Retreat of the Russians from Kalafat

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 13 March 1854


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First published in The People's Paper, No. 98, March 18, 1854 and
in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4040, March 30;
Reprinted in the New York Weekly Tribune, No. 655, April 1, 1854 as a leader
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.65-69), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980

Engels wrote the article "Retreat of the Russians from Kalafat" on March 13 on Marx's request and it was mailed to New York on March 14, as is testified by the entry in the Notebook: "Dienstag. 14 March. Militaria. Kalafat." Before sending it off Marx added a review of Greek events[1] and other information taken from The Times of March 14, 1854. On March 18 Marx published this article in the Chartist People's Paper. The New York Daily Tribune and the New York Weekly Tribune carried it under the title "The Russian Retreat". It was included by Eleanor Marx in The Eastern Question under the same heading. In this edition the text is reproduced from The People's Paper and checked with that of the New York Daily Tribune. Substantially different readings are given in footnotes.

The Russians have retreated from Kalafat, and have, it is stated, entirely remodelled their plan of campaign. This is the glorious end of the efforts and risks of a three months' campaign, during which the last resources of Wallachia have been completely exhausted. This is the fruit of that inconceivable march into Little Wallachia, which appeared to have been undertaken in utter contempt of the first rules of strategy. In order to take Kalafat, that only bridgehead held by the Turks on the left bank of the Danube, the mass of the army[2] was concentrated on the extreme right, in a position where the weakened centre and left appeared completely abandoned to any attack that the enemy might chance to undertake, and where an indifference was shown to the lines of communications and retreat which is without parallel in the history of warfare. That Omer Pasha has not profited by this blunder is only to be explained by the interference of our Ambassador at Constantinople[3]. How it is that, after all, the Russians have to retreat disgracefully without having effected their purpose, we shall have to show presently. We say they have to retreat disgracefully, because an advance preceded by blustering, crowned by taking up a merely threatening position, and ending in a quiet and modest retreat, without even an attempt at serious fighting because a move composed of an uninterrupted series of mistakes and errors, resulting in nothing but the General's[4] conviction that he has made a complete fool of himself is the very height of disgrace.

Now to the state of the case.

The Russians had, by the end of 1853, the following troops in Wallachia, Moldavia, and Bessarabia:

2. Of the 5th corps (Lüders) one division infantry, one division cavalry, two brigades artillery say 15,000 men.

3. 3rd corps (Osten-Sacken) three divisions infantry, one division cavalry, four brigades artillery say 55,000 men.

Total about 115,000 men, besides non-combatants and one division of Lüders' corps in the neighbourhood of Odessa, which, being wanted for garrison duty, cannot be taken into account.

The troops under Dannenberg and Lüders were the only ones that had been in the Principalities up to the beginning of December. The approach of Osten-Sacken's corps was to be the signal for the grand concentration for the attack on Kalafat[5]. His place, on the Bug and the Pruth, was to be filled up by the 6th corps (Cheodayeff), then on the road from Moscow. After the junction of this latter corps, the Danubian army would have consisted of about 170,000 men, but might have turned out to be stronger, if the new levies of recruits from the South Western provinces were at once directed to the theatre of war.

However, 115,000 to 120,000 men appeared to the Russian Commander a sufficient force to defend the whole line of the Danube from Braille to Nicopolis, and spare a sufficient number to be concentrated, from the extreme right, for an attack on Kalafat.

When this movement was commenced, towards the end of December, Kalafat could hardly harbour more than 10,000 to 12,000 defenders, with 8,000 more at Vidin, whose support might be considered dubious, as they had to cross an unruly river in a bad season. The slowness of the Russian movements, however, the indecision of Prince Gorchakoff, and above all the activity and boldness of Ismail Pasha, the commander at Kalafat, permitted the Turks to concentrate some 40,000 men on the menaced point, and to change Kalafat from a simple bridgehead stormable by a force double that of its defenders into a fortification which could shelter at least 30,000 men, and withstand any but a regular siege attack. It has been justly said that the highest triumph for the constructor of a field fortification is the necessity for the enemy to open his trenches against it; if the Russians did not actually open the trenches, it is merely because, even with that extreme means, they did see no way of taking Kalafat in the time they might set apart for the operation. Kalafat will henceforth rank with Frederick II's camp at Bunzelwitz, with the lines of Torres-Vedras, with the Archduke Charles' entrenchments behind Verona, as one of those efforts of field fortification that are named as classical applications of the art in warlike history.[6]

