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


After the Battle - Two Days on the Alma - Views of Lord Raglan - The Russians sink their Ships - March of the Allies to the Katcha - To the Belbek - Russian Plans - Allied Councils of War - Change of their Plans - The Flank March - Reasons for it - Its Character - " This is Strategy " - The Country round Sebastopol - The March - Surprise of the Russian Rear-Guard - Bivouac on the Tchernaya - Capture of Balaclava - Illness and Death of St. Arnaud - Canrobert succeeds to the Command - March of the French - The Field of Operations - Occupation of the Plateau - Its Character - Energy of the Enemy - Proper Point of Attack Neglected - Why - Russian Forwardness - Assault Impossible - Landing of the Siege Train - The Allies entrench their Rear - Ground broken before the Place - Sortie - English Batteries- French Batteries - Russian Counter Preparations - Todleben - Korniloff - The Enemy Reinforced - His Boldness - The Sea Defences of Sebastopol - Preparations for the Bombardment completed on the 16th.
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The allied armies spent two days on the battle-field of the Alma. On the evening of the 20th Brigadier Torrens reached the field from Eupatoria, with the 21st and 46th and 4th Light Dragoons. He had marched all day in the hope of arriving in time to share in the battle. But his progress was slow, for he had to bring along the stragglers found on the way, and he marched on to the field three hours after the retreat of the enemy, without having heard the sound of a single gun. The whole army, save the 57th, and the heavy cavalry were now together, and bivouacked on the hills above the stream.

The two days' sojourn on these hills was spent painfully. There were the wounded to tend and carry on board ship - the wounded of each army, for the Russians left hundreds on the ground - and the dead to bury. All through the evening, nay, throughout the night, our soldiers were groping about in search of comrades, and carrying water to assuage their thirst, and at dawn officers and men streamed over the hills and into the ravines on this errand of mercy. Surgeons were landed from the fleet to aid the scanty medical staff, and sailors to bear away those whose wounds had been dressed. But, looking to the resources of the fleet, one is surprised that these labours should have occupied eight-and-forty hours. The meagre equipment of the British army, the want of an ambulance corps and land transport train, could not be compensated by the rude makeshifts invented by our sailors on the spur of the moment. Time was precious; it was always believed that the allies must fight at least one battle before they reached Sebastopol, yet the means of moving swiftly, after it had been won, had not been prepared. It should have been foreseen that the army was performing an irregular operation, that it had a movable base - the fleet - and that it could not act like an army in a regular campaign, advancing from a secure and fixed base upon a well-protected line of operations. Every means practicable should have been prepared beforehand to facilitate rapidity of movement, so that on the 21st, at sunrise, the armies might have marched. But the descent was made without adequate preparation, and the delays and changes of plan which ensued were the inevitable consequence. So while the allies were engaged in tending their wounded, burying their dead, replenishing their ammunition stores, reorganising the regiments which had suffered the most, and even taking care of the Russian wounded, the Russian army, retiring hurriedly and in alarm, had relinquished successively the strong positions on the Katcha and the Belbek, had abandoned all the open country north of Sebastopol, and, passing the bridge of Inkermann, had entered the place itself.

During the halt of the armies, there had arisen a grave doubt in the mind of Lord Raglan. Even on the beach of Kamishli, pondering on the task before him, and the means at his disposal, he had come to doubt the practicability of assailing Sebastopol from the north, and feared that "a flank movement to the south side would be necessary." Here, on the heights of the Alma, he seems to have felt the pressure of doubt more strongly; for on the 21st, probably at his suggestion, Sir John Burgoyne - who shared, if he did not originate his doubts - drew up a formal memorandum, setting forth all the advantages of a march round the head of the harbour to Balaclava on the south coast. But it does not appear that the French marshal was made acquainted with these cogitations; at least, there is no trace of it in his letters.

So that when the allied armies, leaving one surgeon, Dr. Thompson, a volunteer, to minister to the wants of 750 Russian wounded, lying on the open hill side, advanced to the Katcha, a short movement of six miles, the French marshal thought he was hastening on to storm the north forts; but the English general was, even then, intent on plans to evade them and try his fortune on the south side. And when the short march ended, a singular incident, reported at head-quarters, gave the British officers fresh arguments. On the 22nd, steamers of both fleets had looked into Sebastopol harbour, and had reported that all the vessels of war were still there. They were, however, so posted as to attract the attention of naval men, who took particular note of a line of ships moored across the entrance to the harbour, from north to south. The next day, when the fleet came up from Cape Loukoul to the Katcha, the whole line of Russian ships was observed to settle down in the water until only their tops were visible. The enemy, at the suggestion of Admiral Korniloff, had thus disposed of part of a fleet with which he could not keep the sea, and a wise measure it proved to be. The news was sent at once to the head-quarter camps on the Katcha, and it probably gave Lord Raglan an additional argument in favour of a march to the south side. At all events, Marshal St. Arnaud had no sooner heard of the sinking of the ships than he wrote, in his high-flying style, " This is a commencement of Moscow. It troubles me much, because it will force me, perhaps, to change my plans of attack, and carry me to the south on the side of Balaclava." It was a " new incident," and raised the question of the flank march in a direct shape; but that question was not decided until two days afterwards.

