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Crimean texts

The Times 7.8.1868 p 7




Sir — The depreciating view taken by the British public of the military operations of their own countrymen, on many occasions is very different from the feeling and habits of other nations; it is not very intelligible, is very discouraging to military men, and would seem hardly to be deserved when connected with complete and absolute successes.

Take, for instance, a simple record of the thoroughly successful events of the Peninsular war, and it would be hard to believe that, according to many of the contemporary writers, every one was accompanied by a tissue of blunders and mismanagement. As for the service in the Crimea, it seemed to be thought that nothing could be said too bad of all concerned.

In this systematic species of criticism no allowance is made for the impossibility of anticipating all the contingencies of war. Where circumstances, as in a campaign, may be developed in an infinite variety of ways neither party can possibly be distinctly and exclusively prepared for the precise case that may actually occur, although, after the event, it can be easily defined what those preparations might (and consequently it is inferred, ought to) have been.

After an interval of 12 years it may be hoped that the strong and somewhat partial impressions which gave a false tone to many notices on the occurrences of the day will have passed away, and that the circumstances connected with the Crimean war may admit of more calm discussion, and let us hope that such may now be attempted, notwithstanding certain sharp comments by an eminent writer of the present day in the recent publication of the history of that campaign.

It may be thought that those very animadversions themselves indicate that the time is not yet arrived for calm and unprejudiced discussion; still many such impressions, and, perhaps, prejudices, will be at least softened down or obliterated, and statements may be more interesting now, when emanating from the remaining few who bore a prominent part in the proceedings that have been commented upon than if postponed to a more remote period.

In addition to a desire to vindicate those opinions of my own with which fault has been found, and which I still continue to believe to have been well-founded, I may at once declare my thorough dissent from the justice of the violent censures that have been passed on many of the actors in that service.

The duties were severe and responsible; our means were totally inadequate to our task; and my conviction is that all engaged in it performed their parts in the best manner, that the few blunders which occurred are inevitable in all military operations, and even that many actions that have been severely commented upon were really praiseworthy.

Many circumstances tended to make the attack on the Crimea a service of a peculiarly arduous a character:—

1. The necessity for it arose so suddenly that no time was available for procuring any accurate information as to the state of preparation of the enemy to resist the attack; and this was the more felt from the remote position of the station and the very little ordinary intercourse with it.

2. The peculiar disadvantage which always attends such enterprises when attempted by a landing from a fleet — the want of a stable base of operations, from which to draw supplies, and on which to effect a retreat if necessary; while, on the other hand, all the resources of the country are in possession of the enemy.

3. The climate, and the prevalence of an epidemic cholera in the army at the time.

4. The enormous evil of an army consisting of a combination of forces of different nations, of which no one was in a decided predominance. Although this evil was reduced almost to a minimum by the frank and courteous character of the commanders and most of the influential officers in the several services, still it could not be but sensibly felt. The customs, habits, and modes of proceeding necessarily differed, and gave cause for complaint, irritation, and want of that promptness and decision which are so necessary in the field.

Up to a very recent period we have been ignorant of the exact amount of the Russian force in the Crimea. The history of the defence of Sebastopol, since published by the Russian General Todleben, supplies us with an authentic account of their military resources at the period of the expedition. It shows them to have been even stronger than the information then in the possession of the Allies had led us to expect. According to the Russian account, General Menschikoff possessed at his disposal in the Crimea on the 13th of September 51,500 men, to which were added, after the destruction of the fleet, 18,500 seamen. They had, in addition, within Sebastopol, 2,822 effective pieces of artillery, of which upwards of 200 were mounted on the works, large stores of intrenching tools, and all the resources of a dismantled fleet and a great naval arsenal. It will thus be seen that even in the number of men the Russians were superior in strength to the whole allied force, which barely exceeded 60,000 men at the period of disembarcation, and consisted of a mixed army of French, English, and Turks. The invasion of a country possessing such military means by an army numerically inferior to their enemy, disembarked on an open beach, without transport, stores, or reserves, and in a country destitute of resources, must be admitted to have been a most daring and perilous undertaking.

