forced but expedient evacuation of Moscow by the Russians.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.510-517), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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