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


The Hour of Trial - Opening of the Bombardment, 17th October - Its Character - Incidents - Failure of the French - Their Fire silenced - Effect of English Fire - Explosion in the Redan - The Attack by the Fleets - Its Perils - Mr. Ball - The Fleets fail - Losses - Results of Fire - Progress of the Bombardment on the 18th - French still Silent - Changing Character of the Expedition - Fire on the 19th - French reopen - Push Parallels - Character of Operations - Russian Reinforcements - Menschikoff's Designs on Balaclava - That Position - Alerts - Liprandi on the Tchernaya - Battle of the 25th - Advance of the Russians - Capture of the Redoubts - Lord Raglan - Charge of the Heavy Brigade - Russian Horse repelled by the 93rd - Arrival of 1st and 4th Divisions of the French - Lord Raglan and Lord Lucan - The Light Brigade - Lord Raglan's Instructions - Nolan - Charge of the Light Brigade - Lord Cardigan - Battle ends - Losses.
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The real hour of trial had now come. The batteries of the allies were ready to open fire, and on the night of the 16th orders went forth from the head-quarters of both generals that the embrasures should be unmasked in the obscurity of the dawn; that the troops in camp should be held in readiness to fall in at a moment's notice ready to storm; that the fire of the land batteries should open soon after six; and that the fleet, moving up, should assail the great forts overlooking the sea. Both admirals, it is understood, were opposed to this proceeding. They held the sound opinion that the fleet could not effect anything against the forts. The safety of the army, they said, depended on the safety of the fleet, and it would be imprudent to risk the fleet in an encounter with forts so well placed and so heavily armed. The mouth of the harbour was closed by the sunken ships. A shoal, running out in front of Fort Constantine, prevented the great men-of-war from placing themselves near enough to batter the walls with effect. The sailing ships must be towed or propelled by steamers, and would fight at a disadvantage. These arguments did not prevail. Admiral Hamelin was under the absolute command of General Canrobert, and not at liberty to disobey. Admiral Dundas was not under the absolute command of Lord Raglan; but he could not well refrain from executing his wishes, or look on while the French attacked. The allied generals were pressing in their orders, as they held that an attack from the sea would operate as a diversion, and favour the attack from the land. Therefore it was decided that the ships should go in, take the risk, and do their utmost to damage the enemy.

The morning of the 17th of October was fine, but a fog overhung the low grounds. Suddenly it was rent and broken here and there. Before the signal agreed on - three shells from a French battery - was given, the Russians opened fire. It is not probable that they did this to anticipate the allies, because they had all along fired at intervals, with the double view of interrupting the workmen in the trenches, and of provoking retorts which would reveal the sites of the allied batteries. They failed in both objects. The works went on; the batteries remained obstinately silent; not a gun was fired until the 17th. Lord Raglan went out at dawn and placed himself in a small quarry, situated in front of the 3rd Division, on a knoll a little to the right of the South ravine. Here he sat with his staff, and, aided by a field-glass, he obtained a good view of the operations. In his immediate front was the left attack; on his right front, the right attack; obliquely between the two he saw the Malakoff. On his left front were the French trenches, seen in reverse; and between the French right and British left was seen the Flagstaff Bastion. Beyond the trenches and batteries and the white city, spread out the sea, with the fleet lying like a dark cloud upon its waters.

At length the signal was given. In quick succession three shells flew forth - about half-past six - from a French battery. Then arose a hideous uproar. Nearly at the same moment 126 guns were fired, and nearly twice the number answered the angry peal. The concussion literally shook the solid ground. The noise was such as none present had ever heard before. It was not a simple but a compound din. There was more than the deep roar of the huge guns. The round shot and shell in their passage through the air made a discord of their own. The mighty shells, thrown by the enemy from huge ordnance, screamed and whistled ere they exploded with a fierce crash; while the Lancaster guns sent forth a missile, which seemed to throb as it went with a regular beat like a railway train in motion; and our men, prone to grim humour under fire, named the Russian shell " Whistling Dick," and the Lancaster the "Express Train." The flight of these truculent balls was incessant. They were ever vexing the air, or striking, with dull blows, the parapets, or bounding along the ground, or bursting with a crash, each separate fragment beating the air like a demon's wing. The opposing missiles crossed each other in their opposite flights, and when a shell exploded midway, it left behind a dome of smoke hanging in the air. The fire from the English guns was most rapid. They were loaded and fired as fast as the thing could be done. There was no flinching. The men were excited with the novelty of a real engagement, but cool and precise in their movements, although the enemy aimed well, and sent round- shot, shell, and canister into the embrasures and over the parapets. Sometimes a shell, bursting in the earthwork, flung up a cloud of dust, and drove the bank in masses upon the men. Some were lying asleep, even in this uproar, and their mouths being open they were nearly suffocated before they could be pulled out. Soon a cloud of smoke covered up the whole scene, and nothing was visible. Then a breeze arose, and its breath lifted up the grey curtain, and men could see the damage done.

