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Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8


The Allies on the Bulganāk - Conference between Marshal St. Arnaud and Lord Raglan - Delays on the 20th - The Armies march - Their Order - The Russian Army - Prince Menschikoff's Tactics - The Position of the Alma - Its Strength and Weakness - The Troops to hold it - How Placed - Advance of the Allies - The Fleet opens fire - Bosquet ascends the Cliff - The Allies prepare to Attack - The Advance of Canrobert and Prince Napoleon - The English under Fire - Their Order - Bosquet and Canrobert reinforced by Forey - Russian Counter Movements - They bring up a huge Column, and Confront the French - Lord Raglan strides into the Fight - Advance of the Light and 2nd Divisions - Severe Russian Fire - Passage of the River - The Fight for the Great Battery - Its Capture - Lord Raglan's Ride - He appears on Russian Ground - Orders Two Guns to be brought up - Aspect of the Battle - The Guards - Backwardness of their Chief - They cross the River - Lord Kaplan s Two Guns - Effect of their Fire - Evans's ready Skill - Advance of the Guards - Light Division driven from the Captured Battery - Colin Campbell's Words - The Guards Re-take the Battery - Tue French Storm the Telegraph Hill - Retreat of the Russian Army - No Pursuit - Why - Loss of the Troops on both Sides - Reflections on the Battle - On the Conduct of Lord Raglan.
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The allies, when in position on the south bank of the Bulganāk, could not see the heights of the Alma, because a ridge, the same over which the Russian cavalry reconnaissance had come, and which concealed its infantry supports, intervened, and closed the prospect in that direction. It was from the frequent watch kept up by the naval officers of both nations, from the tops of their ships, that the two generals acquired their knowledge of the proximity of the Russian army in position. The Russian advance in the afternoon of the 19th only showed the direction in which to look for them: and as these troops appeared on our left front, and as when they retired the Cossacks hovered at a distance in that direction; and, moreover, as a measure of wise precaution, Lord Raglan directed his divisions to change their front to the left, that is, to the eastward. The result of this movement was that, while the French still faced towards the position of the Alma, one-half the English army was posted with its front at right angles to the line of march. As a matter of course, picquets were thrown out along the whole front of the line, and on its left flank, the right being protected by the sea-shore. It is also necessary to remark that there was an interval between the left of the French and the right of the English. This disposition of the forces, rendered expedient by the neighbourhood of an enemy so strong in cavalry, exercised a great influence on the proceedings of the next day.

During the evening, Marshal St. Arnaud visited Lord Raglan, whose head-quarters were in a post-house on the Bulganāk. What passed at this interview is painfully uncertain. It is said that the French marshal brought with him a plan for attacking a position he had not seen; that he proposed to turn both flanks; one' division of his own army and the Turks sweeping round! the Russian left, and the whole of the English round their right, while the remainder of the French fell upon and demolished the centre. It is said also that Lord Raglan did not assent to or dissent from this plan, yet that the French marshal left with an impression that it was to be executed! About the latter there is no doubt. How he came by the impression, one can never know; but this one can know, that Lord Raglan ought not to have allowed Marshal St. Arnaud to leave him with any doubts on his mind. He ought to have distinctly explained that he could assent to no plan until he knew what was to be attacked. He ought to have said in plain language - and he could use plain language - that the plan of a battle must be determined by the nature of the enemy's position, the number of troops by which it was held, and the mode in which they were distributed. The allied commanders were seven miles from the enemy. Neither had seen him, nor his position, nor how he held his position. There were no grounds for a plan, except such as had been obtained by the officers of the fleet. Under these circumstances the proceeding of Marshal St. Arnaud was absurd; and in plain, but polite language, he should have been told so. What was said to him, no one can know; but he returned to his camp, and issued orders based on the plan he had presented, and the next morning he caused them to be partially executed. But it is plain, from the conduct of the English army, that Lord Raglan had not assented to the monstrous plan of the French marshal; and that, with one exception, he had determined to be guided by what the morrow should disclose.

