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


Naval Operations (1854) - Their Character in the Baltic - Unreasonable Expectations - Real Objects and Possibilities - Squadron enters the Baltic - War Declared - Admiral Napier's Order - Sails for the Gulf of Finland - Blockade Established - Plumridge in the Gulf of Bothnia - Hall and Yelverton - Key - Admiral Napier looks at Sweaborg - Arrival of the French Fleet - Cronstadt Reconnoitred - The Russians refuse the Offer of Battle - Bomarsund - It is resolved to take it - Arrival of French Troops - Land Operations - Captive and Destruction of the Bomarsund Forts - End of the Campaign - Naval Operations in the White Sea and off Kamschatka.
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The British nation is naturally and justly proud of its navy; but, considering that we are a maritime people, we are - or were in 1854 - singularly ignorant of the true functions of a fleet. When Queen Victoria led the squadron under Sir Charles Napier out of Spithead, on the 11th of March, the popular impression was that the Admiral, with eight screw line-of-battle ships, four screw frigates, and three paddle-wheel steamers, would be able, not only to keep the Russian fleet in harbour, but demolish Cronstadt and Sweaborg. Had the ships been of the light draught suited to those shallow seas, well manned, and duly supplied with trained gunners, the Admiral could not have accomplished what was expected of him by the nation; for it is not in the power of ships, without the co-operation of a land force, to capture or destroy really strong and well-armed coast defences. A British fleet, well commanded, can drive an enemy's fleet from the sea, can blockade his ports, occupy the attention of large military forces, destroy his commerce, and give encouragement to weaker powers in near neighbourhood to stronger powers, which might attempt to exert undue pressure over their weaker neighbours. This was the work which the Government called upon Sir Charles Napier to do; and he was especially cautioned not to make any rash experiments upon stone walls. The caution must have been given for mere form's sake, as Sir Charles was too good a sailor to expose his wooden walls to the incendiary shells of the Russian batteries. But the people of England did not know what ships could and could not effect, and when the handsome little squadron steamed through the Downs into the North Sea, and steered for the coasts of Sweden and Denmark, they waited impatiently for news of the breaking up of the ice in the Gulf of Finland, after which they expected, day by day, intelligence of the destruction of the Russian strongholds. All this was eminently unreasonable; and when these unreasonable expectations were disappointed, the Admiral and the Government were made the victims of popular indignation.

The fact is, that the Government prescribed to themselves very limited and reasonable but highly useful objects. The Russian fleet in the Gulf of Finland consisted of no less than twenty-seven sail of the line, seventeen lesser men-of-war, frigates, and corvettes, and an unknown number of gunboats - perhaps one hundred and fifty. These ships and boats were well manned, and mounted upwards of 3,000 guns; but their situation was peculiar. They were all in the Gulf of Finland, except a few gunboats; and the Gulf of Finland was frozen. Supposing they could get out of the Gulf of Finland, they would have been able to cruise in the Baltic, menace both Copenhagen and Stockholm (if that were deemed expedient policy), and send their lighter ships, and some of the heavier, through the Great Belt or the Sound into the North Sea, to prey on the commerce of the allies. It was therefore of the last importance that this Russian fleet should be prevented from leaving the Gulf of Finland. That was the primary object of the occupation of the Baltic to be effected by Sir Charles Napier. If he did this, and could do no more, much would be done. Determined to blockade the Russian fleet, the Government, even in the winter months of 1853, hastened naval preparations. But the navy had been so much neglected, and the system had fallen into such lassitude and unfitness, that the Government were compelled to use, not the best ships for naval operations in shallow seas, but such ships as they had; and not the best seamen, but such men as they could scrape together. Manning the navy by the press-gang was no longer possible, and no wise means had then been taken to secure a constant supply of able seamen: inconceivable folly in a maritime nation, and only to be accounted for by the fact that successive Governments had fallen under the influence of the popular belief that war would no more disgrace the civilised nations of Europe. Therefore, the ships sent to the Baltic were manned by "scratch" crews, whose discipline and training had to be effected during the voyage and in presence of the enemy. Yet the Government of Lord Aberdeen had no choice of means, not having believed in war, and therefore not having provided any choice. Necessity was the master of the situation.

