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


General Pélissier's Vigorous Command - Agrees to the Kertch Expedition - Bloody Combats on the 22nd and 23rd of May - The French carry and hold the Cemetery on their left - Heavy Losses - The French and Sardinians take up the Line of the Tchernaya - The Expedition to Kertch - Its Objects - Its Speed and Success - Yenikale Occupied - The Flying Squadron in the Sea of Azoff - Exploits of the Gunboats-Destruction of Vast Depots of Supplies - At Berdiansk, at Genitchi, at Taganrog, at Marioupol - Heavy Blow to the Enemy - Anapa blown up and abandoned - Progress of the Siege - Pélissier in Council - Resolve to assault the Mamelon and other Outworks - Bombardment of the 6th and 7th of June - Assault Ordered - The Emperor's Obstructive Telegram - Moral Courage of Pélissier - Capture of the Mamelon, White Works, and Quarries - Dreadful Loss of Life.
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General Pélissier, the new Commander-in-Chief of the French army, was a hardy soldier, who had taken part in many campaigns, and had gained in Algeria a name not only for military ability in the field, but for skill in the Cabinet as an administrator. A cloud hung over his reputation for a time, because he had caused a number of obstinate Arabs, who would not surrender, to be suffocated in the caves of Dahra. But when he went to the Crimea, men only faintly remembered this dreadful act, while all recognised the stern energy, sound military judgment, and stout moral courage of the new chief. Henceforth they felt there would be no faltering, no hesitation, no undue deference for opinions formed in Paris, no terror of responsibility. Pélissier brought to his task a will quite as firm as that of the Emperor Napoleon, and a reputation for soldiership higher than that of His Imperial Majesty. He was told to abide as nearly as possible to his instructions; and if he modified them, he was to do so in concert with Lord Raglan. We have already pointed out that these two officers did not differ on the question before them. General Pélissier differed from the Emperor, not from Lord Raglan. He recognised the soundness of those measures recommended over and over again by Sir John Burgoyne; and he resolved to take Sebastopol by capturing the key of the place - the Malakoff. It was more arduous now than it was two months before, because the Russians had been allowed to develop their hardy system of counter- approaches on the Malakoff ridge, and above the Careening Bay, consisting of the Mamelon Redoubt on the first, and what were called the White Works on the second. These it was essential to capture and hold before the final blow could be levelled at the Malakoff.

The Russians soon felt that a change had taken place in the direction of the French army. Hitherto the principal approaches executed by the French were directed against the Flagstaff and the Central Bastions, and a work lying between the two called the Black Redoubt. On the left of the immense network of trenches facing this front of the place, a ravine ran down to the head of the Quarantine Bay, and in a green hollow to the west of it stood a large cemetery. The French trenches swept round this cemetery to the sea, and the most advanced works touched the western wall. But in this cemetery the Russians held their ground; and from their rifle-pits, here and in the interior slope, they galled the French advance against the Central Bastion. For from the Central Bastion, the line of defences receded back, that is to the north, following the line of the hills; so that the nearer the French approached this Bastion and the Black Redoubt, the more they exposed themselves to the flank fire which came from the direction of the Quarantine Bay. As commander of the troops engaged in the active work of the siege, General Pélissier had long been painfully aware of this obstacle to further progress, and he had vainly urged Canrobert to force the Russians into the place on that side. Now that he was Commander-in-Chief, one of his first acts was to drive the enemy from the cemetery, and to crown the ridge with French trenches in connection with the lines on the right and centre and their multitudinous batteries. He also agreed at once to resume the expedition to Kertch and the Sea of Azoff, and he directed that the approaches of the French towards the Mamelon and the White Works should be pushed forward with vigour.

It was on the 19th of May that he took command. On the 22nd, three days afterwards, the expedition to Kertch sailed, and on that very night Pélissier began a bloody contest for the possession of the ground about the cemetery.

The Russians had seen the advantage which works of more pretension than rifle-pits would give them on this quarter. They, therefore, began to connect the pits with the place by sinking a covered way across the ravine, and by connecting the pits with each other by a gabionade, that is, a parapet made of large baskets filled and then covered with earth. The incipient stages of this design were observed by the French on the 21st of May. General Todleben's object went further than the mere establishment of a series of strong rifle screens. He had in view the construction of a regular battery on the Russian left of the line, which would have poured a raking flanking fire through the principal works of the besiegers. Had Canrobert, fettered by orders flashing from the little Cabinet in Paris, remained in command, it is probable that the enemy would have accomplished his bold design. Pélissier, a man of a harder texture, would not permit the growth of so serious an obstacle. As it was, the Russians nearly succeeded; for beginning the trench on the 21st, they intended to complete it on the night of the 22nd, so as to arm it on the 23rd. To prevent this, Pélissier ordered General de Salles, now commander of the Siege Corps, to storm and hold the new Russian line.

