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

Winter of 1855-6 - Positions of the Armies - The Czar in the Crimea- State of the British Army - Condition of the French Army; its great Losses from Disease - Causes thereof - Action at Baga - Demolition of the Forts, Docks, and Barracks of Sebastopol - Armistice.
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The expedition to Kinburn, the destructive raid of the allies into Taman and Fanagoria, the unfruitful marches and counter-marches of General d'Allonville, General de Failly, and Lord George Paget, from Eupatoria towards Simpheropol, closed the military operations of 1855. The French - who had taken military possession of the beautiful valley of Baidar, and had pushed their outposts to the summits of the ridges leading towards the Belbek - withdrew to the inner slopes, and contented themselves with watching the main roads, both towards the north and towards the east and south. The Sardinians remained in their old quarters. French divisions still occupied the mamelons covering the bridge over the Tchernaya, supported by their own and the British cavalry. The Highlanders were above Kamara, but the bulk of the British army was on the plateau in the old position. There, also, was at least one-half of the French, including the Imperial Guard, who, however, embarked early in the month of November for France. In the course of November, 18,000 French troops went home, and they were relieved by fresh troops amounting to 11,162, including a division under General Chasseloup Laubat. Our allies were still labouring on the lines of Kamiesch, and were now about to arm them with Russian guns. The enemy was busy on the north side creating a fresh Sebastopol of earthwork, and ever and anon he poured shot and shell into the ruined town, but his fire did very little damage to the allies, and only served to aid them m effecting the complete destruction of the place. Whatever may have been the state of the Russian army - and its nominal force included divisions from six corps d'armée - it must be admitted that Prince Gortschakoff showed a bold front among his rocks and ravines.

And no wonder; for, although the allies in December had upwards of 200,000 men in the Crimea - the French alone boasted of 141,476 men - it is now evident that a longing for peace sprang up in some quarters soon after the fall of Sebastopol. This the Russians knew. They, therefore, confident that the allies would not undertake any large operation, and knowing winter to be at hand, held their ground. Moreover, their Emperor had visited his gallant army. Quitting St. Petersburg in September, soon after the fall of his cherished city in the south - the stepping-stone from Nicolaief to Constantinople - he proceeded to Moscow. In his addresses to his army, he still imitated the language of his father; and, while he praised his gallant soldiers as they deserved to be praised, while he frankly confessed that Russia had been severely tried, he boldly claimed for his cause the support of the Deity, and declared his steadfast resolve to defend orthodox Russia, who had taken up arms for the cause of Christianity. Thus men and kings cheat themselves with words, and employ sacred terms as a cloak to secular ambition. From Moscow the Czar proceeded to Odessa. Here he arrived towards the end of October; and in passing from Odessa to Nicolaief, it was his fortune to behold from the cliffs above the mouth of the Boug the squadrons of the allies, fresh from the capture of Kinburn, and but a few hours before exchanging shots with a Russian battery ten miles from Nicolaief. He was seen by our sailors, who knew not how mighty a potentate was surveying the alien armament which had entered what were his waters. After another visit to Odessa, the Czar, passing through Nicolaief, went forward by Perekop to Simpheropol, where he arrived on the 8th of November. To reach his army he had travelled sixteen hundred miles through his own territory, and had been nearly two months on the road. He is the only monarch who can perform a feat like that. On the 12th of November he had reviewed the army in the Crimea, looked on the ruins of Sebastopol, the wrecks of his fleet, the camps of his enemies. No doubt his presence cheered the soldiers who had borne so much at his bidding. For those who had defended the lines of Todleben, he provided a silver medal, to be worn at the button-hole with the ribbon of St. George. The soldiers prized a decoration which a Czar told them was a certificate of good soldiership. The medal bore the names of Nicholas and Alexander, and, said the Czar to his soldiers, "I am proud of you, as he was . . . In his name, and in my own, I Once more thank the brave defenders of Sebastopol." But in spite of his pride in his soldiers, the heart of the Czar must have been sad, for he was a kindly man, and the aggressive policy of his father - the consequences of which he could not escape - had cost Russia 500,000 men. The Czar returned to St. Petersburg by rapid journeys, arriving there on the 19th of November. The Czar had seen for himself; and when he reached his capital on the Neva he was, perhaps, in a better frame of mind for receiving those peace propositions which Austria was already seeking to frame.

