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The Late Repulse of The Allies[232]

Frederick Engels

The mail of the Canada reached us last evening from Boston, with Gen. Pélissier's report on the repulse of the Allies on the 18th of June (which will be found in our columns today) and with other documents which complete the history of that disastrous affair. Having thus before us all necessary sources of information, we proceed to give our readers an exact and impartial analysis of the entire operation. With regard to its general character it is enough to say that of the many blundering affairs we have had to notice in this Eastern war, this is by far the most perfect piece of bungling.

The French advanced trenches were from 400 to 500, and the English from 500 to 700 yards from the Russian batteries[a]. These distances mark the lengths of road which the respective columns of attack had to pass over without cover from the Russian fire, and unsupported by the fire of their own artillery; with sharp running, then, such as would destroy every vestige of order, they would be exposed to a fire of grape and musketry during from three to five minutes, a time quite sufficient to completely disorganize them. This single fact is characteristic of the whole plan. Unless the enemy's fire were completely silenced, and the accumulation of large masses of troops in the hostile works effectively prevented by incessant vertical shell firing, there was not the slightest chance of success.

The Russians appear to have judged well of the plans of the Allies, if they were not, as Pélissier supposes, fully acquainted with them. They but feebly replied to the besieging fire on the 17th, withdrew their guns behind the parapets during the day, and blinded the embrasures, so that scarcely any were disabled for the next day's work. This was decidedly the best plan, as their object could not be to extinguish the enemy's fire at that time. During the night the guns were brought back into their positions, the columns and reserves told off for the defense were stationed, and thus they were in a condition to meet any assault that could be made upon their position.

The plan agreed upon between Pélissier and Raglan was to reopen their fire at daybreak on the 18th with all the vigor they could give to it for a couple of hours, and then on a sudden to launch simultaneously seven storming columns—one French against the bastion close to the Careening Bay, two French against the Malakoff bastion, three English against the Redan bastion and one English against the cluster of houses and the cemetery situated between the Redan and the head of the inner harbor. This plan was sensible enough if there was to be an assault at all; its execution would subdue the Russian fire and disperse the Russian masses concentrated for the defense before the actual attack took place. On the other hand, the allied troops would have to suffer from the Russian fire while crowding the trenches, and the defenders would very probably soon perceive the presence of columns destined to attack their position with the bayonet. But this was by far the lesser evil. The original plan therefore was the best that could be devised under the circumstances.

However, we are informed that[b] very late in the evening Pélissier learned that the Russians intended again to attack the Mamelon in force on the 18th. This should have been considered a godsend, for the defense of the Mamelon against any force the Russians could bring against it must have been safe, or else how could the Mamelon[c] serve as a base of operations for the assault upon the Malakoff? Thus the Russians, defeated in their assault upon the Mamelon, would have been in a sad plight to fight a second battle for the Malakoff, and it would almost appear that under these circumstances the success of the operation against the latter position must have been certain. Pélissier appears to have thought differently. He countermanded, late at night, the cannonade, and ordered the assault for 3 o'clock in the morning, the signal to be given by three rockets. The English were informed of this change of disposition.

This proceeding ended, as it was sure to do, in the way Napoleon used to say of bungling Generals: Ordre, contre-ordre, désordre[d]. Half an hour before the appointed time, the extreme right French column somehow or other got engaged with the enemy. Whether the Russians drew them out by a false sally, or whether, as Pélissier says, the General[e] mistook a French shell for the signal rockets, is not quite clear. At all events, Pélissier had to hurry his signal, and the columns, still engaged in finding their proper places in the trenches, had to start in half confusion, and in part from different starting points from those assigned to them. The middle French column, intended to turn the flank of the Malakoff, effected its purpose and got into the Russian works; but the other two columns could make no headway in the hail-storm of case-shot and musketry which assailed them. Each column consisted of a brigade of four battalions; the second brigade of each division was in second line, while the Guard formed the general reserve. Thus nearly four divisions, or 20,000 men, were at hand for the purpose. The second line was brought up to the support of the first attack, but in vain; the Guards were sent forward, and they were arrested and then thrown back as well. Two battalions only remained disposable. It was now half-past eight. The brigade of the middle column, which had penetrated into the works, was ejected; on every point the French had been repulsed with great loss and no fresh troops were at hand. The English had not succeeded either. Pélissier gave the order for the retreat, which he says was effected with "dignity."

On the English side the columns of attack were told off with that parsimoniousness characteristic of the British Army. The leading columns counted but 1,800 men each, or 1,000 men less than the French columns[f]. Of these 1,800, but 1,000 were intended for fighting—the rest for working parties. In second line, the remainder of the brigade from which the force was taken, say 1,200 to 1,400 men, were behind each ' column. In third line, the second brigade of each division was behind its first brigade. Finally, the Guards and Highlanders (first division) formed the general reserve. Thus, of the whole English infantry assembled on the ground, but 7,200 men were to be launched in the first onset, and of these but 4,000 were actual combatants. This weakness in the first columns was caused, first, by the traditions of the British service, and, secondly, by their habit of attacking in line; for all reports lead to the conclusion that even in this instance they attacked in line, and thus offered a gratuitously large aim to the grape of the enemy. The complication caused by the arrangement of four different lines one behind another, in narrow and irregular trenches, created great disorder and mischief from the beginning, and would have created utter confusion had the struggle become anything like serious.