The Russian account, which is written ostensibly for the purpose of exalting as much as possible the brilliancy of the defence, and in which the author is consequently under a strong temptation to depreciate the strength and resources of the defenders, admits the great difficulties of the undertaking when General Todleben says that the Russians could not believe that the Allies could be so imprudent as “se jeter dans une contrée presque denuée de resources.” I will accept the Russian testimony here given of the difficulties of the enterprise, and hope my countrymen will do the same. Instead of being censured for not overwhelming the enemy at once by the most desperate assaults, the Allies deserve very great credit for so perseveringly prosecuting to a successful end operations of unexampled hardship and difficulty.

In his new volumes, recently published, Mr Kinglake adopts in toto certain views of the campaign which have been put forward by the Russians, but which I hope to be able to show are entirely erroneous.

These opinions were originally advanced by Prince Gortschakoff in a conversation with Sir William Mansfield at Warsaw in 1858, and have been reproduced by General Todleben in his account of the defence of Sebastopol. They are well known to be the views entertained by Prince Gortschakoff, but it is not so generally known that they are, for the most part, put forward to uphold his own opinions on the subject of the campaign, in contradiction to other views upheld by the party of Prince Menschikoff; and this fact should have made Mr Kinglake very cautious in adopting them so absolutely. He should have been all the more cautious upon this occasion, because the reasoning of General Todleben is contradicted on many occasions by the facts adduced by the same writer.

In dealing with the published accounts of military operations by an adversary, the safest rule for an historian is to accept his facts and disregard his reasoning so far as it applies to the measures of an opponent. Mr Kinglake does the contrary — he disregards the facts, and accepts all the reasoning without hesitation.

The first point of difference between myself and the Russian commanders is contained in the statement that the Allies ought to have attacked the north side of Sebastopol in preference to the south; and they add, as an inducement to this enterprise, that the works on that side of the harbour were so weak that they could have been carried by a coup de main.

Whether such works, mounting artillery, and with the whole Russian army behind them, reinforced by 18,500 seamen and the garrison of the place, could have been taken by a coup de main I will leave to the judgment of others. I think it useless to argue the question, because I always maintained that, unless the Allies were strong enough to invest the place on both sides of the harbour, operations against the north side could have led to no useful result. The possession of the north side would not have given us possession of the south, in which lay all the resources of the place; and the attempt of the Russian generals to affirm the contrary is incomprehensible, with the experience before them of the position of affairs after the final assault on the 8th of September 1855. After that date the Allies held peaceable possession of the south side of the harbour, and blew up the docks at their leisure, without serious molestation from the enemy, although the Russian army at the time occupied the north side of the harbour and all its batteries.

I fully believe that if my views on the propriety of making the south the point of attack had not been adopted by the Allied commanders winter would have surprised us on the heights of the Belbec, without a harbour, and with a difficult line of operations to depend [sic]; and that the safety of the whole allied force would have been seriously compromised.

I perceive that Mr Kinglake states that Lord Raglan wished to attack the north side, but quotes no authority for his statement. I can only say that he intimated nothing of the kind to me, and it would have been totally inconsistent with his character to suppose that he would yield so quietly to a proceeding of which he disapproved.

The next point of difference between myself and the Russian generals falls upon the question of an immediate assault upon the south side of Sebastopol when we arrived before it. Upon this subject I have not the advantage of the logic of facts as upon the question of the advisability of selecting the south as the point of attack; but, on the other hand, I have the benefit of occupying a perfectly independent position in discussing the question, not having been consulted as to the course to be pursued. I am in hopes that, not being under the obligation to defend a foregone conclusion, my reasoning will carry some weight in the difficult task before me of combating an idea which has obtained so great a hold on the public mind. I have no hesitation in avowing my thorough conviction that an immediate assault would have been an act of madness, and that the attempt would have resulted in our being beaten off with a very great loss of men.

