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The War in Asia

Frederick Engels

Little by little we are getting at the details of the fall of Kars[404]; and so far they fully confirm what we have habitually asserted to be the case with respect to the Turkish army in Asia Minor[a]. It is now beyond the possibility of denial that that army has been systematically ruined by the neglect of the Turkish Government, and by the unchecked sway of Turkish indolence, fatalism and stupidity. Indeed, the facts now disclosed go a great way to prove that even direct treason, as is commonly the case in Turkey, has had much to do with the fall of Kars.

As far back as the beginning of last year's campaign, we had occasion to show to our readers the wretched condition of the Turkish army at Erzeroum and Kars, and the flagrant peculation from which that state of things proceeded[b]. There were concentrated for the defense of the Armenian highlands the two army-corps of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, beside part of the corps of Syria. These corps had been reenforced by their redifs or reserve battalions, and formed the nucleus of a numerous host of Kurdish and Bedouin irregulars. But the four or five unfortunate battles of 1853 and 1854, from Akaltzik to Bayazid, had destroyed the cohesion and spirit of this army, while the want of clothing and provisions during the winter completely ruined it. A motley assemblage of Hungarian and Polish refugees, adventurers as well as men of decided merit, had been collected at its headquarters, without any officially-recognized position. Before the ignorant, jealous and intriguing Pashas the adventurers could pass them-selves off as first-rate men, while the really useful men among these refugees were treated as adventurers; in the end it was a race of vanity and intrigue, discreditable to the refugees as a mass, and destroying almost every vestige of their influence. Then came the British officers, who were received with great respect, backed as they were by the consideration due to an allied Government, and by the utter helplessness of the Turkish commanders. But they, too, failed in their attempts to infuse anything like military spirit into the Armenian army. Their efforts might now and then rouse a Pasha from his stolid apathy for a moment, secure the construction of the most indispensable defensive works at Kars, and prevent, from time to time, some of the grossest instances of peculation and even connivance with the enemy; but this was all. When Gen. Williams, last spring, strained every nerve to procure the most indispensable stores of provisions at Kars, he was constantly checked. The Turkish commissariat thought a siege out of the question; it had no horses to move stores with. When asses were found to be abundant, they thought it derogatory to the Sultan's[c] stores to be transported by asses, and so forth; so that in the end Kars, the bulwark of Armenia, at only two marches from the Russian stronghold of Gumri, was, in fact, left without any provisions at all, and had to forage for itself in the environs. It was the same with regard to ammunition. After the Russian attack of Sept. 29, there remained but three days' ammunition for the artillery, though it is to be remembered that no actual siege took place—the 29th September being the only real fighting-day during the blockade. The medicine-chests sent to the army contained all sorts of rubbish, and the surgeons were provided from Constantinople with obstetrical instruments to probe wounds and amputate limbs with!

This was the state of things in Kars. That with such scanty resources a garrison composed of the demoralized troops of Anatolia should have made such a desperate resistance on the 29th of September, and held out so long afterward against hunger, is one of those redeeming facts in Turkish history which abound in the present war. The same fatalism which leads to apathetic indolence in the superiors produces this stubborn resistance in the masses. It is the last remnant of the spirit that bore the banner of Islam from Mecca to Spain and was only checked at Poitiers[405]. Its offensive strength is gone, but a trace of its defensive power has remained. This stubbornness of resistance behind walls and ramparts is essentially Turkish; it would be a great mistake to attribute the credit of it to the presence of European officers. If such were present at Kars and Silistria in 1855 and 1854, they were not so at Varna, at Braila, at Silistria in 1829, when the same feats of heroism were exhibited[406]. What European officers could do in such instances was to correct mistakes, to strengthen redoubts, to give unity to the system of defense, and to prevent direct treachery. But the individual bravery of the soldiers has always been the same, whether they were present or not; nor was it wanting at Kars, even among the disorganized troops of the all but destroyed army of Anatolia.

