A Battle at Sevastopol (1855)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 23 March 1855

Written about March 23, 1855
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune
First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4358, April 7, 1855.
Re-printed in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1030, April 10, 1855 as a leading article;
an abridged German version was published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 143, March 26, 1855,
marked with the sign x
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.113-117), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : Russia, France, England, War

The first paragraph was presumably supplied by the editors of the New York Daily Tribune. An extract from this article by Engels, and his previous article, "Napoleon's Last Dodge‎", were included by Marx, in abridged form, in the report "Ueber die letzten Vorgänge in der Krim" ("On the Latest Events in the Crimea"), which was dated March 23, 1855 and published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 143, on March 26. The more important different readings in the English and German versions are indicated in the footnotes.

Our columns, this morning, contain the official French, English, and Russian reports of a contest between the antagonists at Sevastopol. It was sufficiently important to require, in addition to the official documents, some words of explanation and comment from us. About a month ago, from the generally-successful sorties of the Russians, we came to the conclusion that the trenches had been pushed forward to a point at which the force of the besieged was equal to that of the besiegers[1]; in other words, that the proximity of the trenches was such as to enable the Russians to bring, in a sally, to any portion of the trenches, a force at least equal to what the Allies could bring up during the first hour or two hours. As an hour or two are quite sufficient to destroy the rivetings, and to spike the guns of a battery, the natural consequence was, that beyond this point the Allies could not push their approaches. Since then the siege came to a stand, until the arrival[2] of three French brigades (one of the Eighth, and two of the Ninth Division) allowed them to relieve part of the English infantry, and to establish stronger trench-guards. At the same time, the arrival of Generals Niel and Jones, of the Engineers, gave fresh activity to the siege operations, and remedied mistakes caused, principally, by the obstinacy of the French General Bizot, and by the numeric weakness of the British infantry. New approaches were now pushed forward, especially on ' the English side, where a parallel was opened at about 300 yards from the Russian works on the hill of Malakoff. Some of the batteries now erected were so far toward the Inkermann side that they would have taken part of the Russian batteries in the rear, or enfiladed them, as soon as their fire could be opened. Against these new lines the Russians have just taken a step which has been carried out with uncommon skill and boldness.[3]

The Russian lines, as every plan shows, extend in a semicircular arch round the town, from the head of the Quarantine Bay to that of the inner war harbor, and thence to the head of the Careening Bay. This latter bay is a small creek, formed by the extremity of a deep ravine, extending from the great harbor or Bay of Sevastopol far up the plateau on which the Allies are encamped[4]. On the western side of this ravine. extends a range of hights forming the Russian lines; the most considerable of these elevations is the hill of Malakoff, forming, by its commanding position, the key of the whole Russian right. On the eastern side of the ravine and the Careening Bay, another elevation is situated, which, being completely under the fire both of the Russian batteries and of their men-of-war, remained out of the reach of the Allies as long as they could not completely interrupt the communication of Sevastopol with Inkermann, which was protected by the fire of the forts and batteries on the north side of the harbor. But since the Allies had found positions to the east and south-east of Malakoff, for batteries to take in the Russian lines, flank and rear, this neutral hill had become important. Accordingly, on the night of February 21, the Russians sent a party of workmen to erect on it a redoubt, planned beforehand by their engineers[5]. In the morning the long trench and a beginning of parapets behind it, were visible to the Allies. They appear to have been entirely unable to understand the meaning of this; accordingly, they were content to let well alone. Next morning, however, the redoubt was all but complete, at least in its outline, for the sequel showed that the profile, that is, the depth of the ditch and strength of the parapet, was still very weak. By this time the Allies began to find out that this work was admirably situated to enfilade their own enfilading batteries, and thus to make them all but useless. The engineers protested that this work must be taken at any cost. Accordingly, Canrobert organized with the greatest secrecy, a storming column, consisting of about 1,600 Zouaves and 3,000 Marines. The orders having to be given at a late hour, and all on a sudden, some delay occurred in collecting the troops at the rendezvous, and it was 2 o'clock on the morning of the 24th before they could start for the assault, the Zouaves leading. 'A short march brought them up to twenty yards from the ditch. As usual in assaults, not a shot was to be fired; the soldiers were made to take off the percussion-caps from their guns to prevent their being entangled in useless and dilatory firing. All at once, a few Russian words of command were heard; a strong body of Russians in the interior of the redoubt, rose from the ground, leveled their guns over the top of the parapet, and poured a volley into the advancing column. From the darkness and the well known inveterate habit of soldiers in intrenchments to fire always straight across the parapet, this volley can have had but little effect upon the narrow head of the column[6]. The Zouaves, hardly detained by the sloping sides of the incomplete ditch and rampart, in a moment were in the redoubt, and rushed at their opponents with the bayonet. A terrible hand-to-hand struggle took place. After some time the Zouaves possessed themselves of one-half of the redoubt, and, at a later period, the Russians entirely abandoned it to them. In the mean time, the marines, following the Zouaves at a short distance, either lost their way, or from some other reason, stopped on the brink of the hill. Here they were assailed in each flank by a Russian column, which, after a desperate resistance, drove them down the hill. During or shortly after this struggle, daylight must have dawned, for the Russians speedily retired from the hill—leaving the redoubt in the possession of the Zouaves—upon whom now opened all the Russian artillery which could be brought to bear on the spot. The Zouaves lay down for a moment, while some rifle volunteers, who had accompanied them, crept up to the Malakoff works, trying to fire at the Russian gunners through the embrasures. But the fire was too heavy; and, before long, the Zouaves had to retreat on the side toward Inkermann, which sheltered them against most of the batteries. They profess to have carried all their wounded with them.

