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A JOURNEY THROUGH THE CRIMEAN WAR
with John Barham
CHAPTER 5 — ON OTHER FRONTS
Contents ◄ Chapter 1 ◄ Chapter 2 ◄ Chapter 3 ◄ Chapter 4 ◄ ● ► Chapter 6
Sources for Chapter 5
Links to the main sub-headings within the chapter below:
The War at Sea 1854 | The State of the Navies | Baltic Expedition | Action before Odessa | Further Afield: The White Sea | & Petropavlovsk
A Case for Poirot? | Overkill at Bomarsund | Return of the Baltic Fleet | The War in the East in 1854 | Background to 1850s Asia Minor
Asiatic Operations in 1853 | 1854 Seaborne Initiative | On Land in 1854 | The Battle of Kurukdere | Changes at the Top
The State of the Navies
The Royal Navy had suffered even more than the Army after 1815. As a standing force, it was composed of ships and officers only. For the lower deck there was no tradition of continuous service, which was only introduced just before the Crimean War started. Before this the crew were paid off with a lump sum after each commission — any rank they had achieved during the commission was automatically forfeited. Under this system 120,000 sailors had been paid off for good at the end of the Napoleonic War. Although the press gang had never officially been abolished, it had understandably become totally redundant. In times of emergency, voluntary enlistment would now be rewarded by bounties and pensions.
Because the greater part of the fleet was laid up for twenty–five years, officers also suffered, and the majority had to go on to half pay. Promotion was almost non–existent; in 1841 there were 200 commanders and 1450 lieutenants who hadn't been promoted for 26 years. Successive Admirals of the Nore were aged 74. The Port Admirals at Portsmouth and Devonport were both aged 79.
The control of the Senior Service by old men, together with the poor standard of technical training inherent in the paying–off system, created serious problems for the development of the Royal Navy at a time when steam was revolutionising naval warfare. Whilst Britain was a front runner in the development of ship propulsion technology, its application was by and large limited to passenger transport and the commercial sector. Although paddle steamers entered naval service in 1822, they were the object of much derision, and were used as tugs or mail boats. The screw was considered unreliable in rough weather. The conversion to iron was to come after the War; early tests were taken to prove that iron ships were more vulnerable to shell hits than wooden ones. It took the rapid conversion to armoured ships by the French Navy in the immediate post–war period to provoke Britain into following their lead.
The Crimean War therefore came during a confusing transition period in warship design. The fleet which was assembled in the summer of 1853 intended as a warning to Russia consisted of seven screw and three sailing line of battle ships, four screw frigates, four paddle frigates, four screw corvettes and sloops and one paddle corvette. A mock battle display organised for Queen Victoria involving these ships was conducted entirely under sail only.
The French Navy could not compare with the British numerically in ships or manpower, but they were certainly ahead in warship design. Slightly in advance in launching the first paddle steamer, Coureur, in 1820 they had produced a steam fighting ship, the lightly armoured Sphinx, in 1828 with five more sister ships the following year. However, the limitations of paddle propulsion became clear to them in 1830, when of seven sent to cover the Algiers Expedition, four broke down on the way. All the warships at this time had sail as a back–up, as such breakdowns were frequent. The Navy, which had been a major force in the 18th Century, suffered a crippling blow when many able senior officers fell victim to the Revolution. Although their talented designer, Jacques-Noel Sané, survived the upheavals through to the First Empire, — the British used his plans in their shipbuilding — the Navy was forced to languish, blockaded in its ports for much of the Napoleonic Wars, and it received little attention in the years immediately following.
King Louis Philippe was to change all that. He ensured that sufficient public funds were made available to develop a new style Navy with the advent of steam, to build ships and select and train the officers to man them. Thanks to the research of pioneers like Frederic Sauvage and Auguste Normand, as early as 1841 the French Navy had abandoned the concept of paddle propulsion in favour of screw. In 1842 a Royal Ordinance fixed the future battle fleet to be composed of 70 steamships, including 20 frigates and 20 corvettes. While most of these were paddle propelled, they would be progressively phased out and replaced by screw propelled vessels as they came off the blocks. When the King visited England in 1844, he arrived in the steam frigate Gomer. (Right) Although paddle propelled, the design and construction was revolutionary to British naval eyes.
A division of responsibility was laid down. The State would define the requirement and the funds for research and development. The dockyard, ship construction and heavy maintenance would be the responsibility of the private sector. During the 1840s, Toulon was developed as the first shipbuilding yard geared to the new era of steam, screw propulsion and iron construction. Steam engine manufacturers, hitherto confined only to the regions of Nantes and Nevers, were subcontracted to set up operations close to the yards. with iron and iron ore transported by rail from its main source in the Berry in Central France.
The scale of the benefit of the French investment became evident when the world's first screw propelled battleship Napoléon entered service in 1852. Built in Toulon over five years to the design of Henri Dupuy de Lôme, the ship of the line bore 90 guns and could achieve a top speed of 14 knots. She was to become the first of nine in the class.
During the War, the keel would be laid down on La Gloire, the world's first ironclad battleship. By the time she became operational in 1859 the original proposed complement of 96 smooth bore cannon had been replaced by 34 rifled breech loaders, and 810 tons of armour 110mm thick had been applied to the hull. At the start of the War, this fundamental development was still just around the corner. The French Navy which was to fight the Crimean War was a comparable mix of sail, paddle and screw propulsion to the British, with the difference that the French screw propelled warships were more varied in size and function, and generally of superior design and performance to their British counterparts. Conscription provided all the manpower necessary at seaman level, and the back up at supervisory levels was solid.
A Baltic Expedition
When war became inevitable in February 1854, there was a scramble to get a squadron up to the Baltic before the ice broke up and released the strong Russian fleet of 27 ships of the line based in the Gulf of Finland. Their Lordships of the Admiralty appointed Sir Charles Napier to lead it. Sir Charles was one of the impressive Scottish Napier family descended from the Lairds of Merchiston. In the course of the 19th Century they provided enough senior officers and empire builders to have created and sustained an empire of their own. Admiral Sir Charles was no exception. A successful warship captain against Napoleon, he led the way up the Potomac in the American War of 1812–14. He commanded the successful loyalist Portuguese fleet in 1831–33, defeating the pretender and
restoring Queen Maria to the throne. Back in the British Navy in 1839, he performed with distinction in actions on behalf of the Turkish Sultan against Mehmet Ali. Since that time he had been in Parliament. He was now aged 68, but still a household name as he boarded Duke of Wellington (Left) to take up his command.
Sufficient vessels for the expedition were available, and a force was assembled consisting of eight screw line–of–battleships, four screw frigates, and four paddle wheels. But it was not proving easy to man them. War not having been declared, there were no bounties on offer to attract experienced seamen. Recruitment standards had to be lowered drastically, and the Squadron sailed from Spithead on 11 March undermanned and with untrained crews.
Napier had been briefed to blockade the Gulf of Finland and to investigate the possibility of attacking the Russian bases Bomarsund in the Åland Islands, located between Sweden and Finland at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, and within the Gulf of Finland at Revel (today Tallinn in Estonia), Sveaborg, an island close to the Finnish capital Helsinki, and Kronstadt, the powerful fortification guarding access to St Petersburg. Whilst aggressive action was anticipated, the choice of objectives would be Napier's. It was hoped that these operations would impress the Swedes enough to coax them out of their neutrality. Napier would be there to protect them against Russian retaliation. Britain's long term policy was to destroy Russian influence in the Baltic.