This leads us to the merits of the British officers who played a conspicuous part in the defense of Kars, and who are now prisoners of war at Tiflis. That they did a great deal toward preparing the means of resistance, that to them is due all the credit for having fortified the place, provisioned it as well as possible, lashed the Turkish Pashas out of their dreamy indolence, and conducted the defense on the 29th of September, cannot be doubted. But it is preposterous to ascribe to them, as the British press now does, all the credit of the 29th September, and of the defense generally, and to set them down as a parcel of heroes, abandoned in the hour of danger by the cowardly Turks, for whose sake they sacrificed themselves. That during the assault they were foremost in the ranks of the defenders, we do not intend to deny; the Englishman is of so pugnacious a nature that the greatest and most common fault of the British officer, in a battle, is to forget his duty as an officer and to fight as a private soldier. Indeed, when he does this he is sure of the applause of his countrymen, although in any other army he would risk being cashiered for loss of presence of mind. But on the other hand, the Turkish soldier is so accustomed to see his own officers run away that when once his spirit is up, he cares nothing at all for officers or command, but fights where he happens to stand, and is not at all the man to notice or much less to be inspired by the fact of half a dozen Englishmen beside him, attempting to display their bravery. That the fortifications of Kars were planned in an exceedingly faulty manner we fully demonstrated immediately after the assault of September 29[d] was known here, and the judgment we then passed upon them has since been completely confirmed by the official map of these fortifications published by the British Government. Finally, then, the merits of these British officers at Kars must be measured by the French proverb: "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is a king." Many a man who cannot muster the knowledge necessary to pass the examination for Sub-Lieutenant in France, would make a great General among the Cochin-Chinese; and if British officers are notorious in their own country for professional incompetence, it must not be expected that they will be illuminated by sudden floods of knowledge or genius on taking service in Turkey. For our part, we believe that Kmety deserves as much credit as any man who partook in the defense of Kars.

While this was the state of things at Kars, what was going on at Erzeroum? A dozen old Pashas passed their days in smoking their chibouks, quite unconscious that any responsibility rested upon them, that Kars was hard pressed, or that the enemy was within a few marches, on the other side of the Dewe Boyun hills. A few thousand regular troops, accompanied by some irregulars, marched to and .fro, never risking an attack on the enemy, and returning as soon as they had descried his outposts. There was neither the force nor the spirit to relieve Kars, and consequently Kars was starved out while the army of Erzeroum scarcely dared to demonstrate in its favor. General Williams , must have known that he could not expect any assistance from that quarter. But what reports, what promises he received respecting the effect of Omer Pasha's movements, we have no means of guessing. It has been said that Williams intended, at the last extremity, to force his way with the garrison through the Russian army; but we doubt whether such a plan was seriously entertained. The hilly ground, offering but very few passes by which Erzeroum could be gained, was all in favor of the Russians; if a few defiles were well occupied by them, this plan was not feasible. On the other hand, movements of troops become almost impossible toward the latter end of October in a country elevated from 5,000 to 8,000 feet above the sea, where Winter sets in very early and lasts from six to nine months. If Kars could hold out till winter, the loss of a garrison of 6,000 regular troops would be nothing in comparison to the time gained by the prolonged defense. Erzeroum, the great center of all the Turkish stores in Armenia, was almost without fortifications, and would thereby be made safe till May, 1856; while the actual advantage gained by the Russians would be confined to the virtual possession of the villages of the Kars Chai and the Upper Araxes, neither of which could have been disputed to them, even if the garrison of Kars had succeeded in reaching Erzeroum. This town was scarcely fortified at all; if the garrison of Kars had actually found its way thither toward the middle of October, there would not have been a sufficient force to defend it. As an open town only can Dewe Boyun be defended, by a battle in front of it, in the Pass[e]. Thus the patience of the garrison of Kars saved Erzeroum.

Again, the question is asked, whether Omer Pasha could not have saved Kars, and almost every European correspondent in the East has an answer of his own to it. It is even now attempted to lay all the blame of the fall of Kars on Omer Pasha, and that by the very parties who formerly were full of his praise. The fact is, that in the first instance, Omer Pasha was retained in the Crimea, against his own will, until it was almost too late to undertake anything on a grand scale before winter. When finally he went to Constantinople to settle his plan of operations, he had to spend his time in counteracting intrigues of all kinds. When at last everything was ready, the promised British transports were not forthcoming; and when the army was concentrated near Batoum, and later on at Sukum Kaleh, no stores, ammunition and means of transport were provided. How, under such circumstances, Omer Pasha was expected to march to the direct relief of Kars, it is not easy to make out. We find that (luring his Mingrelian expedition., he could never venture to go more than two or three days' march from the coast, and yet there he had good Russian military roads to march on. But in going to Kars, either by Erzeroum or Ardahan, he would have had to march either twenty or twelve days from the coast, using for his roads the beds of rivers and paths across the hills, where nothing more clumsy than a pack-horse can pass. The caravans from Trebizond to Erzeroum have no other roads to travel over, and the fact that they never use vehicles is the best proof of what ground they have to traverse. And this is the only track which is at all beaten; as to the so-called roads from Batoum into the interior, their existence is still more problematical, as no great traffic passes over them. The wise military critics who reproach Omer Pasha with not having marched straight upon Kars should first study the accounts of men who have traveled over the ground—such as Curzon and Bodenstedt[f]. As to the allegation of the London Times, that Gen. Williams had pointed out to Omer Pasha Batoum as a starting point for a direct march on Kars[g], we can only say that Williams knows Armenia, where he has lived many years, far too well to propose such a thing.