The first spectacle that arrested the eye was the broken Malakoff. The 68-pounders, in Peel's battery, more than 2,000 yards from the work, had dismounted the guns and ruined the tower. Then it was seen that the French were inferior to their foes. Their light brass guns, and hastily constructed works, were no match for the heavier metal of the Russians. The batteries were beginning to look deformed, their fire wanted the force and continuity of ours. The Russians pounded them in front, and sent their heavy shot and shell into their left flank; and, seeing the effect, redoubled their energy. Our magazines were small, and the rapid firing soon exhausted the supply; but the artillerymen drove down to the trenches, under a fierce cannonade; and their daring was rewarded, for they met with few casualties. Then, freshly supplied, the gunners went to work with renewed vigour. About twenty minutes to nine there was an explosion, so loud that it struck every one with amazement, and caused a perceptible slackening of the fire. A Russian shell had broken through the great magazine of the principal French battery. In a moment all the guns were dismounted, 100 men were killed and wounded, and the battery rendered absolutely useless. A shout of triumph arose in the town, and its roar reached even the lines of the besiegers. The French guns were now nearly silenced, so heavy had been the storm directed upon them when it was found that they were giving way; and between eleven and twelve, with one battery destroyed and two silenced, General Canrobert gave orders to cease firing. Thus before noon the French had retired from the contest altogether.

Tho British hardly relaxed a moment. Their batteries were mauled, but their gunners never ceased to hurl forth their shot and shell. "We had, by this time, so reduced the fire from the Barrack batteries, on the Russian right of the Redan, and from the earthwork round the Malakoff, that these batteries were regarded as silenced. But, when the French ceased, the left flank guns of the Flagstaff and Garden batteries, a little in its rear, but facing our trenches, and the Redan, went on as furiously as ever. Then, between one and two, for a moment, the fleets were seen going in; the next was heard the thunder of their broadsides, and of the forts; and then a huge canopy of battle-smoke hid ships and forts in its folds: and within this fiery atmosphere the sailor» and soldiers worked. The Russians fought their guns with a skill and persistence deserving the greatest praise. They were now testing the worth of all their defences. The costly casemated forts were replying to the allied ships; two steamers and a line-of-battle ship in the harbour were exchanging shots with our Lancaster guns and 68-pounders; while Todleben's extemporised batteries were in full play.

But the British fire was so good, that, about three o'clock, a shell found its way into the magazine of the Redan; and, setting it on fire, caused an explosion which silenced that work for half an hour. Then they got one or two guns to work, and with these they kept up a fire all the rest of the day. But this earthwork suffered so severely, that its garrison was replaced three times between sunrise and sunset. Along the whole line opposed to our batteries we had, by the evening, established a complete superiority over the fire of the enemy; and had the French been equally successful, it is probable an assault would have been hazarded. During the day we had demolished the Malakoff tower, exploded it/ magazine, the magazine in the Redan, and a magazine in the town; we had killed Admiral Korniloff, and killed or wounded 500 men, and dismounted thirty-five guns; and we had driven the line-of-battle ships out of the creek, and damaged a steamer in the harbour. In return our whole loss was 130 men killed and wounded, one Lancaster gun burst, and seven guns disabled in consequence of injuries to wheels and carriages. Some damage was done to the parapets. One explosion took place in rear, but it did no injury to any one. It was caused by a shell falling on some powder boxes left on the hill-side. The French had three explosions in their works, and they were so maltreated and overpowered that they were silenced thirty-six hours. They lost about 200 men killed and wounded. During the afternoon the Russians had attempted a sortie, but it was met by the French with such fury, that the Russians were forced to make a hurried retreat.

