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Position of The Armies In Turkey[107]

Frederick Engels

When the intelligence of the Russian occupation of the Dobrodja was first received, and long before the real intentions of the Russians in passing the Danube could be developed by their acts, we stated our opinion that the leading idea of the movement could not be any other than the improvement of their defensive position[a]. That this was actually the case is shown by all their steps since, and by those of their opponents also. The Russians sent from 40,000 to 50,000 men into the Dobrodja, who have not, as far as reliable information goes, passed the line from Chernavoda to Kustendje. They appear to have sent an equal if not a superior number to Kalarash, opposite Silistria, with the intention of menacing, or under favorable circumstances, of attacking that fortress. They have withdrawn all their troops west of Bucharest with the exception of a rear guard, which, incapable of holding out any longer in front of Kalafat, has, it appears, made an excursion upon the opposite Servian shore of the Danube, for the purpose apparently of showing the contempt of the Russians for Servian neutrality, and trying what effect the presence of a few Russian uniforms would produce among the Servian peasantry or even perhaps to furnish occasion for the occupation of the country by Austria.

There is no doubt that we shall very shortly hear of the whole of Lesser Wallachia being abandoned by the Russians, and what, then, will be their position? Their line will extend from Tirgovest by Oltenitza and Kalarash to Chernavoda and thence, crossing the Danube, to the Black Sea near Kustendje. It is, in fact, a position which sacrifices more ground than it gains. This is the case notwithstanding [that] this shortening of the Russian front is in itself an advantage. At the same time it is a movement toward their left, by which their line of retreat, formerly in the direction of the prolongation of that front, is now placed perpendicularly behind it. Two months ago Omer Pasha could have cut off their retreat by merely passing the Danube at any point between Silistria and Hirsova; but now that cannot be done, except, perhaps, by landing troops near the mouth of the Dniester. And it is in this that the great advantage of the movement lies an advantage not even balanced by the risk encountered by placing the corps in the Dobrodja in an oblong rectangle, one side of which is closed by the strong position of the enemy, another by the sea, and the other two by the two bends of the Danube with no more than three bridges for communication, reenforcements or retreat.

But here ends the advantage gained by the Russians. They have obtained a position from which they can retreat, but not one from which they can advance. Before them, from Oltenitza to Chernavoda, is the Danube, passable at a few points only, and those points defended either by strong batteries on a commanding shore, or, as at Silistria by a regular fortress. Further on, from Chernavoda to the sea are the lakes and morasses of Karasu, the Wall of Trajan, (refitted for defense on the points of passage) the fortress of Kustendje, and the allied fleets on their flank in the Black Sea. Beyond the Danube, as well as beyond Trajan's Wall, stretches a comparatively barren country, generally of high ground, intersected in every direction by precipitous ravines formed by numerous rivers, none of which are bridged over. This country is certainly not impassable for an army, but can only be traversed by a force which may safely expect to find a good position, a weak enemy, and plenty of provisions and forage on the other side. But here just the reverse is the case. If the Russians advance from Trajan's Wall and from Oltenitza or Turtukai toward Bazardjik and Rasgrad, they must leave troops behind them to blockade Silistria and to observe Rustchuk. Thus weakened, they pass the difficult country to Rasgrad and Bazardjik, and where do they arrive? Why, before the first advanced range of the Balkans, which runs right across their line of operations, and which must be passed in detached corps on different and diverging roads. Supposing this to be attempted, their divided corps risk being beaten in detail by a concentrated force emerging from Shumla, the -retreat of which they cannot in any case cut off. But supposing even that they should overcome all these difficulties, and should appear, say 100,000 men strong, in the neighborhood of Shumla and Varna what then? Shumla is a position which not only can be held by 40,000 men against 100,000, but in which the smaller force cannot be kept in check by the larger. At the same time, it covers Varna, which on the other flank is covered by the allied fleets. And Varna and Shumla form, combined, a line far stronger than Verona and Legnago formed, in 1848, upon the Adige for Field-Marshal Radetzky, when he was pressed on all sides by the Piedmontese and insurgent Italian troops[b]. Moreover, Shumla and Varna have as their complements Rustchuk and Silistria, both of which are situated in the direction of the enemy's flank, and which, weak as they may appear in themselves, cannot successfully be attacked as long as the main force of the Turkish army is capable of a sally from Shumla in either direction. Both fortresses are situated on the Danube, Silistria in front of the right center of the present Russian position, Rustchuk on its right flank. They must be blockaded on the right bank of the river; that is to say, the blockading force must take its station directly between the fortresses and Shumla, where, according to all appearances, Omer Pasha is concentrating the bulk of his troops. Any force, blockading Rustchuk and Silistria, must, therefore, be of sufficient strength to resist at least two-thirds of the Turkish army concentrated at Shumla, with the garrisons of these fortresses besides. On the other hand, if the Russian force advances by way of Bazardjik, it must also be strong enough to resist two-thirds of the army of Shumla in open battle. Besides, troops must be detached to blockade Varna at least on the north side, and if possible on the south side also; for unless Varna is blockaded it cannot be taken, and unless it is taken, the Russians cannot pass the Balkans. If, beside all these requirements, we take into consideration the detachments necessary to keep up the communication between the different corps on the long line from Rustchuk to Varna, and to secure the arrival of supplies, there is no doubt that in order to make a successful advance upon Shumla and Varna, the two decisive points of the defense of the eastern Balkans, the Russians must have more than double the force which the Turks can concentrate at Shumla.

From these facts we see that the Turks have acted very wisely. The abandonment of the Dobrodja is the first positive and undeniable proof of good generalship on the part of Omer Pasha. The country and its fortresses are not worth holding. Instead of incurring defeats and losses of men and material, the Turkish General at once ordered his troops to abandon all points as soon as it could be done with safety for the retreat of all, and to fall back on Trajan's Wall. Thus the Russians obtained an easy apparent triumph, while the Turks did them serious damage in the process, and gained their true position of defense before the enemy could retaliate. The Turks have no garrisons except in important places, and where the main army or the fleets in the Black Sea can support them. Thus they will be able to bring together at least 80,000 or 90,000 men in case of need, between Shumla and Varna, a force which might be increased by the speedy recall of some of the troops that a political panic, without any real reason, sent to Kalafat. And that the Russians should bring twice as many, or even more men, across the Danube is impossible, at least during this campaign. In saying this, we are supposing that they actually intend to carry forward a vigorous offensive, and we leave out of the account the arrival of the Anglo-French auxiliary troops, whose presence would make any passage of the Balkans an act of folly. We have considered the subject in this light, because it is quite as well to know the real state of the present combatants. The truth is, that if the Russians and the Turks alone had to fight the matter out, even after the superiority required for offensive action has been lost to the Turks by diplomatic delays, Constantinople is, for the present year at least, safe enough from a Russian invasion.

Written on April 13, 1854
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4065, April 28;
Reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 660, May 6, 1854 as a leader


[a] See this volume, pp. 129-30.—Ed.

[b] The reference is to the revolution of1848;—Ed.

[107] The article "Position of the Armies in Turkey" was written and sent by Engels to Marx in London on April 13; in the Notebook it is entered as "Freitag. 14. April. Militaria".

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.150-153), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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