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


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The change in the plan which dispensed with the preliminary bombardment was not the only fatality. It was still dark when Lord Raglan and his staff rode off from head-quarters for the trenches. He had resolved to place himself in a mortar battery far down in the right attack, and dismounting on the hill above, he walked through the trenches to the selected spot in the gloom of the night. With him went General Sir Harry Jones, the principal engineer. Lord Raglan had chosen the mortar battery in which he took post, because from its parapet he could see the Quarries, the Redan, and the Malakoff, and thus watch both assaults, and because from this point he could most conveniently issue his orders. But it was a place of great peril, for there the fires of the Redan and Malakoff crossed. The British commander was told that he was in the focus of this double fire, and even the passing soldiers remarked aloud that he had picked out the most dangerous spot in the trenches; but he said he found it most convenient, and would not move away. The post of observation selected by General Pélissier was far in rear of the French assault. The reader may remember that in November, 1854, there was a British battery of 68-pounders on the Malakoff Ridge, called the Lancaster Battery, because it once contained a Lancaster gun, about a mile and a quarter from the tower, and that Mr. Hewett made a good use of one of his heavy guns from this battery on the 26th of October. Here the French general determined to post himself, and from this battery he was to fire three common rockets, those which burst in clusters of coloured stars, as the signal of attack; and when the French had entered the Malakoff, Lord Raglan was to send up two rockets from his battery.

It was still dark. General Regnault De Saint Jean d'Angely, with the Imperial Guard, was in the Lancaster Battery. Lord Raglan was at his post, watching for the signal. The unemployed spectators, officers and amateurs, were on the hills in groups here and there. General Pélissier was still on his way, and upwards of half a mile from his post. Hope, nay, confidence reigned in every breast. The English were cool, ready, and quiet. The French, to use their own expression, were quivering with eagerness, but their centre columns were not yet placed.

Suddenly, none knew why, flashes of fire, followed by a sullen uproar, were seen and heard on the extreme right. The flashes grew brighter and more frequent, the noise of exploding gunpowder grew louder. The roar of big guns rose above the crash of musketry, and the roll of drums and shrill notes of trumpets were heard in the transitory lulls of the larger tumult. What had happened? No signal rockets had climbed upwards from the Lancaster Battery to break into a bouquet of coloured fires. General Pélissier, hurrying through the dark over the plateau, was perplexed, was enraged. Still the combat raged about the head of the Careening Bay, and the fire of the place grew more fierce and sustained. Ten minutes elapsed - minutes that seemed weeks to the wondering spectators. The French general entered the battery in a fury; demanding sharply who had given the signal, his wrath changed into astonishment when he was told no signal had been given, and his astonishment into vexation when he learned that General Mayran had mistaken a military rocket, fired from the Mamelon, for the signal to assault! The unity and suddenness of the assault were thus destroyed; but General Pélissier, without hesitation, ordered the rockets to be fired, and, at seven minutes past three, the clustering stars of fire hung for a moment up in the black sky, and then paled and vanished. The French troops dashed out in the gloom to the assault.

A fatal accident had precipitated the conflict. General Mayran had been up all night engaged in placing himself the division he commanded. He had them all in hand in the Careening Ravine, and he was eager, he was impatient for the fray. In this frame of mind he was disposed to take every rocket fired from the Mamelon for the signal agreed on; and when, a little before three, one of these blazing missiles writhed and bounded through the air towards the Russian lines, he called out, "That is the signal." His staff officers ventured to warn him that this could not be the signal, because the time for action had not come. This was an unfortunate reason. It only confirmed the general in his delusion. " It is the signal," he replied; " and, besides, when one is about to assault a foe, it is better to be too soon than too late." The rash step was taken; his division was ordered to move. With the first brigade Mayran went himself; the second was commanded by De Failly. But the troops no sooner rushed out than they were smitten by a heavy fire. The leading soldiers, after the fashion of their countryman, began to fire on the retreating Russian outposts, and the flash and the sound guided the Russian artillery in training their guns. Then it was still dark, and the troops were unable to see the nature of the ground. Instead of following the left bank of the Careening Bay, and striving to turn the line of entrenchments, they went full in the teeth of a battery. The steamers came up to the mouth of the bay, and, at short range, poured in showers of grape and shell. So that this unhappy column, struggling in the obscurity over rough ground, was torn through and through by the iron sleet hurled at them in front and flank. Mayran was soon among the wounded, but he would neither retire nor give up the command. Another grapeshot striking him in the body, he was carried off mortally wounded; and part of his troops, after a vain but gallant stand, hurried back into the Careening Ravine, shattered and disorganised. But De Failly, bringing up the reserve, rallied them in a hollow, and held his ground.

