British Disaster in The Crimea

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 4 January 1855

First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, Nos. 11 and 13, January 8 and 9
and in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4293, January 22;
reprinted in the New York Weekly Tribune, No. 698, January 27, 1855 as a leader
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune checked with the Neue Oder-Zeitung
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.564-570), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980

The authorship of the article "British Disaster in the Crimea" has been established on the basis of the coincidence of its main points with those in other articles by Engels. It was also translated by Marx into German for the Neue Oder-Zeitung and published in that newspaper as two separate articles on January 8 and 9, 1855 under the same title "Zum englischen Militärwesen". Marx rearranged the material in the article, abridged it and gave a new version of one paragraph which is given in this volume in the footnote. The article "British Disaster in the Crimea" was published by Eleanor Marx in The Eastern Question.

The entire British public, starting from the recent vehement leaders of The London Times[1], seems to be in a state of great anxiety and excitement respecting the condition of the forces in the Crimea. Indeed, it is impossible longer to deny or palliate the fact that, through unparalleled mismanagement in every branch of the service, the British army is rapidly approaching a state of dissolution. Exposed to the hardships of a winter campaign, suffering cold and wet, with the most harassing and uninterrupted field duty without clothing, food, tents, or housing, the veterans who braved the burning sun of India and the furious charges of the Beloodshis and Afghan, die away by hundreds daily, and as fast as reenforcements arrive, they are eaten up by the ravages of disease. To the question who is to blame for this state of things the reply just now most popular in England is that it is Lord Raglan, but this is not just. We are no admirers of his Lordship's military conduct, and have criticised his blunders with freedom[2], but truth requires us to say that- the terrible evils amid which the soldiers in the Crimea are perishing are not his fault, but that of the system on which the British war establishment is administered.

The British Army has a Commander-in-Chief, a personage dispensed with in almost all other civilized armies. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this commander-in-chief really commands anything. If he has some control over the infantry and cavalry, the artillery, engineers, sappers and miners are entirely beyond his sphere. If he has any authority over trowsers, coatees, and socks, all great-coats are exempt from his influence. If he can make every foot-soldier carry two cartridge-pouches, he cannot find him a single musket. If he can have all his men tried by court-martial and well flogged, he cannot make them stir a single inch. Marching is beyond his competency, and as to feeding his troops, that is a thing which does not concern him at all.

Then there is the Master-General of the Ordnance. This person, a lamentable relic of the times when science was considered unsoldierlike, and when all scientific corps, artillery and engineers, were not soldiers, but a sort of nondescript body, half savants, half handicraftsmen, and united in a separate guild or corporation, under the command of such a Master-General. This Master-General of the Ordnance, beside artillery and engineers, has under him all the great-coats and small-arms of the army. To any military operation, of whatever nature, he must, therefore, be a party.

Next comes the Secretary at War. If the two preceding characters were already of comparative nullity, he is beyond nullity. The Secretary at War can give no order to any part of the army, but he can prevent any portion of the army from doing anything. As he is the chief of the military finances, and as every military act costs money, his refusal to grant funds is equivalent to an absolute veto upon all operations. But, willing as he may be to grant the funds, he is still a nullity, for he cannot feed the army; that is beyond his sphere. In addition to all this, the Commissariat, which really feeds the army, and, in case of any movement, is supposed to find it means of transport, is placed under the control of the Treasury. Thus, the Prime Minister, the first lord of the Treasury, has a direct hand in the getting up of every military operation, and can at his pleasure either push it, retard it, or stop it. Everybody knows that the Commissariat is almost a more important portion of the army than the soldiers themselves; and for this very reason, the collective wisdom of Great Britain has thought proper to make it quite independent of the army, and to place it under the control of an essentially different Department. Finally, the army, formerly put in motion by the Colonial Secretary, is now subject to the orders of the new War-Minister[3]. He dislocates the troops, from England to China, and from India to Canada. But, as we have seen, his authority, taken singly, is as ineffectual as that of any of the four preceding military powers; the cooperation of all the five being required, in order to bring about the least movement.

