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Attitude of the German Powers page 2


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The fortress of Silistria stands on the right bank of the Danube, in a position which makes it, as military men say, " important in a strategical point of view, and unfavourable for the purposes of fortification." Its strategical value is shown by the fact, that it is " on the flank of every possible line of operation upon the Balkan." Indeed, no impression can even be made on the Balkan so long as the Turks can keep possession of Silistria, Shumla, and Varna. They are the Turkish Trilateral. Besieged and taken in 1810, the Russians failed before Silistria in 1828, but captured it in 1829, after an obstinate resistance extending over forty-four days. As it stands on the brink of the Danube below a ridge of commanding heights, the last spurs of the Balkan as they push towards the river, no works of whatever strength could make it secure. At eight and even six hundred yards from the wall, the whole of the interior can be overlooked. But not only was the position bad, the works were bad also. The wall was low, the ditches were shallow, the flanking fire ineffective. In 1828-9 there were no outworks, only here and there a few "lodgments," mere trenches; and so dreaded were the Turks even then behind such light cover, that these furrows in the soil were approached by the double sap and blown up by mines! In 1854, a Prussian officer, Major Grach, had helped the Turks to improve the defensive works, and he seeing, as Moltke had seen before him, how impossible it was to defend the place without holding the hills above it, threw up some indifferent entrenchments on the south and east of the place. One of these was the Arab Tabia, and in the course of the coming contest it came to play a principal part in the work of resistance. Another point in favour of the Turks was the breadth of the Danube, but this was in some measure counterbalanced by the facilities which the islands below the town afforded to the Russians. From the fortress on the east ran the road to Rassova down the right bank; on the west, the road to Turtukai up the right bank; and towards the south, the roads to Shumla and Varna and the passes of the Balkan. Such was the post. It was held by a garrison under Moussa Pasha, which, with the fighting part of the population, numbered perhaps 10,000 men, against which Prince Paskiewitch was about to throw the strength of the Czar.

The first object of the Russians was to gain possession of the islands below the fortress, and above the belt of marshes which border the left bank of the Danube, from Kalarasch to Hirsova. To facilitate this, they brought a flotilla of gunboats from Galatz, and under their protection threw bridges from the left bank to the islands, and from the islands to the right bank, so that, in spite of the opposition of the Turkish outposts, and the cannon of the eastern face of the fortress, by the end of April, the Russians were masters of the river and both banks. Next, they threw up batteries for siege guns on the islands within range; and having accomplished their batteries and secured their bridge, they put in motion the two columns destined to invest the place and conduct the siege. They brought 30,000 men over the bridge from Kalarasch, who were joined by 40,000 from Rassova under Lüders. On the 17th of May, General Schilders took the command of the besieging force and the conduct of the siege. By a strange coincidence, this very general, on that same day, just a quarter of a century before, when General Diebitsch headed the Czar's invading army, had sat down before Silistria. He knew its strong and its weak points. He preserved a lively recollection of the tenacity with which a Moslem soldier clings to a little earthen shelter, and he must have looked with some misgivings on the little furrows of earth, which, as one writer says, were scratched on the plateau commanding the fortress of Silistria. Moltke has recorded how profoundly a Russian respects a Turk when the latter is ensconced, even in a poor earthen field-work defended by a shallow ditch; and the mode in which Schilders approached the place showed that the respect inspired by the valour of the defenders of Silistria in 1828-9 had not been effaced from his mind. He opened his first trench at a distance of more than 3,000 yards from the outwork on the plateau! In 1828 the Russians were too weak to invest the place completely; in 1829 they did invest it, blocking up all the approaches. In 1854 they repeated the mistake of 1828; for although a column crossed the Danube at Turtukai to close up the western side, it was only for a moment imperfectly in communication with the main body, and throughout the siege the Russians were not able to cut off the communication between the town and Omer Pasha in Shumla. The fact is that the outworks on the plateau overlooking the fortress gave it such an extensive area that even 80,000 Russians did not suffice to guard the bridge, perform the service of the trenches, and cover the siege. So that practically Silistria was assailed only on one side, and weakly menaced on another, while between the two there was a chasm partially patrolled by the Russian cavalry.