As Russia and England were not actually at war, Sir Charles Napier was ordered to make for Wingo Sound, near Gottenbourg, and anchor there. He was to prevent the Russian ships from entering the North Sea, and help the Danes or Swedes if attacked. He reached Wingo Sound on the 18th, and feeling that his sealed instructions, which he had opened at sea, justified the movement, he determined to carry the fleet through the Great Belt, and effectually bar the mouths both of that r passage and the Sound by anchoring at Kioge, near Copenhagen. He had no pilots, and could obtain none. The season was tempestuous; the seas were narrow, rocky, and shrouded in fogs. The passage of the Great Belt was, therefore, a perilous task; but in spite of the gales, and the mists, and the tortuous channels, that passage was effected. The fleet anchored in Kiel Bay on the 27th, and on the 1st of April steamed into Kioge Bay. On the 2nd of April news of the declaration of war reached the Admiral, and he issued this address by signal to the fleet: - "Lads, war is declared! We are to meet a bold and numerous enemy. Should they offer us battle, you know how to dispose of them. Should they remain in port, we must try and get at them. Success depends on the precision and quickness of your fire. Lads, sharpen your cutlasses, and the day is your own! " The Russians did not afford the Admiral the opportunity he sought, and never came to close quarters. While in Kioge Bay the fleet was increased to twelve sail of the line, and received some more smaller vessels. Admiral Plumridge, with a flying squadron, was sent to bruise off the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland; and, the ice breaking up, the Admiral steamed off on the 12th for the Gulf of Finland himself.

It would be tedious and profitless to follow the British men-of-war in their wanderings to and fro in these northern seas. As the Russians would not come out and fight, all that could be done, even after the French arrived, was to maintain a blockade of the ports, and inflict such damage on the coasts of the enemy as the means at the disposal of the admirals would permit. Before the French arrived Admiral Plumridge had reconnoitred the Aland Islands, and had swept the Finnish coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, taking within a month forty-six merchant ships, and destroying immense quantities of pitch and tar and naval stores. He had visited the important ports, and, by the aid of his boats, had done this damage between Abo and Brahestad. The stores destroyed were public property, for private property he respected. In accomplishing his task he only met with one disaster. Two ships were sent to Gamla Karleby, the Odin and the Vulture. Finding they could not approach this little port, because the water was shallow, the captains sent their boats in to burn the property of the Czar. The Russian soldiers defended the port. After an action of an hour, the paddle-box boat of the Vulture was so rudely handled that she became unmanageable, and, drifting ashore, was captured with her crew. Our loss in this action was fifty-four men, and the boat with its gun. A little before this the Hecla and the Arrogant, commanded by Captains Hall and Yelverton, found their way for seven miles up a creek to Eckness, destroyed a Russian battery, drove off a troop of horse artillery, cut out a merchant ship with a rich cargo, and returned in safety, with the loss of two killed and one wounded. The Grand Duke Constantine said of this brilliant exploit, "Of all bold and seamanlike operations, this is the most daring I could have imagined." Captain Key, in the Amphion, also kept the Russians on the alert on the coast of, Courland, and took prizes out of the ports of Vindau and Libau. Indeed, there was great activity among the lighter vessels, and no slackness in any part.

In the meantime Sir Charles Napier went up the Gulf of Finland to look at Sweaborg. On the 13th of June, Admiral Parseval-Deschenes joined him at Barosund, bringing twenty-eight ships, of which six were sailing line-of-battle-ships and only one a screw line-of-battle- ship. The allied fleet, exclusive of the ships doing duty as blockaders, now amounted to forty-seven sail. The Russian fleet lay in two divisions, one at Cronstadt, the other at Sweaborg; and although Sir Charles gave them plenty of opportunities, neither of them would come out and fight him together or singly. As there was so great a clamour in England for an attack upon the fortresses, it is supposed that the Russians hoped the admirals would attack one or the other, so that while they were suffering from the fire of the forts, the Russian fleets might sail out, fall upon and destroy them. The two admirals, however, were not to be so caught. They went together, in the middle of June, to reconnoitre Cronstadt, and, as was anticipated, found it out of their reach. The water was so shallow and so commanded by forts, that a direct attack would have been a criminal folly, while the enemy had blocked up with sunken obstructions the passage on the northern side by which, it was just possible, the lighter ships might have got into the rear of the place. The fact is, that without gunboats and light ships, and, above all, without an army, neither Cronstadt nor Sweaborg can be attacked with success. One of the greatest delusions is to suppose that either would require means smaller than those used to reduce Sebastopol. The English and French admirals judged rightly that these strong places should be let alone.