The dawn of the 20th of September was soft, balmy, and sunny. The troops were afoot early, and soon under arms. Far away on the right the smoke above the cliffs showed that the war-steamers were on the alert, and prepared to work on that flank. Next to the sea, in execution of that part of the marshal's plan not open to objection, General Bosquet, about six o'clock, began to lead forth his division in two columns, followed by four Turkish battalions. He moved on for an hour, and then halted, just as the centre should have moved, to be followed by the English. But the English were not ready. It is said they should have been in line about seven. Whence arose the delay? Some of it must, no doubt, be set down to the constitutional slowness of the British temperament; some to that imperfect concert which is the bane of a divided command. The remainder was caused, undoubtedly, by the fact that the British, in consequence of the arrangements made over-night, had to effect a great change in their array before they could begin to march. The divisions forming the left, or eastward face, had to move obliquely to their right, the 1st in order to form column in rear of the Light Division, the 3rd in order to regain its place in rear of the 2nd Division, while the 4th had to wheel completely to its right in. order to front in the direction of the enemy. Then, that the two armies might be in close proximity, so as to present an unbroken front, the whole had to move obliquely to the right, across the interval between the 2nd British and 3rd French Divisions. These evolutions necessarily took up a great deal of time. Nor was this all that had to be done; for cholera had made some havoc in the night; there were sick to be cared for, and dead to be buried; and the baggage and ammunition carts had to be driven further to the right, so that they might be safe from all danger. The French, having no changes to make, but simply to take up the order of march, were, of course, ready at once. Still, all deduction made, there does not seem to have been sufficient alacrity in the movements of the British; yet, as will be seen, they were quite rapid enough to secure a great victory while the sun was still high.

It was about nine o'clock when the whole armies moved out of the valley of the Bulganāk, and began to cross the next hollow and climb the opposite ridge. The spectacle was again magnificent and impressive. The Rifles led the way, as before; on the left flank moved the Light Cavalry brigade, then came the five divisions, this time in double columns of battalions, at deploying distance. The red uniform gave an appearance of greater bulk to the British columns, as it was gayer than that of the French, whose smaller forms and darker clothing made them look fewer, though their infantry was more numerous than ours. So they glided on through the grassy hollows and up the gentle slopes in majestic order and with measured tread. The front extended many miles, and it may be said to have reached over the sparkling sea, for the fleets moving along in line with the armies formed a not insignificant portion of this fighting array. On the slope of the hill looking into the valley of the Alma the armies halted again. The two commanders, each with a glittering staff, rode along the lines, and the foremost troops saw indistinctly the position and something of the dark masses of the enemy, whose proceedings and arrangements it is now time to describe.

Prince Menschikoff was the commander-in-chief of the naval and military forces of the Czar in the Crimea. It seems that Nicholas did not believe the allies would venture upon the daring exploit of invading that peninsula, or else that their rapidity of movement, slow as it seemed to lookers-on, anticipated the arrival of his reinforcements; or he may have thought that English and French armies and navies would not long act in concert, and that some incident would bring about the abandonment of the expedition. If so, he miscalculated the strength of will of those who held in their hands the public forces of the Western Powers - the Emperor and the British people. At all events, the Czar had comparatively few troops in the Crimea - perhaps not altogether 50,000 men, including the sailors and marines. These troops, in the early days of September, were partly encamped at different places around and to the north of Sebastopol. There were troops at Kertch, and camps on the Chersonese south of the place; camps on the Belbek, the Katcha, the Alma; and there was the garrison of Sebastopol. The presence of the Caradoc on the 10th off that port, and its subsequent cruise up the west coast, followed by the arrival of couriers reporting an immense fleet near Eupatoria, gave Prince Menschikoff the first certain indication of the coming of the allies, and the impending reality of the invasion. By the 14th the lights of the fleet were visible from the heights of the Alma, and the soldiers (says one in the Russian camp), comparing the masts of the ships to the church spires of the old Russian capital, cried, "Behold, the infidel has built another holy Moscow on the waves! " Prince Menschikoff had two courses before him. He might take up a position on the left flank of the line of march the allies would be compelled to follow, and thus force them to quit the sheltering sea-coast in search of him; or he might take up the strongest position he could find across the road they must follow, and thus try to impede their march until reinforcements could reach him from Odessa. By adopting the former plan he could have evaded an action or accepted one far from the sea, for the allies would not have dared to pass him, and thus he might have played with them until reinforced. But he adopted the second plan, believing that he had found a position which he could hold for several weeks. That position was on the south bank of the Alma, fifteen miles from Sebastopol; and on this point he directed the march of every disposable bayonet, sabre, and gun. It was indeed a strong position.