The operation of the fleets had been a glorious display of courage, and that was all. The fleets were divided into three squadrons. The British took the left, the Turks the centre, and the French the right. In order to carry the great sailing ships into action, steamers were lashed to the side next the offing, and one hour was occupied in turning the Britannia, in order to place her in the proper position. The French, drawn up in two lines, eight ships of the line with one Turkish ship, in the first line, and eight, with a Turk, in the second. These were the first, about 1,800, the second about 2,000 yards from the Quarantine Fort and Forts Nicholas and Alexander on the south shore of the harbour. The British fleet consisted of twenty-six ships of war, but some of the steamers were used to carry the large sailing ships into position. They had to contend with Fort Constantine and the batteries on the cliff, notably the Wasp. A shoal running out from the spit on which the fort is built, prevented a nearer approach than 800 yards; but the Agamemnon and Sanspareil, the first with only two feet of water under her keel, did not hesitate to run within that distance of the 130 guns of Fort Constantine. There was no wind, and the sea was smooth. About a quarter past one the conflict began, and it did not cease until dark.

Before the action began, one tug-boat enjoyed the honour of drawing the fire of every gun on the northern side that could be trained upon her. Sir Edmund Lyons wished to know the depth of the water, and he requested Mr. Ball, a very young officer, to take his tug-boat, the Circassia, and " sound the depth up to the very walls of Fort Constantine, if he and his ship survived to get so far." Mr. Ball obeyed with alacrity. "As the Circassia," says the writer who reports the incident, " came near the north forts, sounding as she went along, and signalling the numbers to the fleet outside, the enemy instantly perceived the important nature of her errand, and nearly every gun on the north side was turned upon the little vessel. The shot and shell poured about the tug, cutting the waters about her into a perfect sheet of foam. All the bulwarks of the vessel were shot away; four out of her crew of six men were wounded, the paddle-boxes flew in splinters; yet still Mr. Ball continued to sound and signal the results, with as much coolness, and certainly with as much precision, as if no enemy were in sight. At last the sounding-line was cut in two by a round shot, and the signal-staff shattered by a shell; and then only did Mr. Ball discontinue, for he was within 300 yards of the walls of Fort Constantine, and his mission had been accomplished." He escaped; and this little incident showed the Russians the kind of enemy they had to contend with.

The contest was most unequal. The Agamemnon, subsequently reinforced by the Sanspareil, Bellerophon, and Rodney, did all they could to bring down the massive masonry of the great fort. the Albion, Arethusa, sailers; the Sampson and Terrible, steamers, assailed the Wasp and other batteries to the north. The other British ships supported the close attack from a distance. That their fire was as effective as the range would permit, is true; but it did not come up to the expectations of the sanguine. The Russians stood to their guns most manfully. The French report that they caused the fire of the Quarantine Fort to slacken; but neither they nor the British drew the teeth of their mighty foes. the Telegraph and the Wasp, perched on the edge of a cliff a hundred feet high, poured a plunging fire of red-hot shot and shell into the Albion and Arethusa. The first received several shells close to her water-line, three entered her cockpit, and she was twice on fire. Once the fire was so near the magazine that it had to be closed, and, in imminent danger of being blown up, the ship was hauled off, stern foremost, by the Firebrand. The Arethusa was on fire several times. Shells rained on her decks and rolled below. One burst on her main-deck, and one set fire to some material hard by about two hundred live shells! "Another shell blew out portions of several planks in the bends, and had there been any sea the ship must have sunk." The daring little Spitfire, the Lynx, and Sphinx, - all small gun-boats - stood by the saucy Arethusa, who had fought so well, and bore her out of the fire. The Agamemnon fired no less than 3,500 shot and shell at Fort Constantine. The Rodney, engaging the same enemy, got aground, but was fortunately towed off. The Queen was compelled to get away, because she was on fire. The Sanspareil touched the shoal, but stood stoutly by Sir Edmund Lyons, who did not sheer off until he was almost alone, and night had fallen. the loss of the whole fleet was 44 killed, and 266 wounded; and of these the fighting ships, the Agamemnon had 4 killed, and 25 wounded; the Sanspareil, not so near the fort, had 11 killed, and 59 wounded; the Albion, 10 killed, and 71 wounded; the Arethusa, 4 killed, and 14 wounded; the London, 4 killed, and 18 wounded. In all, these five ships gave 33 out of 44 killed, and 187 out of the 266 wounded. The French suffered less, being as far from the forts as the greater part of the British; but a shell fell on the poop-deck of the Ville de Paris, and killed and wounded a great number of men. At night, the whole line hauled off, battered in hulls, masts, and rigging; and it was fortunate that the sea was so calm. As it was, the Albion and Arethusa were sent to Constantinople to repair damages.

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

Charge of the light brigade
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Lord Lyons
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