Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Lion and the Bear

In the year 1854 war broke out between England and France, on the one side, and Russia on the other. The cause, to put it shortly, was the ambition of Russia, which desired to seize part at least of the dominions of the Sultan of Turkey, especially Constantinople. I pass over the first few months. War was declared on March 28, but nothing of any importance was done for nearly half-a-year. Then England and France resolved to invade the Crimea. There Russia had a great fortress and arsenal, with a harbour which could hold a great fleet. As long as Sebastopol stood, Constantinople never could be safe. The great object of the Allies, as I shall hereafter call the two Powers, was to take this place. On September 14 the landing of troops was begun; five days later the Allies marched in the direction of Sebastopol, which was about 25 miles distant. The Russian commander had taken up a position on some heights on the further side of the river Alma. It was a strong position, and he might have made it much stronger. Near the sea the heights were very steep, and could be climbed only by a track in one place and a rough road in another. These approaches might have been destroyed, but these were not even guarded. The French, who made the attack on this side, suffered but little loss. And if our men had waited till they (the French) had finished their work, they too would have had an easier task. But the French commander asked Lord Raglan, who was the English general, to attack at once, and this was done. Our troops had to bear a heavy cannonade and musketry fire before they could come to close quarters with the enemy. There were mistakes in the way in which they were led, for indeed few officers had any experience, save some of the older men, who had served in the Peninsula forty years before. The Light Division had the hardest of the fighting to do, but it did it well. The first to make their way into the Russian breastwork were the men of the 23rd (Welsh Fusiliers). When, afterwards, they were forced partly down the slope by the superior force of the Russians, the Guards helped them bravely. Then the Russians gave way and fled in confusion towards Sebastopol, the English artillery doing them much harm as they went. We lost 2000 men in killed and wounded, the Russians at least three times as many; the French suffered but little.

It has been said by some writers that the Allies might have taken Sebastopol if they had gone on at once. Other writers have doubted; and indeed we can never be certain as to what might or might not have been. And it must be remembered that, though the Allies lost many men during the siege that followed, the Russians lost many more. They had to march all the men that were wanted to defend Sebastopol over great distances. Those that perished on the way were more than those who were killed in the siege.

Order for Light Brigade


The Allies now set about besieging the town, the English taking the east side, the French the south, and soon found out that they had a very hard task to perform. While they were busy making trenches and cannonading, the Russians had quartered a large army on the field, and with this on October 25, they attacked the English lines at Balaklava. They drove out the Turks from some redoubts and then advanced against the one English regiment which, with the Turks, made up the garrison of the place. This regiment was the 93rd Highlanders, commanded by Sir Colin Campbell, afterwards Lord Clyde. The Highlanders stood firm, not in square, as usual when cavalry charge infantry, but in the "thin red line" which has become so famous. By this time, the English Heavy Cavalry were coming up to support the Highlanders. On their way, they came across a large body of Russian cavalry, charged them, and drove them down the other slope of the hill, on which they stood in confusion. The Light Brigade of cavalry was at hand, and might have charged the flying enemy and completed their destruction. They did not do so, but unhappily they did something else which made the day, that had been so far a day of success, end in disaster. Lord Raglan sent an order to the officer in command of the brigade to charge and so prevent the Russians carrying away the guns from the redoubts which they had taken. The charge was made, though it is doubtful whether it was what had been ordered, and quite certain that if Lord Raglan had seen what was to be done, he would not have thought of it. In front, about half-a-mile off, were the batteries which the brigade was to charge; on either side there were cannon and masses of infantry. The two English regiments, six hundred men in all, rode straight on, through a storm of shot and shell; they actually reached the batteries and drove the gunners away. Then they rode back, but they had lost nearly half their men and more than four-fifths of their horses. One of the regiments, when it was next mustered, had but ten mounted troopers. "It's splendid, but it is not war," said a French general who saw the charge. He was quite right; but the same might have been said of Arnold von Winkelreid when he broke the line of the Austrian infantry by gathering the spears into his own breast.

A week afterwards, the Russians made another and more dangerous attack upon the Allies. The Russian commander had now 100,000 men at his disposal, and if he had used them with more skill, he might well have put an end to the siege. Before dawn on November 5, 19,000 men came out of Sebastopol and advanced against the English position, on what was called Mount Inkerman. Later in the day, another Russian force, not less numerous, came up from the other side. How the English troops resisted, and in the end drove back these assailants, far more numerous than themselves, it is impossible to say. The battle has been called a soldiers' battle. This means that the British troops fought where they stood, often in quite small parties; their courage, their strength, their national habit of not knowing when they were beaten, all helped them. "They held their ground with an audacious obstinacy, which it would be difficult to parallel in European warfare." Towards the afternoon, when their strength was becoming exhausted, the French came to their help. Without this, they could hardly have stood as firm as they did. Their loss was very heavy, 2300 men in killed and wounded, about a third of their whole force. But the Russian loss was many times greater, more than 12,000 men; that of the French was about 900. If the Russians had used all the troops that were available, if, for instance, the French lines had been attacked at the same time with the English, the day of Inkerman would hardly have ended as it did, in one of the greatest victories in our history.