On the 20th of May Prince Paskiewitch crossed the Danube, and inspected the attack. He brought with him Prince Gortschakoff, who took the command of the besieging force. Prince Paskiewitch saw the error which had been made in opening the trenches at a point so distant from the works; he caused the first parallel to be abandoned, and on the 21st opened a new one within 500 yards of the works. Moussa Pasha, seeing the enemy within reach, opened fire, and sallying forth did some damage, but did not hinder the completion of the parallel. It so happened that two Englishmen, Lieutenant Butler and Lieutenant Nasmyth, travelling for pleasure, had entered Silistria, and had volunteered to aid in the defence. They took their posts in the advanced works, notably in the Arab Tabia, and their presence and bearing produced such an effect on the Turks, that the latter never thought of yielding, but fought with a steadfastness and devotion equal to any troops in the world. These young men, looking over the low parapets of the Arab Tabia, saw beneath them the immense Russian camp, and beyond that the broad stream of the Danube spanned by their splendid military bridges, and beyond the Danube the plains of Wallachia swarming with cattle and intersected with transport trains. But the sight of the mighty means of the Czar did not daunt them, and they imparted their own spirit to the defenders of the Arab Tabia. And when Prince Paskiewitch, thinking he could carry these miserable outworks by storm, hurled his heavy columns upon them three times within four-and-twenty hours, he had the mortification to see his troops recoil and fly each time that they attacked. On the 25th, in the midst of a storm, which came on at nightfall, the docile Russian soldiers once more dashed at the work, and reached the ditch; but they could go no further. They were smitten by a ceaseless fire, and forced back with loss. What was to be done? Here was a miserable bank of earth, which, defended by Turks, under British guidance, had withstood four assaults, three by day and one by night. A mere ridge of Bulgarian earth, and a handful of mere Turks, had so withstood the valiant and tried soldiers of the puissant and most pious Czar. Yet this ridge and furrow on the hill side must be taken, or the Czar's troops would never have Silistria. The orders of Nicholas to take it, cost what it might, were frequent and imperative. There was only one way to execute his orders; the Arab Tabia must be carried,-not by bayonet and bullet, but by pickaxe and spade.

The Russian parallels came nearer. A third appeared only 200 yards distant. The Russian infantry made a dash at one of the redoubts on the left. But the Turks sallied forth, and falling on with cold steel, expelled the enemy, and killed two generals and several hundreds of men. Three days afterwards Prince Paskiewitch risked another assault. Making a false attack on the left, he brought up heavy columns against the Arab Tabia, preparing the way by a terrible fire from all his batteries. Inspired by their English leaders, the Turks received the shock without flinching, and once more forced them headlong back, this time with a loss of two thousand men. The trenches had now been open; the siege guns from the mainland, from the islands, from the Danube, had been firing for sixteen days. Yet no progress had been made towards the capture of the Turkish outworks. Again the spade was plied, and again the beautifully executed saps and parallels approached. The opposing soldiers could hear each other speak, and look into each other's eyes. Pressed as he was by the orders of his master, who looked with apprehension at the gathering of Austrians in Transylvania, and the increasing forces of the allies at Gallipoli and Scutari, Prince Paskiewitch issued orders for a seventh assault. The sturdy Russian soldiers, who had failed so often, who had lost so many men, who had come to regard the work as impregnable, obeyed, indeed, as they always do, but obeyed without heart or confidence; and after a fierce conflict, they were for a seventh time routed utterly. The Turks, however, lost their commander, Moussa Pasha, a soldier who had the merit at least of firmness of soul, and an integrity without stain. This was a serious blow; but the presence of Butler and Nasmyth compensated fully for the loss o£ the Pasha. They were adored by the soldiers, and obeyed with that cheerfulness and devotion which make men so terrible in conflict.

