Crimean Fiasco: Battle of the Alma | HistoryNet MENU

Crimean Fiasco: Battle of the Alma

By Orlando Figes
10/31/2017 • Military History Magazine

Incompetence, stupidity and arrogance trumped bravery and technological innovation in the first truly modern war.

Two world wars have obscured the huge scale and enormous human cost of the Crimean War. Today it is almost forgotten. Even in the countries that took part in it (Russia, Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, including those territories that would later make up Romania and Bulgaria) there are not many people today who could say what the Crimean War was about. But before World War I the Crimea was the major conflict of the 19th century.

The losses were immense—at least three-quarters of a million soldiers killed in battle or lost through illness and disease, twothirds of them Russian. The French lost around 100,000 men, the British about 20,000, because they sent far fewer troops (98,000 British soldiers and sailors were involved in the Crimea compared to 310,000 French). Nobody has counted the civilian casualties: people starved to death in besieged towns; populations devastated by disease; entire communities wiped out in campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Crimea. This was the first “total war,” a 19th century version of the wars of our own age.

It was also the earliest truly modern war—fought with new industrial technologies; novel forms of logistics and communication; important innovations in military medicine; and reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet at the same time it was the last war to be conducted by the old codes of chivalry. The early battles in the Crimea, on the River Alma and at Balaklava, were not very different from the fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Yet the siege of Sevastopol, the longest and most crucial phase of the Crimean War, was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare of 1914–18.

The war began in 1853 between Ottoman and Russian forces in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia—today’s Romania— and spread to the Caucasus, where the Turks and the British encouraged and supported the struggle of the Muslim tribes against Russia, and from there to other areas of the Black Sea. By 1854, with the intervention of the British and the French on Turkey’s side and the Austrians threatening to join this anti-Russian alliance, the tsar withdrew his forces from the principalities, and the fighting shifted to the Crimea.

The soldiers on the ships [of the allied fleet invading Crimea} had no clear idea where they were going. At Varna they had been kept in the dark about the war plans, and all sorts of rumors had circulated among the men. Without maps or any direct knowledge of the Russian southern coast, the enterprise assumed the character of an adventure from the voyages of discovery. Few had any idea of what they were fighting for—other than to “beat the Russians” and “do God’s will,” to quote two French soldiers in their letters home.

When the expedition left for the Crimea, its leaders were uncertain where it was to land. On September 8, [British commander General Lord] Raglan, on the steamer Caradoc, conferred with [commander Marshal of France Jacques Leroy de] Saint-Arnaud, on Ville de France. Saint-Arnaud finally agreed to Raglan’s choice of a landing site, at Kalamita Bay, a long, sandy beach 28 miles north of Sevastopol.

The French were the first to disembark, their advance parties scrambling ashore and erecting colored tents at measured distances along the beach to designate the separate landing points for the infantry divisions of [General François] Canrobert, General Pierre Bosquet and Prince Napoléon, the emperor’s cousin. By nightfall they had all disembarked with their artillery.

The British landing was a shambles compared to the French—a contrast that would become all too familiar during the Crimean War. No plans had been made for a peaceful landing unopposed (it was assumed they would have to fight their way onto the beach), so the infantry was landed first, when the sea was calm; by the time the British tried to get their cavalry ashore, the wind was up, and the horses struggled in the heavy surf. Saint-Arnaud watched the scene with mounting frustration, as his plans for a surprise attack on Sevastopol were undermined by the delay. “The English have the unpleasant habit of always being late,” he wrote to the emperor.

It took five days for the British troops and cavalry to disembark. Many of the men were sick with cholera and had to be carried off the boats. There were no facilities for moving baggage and equipment overland, so parties had to be sent out to collect carts and wagons from the local Tatar farms. There was no food or water for the men, except the three days’ rations they had been given at Varna, and no tents or kitbags were offloaded from the ships, so the soldiers spent their first nights without shelter, unprotected from the heavy rain or the blistering heat of the next days.

At last, on September 19, the British were prepared, and at daybreak the advance on Sevastopol began. The French marched on the right, nearest the sea, their blue uniforms contrasting with the scarlet tunics of the British, while the fleet moved south alongside them as they advanced. Four miles wide and just over three miles long, the advancing column was “all bustle and activity,” wrote Frederick Oliver, bandmaster of the 20th Regiment, in his diary. Apart from the compact lines of soldiers, there was an enormous train of “cavalry, guns, ammunition, horses, bullocks, packhorses, mules, herds of dromedaries, a drove of oxen and a tremendous drove of sheep, goats and bullocks, all of which had been taken from the surrounding countryside by the foraging parties.” By midday, with the sun beating down, the column began to break up, as thirsty soldiers fell behind or left to search for water in the nearby Tatar settlements. When they reached the River Bulganak, seven miles from Kalamita Bay, in the middle of the afternoon, discipline broke down altogether, as the British soldiers threw themselves into the “muddy stream.”

Ahead of them, on the slopes rising south from the river, the British got their first sight of the Russians—2,000 Cossack cavalry, who opened fire on a scouting party from the 13th Light Dragoons. The rest of the Light Brigade, the pride of the British cavalry, prepared to charge the Cossacks, who outnumbered them 2-to-1, but Raglan saw that behind the Russian horsemen there was a sizeable infantry force that could not be seen by his cavalry commanders, Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan, who were farther down the hill. Raglan ordered a retreat, and the Light Brigade withdrew, while the Cossacks jeered and shot at them, wounding several cavalrymen. The British bivouacked on the southern slopes of the Bulganak, from which they could make out the Russian troops amassed on the Alma Heights, three miles away. The next morning they would march down the valley and engage the Russians, whose defenses were on the other side of the Alma.

[Russian commander Prince Aleksandr] Menshikov had decided to commit the majority of his land forces to the defense of the Alma Heights, the last natural barrier on the enemy’s approach to Sevastopol, which his troops had occupied since September 15, but his fears of a second allied landing at Kerch or Theodosia (fears the tsar shared) led him to keep back a large reserve. Thus there were 35,000 Russian soldiers on the Alma Heights—less than the 60,000 Western troops but with the crucial advantage of the hills—and more than 100 guns. The heaviest guns were deployed on a series of redoubts above the road to Sevastopol that crossed the river less than three miles inland, but there were none on the cliffs facing the sea, which Menshikov assumed were too steep for the enemy to climb. Many officers were sure of victory. Menshikov was so confident he invited parties of Sevastopol ladies to watch the battle with him from the Alma Heights.

The Russian troops themselves were not so confident. Few if any of these men had ever engaged in a battle with the army of a major European power. The sight of the mighty allied fleet anchored just offshore and ready to support the enemy’s land forces with its heavy guns made it clear to them they were going to fight an army stronger than their own.

By midmorning the allied armies were assembling on the plain, the British on the left of the Sevastopol Road, the French and Turks on the right, stretching out toward the coastal cliffs. It was a clear and sunny day, and the air was still. From Telegraph Hill, where Menshikov’s well-dressed spectators had arrived in carriages to watch the scene, the details of the French and British uniforms could be clearly seen; the sound of their drums, their bugles and bagpipes, even the clinking of metal and the neighing of the horses could be heard.

The Russians opened fire when the allies came within 2,000 yards—a spot marked with poles to let their gunners know the advancing troops were within range—but the British and the French continued marching forward toward the river. According to the plan the allies had agreed to the day before, the two armies were to advance simultaneously on a broad front and try to turn the enemy’s flank on the left—the inland side. But at the final moment Raglan decided to delay the British advance until the French had broken through on the right; he made his troops lie on the ground, within range of the Russian guns, in a position from which they could scramble to the river when the time was right. There they lay for an hour and a half, from 1:15 to 2:45 p.m., losing men as the Russian gunners found their range. It was an astonishing example of Raglan’s indecisiveness.

While the British were lying on the ground, Bosquet’s division arrived at the river near the sea, where the cliffs rose so steeply to the heights, almost 170 feet above the river, that Menshikov had thought it was unnecessary to defend the position with artillery. At the head of Bosquet’s division was a regiment of Zouaves, most of them North Africans, who had experience of mountain fighting in Algeria. Leaving their kitbags on the riverbank, they swam across the river and quickly climbed the cliffs under heavy cover of the trees. Once they had reached the plateau, the Zouaves hid behind rocks and bushes to pick off the defending forces of the Moscow Regiment one by one. Inspired by the Zouaves, more French soldiers climbed the cliffs. They hauled 12 guns up a ravine, arriving just in time to engage the extra soldiers and artillery Menshikov had transferred from the center in a desperate attempt to stop his left flank being turned.

The Russian position was more or less hopeless. By the time their artillery arrived, the whole of Bosquet’s division and many of the Turks had reached the plateau. The Russians had more guns —28 to the French 12—but the French guns were of larger caliber and longer range, and Bosquet’s riflemen kept the Russian gunners at a distance where only the heavier French guns could take effect.

Meanwhile, the guns of the allied fleet were pounding the Russian positions on the cliffs, undermining the morale of many of their troops and officers. When the first Russian battery of artillery arrived, it found the remnants of the Moscow Regiment already in retreat under heavy fire from the Zouaves, whose Minié rifles had a longer range and greater accuracy than the outdated muskets of the Russian infantry. The commanding officer on the left flank, Lt. Gen. V.I. Kiriakov, was one of the most incompetent in the tsarist army and was rarely sober. Holding a bottle of champagne in his hand, Kiriakov ordered the Minsk Regiment to shoot at the French but misdirected them toward the Kiev Hussars, who fell back under the fire. Lacking confidence in their drunken commander, and unnerved by the lethal accuracy of the French rifles, the Minsk Regiment also began to retreat.

In the center of the battlefield, the two other French divisions, led by Canrobert and Prince Napoleon, were unable to cross the Alma in the face of heavy Russian fire from Telegraph Hill. Prince Napoléon sent word to General [Sir George] De Lacy Evans, on his left, calling on the British to advance and take some pressure off the French. Raglan was still waiting for the French attack to succeed before committing British troops and at first told Evans not to take orders from the French, but under pressure from Evans, he finally gave way. At 2:45 p.m. he ordered the infantry of the Light, 1st and 2nd Divisions to advance—though what else they should do he did not say. The order was typical of Raglan’s thinking, which remained rooted in the bygone age of Napoleonic battles, when the infantry was used for primitive direct attacks on prepared positions.

The British advanced in thin lines to maximize their rifle power, although in this formation it was hard to keep the men together over rough terrain without effective commanders of the line. Under heavy fire, the British reached the river, collecting in groups at the water’s edge to unload their equipment, unsure of the water’s depth. Holding their rifles and ammunition pouches above their heads, some men managed to wade across, but others had to swim, and some drowned in the fast current. All the time the Russians fired at them with grapeshot and shell. Many men were too frightened to get into the water, which was full of dead bodies. They hugged the ground on the riverbank while mounted officers galloped up and down, shouting at the men to swim across and sometimes even threatening to cut them with their swords. Once they had crossed the river, all order was lost. Companies and regiments became jumbled together, and where there had been lines two men deep there was now just a crowd. The Russians began to advance down the hill from either side of the Great Redoubt, firing on the British down below, where mounted officers galloped round their men, urging them to reform lines; but it was impossible, the men were exhausted from crossing the river and happy to be in the shelter of the riverbank, where they could not be seen from the heights.

Aware of the danger of the situation, Maj. Gen. [Sir William] Codrington, in command of the 1st Brigade of the Light Division, made a desperate effort to regroup his men. Spurring his white charger up the hill, he bellowed: ‘Fix bayonets! Get up the bank and advance to the attack!’ Soon the whole of Codrington’s brigade—the regiments all jumbled up—began scrambling up the Kurgan Hill in a thick crowd. Junior commanders gave up forming lines—there was no time—but urged their men to “Come on anyhow!” Once they had climbed onto the open slopes, most of the men began to charge with yells and screams toward the Russian guns in the Great Redoubt, 500 yards up the slope. The Russian gunners were astonished by the sight of this British mob —2,000 men running up the hill—and found easy targets. Some of the Light Division’s advance guard reached the entrenchments of the Great Redoubt. Soldiers clambered over the parapets and through the embrasures, only to be shot or cut down by the Russians. Within a few minutes the Great Redoubt was a swarm of men, pockets of them fighting on the parapets, others cheering and waving their colors, as two Russian guns were captured in the confusion.

But suddenly the British were confronted by four battalions (some 3,000 men) of the Vladimirsky Regiment, pouring into the redoubt from the open higher ground, while more Russian guns were pitching shell at them from higher up the Kurgan Hill. With one loud “Ooorah!” the Russian infantry began charging with their bayonets, driving out the British, and firing at them as they retreated down the hill. The Light Division “made a front” to fire back, but suddenly and unexpectedly there was a bugle call to cease firing, copied by the buglers of every regiment. For a few fatal moments there was a confused pause in the firing on the British side: An unnamed officer had thought the Russians were the French and had ordered his men to stop firing. By the time the mistake was corrected, the Vladimirsky soldiers had gained the upper hand; they were steadily advancing down the hill, and British troops were lying dead and wounded everywhere. Now buglers truly did give the order to retreat, and the whole Light Division, or what was left of it, was soon running down the hill toward the shelter of the riverbank.

The charge had partly failed be- cause there had been no second wave, the Duke of Cambridge having stopped the guards from advancing in support of the Light Division for lack of further orders from Raglan (another blunder on his part). Evans, on his right, got the guards marching once again by giving the duke an order to advance, which he pretended had come from Raglan, who in fact was nowhere to be seen.