In the meantime, at the signal from the Lancaster Battery, D'Autemarre and Brunet gave the word to advance. Brunet's men were not in order; and in disorder, and as they could, they scrambled into the open. The disorder was increased when a shot struck and killed the general as he quitted the trenches. General Lafont de Villiers took command. Part of the division went towards the Malakoff, under Colonel Lorencez, while the rest were held in hand to meet the exigencies of the moment. The men engaged, like those on the right, were exposed to a crushing fire, and could make no way, but they would not retreat. The attack on the right had, by this time, utterly failed. The attack on the centre made no progress. The left attack was more fortunate. D'Autemarre, on spying the signal, sent forward two battalions, one of rifles, the other of the line. Day had dawned, and the twilight revealed the column to the enemy, but it also allowed the troops to see where they were going. With steady tread in the face of a searching fire, D'Autemarre's men pressed along the ridge, on the right of the Middle Ravine; Gamier, the commander of the rifles, kept his men together and prevented them from firing; and thus they arrived at the ditch of the Gervais Battery, on the proper right of the Malakoff, all together. In a moment they were seen scrambling over the parapet, and then firing their rifles, point blank, they went in with the bayonet. The strife was close, but the French prevailed; and the 19th Line regiment coming up, the two battalions were actually established within the enemy's lines, among the ruins of houses, and under the mighty Malakoff. The column on the right had by this time been reinforced by part of the Guard, chiefly for the purpose of securing it from attack, but also to have a body of men ready to take advantage of any opportunity. The head of Brunet's column was under the Malakoff, exchanging volleys with the enemy's troops, who fired exultingly from their parapets. D'Autemarre's two batteries, as we have said, were inside the Russian lines, and their gallant leaders, Gamier and Manèque, both wounded, had sent officer after officer to the rear begging for reinforcements. Ten minutes had slipped away since Pélissier gave the signal, and such was the condition of the combat.

Lord Raglan had been a spectator of this engagement in the grey dawn. He had seen and heard the false movement of Mayran; he had watched the confused march of Brunet's troops; he had seen dimly the soldiers of D'Autemarre storm the Gervais Battery. The French had not succeeded; but the British commander, admiring their showy bravery, and feeling that he ought to risk something to aid them, directed Sir George Brown to order the assault on the Redan. Alas! here, too, the enemy were prepared. They had a mass of infantry in the Redan; its guns, loaded with grape, were ready to belch it forth; and between the stormers and their object there was the abattis with its strong woodwork and deep ditch. The British columns were small - 400 men in each. They were covered by a scattering of riflemen, and with them were to march a party of sailors under William Peel, carrying ladders, a party of soldiers with sacks of wool, and a party of artillerymen to spike the guns of the Redan. When the signal was given, all these gallant men climbed over the parapets and alighted in the open. Then the guns of the Redan opened with energy and effect. The rifles, in open order, gained the abattis, and began to fire on the enemy's gunners. Parts of the two columns of attack struggled in utter disorder up to the same place. But the sailors under Peel were so cut up, that only one ladder was borne to the abattis, and Peel was wounded. It was in striving to make the men in the right column form, and in leading them on by voice and gesture, that the brave Lacy Yea met his death. He was struck by grape, and almost instantly died. On the left, Colonel Shadforth was slain as soon as he had left the trenches; and Sir John Campbell, leaping over the parapet, went at once to head the column, and carried them up to the abattis. But there, cheering his soldiers, Campbell was also shot dead. Indeed, the storm of grapeshot strewed the ground with red coats and blue jackets. The bullets, mingled with round shot and shell, went tearing through or rushing over the parapet where Lord Raglan stood, looking over the top, and watching the combat. While he stood there, General Jones was knocked down at his side, and when the red gash in his forehead was seen, men thought he was killed; but he rose, and having had his wound dressed, he took his place again at the parapet. But the attack on the Redan had altogether failed. Lord West and Colonel Lysons found it a vain sacrifice to keep the men under that awful fire, to which musketry was now added from the parapets of the Redan; and accordingly, the remains of the devoted stormers were hurried back into the trenches. By Lord Raglan's orders, the whole of our batteries at once opened fire. It is an error to state that Lord Raglan ordered only a partial fire. General Jones states distinctly that " all our batteries were ordered to resume their fire as heavily as possible." They did so, and as heretofore, soon obtained the mastery; and as the place was full of troops, the enemy must have suffered most severely.

