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Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2


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The allied army, which we left halted, now came slowly nearer to the Alma, visible in its whole extent to the Russians. The fleet of war-steamers, eight French and one English, went on ahead towards Cape Lookoul and the mouth of the Alma. The sun shone brightly, the air was soft and pure. The direction taken by the French brought General Bosquet opposite the village of Almatamak, towards which one of his brigades wended its way, covered by skirmishers in thick rows, while the other, with the Turks, under General Bouat, made for the mouth of the Alma. Next on the left came the divisions of Canrobert and Prince Napoleon, the latter almost in contact with the right of our 2nd Division, and a little to the west of Bourliouk. In rear, as a support, was General Forey. These three divisions of the French army halted, while Bosquet continued to move on. Lord Raglan had had a final conference with Marshal St. Arnaud. They had seen the enemy and the enemy's position. The great accumulation of Russian troops on their right and centre was manifest. It was plain that the French force was not adequate to show a front to the whole Russian line, while the English turned the right, and when the question was pointedly put to him, would he turn the right or attack in front, Lord Raglan declined to undertake the flank movement. It was arranged that the French should turn the Russian left, covered by the fire of the ships, and that when this movement had shaken the Russian line, the English should assail the right and centre. The two commanders parted, and the whole line from right to left drew nearer to the Alma. The steamers opened fire between twelve and one. They flung their shells on to the cliffs above the river's mouth, and they did their best to reach the masses on the Telegraph Hill. This fire, however, barely reached any Russians except those in the village of Ouloukul Ukles, who soon retired, and some of the more westerly clusters of skirmishers hanging about the road leading upwards from Almatamak. In the meantime, without firing a shot, Bouat's brigade and the Turks waded through the Alma, and began to creep up the steep ravine. They surmounted it, and formed on the plateau; but beyond the alarm their presence may have occasioned, they exercised no further influence on the contest. The real pressure was exerted by Bosquet from Almatamak, and Canrobert and Prince Napoleon from points higher up the stream.

While Bosquet's first brigade was ousting the Russian skirmishers from the river and the clefts in the hills leading upwards, the whole army moved still nearer to the foe, and halted in readiness to close. The French divisions remained in columns. They were not to advance until Bosquet's diversion had made itself felt. The British divisions had deployed into line, and had moved on until warned, about half-past one, that they had come within range, when the men were ordered to lie down. The British rifles were engaged with the Russians in the vineyards, and the French skirmishers, Zouaves, and Line were firing fiercely and fast at opponents lining the banks of the stream. The Russian guns had begun to send their round shot bounding over the river, and one or two men were killed where they lay. The picture presented to the eye of the Russians must have been striking. Long lines of men clothed in red lying prostrate on the green sward, having in rear groups of horsemen, and in front a fringe of thick smoke, out of which incessantly darted little tongues of fire. On the left of the line stood the 4th Division and the long column of light cavalry. Further to the right the French were in motion, for Bosquet had got his guns up a most difficult path, and had opened fire at long range; and hearing this, Marshal St. Arnaud, pointing to the heights in front, launched his divisions. It was about half-past one. The 1st French division was crossing the river and swarming up the steeps, when the Cossacks simultaneously fired the corn stacks about Bourliouk. Instantly the waving sheets of flame leaped up, and a stifling smoke rising on a lazy wind spread over the meadows. For a time the centre of the Russian position was hidden from view, and the smoke long continued to curl over the ground. This fiery village and dense cloud of smoke proved a great inconvenience to Evans's division, in whose front it was; for, pressed on one side by Prince Napoleon's division, on the other by the Light, and deprived of a large space in front by the conflagration, Sir De Lacy Evans was compelled to divide his brigades, and encroach on the ground occupied by Sir George Brown, so that when they were deployed the left front of the 2nd overlapped the right of the Light Division. This was a great fault. It has been said that Sir George Brown took especial pains to avoid it; but if he did so he failed. It has also been said that he could not take ground to his left under fire. The answer is, that ht; should have taken ground before he got his men under fire: the fact is, he did take ground to his left under fire; for in his report the Duke of Cambridge states the fact, and tells us that he made a corresponding movement with the 1st Division. "While the regiments lay prone under a severe fire, the French were executing their share of the plan on the right.

