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The War on The Danube[206]

Frederick Engels

About eighty years ago, when the victorious armies of Catherine II were severing from Turkey province after province, prior to their transformation into what is now called South Russia, the poet Derzhavin, in one of the bursts of lyrical enthusiasm in which he was wont to celebrate the glories, if not the virtues of that Empress, and the destined grandeur of her empire, uttered a memorable couplet in which we may still find condensed the scornful boldness and self-reliance of the Czarian policy:

"And what to thee O Russ, is any ally?
Advance and the whole Universe is thine!"

This may be true enough, even now, if the Russ only could advance, but on that process a pretty decided check has been put. Consequently he is constrained for the present moment at least, to postpone the possession of the Universe. But what is very bitter to his pride is that in retracing his steps he not only fails to carry with him the pledge of universal dominion, but is even obliged to leave behind the keys of the simple fortress of Silistria, on the Danube, which he had sworn to have. And still more painful, he leaves behind him also the remains of some fifty thousand of his brethren, who have perished by disease and battle in this single campaign.

There is no doubt that from a military point of view the siege of Silistria is the most important among all the military events since the beginning of the war. It is the failure to take that fortress which renders the campaign a failure for the Russians and adds disgrace and the Czar's disfavor to the retreat behind the Sereth, in which they are now engaged. Of the earlier stages of the siege we have already laid before our readers a careful, and, we hope, a clear analysis[b]; and now, at last, having received by the Pacific[207] the official Russian reports, we are able to follow the whole affair to its conclusion without doing any injustice to either party. Besides the Russian reports, which are distinct, clear and business-like in what they state, but abound in faults of omission, we now have Lieutenant Nasmyth's (Bengal Artillery,) report to The London Times[c], a complete journal of the siege, giving some interesting particulars, but made up in rather a slovenly way, and sometimes incorrect in the dates. It is only proper to say that the views and conclusions we have previously expressed concerning the siege, are altogether confirmed by these later and more detailed narratives, except in the particular that the Turks did not abandon the defense of the fort Arab Tabiassi, as in the latter part of the siege we supposed they would be constrained to do[d]. It appears too, that the Russians were still more extravagant in their operations than we suspected. First they made a regular attack on the fortress on its eastern side, on the low lands of the Danube, hoping to be able to turn the detached forts altogether and to make a breach in the main wall of Silistria at once. If this attempt had the merit of originality, it certainly had no other. It affords, perhaps the first instance of trenches, and approaches being thrown up against a fortress, on ground which was not only flanked, but actually commanded in the rear by hights fortified by the enemy. But then a second, an irregular attack was directed against these very hights, and so cleverly combined that after the loss of a fortnight on reconnoitering and storming, in which thousands of Russians were killed or disabled, a regular siege against them had also to be employed. So much for the skill displayed by the Russians. Let us now pass to the details of the period of the siege.

On the 1st of June the Russians got a fresh train of siege-artillery, brought over from the left bank of the Danube, which they arranged in battery against Arab Tabiassi. The Turks sunk shafts and pushed mines under the counterscarps and glacis of this fort. On June 2, Mussa Pasha, commander of Silistria was killed by a shell. Toward evening the Russians exploded a mine under one of the bastions of Arab Tabiassi. As at that time they could not yet have arrived at the crest of the glacis, this mine could not have been very accurately laid. The distances, as well as the line of shortest resistance must have been wrongly calculated, and, accordingly, when the mine sprung, so far from injuring the Turkish defenses, it exploded backward and overwhelmed the Russian trenches with a hail of stones and earth. But here the storming columns were assembled ready for an assault, and the effect of this hail of stones among them may be readily imagined. How far the Russians succeeded in effectually blockading the fortress is shown by the fact that on this day 5,000 Turkish irregulars from Rasgrad west of Silistria made their way into the besieged town.

From the 4th to the 8th of June the trenches against the Arab Tabiassi were continued. The Russians arrived at the glacis, pushed a sap boldly forward toward its crest, which was very poorly supported however by the fire of their artillery. They commenced sinking a mine below the ditch and pushed it under the scarp of the bastion. While this was going on Marshal Paskievich on the 9th again made one of his inexplicable displays of armed force in a grand reconnaissance against the fortress, consisting of 31 battalions, 40 squadrons, and 144 field pieces. What he expected to gain by this exhibition nobody can tell. It looks like one of those displays volunteered only in the hope of some chance offering itself for doing something serious, or at least to impress your enemy with the notion that you are irresistible. But no such effect was produced upon the Turks. On the contrary, they sent forth 4,000 cavalry, who, according to the Russian bulletin were dreadfully beaten; Nasmyth, however, asserts that they brought in sixty Russian horses taken in the affray. At the same time, Paskievich instead of reconnoitering something to his advantage, was, according to the report, himself reconnoitered by a Turkish cannon-ball, which put him hors de combat[e] and necessitated his being transported to Jassy.

