Long months spent in the trenches during the siege of Sevastopol convinced a French lieutenant of war’s futility.
Charles Duban was born in Dijon, France, in January 1827. His father was a Napoleonic war veteran who had left the army an invalid after participating in the 1812 campaign in Russia. The young Duban grew up surrounded by tales of military adventure. His mother died when he was six, and his father remarried.
Duban disapproved of his stepmother and left home as soon as he could, running off to Paris when he was fourteen. He entered the 11th Light Infantry Regiment, then garrisoned in Paris, having been dissuaded from trying to get into the hussars. Duban worked his way up through the ranks. He survived the troubles of 1848 and the brutality of the war in Algeria, and by late 1854 was a second lieutenant in the 11th Light, heading for the Crimea.
In 1853 Great Britain and France had come to the rescue of Turkey, struggling to maintain itself in the face of Russian expansion. An allied expedition, later joined by the Sardinians, landed in the Crimea and soon found itself bogged down in the wearisome siege of Sevastopol. The Russian fleet, wooden and powered by sail, could not venture from port against the more modern steam-powered ships of France and Britain. For both sides, this heavily defended port became the key to the whole campaign. Victory or defeat would be won or lost before the defenses of Sevastopol, the siege of which began in October 1854.
The British and French inched their trench lines ever closer to the Russians, the British seeking to take the Great Redan, the French the Malakoff fort. Duban’s memoirs, Souvenirs militaires d’un officier française, 1848-1887, were published in 1896. His memories of Sevastopol have not been translated into English until now.
I admit that my first night in the trenches was an experience that filled me with all kinds of emotions. I had to grow accustomed to the incessant arrival of shot and enormous shells that would explode above us or would hit the parapet of our trenches and produce a colossal detonation. Our siege batteries, placed close behind us, also took some getting used to, especially as some bronze pieces were demanding on the ears.
Those assigned to guard the trenches were there to protect those digging parallels toward the besieged port. A bugle call would alert us to an enemy sortie and it was down to the trench guards to meet the enemy and throw them back to their lines. In just one night, there were enough of these alarms to exhaust us and to seriously retard the progress of our works.
I never slept at night but spent it on watch with my soldiers. One sunny morning I was stretched out on the reverse side of our trench when two of my friends arrived. Mathis, from our regiment, shook me and said, “Stop sunbathing. This is Laussu, from the 16th. Come and show him our trenches.”
I got up and, no sooner had I done so than two soldiers came to take my place. Just then a roundshot from a distant Russian battery smashed into one soldier’s thigh whilst the other had his face disfigured by flying gravel. They were taken to hospital but I don’t know what became of them.
The regiment spent March, April, and May guarding the trenches. The Russians rarely mounted any sorties against us, preferring instead to attack the flanks of the army.
It was frequently said that we committed a signal error in starting the siege too far from the port. This mistake cost us dear and allowed the Russians to fortify and make ready their defenses. We made little progress at first in the face of the tremendous enemy batteries and in some places rock made it very difficult to push the parallels forward without the use of explosives or gabions [cylinders of wicker or other material, often closed at one end, that could be filled with rocks or earth, for building defenses].
Those guarding the trenches were relieved every morning, filing out as the fresh troops arrived. Once, as usual, I was marching behind my lieutenant whilst a corporal was hard on my heels. A bullet hit him between the shoulders and lodged itself in his rolled greatcoat. He collapsed on top of me. A second earlier and I would have been hit. It was a dangerous place and was always marked by a large amount of blood on the ground.
I haven’t mentioned our Turkish allies yet. I rarely saw them in the trenches. Some regiments were employed around Balaklava. I haven’t anything good to say about this pitiful army. Three battalions were camped near the Inkerman mill but these were sent elsewhere and my regiment replaced them. It is impossible for me to describe the filth they left behind them, filth of all kinds but particularly vermin.
In early June, it became apparent that we would have to assault the Mamelon Vert, which was causing us much harm and delaying our siege works. [The Russians had captured the hill near the Malakoff fort on February 22.] The attack would be simultaneous to an attack on the Little Redan and the Redan. This latter was assigned to the English on our left beyond the Karabelnaya Ravine. A ravine separated us from another division, on our right, which was ordered to take the Little Redan.
General [François] Canrobert made the necessary dispositions and the attack was scheduled for June 8. Watches were synchronized and we were sternly warned not to go beyond the Mamelon.
We marched on, led by Colonel Hardy, a distinguished and popular officer. We reached our positions and made ready to begin the assault.
Rockets giving off colored smoke gave the signal and the attackers began to run toward those defending the Mamelon. We flung ourselves on the artillerymen serving their batteries and for a while, the fighting was hand to hand, with muskets, bayonets, sabers, or anything else that came to hand. Soon, mounds of bodies had formed, rolling, shuddering in their final convulsions.
The fighting was bloody but nevertheless the position fell to our characteristic French fury. A large number of Russians was killed or wounded but very few were taken prisoner. A few made off, seeking cover below the Malakoff’s guns. Some of our officers and men pursued them, contrary to orders, and fell into the ditches around the Malakoff or below the walls of Sevastopol.
It was a tremendous feat of arms that did us much honor, but which gave the Russians the satisfaction of making us pay a very high price for the success. Our regiment lost Colonel Hardy, mortally wounded in the stomach, and more than seven hundred of us remained on the field.
I will never forget the feelings I experienced when, as night began to fall, we were ordered off to the right to occupy the abandoned enemy trenches. We formed up in columns by battalion, and with fixed bayonets, and we marched off in excellent order, just as though we were on the parade ground. All the while, we were under the shell and grapeshot of a formidable Russian battery. Fortunately, we suffered few casualties as the shot passed over our heads.
We spent most of the night adapting the Russian trenches and this was just as well as the following day, at dawn, the Malakoff batteries and those in the two redans opened up on us. There were casualties. A young second lieutenant, fresh out of school, was brave enough to show himself above the parapet and a piece of grapeshot blew off the top of his head.
There was a brief truce so that the dead could be collected and the untended wounded brought in. I was present during a number of such lulls and I have to say that the Russians never recommenced hostilities first. It was always the English or the French.
We got a new colonel, a man called David, and he was with us for a dozen days before having his head blown off in the trenches. He was replaced by Berthier, a man of much merit and legendary chivalry.
It was around that time that Canrobert was replaced by General [Aimable] Pélissier. He wanted things over with and made his dispositions accordingly. On the evening of the 17th, we were informed that an assault would be mounted on the Malakoff the following day. Everyone had to be in position by 11:30 that morning. We were in the center.
At the given signal, we threw ourselves forward but instead of surprising our opponents, we were amazed to find that the defenders had been quadrupled at their posts and they met us in good order. Our poor troops were mown down like wheat before a scythe.
The shout went up that we had been betrayed and that we had to fall back to our trenches. However, this wasn’t easy as there was considerable disorder. We were suffering heavily from a hail of shot and shell and soon broke for cover, without waiting for orders.
A colonel, whose name escapes me, took over command as the general had just been killed. He requested an orderly from our regiment and I was sent. He gave me orders for the commander of a battalion positioned before the Malakoff, demanding that he pull his men back. I took my courage in both hands and ran forward, dodging bullets and grapeshot.
I reached the battalion but nobody knew where his commanding officer was. I was now very close to the Malakoff and noted that if the defenders of that place had wanted to annihilate us, they really could have. Only their ships continued to sweep the ground with grapeshot. That was the ground [I] had to cross.
It was pockmarked with what must have been quarries and I came across Captain Saint Hilaire in a hollow. I urged him to follow me back to our trenches using the following technique. I had to throw myself to the ground every fifteen or twenty meters to avoid incoming grapeshot, and then to spring up and weave my way back to our lines. I finally made it back, hot under the collar, as did Saint Hilaire, but a poor devil of an infantryman following us collapsed into our trenches with two bullets in his head.
Rumor went round that a deserter from the Foreign Legion had informed the Russian staff of our plans. A truce followed two days later. The Russians sent out NCOs in full dress, clothed in new uniforms, whilst their officers also wore new uniforms, their linen was white, and their gloves were clean.
There we were in the same miserable jackets we had started the siege with, along with our black greatcoats. Many of the Russian officers wanted to shake hands, which went someway to proving that the natural sympathy between our two peoples was reciprocated. The truce continued beyond the agreed time. As usual, it was the English who recommenced hostilities by firing the first shot.
That same evening the siege operations were renewed with additional intensity, given that General Pélissier was furious that his first act as commander in chief had met with a setback. New trenches were begun and stronger batteries were established nearer to the enemy lines.
I wasn’t actually present at the battle of Inkerman, but I do know that the Russians attempted to surprise the English positioned near to the mill of the same name. At dawn one morning, Russian columns debouched onto the road that climbs up toward the English position.
The English, as usual, were taken by surprise. They have little idea about how to guard themselves, and were attacked energetically. They rushed to arms and called for help. General [Charles] Bourbaki, camped close by, ran forward and, with their legendary ferocity, tore into the Russians with the bayonet. As the Russians had neither the space nor the time to deploy, they were pushed back in terrible confusion. You can imagine what butchery there was.
Meanwhile, as our parallels pushed closer toward the enemy, the fire and accuracy of their batteries increased. The Russians also placed their most effective sharpshooters on the parapet and anyone showing himself was almost certain to receive a bullet. Many paid for their curiosity.
In July I was nominated second lieutenant in the voltigeurs [French light infantry]. Carabiniers, grenadiers in the line infantry, were chosen for their height, whilst voltigeurs were selected for good conduct and this made them superior. It was a real distinction, almost a favor, to belong to the voltigeurs.
At that time, we were spending thirty out of every forty-eight hours in the trenches and had some four hundred artillery pieces pointing at us. You can imagine how many heads, arms, legs, and bodies we saw carried off. Moreover, although it is sad to say, we grew accustomed to all that. We became indifferent to terrible scenes.
There wasn’t much leisure although an industrialist called Pugnaire did set up a café in Vorontsoff so that the officers had somewhere they could meet. It was promptly invaded by the English, who tried to socialize with us but whom we kept at arm’s length.
Almost all these English officers had some fortune and they liked to spend, especially on champagne. This was sold to them at six francs a bottle but it had little in common, I can tell you, with the drink produced by Veuve Clicquot. It was little more than fermented lemonade and certainly didn’t come from the area around Reims.
August 15 was a national holiday. The issuing of some meat and a quart of wine to each man improved rations. The Russians knew what was going on and said to themselves that on the following day, we’d probably be tired, sleepy, and little inclined to fight. They thought to attack us the very next day.
And so it was that on the 16th, before dawn, we heard the rumbling noise of artillery limbers and caissons. We warned headquarters. Below the plateau, close by the Chernaya [River, near Inkerman Mill], we had constructed a small earthwork. Half a company occupied it. That night my friend Captain Joliot of the 16th had been posted there. As the enemy approached, he quickly made his dispositions to defend the place and raised the alarm.
Instead of surprising us, it was the enemy who was taken aback. Joliot with his forty or fifty men put up such a good fight that the heads of the enemy columns were brought to a standstill. Meanwhile, our troops were hurrying forward and began to open up on the Russian columns from the plateau. Their artillery shot barely reached us.
My regiment was actually placed in reserve but we did assist in pushing back the Russians and they fell back to the protection of their batteries. We fired a number of Congreve rockets at them and these projectiles burst over the massed Russian battalions and caused them considerable losses. The Russians fell back but left many dead on the field. Joliot was taken prisoner along with four of his men, all who had survived the assault.
In the second half of August, the siege works were pushed forward energetically. On our left the English were making their way toward the Redan, whilst on the right the Sardinians, with their cavalry, watched the plains and the country around Baydar, thus securing our communications to the coast. Our trenches were so close to the enemy that we could hear each other talking, indeed quite often we would converse with our adversaries in French.
As September began, life in the trenches grew increasingly dangerous. Both sides lost heavily. The Russians were using little mortars to send little bombs rolling into our trenches. Quite often you wouldn’t hear them coming in and they would burst unexpectedly and consequently cause considerable casualties. The enemy also threw grenades at us but these were not as effective. Our artillery had, however, also been brought forward and boomed over our heads.
Everything [led] us to believe we were reaching a climactic conclusion to the siege. Finally, on the evening of the 7th, a few of us were discreetly warned that it would all be happening on the next day. All the generals, and those commanding corps, had been called to headquarters and it was there that they received their instructions. I am not sure how many slept well that night.
