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The Battle of the Chernaya[352]

Frederick Engels

Contrary to our expectation the mail of the Africa, which we received late on Wednesday night, failed to bring the report of Prince Gorchakoff concerning the battle of the Chernaya, fought on the 16th ult. However, the French and English accounts which we printed yesterday afford sufficient information for a tolerably correct judgment of the affair[a]. In the French report one is struck by the absence of that tendency to bluster which but too often is innate in a French sabreur, and which was so prominent in Pélissier's first Bulletins. The old General is now uncommonly clear, business-like, and to the point[b]; he even gives the Russians full credit for the bravery they displayed on that occasion; and his report very favorably contrasts with General Simpson's amusing calculations as to the numbers engaged, by which it would appear that without any great effort some 15,000 French and Sardinians defeated 60,000 Russians. The facts of the case appear to have been as follows:

On the morning of Aug. 16, before daybreak, the Russians descended from the Mackenzie heights and took up a position on the edge of the hills descending toward the Chernaya. They were commanded by Prince Gorchakoff in person, under whom Gen. Read commanded the right wing (7th and 12th divisions), while Liprandi with the 5th division appears to have occupied the center, while the 17th division formed the Russian left. Portions of the 4th and 6th divisions were also present, and seem to have acted as reserves. The 5th division, along with the troops belonging to the 4th and 6th, form part of the second (Paniutin's) corps, which had but just arrived in the Crimea; the remainder were old Crimean troops, and must have figured with effective numbers very much reduced.

The ground on the opposite side of the Chernaya is mostly level, a continuation of the plain of Balaklava toward the river; but close to its banks this plain is interrupted by two groups of hillocks, rising gradually from the Balaklava side, but falling off toward the Chernaya, thus offering a good defensible position against an enemy crossing the river. Between these two groups of hillocks lies the valley into which the British Light Cavalry charged in the battle of Balaklava[353]. The eastern group of hillocks, forming the right wing of the position, was occupied by La Marmora with his two Sardinian divisions; the other, toward the northwest, by three French divisions, which thus formed the center and left of the position. The French were commanded by General d'Herbillon, who had disposed Camou's division to the left, his own in the center, and Faucheux's division to the right, where it joined the Sardinian division of Trotti. The position gained additional strength from the two obstacles in its immediate front: first, the Chernaya, which river at the time was certainly fordable, but still obliged the Russians to cross at certain places only, and with a small front; and secondly, the aqueduct, cut in most places into the rock, and thus offering, even after its passage, a steep wall of scarped rock to be climbed. On the brink of the hills the French and Piedmontese had thrown up some light breast-works just sufficient to shelter their cannon. The two groups of hillocks formed, so to speak, several bastions flanking each other with their artillery. Beyond the Chernaya, which was crossed by bridges at Chorgun, on the Sardinian extreme right, and at an inn (in Russian Traktir) in front of the French center, the Piedmontese had two companies as outposts, while the bridge of Traktir was covered by a slight bridge-head occupied by the French. The French outposts were still beyond this.

On the morning of the 16th the Russians having got their artillery in position on the heights east of the Chernaya, sent their advanced troops down into the valley. Day had not yet broken and a dense fog facilitated a surprise, as at Inkerman. The allied outposts were driven in, in a moment, and by daybreak the bridge-head and the whole eastern side of the river were in their hands, while they were fighting for the passage of the bridges with two French regiments. Then the 7th and 12th Russian divisions, placed exactly opposite the French divisions of Camou and d'Herbillon, descended in two close columns into the valley; and here they formed their columns of attack and advanced in two distinct masses—the 7th division, passing river and aqueduct, partly by fords, partly by flying-bridges constructed in all haste, against Camou; while the 12th division, part of which remained in reserve, advanced against d'Herbillon by the bridge of Traktir, the defenders of which were in an instant thrown back by the overwhelming masses of the Russians. They advanced with greater rapidity and spirit than were ever shown by Russians through the aqueduct and up the hill-side. The 7th Russian division came up nearly to the brink of the hill, when Camou's troops, deployed in line, gave them a volley and charged them in flank and rear with such vehemence that the Russians instantly turned, recrossed the river under a murderous fire, and, if we may believe Pélissier, that 7th division never showed itself again during the battle. In the center, the 12th division succeeded in scaling the heights and driving in several French regiments. The fate of the battle appeared uncertain for a moment, when d'Herbillon ordered a brigade from Faucheux's division to attack the left flank of the Russian columns, and after a short struggle, the Russians were driven down the declivity, followed by the French, who for a moment retook the bridge.

