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Chapter XXXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 4


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Just after Windham had quitted the work on this errand, Pawloff grew emboldened by his numbers, and pressing down upon the salient, closed with the British soldiers still holding on. A short and terrible combat ensued at close quarters. Our men were unwilling to surrender the little space they had so dearly won; but the pressure of fire and steel was irresistible. The remnant of the "formers was forced over the parapet, but not away from it. There, on our side, they still hung, and were fed from the trenches by sections of men who had survived the path of fire by which alone they could reach the enemy. But this could not last long. Already above an hour had elapsed. For that space, and longer, a small body of British soldiers - never more than 300 strong, smitten, half destroyed, renewed, and destroyed again - had kept thousands of the enemy at bay. The Russian accounts name four regiments - that is, sixteen battalions - which were engaged in the Redan. At length the enemy made a mighty effort, and swept every British soldier from the parapet into the ditch. Those who were able to scramble up had to run the gauntlet of a fire of grape and musketry on their return to the trenches, whither they arrived breathless, bleeding, exhausted. The Russians cheered, manned their parapets, fired into the chaos of human beings weltering in heaps in the ditch, and even brought up two field-pieces, and with grape from these pursued the fugitives. For this they paid a heavy penalty. Our batteries instantly opened a deadly fire on the Redan, crushing the fieldpieces at once, and smashing the masses of infantry whose numbers choked the work. But the enemy had gained his point, and had worsted the victors of the Alma and Inkermann.

From his post of vantage on the Mamelon, General Pélissier had witnessed our defeat; and he now sent to inquire whether General Simpson intended to renew the assault, telling him at the same time that the French were inexpugnably placed in the Malakoff. General Simpson was compelled to say that he could not renew the assault, for the trenches were full of the beaten troops; but he promised to strike at the Redan once more in the morning. The sun went down, and in the British camp gallant men groaned in bitterness of heart over their splendid failure.

The French on the extreme left had not been more Successful. The attack should have been made simultaneously with that on the Redan. But the wind was high, the dust and smoke thick, and when the rockets were fired the silvery jets they threw out were scarcely visible against the raw grey sky. They were not visible at the French observatory, and were not repeated, and it required a special staff officer from General Pélissier to set General de Salles in motion. The Malakoff had been assailed and won, the Redan had been won and lost, before the French columns on the left were launched from the trenches. They were Le Valliant’s division, commanded by Trochu and Couston. They were to carry the Central Bastion. This was a very formidable work, and as its defenders were prepared, and in great numbers, there was no hope of capturing it. The Central Bastion consisted of a redan with an obtuse angle, supported on either flank by two strong redoubts, and by a third redoubt, half as big as the Malakoff, in rear of the left face. In these works and in rear of them were upwards of 5,000 men, with ample reserves in the town. The French were close to the ditch, and when they quitted their trenches they were in a moment in contact with the enemy. In the first rush, the French assert, that Levaillant's men entered both the flanking redoubts and the Central Redan; but the Russians insist that their infantry lining the parapet, and their guns rapidly run out, crushed the left and centre attacking columns with a concentrated fire, and prevented them from going further than the ditch, where hundreds perished. But as the French suffered severely from the explosion of several small mines, it seems likely that some of them did scale the parapets, to perish inside. At all events, the two columns we have mentioned were horribly maltreated and forced back hopelessly shattered into their trenches. A third column did break into the Black Redoubt and hold it for some time. But the enemy, as in the Great and Little Redans, brought up immense masses of men, and recovered the battery, slaying those whom they did not capture. Both Trochu and Couston were severely wounded. Levaillant rallied his men, and once more they issued from the trenches, but this time they were so smitten that they did not even gain the ditch. General de Salles sent General Rivet for Breton's Brigade of D'Autemarre's division» The trenches were encumbered with troops, and the passage of Breton's Brigade was slow. He and Rivet went in front. Breton was killed while speaking to General de Salles, and Rivet fell while showing the way to troops, who could not be got to face the hail of bullets which swept the open. General de Salles himself was wounded; and before D'Autemarre's men could be brought up to the point to be assailed, orders came from Pélissier to refrain from a further expenditure of life. No movement had been made in front of the Flagstaff Bastion. The Italians were mere spectators; a happy thing for them. The whole front of the bastion was heavily mined; and the enemy was watching for the stormers, with their hands on the electric battery arranged to explode the mines.