But there was one place within their power. At the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, over against Stockholm, and within a few miles of the Swedish coast, lie the Aland Islands. Russia had snatched them from Sweden, when, with Napoleon's permission, she overran Finland, and these islands serve the purpose of a tete-de-pont towards Sweden. On one of these islands the Czar, at great cost, had built the fortress of Bomarsund. It was to Stockholm what Sebastopol was to Constantinople - a " standing menace." Built on an island, it lay within reach of the allies, and they resolved to capture and destroy it. But this could not be done without troops. So the French Government agreed to supply 10,000 men; and they were embarked at Boulogne in British ships, and commanded by General Baraguay d'Hilliers. In order that the work might be well done, the British Government sent Colonel Harry Jones and the French General Niel, both able officers of engineers. The Czar, catching a glimpse of the object of the allies, sent large reinforcements to occupy the island; but our admiral had been beforehand, and the Russian troops found smart British war-steamers between them and Bomarsund. "While the troops were on their way, the fortress was reconnoitred. Some of the vessels engaged it at long range, and it was while on this service that a shell falling on the deck of the Hecla, Mr. Lucas, a midshipman, audaciously picked it up and threw it into the sea - a daring act, for which he was made a lieutenant. Towards the end of July, the allied fleets moved down to Ledsund, leaving only a few British ships to watch Cronstadt and Sweaborg. On the 30th of July, 5,000 troops arrived, but the French general would not land a man until his siege stores reached him. Six more days passed by, and then, all the troops and stores, having come in, the admirals proceeded to Lumpar Bay, and began operations.

The stronghold of Bomarsund, on the largest of the Aland Islands, consisted of five forts. The main work stood at the head of a semicircular bay facing the south. It was a granite structure, nearly a quarter of a mile long, and as it mounted above a hundred guns in casemates, its fire swept the bay. The island is rocky and wooded, and as it rose on the north of the fort, the Russian engineers had found it necessary to crown the hills with towers. There were three of these on the heights. Fort Tzee, on the west, occupied the highest ground. Due north of the main work was a second; and on the east, Fort Nottich. The western and eastern outworks were alone important in a military sense. On the neighbouring island of Presto, a fourth tower had been built. Not satisfied with these granite defences, General Bodisco, in command of the garrison, had thrown up an earthen battery on the shore west of the main fort, and had armed it with six guns. The ships of the allies occupied the southern end of the bay, except a smart squadron of British frigates under Admiral Plumridge, which was on the north. Sir Charles Napier had shifted his flag to the Bulldog, in order that he might move about with greater facility. The plan of the allies was to land the troops, and, taking the outworks, breach the main fort from the rear. This was practicable, with the force in hand, because our ships commanded the sea, and no army could march to succour the place.

The allies resolved to land on the western shore of the bay, and on the northern shore of the island on the 8th of August. Day breaks early in those high latitudes, and at two o'clock some French and English ships opened fire on the woods to cover the landing, while others attacked the battery and shelled Fort Tzee to occupy their attention. In a short time the battery was abandoned, and the allies were in possession of it. All this time the troops had been pouring ashore, and by eight o'clock 10,000 men were marching through the woods, turning the enemy's works. They encamped about two miles from Fort Tzee, on the north of a glen affording plenty of water, while the fir groves furnished wood. During that day and the next, ammunition and baggage were landed and carried up; the guns were drawn to the front by artillery horses brought for the purpose over roads made by the engineers; the soldiers drove up cattle, forage, and provisions, and soon the ovens were glowing, and the abattoir established. At the same time General Niel selected a site for a breaching battery and broke ground. The British marines landed on the north of the island without molestation. They encamped in a grove of fir and juniper close to the main road from the fort to the north-west, and not far from the forts. The guns to arm the batteries they were to construct were landed and placed on sledges made on board ship. Then they were hauled up by the sailors over five miles of rocky country. The ship's bands preceded the men hauling up the gun, the tars enjoyed the novelty of the work; and when this strange procession passed the French camp, their soldiers, delighted and astonished at the spectacle, ran to the ropes, and gave a helping hand.

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

Cronstadt
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