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


Prince Gortschakoff secures his Retreat - The Allies resolve to Assault- Council of September 3rd - Condition and Plans of Attack - Day and hour fixed - Sixth and last Bombardment, September 5th - Its crushing character - Kept up at Night - A Russian Frigate on fire - Enormous losses of the Enemy - A Russian Two-decker burned - Morning of the 8th - General Bosquet to his Officers - The Troops enter the Trenches - Large Number employed by the French - British Numbers and Plans - Russian Forces in Sebastopol - Character of the Defences - Surprise of the-Malakoff - How the Russians were expelled - Prompt arrival of Supports - The Redoubt secured - Attack on the Little Redan - The French repeatedly foiled, with awful loss - Prince Gortschakoff - Heroism of MacMahon - Renewed Attacks on the Little Redan - French Horse Artillery - Fresh Repulses - British Attack on the Great Redan - Ardour of the Assailants - They enter the Work - Are overwhelmed by Numbers, and driven out - French Assaults on the Town Front - Their Failure - Result of the Day's Battle - Russian resolves - Prince Gortschakoff retreats at Night - His able tactics - Sebastopol in flames - Tremendous Explosions - Sebastopol won - A Russian Hospital - The Siege at an end - Losses - Reflections - Spoil - Prince Gortschakoff on the catastrophe.
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When Prince Gortschakoff saw that the French had opened their seventh parallel within a few yards of the Malakoff, he must have felt certain that an assault would soon be attempted. He was quite as well aware as the allied generals that the Malakoff was the key of the place. General Todleben had, from the first, shown a just appreciation of the ground, and upon those two salient and commanding points, the Flagstaff and the Malakoff, he had exhausted the resources of his art. Once firmly established in one of these he knew that the allies would have won the city. He knew also that if the Flagstaff only were taken, he could defend the place long enough to secure a retreat; but that if the Malakoff fell before a raft-bridge could be constructed, the Russians must surrender or die fighting, for the Malakoff Hill commanded the harbour. Here one cannot but admire the foresight of a general, who, while he defended his lines to the last, took early and ample precautions to secure a retreat the daring but faulty attack on the 18th of June showed the Russian what he had to fear. The great raft-bridge over that arm of the sea we call the Harbour, which is half a mile wide, was begun in July, and finished by the end of August. This stupendous work was designed and executed, no doubt, partly with the object of enabling the Russian general to pour troops rapidly into Sebastopol, but mainly to enable him to avoid capture in the last extremity. Amongst the many and vast labours of that indefatigable Russian army, this raft-bridge is not the least, nor that which extorts the least admiration. It was the salvation of the troops of the Czar. Nor was this the only work undertaken with the view of preparing against a calamity. The genius of Todleben had designed an inner line of works in rear and to the east of the Malakoff; and this must have been done only to gain time for the evacuation of the place in the event of the capture of that work.

The Russians were quite right in assuming that an assault would be hazarded at no distant day. It was the uppermost thought in the minds of the allied generals. The approach of winter, the expenditure of men and ammunition, the vast extent of the works, the proximity of the trenches to the place, and the impossibility of pushing them further in certain quarters, dictated imperiously a resolution to storm. General Pélissier and General Simpson, therefore, directed the principal officers of artillery and engineers to meet and report on the propriety of making an assault, and on the best means of carrying it out. They met on the 3rd of September, and drew up a memorandum. In the attack on the town, that is the French left attack, from the Flagstaff to the Quarantine, they said, the works of approach had remained for a long time stationary, and they declared that these works could not be pushed further without causing great loss. The English had made some progress before the Redan - their works had stopped short at 200 yards from the salient angle. Here again these officers were of opinion that the approaches could not be advanced, because serious impediments interposed; in other words, because the ground was rocky and enfiladed by several Russian batteries on both sides of the South Harbour. In fact, the battery established in the Quarries was directed, not against the Redan in its front, but against the western face of the Malakoff, and the approaches to that work; so that it served the purpose of facilitating the attack on the Malakoff, and not the attack on the Redan. In front of the Malakoff, the report went on to state, the French artillery had attained a marked superiority over that of the place, and under its protection - and, as we may add, the protection of the British batteries - the approaches had arrived within five and twenty yards of the enemy's lines. As the ground was soft before the Malakoff, the French might have got near enough to blow in the outer slope of the ditch; but this, besides entailing a heavy loss of life, would have also entailed delay, because to accomplish it eight or ten days' fire would be necessary, and this would exhaust the low supplies of ammunition. The French were also within thirty yards of the Little Redan. Here it was impossible to work nearer, because the ground was living rock. Wherefore, for these reasons, the officers decided unanimously that the moment had arrived for assaulting the place. How should this be done?