The river Alma rises among the great chain of hills on the southern shores of the Crimea, which culminate to the Tchatir Dagh, and, collecting the waters of various mountain streams, flows to the westward, and pours into the Black Sea. In winter it is a swift and turbid torrent, and cuts a deep channel for itself as it hurries along. In summer its waters decrease in volume, and it is ford- able in many places throughout its course. The last four miles of this river run along the foot of high and bold hills, which, two miles from the sea, close up to the stream, and soon become precipitous and rugged cliffs. From the point where the cliffs end, inland, the hills fall back from the river, forming a wide amphitheatre. The ground slopes upward from the left bank in a succession of mounds and terraces, broken by ravines, and terminates to the east in a bold height, called the Kourgané Hill. South of this the land dips down, and then rises once more to a table land, which extends westward to Cape Lookoul. In the valley there were two villages, Almatamak, near the end of the cliffy, and Bourliouk, about two miles to the east of Almatamak, and about three miles from the sea. On both banks of the river there were gardens and vineyards, but they were more numerous on the north bank, especially above Bourliouk. The willow and the poplar grew on its banks, and around Bourliouk stood corn stacks and hay ricks, the wealth of the simple people whose quiet homes were invaded by the soldiers of the Czar and his enemies. The great road from Eupatoria to Sebastopol crossed the river to the east of Bourliouk, and winding through the ravines beyond, ascended the plateau. Such was the position. Facing the north, the left seemed secured from attack by the steepness of the cliffs; the centre afforded excellent ground for artillery on its terraces and knolls, and the dips in the»hills might be used to conceal the defenders; on the right the Kourgané height overlooked all, and bending backwards, offered protection to that flank. The lower slopes were quite open, and fell down to the river with sufficient rapidity to try the fortitude of an assailant, and yet not so abruptly as to deprive artillery of a full command of the ascent, the river, and the plain beyond. There was one path up the cliff practicable for infantry, and where the precipice ended there were two up which guns could be got with great difficulty. Beyond this troops of all arms could pass the stream and ascend the position. On a point of the highest ground, to the west of the post road, and about two miles from the sea, stood a tower, unfinished, for war had interrupted the workmen, called the Telegraph station, as the peak became known as the Telegraph Hill. The strength of the position lay in the wall of cliff, the steep open downs to the east and west of the road to Sebastopol, and in the river, with its high banks and enclosures. Its weakness lay in its extent, compared with the number of troops at Prince Menschikoff's disposal.

Here the Prince hoped to stop the march of the allies, with the troops he had, until the divisions from the army of the Danube came up and drove them to their ships. To occupy the position he had 42 battalions, 16 squadrons of cavalry, 11 sotnias of Cossacks (1,100 lances), and 96 guns; that is, about 38,000 men of all arms. His infantry was 31,500, and his cavalry 3,400 strong, including the Cossacks. The remainder were artillerymen and sappers. In disposing of his forces, Prince Menschikoff placed the bulk on the right and centre. Thus, on his right of the great road there were sixteen battalions, forming the regiments, reckoning from the right of Uglitz, Kazan, Susdal, and Vladimir, supported by nearly the whole of the cavalry, with 16 horse artillery guns, and 36 guns foot artillery, including twelve 32 and 24-pounders from Sebastopol. Immediately on his left of the road were four battalions of the Borodino regiment, supported by sixteen guns. The reserves in this part of the field, standing far back on the hills and astride of the road, consisted of seven battalions of the Minsk and Volhynia regiments, and the reserve artillery. On the left of the Borodino regiment, occupying the eastern slopes of the Telegraph hill, were the four battalions of the Taroutino regiment, and four battalions drawn from a reserve corps not in the Crimea; and in rear of them four battalions of the Moscow regiment, with eight guns. One battalion of this regiment and four guns were early in the day, posted in Ouloukul Ukles, a village near the coast. In front of all two battalions of rifles and marines were thrown out as skirmishers in the gardens and enclosures on the north bank. To strengthen the position, Prince Menschikoff had devised two field works of the humblest kind. On the extreme right, just below the brow of the great hill there, he had thrown up an entrenchment, in the form of a flattened arrow head; and on the lower slope of the same hill, nearer to the centre, he had constructed another field- work, the embrasures of which were formed by throwing up the earth on either hand. This he armed with the twelve (some say fourteen) heavy guns brought from Sebastopol. These two works were improperly called redoubts. The regiments were formed in column, chequer wise, on each flank of the field-works, and were not all visible to the approaching army. The right of the Russian line was commanded by General Kvetzinsky, the centre by Prince Gortschakoff, the left by General Kiriakoff. It will be seen, and this should be borne in mind, that the bulk of the troops and artillery were in position to the east of Telegraph Hill, that is, on the Russian right of the great road, while only a third of the troops and a fifth of the guns were on or in front of the Telegraph Hill, and towards the sea. Against this force and this position marched, in round numbers, about 63,000 men and 128 guns.

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Pictures for Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

The Battle of Alma
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General Canrobert
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