The three regiments of the Guards Brigade (Grenadiers, Scots Fusiliers and Coldstream) waded across the river. In their red tunics and bearskins they were an imposing sight. On the other side of the river they took an age to reassemble into lines. Irritated by their dithering, Sir Colin Campbell, the commander of the Highland Brigade, ordered an immediate advance. A firm believer in the charge with bayonets, Campbell told his men not to fire their rifles until they were “within a yard of the Russians.” The Scots Fusiliers, who had crossed the river before the other guards, began charging up the hill, repeating the mistake of the Light Division, which at that moment was running down the hill pursued by the Russian infantry. The two crowds of men ran straight through each other— the Scots Fusiliers bearing the brunt of the collision, with men knocked over and bearskins flying. When they emerged on the other side and continued running toward the Great Redoubt, they were only half their number and in a chaotic state.

The Grenadiers and Coldstream Guards filled the gap left by the Scots Fusiliers but refused orders to advance up the hill. Instead, on their own initiative, the 2,000 guards formed into lines and fired 14 volleys of Minié rifle shot into the Russian infantry. The volleys delivered an intensity of fire achieved by half a dozen machine guns. They stunned the Russian infantry, who fell in heaps upon the ground and then withdrew up the hill. By disobeying their commanders, who had ordered them to charge with bayonets, the guards had demonstrated a crucial innovation—the long-range firepower of the modern rifle—which would prove decisive in all the early battles of the Crimean War. The Minié was a new weapon. Most regiments had been issued it only on their way to the Crimea and had received hurried training in how to use it. They had no idea of its tactical significance— its ability to fire with a lethal accuracy from well beyond the range of the Russian muskets and artillery—until the guards discovered it for themselves on the Alma. Reflecting on the impact of the Minié rifle, Russian military engineer Eduard Totleben wrote in his history of the Crimean War:

Left to themselves to perform the role of sharpshooters, the British troops did not hesitate under fire and did not require orders or supervision. Troops thus armed were full of confidence once they found out the accuracy and immense range of their weapon.…Our infantry with their muskets could not reach the enemy at greater than 300 paces, while they fired on us at 1,200.

Without entrenchments to protect their infantry and artillery, the Russians were unable to defend their positions on the heights against the deadly Minié rifles. Soon the fire of the guards was joined by that of the 2nd Division under Evans, on the British right, whose 30th Regiment could clearly see the gunners of three Russian batteries from the riverbank and take them out with their Minié rifles without the Russians even knowing where the firing was from. As the Russian infantry and artillery withdrew, the British slowly advanced up the hill, stepping over the dead and wounded bodies of the enemy. By 4 p.m., the British were converging on the Russian positions from all directions. With the French in command of the cliffs above the Alma, it was clear the battle had been won.

On the Russian side there were signs of panic, as the enemy closed in and the devastating effect of their long-range rifle fire became apparent. Priests went round the lines to bless the troops, and soldiers prayed with growing fervency, while mounted officers used the knout to whip them forward into line. But otherwise there was a general absence of authority among the Russian commanders. “Nobody gave any direction what to do,” recalled one soldier. “During the five hours that the battle went on we neither saw nor heard of our general of division, or brigadier, or colonel: We did not receive any orders from them either to advance or to retire; and when we retired, nobody knew whether we ought to go to the right or left.” The drunken Kiriakov gave a general order to retreat from the left flank of the heights, but then lost his nerve and went missing for several hours (he was discovered later hiding in a hollow in the ground). It was left to the junior commanders to organize the retreat from the heights.

With no clear idea of where they were to go, the Russians fled in all directions, running down the hill into the valley, away from the enemy. Mounted officers tried in vain to stop the panic flight, riding round the men and whipping them, like cowboys rounding up cattle; but the men had lost all patience with their commanders. By half past 4 the battle was over.

At the top of Telegraph Hill the French captured the abandoned carriage of Prince Menshikov. In the carriage they found a field kitchen, letters from the tsar, 50,000 francs, pornographic French novels, the general’s boots and some ladies’ underwear. On the hill were abandoned picnics, parasols and field glasses left behind by parties of spectators from Sevastopol.

On the battlefield itself the ground was covered with the wounded and the dead—2,000 British, 1,600 French and perhaps 5,000 Russians, though the exact numbers are impossible to calculate, since so many of them were abandoned there. It took the British two days to clear the battlefield of the wounded. They had neglected to bring any medical supplies on the ships from Varna—the ambulance corps with its carts and wagons and stretchers was still in Bulgaria.

The Russians were unable to collect their wounded from the battlefield. Those who could walk were left to look for treatment on their own, many of them staggering to the dressing stations set up on the River Kacha, nine miles south of the Alma, or limping back to Sevastopol. About 1,600 wounded Russian soldiers were abandoned on the battlefield, where they lay for several days until the British and the French, having cleared their own, took care of them, burying the dead and carting off the wounded to their hospitals.

If the allies had pushed on directly from the Alma, they would have taken Sevastopol by surprise. In all probability they would have captured it in a few days, at relatively little cost in human lives compared to the tens of thousands who were to die during the 349-day siege that followed from their errors and delays.

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