Chart of the Battle of the Chernaya (August 16, 1855) made by Engels

Gorchakoff, however, had prepared a fresh attack. The remainder of the 12th division and the 5th division had descended into the valley, where they sheltered the fugitives who re-formed; and now the whole of the 12th and 5th divisions moved forward for a second charge. They passed by the bridge, and close to the right and left of it, and advanced with great vivacity against the allied center (d'Herbillon's and Faucheux's divisions). But by this time the French had got all their artillery into position; it fired in front against the Russian columns, while the Sardinian artillery took them in flank. In spite of this murderous fire they advanced steadily and rapidly, and again reached the hights. There they found the French collected, deployed in line a little behind the edge of the hill. As soon as the heads of the columns were fairly on the edge, the French gave them a volley, and charged them with the bayonet in front and flank. The struggle was as short as before. The Russians gave way and fled in disorder across the river, pursued by the musketry and artillery-fire of the Allies. This second defeat of the Russians virtually decided the battle. They had three-fifths of their infantry engaged, and could not hope to see any fresh reenforcements arrive on the field; the Allies, too, had three divisions out of five engaged, but fresh troops were hurrying to support them from the camp before Sevastopol. Pélissier had sent for two more divisions of the line and one of the Guards, and they were coming up. It was now about 8 o'clock in the morning.

Gorchakoff, in spite of these odds, resolved upon another attack. The 17th division now had to come forward and to form a nucleus for such part of the beaten troops as were still fit to be brought against the enemy. The line of attack was again shifted to the left; it was Faucheux's division upon which the Russians fell this time. But in vain. The cross-fire of the French and Sardinian artillery decimated them before they could reach the summit of the hills, and again the French lines broke their columns and drove them back to the other side of the river, while the Piedmontese (Trotti's division) took them in flank and completed the victory. There remained but the troops of the 4th and 6th divisions intact, amounting to the effective strength of about one division. To launch these would have served no purpose whatever. The defeat was unmistakable; and accordingly the Russians, bringing forward their artillery, commenced the retreat. Their own position was so strong that Pélissier deemed an attack upon it out of the question; and therefore they were molested by the artillery and rifles only[c]. The loss of the Russians in this affair was enormous in comparison with that of the Allies. The former lost about 5,000 in killed, wounded and prisoners; the latter about 1,500 only. The reason of this was, that the Russians had to make all their charges under the most effective fire of the allied artillery, especially the Piedmontese, whose 16-pounders, though slow to move, are of the highest effect when once in position.

The Russian attack was here made exclusively in front. To turn the French left by Inkerman, appeared impossible from the command exercised by the French batteries on the spur of the ridge opposite that place. To turn the Allies by their right would have necessitated that the main body of the Russians should descend into the valley of Baidar, where the ground is evidently too intricate for such clumsy troops. Thus the front attack was chosen, and very properly a surprise attempted. The surprise partially succeeded, but was not carried out with the necessary energy. When the Russians were once masters of the passages of the Chernaya, they should have pushed forward their masses just as they happened to be at hand, in order to follow up their advantage before the French could recover from the first blow[d]. Instead of that, they allowed their opponents the time necessary to bring their troops and artillery into position, and the effect of the surprise which might have brought into their hands the hights occupied by the French ceased almost as soon as the Russians had reached the Chernaya. This is another proof of the difficulty of moving Russian troops under circumstances where they should be expected to act rapidly and where inferior commanders must use their own judgment.

The French have always been notorious for a certain contempt of outpost duty. Even in their best estate an active enemy could any night surprise their outposts and alarm their camps without any great risk. On this occasion they showed that even the slowly-moving Russians might do it. Their main position was so close on the Chernaya that their advanced troops should have been either pushed much further forward, or, if the ground did not allow this, that they should have been reenforced so strongly as to be able to hold out until the camp could be got under arms. As it was, the French were encamped without any proportionate advanced guard, and in consequence the Russians were able to advance on their main position before they had time to bring their full powers of resistance into play. More active opponents than the Russians would have brought forward superior numbers so rapidly that the heights occupied by the French must have been carried before any regular and systematic resistance could have been made[e]. But the Russians themselves were afraid of risking a division or two of their troops in twilight-fighting, and thus they lost every advantage the surprise had gained for them.

The decisive and easily-bought successes of the French in repelling the Russian columns when they had already scaled the heights, were due to a system of tactics hitherto not often followed by them. They have evidently learnt this mode of fighting from the English, who are masters in it. In defending a range of hills, the great advantage consists in concealing your troops just behind the crest, where they are fully sheltered, deploying them in line, and awaiting the appearance of the hostile columns. As soon as the heads of the columns appear on the crest, your line pours a volley into them, to which but a few muskets can reply, and then you rush upon them, in front and flank, with the bayonet. The English fought thus at Busaco, Pampeluna, Waterloo[354], and other battles, with constant success. Yet the continental troops of Europe appear to have lost all trace of this all but infallible mode of defending a range of heights. In the manuals of tactics it figured, but in practice it had almost disappeared before the universal predilection for columns covered by skirmishers. The French deserve great credit for having adopted from their old opponents this plain and effective maneuver. Had they been disposed in columns there is little doubt the Russians would have had greater advantages over them and perhaps even carried the day. But as it was, the fire of a deployed line of infantry, acting upon an enemy disorganized by a telling artillery fire and the fatigue of mounting a steep hill, proved overwhelming; and a hearty advance with the bayonet was quite sufficient to hurl back the masses that had already spent their spirits before the glittering steel was close upon them.[f]