The allies had begun to make ample preparations for the winter. The weather in 1855-6 was very different from that which had beset them twelve months before. They, also, were differently situated; they were triumphant, and in a secure position. They had the resources of Sebastopol, in wood and stone at least, wherewith to defend themselves against the cold and the rain. They had huts and plenty of tents. The British had abounding supplies of the warmest clothes of all kinds, and most ample rations - fresh meat and bread three days a week, and pork and biscuit on the other days. The troops had plenty of time for drill, though they were still called upon to perform hard work in road-making. Thus they were employed all day, without being over-worked. Their health was so good, that during this winter the average of the sick was lower than among the troops at home. Some regiments did not lose a man - some were less fortunate; but the most afflicted regiments did not lose möre than two per cent., and it was rare indeed that the sick exceeded four per cent, of the whole force. No army was ever more cared for, or thrived more under good treatment. And so it really grew stronger as the weeks glided away, until, when the spring came, Sir William Codrington had under his orders a healthy, well-drilled force of 70,000 men, ready for any enterprise, and well provided with all those means and appliances which were wanting in 1854.

Not so our French allies. Their system broke down. Their losses from disease in the first three months of 1856 are something fearful to contemplate. An epidemic broke out in the French camp in January, and from that time to the end of March 40,000 Frenchmen died from disease. More than 5,000 died in the transports or men-of-war on their way from the Crimea to the Bosphorus. In the Crimean hospitals their men died at the rate of between 200 and 250 per day. In the hospitals on the Bosphorus the rate was hardly less. The effective force of the French army on February Ist was 143,000 men. On the 30th of March it was 120,000, of whom only 92,000 were present under arms. These figures are official, showing a loss in two months of 23,000 men, and they do not account for 28,000 men not present under arms. But the other returns, on which the statement of the vast losses mentioned are based, are also official, with this advantage, that the latter are medical, the former military returns, such as it has been deemed not inexpedient to make public. Throughout the war the French under-stated their losses from disease and defective arrangements. In 1854-5 they suffered nearly as much as the English; but there was no free press in France, and no free Parliament, to make known the sufferings and privations of the soldiers.

The main cause of death in the first months of 1856 was typhus, and the causes of typhus were many. The soldiers were crowded in tents or huts imperfectly ventilated, pitched on ground saturated with filth of all kinds. Their food was insufficient, and besides being insufficient in quantity, it was poor in quality, and brought on scurvy. Nor was the French soldier well clothed. The British soldiers had been supplied with " a waterproof suit, helmet and all, fur coats, caps, cowhide boots, tweed coats, lined with cat or rabbit skins, &c. The French only received from their Government an ordinary cloth capote, and were obliged to buy any waterproofs or furs which they found necessary." The rations of our soldiers were ample; the French were miserably fed in comparison. It was alleged, at the time, that while the French remained in their old camps, the English went down to fresh ground near Balaclava; but this was not true. The English remained in their old camps, but they kept them clean. Moreover, the English made magnificent roads, while the French put up with makeshifts. There was not only a railway from Balaclava to the front, and from Balaclava to the Sardinian camp, but a new road of solid construction, made by Mr. Doyne and the Army Works Corps, assisted by fatigue parties of soldiers. It was the good food, as well as the ample clothing and the regular labour, that kept the English army in such health and strength. The curse of the preceding winter was over-work and under-feeding, and both from the same cause - the inadequacy of the numbers of the army to do the double, triple duty forced on the troops by the necessities of an unexpected position.

The actual military operations were of the slightest kind. The Russians, issuing from the hills to the east of the Valley of Baidar in small parties, surprised and fell upon the French post at Baga, on the 8th of December. Although they were surprised, the French assembled quickly, and, taking the offensive in turn, drove the enemy out with the bayonet. The French lost one officer and seven men killed, and had thirteen wounded. The enemy left seventy dead bodies on the ground, and twenty prisoners. A number of Cossacks, trying to escape, fled by a road which had been scarped. The men got away, but they left their horses behind. Having thus tested the strength of the French posts in the "Valley of Baidar, the Russians did not again molest our allies.

