A Famous Victory (May 1854)

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This article was written by Engels on May 15, 1854 at Jenny Marx's request. Its dispatch was entered in the Notebook on May 16 under the title "Militaria". The appraisal of the Odessa events here is completely identical with that given by Engels in his letter to Marx of May 9, 1854.

The English journals indulge in liberal bursts of derision at the fact that the Czar has rewarded Gen. Osten-Sacken for his share in the late fight between the allied fleets and the fortifications that defend the port of Odessa. This fight they claim as altogether a victory of their own, pronouncing the opposite exultations of their enemy as but a new specimen of Muscovite braggadocio and imperial lying. Now, while we have no special sympathy with the Czar or with Osten-Sacken, though- the latter is no doubt a clever and resolute man (he is the brother of the General of the same name[1] commanding an army corps in the Principalities), it may perhaps be worth while to look a little more carefully into the merits of this victory at Odessa, and ascertain, if possible, on which side the braggadocio and humbug really figure, especially as this is the first and only battle between the allies and the Russians of which we have yet received any report.

As appears by the official documents on both sides, the object of the allied fleet in appearing before Odessa was to summon the Governor[2] to deliver up, as reparation for the round shot fired at a British flag of truce, all British, French and Russian vessels in the harbor. Now they must have known that he would not make any reply to such a summons, and must therefore have been prepared to take by force what they had asked for in vain, and if they failed in this object they suffered a genuine defeat, whatever damage they may have done to the enemy.

What, then, were the odds? The very decree of the Russian Government, which appointed Osten-Sacken to the command of the vast territory he governs, situated immediately in the rear of the army of the Danube, and the fact of his selecting for his residence the town of Odessa, shows the importance naturally and justly attributed by the Russians to this point. Odessa is the place, of all others, where a hostile landing might do them the most harm. There the enemy would find not only all the resources of a large town, but those, too, of the granary of all Europe; and there they would be nearest to the line of communication and retreat of the Russian army in Turkey. Under these circumstances, the two Admirals[3] must have known that they would find the place defended by a numerous garrison, and that any attempt at landing, with what sailors and marines they might have to spare for that purpose, would at once be repelled. But without landing and taking possession of the harbor, if not the town, at least for a moment, they could not expect to liberate the British and French ships now confined there. Their only remaining chance for accomplishing their object would have been to bombard the town itself most furiously, so as to make it unsafe for any body of troops to remain in it, and then to attempt a rescue of the ships. But it is doubtful whether that purpose could have been effected by a bombardment upon a large town with very wide streets and extensive squares, where comparatively little room is occupied by combustible buildings. The Admirals, then, must have known that if their demand on Osten-Sacken was refused, they had no means of enforcing it. They thought, however, that after the firing on a flag of truce, something must be undertaken against Odessa, and so they went on their errand.

The approaches to Odessa, on the seaside, were defended by six batteries, which must have been armed with some forty or fifty guns of 24 and 48 pounds caliber. Of these batteries only two or three were engaged, the attacking force keeping out of range of the remainder. Against these batteries eight steam frigates carrying about 100 guns were brought to act; but as from the nature of the maneuver, the guns of only one side of the ships could be used, the superiority in the number of the guns on the part of the allies was considerably diminished. In respect of the caliber, they must have been about equal, for if a 24-pound gun is inferior to a long 32-pounder, a 48-pounder of heavy metal must certainly be equal to 56- or 68-pound shell guns, which cannot stand full charges of powder. Finally, the vulnerable nature of ships, as compared with breastworks, and the insecurity of aim produced by the ship's motion, are such that even a still greater numerical superiority in the artillery of a fleet over that of strand-batteries will leave some odds in favor of the latter. Witness the affair at Eckernförde[4] in Schleswig (1849), where two batteries with 20 guns between them destroyed an 84-gun ship, disabled and captured a 44-gun frigate, and beat off two heavily armed steamers.