This little affair was carried out with great bravery by the Zouaves and a Gen. Monet, and with great skill combined with their usual tenacity by the. Russians. They consisted of the two regiments of Selenghinsk and Volhynia, the strength of which, after several campaigns, cannot have exceeded 500 men per battalion, or 4,000 men in all. Gen. Kroushoff commanded them[7]. Their arrangements were so admirable that the French declare that the whole plan of attack must have been known to them. The attack upon the marines was completely and almost instantaneously successful, while their retreat out of the incomplete redoubt had the effect of exposing the unfortunate and unsupported Zouaves to an overwhelming fire, which must have remained silent as long as the struggle within the redoubt was going on.

Gen. Canrobert found that this defeat had a very great effect on his troops. Their impatience which had made itself remarkable on various occasions, now broke out with full force. The assault upon the town was demanded by the soldiers. The word of treason, that everlasting excuse for a defeat suffered by the French, was loudly pronounced, and Gen. Forey, without any apparent reason, was even nominally pointed out as the party who betrayed to the enemy the secret resolutions of the French Council of War. So confused was Canrobert, that in one breath he wrote an order of the day representing the whole affair as a brilliant though relative success, and a note to Lord Raglan proposing an immediate assault, a proposal which Lord Raglan, of course, declined.[8]

The Russians, on their part, maintained their new redoubt, and have since been busy completing it. This position is of great importance. It secures the communication with Inkermann and the arrival of supplies from that direction. It menaces the whole right of the allied siege-works[9], by taking them in flank, and necessitating fresh approaches to paralyze it. Above all, it shows the capability, in the Russians, not only to hold their ground, but even to advance beyond it. In the latter part of February they pushed trenches of counter-approach toward the allied works from their new redoubt. The reports do not, however, state the exact direction of these works. At all events, the presence of the two regiments of the line in Sevastopol proves that the garrison, hitherto consisting of marines and sailors only, has been considerably reenforced, and is strong enough for any eventuality.

It is now reported that by the 10th or 11th of March, the Allies would be in a position to open their batteries upon the Russian defenses, but, with the resources of the Russians and the difficulties of the Allies, how is it to be expected that the first condition will be fulfilled, namely: That the besiegers' fire will be superior to that of the besieged, and so far superior, too, as to silence the Russian batteries before the English and French have exhausted their stores of ammunition? But let us suppose even this result is obtained. Suppose even that at this decisive moment the Russians in the field should neglect attacking the positions of Inkermann and Balaklava. Suppose the assaults attempted upon the first Russian line, and suppose that line even carried: What then? Fresh defenses, fresh batteries, strong buildings converted into small citadels requiring a new set of batteries to bring them down, are before the storming columns; a hail of grape and musketry drives them back, and it is as much as they can do if they hold the first Russian line.

Then follows the siege of the second, then that of the third—line not to mention the numerous minor obstacles which the Russian engineers, as we now have learned to know them; cannot have failed to accumulate in the interior of the space intrusted to their care. And during this time, wet and heat, and heat and wet alternately, on a ground impregnated with the animal decay of thousands of men and horses, will create diseases unknown and unheard of. The pestilence, it is true, will reign within the town as well as without; but which party will have to give in to it first?

Spring will carry along with it terrible things on this little peninsula of five miles by ten, where three of the greatest nations of Europe are fighting an obstinate struggle; and Louis Bonaparte will have plenty of reason to congratulate himself when his great expedition comes to develop its full fruit.

  1. See The Struggle in The Crimea—Ed.
  2. Here follows the continuation of the German version of Engels' articles "Napoleon's Last Dodge" and "A Battle at Sevastopol", published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 143, March 26, 1855 under the title "On the Latest Events in the Crimea". Instead of the preceding text this paragraph has: "As regards the obstacles created to the siege of Sevastopol, in particular by Russian engineers (partly Frenchmen), the affair of Malakhov provides an instructive illustration. As is generally known, about a month ago the siege came to a stand, but the arrival...".—Ed.
  3. This sentence does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.
  4. This sentence does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.
  5. The Selenghinsk redoubt; in the Neue Oder-Zeitung the end of this sentence beginning with the words "planned beforehand" does not occur.—Ed.
  6. This sentence does not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.
  7. The last two sentences do not occur in the Neue Oder-Zeitung.—Ed.
  8. Instead of this paragraph the Neue Oder-Zeitung has: "General Forey was loudly accused in the French camp of having communicated the secret decisions of the Council of War to the enemy."—Ed.
  9. The identical text of the English and German versions ends here. In the Neue Oder-Zeitung the article closes as follows: "Lastly, with its capture the Russians have taken the offensive."—Ed.