All things considered, Omer Pasha could not do better than menace the communications of the Russians before Kars. How far he might be enabled to do this effectively depended upon the mobility of his own army and on the Russian forces opposed to him. Leaving out of the question the first consideration, as a matter to be judged of after the fact, we concluded from the beginning, that in all probability the Russians would prove too strong for the invading army. Our very first statement of the forces at the disposal of Bebutoff, and which has turned out quite exact, showed that even at Kutais, the Russians, with a little management, might oppose a superior force to the Turks. And so they did. Had Omer Pasha been ever so free in his movements, he could not have forced, with the army at his command, the passage of the Rioni. But beside this, the slowness and uncertainty with which his supplies were brought up, hampered his operations from the start. After every two or three marches he had to halt nearly a week in order to form the most indispensable depots of provisions; and when at last he had advanced three days' march from Redout Kaleh into the interior, he was completely paralyzed. Finding at the same time a superior army before him, he could but retreat to the coast, where the Russians followed him, harassing his rear very severely. The Turkish army now bivouacs on the coast and is being transported to Batoum, Trebizond, and other places, having suffered severely both from the enemy and from sickness. Mingrelia, with the exception of the coast forts, is again in the hands of the Russians.

This concludes the third lucky campaign of the Russians in Asia: Kars and its Pashalik conquered; Mingrelia freed from invasion; and the last body of Turkish troops remaining in the field, Omer Pasha's army, considerably weakened numerically and morally—these results are not to be despised in a country like that south-west of the Caucasus, where all operations are necessarily slow in consequence of the ground and of the want of roads. And if these successes and positive conquests are placed as a set-off against the occupation of the south side of Sevastopol, of Kertch, Kinburn, Eupatoria, and a few Caucasian forts by the Allies, it will be seen that the advantages actually gained by the latter are not so overwhelming as to justify the rhodomontade of the British press. It is a very significant fact that the Paris Constitutionnel, in an article inspired by the French Court, directly charges Lord Redcliffe with being the principal cause of the Asiatic disasters, by his not only withholding from the Porte the subsidies granted to it on the part of the Allies, but also inducing it to keep back, as long as possible, the reenforcements intended for the theater of war.[h]

Written about January 11, 1856
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4608, January 25, 1856,
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1114, January 29, 1856
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 751, February 2, 1856 as a leading article.
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune.


[a] See this volume, pp. 484-89.—Ed.

[b] See the section "The Turkish Army" in Engels' series of articles The Armies of Europe (this volume, pp. 451-56).—Ed.

[c] Abdul Mejid.—Ed.

[d] See this volume, pp. 563-68, 694-702.—Ed.

[e] The New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune and New-York Weekly Tribune have: "As an open town only can be defended by a battle in front of it, in the Dewe Boyun Pass."—Ed.

[f] The reference is to F. Bodenstedt's book Die Völker des Kaukasus und ihre Freiheitskämpfe gegen die Russen, published in Frankfurt am Main in 1848, and R. Curzon's book Armenia. A Year at Erzeroom, and on the Frontiers of Russia, Turkey and Persia.—Ed.

[g] The Times, No. 22254, January 3, 1856.—Ed.

[h] L. Boniface, "D'après les nouvelles qui viennent de Constantinople...", Le Constitutionnel, No. 8, January 8, 1856.—Ed.

[404] The capture of Kars on November 28, 1855 concluded the successful operations by the Russian forces against the Turks in the Caucasian theatre of the Crimean War. Assisted by the British, the Turks had turned Kars into a bridgehead for the invasion of Transcaucasia. In the course of the fighting the Russian forces inflicted a series of defeats on the "Turks (at Akhaltsikh on November 26, 1853, at Bash-Kadyklar on December 1, 185:i, at Cholok on June 15, 1854, at Bayazid on July 20, 1854 and at Kuruk-Dar on August 5, 1854), thus thwarting their attempts to force their way into Armenia and Georgia. In October 1855 Omer Pasha's army was transferred front t he Crimea to the Caucasus and marched from Sukhum-Kaleh to Mingrelia in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve the Turkish garrison. The capture of Kars, the last important event of the war, accelerated the conclusion of peace.

[405] A reference to the campaigns of the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula in the course of which the Arabian Caliphate subjugated and annexed the countries of the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southwest Europe. The Arabs' advance in Europe was stopped in 732 as a result of the battle of Poitiers, in which the Franks under Charles Martel, the virtual ruler of the Merovingian state, defeated the Arabs who had invaded France from Spain.

[406] Engels is referring to the sieges of the Balkan fortresses of Varna, Brăila and Silistria during the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29. Despite stiff resistance from the Turks, these fortresses were taken by the Russian troops.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.588-594), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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