Now let us look to the Russian means of attack. That they meant in good earnest to take Kalafat, is shown by their parks of siege artillery having been brought forward as far as Crajova. That Omer Pasha, we may state by the way, allowed these guns to go and return freely, is one of the many military inconceivabilities of this war, to be explained merely through diplomatic influences. The only thing[7], then, for the Russians, was a sufficient mass of troops to drive in the Turks, and to protect the trenches and batteries, and to storm the breaches as soon as they should have been opened. Here, again, Ismail Pasha acted like an energetic and clever commander. His sally towards Chetatea on the 6th of January his vigorous attack ending in the defeat of a superior Russian force, and the continued attacks of a similar nature he executed, while the Russian concentration was still going on, and, until he was fairly blockaded on his small Danubian Peninsula by a superior force in short, his system of defending himself by concentrated offensive blows against single points of the Russian line, and thereby destroying his enemy, as far as he could, in detail, was exactly what a commander under his circumstances should have done, and forms a cheering contrast with Omer Pasha's passive[8] defence at Oltenitza, or his lazy passivity, all this while, on the lower Danube. For the petty attacks carried on by him here and there, which appear never to have been broken off at the proper moment, but carried on for days and days on the same point with blind obstinacy, even when no result could be expected from them, these petty attacks do not count, when a movement across the Danube with 40,000 to 60,000 men was wanted.

After all, the Russians completed, by the end of January, their concentration around Kalafat. They were evidently superior in the open field; they must therefore have had some 30,000 or 40,000 men. Now deduct these from 115,000, deduct then, say 20,000 or 25,000 men[9] more for the defence of the line from Brailow to the sea, and there remained for the whole of Greater Wallachia, inclusive of garrisons, from 50,000 to 65,000 men an army far from sufficient to defend such a long line of attack, and a line of communication running parallel with the line of attack, at a short distance behind it. A vigorous attack on any point, even with a force inferior to the whole of these 65,000 men, could not but have ended in the utter defeat, in detail, of all these dispersed Russian troops, and with the capture of all the Russian magazines. Omer Pasha will have to explain, some time or other, his motives for neglecting such an opportunity.

With all their efforts, then, the Russians could merely concentrate before Kalafat a force barely sufficient to drive in the outposts, but not to attack the stronghold itself. They took nearly five weeks to effect even this momentary and illusory success. General Schilder, of the Engineers, was sent with positive orders to take Kalafat. He came, he saw, and he resolved to do nothing[10] until the arrival of Cheodayeff should allow fresh troops to come up from the centre and left.

Five weeks the Russians stood in this dangerous position, rear and flank exposed, as if provoking that attack which they could not have resisted a moment; and five weeks Omer Pasha stood menacing their flank and rear, in a position where he could see their weakness without spectacles or telescopes and he did nothing. Verily, this system of modern warfare, under the patronage of the Allied Courts[11], is above comprehension!

All at once the news reaches London— "The Russians are in full retreat from Kalafat." "Oh," says The Times, "that is the effect of our allies, the Austrians, having concentrated an army in Transylvania, in the rear of the Russians[12]; that is the effect of the glorious Austrian alliance, which is again the effect of our glorious Aberdeen policy." Three cheers for Aberdeen! But next day Austrian authentic manifestoes show that no Austrian alliance exists[13], and that the Austrians as yet have not said, and do not appear to know themselves, for what purpose they have sent that army where it is, and, consequently, great uncertainty reigns as to the cause of the Russian retreat.