The fleet moved up to Kioge Bay close to Copenhagen, and carried out some much needed basic training on seamanship and gunnery practice, which sadly was strictly limited due to Admiralty curbs on cost. When war broke out on 28 March, Napier was told to move the blockade up to the mouth of the Gulf of Finland and to cut the Åland Islands off from Finland. Reconnaissance returned from Svaeborg with the astonishing news that the Russian battle squadron was trapped in the ice outside the fortress. Napier on his flagship Duke of Wellington left Copenhagen with his fleet on 12 April and was joined two days later by the French 2nd Class Line Battleship Austerlitz, the lone French representative until Admiral Parseval–Deschênes arrived with the French Squadron which was being assembled at Brest.
Napier was at the mouth of the Gulf on 19 April, only to find Revel empty, the ice gone, all lighthouses doused, and fog and gales providing the prevailing weather. He had a couple of cartographic ships, but no local pilots, and his partly trained crews were not up to safe handling in rough weather or among the shoals in the Gulf. He therefore took the fleet into Stockholm to wait for better weather. There he met the King, whom he tried rather optimistically to persuade to come into the war on the allies side.
By June, his fleet had increased to forty nine ships, consisting of ten screw line of battleships, fifteen screw frigates and corvettes, seven sailing line of battleships, and seventeen paddle–driven frigates, corvettes and sloops. They were crewed by a total of 22,000 men and armed with 2,344 cannon. The fleet was organised into three squadrons commanded by Rear Admirals Chads, Corry and Plumridge. The weather had improved sufficiently for the fleet to embark on further operations.
Plumridge sailed to the far north of the Gulf of Bothnia with the steam frigates Leopard, Odin and Vulture. Ostensibly they were to destroy merchant shipping and naval storehouses, but they were accused of indiscriminate vandalism, not only by the Finnish and Swedish press, which compared the British to the Viking raiders of the Dark Ages, but by the London Times as well. In a leading article, the Editor Delane suggested that some of the goods being wantonly destroyed were earmarked for Britain, and already paid for.
If the allies wanted to get Sweden on side, this was hardly the way to go about it. To tarnish the Squadron's image even more, their landing force at Tornea was given a bloody nose by an unexpectedly strong Russian garrison. On balance, Plumridge's activities were none too productive. The activities of Capt Hall completed an indifferent performance all round. He had been left in command of three ships off the Åland Islands with a watching brief. As this got boring after a while, he decided to bombard Bomarsund, expending his entire ammunition supply in setting fire to a few outhouses. The only notable historical feature of this shoddy enterprise was the action of Acting Mate Charles Lucas, on the deck of the frigate Hecla, when an explosive shell landed close to his position. The round black shell, similar to the characteristic depiction by cartoonists who write 'Bomb' on it, had a fizzing fuse protruding from it. Presumably immediately, Lucas picked it up and threw it overboard where it exploded spectacularly alongside. For this brave, and probably thoughtless, act he was awarded the first ever Victoria Cross, an honour created by the Queen specifically to recognise acts of extreme bravery in the Crimean War, but of course continued to this day.
On the positive side of the Baltic Operation, by 22 June an allied force of 33 capital ships had been assembled at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. Napier left a force of 15 to keep an eye on Sveaborg, judged too strongly defended for his force to take on. With 12 British and 6 French sail of the line he headed for Kronstadt fortress, behind which the Russian Baltic Fleet was sheltering.
However, the reports he received were not encouraging. A careful three–day reconnaissance showed that only shallow draught vessels could get close enough to the fort to engage its powerful batteries. Napier had none, nor any mortars or rockets essential to such an operation; moreover cholera had broken out in the fleet. He had no alternative but to backtrack to Sveaborg, where Admiral Carey dolefully confirmed the impressive strength of the garrison and extent of its granite fortifications. Its defences also boasted a warfare first — electrically detonated mines.
Action before Odessa
The Black Sea joint naval squadron grabbed the headlines with the first action of the War in April. On the 6th, the British paddle cruiser Furious ran into Odessa under a flag of truce to take off the Consul and a few British residents. As the ship approached the Mole, the Russians fired two warning shots, at which point Furious cut her engine and lowered a cutter — on arrival the party were told rudely that the Britons had already left. As they were on their way back, seven more shots were fired on a direct line between the cutter and the ship, which had been slowly drifting stern on towards the mole. The Russians claimed that Furious was steaming in to attack the port — was there any excuse for a misunderstanding? Having heard the report of Captain Loring of Furious (and I expect he was as well), the allies decided that there was not, and a joint squadron was despatched to take revenge for what was adjudged a flagrant breach of international etiquette.
The squadron anchored in the outer roads before Odessa on the 20th, sending an ultimatum to the Governor Osten–Sacken, demanding the surrender of all vessels, British French and Russian, held in the port. Having received no reply, it was decided to bombard the Imperial Port, without targeting the town and the merchant port, where merchantmen of France, Britain and other nations were being held. Because of the shallow approaches, and the lack of any shallow draught vessels beyond a few British Congreve rocket boats, it was decided to carry out the bombardment with two divisions of four steam frigates each, The tactic would be to adopt a circular formation, each vessel firing a broadside as its guns became parallel to the shore, The vessels would also carry out intricate counter–marches to further upset the aim of the coastal batteries.
From 6.30am till 5pm on the 22nd, the French Vauban and Descartes with the British Tiger and Sampson in the first division, and the British Retribution, Furious and Terrible with the French Mogador in the second, together with the rocket boats, bombarded the naval dockyard, warships and installations, causing heavy damage — the main magazine was blown up by 24 pounder rockets. The only allied casualty was Vauban damaged by shellfire and replaced in the first roundabout by Caton. First blood to the allies.
The Russian fleet was anchored in Sevastopol harbour, with the exception of the Vladimir which continued to harass allied merchant shipping in the Black Sea, remaining unscathed thanks to the bravado and tactical skills of her Captain. Caton and Furious from the joint allied squadron from Odessa moved east to reconnoitre Eupatoria Bay, where they captured four Russian vessels. Furious then somewhat dubiously hoisted an Austrian flag and brazenly sailed into Sevastopol harbour, taking a schooner in tow and capturing her crew. Captain Tatham then raised the British flag as he sailed out of the harbour, hotly pursued by two frigates and a steamer. He was forced to cut loose the schooner in order to escape, but the captured Russian captain provided useful intelligence information.
During this time Admiral Lyons, in his flagship Agamemnon, commanding a squadron of five British and three French steamships, set out for the eastern Black Sea coast south of the Caucasus to contact the local Circassian tribes likely to join the war effort against the Russians. They delivered 37,000 cartridges and instructed the chieftains to hold themselves ready to rise up once the allies informed them that the right moment had arrived. The combined fleet found most of the Russian coastal fortresses abandoned, the only exception being Redout–Kaleh, between the Ingur and Raon rivers in Mingrelia. Lyons and the French commander Commandant de Chabannes invited the Governor to surrender, in the face of their greatly superior force. The Russians succeeded in drawing out the negotiations long enough to construct a temporary bridge across the river. They conducted a skilful clandestine withdrawal and when the Naval force finally lost patience and invaded the fort, they found it empty. The proof was there, though, that with the allied fleet totally in command of the Black Sea, the Russians would find it difficult to maintain any permanent armed presence along its coastline beyond their borders.