On the 10th the siege was at its crisis. The grand mine, Schilder's last hope, was sprung. It produced indeed a practicable breach in the front bastion of Arab Tabiassi. The Russian columns advanced to the assault; but, as they might have expected, the Turks had long since made a coupure or second parapet with a ditch, a little to the rear, of the main wall, and the Russians on coming up found themselves arrested and exposed to murderous fire. Now, when the advance of an assaulting column is once brought to a stand, that column is beaten; for the fire of the enemy covered behind ramparts and supported by artillery, at a distance where every shot tells, forces it to retreat in a very few minutes. The Russians, therefore, had to make the best of the way back across the breach, and were followed by the Turks, who pursued them as far as the Russian trenches and destroyed part of the siege works. This assault was the last serious enterprise of the Russians against Silistria. If the siege was apparently and nominally continued until orders for the raising of it arrived, it was merely to save appearances. On the 12th the blockade was so little sustained that European officers from Shumla had no difficulty in entering the fortress.

The Russians had opened their trenches in the low ground on the 19th of May. Their batteries against Arab Tabiassi, seven in number, commenced work on the 22d. Fifteen more guns were brought up against that fort on the following day. Still the regular attack against Arab Tabiassi did not take place, according to the Russian account, until the 31st of May. This appears to indicate that the batteries erected on the 21st and 22d merely did the office of a first parallel, and were armed with heavy field pieces, for the purpose of enfilading the fort. From May 31 to June 10 the Russian batteries advanced within one hundred yards of the fort, that is from the first to the third parallel, at the foot of the glacis. Neither was the glacis crowned, nor were trenching batteries erected; but, as before stated, a sap was pushed up the slope of the glacis, in order to sink the shaft of the mine at its top. As we learn from all reports that Arab Tabiassi was hardly more than a field fortification, of large proportions but little permanent strength, the conduct of its defenders, composed of four battalions and 500 irregulars under Hussein Pasha, certainly deserves the highest praise. Nine days of distant cannonading, eleven days of open trenches, two mines and four or five assaults, all ending in the discomfiture of the enemy, we remember no other instance in the history of war where a mere outwork, of such construction as Arab Tabiassi, has stood so much. The instances coming nearest to it are the defense of Colberg by the Prussians in 1807, and of Danzig by the French in 1813.

It has seemed very surprising that during the whole siege nothing was done by Omer Pasha to support or relieve so important a place. From his letter addressed to Sami Pasha, the Governor of Vidin, we learn, however, that he was actually preparing to succor Silistria when the Russians withdrew to the left side of the Danube.

"You know," says this letter, "that I had collected all our forces in front of Shumla, and that I was preparing to march to the relief of the place. Six regiments of cavalry and three batteries had already left Shumla for this destination. The Russians, having gained information of this movement, have withdrawn precipitately over to the left bank, with the whole of their artillery. During the forty days they invested the place, the Russians lost 25,000 men killed."[f]

What the Russians are now about to do it is impossible to decide. According to some Vienna papers, they purpose to take up a position behind the Buseo, but the same papers pretend that it is the fear of Austria which drives them back, and the Buseo is equally outflanked by Austria. If the Russians try to hold Moldavia, they would be outflanked by Austria from Galicia and the Bukovina. But a timely junction of the Russian troops in Poland with the late Danubian army in Podolia and Volhynia would again outflank Austria and expose the north-eastern part of Galicia as far as the San and the Dniester.

Abstaining, for a moment, from political considerations, and supposing Austria to be ready to join with the allied forces in an attack upon Russia, matters would stand thus: Austria could bring into the field from 200,000 to 250,000 men to join the allies, who themselves dispose of about 100,000 to 120,000 Turks, and 60,000 Anglo-French troops. To these forces Russia could oppose the four corps of the Danubian army, with their reserves, amounting, after due deduction on account of losses, to about 200,000 men. The second corps, commanded by Panyutin, and the three cavalry reserve corps, with some further infantry reserves, and reenforcements by fresh levies, might together amount to 180,000 men: so that the entire military strength of Russia would be composed of 350,000 men, from which the garrisons necessary for guarding the Crimea and parts of Southern Russia would have to be deducted. This would still leave the guards, the grenadiers, and the first army corps disposable for the defense of Poland and the Baltic provinces not to speak of the Finnish corps of about 15,000 men. Everything considered, the discrepancy between the relative belligerent forces would not be so great as to forbid Russia from calculating on moderate success, if she would restrict herself to a proper defense.

If Austria, as the latest diplomatic news and her total inactivity on the Moldavian frontier appear to indicate, has no other intention but to interfere between the belligerents, then we may safely assume that there is no chance of anything occurring in the course of the year in either Moldavia or Bessarabia.

Written on July 6, 1854
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4139, July 25;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 957, July 28
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 672, July 29, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] C. Derzhavin, "On the Capture of Warsaw".—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 234-45.—Ed.

[c] [Nasmyth,] "The Siege of Silistria". The Times, No. 21783, July 3, 18.54.—Ed.

[d] See this volume, p. 245.—Ed.

[e] out of action.—Ed.

[f] Le Moniteur universel, No. 190, July 9, 1854.—Ed.

[206] Marx received this article from Engels on July 7 and sent it off to New York on July 11, 1854, as is seen from his entry in the Notebook: "Dienstag, 11, Juli. Belagerung von Silistria (Schluß)." Before dispatching the article to New York he made several additions to it from the latest issues of newspapers. The article was published in The Eastern Question with some abbreviations, under the title "The Siege of Silistria". p. 276

[207] The words "having received by the Pacific" were inserted in Engels' text by the Tribune editors.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.276-281), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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