Such was this tremendous action, which we may call the Battle of Sebastopol, for it was a battle between two armies, one of which defended a vast and only not impregnable entrenched camp. At all the points of attack the Russians were superior in number. It was the surprise of the Malakoff which decided the fate of the whole line. When darkness came the ground was still strewed with wounded, who could not be removed; and, uncertain of what the dawn would reveal, the allies kept a close watch, and waited with feverish impatience for daylight. Only the utterly exhausted could sleep, as well they might, after the terrible fatigues of the day.

In the desperate efforts they made to recapture the Malakoff, the Russians had lost hundreds of men and several generals. It was, as we have said, about four in the afternoon that Prince Gortschakoff arrived in the suburb, and, inspecting for himself the state of affairs, saw that there was no chance of recovering that work. He at once decided upon a retreat; and he therefore forbade any further offensive movements, but gave strict injunctions to his generals to defend to the last every approach to the heart of the suburb and town. At that time the French had not desisted from their assaults; and, as we have stated already, these were repelled. At five o'clock orders for a general retreat were issued. As soon as it was dark the enemy placed bodies of riflemen and artillerymen in all the works remaining to them, and these were instructed to keep up a steady fire. Behind them were some battalions in reserve, occupying the street barricades and houses. Thus protected, the troops in the town were to march directly to the raft- bridge, and across it to the north side in regular order. Those in the suburb were to move upon the point where stood Fort Paul. Thence steamers and other craft would transport them to the great bridge. Then the reserves were to follow, and finally, at a given signal, the rearguard were to spike the guns, fire the trains of the magazines, and beat a retreat over the bridge. All this was accomplished with great skill and celerity. The allies were uncertain of the intentions of the enemy, and, moreover, they stood in awe of the mines supposed to exist. So all night the long and heavy columns of men, with field artillery, some of which they were obliged to throw into the sea, were passing over the bridge, which swayed and rocked to and fro under the great weight. It was a marvellous feat and forms a splendid finale to the siege; but it should be remembered that it was the retreat of an army by an unassailable line; and what is admirable in the action is the promptitude of the general's decision, and the coolness and speed with which it was executed.

The signs of this retreat had not escaped the observation of the allies. The unusual movement on the bridge had been detected by an artillery officer in our Quarry battery, by General de Martimprey in the Malakoff, by the French officer commanding at Inkermann, and by the allied fleet. Before midnight the French near the Little Redan had pushed a reconnaissance into that work and along the line on its left. These had barely returned when the magazines in the Curtain and Little Redan blew up, destroying the few sentries left along the line. The Highland Division had been moved into our advanced trenches, to be ready for an assault at daybreak. Struck by the silence in the Redan, one or two officers crept up, and looked in. All was still. The enemy had fled. Sir Colin Campbell, hearing this, called for volunteers from each of his regiments, and sent them in to bring away the wounded. By this means some were saved. But from the place came warning sights and sounds. Flames broke out in the town. The Russians had filled the buildings with forage and wood, and the rearguard had set them on fire as they fell back. The flames increased, the bright, scathing tongues of fire writhing like snakes amid the dense smoke. About four o'clock the magazines of the Redan and adjacent batteries exploded, shaking the plateau. Then followed in succession, and at irregular intervals, those of the Flagstaff, Central Bastion, and Garden batteries. Later in the morning the great forts of the Quarantine and Alexander were torn and destroyed by the explosion of immense stores of powder, the effect being augmented by the flight upward of a flock of live shells, which burst in the air and showered down iron all around. No fewer than five-and-thirty magazines broke into noise and flame one after the other. The Russian general had covered his retreat by destroying even the ruins of the city he was forced to yield.