Morning broke and detailed orders went out in good time. We had to make ready so as to be able to take up our positions at 11:30 in the morning. All watches were synchronized. All artillery pieces were loaded and were ordered to maintain a constant bombardment from 11:45 until 12. Then, at noon, all fell silent and we prepared to storm forward. Troops in the center, including the 11th Light, had Malakoff and the curtain wall connecting that position to the Little Redan as their objective. The right wing was tasked with taking the Little Redan itself and the English were ordered to seize the Redan.
All three positions had been readied in a most remarkable way: There were deep ditches and the parapets were brimming with very powerful artillery. The curtain wall, an objective marked out for my regiment, was curved and had a number of wolfpits (holes five feet deep, decorated with spikes) before it. There was also a battery of twelve heavy artillery pieces placed there to sweep everything before it. This was the position we of the 11th would have to seize.
Some fifteen minutes before noon the bombardment began and for the next quarter of an hour, which to us seemed like an eternity, we found ourselves placed [under] either side’s artillery. It rained shot and shell. A number of men were hit but it was the infernal, deafening noise that was most remarkable. It was like being on a battleship just as it fired its broadside. A lieutenant who had not had the time to have breakfast offered to share a bottle of wine with us. There were seven of us. Twenty minutes later just two emerged alive.
At the signal, a three-colored flare, the bombardment ceased as if by magic. Everyone had carefully prepared a way up and out of the trenches and so it was that, in less time than it takes to tell it, we were over the parapet and running toward the enemy. We had around two hundred meters to cover, up a gentle incline, but as soon as we drew near, the enemy battery fired off its first salvo. Fortunately, most of it passed over our heads although the Imperial Guard, positioned in reserve, got hit quite badly.
The artillerymen did not have an opportunity to reload and we were in amongst them and soon involved in a ferocious mêlée. We fought with whatever came to hand; the artillerymen came at us with their handspikes and rammers and, as we had no time to load, we fought back with bayonets or musket butts. Close by our drum major was swinging his ceremonial mace at the Russians but he was soon brought down by an artilleryman hiding behind a gabion. I shot the assassin with a musketoon leant to me by one of our buglers.
But what torrents of blood there were, what butchery. Good God, how long it takes to make a soldier and how quickly they are killed. Reinforcements arrived and we were left in possession of the wall. It was the same to our left where the Malakoff, that formidable fortress, lay in our hands. Unfortunately, on the right, the column had not been able to properly prepare in time for the assault and [their] attack failed.
It was the same with the English. They had moved forward in such excellent order, just as though they were on a parade ground. However, they were decimated and blown apart without reaching their objective.
Malakoff was the key to the position, and we lost no time in turning the captured [artillery] pieces around and in adapting the defenses to meet a possible counterattack. The Russians tried to mount such a move once but one with no success. The handful of men still standing in our regiment was soon called away to reinforce the Malakoff position. There were five officers and, I believe, some sixty men. All the others were casualties. A ball had smashed the arm of our colonel, Berthier.
We were by now exhausted and dying of thirst. I was chatting to one of my comrades on top of an old Russian powder magazine when some of our enemies on the far side of the Chernaya fired some bombs at us. They were so well aimed that one of them dropped in right amongst us and exploded at the entrance to the magazine.
I don’t know what happened next but I was thrown up into the air and came down covered in mud and blood and with a head wound. I was covered in debris, and I don’t know how I survived. But they pulled me out. I was most concerned about my head wound, but, it is true—such wounds either kill at once or are not that serious. And so it was with me; ten days later, I was up and about again.
Duban emerged from the hospital to find a truce in place. He learned that his regiment had been marched into Sevastopol to act as a garrison. Although the attack in which he had participated failed, an attack on September 8 succeeded. After losing the Malakoff, the Russians were forced to abandon the city, and hostilities on the peninsula quickly ended. Peace was a long time coming, however, and it wasn’t until March 1856 that the dispirited and frustrated troops began to embark for home.
It had been a salutary lesson in modern warfare but one gained at tremendous cost, twenty-three thousand casualties on the last day alone. Duban was not the only one asking himself whether all the blood shed on such a poorly planned expedition had been worth it.
Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.