It may be received as a fixed maxim in war that an army intrenched in a strong position behind works mounting artillery is unassailable by a front attack. If the flanks are secure, as in the case of Sebastopol, and the position cannot be turned, the usual course is to blockade and cannonade the enemy until the combined effect of the fire and shortness of supplies forces him to yield the position.

The circumstances of two armies thus confronting one another has received several illustrations lately, and invariably with the same result. The Confederate lines before Richmond and the present contest at Humaitá between the South American States are examples in point. I am not aware of any instance in which an enemy so situated has succumbed to an attack by open force before his artillery has been silenced. On the other hand there are many instances in which the attacking force has been beaten off even after the artillery of the place has been silenced.

It is true that it has been denied by the Russian writers that an army, properly so called, was in the place when we arrived before it, and a great outcry has been raised against Prince Menschikoff for his imputed desertion of the place and his march upon Sympheropol. In the attempt to decry his proceedings the party of Prince Gortschakoff have spared no efforts to show that the place was at the mercy of the allies. According to my view of the matter Prince Menschikoff did exactly what was right. Having reinforced the garrison with four battalions, which, with the ordinary garrison and the seamen of the fleet, raised the force inside the place to a total of 44 battalions, and rendered it secure from a coup de main, he took up a position which gave him the command of all the resources of the country, and retained his communication with the north and east, by which most of his reinforcements would arrive; while at the same time he held a position which was very threatening to the Allies, and forced them to keep in reserve a large part of their forces to watch his movements and protect their communications.

Upon the subject of the number of men inside the place it is remarkable that General Todleben nowhere precisely mentions the aggregate force which the Russians possessed; but the 44 battalions must have represented a very large body of men. In fact, in one part of his book he describes a battalion as consisting of 970 men. His description of “16,500 combattants outre les troupes de marine placées sur la ligne de défense du côte sud, et les artilleurs des batteries de côte” conveys little information, and omits 3,500 troops on the north side of the harbour, which were manifestly available at this time to resist an assault against the south. Upon the whole I believe my original estimate of 25,000 men is by no means exaggerated. The deserters from the Russian army estimated their force inside the place as much higher, and although the statements of deserters are not to be depended on, they represented the impression within the place among their own men.

I remember well that during one of our earliest reconnaissances, the Russians made an ostentatious display of a very large force within view of our glasses, and there were certainly more than 20,000 men on the ground upon that occasion. Nobody who reads General Todleben’s account of the state of the place at this period but must remark that a manifestly forced attempt is made to reduce the value of the description of their means in this respect. Russian Generals do not seem to be easily satisfied with the amount of force at their disposal. For my own part, I should have been very glad to have defended Sebastopol at this period with 20,000 men.

The works on the south side, according to General Todleben, mounted, at the period of the arrival of the Allies, 174 pieces of artillery, varying in calibre from 30 to 12 pounders. Stress is laid upon many of these guns being of small size; but against an open assault the smaller class of guns is more efficient than the larger, from the rapidity of the service of the piece; and the Allies possessed no guns as large as the smallest of the Russian pieces. In addition to these means of defence, men of war were moored with their broadsides bearing upon the approaches to the place. The effect of these preparations was such that Colonel Elphinstone, in his account of the siege, shows that the ground in front of the Karabelnaia suburb, over which the British must have advanced to the assault, was swept by the fire of upwards of 100 pieces of artillery. After deducting the necessary guard for Balaklava and our communications, and the requisite reserves, the assaulting columns could barely have exceeded in strength the troops which the Russians could have opposed to us, and I ask any military man of experience what would have been the result of an assault under such circumstances?

I fully admit that great liberties may be taken with a beaten enemy, but that consideration will not justify enterprises of such extreme rashness as an assault upon Sebastopol at this period would have been, and the attempt to affirm the contrary comes with a peculiarly bad grace from a Russian General who was foiled in a similar enterprise of far less difficulty at Silistria. We have a right to demand why operations which were found to be so difficult for the Russians are now discovered to be so easy of accomplishment for their adversaries.

