The Last Battle in Europe (1853)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 8 February 1854


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First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 3997, February 8, 1854, as a leader;
reprinted in the New York Weekly Tribune, No. 648, February 11, 1854 Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.579-582), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : War, Turkey, Russia, Balkans

The letters of our London correspondents and the European journals enable us at last to appreciate in all its bearings the prolonged struggle between the Turks and Russians, of which Chetatea[1], a small village nine miles north of Kalafat, was the arena. Next to the fact that the series of sanguinary actions in question was characterized by great bravery and that the Turks came off victors, the most striking feature of the whole is that it is without practical result, so far as the expulsion of the Russians from Wallachia is concerned. This comes from a mistake on the part of the Turks to which we have more than once had occasion to direct the attention of our readers. We allude to their sending a separate army to Kalafat, in order to shut up the road to Servia, while the presence of a strong and concentrated force near Rustchuk and Orsova[2]would have been the best guarantee against the Russians venturing into that province. Such a force would have menaced the communications of any Russian army marching westward, while a bridge and bridge-head at Oltenitza or some-where thereabouts, fortified like that of Kalafat, could have maintained a footing for them on the left bank of the Danube. But even without that, the Russians could not cross the Upper Danube and march into Servia, without leaving the Turks to cross the Lower Danube and march upon Bucharest. Of course, in saying this, we reckon the relative strength of the parties to be what it is in reality, and ascribe a decided superiority of numbers to the Turkish army of Rumelia, over the Russian army of Wallachia.Now the fact is that the Turks have used their superiority in the very way to nullify it and provide for being finally beaten. They did not concentrate their forces on the Lower Danube, but divided them. While 30,000 to 35,000 men occupied Widin and Kalafat, the rest of the army remained on the Middle and Lower Danube. They occupy the arc of a circle, while the Russians occupy the chord of this arc. Thus the latter have less space to traverse in order to concentrate all their troops on a given spot. Moreover, the shorter roads of the Russians are through a level country, while the longer ones of the Turks pass over hills and cross many mountain torrents. The Turkish position is, then, as disadvantageous as can be, and yet it has been taken in order to satisfy the old prejudice that there is no better way of barring a road against an enemy than by placing yourself across it.

On the 20th of December Omer Pasha knew at Shumla, that the Russians were preparing a general attack upon Kalafat for the 13th of January. He had twenty-two days' time: vet such is the position of Kalafat with regard to the other stations of the Turkish army, that it does not appear that he could bring on any reenforcements except a few reserves from Sofia. On the other hand, that the Russians, without having received any considerable reenforcements from home on January 3 Osten-Sacken's ubiquitous corps was not yet at Bucharest should venture upon a concentration so far west, shows that either the state of the weather and of the Danube did not allow the Turks to cross the river lower down, or that Gorchakoff had other reasons to be assured of their inactivity in that quarter. The Turks at Kalafat were ordered to attack the Russians while yet in the act of concentrating themselves. The best way to do this was to repeat the experiment of Oltenitza[2]. Why was not this done? The bridge at Kalafat stands, in spite of winter and floating ice, and there was no position lower down where a similar bridge and bridge-head could be erected. Or had Omer Pasha been ordered to keep on the right bank of the river? There is so much of a contradictory nature in the Turkish proceedings, bold and clever measures are so regularly followed by the most palpable sins of omission and commission, that diplomatic agency must be at the bottom of it. At all events, Gorchakoff would not have stirred an inch toward Kalafat, had he not been certain that the Turks would not repeat the Oltenitza movement.

Altogether some 30,000 Russians must have been sent against Kalafat, for with a lesser force they would hardly have ventured to attack a fortified position, defended by a garrison of 10,000 men, with at least 10,000 more for purposes of reserve or sally. At least one half, then, of the Russian active army in Wallachia was concentrated there. Where and how could the other half, spread over a long line, have resisted a Turkish force crossing at Oltenitza, Silistra or Orsova? And if the communication between Widin and Kalafat could be kept up without difficulty, then there was a possibility of crossing at other points. Thus the Russians by their position on the chord of the arc, the periphery of which was held by the Turks, were enabled to bring a superior force to the field of battle at Chetatea, while the Turks could not reenforce their corps at Kalafat, though aware of the intended attack long beforehand. The Turks, deprived of that movement of diversion which would have prevented the whole battle, deprived of the chance of succor, were reduced to their bravery and to the hope of cutting up the enemy in detail before his concentration was completed. But even this hope was slight, for they could not move very far from Kalafat, and every hostile corps of inferior strength could retire out of the circle of their operations. Thus they fought for five days, generally with success, but at last had to retire again to their entrenchments in the villages around Kalafat, the Russian forces being decidedly superior in strength at the end, when' new reenforcements arrived. The result is that the Russian attack upon Kalafat is most probably averted or delayed, and that Turks have shown that in the open field, no less than behind ramparts and ditches, they can fight well. The murderous character of the encounters may be inferred from the statement of a letter from Bucharest, to the effect that in the engagements one whole regiment of Russian rifles, and all but 465 men of a regiment of lancers, were completely annihilated.

At Oltenitza the Turks were attacked in their entrenched positions by the Russians; at Chetatea the Russians were attacked in their entrenched positions by the Turks. On both occasions the Turks have proved victorious, but without reaping any positive results from their victory. The battle of Oltenitza happened just when the proclamation of an armistice was on its way from Constantinople to the Danube. And the battle of Chetatea curiously coincides with the news of the Divan having accepted the lasts proposals of peace, imposed upon them by their Western allies.[3] In the one instance the machinations of diplomacy are nullified in the clash of arms, while in the other the bloody work of war is simultaneously frustrated by some secret diplomatic agency.

  1. After Oltenitza in early November 1853 the battle of Chetatea was the second most important battle between the Turkish and Russian armies in the Danubian theatre during the early period of the Crimean war. The main military operations took place in January 1854 when the Turks attempted to launch an offensive in the vicinity of Kalafat at the junction of the borders of Wallachia, Serbia and Bulgaria. After staunch resistance the Russian detachment abandoned its position at Chetatea in the face of a large Turkish force (about 18,000 men). However, the arrival of Russian reinforcements put the Turks on the defensive and subsequently caused them to withdraw to Kalafat.
  2. 2.0 2.1 See The War on the Danube (December 1853).
  3. A reference to the Note to Constantinople signed by the British, French, Austrian and Prussian ambassadors on December 12, 1853 (see The Western Powers and Turkey (January 10, 1854) ). The Note contained a fresh offer of mediation in the Russo-Turkish conflict. In a reply sent on December 31, 1853, Turkey stated her conditions for peace negotiations: 1) the preservation and guarantee of her territorial integrity; 2) Russian evacuation of the Danubian Principalities; 3) the renewal and observance of the 1841 treaty; 4) respect of the Sultan's sovereignty. These conditions were approved by a new Vienna Conference of the ambassadors on January 13, 1854 and forwarded to the Tsarist Government.