The Allies did not have everything their own way. On 12 May, the British frigates Tiger, Niger and Vesuvius were somewhat rashly cruising off the Bessarabian coast in thick fog, when Tiger ran aground close to Odessa. The Russians quickly raced troops and guns to the spot and at short range started inflicting heavy damage on the helpless vessel. The British Captain Giffard stubbornly refused to strike, whereupon he was severely wounded in both legs for a brave but useless gesture. Command luckily passed to the First Lieutenant, who immediately gave up the fight. The Russians took off the crew and several cannon and would have stripped the ship completely if Niger and Vesuvius having realised what had happened, had not appeared out of the fog with guns blazing. The Russians withdrew, having destroyed Tiger by creating a conflagration with red hot shot. The British prisoners were treated exceptionally well, although Captain Giffard succumbed to his wounds. The Tsar even took the midshipmen into the Imperial Naval College at St Petersburg!
The Fleet was blockading the mouth of the Danube, but supplies could still reach the Russian Army from the landward side and several stockades prevented the allies from moving freely up the river. On 7 June, Captain Parker of Firebrand and Captain Powell of Vesuvius engaged in an armed reconnaissance up the river with a mixed force of sailors and marines in three boats. They unexpectedly came under heavy fire at Sulina, which they had believed abandoned. In the ensuing skirmish, Parker was shot dead.
The loss of two senior officers was keenly felt throughout the fleet, and indeed in Britain too, as Parker was a member of the Hyde Parker family — a Naval dynasty almost as old as the Royal Navy itself. It was a sobering reminder that the war would claim victims regardless of rank or status.
Further Afield — The White Sea
The British Navy possessed an astonishing ability to operate offensively for long periods many thousands of miles from home. The small squadron dispatched in June with the task of attempting a blockade of the White Sea provides a fitting example of this. The ships involved were Eurydice, a very fast, shallow draught 26&ndashgun sailing frigate, and two 14–gun screw propelled sloops, Brisk and Miranda. All guns were 32 pounders. The expedition was commanded by Captain Erasmus Ommanney aboard Eurydice. Ommanney came from a distinguished Naval family and was a respected Arctic explorer.
The War significance of the White Sea is that it provided access to the major port of Archangel, a major trading station for the Russians, especially now that the railway had been completed from Moscow significantly improving conditions for the very important timber export trade. The White Sea itself is in reality a large gulf from the south west of the Barents Sea. Some hundred miles wide at the entrance it narrow to a thirty mile wide bottleneck for some hundred miles before opening into the gulf proper. Archangel lies in the South East corner, some forty miles upstream on the River Dvina. The White Sea is frozen over for six months of the year, and often hazardous through floating ice in April and September as well. As a result the busy trade months are from May to August.
The first problem for the squadron was a delay by a dithering Admiralty in announcing a blockade. There were reservations about upsetting Scandinavian countries, and indeed British commerce as well, if a complete embargo was declared. With only three small vessels at his disposal, Ommanney reasoned that a physical blockade was only possible at the port itself. So he set sail for the mouth of the Dvina. He was an aggressive commander, and took every opportunity to sink or capture Russian shipping, and to engage shore batteries and send in landing parties to disrupt and destruct wherever opposition was encountered on the way, and indeed throughout the period of their presence in the White Sea.
On arrival at the mouth of the river however, they found it crossed by a shoal, behind which the Russians had assembled a formidable defensive line of vessels. A few days of storms delayed further action, after which it was discovered that the shoal was too shallow for the British ships to negotiate. Additionally friendly merchantmen returning from the port told of significant in depth artillery defences along the banks. Frustrated but sensible, Ommanney decided to abandon the blockade — Britain would declare it suspended, far too early shortly afterwards anyway — and to make as thorough a nuisance of himself as possible during the remaining summer months.
After a few days to re–supply at Cross Island, in mid–July Brisk and Miranda moved to Solovetsky Island at the entrance to the Onega Gulf in the southwest corner of the White Sea, where intelligence information gained from merchantmen indicated a sizeable garrison was established. On close inspection this proved correct, and they were fired on by field batteries positioned along the shore line. The Russian gunners were accurate with grape and canister, which prompted hasty calls to clear for action. Replying in kind, the ships' guns finally forced the Russians to withdraw within the stout walls of a nearby monastery. A Naval deputation under a flag of truce landed with a hopeful demand for unconditional surrender — when this was duly refused a heated gun battle ensued on 19 July. After some hours the naval gunners managed to silence the batteries in the monastery towers and with a fire seen to have been started, honour was deemed to have been satisfied and the flotilla sailed away. Various raids around the islands and along the coast followed.
The actions of the British sailors were sensationalised as war crimes in the St Petersburg press, with suitably lurid embroidery and invention added. With no detailed official record of these weeks ever published or subsequently coming to light, the allegations were difficult to refute convincingly, and sadly the activities of Plumridge's squadron in the Gulf of Bothnia made them seem believable in the eyes of neutral nations.
One final exploit however stood out as an irrefutable and clean Allied success — on their way back to Britain towards the end of August, Captain Lyons of the Miranda was ordered to reconnoitre the approaches to the town of Kola in North West Lapland off the Barents Sea. Kola, today a suburb of the port of Murmansk, which did not exist in the 19th Century, was at this time a recently strongly fortified bastion in a series approaching the border, of considerable apprehension to the Norwegians.
Kola lay thirty miles up the river of the same name, and shallow enough for the Russians to consider the town safe from attack by warship; subsequently its approaches were undefended. This was just as well, as Lyons took the rash decision to take on the shallows. Thanks to the uninterrupted concentration of their Master, George Williams, who sent boats ahead to take soundings and lay down buoys to mark the channel, and despite numerous groundings which would have left the ship defenceless to the slightest opposition, Miranda arrived opposite the town on the evening of the 22nd, and sent a party ashore under a flag of truce, demanding unconditional surrender. When no reply had been received by the following morning, Lyons decided to open fire.
The artillery duel lasted till around noon, but once more British naval guns and gunners proved equal to the task. Relentlessly accurate shell fire resulted in the destruction of the Russian artillery, enabling a shore party of marines and bluejackets to be launched in three boats to tackle the infantry. Once landed, a short sharp conflict ensued. Red hot shot from Miranda had started a fire which soon became a general conflagration, as the buildings were almost exclusively wooden, Thus deprived of cover, the defenders were vulnerable and were finally driven out of town.
The fire very nearly did for Miranda as well, grounded once again. and close enough to the flames to experience extreme heat. A catastrophe was only averted by energetic and prolonged soaking of hull and masts, and damping down sails and rigging. Satisfied that all inhabitants and combatants had been driven out and the town completely razed to the ground, Lyons finally refloated, and began the tedious return journey downriver to the sea. This was made even more difficult as the Russians had removed the buoys they had placed on their way in. Miranda repeatedly grounded, and it ws indeed extremely fortunate that no Russian forces were present to take them on.
Thus the little squadron was able to finish their operations on a positive note, as they returned home with their merchantmen prizes. Captain Lyons had taken a serious risk, which could well have been interpreted as recklessly placing his ship in jeopardy, but his audacity had paid off. It is a pity that the exploit does not appear to have received the public acclamation it deserved — maybe it was intentionally played down to avoid drawing attention to the allegations of the Russian press.
Further Afield — Petropavlovsk
In the late summer of 1853 Rear Admiral David Price was appointed Commander–in–Chief, Pacific Station. It seemed likely to prove a pleasant finale in exotic surroundings to a career which had started with promise, but had slowed largely due to the long term effects of very serious battle wounds. His most recent seagoing command had ended in 1838 and his last significant employment had been as Superintendent of Sheerness Dockyard.