It was under the auspices of this wonderful system that the present war began. The British troops, well fed and well cared for at home, in consequence of a forty years' peace, went out in high condition, persuaded that whatever the enemy might do, England would not let her gallant lads want for anything. But scarcely had they landed at their first stage, at Gallipoli, when the comparison with the French army showed the ludicrous inferiority of all British arrangements, and the pitiable helplessness of every British official. Although it was here comparatively easy to provide for everything, although sufficient notice had been given, and a very small body of troops only was sent out, everything went wrong. Everybody made himself very busy, and yet nobody would perform duties that had not fallen to his lot at home in time of peace, so that not a man was to be found to do that business which was created by the very war itself. Thus shiploads of stores were left to rot on the shore where they were first landed, and troops had to be sent on to Scutari for want of room. Chaotic disorder announced itself in unmistakable signs, but as it was the beginning of the war, an improvement was expected from growing experience.

The troops went to Varna. Their distance from home increased, their number increased, the disorder in the administration increased. The independent working of the five departments composing that administration, each of them responsible to a different Minister at home, here first resulted in open and unmistakable clashing. Want reigned in the camp, while the garrison of Varna had the best of comforts. The Commissariat, lazily indeed, got together some means of transport from the country; but as the General-in-Chief[4] did not appoint any escort wagons, the Bulgarian drivers disappeared again as fast as they had been brought together. A central dépôt was formed at Constantinople —a sort of first base of operations; but it served no purpose except to create a fresh center of difficulties, delays, questions of competency, quarrels between the army, the Ordnance, the paying staff, the Commissariat, and the War Office. Wherever anything was to be done, everybody tried to shove it off his own shoulders upon those of somebody else. The avoiding of all responsibility was the general aim. The consequence was that everything went wrong, and that nothing whatever was done. Disgust at these proceedings, and the certainty of seeing his army rot in inactivity, may have had some influence in determining Lord Raglan to risk the expedition to the Crimea.

This expedition crowned the success of John Bull's military organization. There, in the Crimea, came the "decided hit." So long as the army was, in point of fact, in a state of peace, as at Gallipoli, Scutari and Varna, the magnitude of the disorder, the complicity of the confusion, could hardly be expected fully to develop itself. But now, in the face of the enemy, during the course of an actual siege, the case was different. The resistance of the Russians gave full scope to the British officials for the exercise of their business-like habits. And it must be confessed, never was the business of destroying an army done more effectually than by these gentlemen. Of more than 60,000 men sent to the East since February last, not more than 17,000 are now fit for duty; and of these, some 60 or 80 die daily, and about 200 or 250 are every day disabled by sickness, while of those that fall sick, hardly any recover. And out of the 43,000 dead or sick, not 7,000 have been disabled by the direct action of the enemy!

When it first was reported in England that the army in the Crimea wanted food, clothing, housing, everything; that neither medical nor surgical stores were on the spot; that the sick and wounded had either to lie on the cold, wet ground, exposed to the weather, or to be crowded on board ships moored in an open roadstead, without attendance, or the simplest requisites for medical treatment; when it was reported that hundreds were dying for want of the first necessaries; everybody believed that the Government had neglected to send proper supplies to the scene of action. But soon enough, it became known, that if this had been partially the case in the beginning, it was not so now. Everything had been sent there even in profusion; but, unfortunately, nothing ever happened to be where it was wanted. The medical stores were at Varna, while the sick and wounded were either in the Crimea or at Scutari; the clothing and provisions arrived in sight of the Crimea, but there was nobody to land them. Whatever by chance got landed, was left to rot on the beach. The necessary cooperation of the naval force brought a fresh element of dissension to bear upon the already distracted councils of the Departments whose conflicts were to insure triumph to the British army. Incapacity, sheltered by regulations made for peace, reigned supreme; in one of the richest countries of Europe, on the sheltered coast of which hundreds of transports laden with stores lay at anchor, the British army lived upon half-rations; surrounded by numberless herds of cattle, they had to suffer from scurvy, in consequence of being restricted to salt meat; with plenty of wood and coal on board ship, they had so little of it on shore that they had to eat their meat raw, and could never dry the clothes which the rain had drenched. Think of serving out the coffee, not only unground, but even unroasted. There were stores of food, of drink, of clothing, of tents, of ammunition, by tuns and hundreds of tuns, stowed away on board the ships, whose masts almost touched the tops of the cliffs, where the camp was placed; and yet, Tantalus-like, the British troops could not get at them. Everybody felt the evil, everybody ran about, cursing and blaming everybody else for neglect of duty, but nobody knew, to use the vernacular expression, "which was which;" for everybody had his own set of regulations carefully drawn up, sanctioned by the competent authority, and showing that the very thing wanted was no part of his duty, and that he, for one, had no power to set the matter right.

