Aspects of the War (October 1855)

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This article and the next ("The Russian Army") belong to the series of works in which Engels reveals the causes of Tsarist Russia's defeat in the Crimean War, the negative effect of serfdom and economic backwardness on the state of armed forces, and the inadequacy of its military potential to satisfy tsarism's foreign-policy ambitions which increased particularly after its participation in suppressing the revolution of 1848-49 (notably the Tsarist intervention in Hungary in 1849). It is from that angle that Engels considers Russia's military history, and this in great measure explains why he gives a rather one-sided account of some of its episodes. It will be noted that in his later writings, based on more objective sources, including works by Russian authors, Engels modified his views on this subject. For instance, he pointed out that in the eighteenth century Turkey was not Russia's strongest opponent, Sweden being more powerful, that even the Ottoman Empire, though in a state of decline, still possessed a considerable defence potential, and that Frederick II, the Prussian king, had been placed in a critical position by the advance of Russian troops in Prussia during the Seven Years' War (see Engels' article "The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsarism", 1890). He had a high opinion of Suvorov's crossing of the Alps in 1799 ("Po and Rhine", 1859), the operations of the Russian army and partisans during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, and the part played by Russian forces in the campaigns against Napoleonic France in 1813 and 1814 (see his articles "Barclay de Tolly" and "Blücher", 1857, and "The Position in the American Theatre of War", 1862). The defence of Sevastopol in the Crimean War was later characterised by Engels as active, not passive (see his article "Saragossa-Paris", and instalment XXXIII of his series "Notes on the War", 1870)

"Of what use are allies to thee, O Russian?

Stride forth, and thine is the whole world!"[1]

Times appear to be changed since Derjavin, the poet-laureate of Catherine II, could venture this proud appeal to his people. At that period, indeed, the Russians had made giant strides. The whole of South, or New Russia, from the Don to the Dniester, and the whole of West Russia, from the Dniester to the Niemen, were added to the Empire. Odessa, Cherson, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, and Sevastopol were founded; and indeed so long as the "great nation" of the East had no more dangerous opponents to fight than Turkish janissaries and Polish volunteers, every march appeared to imply a conquest and every declaration of war to be a sure guarantee of a speedy and glorious treaty of peace. It is true the Russian legions, on venturing beyond their favorite and favorable ground received a terrible lesson at Zorndorf, and were saved from even a severer one at Kunersdorf by the intervention of the Austrian Loudon only[2]. It is true that in 1798-99 even Suvaroff found his match in Masséna, and had to pay dearly for his Italian victories with the defeat of Zurich and the disastrous retreat across the Saint Gothard[3]. But for all that, the time of Catherine and Suvaroff was the great and glorious epoch of the Russian arms, and never since then has a similar splendor surrounded them. At Austerlitz, at Friedland, the inferiority of the Russian army, as compared with the French, was signally manifested; and if at Eylau they were saved from similar disgrace, it was because Lestocq, with the remnants of the Prussian army, rendered them the same service Loudon had done at Kunersdorf[4]. At Borodino an inferior number of Frenchmen defeated them[5]; and had not Napoleon kept his guards in reserve, the defeat would have been decisive. The battles fought by the Russians during the French retreat from Moscow were far more glorious to the latter than to the former. And in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, it was the Germans who had not only to supply the numerical force, and to bear the brunt of every battle, but to find the generals who could plan them.

Of the campaigns against Napoleon, however, it might be said that there was no disgrace in being beaten by a man who was in himself a host; but when the campaign of 1828-29, against the Turks, and of 1831, against the Poles[6], showed again what superiority of numbers and what great efforts and waste of time it cost the Russians to overcome opponents far less formidable than Napoleon and his well-seasoned troops, the decline of Russian military glory was evident. It cannot be denied that at the very time when Russian influence in European politics was stronger than ever, the actual feats of the Russian army justified anything but such a political position. And though Russia, in consequence of the events of 1848-50, was actually raised to the position of arbiter and protector of all Europe east of the Rhine, the campaign which seemingly elevated her to such omnipotence, the Hungarian campaign, was positively disgraceful to Russian generalship, and did not add a single laurel leaf to the crown of victory of the "invincible Russian army.