In the meantime, both English and French were engaged in blowing up the forts, docks, basins, and barracks in Sebastopol. The work had been divided between the two. The French took the northern half of the docks, the English the southern. These works were so solidly constructed and so vast, that their destruction required almost as much skill as their construction. The engineers of each nation, however, rivalled each other in expedients, and in the application of scientific principles to the end in view. " The difficulty of destruction in the case of the docks allotted to the English," writes Dr. Russell, "was enhanced by the fact that these were in part hewn out of the solid rock. The basin thus formed was lined with huge masses of stone, and between rock and stone earth was filled in. The engineers availed themselves of the soft interval for their mines, and blew the walls and counter forts inwards." Their object was so to proportion the charges of gunpowder, that as little as possible should be thrown out of the dock or basin, and as much as possible heaped up within it; so that there should be the maximum of difficulty in clearing out and rebuilding the work. "Most of the explosions had not the appearance which would be popularly anticipated from the letting off of two, three, or more thousands of pounds of powder. There was no diverging gush of stones, but a sort of rumbling convulsion of the ground; a few blocks or fragments were cast up to a moderate height, but the effect upon the spectator was that of some gigantic subterranean hand just pushing the masses a short distance out of their places, turning them upside down, and rolling them over each other in a cloud of smoke and dust." The whole of the work on the docks was completed on the 1st of February. Fort Nicholas was blown up on the 4th, and Alexander on the 11th of the same month; and subsequently similar processes laid low the aqueduct which brought the water of the Tchernaya into the docks and the great barracks and storehouses in the marine suburb. The Russian fire, though brisk at times, and often accurate, did not interrupt the labours of the French and English engineers. By these means the offensive character of Sebastopol was cut up by the roots, for it was as a great war-port and arsenal that it was a "standing menace," and at the end of February it had ceased to be. The stranger who halted to survey Sebastopol from the neighbouring heights, deceived by the whitewashed and plastered walls of the houses, might think that Sebastopol was still a city; but when he walked through its grass-grown, deserted streets, formed by endless rows of walls alone, of roofless shells of houses, in which not one morsel of timber could be seen, from threshold to eaves; when he beheld the great yawning craters, half filled with great mounds of cut stone, heaped together in irregular masses; when he gazed on tumuli of disintegrated masonry - once formidable forts, and shaken, as it were, into dust and powder; when he stumbled over the fragments of imperial edifices, to peer down into great gulfs, choked up with rubbish, which marked the site of the great docks of the Queen of the Euxine, and beheld the rotting masts and hulls of the sunken navy, which had been nurtured there; when he observed that what the wrath of the enemy spared was fast crumbling away beneath the fire of its friends, and that the churches where they worshipped, the theatres, the public monuments, had been specially selected for the practice of the Russian gunners (on the north side), as though they were emulous of running a race of destruction with the allied armies - he would, no doubt, have come to the conclusion that the history of the world afforded no such authentic an instance of the annihilation of a great city." Such is the language of Dr. Russell, who watched all the processes which produced the results he describes. Unhappily, Major Ranken, of the engineers, was killed by the last blasting operation. He was a good and promising young officer, and the last Englishman killed in the Crimea.

Just before this incident, General Codrington had reviewed 25,000 British infantry on the plateau overlooking Tchorgoun. Marshal Pélissier was present. He had never seen so large a mass of British soldiers before, and, as the men were healthy and well-drilled, the spectacle must have duly impressed upon him some idea of the character of our foot soldiers which approximated to the truth. But the Powers had decreed that these soldiers should not fight again in this war. Events had occurred in Western Europe destined to lead up to a peace, and all dreams of a campaign in Asia Minor, under Sir Colin Campbell, whose merits were now better understood, vanished for ever. Three days after this review of the British infantry, the soldiers learned that the belligerents had agreed to a suspension of hostilities until the 31st of March.

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

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