Sunday, 20 September 2015

"Do not fire! They are French." – The Battle of the Alma in 1854

20 September 1854, during the first major engagement fought by the French and British allies against the Russian Empire in the Crimean War, FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan and Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud narrowly defeated Prince Menshikov in the Battle of the Alma a couple of miles north of Sevastopol.

“... and in the next day or so, too, when the army had rolled on down the coast, choking with heat by day and shivering by the fires at night, and we had come at last to the long slope that runs down to a red-banked river with great bluffs and gullies beyond. Just a little Russian creek, and today in any English parish church you may see its name on stone memorials, on old tattered flags in cathedrals, in the metalwork of badges, and on the nameplates of grimy back streets beside the factories. Alma.
You have seen the fine oil-paintings, I dare say—the perfect lines of guardsmen and Highlanders fronting up the hill towards the Russian batteries, with here and there a chap lying looking thoughtful with his hat on the ground beside him, and in the distance fine silvery clouds of cannon smoke, and the colours to the fore, and fellows in cocked hats waving their swords. I dare say some people saw and remember the Battle of the Alma like that.” (George MacDonal Fraser, “Flashman at the Charge”)

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1846 -1933): “The Colours, Advance of the Scots Guards at the Alma, Crimea” (1899)


It was the failed general rehearsal for modern warfare. The "Russian War", as the British called it, or "Eastern War" in Russian usage, later universally known as the "Crimean War", since most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula, broke out in 1853 as the tenth Russo-Turkish War over the rights of Christians, Orthodox and Catholic, in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land. It escalated soon into the 19th century’s only major pan-European conflict after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, with the Tsars being busy to gut the crumbling Ottoman Empire and become the true successors of lost Eastern Rome, in the Balkans and the Near East, while the British saw the Russian expansion as a major threat to their influence in Asia, from Suez to the Khyber. The Great Game had already begun in earnest. Meanwhile, the French planned to become a super power again and were happily dragged along into the conflict with the Russians on the Ottoman side, Western European armies, despite unrest and revolutions abundant on the continent, hadn't actually fired a shot in anger on the scale of Austerlitz and Waterloo since Napoleon surrendered 40 years before, let alone organised a campaign that spanned the whole of Europe from Portsmouth, London and Toulon to the Black Sea or fully understood or even adapted to technological innovation since 1815. What followed bordered on a humanitarian disaster in medical treatment of injured and sick soldiers, leading to the emergence of modern nursing practises - not only on the battlefield - by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole and showed the complete incompetence of the British and French General Staff in almost every action, from logistics to getting at least something of a grasp of strategic and tactical situations and consequences, resulting in a series of completely idiotic orders and major blunders. What saved the Allies was that the Russian commanders were equally unorganised and clueless and the simply incredible discipline, bravery and skill of the common soldiers, petty officers and junior officer ranks.


The French military painter Horace Vernet's (1789 - 1863) imagination of "The Battle of the Alma" (1858)


The allied expedition corps had landed on 13 September in the Crimea near the town of Yevpatoria almost unhindered and it took them four days to unload troops, horses, pack animals, artillery, stores and what not in Calamita Bay and then the march south towards Sevastopol began. Prince Menshikov awaited them dug in on a mountain plateau on the south banks of the River Alma with 30,000 men and 120 artillery pieces. Having only half the size of the allied armies at his disposal, Menshikov’s guns were well emplaced on the heights of a natural fortress, strengthened with two redoubts, commanding the road to Sevastopol and all he had to do was to hold on and let the allies bleed themselves to death trying to displace him from there or withdraw back to Calamita Bay. The French C-in-C Saint Arnaud had a cunning plan, though. His Zouaves would climb the 350’ high cliffs protecting the Russian left flank near the sea under the cover of fire from naval guns of the French warships off the coast while Raglan’s British would force the greater of the two redoubts bull-at-the-gate-style in a frontal attack. Then his French would outflank the Russians and give them the coup de grâce. All very well in terms of a battle plan, but a lack of communication between the two forces and the complete ineptitude of British commanders during their charge uphill almost turned the battle into a catastrophe for the allies. The rapid, withering fire of the rifled Enfield muskets of the well-drilled British soldiers on company level and their sheer tenacity saved the day over the back and forth at the Great Redoubt until Sir Colin Campbell, one of the very few able generals on this day, went at the last 10,000 Russian soldiers not yet committed in battle, spread his three Highland Regiments, less than 3,000 men, thin enough to hide his numbers in the thick battle smoke and drove them from the field. Naturally, Raglan could not be bothered to commit his cavalry to pursue, Menshikov escaped to Sevastopol and the chance to end the war then and there was gambled away. But the Allies had won the day.


The “Black Watch”, the 42nd Highlanders storming the Alma Heights, led by Sir Colin Campbell. 

     
Nearly 6,000 Russian and almost 3,500 allied soldiers died in or from the immediate consequences of the bloody mess at the Alma. Many of the British commanders’ mistakes had been blamed on their literal short-sightedness but Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was simply unfit for command. He continued to blunder onwards to Sevastopol and the following military disasters at Balaclava and Inkerman, the next “Soldier’s Battle”, where the allied soldiers had to foot the bill of Raglan’s decision to let Menshikov escape from the Alma and fight his reinforced troops all over again, considerably adding to the cost of life of more than 500.000 fighting men and civilians during three years of conflict. However, it was the first allied victory, just a week after the troops were landed on the Crimean theatre and the fact that the Crimean War was the first conflict in history covered by the press and marks the beginning of modern war reporting, when Billy Russel's (“The Times”) and other journalists’ articles reached London on a daily basis via telegraph and that might have contributed to the fact that “Alma” became immensely popular for at least a decade. As a name for girls, a square and a bridge in Paris, a metro line and numerous pubs.



And more about the Battle of the Alma on: