Just as the allies encamped on the heights above Sebastopol had heard, with a mixture of amusement and indignation, that the whole west of Europe had been deceived with a rumour of their final success, they fired their first gun against the devoted city. Long as the interval had been, or long as it seemed to those at a distance, it nevertheless clearly had not sufficed for adequate preparation. Possibly the attack was hastened at last by the evident fact that the works for the defence kept pace with those of the besiegers. The besieged had their men and materials on the spot, and, with the immense number of heavy pieces released from their ships, were daily adding to the batteries newly constructed in the rear of the city and forts. On the night of the 16th the allies determined to open fire the following morning, and the state of affairs was so thoroughly understood on both sides that the Russians anticipated the attack by a full half-hour. The allies maintained their long silence till half-past 6 on the morning of the 17th, and then began in dreadful rivalry. As yet we have no precise information as to the difference of the conditions under which the British and the French had to construct and work their batteries. According to some previous accounts our allies had not only the advantage of position, but had also a better ground to work on, as an ample supply of clay was discovered as soon as the stony surface was removed, whereas our own engineers found no material on the spot beyond the mere scrapings of the rock. It is possible that the French engineers relied too much on their African experience against tribes without artillery. It is beyond a doubt, however, that they had not sufficiently calculated for the effect of the cross-fire from the Quarantine Battery. In about an hour and a half they were compelled to slacken their fire. The successive explosion of their magazines added to the difficulties of their position, and it is evident that throughout the greater part of the first two days the chief part of the work on the land side was done by British hands. The chief objects we had to deal with were a round tower on our right, and the “Redan”, a detached fort newly strengthened by earthworks, to the east of the town and inner harbour. Here our batteries successively silenced the round tower, blew up a large magazine in the Redan, and silenced the fire from that fortification and the earthworks about it. This was not done without our own works being much knocked about, but that did not involve as much loss to our men as might have been expected.
To the peculiar difficulties of the position taken by our allies we are chiefly indebted for the most remarkable incident of the siege, and one which presents itself in the light of a grand discovery. As the French would be enfiladed by the guns on the Quarantine Battery, early in the morning their fleet was moved round to engage the attention of that fort in the front. It succeeded very soon in doing great damage to the battery, the fire of which was completely silenced in the course of the day. Early in the afternoon the British and French fleets boldly advanced to the mouth of the harbour, and fired broadside after broadside at short range into the forts, that have acquired almost fabulous renown during the progress of this war. The principal of them are built in three tiers, and altogether they contain many hundred guns. In the question of wood against granite, it has hitherto been alleged, and almost assumed, that no ship could come within the range of these forts without certain destruction. It now appears that in a very short time Fort Constantine was almost entirely disabled and some of the other forts received very great damage, without more injury to the ships than has often occurred in a naval action at much greater distance. The total loss to the fleet was only 16 killed and 200 wounded in the French ships, and 46 killed and 250 wounded in the English. More would have been done, and probably more damage suffered on both sides, but for the dense mass of smoke, which seems to have encircled the whole scene of action nearly all the day. Whether this smoke was more in favour of the ships or of the forts we are unable to say, but the fact remains the same, that it is proved possible to attack as strong a fort as ever was made by the hands of man at very short range, not only without certain destruction, but with considerable success.
By an extraordinary series of mischances we are left without any details of the siege after the 18th. The messengers employed have proved as little trustworthy as the steamer, and at this moment nobody can say where any of the Government despatches sent from the Crimea after the 19th are to be found, or whether they exist anywhere at all. Letters have been equally unfortunate. All that we can give to our readers on the second day of the siege is a very brief summary — sufficient, however, to show the formidable nature of the undertaking. It is evident the Russians repair their works as fast as the besiegers theirs — indeed, so far as the earthworks are concerned, there is no reason why they should not, so long as the men and the materials are to be found. Stonework cannot be so speedily repaired. But at the close of the second day we are told that the forts damaged and silenced by our fire the day before were firing as warmly as ever, while on our side there was a continued difficulty in getting up the ammunition for our guns. It is encouraging to observe that the loss at our batteries was very trifling even up to the close of the second day, though we had been able to inflict so much damage on various points of the enemy’s fortifications. The attempt at a diversion on the morning of the second day helps to explain the similar operation of the enemy on the 25th, with a much greater force and rather more success. Our allies were still employed in repairing damage, and doubtless correcting the mistakes of their position. But from the evening of the 18th to the 27th we are absolutely without particulars of the siege, and cannot even say whether, as intended, the fleet has returned to the attack. We only know that the siege was continued with the same ardour as on the first day. Let our readers just imagine the incessant firing of 250 guns, the whole within a distance of little more than a mile, every shot deliberately aimed where it could destroy or kill most, and of a greater weight than the shot employed in any former siege operations. This is no exaggeration, for, according to the maps, all the batteries, whether of the besiegers or of the besieged, lay within a space not larger than Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Even that scene, however, fell short of the combined attack by sea and by land in the afternoon, when some of the finest vessels with the heaviest metal in our navy were engaged in close encounter with the strongest land batteries in the world. It is impossible not to do justice to the courage, perseverance, and skill of our antagonists, who so far have exhausted no means of defence, and seem to rise again fresh out of every disaster. This was to be expected, for nobody doubts the courage of the Russian soldier, or the loyalty of his officers. We only trust, for the sake of humanity, that these qualities will not be carried to the extent of a wanton recklessness of life, when they can no longer avail for the defence of the city.