This line was of very great extent, stretching from flank to flank for nearly three-quarters of a mile along the broken ground. The whole of it was under the fire Of the place, and the conformation of the ground between the cemetery and Sebastopol, a ravine widening towards its mouth, gave the enemy great facilities for bringing up troops to feed the combat. The French general placed upwards of 4,000 men, including two battalions of the Light Infantry of the Guard, under the orders of General Paté. This mass was subdivided into two columns. One, of three battalions and some rifles, under General Brunet, was directed to turn and assail the right of the Russian line; the second, of five battalions, under General la Motterouge, was to storm the left. At nine o'clock the signal was given, and, dashing out of the trenches, the two columns fell upon the enemy so impetuously that he was driven out at the first shock. But it so chanced that at this very moment the troops, the battalions destined to furnish and cover the working parties of the enemy, had paraded in front of the place, under the orders of General Chruleff, the officer who had commanded the Russians in the abortive attack upon Eupatoria. Therefore the French had no sooner driven off the Russians who held the lines, than these fresh troops, moving rapidly across the ravine, first smote them with a crushing fire, and then coming on with lowered bayonets, engaged in a combat so close, and fierce, and vehement, that the French were overthrown on their right, and forced back into their trenches; while on their left General Brunet sustained with difficulty the forward position he had won. General la Motterouge was not the man to yield so easily. Re-forming his men, and bringing up his reserves, he flung them once more into the fight. The combat now raged along the whole line. There was a horrible uproar. The hideous yells and screams of the combatants, and the piercing notes of the bugle, rose above the crash of musketry and the roar of cannon. The waves of the battle, lit up by the flashes of the firing, rolled hither and thither, and surged up and down like dark storm clouds edged with lurid lightning. As the French poured in fresh troops, the enemy, resolved to win, brought up eight battalions, our old foes at the Alma, the regiments of Minsk and Uglitz. And thus through the night the battle continued, sometimes dying away into a faint flicker of fire, and then bursting out again with sudden and appalling fury. When the French gained an advantage and pushed the enemy, their sappers in the rear of the confused roar of struggling men began to destroy the Russian lines; and then in the midst of their work, the battle would roll back upon them and sweep over the disputed ground. Just before daybreak the masses on both sides retired under shelter from the cannon of the opposing batteries; but General Brunet kept the line he had won, and turned the face of the rifle-pits and gabions towards the enemy.

Throughout the next day there was a brisk cannonade kept up on both sides, each intent on preventing the other from occupying in force the contested ground. At night the combat was renewed. General Couston, with four battalions, reinforced General Brunet's position, in order to defend it against any attack, and to complete the works of approach begun on that side. General Duval, with six battalions, issuing from the French trenches and assailing the Russian left, drove out the enemy's troops posted there, and held the ground in front, while the working parties, in the midst of a heavy fire from the main batteries of Sebastopol, rapidly transformed the Russian trench into a parallel of attack, giving ample shelter to the besiegers. Thus, in two nights, the French won this important ground, and connecting all their works together, showed a united front, and left but a comparatively narrow space, formed by the ravine across which they could not work their way, between them and the town. This line on the ridge a little east of the Cemetery was the limit of their regular approaches in that quarter.

Both sides had fought well, and had suffered terribly in these desperate actions. On the 24th there was a truce, to enable each to recover and bury his dead. The French state that they handed over 1,200 Russian, and received 385 French corpses; and that their total loss during the two nights was 572 killed and 2,180 wounded, including 23 officers killed and 59 wounded. The Russians admit a loss of 764 killed, including 18 officers; and 1,720 wounded, including 28 officers. But it is plain that these figures cannot represent their loss, if the statement of the French, that they delivered up 1,200 dead bodies on the 24th, can be relied on. Colonel Hamley estimates the Russian loss at 6,000.