Click for full-size image.

The first and third columns (from right to left) were to turn the flanks of the Redan, while the second was to attack its salient angle as soon as they had succeeded. The fourth or extreme left column, as stated, had to attack the head of the inner harbor. When the signal was given, as was the case with the French, the columns were still in movement toward their respective positions. The first column, however, jumped over the parapet of the trenches and was instantly saluted with a murderous fire of case-shot. The troops, disordered by the climbing, could not form. Col. Yea, who commanded, was already shouting for a bugler to sound the retreat; no bugler was found, and on they went in great disorder. Some penetrated to the abattis surrounding the Redan, but in vain. The mass of the column fell back at once and sought the shelter of the trenches. The third column advanced a minute or two later. It missed its road, and assailed the face of the Redan near the apex, instead of the flank. It staggered forward under a tremendous hail of projectiles, but was broken and retreated in complete disorder in a very few minutes. The whole affair lasted less than fifteen minutes[g]. Thus ended the attack upon the Redan, before any of the complicated reserves of Lord Raglan had time to come up to its support. The second column was so startled by this sudden breakdown of its flanking bodies that it did not even stir out of the trenches.

The fourth column, commanded by Maj. Gen. Eyre, whose report we publish[h], alone succeeded in establishing itself in the cemetery and the houses surrounding. Here about 1,800 men held out during the day. They could not retreat, for the ground behind them was open and under the cross fire of the Russians. Thus they fought as well as they could till 9 o'clock at night, when they effected their retreat during the darkness. Their losses amounted to more than one-third of their number.

Thus ended Pélissier's grand attack upon the Karabelnaya suburb. It was hastily determined upon, more hastily changed in its main features at a late period, and carried out with extreme blundering. The Russian was right who said to an English officer during the armistice of the 19th "Your Generals must have been drunk yesterday when they ordered the assault."

A newspaper correspondent writing from the scene describes it as "an infantry Balaklava."[233] This is perfectly just, and sums up in the briefest manner the criticisms which all intelligent military men must make upon this calamitous repulse.[i]

Written about July 6, 1855
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4447, July 21, 1855,
Reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1060, July 24, 1855
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 724, July 28, 1855 as a leading article;
the German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung,
partly in Marx's report printed in No. 313 on July 9,
and as a separate article in No. 317 on July 11, 1855, marked with the sign x


[a] Marx included this and the following two paragraphs in his report "Clashes between the Police and the People.—The Events in the Crimea" published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung (see this volume, pp. 333-36).—Ed.

[b] The German version of this article, published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung under the title "The Assault of the 18th [June]", begins here. It is introduced as follows: "London, July 7. Yesterday we examined the Allies' original plan for the assault on June 18."—Ed.

[c] The version published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung has here: "(now christened the Brancion redoubt)".—Ed.

[d] In the Neue Oder-Zeitung this passage reads as follows: "The operation ended as it was bound to end, in the manner in which Napoleon, the real Napoleon, describes the fate of wavering and bungling generals: 'Ordre, contre-ordre, désordre'."—Ed.

[e] J. D. N. Mayran.—Ed.

[f] Instead of the preceding two sentences the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "On the English side each of the leading columns comprised only 1,800 men, 1,000 men less than the French."—Ed.

[g] This sentence does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[h] The German version makes no mention of Eyre or his report.—Ed.

[i] The last paragraph does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[232] The text of this article by Engels was used by Marx in two reports for the Neue Oder-Zeitung: "Clashes between the Police and the People.—The Events in the Crimea" (published in this volume as a joint work by Marx and Engels, see pp. 333-36) and "Uber den Sturm vom 18. Juni" ("On the Assault of June 18"). The latter has not been included in this volume as it is an almost word for word translation of part of Engels' article "The Late Repulse of the Allies".

The first paragraph of the New-York Daily Tribune version of this article shows signs of editorial interference.

[233] A reference to the defeat of the British and Turkish forces in the battle of Balaklava (see Note 10↓). Particularly heavy losses were suffered by the British cavalry.

[10] The battle of Balaklava took place on October 25, 1854. Units of the Russian army tried to cut off the British and Turkish troops taking part in the siege of Sevastopol from their base in Balaklava. They succeeded in inflicting serious losses on the enemy, especially on the British cavalry, but failed to achieve their main objective. For a description of this battle see Engels' article "The War in the East" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 518-27).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.328-332), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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