The fight, as long as it was confined to artillery and to the eight steamers, may therefore be considered a pretty equal one, even allowing for the superiority of range and accuracy which, during the struggle, the Anglo-French guns were found to possess. The consequence was that the work of destruction went on very slowly. Two Russian guns dismounted were the only result of several hours firing. At length the allies came up closer and changed their tactics. They abandoned the system of firing against the stone walls of the batteries in order to send shells and rockets into the Russian shipping and the military establishments in and around the harbor. This told. The object aimed at was large enough to make every shell hit some vulnerable part, and the whole was soon on fire. The powder-magazine behind that battery on the mole-head, which had offered the most effective resistance and had been principally attacked, blew up; this and the spreading of the fire all around forced its garrison at length to retire. The Russian artillerymen had shown on this point, as usual, very little skill but very great bravery. Their guns and shot must have been very defective and their powder extremely weak.

This was the only result of the whole action. Four Russian guns had been silenced in the battery on the mole-head; all the other batteries hardly received any damage at all. The explosion of the powder-magazine cannot have been very severe; from its situation close behind the battery, it is evident that it was the special magazine of this battery containing merely the ammunition for a single day, say 60 or 100 rounds for each of the four guns; now, if we deduct the probable number of rounds already used in the course of the day, there can hardly have remained more than 300 weight of powder. What the damage done to other establishments may amount to, we have no means of judging; the allies, of course, could not ascertain it, while the Russians put it down at the very lowest figure[5]. From the Russian report, however, it would appear that the vessels burnt were not men-of-war, as the Anglo-French reports state them to have been; probably they were, besides some merchantmen, transports and government passenger steamers. We have, besides, never received any previous information that any Russian men-of-war were at Odessa.

Two French and one or two English merchantmen succeeded during the action in escaping from the harbor; seven British merchantmen remain confined there to the present day. Thus the "gallant" Admirals have not succeeded in enforcing their demand, and as they had to retreat without obtaining any positive result, without even silencing more than one out of six batteries, they may consider themselves fairly beaten off. They lost very few men; but several ships' hulls were damaged and the French steamer Vauban was once set on fire by a red-hot ball, and had to retire for a while from the action.

This is the sum of what the British press calls "Glorious news from Odessa," and which in British eyes has wiped out all the former shortcomings of Admiral Dundas. Nay, this action has so much raised the public expectations in England that we are seriously told, the Admirals, having now ascertained the excessive superiority of the range of their guns over the Russian ones, have positively resolved to try a bombardment of Sevastopol; indeed, they did go there and fire a few shots. But this is the purest humbug, for whoever has once looked upon a plan of Sevastopol, knows that an attack, bombardment or not, upon that town and harbor, unless it be a mere sham-fight outside the bay, must take place in narrow waters and within range even of field guns.

We may properly add to this simple expose, that the gasconade of our English friends about this action, in which they suffered a complete repulse and totally failed of their object does not vary much from the general tone of their previous discussions and statements concerning the war. Whatever be the result of the struggle, impartial history must, we think, place upon her record that its early stages were marked by quite as much humbug, prevarication, deception, diplomatic bad faith, military bragging and lying on the side of England as on that of Russia.

  1. Engels is inaccurate here. It was the same Russian general, Dmitry Yerofeyevich Osten-Sacken, who from December 1853 commanded the troops on the Black Sea coast from the Bug to the Danube, and his headquarters was in Odessa.
  2. During the events described here the acting Governor-General of Novorossia and Bessarabia, P. I. Fyodorov, left for the Caucasus (in March), and N. N. Annenkov, appointed to replace him, arrived in Odessa only on the night of April 9 (21), 1854. During that time the defence of Odessa was led by D. Y. Osten-Sacken.
  3. Dundas and Hamelin.—Ed.
  4. The battle at Eckernförde on April 5, 1849—an operation during the Schleswig-Holstein war between Denmark and Prussia in 1848-50.
  5. Engels may have obtained the information about the battle from the Imperial ukase conferring the Order of St. Andrew on Osten-Sacken, which was reprinted by The Times on May 15, 1854 from the Russky Invalid of May 5, 1854.