The French attack had failed also. Seeing Brunet's men exposed to a fire of small arms from the parapets of the Malakoff, Colonel Dickson endeavoured to drive the Russians down by shells. But they did not appear to feel these missiles, and Dickson changing to round shot, soon cleared the parapet. D'Autemarre's two battalions held the Gervais Battery for more than half an hour. Their brave commanders, grim and blood-stained, looked eagerly, but in vain, for the reinforcements they had demanded. And as these did not arrive, these two heroic soldiers were forced to withdraw. The French are under the impression that they were driven out by troops coming from the Redan. But they are mistaken. General Chruleff had plenty of men at hand without weakening the Redan. When the French quitted the Russian entrenchments, the Russian infantry followed. The French halted in a depression of the ground, and as part of their reinforcements had now come up, they turned with the bayonet upon their pursuers and forced them back into the work. Other battalions coming up, these men held fast, and General Pélissier, unwilling to throw a chance away, ordered up the Zouaves of the Guard, and had a momentary thought of making a fresh attack; but receiving unfavourable reports, he halted the Guard, and recalled all the troops. The attack was at an end.

But while he was thinking of renewing the assault, he sent General Rose with a message to Lord Raglan, saying that he hoped Lord Raglan would agree to a renewed onslaught. At the same time Lord Raglan, seeing how completely our fire had mastered that of the place, ordered Sir George Brown to bring up the supports, and prepare for a fresh assault. He then sent Commander Vico, the French officer at the British headquarters, to inform General Pélissier of the steps he had taken, and to propose that another attempt should be made after the bombardment had continued a few hours longer. Lord Raglan thought that in this way the enemy might be surprised, and the place be won. The two messengers met each other in the trenches, and thus the messages crossed each other. Lord Raglan, therefore, determined to see Pélissier himself. Reaching the Lancaster Battery shortly after seven o'clock, Lord Raglan found the French general ready to fall in with his views. But while they were discussing the details, General d'Autemarre, now senior officer in the French trenches, sent word that the French troops had lost so many men and were so discouraged, that he feared it would be impossible to assault again. It was, therefore, decided that no fresh assault should be made; the troops were withdrawn; and the batteries slackened fire.

We have now to narrate a remarkable episode in the incidents of the morning. It will be remembered that General Eyre was to make a demonstration in the South Ravine. A French force was to aid him by covering his left flank. He had with him about 2,000 men belonging to the 9th, 18th, 28th, 38th, and 44th Regiments; and arriving in the Ravine a little before three o'clock, he arrayed them for the work in hand. Some 400 volunteers under Major Fielden led the way, supported by the 44th and 38th on the right, and the 18th on the left; while the 9th and 28th formed a reserve. Their first object was to capture two rifle pits. The French took one, and our volunteers the other, with ease. Then the French halted, the officer in command having no warrant to go farther. General Eyre, however, exceeding, or rather straining his instructions, did go farther, and a handful of French breaking from restraint kept pace with him. In the ravine, just before it is joined by the Woronzoff Ravine on the right, there was a cemetery where the Russians had a post. This was carried by our troops, after a very slight resistance; and, not content with this success, they pushed still farther. There were clusters of houses under the cliffs on both sides of the broad basin formed by the juncture of the two ravines. Into these the enemy retired, and General Eyre deeming it desirable to occupy as forward a position as possible, drove the Russians out of the houses, and held them as well as the Cemetery. The troops were now under the Garden Batteries on the one side, and the Barrack Batteries on the other; and before them was the battery at the head of the South Ravine, called the Creek Battery. They were thus exposed to fire on three sides. Nevertheless they still made progress, driving the enemy out of the houses and up the sides of the ravine. Some of them ascended the steep, a few looked into the works in rear of the Flagstaff Bastion, others climbed the opposite side and got shelter at a point commanding the Creek Battery. Thus they were ready, if fortune favoured the assaults on the Redan and Malakoff, to sweep either into the town or make way through the Barrack Battery to the Redan. But the Russians had no sooner fled from the ravine into the place, than the batteries opened on our daring soldiers. The round shot and shell tore through the frail houses and broke the stones of the Cemetery in pieces, while the Russian infantry came forth afresh and kept up a hot fire. But these were soon forced back by the accurate shooting of the British; and it is inferred that the enemy lost many gunners from the bullets sent into his embrasures. Happily some of the houses had bomb-proof storeys, and in these better shelter was obtained. To increase the pressure on our men and drive them out, ships came up the South Harbour and fired heavily into their lodgments; and at times they were the focus of an encircling fire. Nevertheless here they remained all day, offering to the French in the right of their left attack a splendid spectacle of hardihood. General Eyre was wounded early in the day; but he did not give up the command of his men until five in the afternoon. About nine in the morning he had heard of the failure of the grand assault. Requesting instructions from Lord Raglan, he was told that the French would send a force to relieve him, and hold part of the ground he had won; but that if at nightfall the French had not arrived then he was to evacuate the ravine. The French did not come; and this noble brigade, bringing with them nearly all their wounded, and these were many, regained the trenches at nightfall. The Cemetery, however, remained in our possession. Out of 2,000 men, nearly 600 were killed or wounded.

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

General La Marmora
General La Marmora >>>>
Waiting for the signal to advance
Waiting for the signal to advance >>>>

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