According to the plan agreed upon, the English were not to attack until the French columns were firmly established on the heights. And to this phase of the battle we must turn. Bosquet's 1st brigade, under D'Autemarre, had easily swept before them the handful of light troops which alone were placed on the extreme flank of the Russian line. Having gained the plateau with his infantry, he next brought in succession two batteries of artillery, and posted them in front of the brigade which had deployed, resting its left on the verge of the cliff. Bouat and the Turks were so distant that they could lend no aid, and the brigade and its guns were thus practically alone. The sound of Bosquet's guns opening at long range set the French divisions in the valley in motion. It also startled Prince Menschikoff, for he came riding in that direction with a few squadrons of Hussars. Bosquet being firmly planted on the Russian flank, Canrobert, followed by Prince Napoleon, advanced upon the river. The Russian skirmishers gave way before the eager throng of Frenchmen, who pressed exultingly forward, and soon the fringe of fire began to creep up the sides of the hills, and to dart forth from rocks and hillocks and patches of tangled cover. Presently the whole division were up the steep. But they had no guns, and the rugged pathways up which they had come would not admit of the passage of artillery. Wherefore the guns were sent along the valley to Almatamak, there to be forced upward in the track already worn by Bosquet's batteries. In the meantime Prince Napoleon had closed with the enemy on the banks of the stream, and had begun to push forward on the opposite side; and Marshal St. Arnaud, still worn and cruelly wrung by his malady, yet erect on horseback, eager and watchful, had seized on Forey's division, and had hurried D'Aurelle to the assistance of Canrobert, and Lourmel to the aid of Bosquet. This officer was at length in action. Hearing the sound of guns on his left, General Kiriakoff had brought up part of his reserves to meet the onset, and had planted a battery facing the sea; while Prince Menschikoff had, in passing, directed seven battalions of the reserve to march to the left, and had hurriedly ordered two batteries to hasten to that flank. They came up long before the infantry, and were soon engaged in a combat at long range with Bosquet's guns. Meanwhile, Prince Menschikoff, with his escort, sat still looking on, and being observed from the sea, the steamers shelled his party, and struck down four of his staff. The French movement went on. Canrobert had pushed up to the brow of the ridge, but had not pressed. forward over it. The Russians had receded from the point assailed up the slope of the Telegraph hill; and while Canrobert's troops were sheltered from the fire of the Russian guns, the French batteries in the valley could see and hit the Russian columns. At the same time the Russian batteries, towards the centre of their, position, cannonaded the bulk of Prince Napoleon's division, which still lingered in the valley on the left bank, unable to get on. For the want of guns seemed to paralyse the advance of General Canrobert, and D'Aurelle's brigade of Forey's division had passed round the right of Prince Napoleon, and had jammed itself into a steep and narrow track on the left of Canrobert; so that while Bosquet, although alone on the heights, made play with his batteries and steadily gained ground, Canrobert and D'Aurelle, and the bulk of Prince Napoleon's troops, were lying inactive, unable to strike for want of artillery. General Kiriakoff, commanding the Russians in this part of the field, seemed to be ignorant of his proximity to the masses of the French clinging to the mountain, and, instead of attacking them, he drew his men further to the rear, and concentrated them on the upper slopes of the Telegraph Hill. All this time the skirmishers were busy on the right and left of Bourliouk. On the right, the French fire had driven off the Russians, and had shaken the morale of their supports; on the left, Norcott and Lawrence with the rifles - Norcott "conspicuous on a big black horse" - had swept round the burning village, and with eager foot and biting fire had forced the Russians to re-cross the river. For the rest, the Russian guns on the right and centre continued to pour an incessant storm of shot and shell upon the British soldiers lying exposed in line upon their faces, and our gunners, it is said, did not fire because their shot, they found, fell short. Prince Menschikoff continued to sit like a statue, watching the slow progress of the daring Bosquet, and waiting the arrival of the battalions on the march over the hills from the reserve to show a front to the French, who were growing stronger every moment on his left flank. But when they arrived there, Prince Menschikoff did not seem to know well what to do with them. He neither assailed the distant columns of Bouat, nor the near columns of Bosquet, but he countermarched the heavy columns he had called up, and led them towards the Telegraph Hill, where, massing eight battalions in one huge column, he handed them over to Kiriakoff, and rode off towards his right. Kiriakoff moved the huge and unwieldy mass towards the position occupied by Canrobert, who, still wanting artillery, declined the combat, and fell back quite below the brow. The Russians did not pursue.

