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Chapter XXIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 3


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The early movements of the 5th and 17th were not visible to the allies. The great dark columns wound along concealed under the double curtain of a thick fog and the folds of the hills. But the distance they both had to march was considerable. Before they reached the river the fog rolled up, the rays of the sun were seen to sparkle on the points of the bayonets; and, what was more, the attacks of the 7th and 12th had failed. These two divisions were assembling and falling into line once more behind their horsemen and cannon, when the 5th and 17th began to cross the river, and try their mettle against the French.

The 5th came first. This fine division had marched from Poland, and was about to fight its first battle with the French. The Russians advanced in three columns; one arrived at the bridge, the others moved to the left and right. The onset was simultaneous; not so the repulse. The column which crossed above the bridge suffered so severely from the 2nd Zouaves lying along the banks of the aqueduct, and from the French and Sardinian guns smiting them in front and flank, that they were speedily forced to re-cross the river.

The centre and right column fared better. They drove the French from the aqueduct, and forced them, after a bitter combat, to yield the bridge, and pressed them back up the slope of the hills. The conflict was very hot, for the Russians were stubborn. But General Herbillon, seeing the progress made by the enemy, threw the whole of Sender's brigade, except one battalion, into the fight; thus furnishing a strong support at a critical moment.

Colonel Danner, who had been driven out of the bridge, was the first to turn the tide. He brought his troops down at the charge. In an instant, with that promptitude so characteristic of their impulsive mode of fighting, the regiments on his right and left imitated the movement, and the whole line hurtled upon the front and flanks of the Russian columns, giving them so rude a shock that they reeled down the hill-side, and tumbled by scores into the canal. All this time the artillery, now in great force, was rending the rear of the columns, crowded between the river and the foot of the hills, and splitting them up with shell, roundshot, and grape. Increasing in ardour as they went, the French fell furiously on the broken enemy, and in a short time the 97th and 95th once more stood behind the ramparts of the bridge-head. The Russian infantry were now over the river, and hastily seeking the shelter of their guns and cavalry on the higher ground beyond.

But the enemy would not yet own himself beaten. The 17th Division had arrived on the right bank of the Tchernaya. It was formed of regiments which had met the allies at the Alma and Inkermann. Undismayed by defeat, determined to risk another throw of the dice, Prince Gortschakoff ordered a brigade, composed of three regiments - that is, twelve battalions - supported by a large body of cavalry, to cross the river, and push in between the French and Sardinians. The march of these troops had been seen by the allies. General Herbillon had reinforced the right by three regiments of Cler's brigade and part of Sencier's brigade, and General la Marmora had directed Mollard's brigade of Trotti's division to descend from Mount Hasfort, and crossing the valley support the French right. The support, as it happened, was not needed, but it would have been most timely and effectual had the French been overmatched. As it was, the Russians crossed the river and the aqueduct, pushing the French before them, and partly turning their right. They moved with striking resolution, for their columns were struck by the fire of a powerful artillery in flank. A French battery, disregarding the shot and shell poured upon it by the Russian guns on the opposite hills, devoted all its might to the injury of the enemy's infantry. These were now smitten on all sides except their right. For when they saw the deep masses of cavalry facing the gorge into which they had entered, and when they felt the Sardinians on the left of their line of advance, they turned to the right and made a desperate attempt to crown the hillock. The first column which reached the crest was immediately assailed in flank by a French regiment of Cler's brigade, and driven helplessly into and over the aqueduct. But the other deep columns now filling the whole space between the aqueduct and the river still came on with unfaltering resolution, and flung themselves into a focus of fire. But they could make no way. The guns and musketry were too much for them. In vain their officers ran out and waved their swords and showed the way. In vain the columns tried to get along. Presently they fell into confusion; then turned and hurried back over the river, pursued by volleys of musketry and flights of grape and roundshot.

The Russians brought up into line a number of batteries to cover the retreat of the infantry, and their splendid-looking cavalry drew up in glittering lines out of range to protect the guns. But the heavy English pieces in the Sardinian earthworks, opening on the enemy's artillery, soon made them move further away. It was about eight o'clock. The battle was won.

General Pélissier had arrived soon after seven, just in time to witness the defeat of the 17th Division. At one moment he seemed disposed to use part of the immense force of cavalry at his disposal, but he refrained. The French infantry moved down to the bank of the river, and the Sardinians did the like, some of their riflemen crossing it.