Another result of the change of commanders was the occupation of the line of the Tchernaya by a combined force of French, Sardinians, and Turks. This was effected on the 25th. General Canrobert led his own division and that of General Brunet across the valley, and took post on the Fedoukine heights. General la Marmora and his Sardinians took up a position on the Hasfort Hill, above Tchorgoun. Sir Colin Campbell moved the Marines out of their lines near the sea to the ridge looking down on Kamara on one side, and the Baidar valley on the other. Omer Pasha, with 16,000 Turks, occupied the line of low hills on which stood the redoubts on October 25th. The whole force was about 43,000 strong. The French and Sardinians moved out before daybreak, and at dawn the former were drawn up on the heights, and in possession of the stone bridge over the Tchernaya called the Traktir Bridge. There were but few Russian troops on the river, and these gave way and retired up the opposite hills as soon as they felt the advance guard of the allies. On their right the Sardinians, preceded by the 10th Hussars and 12th Lancers, who pushed a reconnaissance towards the valley of Baidar, ascended the Hasfort Hill, which they held, sending the picturesque Bersaglieri, the Sardinian riflemen, over the Tchernaya to occupy a hill on the right bank. The French had 14,000 infantry and five batteries in position, with their horsemen in second line. The Sardinians had 8,000 infantry, and their support was the British cavalry. In rear of all were the Turks. The French at once began to construct a tête de pont on the right bank, to protect the bridge, and the Sardinians began to entrench themselves on the heights they held. Thus the line of the allies now extended from the sea on the right, through Kamara and Tchorgoun to the Fedoukine heights, just out of range of the Russian batteries, east of the Inkermann ruins. The newly- acquired country was gay with grass and gorgeous flowers. The river was full of fish. The troops enjoyed the luxury of shelter under branches cut from the leafy trees. There was fresh water for man and beast close at hand. The change of position was not only a military gain, but it was a pleasant change for the men. Yet, although the sites of the new camps were healthy, cholera soon began to show itself even on these dry and breezy hills.

There were many who thought this a beginning of operations in the field. They were doomed to be disappointed. The allies had now very large forces in the Crimea, but while Lord Raglan could not assent to the Emperor's plan of a regular campaign, the Emperor could not concur in Lord Raglan's suggestions; and thus, as a compromise, the allies continued the siege, and undertook no other operation except one which we are now about to narrate - the naval and military expedition to Kertch and the Sea of Azoff.

A glance at the map will show that the Russian forces in the Crimea were dependent chiefly for their supplies upon the mainland itself. For the Crimea is a peninsula, projecting from the steppes of Southern Russia, and joined on to it only by the narrow neck of land at Perekop. The road through Perekop was the chief line of communication, leading as it did to Nicolaieff and Odessa. But there were other roads by which the enemy received supplies. At the eastern part of the Crimea was a small peninsula, called the Peninsula of Kertch, from the town of that name. The neck of this peninsula is a strip of land thirty-five miles wide, having Kaffa at its southern and Arabat at its northern extremities; and from Arabat a remarkable spit or ridge of sand runs northward, bounded on the east by the Sea of Azoff, and on the west by the waters of the Sivash or Putrid Sea. This spit of Arabat formed another line of communication as far as a narrow strait, separating the spit from the town of Genitchi on the mainland, and easily crossed by ferry boats. The stagnant waters of the Putrid Sea extend along the whole north of the Crimea as far as Perekop; but as they are of irregular depth and width, the Russians had found it practicable to throw bridges of boats from one projecting tongue of sand to another, and thus to construct, a few miles west of Genitchi, a third military road leading directly to Simpheropol, the common centre of all the roads from Russia to Sebastopol. Now the best and only mode of effectually depriving Sebastopol of supplies would have been to occupy Simpheropol; but as this was, under the circumstances, deemed impracticable, in order to deprive the enemy of at least one road, and to ruin all his depots within reach, and deprive him of the water way over the Sea of Azoff to Yenikale and Arabat, and force him upon a more circuitous route, it was determined to seize Kertch, push through the Straits into the Sea of Azoff, and destroy the ships on its waters and the magazines in its ports. In order to accomplish this, it was deemed expedient that a military force should occupy the towns of Kertch and Yenikale, which are within the Straits, and thus, by taking the land defences in reverse, open a road into the Sea of Azoff for the light steamers. The Straits are narrow, especially where the waters of the Sea of Azoff pour into them. In 1854 the Russians had sunk many ships in the channel below Kertch, but in the winter, the waters of the Sea of Azoff, fed by the swollen streams of Southern Russia, rushing through the confined space in full volume, and at the rate of between three and four miles an hour, swept away the wreck; so that what was not possible in 1854 became possible in 1855. On the east of the Straits was the Peninsula of Taman, a vast expanse of flat land, blotted with large and small salt marshes and lagoons. From the north-eastern point of this peninsula a long sand spit, in some places half a mile wide, runs in a south-westerly direction, and narrows the Straits opposite Yenikale to a width of a mile and a half. At the south-western end of this spit the Russians had a battery, so that the Straits were defended by works on both sides.

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

Marshal Pelissier
Marshal Pelissier >>>>
Capture the Mamelon
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