It was assumed, and justly, that if the Malakoff could be captured and held, the fall of the Karabelnaia suburb, that is, the whole space east of the South Ravine, would be inevitable. Therefore the main attack was to be directed against the Malakoff, and in order that it might be successful, while a powerful column rushed into the work itself, two other columns assailed simultaneously the Little Redan, and the long rampart or "curtain" connecting it with the Malakoff. But as the allies were fighting, not against a mere garrison of limited number, but against a numerous army, and as the enemy, knowing the importance of the position, would do his uttermost to keep, or, if he lost, to regain it, so it was held to be necessary that other attacks should be simultaneously made upon the place, in order to prevent the Russians from concentrating their forces at the vital point. It was with this object that the officers of the scientific arms recommended an assault by the English on the Redan, and by the French on the west or town front. These, it should ever be borne in mind, were to be subordinate assaults. They were to be dependent altogether upon the success of the main column; and even when that column was successful, they were to be made primarily as diversions to occupy the attention of the enemy; but, of course, it was intended that they also should succeed, if possible. Although the English were to storm the Redan, from which they were distant 200 yards, the French were not to storm the Flagstaff, from which they were distant only fifty yards, because the Flagstaff was too strong. The French attacks on the town front were to be limited to an assault at two points on the Central Bastion, thought to be less impracticable. Having captured the Central Bastion, the French were to hold it with part of their force, while the remainder, sweeping to the right, broke into the Flagstaff from the rear. It was held essential to success that the assault should be preceded by a heavy bombardment for three days. Such was the scheme devised by the principal officers of artillery and engineers of both armies on the 3rd of September. On that very evening the enemy made two vigorous sorties, one on the French sap before the Malakoff, the other on the British sap before the Redan. They were both repelled with great loss to the besieged, who must have been then finally convinced of the inutility of sorties, and of the near approach of the assault.

The French and English Commanders-in-Chief deliberated without delay on the report submitted to them. Upon them fell an immense responsibility. They had to decide at once, for the operations had arrived at a point when it was as destructive to stand still as to advance. Yet theirs must be the choice of time. They had now the largest force they could hope for - exclusive of the Turks, above 150,000 men; they had in battery quite as many guns as they could hope to find ammunition for - in the French lines 613, in the English 207, giving the enormous total of 820. Their approaches were within a stone's throw of the place. Up to this time General Pélissier had shown no sort of hesitation, but now for a moment he faltered. While Niel and Bosquet, formerly indisposed to incur the risk, were eager for the assault, Pélissier seemed inclined to hang back, and get into position more mortars, known to be at sea. He lacked ammunition, also, as did the English, and he wished to wait for the arrival of his store ships. This dubiety of mind, however, did not last long. The French general was a man of decision, and he decided in favour of the opinion of the majority. Our own officers had no doubts, and if they had, as the principal and vital assault was to be made by the French, so it was for them to fix the day and hour. the day chosen was the 8th of September, the hour, noon exactly. The reason for choosing noon was this. It had been the custom to slacken fire about noon during the hot summer days. The weather had j become cool, but it was held that if the custom were observed on this occasion, the enemy would be deceived into the belief that no assault would take place, and would, as usual, seek repose. Moreover, all our previous assaults had been made in the morning or the evening, and such is the effect of habit, that the Russians had come to believe that they were safe in the middle of the day. These calculations, as will be seen, were just.

The allies, having decided were prompt to act. One day only was allowed for further preparation. Every effort was made to carry up stores of shot and shell, and to bring every gun and mortar into action. These guns and mortars were by far the heaviest ever before employed in any siege; and it will not be out of place to repeat that in our batteries alone, there were thirty- four 13-inch, and twenty-seven 10-inch mortars, and no fewer than sixty-one 32-pounder guns.

The sixth and last bombardment began at daybreak on the 5th of September. Nearly the whole of the 800 pieces of ordnance in battery opened on the place. The sun shone brightly; a light air from the south-east blew over Sebastopol. One moment the old familiar scene was visible - the still majestic town, the serene waters of the harbour, the dark and rugged outline of the defences, the Black Sea and the allied fleet. The next moment the rolling clouds of smoke boiling up and extending on all sides, hid everything from view. The awful roar of the cannonade must have been deafening in Sebastopol, whither the dread sound was borne by the wind; but more terrible than the sound were the blows struck by these mighty lines of guns, which, with ceaseless vigour, poured forth shot and shell. The first burst of this cannonade was unequalled. The enemy were surprised, astounded, and so heavily smitten that some moments elapsed before a gun was heard in return. Then the Russian gunners began to respond, but their answering shots seemed to come slowly when compared with the sustained fury of the French batteries on the left, and even with the steady, but measured fire from the British guns and the French on the right. It was the policy of the allies to fill the mind of the enemy with doubt as to their projects, and thus force him to keep at a strained attention on all sides. Therefore it was from, the 350 guns and mortars in the fifty-two batteries directed against the western face of the ramparts of Sebastopol that the most furious volleys issued. Even the official report of the British engineers calls it a " terrific cannonade." The fire from our batteries, and that of the French right, was what is called steady and careful. It was incessant but not hurried. This was calculated to make the enemy believe that the assault; would be on the town front and not on the suburb, and, therefore, to keep more men in readiness in that quarter. Nevertheless, the mere weight of metal directed upon the Malakoff entirely silenced that work from the first. Upwards of 200 guns and mortars were levelled and trained to bear upon its outward faces, its embrasures, and its interior. Under this fiery hail nothing could live in action, and the Russians, withdrawing their guns, sought shelter in the bomb-proofs. But the Redan, and the Redan Wall running towards the Malakoff, and the Barrack batteries, and the guns in the Garden and in the Crow's Nest, maintained a formidable fire all day. There were, however, intermissions on our side. The French on the left rested from half past seven until ten; then they began afresh with a rapidity that astounded every one. For two hours this went on; afterwards the uproar subsided somewhat; but at five it burst out once more, and continued until half-past seven. The enemy's works were torn, and shattered, and formless. The parapets were ploughed up, the sides of the embrasures were shaken down, the guns were nearly all silent. When darkness fell the mortars opened with a deep roar, and the light of their bursting shells actually showed the enemy's lines. All night this searching bombardment was continued, so that it became impossible for the enemy to repair damages.

The most striking result of the bombardment during the day appeared at night. Early in the evening one of the still floating Russian war ships was observed to be on fire. A thick column of smoke rose above the cliffs of the Harbour, growing denser every hour. As the sun set a glow of light hovered above the water, and at dark, flames burst out and presently illumined the scene. A frigate had been reached by a shell from one of the batteries, probably a French shell; and it now blazed grandly, a gigantic beacon, throwing into high relief the white city and white forts, and revealing the jagged line of earthen ramparts into which, with an incessant roar, fell the bombs of the besiegers. This splendid spectacle lasted until the tall flaming masts fell into the water, and the hull was consumed.

During the day there had been a great movement to and fro on the raft bridge. Heavy bodies of troops were marched in from the north side, and long trains of wagons, laden with goods, went over to the north out of the town. The army on the Belbek moved off in dark columns towards Inkermann, and some 15,000 men debouched from Chouliou towards Tchorgoun, with the object of alarming the allies for the safety of Balaclava. But the position in the Tchernaya had been made so strong that comparatively few men could hold it, supported as they were by 9,000 sabres and lances eager for a dashing charge. The Russians looked down upon the allied lines from the lofty hills, exchanged a few distant shots with the Italian outposts, countermarched, and disappeared through the gorges of the mountains. There was no hope of success on that side; no hope at all, except in a dogged defence of the shot-torn and bloody ramparts of Sebastopol, those defaced but mighty monuments of the genius of Todleben.

The cannonade was resumed on the morning of the 6th, and at night the bombardment followed. No rest was allowed to the defenders. From the character of the fire they could infer nothing except that an assault was impending. Hour by hour they endured a cruel suspense, and endured it under a fire which Prince Gortschakoff described as a "fire of hell." The ceaseless stream of projectiles searched out every part of the place. From the more distant batteries heavy shells found their way into the spaces shut off by traverses, into the houses and barracks, into the ravines. From the near batteries grape and canister whistled over the ridge of the parapets or swept through the embrasures, and small shells dropped just behind the ramparts, into whose massive fronts the larger guns poured a ceaseless shower. The enemy could only answer with a feeble fire from the better protected guns. The Malakoff stood up against the sky, silent and ragged, but grim and defiant. The very garrisons of the works could not be relieved except under fire. When night fell again it brought no relief to the smitten enemy; for the huge bombs rose high in the air, and fell every minute and scattered death and wounds on every side. Nor bombs only. A crashing, unbroken fire of musketry was directed from the advanced trenches on the parapets, and no fewer than 150,000 rounds were expended each night during the bombardment. Except in the great convulsions of nature, destructive agencies had never before been seen in operation on so grand a scale.

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

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