This "young, powerful, irresistible nation," this "people of the future," as the Russians modestly called themselves, in a military sense at least culminated long ago, and was even declining when the present war began. The Russian army was ranked as a respectable force from the tenacity and solidity of its infantry, though with many shortcomings which more than made up for these advantages. It appeared imposing by its numbers, professedly ready for war at any moment, and by the implicit obedience which held this vast machine together. But alas! what has become of this mighty army, this "stern fact" which so frightened Western Europe! Three of its eight corps, on the Danube, were checked by what Turkey could find to oppose to them; and when the Crimean campaign began, division after division, corps after corps was drawn into the insatiable whirlpool, never to disentangle themselves again. Indeed the army was drained to its very reserves and élite troops. The innate bravery as well as the innate clumsiness of the Russian soldiers was aided by the engineering skill of a truly gifted man, Todtleben; it was favored by the sins of omission and commission of the allied generals; it achieved a passive defense, glorious and even unparalleled of its kind, kept up full eleven months; but with all that, there was not a single actual success, not a single victory, and, indeed, invariable and inglorious defeat wherever the Russians attempted to take the initiative, no matter against what sort of enemies.

Except the truly incredible bravery displayed by the French and English soldiers, and in some instances by the Turks, also, the whole of this war does not afford to the Allies much matter for bragging; from the Alma[7] to the present day, their generalship has been worse than indifferent, and in no single instance have they ever seized time by the forelock. But such days as Inkerman and the Chernaya prove irretrievably the superiority of western armies over the Russians, while the repelled assaults on Silistria and Kars prove that under certain circumstances even the Turks are more than a match for them[8]. This war has been distinguished by more hand to hand encounters than all the wars of Napoleon together. Not an action but the troops have actually closed, even in the open field. Everywhere the bayonet has decided in the last instance. Now the bayonet—Russki style—always was the great boast of the Russians. And precisely with the bayonet have the Russians been beaten in every instance, and by inferior numbers too. Russki styk belongs to bygone days, and the men who had to shrink back at Silistria, Kars, and even from the small bridge-head of Oltenitza, are no longer the same as those who took Akaltzik, Erzeroum and Warsaw, much less the same whom Suvaroff made to storm Ismail and Praga[9]. "Stride forth a Russian" is bitter irony when applied to the step of the soldiers retiring over the bridge from South to North Sevastopol.

That the position of the Russians in the Crimea is not very enviable is proved by the Emperor Alexander's return to the north without having gone to see the army before the enemy. Had there been any improvement in its position, any possibility of encouraging it by prospects of speedy reenforcements, of increased supplies, and of changes in the fortune of war, surely Alexander would not have lost the opportunity to visit that army which at all events has exhibited more patience and more passive resisting force than any previous army, even in Russia. As he has not done so, there is an increased probability that the rumors are true according to which the Russians are resolved to retire by small detachments from Sympheropol toward Perekop, leaving a rear-guard only to make a bold front against the enemy as long as may be necessary. There are, indeed, other circumstances tending to confirm these rumors. The fire of the north forts against Sevastopol, though not very effective, is on the increase, as if they intended to expend all their ammunition before leaving. The troops about Inkerman are daily diminishing; and at the same time, as if to make up for this, fresh batteries are daily erected on the north shore. The camp about Mackenzie's even is reported to be peopled by diminished numbers. On the other hand, it is true, stronger columns have appeared on the Upper Belbek as soon as the French showed themselves there, and no progress of any note has been made by the Allies on that side.

It is, however, not to be forgotten that the road through the steppe from Sympheropol by Perekop to Cherson, offers no means of subsistence whatever to a marching army, and very often not even water. Thus small detachments only can pass at a time, as everything for their consumption has to be brought from a distance; consequently the slower Gorchakoff effects his retreat, the more regularly supplied will be his columns and the fewer men will he lose on the long march. On the other hand, the allied generals will commit an unpardonable military sin if they allow this gradual retreat of the Russians, without even ascertaining, by strong reconnaissances, whether it is actually taking place or not. As far as we can judge, Pélissier is noways satisfied on this point, but it is his own fault exclusively. Should he go on with his offensive movements at the present slow rate, he may have finished his preliminary operations for an attack upon the Russian position by the time the last Russian passes the lines of Perekop. But the "conqueror of Sevastopol" has now a reputation to lose, and this has made him even more cautious than the defeat of the 18th of June did[10]. Napoleon finished his campaign of 1796 in the maritime Alps, in six days and four battles, and that was ground far more difficult than the Crimean chalk-hills; but then he was not an understrapper to his own nephew[11]. One attempt has, indeed, been made on the part of the Allies which displays a little more energy. The corps at Eupatoria, reenforced by Gen. de Failly's French division, consisting of nine battalions, and Paget's British light dragoon brigade, which counts four regiments, has now extended its feelers as far as half way to Sympheropol, but very soon retreated again. Gorchakoff, who sends this piece of news[12], states the strength of the Allies at from thirty thousand to forty thousand men. We shall be nearer the mark if we take the first number. But with thirty thousand men disposable in the field, the Eupatoria corps might attempt far bolder movements, especially as its line of retreat to Eupatoria, either north or south of Lake Sasik, cannot be cut off. Thus, after all, we find the same languor at Eupatoria as on the Chernaya; and that this languor, instead of being lashed up into action, will rather become more languid, there can be no doubt, if it be certain, as the whole British press asserts, that Gen. Codrington is to succeed old Father Simpson in the command of the British forces. Codrington distinguished himself at the Redan on the 8th of September, where he commanded the assaulting divisions, by his magnificent imperturbability. So imperturbable was he that he could afford to look with the marble placidity of Horace's honest man si fractus illabatur orbis[13]—on the defeat of his vanguard, without so much as even suspecting that it might not be amiss to send the reserves to their support! Codrington, no doubt, is the man for the moment—the great general who has been looked for so long in vain and if he gets the command the British are safe from defeat, as he never would allow more than his outpost troops to be beaten in a single day.

That the Russians are actually retreating from the Crimea is also indicated by another fact. When Alexander was at Nikolaieff, he inspected the 31st, 32d, 33d, 34th, 35th and 36th marine equipages recently arrived from Sevastopol. These marine equipages are battalions of sailors and marines, each of which serves at sea to man a ship-of-the-line, and one or more smaller vessels. That these troops left the Crimea when they could neither be missed nor replaced if any lengthened resistance was intended, clearly shows what is to be expected. The mission of Generals Benkendorf and Stackelberg to headquarters in the Crimea, in order to inquire into and report on the state of the army there is also significant, and from what we know of the doings of the allied generals, it may be expected that the Russian retreat, on the whole, will be effected unmolested and without any great loss.

The London Times of course knows better than this[14]. If Pélissier does not act now, it is merely to induce the Russians to stop in the Crimea. If they were to retreat now, while the season is tolerable, what could he do to prevent them? what great injury could he inflict on them? No; Pélissier's plan is far deeper. Pélissier not only intends to conquer the Crimea, but also to make the Russians perform a counterpart to the French retreat from Moscow. He is waiting for Winter to set in, and then he will pounce upon them, expel them from their position, drive them in heedless flight across the frozen steppe, or, as the Russians say of 1812, turn against them "His Excellency Gen. Hunger, and his Excellency Gen. Frost;" and then have them stopped in their march by the flanking corps falling upon them from Eupatoria, from Kertch, from Kinburn, so that what cold and hunger have left, will have to surrender at discretion, and not a man escape to tell the tale of the Crimean catastrophe to his countrymen.

Such is the strategy of the London Times.

  1. G. R. Derzhavin, On the Capture of Warsaw.—Ed.
  2. A reference to two major battles in the Seven Years' War (1856-63), waged by Prussia and Britain against Austria, France and Russia.
    At Zorndorf (Eastern Prussia) on August 25, 1758 the Russian army suffered heavy losses in a battle with the Prussian forces commanded by Frederick II. However, there was no victor in the battle, nor did it prevent a fresh Russian offensive the following year.
    At Kunersdorf (east of Frankfurt an der Oder) on August 12, 1759 the Russian and Austrian forces under the joint command of P. Saltykov inflicted a heavy defeat on Frederick II's army. The Russian forces, in particular the infantry, played a decisive part in securing the victory. At the same time, the successful operations of the Austrian cavalry corps under Gideon Ernst von Loudon contributed to the rout of the Prussian cavalry.
  3. During the war of the Second Coalition (it was formed in 1798 and included Austria, Britain, Naples, Russia, Turkey and other states) against France, the Russian and Austrian forces under the command of Alexander Suvorov freed almost the whole of Northern Italy from the French in the spring and summer of 1799. At the insistence of the Austrian government Suvorov's army was then sent to Switzerland to link up with the Russian corps of Rimsky-Korsakov, which was being pressed by the forces of the French General Masséna. After the Russian army had heroically fought its way across the Saint Gotthard and several other mountain passes it was encircled by superior French forces, which had defeated Korsakov's corps at Zurich on September 25. Under extremely hard conditions Suvorov's troops succeeded in making their way through a number of Alpine mountain passes and on October 12 reached the upper Rhine. In his work "Po and Rhine" Engels wrote: "This passage was the most impressive of all Alpine crossings in modern times."
  4. The battle of Austerlitz—at Austerlitz on December 2, 1805 Napoleon's troops defeated the Russians and Austrians.
    At Friedland (Eastern Prussia) the closing battle of the war of the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Prussia, Russia and Sweden) against Napoleonic France was fought on June 14, 1807. After the rout of the Prussian Army by Napoleon in 1806, the main theatre of operations in the war shifted to Eastern Prussia, where the French encountered stiff resistance from the allied armies of Russia and Prussia. In the battle of Friedland Napoleon won a victory over the Russian forces. It was preceded by a bloody battle at Preussisch-Eylau (February 7 and 8, 1807) which ended indecisively. The Prussian General Lestocq distinguished himself in that battle as well as the Russian General Pyotr Bagration, who commanded the rearguard.
  5. Engels' judgment of it was based on information drawn from a number of West-European military writers who represented the outcome of the battle as a victory for Napoleon and ignored the fateful consequences it had for the French army even though the Russians did leave Moscow temporarily. Later research produced a substantially different picture of the battle. It was established, in particular, that the French rather than the Russian army was superior in numbers and suffered heavier losses.
    The battle of Borodino—at Borodino, near Moscow, a full-scale battle was fought by the French and Russian forces on September 7, 1812. It turned the tide in the war of 1812 in favour of Russia, even though the Russian army was forced to leave Moscow.
  6. A reference to the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29, which ended in the Treaty of Adrianople and the suppression by the Tsarist forces of the Polish national insurrection in 1830-31.
    The Treaty of Adrianople was concluded by Turkey and Russia in September 1829 following the war of 1828-29. Under the treaty Russia obtained the Danube delta including the islands, and a considerable part of the eastern Black Sea coast south of the Kuban estuary. Turkey was to recognise the autonomy of Moldavia and Wallachia, granting them the right to elect their own hospodars (rulers). Their autonomy was to be guaranteed by Russia. The Turkish government also undertook to recognise the independence of Greece, whose only obligation to Turkey was to pay an annual tribute to the Sultan, and abide by all the previous treaties relating to the autonomy of Serbia, which was to be formalised by a special firman.