His perspective changed drastically when news of the outbreak of war with Russia filtered through to his temporary base port at Callao, Peru in early May 1854. Orders from the Admiralty were included — to locate, shadow and if possible capture or destroy the Russian squadron which was known to be loose in the Pacific. The British in particular feared the damage it might inflict on their trade with China, and the threat of invasion to Hong Kong and Australia. The problem was — where was it? Rumours were rife — strongly supported rumour that it had anchored off Singapore sent shivers down spines in British India. Although the ability of the Russians to mount an effective invasion so far removed from their home base at Petropavlovsk was severely doubted.
Price had at his immediate disposal his flagship President, 50–gun frigate, Captain Burrage; Pique, 40–gun frigate, Captain Nicholson; the small 24–gun sister frigates Amphitrite, Captain Fredericks, and Trincomalee (Now restored as a naval museum at Hartlepool, UK) Captain Houston. Finally the tow–boat steamer Virago, 6 guns, Commander Marshall. Price had additional orders to combine operations with the French Pacific Squadron, so he set sail for their base in the Marquesas at Nuku Hiva.
The French Contre&ndashAmiral (corresponding to Rear Admiral) Alphonse Febvrier–Despointes commanded the Division for Oceania and the American West Coast. Although his previous position as Governor of New Caledonia had been political, and prior to that sedentary as Superintendent of the port of Brest, this tough Breton had enjoyed a solid combat record in a steady Naval career. The only problem was that he was suffering from dropsy in his lower limbs a painful and debilitating disease which tended to inhibit his natural dynamism. His pennant was raised on the brig Obligado, 18 guns, Captain de Rosencoat. The other French vessels designated for the Joint Squadron were the frigates Forte, 50 guns Captain de Miniac, and Eurydice, 32 guns Captain de la Grandière; and the corvette Artémise, 30 guns, Captain L'Evêque: After what seems an overlong delay in assembling this small fleet, they set sail for Hawaii — then called the Sandwich Islands.
Arriving at Honolulu on 17 July, the allied Admirals were told that the Russians had been there for much of the month of June and had only left in July when news of the entry of Britain and France into the war finally reached those islands.
In fact the supposed powerful Russian Pacific Fleet turned out to be a mere three vessels. Under the command of the capable Vice Admiral Putyatin as well as his flagship frigate Pallata, 60 guns, were the frigate Aurora, 40 guns Captain Zylmetiev, and the transport Dvina. Putyatin, who had circumnavigated the globe, realised that his small force was no match for the Allied squadron, and had sailed away northward to disperse his force out of harm's way. He sent Pallata as far up the Amur River as her draught could allow, and commended Aurora and Dvina to the security of the harbour of Petropavlovsk, the only Russian port in the region capable of handling warships — Vladivostock was still a part of China at this time.
Presumably resigned to having lost the chance of catching Putyatin on the open sea, the allied admirals devoted time to increasing the influence of their countries with the local king. Politically this was important — the Europeans and United States viewed each other with equally jaundiced eyes over acquisitions in the Pacific and it was suspected that the Americans were anxious to annex the Sandwich Islands and establish a naval base there.
To further encourage His Majesty to remain neutral and preserve his independence, a cruise on board Virago was organised for the Royal family, Privy Council, Ministers of State and notable Nobility, serenaded by two brass bands throughout. Which as the 'Polynesian' put it, “added not a little to the enjoyment of those on board.” As the Virago passed through the ships of the squadron, dressed overall, the yards were manned and salutes were fired.
After a week of such entertainment and no doubt only when they felt their point sufficiently made, the two Admirals put to sea with their Joint Squadron, bound for the Sea of Okhotsk. On departure, they received intelligence reports from Americans indicating that Dvina had been sighted lurking in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, and that the brand new Russian cruiser Diana had just arrived in San Francisco harbour. Accepting this news at face value and with considerable alarm, the Admirals despatched Amphitrite, Trincomalee and Artemise to deal with the perceived threat. It turned out to be a wild goose chase — having found nothing, the ships rejoined the squadron, too late for the subsequent action.
Although news that they were at war with France and Britain had not reached Petropavlovsk until early July, the leisurely progress of the Allied Squadron had left ample time for the reinforcement of the garrison and the upgrading of the harbour and town defences. The harbour was protected on the western side by a long wooded feature, consisting mainly of two hills, Nokolski Hill and Signal Hill. On the Eastern side, a long sandbar stretched northwestward towards the saddle between the two hills, leaving only a narrow entrance to the inner harbour, within which Aurora and Dvina had been so positioned that their broadsides would cover any ships attempting entry. The shore defences had been masterminded by the commander Major General V. S. Zavoiko. Seven coastal batteries were cunningly sited to engage any ship coming within range from any angle. Additional mobile troops of foot and horse artillery were on hand to reinforce critical points with grape and canister in the event of landings. A small force of approximately 400 infantry had arrived half dead from across Siberia, but had had plenty of time to recover and formed the basis of the foot soldiery, reinforced by every male member of the populace, in all numbering around 2000 muskets. In short, it was a formidable defensive force, skilfully deployed on advantageous ground.
The allies finally arrived off the port on 29 August and a desultory exchange of fire beyond maximum range indicated the position of the three batteries guarding the harbour entrance.
The two Admirals decided that they would engage from the front the the two batteries situated left (five guns) and right (eleven guns) at the entrance, from Pique, Forte and President, towed into position by Virago. The most southerly battery (three guns) which could engage them from the stern side when in position was to be the target of an amphibious assault by a mixed force of 200 British Marines and French and British sailors under Captain Parker, landed from Virago. The operation would commence from 6am the following morning.
But the following morning, before the operation was properly off the ground, Admiral Price shot himself with his pistol, and died five hours later. Completely thrown by this devastating development, the high command immediately called off the operation.
It went ahead on the next day with Captain Nicholson, the senior of the Captains, taking over command on the British side. The initial stages went well with accurate gunnery driving the Russian artillerymen from the five–gun battery, and silencing it, causing considerable casualties. The land assault group was partly bogged down by the thickets they had to negotiate, but on arrival at the battery, they found it abandoned, and they wasted no time in destroying the carriages and limbers with blows of their axes, and in spiking the guns. However on observing a force of two hundred or so Russians approaching, they were forced to withdraw by a different route which brought them under fire from Aurora. The re–embarkation was pronounced a success on the Allied side, although the Russians claimed to have engaged and killed a number of French sailors. Whatever the truth, the objective of silencing this troublesome battery had been achieved and by concentrating fire from all the ships on the eleven–gun battery, this was silenced in turn, although the gun crews had natural cover available behind the position. With the onset of darkness, the action was called off.
It seemed that the allies were at a loss what to do next. It was quickly accepted that Price's death was the result of a partially botched suicide, and he was hastily buried the following day without military honours, on the shore of the neighbouring Tarinsky Bay, at the foot of a large tree on which the burial party carved his initials 'DP'.
During this stand off period, which the Russians attributed to the need for the Joint Squadron to patch up the damage inflicted by the shore batteries' gunfire, three British naval officers approached Captain Nicholson in a state of high excitement. They had been ashore hunting in the Bay of Avatehlia when they had chanced on a wood gathering party of three American sailors, claiming to be deserters from a whaling ship, and purporting to know Petropavlovsk well. They happily answered questions, exposing the hidden positions of Russian shore batteries, and also indicating an overgrown pathway from the shore to the top of Nikolski Hill.
In the Council of War which followed on 3 September, it was decided to accept the information as valid, and a plan was devised for a land assault following prolonged bombardment of the known gun positions by the warships. The landing would be at two locations. The main assault would be at the north end of Nikolski Hill, up the overgrown path to the summit, where the objective was to overrun the batteries, stifle resistance and occupy the dominant ground, enabling them to obtain the unconditional surrender of the town below. At the same time, a diversionary attack would be launched in the area of the 'Saddle' Battery, so named for its position between the two hills. Some seven hundred men would be involved overall. Responsibilities were allocated. Captain Burridge would lead the British sailors, Capitaine la Grandière the French. Marines of both nations were under Captain Parker. The Boat and Beach Master would be the French Lieutenant Bourasset.
