Critical Observations on the Siege of Sevastopol

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This article by Engels is a German version of the article originally written for the New York Daily Tribune. The translation was probably made by Marx.

London, January 19. Sir Howard Douglas has added a critical appendix on the events of the recent war to a new edition of his famous work on Naval Gunnery[1]. Among other things, he proves, from most recent experience and on the basis of official material at his sole disposal, that fleets are inadequate against casemated forts if the latter are correctly constructed and properly defended; the uselessness of bombs against solid masonry; and finally, that it is possible to make a breach in towers and casemated forts, such as the ones at Bomarsund and Sevastopol, only with heavy siegeguns—32-pounders at least—and that, moreover, in the old manner, because the unsteady aim from a ship would never cause a breach without exposing the ship to certain destruction. As to the Crimean campaign in particular, Douglas, in spite of his partisanship for the commanders in the Crimea, and with all due semi-official consideration for his official position, comes to the conclusion that ultimately the Crimean expedition will prove a failure. But has not the Thunderer of The Times imparted the great news that Sevastopol was to be taken by storm after a forty-eight-hour cannonade! It had this, said The Times, from a reliable source, and it was solely to withhold its information from the Russians that it did not reveal all concerning an event which would definitely take place within the next few days (see The Times from December 26 to 31). There was no doubting it: Sevastopol was to be taken within the next few days.[2]

This is what happened. As everyone knows, The Times displayed furious opposition to the Foreign Legion Bill, because it learned about this measure only when the rest of the general public did. Then it began to fret and fume and to grumble at the Ministry. To keep the paper quiet, the latter was cowardly enough to fling it a bit of news—the storming of Sevastopol, in doing which the Ministry transformed a design, considered by the generals for use in certain contingencies and under certain conditions, into a positive plan of campaign. That French papers—that is to say, semi-official organs made similar reports is not surprising, for the loan of five hundred millions was near at hand."[3] That The Times was duped is equally obvious. It believes every news item which it receives twenty-four hours earlier than any other paper.

The situation in the Crimea has slightly improved. While the French suffer comparatively few losses from illness, their cavalry being well mounted and their infantry lively and active, the British continue daily to send 150 men into hospital and to bring out forty to fifty dead. Their artillery has no horses and their cavalry has to dismount, so that their horses may wear themselves out in hauling up the heavy cannon from Balaklava. Every two to three days the weather alternates between rain and light frost, so that there has been no decrease at all in the expanse of mud. Since almost all means of transport are occupied in supplying provisions for the army, the procuring of which remains the foremost necessity, neither cannon nor ammunition can be brought up. In the meantime, trenches have been dug close to the enemy positions, and a third parallel has been constructed which, although it cannot be provided with arms, must nevertheless be defended against sorties. It is impossible to say how close these trenches are to the nearest points under attack, since reports are contradictory and, of course, not published officially. Some say 140 or 150 yards, while, according to a French report, the nearest point is still 240 yards away. In the meantime, French batteries, now completed and mounted, must wait because the desultory and utterly ineffectual November cannonade has reduced supplies of ammunition, and a repetition of so desultory a fire would be inept. Thus the Russians have had, and still have, sufficient time, not only to repair any damage suffered through earlier attacks, but to raise new works, and they are doing this with so much enthusiasm that at present Sevastopol is stronger than ever before. Any decisive storm is quite outside the realm of possibility, as there are several lines of defence one behind another, and as the large stone buildings in the town behind the last circular wall have been transformed into as many redoubts. Whenever the siege recommences, everything will have to start again from the beginning, but with the difference that the batteries have come considerably closer to the town and hence are more effective. But at what a price has this advantage been bought! It was precisely the task of guarding these extended communication trenches which caused most of the cases of sickness in the British army by depriving the soldiers of their sleep to an excessive degree. Besides, the Russians were active enough in making sorties which, although not always successful, served to exhaust an already overworked enemy.

In the meantime, the Turkish army has gradually arrived in Eupatoria whence it will have to operate against Simferopol and, simultaneously, watch the northern side of Sevastopol. This operation which completely divides the Turks from the Anglo-French army, thus forming two quite separate armies, is another strategic blunder which invites the Russians to defeat each one separately. However, it was unavoidable. It would have been an even greater mistake to accumulate yet more troops on the small Heracleatic Chersonese.

This is how the results of the famous Balaklava "flank march" are developing.

  1. Engels gives the title in English.—Ed.
  2. The Times, No. 21942, January 4, 1855, leader.—Ed.
  3. The reference is to a decision adopted by the French Legislative Corps on December 30, 1854 to issue a loan of 500 million francs for the purpose of covering the cost of the war.