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Crimean War: Battle of the Alma River

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 05, 2006 
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Addressing his soldiers at the start of the Crimean War, Russian General Prince Aleksandr S. Menschikov dismissed the British army as'sailors conscripted into military uniform.' But after the Battle of the Alma River, he changed his tune. The British infantry had fought like 'red devils,' he said. And the bear-skinned Brigade of Guards had fought like 'hairy devils.' As for the Highlanders, no one had warned the prince about these'soldiers in petticoats.'

The British army — Guards, Highlanders, and line infantry — had extended firepower and extra mobility derived from their tactics, developed even before the Napoleonic Wars. Those tactics were founded on the use of the line, as opposed to column, formation. The column formation had been developed by nations with large civilian populations drafted into military service in Napoleon Bonaparte's time. The line formation, on the other hand, allowed Britain's professional army to overcome a force of equal courage and superior numbers in this first major battle of the Crimean War.

Menschikov had boasted to his czar that he could hold the position at the Alma for three weeks while the Crimean port of Sevastopol was strengthened. He failed to hold it for even three hours.

A gentle sea breeze refreshed the marching British and French armies on the sunny 20th of September, 1854. The day before had seen the march of the two forces southward on the Crimean Peninsula to within sight of the Alma, where the river flowed into the Black Sea, just a few miles north of Sevastopol. An eyewitness, The Times war correspondent William Howard Russell, reported, 'The effect of these grand masses of soldiers descending the ridges of the hills, rank after rank, with the sun playing over forests of glittering steel, can never be forgotten.'

The uniforms of the British army were even more brilliant than they had been in 1815 at Waterloo. Decades of peacetime soldiering in England had left colonels with little to do but'smarten up' their uniform dress. The close-fitting, cherry-colored overalls of the 11th Hussars, part of the Light Brigade, were but one example of the absurdities of military dress in that era. The Brigade of Guards wore their unwieldy bearskins into battle for the last time in the Crimea, the Honorable Lieutenant Hugh Annesley of the Scots Guards noting that his made a reasonable pillow for a night on the ground.

The British army had left its tents behind — 'lack of transport, don't y' know,' an officer remarked. The day after the landing, officers of the British Quartermaster General's Department foraged miles inland for wagons and baggage animals. By the time the army and all its equipment had disembarked, some 350 wagons and teams had been collected — an impressive figure, but not enough to move an army of 27,000 men.

War in the Crimea had been precipitated by Russia's marching, during March 1854, into the Danube provinces of Ottoman Turkey, which Czar Nicholas I had called the'sick man of Europe.' The czar, seeking naval power and access to the Mediterranean, had built a naval base at Sevastopol on the Crimean Sea, from which the Russian fleet's guns threatened Constantinople. British statesmen dreaded the prospect of Russian warships in the Mediterranean (as the Americans would a century later), and the idea of Constantinople in Russian hands appalled them. That perceived menace motivated the British to join France in an alliance, in spite of their mistrust of Napoleon III, heir of his namesake's bloody tyranny.

Russia had used the excuse of protecting Orthodox Christian subjects of Turkey as the reason for the invasion. Orthodox monks had been killed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, then under Turkish rule, during rioting in 1853 — no thanks to local police, who were Turkish Mohammedans. Then, in November, the Russian fleet sailed from Constantinople, surprised the Turkish fleet at Sinope and devastated it. That audacious attack was completely unacceptable to the British, who depended on sea power for their existence. Calling the Russian action a massacre, angry mobs paraded in the streets of London. War became inevitable.

The British cabinet, producing a declaration of war against Russia, considered how to prosecute that war. Its collective focus was the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, which suggested, at first, the application of British sea power. The British fleet, it was thought, could cut off the Crimean Peninsula at the isthmus connecting it to the Russian mainland. Consultation with the Royal Navy, however, revealed that the Black Sea at this isthmus was not deep enough to float a rowboat, much less a man-of-war.

An army operation, mounted jointly with Britain's new French allies, then appeared necessary. But the British had not been involved in large-scale ground operations since Waterloo — and the hero of that day, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, had died two years before this new outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, he had left an heir, General FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, Lord Raglan, his secretary and protegŽ since the Napoleonic campaigns — and the only soldier in England of any stature who was under 70 years of age. Now, Raglan, who had served courageously in Wellington's campaigns but who had never personally commanded even a battalion in the field, was given command of the largest force the British could assemble, almost 30,000 men.

On a warm June night, and after a good dinner, the British cabinet issued instructions to its commander in chief to invade the Crimea and capture Sevastopol. Lord Raglan predicted that it would only take 12 days.