General Pélissier now showed a mass of fresh troops, the greater part of the Imperial Guard and the two divisions of Dulac and Levaillant; so that the Fedoukine Heights were crowded with troops. In the meantime Prince Gortschakoff had rallied his men and had formed a new line of battle, well out of range. He had massed the greater part of his cavalry on the right, covering the 7th and 12th Divisions of infantry; in the centre were the 5th and 17th, with batteries massed in front; and on the left the 6th Division of infantry, having in its front a brigade of Dragoons in columns of squadrons. General la Marmora, with praiseworthy promptitude, at once re-occupied the Mamelon over the river abandoned by his troops early in the morning. Cialdini crossed the river at Karlovka, and took up a position above Tchorgoun, and three battalions of Turks marched down into the valley as a support. The Russian infantry were now retiring up the road to the Mackenzie Heights, or filing away to the north-east by the valley of Chouliou. Seeing this, General la Marmora, taking four squadrons, crossed the Tchernaya, and, moving in a north-westerly direction, went up the hills as far as one of the old redoubts constructed by the enemy in the winter of 1854. Thence, a short distance before him, he saw a fine array of regular cavalry, fifty squadrons, supported by horse artillery. These horsemen did not fall back until the whole of the infantry and guns had disappeared.

As soon as the actual fighting was over, the French moved out to collect the wounded. The field presented the most horrible spectacle, because the men were killed and mangled chiefly by round shot, shell, and grape, which tear poor frail human beings in pieces; whereas the bullet and bayonet kill and wound without leaving such bloody traces. All along the embankment of the aqueduct and near the river, and in the meadows over which the square columns of the enemy had moved up to the attack, the dead and wounded lay thickly on the grass.

The French began to collect both their friends and foes, and to place them near the road, so that the ambulances might bear them away to the hospital. The Russians on the heights saw this. They knew that their comrades were being succoured. Nevertheless, they suddenly opened fire with shell, firing repeated volleys right into the groups, scattering the French, and killing them and their own wounded. It was a most barbarous act. Not content with this, after a slight cessation, they re-opened fire with round shot. General Pélissier very properly complained to Prince Gortschakoff, who could only excuse the conduct of his gunners by alleging that they had been fired at by French riflemen: a good reason for shelling the riflemen, but not for shelling the wounded. For two days the bodies of the dead on the ground beyond the French lines lay unburied. Genera] Pélissier had offered to permit their burial by the enemy, but the Russians did not avail themselves of the permission until the 18th.

In this action the allies lost 1,747 men killed and wounded, of whom only 196 were killed. The Sardinians lost one general officer, the Count Montevecchio. But the Russian loss was awful. The French buried upwards of 2,000 bodies; the Russians more than 1,000. There were 2,250 prisoners in the hands of the French, some wounded, some whole. General Read and two other generals of his corps were among the dead; and among the wounded were eight generals and ten colonels. The Russian loss altogether could not have been less than 15,000 men.

The battle of the Tchernaya was, in many respects, a striking action; but it did not enhance the reputation of Prince Gortschakoff as a general. Allowing that General Read marred his plan by abruptly attacking the French left, and thus preventing a combined onset at dawn, it is plain that Prince Gortschakoff was quite unable to devise a new scheme or to repair the hole made in the old one. The attacks which he ordered, those of the 5th and 17th, were given one after the other, and deprived of unity, they were deprived of everything but the mere stubborn valour of the troops. It is not good generalship to throw in column after column to be beaten in detail, and pounded to pieces in the advance and retreat by a heavy artillery. Yet this is exactly what the Russians did. The bearing of the troops under such circumstances was magnificent; the conduct of the general suggests only despair or a superior order from St. Petersburg as the motive. Throughout the day Prince Gortschakoff kept two entire divisions out of range and out of the action. Why? Because he knew what immense reserves were in the hands of General Pélissier, and what efficient aid the British could have lent to General la Marmora. It is quite possible that had the Russians carried Mount Hasfort, he would have been even more disastrously defeated; for his right wing would have been crushed by the French, and his whole army, cut off from the Mackenzie Road, would probably have been driven into the mountains in disorder. The French and Sardinian troops were very well handled. The reserves were advanced without hurry and used at the right moment. But there can be no doubt that the crushing flank fire from the British and Sardinian guns helped to prepare the enemy for defeat, and tripled his loss. Some think that the allied cavalry, so fine and strong, should have been sent across the Tchernaya, especially towards noon, when the Russian infantry were climbing the heights, and the cavalry were alone with a few guns. General Pélissier did not think so; and no one but a sharp-eyed cavalry officer, who saw the field and the chances it offered, can tell whether he was right or wrong in his opinion. As it was, the enemy was very severely punished. The loss of the battle of the Tchernaya sealed the fate of Sebastopol.

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