The armies had traversed the space between the Alma and Katcha without even catching a glimpse of a single Russian soldier. The trail of their hasty retreat lay broadly over the arid plains, but not even a Cossack appeared in front or on the exposed flank. The march was in the same order as before; the English still kept the outward flank, the French marched next to the seashore, and the fleet slowly coasted along in line with the armies. So certain was it that no enemy was in front, that Lord Raglan and his staff, without an escort of any kind, rode a mile in advance of the vanguard. He did not do so from mere carelessness or foolhardi- ness. His patrols and those of the French had already felt the way. On reaching the lovely valley of the Katcha, there were no lines of infantry and guns on its steep banks; and the troops filed in security across the unbroken bridge, and by the fords, and climbed the steep banks, and found delightful sites for the bivouac among the gardens and orchards, glowing with ripe fruits, and rich with the fresh verdure of clustering vines. But the villagers had fled in haste, leaving their trim white villas and choice fruits to the invaders. The Russians, in their passage, had begun the work of destruction, which, in mere recklessness, Briton and Gaul, Zouave and Guardsman, completed; not always without an example set by those who should have known better. A habit of plunder soon demoralises the best troops, and the last persons to begin or to countenance it should be those who are appointed to restrain and command as well as to lead them. At the Katcha the men revelled in pears and peaches, melons and grapes; and the dread scourge of indiscretion, cholera, carried off many victims.

The allies halted on the Katcha until late on the 24th. The French landed 6,000 or 7,000 men from their ships, and the English received a welcome reinforcement in the shape of the 57th Regiment, belonging to the 4th Division, and the 2nd Dragoons, better known as the Scots Greys. A short march, on the 24th, brought the armies to the Belbek. Hero again a deep river traversed a narrow valley, and formed the front of one of the strongest positions in the Crimea. There was no one to defend it. The two armies were here close together, their artillery was drawn along the same road, and the officers rode side by side. After crossing the stream, the troops reached a high plateau, broken by ravines and clothed with stunted oaks. But they were charmed with the scenery, and the shade, and the fruits. Twice Marshal St. Arnaud, in his letters, reports the welcome fact, that one found cabbages in this paradise of a valley - " cabbages and fruits for an army." Colonel Hamley, in his book on the campaign, based on letters written at the time, is equally enthusiastic in praise of the valley, its delicious fruits and "fine cabbages." And let not the unreflecting reader smile. To these soldiers, who for days had been living on ration pork and ration biscuit, and drinking indifferent water, these fruits and cabbages were matters of very great moment - more welcome than gold.

Leaving the troops, for a moment, reposing among the oaks and fruit-trees of this Tartar Elysium, let us see what the Russians had. done since they vanished over the hill side as the sun was gliding downwards over the western waters on the evening of the 20th of September.

The Russian army had quitted its position, as we have seen, at an early hour. There was considerable disorder in some parts of the field, where battalions falling back came under the fire of the allied guns; but there were others untouched and unsubdued, and these with the Hussars and artillery had made that show of covering the retreat which we noticed at the close of the narrative of the action. As part of the Taroutine regiment was making off, under fire, Prince Menschikoff rode by, and, speaking as if to himself, said, " It's a disgrace for a Russian soldier to retreat." It chanced that a half-drunken captain overheard this ejaculation, and, encouraged by vodka, had the courage to rejoin, "If you had ordered us to stand, we should have stood our ground." Prince Menschikoff, who was communing with himself, and musing over his misfortunes, rode off without noticing the daring speech of the officer. Then came General Kiriakoff, and next Prince Gortschakoff, showing that these were not the first to ride out of the fire. But the generals and the troops were cast down in spirit. They were few, and the fiery strangers were many, and aid was far away on the other side of the Isthmus of Perekop. So the whole army straggled away in gloom towards the Katcha. Arrived at this river, the point of passage at Aranchi, high up the stream, became a scene of disorder. "All were crowding together over a ford at the river," writes an eye-witness. " There were commissariat wagons, artillery wagons, with artillery wounded, infantry, &c., in one mass of confusion. - All these had to retire through a narrow pass surrounded on all sides by high mountains;" and the writer stops to reflect on the consequences had the allies pursued. At that moment it was not dark, the allies were quiet on the field of battle, and within six miles from their outposts the beaten army were struggling over Katcha. A pursuit would have been hazardous; but the Russian army and Prince Menschikoff both expected a sharp pursuit, and were too happy to retire unmolested.