This is the third pitched battle of this war, fought in the open field, and like Alma and Inkerman[355], it is distinguished by its comparatively short duration. In Napoleon's wars a great deal of preliminary skirmishing characterized a battle; each party sought to feel the enemy before engaging him on decisive points and with decisive masses; and it was after each party had engaged the greater number of its troops only that the decisive blow was attempted. Here we see, on the contrary, no time lost, no fencing to tire out the enemy; the blow is struck at once, and upon the result of one or two attacks the fate of the battle depends. This looks a great deal braver than Napoleon's mode of fighting; yet, if a superiority of two to one, as the Allies possessed on the Alma, or if the known clumsiness of the Russians in maneuvering may seem to justify such straightforward action, the fact is that it shows in both parties a great want of generalship; and whenever the sabreurs who act upon this principle happen to be opposed to a general who properly understands how to occupy their troops, how to lay snares for them and invite them to run into them, they will very soon find themselves in a very unenviable position.

Finally, we repeat what we have often said; bravery in the soldiers and mediocrity in the generals are the chief characteristics, on both sides, of the present war.[g]

Written about August 31, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4494, September 14, 1855,
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1076, September 18, 1855
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 732, September 22, 1855 as a leading article;
the German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, Nos. 409 and 411, September 3 and 4, 1855,
marked with the sign x
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Instead of these two sentences the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune and New-York Weekly Tribune have: "At last we have received the reports of the several commanding Generals in the Crimea concerning the battle of the Chernaya, fought on the 16th ult."—Ed.

[b] In the Neue Oder-Zeitung of September 3, 1855 the beginning of the article reads as follows: "Although we still have no detailed Russian report on the battle of the Chernaya (fought on August 16), the French and English reports this time allow a fairly accurate judgment of the affair. The defeat of June 18 seems to a certain degree to have held in check the tendency to bluster which was so prominent in Pélissier's first Bulletins. His report on the Chernaya affair is uncommonly clear, business-like, and to the point."—Ed.

[c] Instead of the last two sentences the Neue Oder-Zeitung of September 4, 1855, where the end of this article is published, has: "Yesterday we described the mere progress of the battle of the Chernaya. For an accurate assessment of the number of troops engaged on both sides we shall have to wait for the Russian reports."—Ed.

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

[e] Instead of the passage beginning with the words "On this occasion they showed..." the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "That omission was all the more striking this time as Pélissier had repeatedly been informed of the plans of the Russians, even on the eve of the battle, by Russian deserters. As it was, the French were encamped on the hills without any proportionate advanced guard, so that the enemy could have advanced before they had had time to bring their full powers of resistance into play. This could have decided the outcome had the French been confronted by an active opponent."—Ed.

[f] The concluding part of this paragraph beginning with the words "but in practice it had almost disappeared" does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.

[g] Instead of the last two paragraphs the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "The battle of the Chernaya is the third 'great' battle of the Crimean campaign alongside the battles of the Alma and Inkerman. Characteristic of all these battles is their extraordinary simplicity, we would almost say primitiveness. No long manoeuvring, several strong blows, rapid decision. In Napoleon's battles we find, on the contrary, a great deal of skirmishing, all sorts of manoeuvres, and the decisive blow dealt unexpectedly only after the greater part of the troops has temporarily been engaged. The Crimean mode of procedure looks braver but in fact only shows the mediocrity of the generals on both sides and bears out our view that in modern times the art of war has been developing in reverse proportion to war material. If the battle of the Chernaya by no means provides as strong evidence of the Russians' inability as the battle of Inkerman, it undoubtedly proves anew the superiority of the Western armies. It shows to those prophets who on the pretext of having discovered a 'new' element in history are merely giving modern colour and shape to their school recollections of the decline of the Roman Empire that the substitutes for the Goths should be looked for not among the Muscovites but elsewhere.

"In The Morning Advertiser Sir Charles Napier is publishing his correspondence with Sir James Graham, something he has threatened to do for a long time."—Ed.

[352] A somewhat altered German version of this article was prepared by Marx for the Neue Oder-Zeitung. It was dated August 31 and September 1 and published on September 3 and 4 under the heading "Über die Schlacht an der Tschernaja" ("On the Battle of the Chernaya").

The first paragraph in the New-York Daily Tribune version contains changes made by the editors who, in particular, added the reference to the publication of the Pélissier and Simpson reports in the Tribune (No. 4493, September 13, 1855).

[353] 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).

[354] The battles mentioned were fought by the British and their allies against the armies of Napoleonic France. The battle of Bussaco (Portugal) was on September 27, 1810; the battle of Pamplona was during the siege of that Spanish fortress in 1813, and the battle of Waterloo was on June 18, 1815 (see Note 219↓).

[355] The battle of the Alma took place on September 20, 1854. The Russian forces were commanded by A. S. Menshikov, and the numerically superior forces of the French, British and Turks by Saint-Arnaud and Raglan. It was the first battle after the Allies' landing in the Crimea (at Eupatoria) on September 14. The defeat and withdrawal of the Russian troops opened up the way to Sevastopol for the Allies. Later Engels also described this battle in his article "Alma" written for the New Americana (see present edition, Vol. 18).

In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

[219] In the battle of Waterloo fought on June 18, 1815, the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington and Blücher defeated Napoleon's army.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.504-512), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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