Now, add to this state of things the increasing inclemency of the season, the heavy rains setting in and transforming the whole Heracleatic Chersonese into one uninterrupted pool of mud and slush, knee-deep if not more; imagine the soldiers, two nights at least out of four in the trenches, the other two sleeping, drenched and dirty, in the slush, without boards under them, and with hardly any tents over them; the constant alarms completing the impossibility of anything like proper rest and adequate sleep; the cramps, diarrhea and other maladies arising from constant wet and cold; the dispersion of the medical staff, weak though it was from the beginning, over the camp; the hospital-tents, with 3,000 sick almost in the open air and lying on the wet earth, and it will be easily believed that the British army in the Crimea is in a state of complete disorganization —reduced to "a mob of brave men," as The London Times says[5], and that the soldiers may well welcome the Russian bullet which frees them from all their miseries.

But what is to be done? Why, unless you prefer waiting till half a dozen acts of Parliament are, after due consideration by the Crown lawyers, discussed, amended, voted on and enacted till, by this means, the whole business connected with the army is concentrated in the hands of a real War Minister till this new Minister supposing him to be the right man has organized the service of his office, and issued fresh regulations in other words, unless you wait till the last vestige of the Crimean army has disappeared, there is only one remedy. This is the assumption by the General-in-Chief of the expedition[6] upon his own authority, and his own responsibility, of that dictatorship over all the conflicting and contending departments of the military administration which every other General-in-Chief possesses, and without which he cannot bring the enterprise to any end but ruin. That would soon make matters smooth; but where is the British General who would be prepared to act in this Roman manner, and on his trial defend himself, like the Roman, with the words, "Yes, I plead guilty to having saved my country?"[7]

Finally, we must inquire who is the founder and preserver of this beautiful system of administration? Nobody but the old Duke of Wellington. He stuck to every detail of it as if he was personally interested in making it as difficult as possible to his successors to rival him in warlike glory. Wellington, a man of eminent common sense, but of no genius whatever, was the more sensible of his own deficiencies in this respect, from being the cotemporary and opponent of the eminent genius of Napoleon. Wellington, therefore, was full of envy for the success of others. His meanness in disparaging the merits of his auxiliaries and allies is well known; he never forgave Blücher for saving him at Waterloo. Wellington knew full well that had not his brother[8] been Minister during the Spanish war, he never could have brought it to a successful close. Was Wellington afraid that future exploits would place him in the shade, and did he therefore preserve to its full extent this machinery so well adapted to fetter generals and to ruin armies?

  1. The Times, No. 21941, January 3, 1855, leader.—Ed.
  2. See The Attack on Sevastopol and The Siege of Sevastopol (1854).—Ed.
  3. See Reorganisation of The British War Administration. The Austrian Summons. Britain's Economic Situation. St. Arnaud.—Ed.
  4. Hardinge.—Ed.
  5. The Times, No. 21941, January 3, 1855, leader.—Ed.
  6. Raglan.—Ed.
  7. In the Neue Oder-Zeitung the next paragraph reads as follows: "The origin of this system lies apparently in constitutional precautions against a standing army. Instead of a division of labour, which would have given the army the greatest elasticity, a division of authority, which reduces its mobility to a minimum. Yet the system was by no means maintained for parliamentary or constitutional considerations, but because the influence of the oligarchy would be broken at least in this field, simultaneously with a timely reform of military administration. In the preceding session of Parliament, the Ministers had refused to allow any innovation except the separation of the Ministry of War from the Ministry of the Colonies. Wellington obstinately maintained the system from 1815 until his death, although - he knew very well that with the system he would never have brought the Spanish war to a successful close had not his brother, the Marquis of Wellesley, by chance been the Minister. In 1832 and 1836, before the commissions instituted by Parliament for a reform of the old system, Wellington defended the old system to its full extent. Was he afraid to make it easier for his successors to gain fame?"—Ed.
  8. Richard Wellesley.—Ed.