As this plan unfolded, Admiral Febvrier–Despointes confessed to having serious reservations as to its chances of success. He felt that there were just too many risks involved. Nicholson replied that he had every right to pull out and cause the operation to be aborted, but he needed to be aware that in such a case, he would lay himself open to accusations that, as a result of his over–cautious approach, he had denied the expedition an easy victory. After further discussion, it was decided to put the matter to the vote. The three British captains voted 'for' with two French 'against' — their third, la Grandière, abstained on the grounds that he had been selected for a leading role. So all agreed that the operation would go ahead at 3am the next morning.
So many sailors had been earmarked for the landing that there were not enough left to man the guns on both British vessels, and sufficient men had to be transferred from Pique to man President's fifty cannon. A cumbersome convoy moved into position for the initial bombardment. The Virago took on board the 700 strong assault party, and towed President, with Forte alongside on the shore side, and the empty assault boats on the other. Immediately this conglomeration came within range, it was hotly engaged by the Russian batteries — one ball took away part of Virago's rail, but luckily did not ricochet or it would caused carnage on the crowded deck. Both frigates took multiple hits but by 8am President had silenced the Saddle Battery, and the landings went in.
The main assault soon ran into trouble. Unable to locate the Americans' pathway, they struggled through thick thorny bush to maintain the momentum and formation of the attack. It was soon apparent that the hill was strongly fortified. As well as well–sited artillery positions, stout log cabins in dead ground beyond the summit protected a force of infantry. With extreme bravery and determination the little force pressed forward until Captain Parker fell dead. With most officers wounded, the attackers momentarily wavered and then fell back towards the boat. At this point they sustained heavy fire from concealed positions in the surrounding wood and took heavy casualties, up to and during re–embarkation, when Bourasset the beachmaster was killed. The subsidiary attack had fared no better, but being less energetically pressed, took less heavy casualties. For all operations before Petropavlovsk, the butcher's bill for the Allies was 209 killed and 150 wounded. The Russians total losses were 115, of which only 40 were sustained on 4 September. There was no way that the allies could sustain a campaign in the light of such losses, and the squadron withdrew to San Francisco arriving there on 3rd October and undertaking no further operations that year. As some small consolation, before leaving the Sea of Okhotsk, they intercepted and captured two small Russian supply ships, Anadir and Sitka.
Although the Petropavlosk action was a resounding victory for the Russians, which their Press duly exploited to the full, it was of little strategic significance to the course of the War, and its main interest lies in the questions it posed.
On two occasions, intelligence supplied by Americans had proved false. Was this deliberate? The many US citizens encountered by the Squadron officers and men, in Honolulu in particular, had been pleasant and welcoming, stressing their neutral status. Yet beside the tensions over annexations and island grabbing in the Pacific, it was widely accepted that America favoured the Russians in the conflict. It was only forty years or so since a British Army had sacked Washington and burnt down the White House — there was also ongoing bad blood over Britain's stop and search policy of neutral merchantmen on the high seas. The French, long time allies of the US, had blotted their copybooks by teaming up with the British in the War, and for persecuting members of the American Missionaries when they sought to implant American influence in the Pacific Islands. Common sense ought to have dictated extreme caution when evaluating any information coming from American sources.
A Case for Poirot?
Then there was the strange affair of Admiral Price's suicide. Almost invariably, military suicides blow their brains out — the headshot being the quickest, easiest and most effective way of doing it. But Price had apparently chosen the infinitely more awkward body shot. Even so, with two hands to control the kick of the pistol, he could have placed it against his chest and ensured a quick death. But Price lingered for five hours, certainly having missed heart and lungs at point blank range, and more indicative of having inflicted an abdominal wound.
Strange indeed, and subject to much scepticism. With no suicide note, the balance was swung only by the reported declaration by the ship's Chaplain that Price had confessed to him on his deathbed that, “he could not bear the thought of bringing so many noble and gallant fellows into action.” A rather odd confession from a battle–scarred veteran of many close quarter actions and steeped in naval traditions of honour and service since his early teens. If he had suddenly become a conscientious objector, would not his sense of honour have impelled him to resign his command immediately war was declared?
And assuming it was suicide, why was it not hushed up, when the circumstances could easily have been passed off as an accident? The decision to broadcast the suicide taken by a senior naval officer could only damage the reputation of the British Navy needlessly? Or was it itself a cover up of some darker and deeper hidden circumstance?
The rush to inter the body in a virtually unmarked grave conveniently removed the possibility of an autopsy or exhumation. The excuse given that the men could not go on fighting with a dead admiral on board was ludicrous — they had fought a very successful action on the 31st. Throughout history senior officers have been killed in the course of actions, Lord Nelson of course being the most famous. I don't believe the crew of the Victory refused to fight after the Battle of Trafalgar because Nelson's body was on board — in fact they preserved his body in a cask of alcohol until they docked at Portsmouth some time after repairs at Gibraltar. Nelson was not buried before two and a half months after his death.
No, I find the Admiral Price affair very strange indeed.
Overkill at Bomarsund
Whilst mercifully all this was yet to be revealed back in Europe, the Allies, desperate for a success in the Baltic, organised a raiding Division of 10,000 French Infantry from the war manpower reserve camp between Boulogne–Sur–Mer and St Omer, to join the fleet in early August. Given the choice of using them against Sveaborg or Bomarsund, Napier chose Bomarsund.
The force was to be commanded by General Achille Baraguey d'Hilliers, the one armed veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and fresh from the appointment of French Ambassador to the Porte, where he had delighted in repeatedly upsetting Lord Stratford — in fact Achille had as big a problem in not referring to 'les Anglais' as the enemy, as Raglan did with the French. For this expedition he had General Niel in charge of his Engineers, and Colonel de Rochebouet for the Artillery. His 1st Infantry Brigade, commanded by General d'Hughes, contained the 2nd Infanterie Légère, the 3rd Ligne and the 12th Chasseurs à Pied. The 2nd Brigade, under General Grésy, was composed of the 48th and 51st Ligne. The Marines provided an Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Fiéron, and two Artillery Companies under Major Frébault.
The British contribution was Colonel Graham and around 1000 marines under overall command of Brigadier Jones of the Royal Engineers.
The force embarked at Calais between the 15th and 20th July onto a squadron of mainly British transports. The French managed to cobble together an accompanying squadron of twenty five warships, mostly small steamers, the creation of this fourth squadron leaving all French ports bare, but a gesture much appreciated by the British.
Also tagging along were four English private yachts: Esmeralda, Mavis, Foam and Pet, manned by intrepid 'TG's or 'travelling gentlemen' along to observe the fun as tourists. The owner of the tiny Pet, the remarkable Reverend Hughes, published his experiences in the form of a ship's log, and since he was astute, perceptive and military–wise, has provided an important graphic and valid contemporary account of the operations.
Bomarsund on Åland Island was the most western outpost of the Russian Empire and geographically strategically important. The group of small islands guards entry to the Gulf of Bothnia and holds a commanding position relative to the Gulfs of Finland and Riga. It lies only a hundred miles or so from Stockholm. A chain of islands, Gottland, Ertholm Rocks (Oland) and Bornholm offered a convenient chain of stepping stones to the gates of Copenhagen, threatening ultimate control of the Baltic.
For these reasons the Russians had begun construction of an important military installation there in the 1830s. Bomarsund was an awkward position to attack, a semi–circular fortress containing 115 gun casemates overlooking a narrow channel, the only passage through the islands into the Gulf of Bothnia beyond.
This had been completed, along with three free–standing towers. The first, Brannklint Tower, some 1100 metres north–west of the main fort, was intended to be part of the circular fortification containing six towers linked by a wall protected by glacis plate. It is designated “Tour 'Sud'” on the French annotated land/seascape below. By 1854 however only the foundations of some of the other towers had been completed, and no wall or glacis plate existed. Brannklint was therefore isolated, and not helped in that it was dominated by higher ground on its northern side. The remaining two completed towers had been erected during the previous decade on opposite sides of the northern entrance to the Bomarsund Channel, Nortike “Tour 'Nord'”) on the main island and Presto (“tour de Presto”) on the opposite headland.
All three towers were built of matching red granite, about sixty yards in diameter, and sixty feet high. with bombproof roofs. Each tower was armed with 24 guns of mixed calibre, mounted in two rows and casemated. The only difference was the positioning of the casemates — on the Brannklint the apertures were confined to the north and west sides.
The fortifications were being developed in line with the principle devised by the French Engineer René de Montalembert, that a siege in the age of the exploding shell was a duel between opposing cannons and the side with the highest number with best protection would win. Therefore you sited your cannon in bombproof solid brick emplacements, and made maximum use of space by stacking them several stories high.
The result was that the incomplete fortifications were efficient enough on the seaward side, but vulnerable to a land attack. The defenders totalled around 2300, mainly Russian and Finnish conscripts with Russian Officers under the command of General Bodisco.
At the end of July, the Combined Baltic Fleet moved up to blockade the Ålands with twenty five warships, ensuring that no reinforcements or additional supplies would reach the garrison.
General Baraguey d'Hilliers arrived ahead of the main body in his steam flagship Reine Hortense together with General Niel, and after consultation with the Baltic Fleet Commanders, it was decided to deal first with the towers piecemeal, primarily with artillery bombardment and then to carry out a land assault on the main fort supported by a naval bombardment. It would take time to get the guns into position due to broken and undulating nature of the terrain, with two lakes, frequent streams, thick pine woods and large boulders demanding frequent detours fom the shortest distance between two points.
The fleet from Calais arrived on the 7th and all during the day there were bands playing and loud cheers as one after the other the ships slid into Lumpar bay. It was confirmed that landings would take place from early the following morning, two to the south and one, the British, to the north. Troops from these landings would then link up to completely encircle the fortifications on the landward side with some deployment on to roads westward to ensure against attack from that direction.
The French started disembarking from 3am. Navigation was tricky especially in the dark, and one steam sloop ran aground creating a great commotion attracting cannon fire from what transpired to be a five–gun mud battery established in the open in front of the Brannklint Tower. At daybreak this was fiercely engaged from the British steam frigate Amphion and the French corvette Phlegeton which were positioned to the flank of the battery — finally the gun teams were driven away by their charges, and boarding parties from the two ships found the position deserted and duly spiked the guns. Both ships had impressed by their ability to navigate close enough to shore to obtain decisive fire positions. Admiral Napier was not so lucky later on, as Reverend Hughes records:
At noon, the Bulldog, bearing Sir Charles flag, was passing in front of the batteries in high state and splendour and going nearly at full power when she ran hard and fast upon a sunken rock and there she lay, a good long gunshot from the forts, fixed apparently as firmly as the rocks themselves.One of those occasions when the rest of the fleet smile carefully behind their hands. Not so the Admiral, itching to get into the fight. Together with Stromboli he had been firing at the Brannklint, without much impact due to the range and elevation it must be said. As it was he was stuck on the rocks for several hours until with Amphion's help he refloated around sunset.
The landings were all effectively carried out without further opposition and the link–ups achieved. The allied troops set up their respective camps. The weather was perfect, warm with a slight breeze and the balmy odour of the pines everywhere. There was no enemy activity apart from the odd ineffective round shot seemingly fired at random — they had destroyed the numerous bridges over streams and placed obstacles on the roads, but seemed content to remain within their walls. As a result there was a holiday atmosphere in the camps as groups cooked their evening meals over their fires. There would be little to do until the guns were in position.
This would prove a laborious process. The routes and gun positions were first personally set after careful reconnaissance over difficult ground by Generals Niel and Jones respectively, accompanied by their Commanders of Artillery. Next the route preparation had to be done by the sappers, and initial work on the gun positions by sappers and gunners. When all was ready the guns had to be manhandled up from the ships. We are grateful to Reverend Hughes for a graphic description of this painful process:
It was a strange sight to see the long trail of 150 seamen to a gun come winding up the rough and narrow road. First in the procession came the band, dusty, way-worn and red-hot with puffing, making the valleys ring to the unwonted strains of 'Nancy Dawson' and 'Cheer, Boys, Cheer'; next came the seamen tugging away at the hawser, while officers rushed about to guide their course and excite them to greater exertion; lastly came the gun, mounted on a sledge, which rolled, pitched and slewed about the rough ground, while half–a–dozen smart fellows did their best to steady it with handspikes, and others tried to smooth the monster's way with rollers. The sledges were very cumbrous; a tail–rope was much wanted to steady them down-hill, and I cannot help thinking that something in the way of a two-wheeled timber jill would have ben an improvement. 'Now my lads, don't let the d––d thing beat us' sang out a boatswain, and away they went again a few more yards, when the gun got restive and plunged off its rollers. A few minutes, remonstrance with the gun, and off again; this time the gun showed positive vice, jibbed, swerved, and toppled over upon a seaman and crushed his leg.
The sailors doing the towing were doubly aggrieved. Not only was it backbreaking work in the heat, as they toiled past groups of soldiers, merchant seaman and assorted onlookers sprawled on the turf or generally idling, but they felt it a slight on their ships and the Royal Navy in general that they had not been left to take Bomarsund on their own, and they believed that the whole military land presence was totally unnecessary.
They probably had a point. In any event it meant that the air was alive with the choicest language as they plodded past the Reverend, who confessed to being saddened rather than shocked by the experience!
Once the guns arrived, the gunpits needed development. Due to the rocky terrain, bags and gabions had to be filled with earth several kilometres away and manhandled to the positions. The French battery was located to the south west of the Brannklint Tower; the British was established half way between that tower and the Nortike, so that fire could be laid on either or both as circumstances demanded. The French position included four 18pdr guns and four mortars. The British, when complete would have three 32pdr naval guns and four howitzers.
Throughout the days that these measures were underway, the Russians attempted to bring fire to bear on the works, to little effect. Their initial effort had been to disrupt the Allies by accurate musket fire from infantrymen positioned in front of Brannklint Tower, but after some early success which cost the French twelve killed and wounded including an officer of the 12th Chasseurs à Pied, that regiment deployed its sharpshooters who directed such a murderous and accurate fire at the enemy that the survivors were forced back into the tower. At that the French concentrated their musketry on the embrasures to such effect that the Tower guns could only maintain a desultory rate of fire.
The bombardment of Brannklint Tower began at 3am on the 13th. The day was not particularly auspicious — the brass cannon could not sustain a high rate of fire and in the morning the Russians had the better of the duel, dismounting three of them. But the casemates were filling with smoke after every shot and the Russian rate of fire slowed. The French were able to bring their guns back into action but the 18 pound shot made little impact on the thick walls. In the early afternoon, the Tower Commandant, Captain Tesche, of Swedish descent, was granted a one hour truce to discuss surrender terms with his superiors, but hostilities were resumed without agreement being reached. The rest of the day passed in relative stalemate, although the French mortars severely damaged the roof, making it impossible for the Finnish sharpshooters to operate from there, leaving the French able to come closer and fire into the apertures more accurately.