The British and French armies had landed at Calamita Bay in the rain after sailing from Scutari, near Constantinople, by way of Varna across the Black Sea. The French landed first in sunshine, and the first boatload of troops raised the French colors on a flagstaff that they planted on the beach. By noon an entire French division was firmly established in a defensive position. The British landing did not come off so well, and by noon the sun had been replaced by a drizzle. Cholera appeared in the British ranks, and almost 1,000 sick soldiers had to be re-embarked on shipboard, more fortunate than those who had to be carried back to the beach for burial.

The advance on Sevastopol began on September 19 with reveille at 3 a.m., but the troops did not actually move out until six hours later. Despite the long delay, the British troops did not even have time to fill their canteens at the single well before marching in what was to become hot sunshine. The French, claiming precedence, marched on the right, where they were protected by the fleet just offshore. They were followed by the 8,000 men of the allied Turkish force. The British, on the other hand, marched exposed on three of their sides. A more experienced general than Raglan would have had cavalry patrols out guarding against surprise.

Raglan did have his cavalry at the head and flanks of the march, at least. Brigadier General James T. Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, rode in the van with the 11th Hussars and 13th Light Dragoons, while his senior, Maj. Gen. George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, was on the exposed left flank with the 8th Hussars, followed by the 17th Lancers. Lord George Paget brought up the rear with the 4th Dragoons. Between the cavalry regiments marched the five infantry divisions, protected at the front and rear by companies of the Rifle Brigade in extended order. On the right were the 60 guns of the artillery, rumbling along in neat groups of 12. A participant described the soft turf on which the armies were marching as being 'as green and smooth as a racecourse.'

The British army was composed of 10 brigades of infantry, each comprised of three regiments, the whole organized into five divisions. Two brigades of cavalry, the only mounted force in the allied expedition, and appropriate elements of artillery and engineers rounded out the force. Of the five divisional commanders, only two had ever directed a body larger than a battalion in combat, and only one of the five was under age 60 — Queen Victoria's 35-year-old cousin, Lt. Gen. George Frederick, Duke of Cambridge, commanding the 1st Division (three battalions of Foot Guards; the Highland Brigade, consisting of the Cameron Highlanders, 93rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; and the 42nd Royal Highlanders, aka the Black Watch).

In the afternoon, the army came up to the crest of a ridge; in a gentle valley below flowed the Bulganak River. Breaking ranks, the troops rushed to it to slake their thirst. Raglan, riding at the front of the British force, had noticed the sheepskin caps of a squadron of Cossacks behind a distant ridge and finally decided to conduct a reconnaissance. He sent Lord Cardigan with four squadrons of cavalry to reconnoiter the ground ahead. Lord Lucan, Cardigan's commander and brother-in-law, accompanied the advance guard. The two cavalry commanders, who cordially detested one another, encountered a Russian cavalry force of 2,000.

Cardigan knew his duty and calmly ordered his men to form line as the Russians halted and threw out skirmishers, who opened fire at long range. But Raglan, who had the habit of getting to high ground for maximum visibility, could see farther than his two cavalry commanders — he discerned the 6,000 infantry of the Russian 17th Division barring the way to the south. Finding Lucan and Cardigan in the midst of an argument over a minor alteration in the disposition of the squadrons, Quartermaster General Richard Airey, who had been sent by Raglan with a suggestion that the cavalry retire, made it an order. That order convinced the infantry that when there was any real fighting to do, it would be done by them. The action also gained Lucan the ironic but undeserved sobriquet 'Lord Look-on.'

The Russians withdrew from the Bulganak and the British force continued south some eight miles, to within sight of the Alma, where they bivouacked for the night in view of hundreds of watch fires where the Russian army was encamped. North of the river on Kourgane Hill, the Russians had established what the British called the Great Redoubt, about three miles from the coast. Twelve massive guns, protected by a breastwork, formed what Raglan saw as the key to the Russian position. Slightly higher on the hill was the Lesser Redoubt, commanding the eastern flank. West of Kourgane Hill was Telegraph Height, so named because of an unfinished telegraph station on it, and between those two elevations ran the road to Sevastopol, covered by more artillery. There was also artillery positioned to cover the wooden bridge over the Alma, although in September the river was shallow enough to be forded. The ground at river's edge was bare; even the willow trees had been cut down to leave assaulting troops no cover. The Russian force was spread out behind the two redoubts and on Telegraph Height, with cavalry in the rear. Out of a Russian army of 39,000 men, only one battalion of the Minsk Regiment was close to the sea, as the French had suspected from their sea observation before landing.

That night the ailing French commander, MarŽchal A.J.L. de St. Arnaud, proposed to Raglan that the French should attack the Russian forces on the right, and the British, while the French attack was in progress, should assault the Russian center and other flank, thus rolling up the flank. Raglan listened to the French plan politely and said the French could rely on the full cooperation of the British army. But he privately believed that no workable plan could be made until the allies had discovered the full extent of the Russian position. The British historian of the Crimean War, Alexander William Kinglake, later wrote that he thought Raglan's guarded attitude was the result of 'his true native English dislike of all premature planning.' Premature planning indeed — with the armies in position the night before the battle!

The next morning, the English and French advanced to the attack after the British regiments, which had bivouacked facing east as a protection to the army's flank, had wheeled into line. The allied army now marched south on a front five miles wide, with the French on the right by the sea. The British were advancing on the entire Russian force, while the French had the protection of the fleet — and no enemy to face.

The French marshal again conferred with Raglan, asking whether he intended to attack in front or turn the Russian flank. Raglan replied that turning the flank would take too much out of his men with the extra marching it would involve. And his outnumbered cavalry could not turn the flank. He would not commit further until the battle had begun — which it did when the Russian artillery opened fire.

The French assault began in its usual column formation, followed by the Turks, also in column. The Russians also used the column, developed by Napoleon as a more effective way to control conscripted troops; they were not familiar with the British line formation. To the Russian senior officers, those straggling lines of redcoats seemed weak and uncontrolled — especially since the nearsighted British generals, unfamiliar with the terrain and with more troops than they were used to, could not keep the divisions straight as they advanced. Raglan found that he had advanced too fast in relation to the French, and his men were suffering from the artillery fire. The British artillery, being smaller in caliber, could not effectively reply, so Raglan had his troops lie down for protection.

As the British troops waited, under fire, they gave female names to the Russian cannons — names of unpopular sergeants' or officers' wives — and shouted obscene insults at the round shot (plus giving advice to mounted officers on which way to ride to avoid the shot). Suddenly, their attention was diverted by a huge roar — the Russians had set fire to straw-packed houses in the village near the British front. The choking smoke and intense heat made the village unapproachable — the 2nd Division, on the right of the British line, would be unable to advance in extended order, but would have to send one brigade in front of the other, further cramping the line.

By 2 p.m., the French attackers had reported difficulties to Lord Raglan. But Raglan could not hear any return fire and assumed correctly that the French columns were firing indiscriminately to indicate their course of progress. Also, it was against French policy to advance without artillery support, and the French had some difficulty in getting their artillery up the hills facing them. Besides that, Menschikov had ordered seven battalions of infantry, four batteries of artillery and four squadrons of Hussars to meet the French. He had thought the left side of the line to be inaccessible. As soon as his reinforcements arrived, however, he ordered them back and galloped after them, leaving the French commander in possession of the ground but under artillery fire from Telegraph Height.

Raglan was concerned about his men, although he personally seemed to enjoy facing enemy fire for the first time in 40 years — he clutched the stump of his right arm (lost at Waterloo) with the left and chuckled as he rode to join his men. He had intended to attack when the French had reached the heights they had assaulted, but the sight of his men enduring the artillery fire and the urgent message from the French that Prince Napoleon's troops were being 'massacred' caused Raglan to issue his only order to the troops that day: The line was to advance and not stop until the Alma was crossed.

The Light Division was on the left, and to its right was the 2nd Division, which had the hardest going because the burning village was in its front. The 2nd Division had to split two regiments off to the right to get around the village, the other regiments going to the left. Beyond the smoking village was the Alma, in places much deeper than where the French had crossed nearer to the sea.

For almost two miles of its length the river was full of troops, holding their rifles and ammunition above their heads as they waded through the fast-flowing current. As the British troops crossed the Alma, musket balls crashed all around them. On reaching the far side where a ledge had formed beneath the steep bank of the river, the British battalion and brigade officers put their men into some sort of order for the next 500-yard advance to the Great Redoubt. The redoubt was flanked on each side by two masses of Russian troops — behind which were more Russians, revealed only by the rows of their fixed bayonets.