  7. The battle of the Alma took place on September 20, 1854. The Russian forces were commanded by A. S. Menshikov, and the numerically superior forces of the French, British and Turks by Saint-Arnaud and Raglan. It was the first battle after the Allies' landing in the Crimea (at Eupatoria) on September 14. The defeat and withdrawal of the Russian troops opened up the way to Sevastopol for the Allies. Later Engels also described this battle in his article "Alma" written for the New Americana.
  8. In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman".
    The battle of Chernaya—on August 16, 1855 Russian troops attacked the French and Sardinians on the river Chernaya about twelve kilometres southeast of Sevastopol in an attempt to weaken the Allies' siege of the city. However, the Russians were repulsed and suffered heavy losses due to inadequate preparation of the attack and errors on the part of the Russian command. Engels analysed this important episode of the Crimean War in his article "The Battle of the Chernaya".
    The siege of Silistria (Silistra)—a fortress on the south bank of the Danube in Bulgaria—by Russian troops was one of the major operations in the Danubian theatre during the Crimean War. The siege began in the first half of May 1854, but in the fourth week of June the Russian troops withdrew beyond the Danube in view of the hostile attitude of Austria, which had concentrated considerable forces behind the Russian lines. A description of the fighting in this area was given in the articles "The Russian Retreat" by Marx and Engels and "The Siege of Silistria" by Engels.
    On the Russians' abortive assault on Kars (September 29, 1855) see Progress of the War (October 1855).
  9. On the battle of Oltenitza—at Oltenitza (south-east Wallachia) in the Danubian theatre, the Russian and Turkish forces fought one of the first battles of the Crimean War (November 4, 1853). A Russian detachment attacked the Turkish forces which had crossed to the left bank of the Danube. The attack failed, but the Turkish troops were soon compelled to withdraw to the right bank. Engels described the battle in his 'article "The War on the Danube".
    The Russian troops took the fortresses of Akhaltsikh and Erzeroum in Transcaucasia during the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29. Under the Treaty of Adrianople (1829) Erzeroum was returned to Turkey.
    By capturing Warsaw in September 1831 Tsarist forces dealt the final blow to the Polish national insurrection of 1830-31.
    The Turkish fortress of Ismail on the Danube was taken by Russian troops by storm under Alexander Suvorov on December 22, 1790, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-91.
    On November 4, 1794 Russian troops under Suvorov sent by the Tsarist Government to suppress the Polish national insurrection led by Tadeusz Kościuszko (which started in March 1794) captured Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, thus compelling the Polish capital to surrender. The suppression of the insurrection was followed, in 1795, by the third partition of Poland between Austria, Prussia and Russia, and the final abolition of the Polish state. (The first two partitions took place in 1772 and 1793.)
  10. On June 18, 1855, one of the major battles of the Crimean War was fought at Sevastopol, ending in defeat for the Allies. The nearly nine-month-long siege of the city, the destruction caused by the bombardment, and the capture by French and British troops on June 7, 1855 of the outlying fortifications, the Selenghinsk and Volhynsk redoubts and the Kamchatka lunette (which had been erected by the defenders in the course of the siege) induced the Allied command to undertake a full-scale assault on the Southern (Korabelnaya) part of the city. It was launched on the fortieth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815. The assault was preceded by massive bombardment of the city from land and sea. Despite the Allies' substantial superiority in numbers, their attack, launched along the whole line of Russian fortifications at dawn on June 18, 1855, was repulsed at every point. The attackers suffered heavy losses. The fighting on June 18 showed the strength of Sevastopol's defences and the staunchness of the Russian troops. Marx gave a detailed account of the battle in his report "The Mishap of June 18. Reinforcements"; Engels described it in his articles "From Sevastopol" and "The Late Repulse of the Allies".
  11. Napoleon III.—Ed.
  12. "Paris, Wednesday Evening", The Times, No. 22200, November 1, 1855.—Ed.
  13. Part of Horace's dictum "si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae" (if the world were to crumble into atoms, the ruins would strike him undismayed). Horatius Flaccus Quintus, Carmina, Lib. III, Ill.—Ed.
  14. This refers to the leading article in The Times, No. 22195, October 26, 1855.—Ed.