The Russians did not halt. Night overtook them among the hills; still they plodded along. They left behind them the steep banks of the Katcha, the steeper banks and rougher ridges of the Belbek, and moving to the head of the harbour of Sebastopol, crossed the bridge of Inkermann in the morning of the 21st, and encamped to the south-west of the town. Some battalions were left on the north side, destined to be the garrison of the largest work on the plateau, called the Star Fort. There, we are told, all was confusion and dismay; but this may be doubted. Two or three very firm men were at that time in Sebastopol - the Admirals Korniloff and Nachimoff, and the German engineer Todleben. This remarkable soldier had been sent to the Crimea in the month of August, at a time when the Czar was just beginning to believe in the probability of a descent. He arrived there at the end of the month, a few days after the Malakoff, or White. Tower, on the south side had been completed. Prince Menschikoff requested the engineer to report upon the defences, and it is recorded that the substance of his report was that with two divisions of infantry, say 24,000 men, and field artillery, he would undertake to be master of the town in three hours. This was not a pleasant report, nor does it appear that much was done to supply the deficiency of defence until the allies were almost before the place. On the 21st Prince Menschikoff held a council. It was then that the sturdy admirals and the great engineer showed their metal. They resolved to extemporise earthen defences on the south side, and sink a part of the fleet across the mouth of the harbour - a task which they executed with promptitude and skill. But Prince Menschikoff seems to have been uncertain what part his army should play; and had the allies appeared on the Belbek on the evening of the 21st, they would have found the extra defences not begun, the army still under the influence of the staggering blow delivered at the Alma, and its chief perplexed and vacillating. Even at the moment when they crowned the heights of the Belbek, and could see from the loftier elevations the white forts on the margin of the water, the works on the northern side had only just received their garrisons, and were in a most weak condition. This the allies knew not, nor did they know that when they were discussing the propriety of the flank march to the south, Prince Menschikoff had just begun a flank march from the south to the inland town of Batchiserai. Had the allies been quicker, they would have caught the Russians in their moment of weakness and doubt, and Sebastopol would have been theirs.

We left the allies in their pleasant quarters on the Belbek, and thither our narrative must now return. Our task is a painful one; for we have to consider how the two generals came to miss a great prize.

It was the morning of the 25th. The allied camp spread out over the plateau, within three miles and a half of the nearest defences of Sebastopol. The question to be resolved was - should they at once attack the northern works, or should they file through the rough woods and appear suddenly on the southern plateau? We have seen that Lord Raglan, as early as the 15th or 16th, doubted the ability of the allies to carry the northern forts by a coup de main, and contemplated the other alternative; and that, the day after the battle of the Alma, he had set Sir John Burgoyne to draw up a memorandum, showing the advantages of the latter course. Sir John pointed out that, if the allies attacked the north side, they would give the enemy the advantage of a position naturally strong and of limited extent, and supported by Fort Constantino; and that, if they carried this position, another operation would be necessary to reduce the south; whereas, by marching round the head of the harbour, they would unexpectedly come upon the weaker side of the place, and compel the enemy to defend "a very extensive line, divided by valleys, very imperfectly, if at all, entrenched, and which would probably be rapidly forced." Moreover, on the south side the allies would find in the bays of Balaclava and Kamiesch secure communication with the fleet, and a strong position " between the sea at Balaclava and along the valley of the Tchernaya that would most effectually cover the allied armies " during the siege. It is probable that these arguments were first placed before Marshal St. Arnaud at the bivouac on the Katcha; but the ultimate decision was not taken until the morning of the 25th, at the bivouac of the Belbek. Arrived at this point, and looking on the actual position which the allies would have to occupy in order to attack the works on the north, the arguments of Sir John seemed to acquire new force. For it was found that a sturdy little fort on the cliff, which came to be known as the "Wasp " battery, commanded the mouth of the Belbek, and it was at the mouth of this stream that the allies would have to land their siege guns and stores. Moreover, had the Belbek been open, the generals seemed to think that the heights of the Belbek did not offer a position secure from harassing attacks. Early on the 25th, Lord Raglan went to the quarters of Marshal St. Arnaud, now attacked by cholera, and too much broken to be able to take an active part; and in his presence, and that of General Canrobert, and others, debated the project of Sir John Burgoyne. Certainly, all were not agreed. But Canrobert was not made of that stuff which leads a general to take upon himself the burden of a heavy responsibility, and he yielded to the arguments of the English. It was therefore ordered that the flank march should be undertaken forthwith.

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

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