As the officers got the British troops to spread out into the long, thin lines that would be their only hope of survival once the Russian skirmishers withdrew and the guns again began firing, the Russian columns began slowly lumbering down the slope. The massive columns, a Russian observer noted, seemed to slide inexorably down the slope toward the ragged line of redcoats, only two men deep. The Russian was 'astonished at the extraordinary firmness with which the red jackets having crossed the river opened a heavy fire.' The British troops fired into the Russian mass, calmly reloaded and fired again. Many of the men on the dash through the vineyards toward the river had grabbed handfuls of grapes, which they were unable to eat as they crossed the river. Now they fired with bunches of grapes clenched between their teeth. A Russian Captain Hodasevich later wrote, 'We did not think it possible for men to be found with such firmness of morale to be able to attack in this apparently weak formation our massive columns.'

The Russian columns, although not much hurt by the musketry, retired to their original positions at the side of the Great Redoubt. Then the Russian artillery opened up again.

The British advance, at that point, involved the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the 33rd and the 95th regiments and the Royal Fusiliers, plus some elements of the Rifle Brigade. The lines hesitated as the cannons opened fire, but then came on again, through the crash of exploding shells, the whistle of grapeshot and canister, and musketballs and round shot. Wide gaps appeared as men fell, but the British soldiers continued to advance.

After a final, almost simultaneous blast, the Russian soldiers, acting on the czar's orders to the Russian army to never lose a single cannon, began to move the guns from the Great Redoubt. Those British troops who had been spared by the final discharge ran on to the parapet, and a young ensign of the Royal Welch Fusiliers planted the Queen's Colour of his regiment in the loose earth, only to fall immediately thereafter from a bullet to the heart.

The redoubt was captured, and two of the general officers set about placing men to defend it from a counterattack — which the wailing of Russian columns on the nearby slopes indicated to be imminent. There were no British reinforcements — the closest was the Brigade of Guards under the Duke of Cambridge, but its men were still on the other side of the Alma.

While the duke was asking advice of another officer, who thought the duke should advance his division (advice that was ignored), Quartermaster General Airey rode up and told him that Raglan believed he should continue his advance in support of the Light Division. In the vineyards, however, the 1st Division came under fire again, and stopped again. Another staff officer found the duke and ordered him to continue. By the time the 1st Division had finally crossed the Alma with some difficulty, it found that it was too late to support the survivors who had taken the redoubt, which was by then an inferno of exploding shells, from the rest of the Russian artillery.

And there was another danger, an immense square mass of infantry advancing on the right toward the Great Redoubt. Erroneous advice from unknown officers first identified the mass as a group of French soldiers, and another officer ordered a bugler to sound the 'retire.' The few men holding the redoubt began to withdraw. At that same time, the Russian column — the Vladimir Regiment — advanced to the redoubt and then halted to wait for support from another advancing column, comprised of the more bloodied Kazan Regiment. And then the Russian commander glimpsed an unnerving sight — standing on top of a high ridge on Telegraph Height, behind the Russian lines, was a group of officers who wore the white plumes of the English general staff!

Raglan, after giving his brief orders, had decided to ride on ahead of his army to get a good view of the battle. He trotted off toward the river, downstream from the burning village, found a ford and was soon among the French skirmishers on the right of his own army, who wondered what he was doing passing through them to the heart of the enemy's position.

Soon he was within range of the Russian skirmishers, one of whom hit one of his staff in the shoulder. Another officer was knocked from his horse, but Raglan and his staff continued up the slope to the top of the ridge.

Raglan realized the possibilities of that commanding position, saying: 'Our presence here will have the best effect. Now, if we only had a couple of guns.' Two officers of his staff from the Royal Artillery galloped back to the river and produced two guns, while Raglan patiently waited — and saw, from too far away to be of any use, the capture of the Great Redoubt and the Russian recapture of that position.

Soon the British guns were in action, firing at the batteries in the valley below, which caused the Russians to withdraw their guns. Then the two guns fired at the Russian infantry. They were too far away to be in danger, but the Russian commander knew that if he advanced to pursue Maj. Gen. W.J. Codrington's broken brigade, he would put his troops within range of that artillery fire. Two 9-pounders had given the British a respite and a temporary advantage.

The Royal Fusiliers was the only infantry unit still heavily engaged with the Russians. Outnumbered more than 2-to-1 by the Regiment of the Grand Duke Michael, the Fusiliers were beginning to lose ground. But that regiment was led by Colonel Lacey Yea, a brutal martinet in peacetime but a courageous soldier in battle. He rode his cob past Russian marksmen, some of whom were only 50 yards away, but he escaped without much damage — someone did shoot off his mustache.

One infantry battalion, the 55th, moved up to where it could support the Fusiliers by firing on the left flank. The Russian column moved back to the redoubt as the Brigade of Guards was coming up. A major of the Fusiliers rode back to the Guards to tell them the Russians were moving back, but the Fusiliers, who had lost 22 officers and some 200 men, were in no condition to follow. The Scots Fusilier Guards agreed to pass through the Royal Welch Fusiliers and did so immaculately — to face off against some 15,000 Russians.

One Russian volley drove the surviving Fusiliers back so hard they knocked over several of the Scots Guards, creating holes in the neat line. At one point, the regimental flag of the Scots Guards was shot through and the staff broken. Captain Robert J. Lindsay instantly recovered the broken staff and, holding the colors aloft as high as he could, restored order to the ranks. When the British advanced to within 40 yards of the redoubt, the Russians, with a roar, charged out with bayonets fixed. The Guards brigade had to retire, but withdrew firing. The toll they took on the enemy in the course of that fighting retreat demonstrated the value of the MiniŽ rifle by men who were well trained in its use. Their fire eventually stopped the Russian advance.

The Guards had broken the Russian defenses on the right, but on the left there were still 12 fresh Russian battalions — and there were only three British battalions left on the field to engage them. But those three battalions were the Cameron Highlanders, the 93rd Highlanders and the Black Watch, which one historian of the conflict called 'three of the finest regiments in the whole army.' And they had as a brigade commander Sir Colin Campbell, the soldier with more experience in battle than anyone else on the field that day. He had served under Lt. Gen. Sir John Moore and Wellington, and had fought all over the world — in Spain, America and China. Both brave and talented, but without influence and money, he was still a colonel after 44 years of service. But no other brigade commander was as highly respected by his men.

Sir Colin addressed his troops before leading them into battle: 'Now men, you are going into action. Remember this: whoever is wounded — I don't care what his rank is — whoever it is must lie down where he falls till the bandsmen come to attend him. No soldier must go carrying off wounded men. If any soldier does such a thing, his name shall be stuck up in his parish church. Don't be in such a hurry about firing. Your officers will tell you when to do so. Be steady. Fire low.'

The brigade moved off in echelon, the Black Watch ahead on the right, the 93rd in the middle, the Cameron Highlanders back farther on the right. On passing the 88th Regiment, still formed in square to repel nonexistent cavalry, Sir Colin told them to get into line. One man retorted, 'Let the Scotchmen go on, they'll do the work.' And they did.

On being told that the Guards, advancing into ferocious firing, would be destroyed if they did not fall back, Sir Colin replied, 'It is better, sir, that every man of Her Majesty's Guards should lie dead upon the field than that they should now turn their backs upon the enemy.'

The Scots regiments went on, sweeping around the back of the Great Redoubt while Campbell urged them to clear it of enemy troops, shouting in Scottish brogue, 'We'll hae nane but Hieland bonnets here!' The 93rd (later the Argyll and Sutherland) were too eager and restless — Sir Colin rode back and halted them, under heavy musket fire, and dressed their ranks. While he was doing that, his horse was shot in the heart. His groom, however, had already brought up his other horse — the fire was heavy even in the rear, so he had moved to the front. Sir Colin remounted, and then he and the 93rd moved on.

Campbell had ordered the Black Watch to advance firing, an exercise only perfectly disciplined troops could execute without endangering themselves more than the enemy. To the Russians, the sight of the tall, skirted figures was unnerving. From left to right, the Guards line extended for more than a mile. And because they were unused to seeing this formation, the Russians had no reason to suppose that behind the screening wreaths of smoke it was only two ranks deep.

The Russian columns were still firing, but fear was taking hold. Officers were moving about in the ranks, and soon that hollow wail that earlier had marked the Russian columns' advance was heard again. But this time it seemed to be a cry of despair, and as it died away the columns broke and fled. Sir Colin Campbell raised his hat in the air, and the Highlanders, given permission at last to shout, cheered so loudly that their voices were heard two miles away.

Sir Colin went over to report to Lord Raglan. His other horse also had been shot, so now he was on foot. When he found Raglan, he asked — with tears in his eyes, since his Highlanders had done so well — if he could have permission to wear a Scottish bonnet. Lord Raglan smiled and nodded.

And what was the price of victory? For the British, the 'butcher's bill' (as it was called in Wellington's time) was 362 killed, more than 1 percent of those engaged, with another 1,61l wounded, of whom many later died. Russian casualties, however, were estimated at 1,800 killed, six times the British loss, and another 3,700 wounded, more than double what the British had suffered.

The casualty figures from the first major European-style land battle in four decades appalled the public in Britain, which had enjoyed such a long period of peace. But the Crimean War had only begun — and the 'butcher's bill' would be much more appalling before it was over.


This article was written by T.J. Deakin and originally appeared in the March 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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