We are now told that the Russians will try to cross the Danube at the opposite point, between Brailow and Galatz, and thus proceed on the direct road to Adrianople, as in 1828-29. If there does not exist a perfect understanding between the Russians on the one side, and the Anglo-French squadron on the other, this march is strategically impossible. We have another cause to account for this retreat. Cheodayeff is said to have been stopped in this march, in order to form a camp of 30,000 or 40,000 men above Odessa. If this be true, he cannot relieve any troops on the Pruth and Sereth, nor reinforce Gorchakoff before Kalafat. Consequently, Prince Gorchakoff has to retreat in as good order as he came, and thus would end the grand tragi-comedy of the Russian march against Kalafat.[14]

  1. The mailing of the article "The Greek Insurrection" to New York is not registered in the Notebook, but the fact that it is by Marx is established by his letters to Engels of April 22 and May 3, 1854. This article, published by the editors of the New York Daily Tribune as a leader, was presumably a part of the article mailed by Marx to New York on March 14. It could not have been written before March 14 because it expounded Milnes' speech delivered in the House of Commons on the 13th and published in The Times on March 14, 1854. In the Notebook the dispatch of this article under the title "Oesterreichs Finanzen" is dated March 3. The article dealt not only with the state of Austrian finances, but analysed Napoleon III's speech of March 2 and contained some other material which the Tribune, editors arbitrarily combined with Marx's previous report.
  2. The New York Daily Tribune has: "the Russian army".—Ed.
  3. The New York Daily Tribune has: "How it happened that Omer Pasha has not profited by this blunder, we have already had occasion to show." (See The War Question in Europe.—Ed.
  4. M. D. Gorchakov.—Ed.
  5. The New York Daily Tribune has: "for the grand concentration and the attack on Kalafat.—Ed.
  6. The camp at Bunzelwitz was fortified on the order of Frederick II of Prussia in 1761 during the Seven Years' War.

    The fortifications at Torres-Vedras (in Portugal, between the Tagus River and the Atlantic coast) were built in 1810 on the order of Wellington to protect Lisbon from the French forces.

    Entrenchments behind Verona were built not far from the town by the troopsof the Archduke Charles of Austria during the war of the third coalition (1805) against Napoleonic France. In all three instances the fortifications were not captured by the enemy.
  7. The New York Daily Tribune has: "The only thing necessary, then, for the Russians...".—Ed.
  8. The New York Daily Tribune has: "previous".—Ed.
  9. The New York Daily Tribune has: "20,000 or 30,000 men".—Ed.
  10. An ironical allusion to Julius Caesar's famous words: "Veni, vidi, vici.—Ed.
  11. The New York Daily Tribune has: "Allied Powers".—Ed.
  12. The Times, No. 21686, March 11, 1854, leader.—Ed.
  13. Report from the Vienna correspondent of March 8. The Times, No. 21688, March 14, 1854.—Ed.
  14. The two concluding paragraphs in the New York Daily Tribune are as follows: "All at once the news reaches us that the Russians are in full retreat from Kalafat. The English journals hereupon exclaim that it is the effect of their allies, the Austrians, having concentrated an army in Transylvania, in the rear of the Russians! That it is the effect of the glorious Austrian alliance which is again the effect of the glorious policy of Lord Aberdeen. But presently an authentic Austrian manifesto shows that no Austrian alliance exists and that the Austrians have not said and as yet do not appear to know themselves for what purpose they have sent that army where it is. And consequently our British contemporaries are in great uncertainty as to the cause of the Russian retreat. But what is the cause of it? Why, simply this: French and British troops are to go to Constantinople. Nothing more easy or more plain than to send them thence to Odessa or Bessarabia and cut off the communications of the Russians.

    "However harmless the real intentions of the Coalition may be, pressure from without may force them. to act seriously. Gorchakoff evidently does not trust in the merely diplomatic mission of the Western armies. If he were quite sure of England, he could not be so of France. If he were sure of all the Cabinets, he could not be so of the Generals. He might risk flank marches in the presence of the Turks, but he supposes the matter must become serious so soon as French and British troops arrive and threaten to fall on his flanks. Consequently, Cheodayeff is stopped in his march to form a camp of 30,000 or 40,000 men 'above Odessa. Consequently he cannot furnish any troops for the Pruth or Sereth. Consequently no troops can come to reenforce Gorchakoff before Kalafat. Consequently the attack upon that place becomes an impossibility. Consequently prince Gorchakoff has to retreat in as good order as he came. And thus ends the great tragic-comedy of the Russian march against Kalafat."—Ed.