Being as jealous on the subject of the military reputation of Lord Raglan as Mr Kinglake can be, and feeling certain in my own mind that he had never proposed to assault the place at this period, I have written to Marshal Canrobert to obtain from him a confirmation of my opinion, and I append his reply:—

“Paris, le 18 Juillet 1868

Mon cher Maréchal, — Après vous avoir remercié pour le bon souvenir que vous voulez bien me garder, et que je suis heureux de vous rendre, j’ai l’honneur de répondre à votre question.

Non, Lord Raglan n’a jamais proposé au Général Canrobert de donner l’assault à Sévastopol immédiatement après l’arrivée des alliés devant cette place, et par consèquent, le Général Sir John Burgoyne n’a pas eu, à appuyer de son avis, un refus que je n’ai pas été appelé à faire.

Je saisis avec plaisir cette occasion, mon cher Maréchal, pour vous addresser avec mes sentiments de haute considération l’expression de mon affectueux dévouement.


A S E Le Maréchal Sir John Burgoyne, à Londres”

Lord Raglan possessed many of the qualities of a great General. The firmness with which he suppressed the murmurs against the expedition at Varna, his coolness and presence of mind under fire, the equanimity with which he bore reverses, the bold front which he presented during the winter of 1864 [sic], by which he probably saved the remnant of the British army; the magnanimity with which he bore calumny, when an attempt to defend himself might have jeopardized the French alliance, — these are all qualities of a great man, and when added to the military skill which a long experience in a good school of army must have engendered would have obtained for him, under happier auspices, the reputation of a great commander. But Mr Kinglake may rest assured that the effort to make Lord Raglan’s military views chime in with those popular fallacies respecting the war which were rife during its prosecution will not increase Lord Raglan’s fame in future years; while the attempt to do so must necessarily lead to the infliction of injustice upon other persons.

Much of the soreness of feeling which the English people felt during the Crimean war arose from the failure of our assaults upon the Russian works; but in a joint expedition we must be prepared to accept the fortune of war, which will sometimes favour the part taken by our allies and sometimes our own. It was not until the result of the battle of Inkermann had given us possession of all the ground south of the great harbour that an attack against the Malakoff front became possible. This battle was a heavy blow and discouragement to the Russians, and the circumstances connected with it have been much misunderstood in this country. It was a great and decisive victory, and in its consequence even more important to us than the battle of the Alma. It cleared our way to an attack against the Malakoff Tower, which was decidedly the proper point of attack, where success was both more easy of accomplishment and more decisive when accomplished. It was these considerations which led me, in the memoranda of the 25th of November and the 20th of December 1854, published in the official account of the siege, to recommend to Lord Raglan that the French should relieve us of the charge of our left attack, so as to enable us to take ground further to the right, and prosecute the attack against the Malakoff front. Lord Raglan pressed these views strongly upon the French commander, but without effect, until after the visit of General Niel to the country. It was then decided that the main impression should be made by the Malakoff Tower; but as soon as that point was decided our Allies, who now possessed a large preponderance of force, preferred to take the attack against the Malakoff into their own hands, instead of relieving us of our left attack; and no one, under the circumstances, has a right to blame them. The English must console themselves with the reflection that if the fortune of war was unfavourable to them on this occasion it was not always so. The battles of the Alma and Inkermann have raised the reputation of British infantry higher than ever, and our cavalry at Balaklava extorted the admiration of the world.

So far from the Russians proving themselves to be our masters in the art of war, as attempted to be shown by contemporary writers, the reverse was the case. During the greater part of the period over which the operations extended the Russians were superior to us in absolute force, and the extraordinary spectacle was witnessed of the besieged being actually stronger than the besiegers. Our enemy beat us in numbers, but in nothing else. They produced no novelties in the art of war; all the science and modern appliances of warfare which date from the Crimea were introduced by the Allies.

I feel confident that when the mists of prejudice have passed away men will see the events of the Crimean campaign in a different light, and that the verdict of posterity will be more favourable to us than that of our contemporaries. The English people have no reason to be ashamed of the part played by their countrymen in the Crimea.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant

London, Aug. 4

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