The action had continued for about an hour and a half. The French had undertaken a task of great difficulty, and one requiring much time to perform. The flank march over the mouth of the river was necessarily slow, for the strip of sand the troops had to traverse was narrow, and the ravine they had to climb was steep and rugged; so that Bouat and the Turks, when upon the downs, were far from the fight, and exercised only that potent influence which springs from the alarm an enemy feels when he knows he is outflanked. Lourmel's brigade, following the same tracks, never arrived within cannon shot of the Russians; but had Bosquet and Bouat been in real peril, Lourmel would have proved to be a precious support. Canrobert, without guns, although he had D'Aurelle and Prince Napoleon so near, did not feel justified in moving boldly up the Telegraph Hill, in the face of the Russian batteries and heavy columns. So it will be seen that, although an hour and a half had been occupied in getting up the heights, that was not an excessive allowance of time for the operation. The French troops were in detached; and disconnected masses - that was the main mischief; but their mere appearance on a flank, supposed to be inaccessible, had shaken the whole Russian order of battle, and, what is more to the purpose, had annihilated the confidence and overset the presence of mind of the Russian commander.

At this time Lord Raglan, himself riding up and down near the English right, and watching the progress of the French, seems to have grown impatient. We have no very clear account of his views and frame of mind; but Mr. Kinglake's version, if it be true, leads to the direct inference that Lord Raglan, who, it seems, had been frequently appealed to by the French, could no longer bear to see his soldiers prostrate and inactive, especially as there was an appearance of tardiness and inability to push forward on the part of his ally. He therefore gave the order to assault the front of the position; and Captain Nolan, a genuine soldier, swiftly bore it to the combatants.

First the 2nd Division and then the Light started to their feet, and in a moment the red line, extending far to the east, was gliding across the meadows, which intervened between them and the stream. As they descended the slope towards its banks, the guns followed, and, drawing up on both sides of the great road, began to reply to the fire of the enemy. The flaming village and thick veil of smoke now proved to be a serious inconvenience. For General Evans was compelled to divide his division, and, instead of moving on, to skirt the eastern part of the fire with four regiments - that is, Pennefather's brigade and the 47th - while he sent two regiments, under Adams, to the right. The rifles, seeing their supporting line coming steadily onwards, plunged readily into the stream, and engaged the Russian light troops on the other bank. Sir George Brown, with the Light Division, under Codrington and Buller, went onwards in line with the 2nd. This movement brought both divisions into the enclosures and to the river's brink. All the time they moved under a heavy fire from the Russian batteries, and the Russians were amazed that the islanders should approach their dark columns and destructive artillery in a two-deep line. The passage of the vineyards and enclosures disordered the troops, and the beautiful symmetry of the first advance was soon broken far more by these inert obstacles than by the bounding shot and bursting shells. In spite of their disorder, they reached the river, and plunging into its shot- torn waters, scrambled through and gained the shelter of the opposite bank. Here they halted and hung in clusters, no longer presenting the fine parade spectacle visible to admiring eyes a short time before. The bank was eight or nine feet high; and while it afforded shelter from the artillery, it did not prevent daring Russian skirmishers from approaching the edge, and firing down into the groups below. Here, under such fiery leaders as were with them, the British troops could not long remain.

The parts of the Russian position they fronted were these. Evans's division extended across the entrance to the ravine up which ran the great road. This road passing the river by a wooden bridge, partially destroyed by the enemy, climbed a low ridge between two higher ridges, and on these higher ridges were two Russian batteries supported by six battalions. It was not only to their fire, but that of the left shoulder of the field work on the slope of the Kourgané Hill, to which they were exposed; for while the guns on each side of the road swept the front, the heavier metal searched the left flank. The Light Division fronted the steep sides of the Kourgané Hill itself, and had to bear the fire of the big guns and of two batteries - that is, sixteen pieces posted on either side of the entrenchment - to meet the musketry and bayonets of sixteen battalions, and to stand prepared for the dense columns of cavalry which showed themselves on their left. Before Evans was rough and broken ground; before Sir George Brown, a bare hill side.

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Pictures for Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2

The Battle of Alma
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General Canrobert
General Canrobert >>>>

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