During the night the British howitzer battery was completed ready for action, and the French brought up more guns — six 30pdrs, which were positioned just 140 metres from the Tower. When the Russians saw this at first light on the 14th, they were stunned to silence. After a short while, a party of French volunteers, with chasseurs from the 12th led by Sous Lieutenant Gigot, and infantrymen from the 51st Ligne led by Sous Lieutenant Gibon went forward to gain entry through a ground floor embrasure six feet off the ground. They were met by Captain Tesche, sword in hand, their only opposition. Sadly this courageous soldier was stabbed with a bayonet. Some thirty or so conscripts surrendered immediately — the rest of the garrison had already fled.
The gallant Captain accompanied by his wife who was also in the tower, was evacuated for medical treatment aboard the Prince, and Reverend Hughes states that he heard encouraging news two days later; however, he added somewhat gruesomely:
The Frenchman, who was strutting around in high glee with the captured sword, showed me his bayonet and it was stained with blood to the muzzle of the gun.
The French occupied the tower, but to no great purpose as it had no embrasures bearing on the fortress. Moreover the Russians were firing at it, and the roof was unsafe.
Tuesday 15 August was to prove the decisive day of the operation. During the night British sailors had with prodigious effort dragged the three heavy 32 pounders to the British gun position and they began hammering away at Nottich Tower at first light. At the same time a 10inch gun had been installed by Captain Pelham of Blenheim on the site of the unfortunate Russian five–gun mud battery, an ideal position to engage the left or west front of the Half Moon fortress, where his round shot was aimed at the weak spot junction of the wall and the roof.
The Admiral also decided that it was time for the Fleet to get seriously involved and tasked Screw Frigates Asmodée, Arrogant and Amphion, Screw Corvette Phlegeton, Paddle Frigates Valorous and Leopard, Paddle Corvette Cocyte, Paddle Sloops Driver, Bulldog, Sphynx, Hecla and Trident for close–in bombardment of the fortress, with Line ships Edinburgh, Ajax, Darien, and Duperré standing off at extreme range.
Throughout the morning the artillery duels were brisk, the Russians for the most part giving as good as they got. Facing Nottich, Lieutenant Wrottesley, a promising young Engineering officer, was killed on the gun position, although most of the shot from the tower went over and landed in the British camp, causing considerable material damage but miraculously, though there were many tales of close shaves, no one was killed there. Though the facing of the Half Moon fortress was showing scars, no significant damage to the walls was evident. The Presto Tower was being engaged by Cocyte, Leopard and Hecla. Here honours were around even — the tower remained intact, and the ships though taking hits, were not seriously damaged. At midday the Allies broke off the engagement briefly to fire a series of salutes and drink a toast with hearty cheers in honour of the French Emperor's birthday!
According to Reverend Hughes, a timely accompaniment to the compliments was provided by the Brannklint Tower, which blew up in spectacular fashion in the midst of the revelry. The tower had been wired for demolition, but the speed and timing of the French assault had surprised the garrison. Presumably tipped off by a prisoner, Napier telegraphed the French to evacuate it shortly before it blew, with two laggards paying for their tardiness with their lives. Had the Russians fired it deliberately at that suitable moment? Probably not. Once lost, the Russians had engaged the tower with gunfire. One report claims that a small fire had started overnight and the tower had probably gone up when the fire reached the magazine.
As the day wore on the heavy British 32pdrs created a breach in the Nottich Tower, and the Russian guns ceased firing at around 3pm. By three hours later, the breach had widened to around thirty feet and an assault was about to be organised when a white flag was raised. The British officers who went in to arrange the surrender were treated to cups of tea!
The day's fighting petered out with no further major happenings.
During the night of 15th–16th there were two significant developments. The French established a breaching battery just 380 metres from the central point of the fortress, and consisting of two 30pdr naval guns and two 22cm Howitzers. Additionally it was decided to take out the troublesome Presto Tower. A joint force of 500 French and 180 British marines under the command of Marine Lieut Colonel de Vassoignes stormed the tower at first light and after a short but brisk and furious fight, the Fort Commander Captain Jacquelin, of French extraction, hopelessly outnumbered, surrendered. The Finnish defenders destroyed their arms before consenting to yield. Sadly almost immediately the dreaded cholera broke out among the victors.
All guns were now concentrated on the Half Moon fortress. It became plain to the Commandant Major General Bodisco that he was on a hiding to nothing. With no hope of reinforcement, all avenues of withdrawal removed, and his casemates filled with overpowering smoke, it was obvious that there was to be no infantry assault for a glorious and honourable end to the defence. The Allies would just carry on pounding the fortress until it collapsed into dust, however long that might take. In these circumstances, and to save further bloodshed, he raised a white flag at around midday on the 16th. His main anxiety was to avoid censure from the Russian Emperor for not having resisted enough; he asked General d'Hilliers for a kind of testimonial, to the effect that the defence had held out bravely until it was obvious to all that further resistance would be useless — this was readily given.
The first joint allied land operation of the war, and a combined service operation to boot, it had been a brilliant success. The British and French had been able to operate together almost seamlessly, on land as well as on sea. Of course they had had overwhelming superiority, but the sheer size and composition of the force had presented challenges and complications which could have resulted in a breakdown of communications and operational chaos, but which had triumphantly proved the contrary.
The butcher's bill was light. The British losses were four killed and twelve wounded, the French forty killed and wounded, a proportion of those resulting from a 'blue on blue' between two French patrols during the night of the 13th–14th. Even the Russian losses were comparatively light. At the Nottich Tower they lost eight killed and twenty wounded — at the Half Moon there were 'a few dead' and seventy wounded.
There were a few 'unfortunate' incidents. The French wife of a Russian officer was being driven westwards by an orthodox priest early after the landings and failed to stop at a British check point. Intercepted by an English officer at rifle point, they were told they could continue but should always stop at check points. The priest chose to ignore the advice, and both he and his charge were shot dead when he failed to stop at the next French checkpoint. Then at the surrender of the main fortress, one of the defenders broke away and tried to blow up the magazine before he was overpowered. He was hanged the next day by the French — there is no record of any trial or official authorisation for the execution, it appears to have been a very local arrangement. British soldiers who had played no part in the action against the Brannklint Tower descended on it after it had been taken and proceeded to wantonly destroy all the fittings and furnishings, to the bemusement of the occupying French. But by and large the behaviour of the ground forces was good and major horrors absent.
The allies offered the Åland Islands to Sweden — a none too subtle move which unsurprisingly was rejected. Acceptance of the offer would only have antagonised the Russians towards them, and the Swedes would have had no more success defending Bomarsund against a determined land and sea attack than the Russians themselves had had. For similar reasons the Allies decided that there was no point in placing a garrison there, and decided to raze the defences to the ground — the demolition of the fortress began on 30 August.
Return of the Baltic Fleet
The British and French Press did their best to hail the reduction of Bomarsund as a stunning victory. In France the public at last had something to celebrate after week after week of desperate news from Varna, and were prepared to accept the success as a valid reason, although there was criticism of the number and degree of awards given.