When the grey light of dawn crept over this sublime spectacle, and deepened into broad daylight, it showed the still blazing town, over which hung a canopy of dense smoke - so thick, and dense, and substantial-looking, that "it seemed to support the very heavens." All the Russian ships, except two dismasted corvettes and nine steamers, had been scuttled during the night, and only their tall masts remained above the waters. Fort Paul and Fort Nicholas, of all the goodly fabric of defence on the south side, alone remained erect. The steamers Were dashing to and fro. The bridge had not been broken, and ever and anon small bodies of infantry, the last of the rearguard, went across it with steady step. But now, while we looked helplessly on, the parts of the bridge were sundered, the steamers took them in tow, and they were dragged to the north side. The Russians who still clung to the place, and there were some, still busy in the work of destruction, trusted for a safe retreat to the steamers, or, too drunk to think of retreat, lay quietly in the streets. In spite of the efforts to keep them out, Zouaves and Jack Tare managed to creep into the city, and spectators beheld them with astonishment flitting to and fro amid the burning town. All this time the French and English were engaged in the sad work of succouring and removing the thousands of wounded who had fallen beyond reach on the previous day. Still the town burned fiercely, and still the two forts stood up proudly amid the sombre atmosphere and havoc around. But in the afternoon, the magazine in Fort Paul exploded, shaking the whole promontory, and hurling upwards a pillar of smoke, which, when it rolled away, disclosed a mere chaos of disjointed masonry. Fort Nicholas escaped. The steamers had gone over to the north side of the harbour. The Russian troops were in their camps on the bluffs, watching the destruction of the place they and their comrades had defended so well. The allies had won, but they dared not yet enter Sebastopol. Yet, during the day, both French and English risked their lives among its buildings and batteries, so eager were the men for bits of plunder, and the officers to explore those lines against which they had striven so long.

The next day the fires had burnt low, and in many parts had gone out. Many officers from our camp explored the whole of the upper parts of the town, and ranged at will through the suburbs. They saw with wonder the vast strength of the fortifications, now much defaced, the tremendous damage done to the whole place by our cannonade and bombardment, and the destructive effects wrought by the exploded magazines. In the suburb there was only one building unburnt, a huge barrack near the dockyard. Why this had been spared was soon made apparent. One of the enemy's steamers, bearing a flag of truce, crossed the harbour. It was the famous Vladimir. Her gallant captain begged permission to remove the Russians wounded left behind in the hurry of the retreat. Wounded? Where were they? was the question. They were in the great unburned barrack. Its doors were entered, and the scenes revealed surpassed in physical horrors anything yet seen. "In a long, low room," writes Dr. Russell, who was an eye-witness, " supported by square pillars arched at the top, and dimly lighted through shattered and unglazed window- frames, lay the wounded Russians, who had been abandoned to our tender mercies by their general. the wounded, did I say? No, but the dead, the rotten and festering corpses of the soldiers, who were left to die in their extreme agony, untended, uncared for; packed as close as they could be stowed, some on the floor, others on wretched trestles and bedsteads, or pallets of straw, sopped and saturated with blood, which oozed and trickled through upon the floor. With the roar of exploding fortresses in their ears - with shells and shot pouring through the roof and rooms in which they lay - with the crackling and hissing of fire around them, these poor fellows who had served their loving friend and master, the Czar, but too well, were consigned to their terrible fate," Many - 500 - were yet alive and of those who were dead, some might have been saved. In one cellar were 700 corpses of men, the greater part of whom had undergone amputation of a limb. In another were three living English officers, two of whom reached our camp hospitals only to die. The Russian wounded yet alive were given over to the enemy; the English and French soldiers thrust into this charnel-house were rescued, and some survived; the horrible dead were buried. This dreadful incident made a deeper impression upon those who saw the miseries of that hospital, than the piles of corpses around the Great and Little Redan.

On the 11th, our guns had been brought to bear on the Russian steamers still afloat, and the enemy, to prevent us from sinking them, burnt them at night, making a second conflagration nearly as brilliant as that of the blazing town. The Russian Black Sea fleet had ceased to exist. The heroes of Sinope and their ships had been buried under the earth and the waters. On the 12th the English made Colonel Windham Commandant of the Karabelnaia, and the French appointed General Bazaine to command in the town. The Russians still fired from the north side, but finding their shot and shell disregarded, and of no avail, they ceased in a few days to annoy the scanty garrison maintained in "the blood-stained ruins." The great efforts of the enemy were now turned to the completion of the northern defences, which grew visibly stronger every day, and continued to grow until the war came to an end.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 4

Lancaster gun
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Colonel Windham
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