After the failure of the last assault, the Russians began to mine. By sap and mine they had taken the place in 1829. They fell back upon the old methods. Unable to storm over the low rampart, they sought to blow it up from below. Here again the British officers frustrated them, for they caused the Turks to cut a fresh entrenchment in rear of the first; and, if need were, another behind that, and then another, but always, whatever happened, to stand fast and fight with them. The Turks did as they were bidden, and their coolness under fire, and indifference to danger, provoked the warm admiration of the English officers whose confidence was so liberally repaid. And thus the siege went on. The Russians continued to creep forwards, under cover of the sap, and to drive their mines and explode them; but ever as they- reached one point of defence, they found another behind it, and gallant men ready to cross bayonets and defend both, and even to rush out suddenly and kill and destroy. Nevertheless, the Russians came so close that the pick and spade could be heard beneath the ground, and it seemed, certainly to those who looked on from a distance, who reflected on the strength of the Russian army, and the weakness of the place, that it must fall. Omer Pasha held that opinion, and even so late as the 19th of June imparted it to the commanders of the allies. It was the picture he drew of the state of affairs in Bulgaria which induced Lord Raglan and Marshal St. Arnaud to send troops to Varna. At the end of May the Light Division of the English army landed at Varna, followed by that of General Canrobert; and from that time in the French and English camps, and in the wooded gorges of Shumla, men listened to the muffled roar of the Russian guns, expecting every day to see a tired horseman ride in with the news of the fall of Silistria.

Yet Silistria fell not. The investment was so imperfect that General Cannon, an Englishman in the service of the Porte, contrived to pass between the Russian covering armies, and enter the place, to the great joy of the besieged. In the meantime the enemy had come so close, that a Turk dared not speak above a whisper without drawing upon himself a Russian bullet. It is to a remark in too loud a tone that the death of Captain Butler is attributed. He was speaking to General Cannon, when a Russian bullet, passing obliquely through the earthwork, gave him a wound, of which he died. Shortly afterwards General Cannon, obeying, it is supposed an order, withdrew from the fortress with the troops he had brought, and carried Lieut. Nasmyth with him, but left behind another British officer, Lieut. Ballard, who supplied his place in the Arab Tabia. The middle of June had now arrived. Prince Paskiewitch, having entered the trenches to reconnoitre these invincible outworks, was wounded, and forced to withdraw to Bucharest, leaving the completion of his task to Prince Gortschakoff. But he fared no better. The Turks sallied forth impetuously, and inflicted great losses. General Schilders was wounded so severely that he died from the effects of the shock and from amputation, and Prince Gortschakoff himself was slightly hurt. The siege had lasted five weeks. The Russian army had lost thousands of men from disease as well as wounds, yet, except that their works were close to those of the Turks, nothing had been gained. They resolved to abandon the enterprise. On the 22nd of June, they opened a tremendous fire on the place from all their batteries. When daylight dawned on the 23rd, the Turks became aware that the trenches were tenantless, and soon saw that the bulk of the army had re-passed the bridge, and had encamped about Kalarasch. The siege was at an end. The Russians had lost 15,000 men and nine generals before the weak and ragged outworks of a feeble fortress, and they had lost, too, something of priceless value - prestige. Their decisive defeat before Silistria was the crowning disaster of a disastrous campaign. Frustrated on all sides, the sole laurels gathered by the Czar were furnished by the massacre at Sinope, the routing of a handful of Turks in the Dobrudscha, and the blowing up of an English war- steamer, the Tiger, which had run ashore in a fog near Odessa.

The causes which led to this failure of the Russian arms -were, first, the shining valour and noble resolution of the Turkish soldiers, and, next, the arrival of the allies at Varna, the operations of their fleets in the Black Sea, and the new position taken up by Austria. For Austria, eager to obtain the evacuation of the Principalities, had, on the 14th of June, while yet the issue of the siege of Silistria was uncertain, made a separate treaty with the Porte, whereby the Emperor engaged "to exhaust all the means of negotiation, and all other means, to obtain the evacuation of the Principalities " by the foreign army which occupied them. In other words, Austria undertook to occupy the Principalities herself - an engagement which, if the Russians did not withdraw, rendered it incumbent on Austria to use force for their expulsion. It is easy to see that, unless the Czar was ready to incur the hazards of a war with Austria, in addition to a war with the allies, this pressure put upon him, coming at the back of a defeat before Silistria, and the gathering strength of England and France ashore and afloat, would compel him to yield up the material guarantee which he had so recklessly seized. And it did so. But before we describe this event, we must glance at the incidents which preceded it in the Black Sea, and on the shores of the Bosphorus and the Hellespont.

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Pictures for Attitude of the German Powers page 2

Lord Stratford de Redcliffe
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Departure of the Guards
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Marshal St. Arnaud
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