After this defeat, the Russians did not again attempt to attack the Allies in the field, but the siege was very far from an end. The English troops—not to speak of the French who, for a time at least, suffered less—went through a terrible winter from cold, hunger, and disease. One cause of this was a great storm which happened nine days after the battle of Inkerman. The tents in the camp were blown down; many ships, even in harbour, were wrecked; the rain and snow, which continued for many days, made the roads and all the country deep in mud. Another cause was the want of proper stores for the men; some necessary things, especially fuel, were wanting; others had been badly chosen by the board of officers which had to look after this business. But the chief reason of all the trouble was the want of a Transport Service as it is called; that is, a regular establishment of wagons, horses, and drivers to carry the food and other necessary things from the stores, which were by the sea, up to the camp. The few horses that there were died for want of forage, and the stores had to be carried by the soldiers themselves. The soldiers, after being for many hours in the trenches, instead of finding their food ready for them, had to go for miles through mud and rain to fetch it, and often found that it could not be got. And it must not be forgotten that, for some parts of the siege, the English army had more than its fair share of the work to do. The result of all this was such a state of misery as it is quite impossible to describe. At one time (the beginning of January, when things were, perhaps, at their worst) there were more than twice as many sick as were fit for duty. When I say "fit for duty," I mean who said they were fit for duty, for the brave soldiers held out to the very last of their strength before they would own that they were sick. One regiment was so reduced that there were but eight men (not counting officers) on parade. If the Russians had only known how weak we were, they might have put an end to the siege.

Many strange stories are told of this time, some of them sad, some amusing. One thing that very soon came to pass was that the soldiers took very little trouble to keep themselves smart, but put on whatever they could find that would keep them comfortable and warm. An English major who was dressed in this sort of way was mistaken by some French officers who passed by his hut for the keeper of a canteen. "Some absinthe," they said, "and make haste about it." The major, who had lived in France, served it much to their liking. "How much to pay!" "Nothing, gentlemen." "Nothing! People don't give absinthe away." "Gentlemen," said the major, "I am in command of the regiment of the line, and am delighted to have had the chance of serving my French comrades." The Frenchmen apologized. A few days afterwards, the rest of the officers thought that they too ought to express their regret for the mistake; so they paid a visit to the major, and when they went away he had no absinthe left.

Fighting went on daily, and many curious things happened. Once, Captain, now Lord, Wolseley missed his way in a snow-storm, though he knew the ground perfectly well. Finding a great boulder, he was going to sit down upon it for a short rest, when he saw three Russians sheltering themselves on the other side. He was unarmed and ran away as fast as he could, and the Russians were too cold to use their rifles. Sir Evelyn Wood, who then belonged to the Naval Brigade, tells a story of how he was talking to a sergeant in charge of a battery, when what they thought was a shot lodged in the parapet close by. It was not a shot, but a shell; a few moments later it burst; a fragment cut Mr. Wood's cap off his head, but no harm was done. Once when Lord Raglan was going round the batteries, he sat down close to a 60-pounder gun which was being fired, and at which several Russian cannon were being aimed. A shot went through the parapet six inches above Lord Raglan's head, covering him with stones and earth. He stood up to shake himself, saying as coolly as usual, "Quite close enough."

Early in April a great bombardment was begun, and was carried on for ten days. More than 100,000 shell and shot were fired into the town, and the defences were broken down in more than one place. If an assault had been made—and the Russians, as we now know, fully expected that it would be made—Sebastopol would in all probability have been taken. The Russians had suffered very greatly in the bombardment, losing more than 6000 men. The Allies did not suffer nearly so much. If a Russian shot missed the batteries it did no further harm, but shot fired against the town commonly hit something.

By this time, matters had greatly improved in the English camp. There was a railway between it and the sea, and stores were brought up in abundance. By the time that the siege came to an end, everything in our army was in good order; far better, in fact, than among the French.

On June 7 there was another heavy bombardment. When it was finished, an assault was made. The French took a fortification named the Mamelon. This had been made by Todleben in front of the walls, and had given the Allies a great deal of trouble. On the 18th of the same month—a day chosen because it was the anniversary of Waterloo—the French attacked the Malakoff, and the English the Redan, both of them important parts of the fortifications of Sebastopol. Both attacks failed, it is generally thought, because the French general resolved to attack too soon; that is, before the bombardment had sufficiently broken down the defences.

On June 28 Lord Raglan died.

On September 8 the French, who had now brought their siege works close up to the Russian fortifications, stormed the Malakoff and took it. The same day the English attacked the Redan, but were beaten back. But the siege was now over. On the following night the Russians left Sebastopol, after destroying all that they could. They had lost at least 200,000 men. Great as had been the sufferings of the Allies, those of the besieged were far greater.

Peace was proclaimed on April 28, 1856.