On the other hand, the British public were lukewarm. OK, it was a victory, but they had been expecting something far more spectacular from the invincible British Navy — they should have been reducing Kronstadt to rubble, sinking the Russian fleet under the eyes of the Tsar, and bombarding St Petersburg. The Lords of the Admiralty too could not have been overimpressed — part of the rationale for sending such a large force was to push Napier into aggressive action; he could well have resented the fact, and his choice of Bomarsund looked like the easiest way out. Reverend Hughes came up with an opinion which was no doubt current at the time:
It cannot be denied that we took a very big wheel to break a little fly upon, which after all, our boasting was not perhaps very creditable.
But Napier had no more to offer. It was getting late in the year, bearing in mind that the Gulf of Finland can be blocked by ice already in October. There were some rather ambitious and speculative schemes put forward for an assault on Sveaborg, but the French were not to be tempted, and the cholera first experienced at Presto Tower developed into a serious outbreak, affecting British ships as well.
To be fair, to return home was probably the wisest decision. But this did not suit British public opinion and a scapegoat was called for. Not being around to defend himself, Napier was the obvious loser and he was most unfairly dismissed on his arrival at Portsmouth, being ordered to strike his flag and come ashore in a most peremptory manner. He was the wrong man to try to walk over however, as he proved after a long battle. He was able to prove the incompetence of the Admiralty from his correspondence, and when he called for a public investigation into the conduct of the campaign, they backed down and recommended him for the title 'Grand Commander of the Bath' — he enjoyed sweet revenge in suggesting what they might do with it!
The War in the East in 1854
Background to 1850s Asia Minor
Whilst French and British eyes had been firmly fixed on the defences of Sevastapol, the situation in Asia Minor had been steadily deteriorating.
Asia Minor is arguably one of the worst defined regions in world geography — a nebulous area where the popular conception is that the girls all wear bright multi–coloured long dresses and headscarves and weave equally bright multi–coloured carpets whilst the men, with faces like roasted peeled chestnuts, all looking about 140 years old, sit in the sun on decrepit wooden chairs wearing little woolly waistcoats and skullcaps and smoking hookahs. But as to where it actually is …
It seems that the allies during the Crimean War suffered from much the same attitude — Asia Minor was so remote that any military goings on there were too trifling to worry about. It was an attitude which at the end of the War was going to cost them dear at the conference table. And many believed that it was more by luck than good judgement that it didn't cost them the War itself.
Although I can't be precise on the boundaries of Asia Minor, at least I can provide a map which covers this theatre of the War.
There had been much recent upheaval following Russian expansion. In 1828 the Russians had seized Georgia, Daghestan and exclusive navigation rights to the Caspian Sea as war reparations from Persia. The Shah had allowed their territories a loose form of independence — the Russians emphatically did not.
Shortly afterwards Russia emerged victorious from a short war against Turkey. Amongst other concessions made in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Turks handed to Russia all the territory bordering the eastern coast of the Black Sea from Poti up the southern entrance to the Sea of Azov.
As a result of these changes, much of the area was a bubbling cauldron of unrest. The political situation in Georgia was typical. The Georgians were predominantly Christians and initially well disposed to the new Russian masters — later on, when they realised that their traditional freedoms were being denied to them, they turned against the Russians, only to turn back to them in reaction to atrocities committed by Turkish irregulars early in the War. Throughout the War, Georgians would remain moderately active on the Russian side. To the north of them however it was a different story. The inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountain region, broadly known as Circassians, had never recognised outside authority and would fight to the death against any who tried to impose it. In the 1830s, following their treaty acquisitions, the Russians had built a string of forts in the mountains and along the Black Sea coast, the theory being that they could control the population through military garrisons operating from strongholds; what had been good enough for Edward the First in Wales was seemingly still good enough for them. This strategy was meat and drink to the Circassians who set about reducing the forts piecemeal. In the few cases where the walls were thick enough and the garrisons large enough to resist, the Russians were starved into submission.
The most celebrated of the Circassian rebels was a Daghestani named Shamyl. He was a colourful character in every sense — he had bright red hair and beard — and his followers credited him with almost supernatural powers. The Russians sent a succession of punitive expeditions against his force, succeeding several times through sheer weight of numbers and grim determination in cornering him in his mountain fastnesses. Twice there were eyewitness who swore they had seen him die — once thrown into a deep chasm, the other time run through by several bayonets, but on each occasion, after a decent lapse of time for mourning or celebrating his death, he had shown up again unharmed. A devout Moslem, he was widely considered a prophet and he rather encouraged the image. He was a leader of his people in every sense, introducing a well–run system of government, with an efficient revenue collection system providing benefits like pensions for widows of warriors.
On the outbreak of war, the Turks had pulled off quite a coup in securing an alliance with him, for this was no mob of Bashi–bazooks. Shamyl's little army operated very much in line with sound military principles. The Russians had had the bright idea of sending the captured son of a Circassian chief to military academy in St Petersburg, force–feeding him through a somewhat accelerated military career to the rank of Major General. They then sent him to the Causcasus, the idea being that his local background would prove invaluable in the fight against Shamyl. But naturally enough he immediately defected, married Shamyl's sister (did she have red hair too?) and became his second in command as Daniel Bey. Whilst in the Russian Army he had made sufficient contacts to be able to to entice competent European specialist gunnery and engineering officers to join them — they in turn married local girls and fought as ardently as the rest for Circassian freedom. These facts were reported with glee in the allied press, as were allegations that Daniel imposed western style discipline on the army, but given the Circassian free spirits, I very much doubt it. It typifies the difficulty of reporting this theatre of war accurately — most contemporary English language accounts cynically distort the truth to reassure their Victorian readers that Turks could only fight when inspired by good old British values.
In summary, Shamyl was an astute commander of a force large and effective enough for the Russians to have to take him seriously. Having him at their backs would seriously hinder them from developing any battlefield advantage into an invasion of Turkey from the east.
If the Russians did decide to invade, the first obstacle they would face after crossing the frontier, 6000 feet above sea level in the mountains, was the 'fortress' town of Kars, astride the one road passable in fair weather for army traffic. In no way a stronghold, it consisted of an old rundown 16th century castle on a hillside, affording some protection to a small town and with a few outlying single tower forts or 'tabias' linked by dilapidated earthworks. But as this contemporary engraving shows, it had, Turkish estate agents might have said,
considerable potential for development. Its main drawback as a defensive position was its isolation — the nearest town was Erzerum, 120 miles westward through deep defiles which could be easily dominated by a few cavalry. There was no possible 'as the crow flies' link to Batum. The nearest port was Trebizond, a further 180 miles north west of Erzerum, along a deeply rutted mule track which wound its way over two major mountain ranges. Constantinople was 800 miles west beyond Erzerum, along rough and rudimentary roads.
In short, Kars was difficult to supply, difficult to relieve, and difficult to withdraw from. By contrast, the Russian front line fortress in Georgia was just 30 miles away with good communications back to Tiflis.
Asiatic Operations in 1853
For these reasons Kars had not figured largely in Turkey's initial offensive for what it called its Asiatic Army. This was to be three pronged. To the north, a joint combined service attack was launched on the Russian Fort St Nicholas — the Turkish Navy under seconded British Admiral Adolphus Slade supporting a land attack from Selim Pasha's force driving up from Bakum. This proved a total success — Fort St Nicholas was taken. In the centre, the Russian supreme commander Prince Worontzov was on the back foot, tied down by Shamyl's aggressive patrolling in his rear. The Turks on the Kars central axis, profiting by the space thus provided, advanced to Gumri, hoping to close the jaws of a trap with elements of Selim's force, driving north. On the right, Mehemet Pasha's objective was to take Erivan and advance on Tiflis from the south. After initial success at Bayezid Fort, which he forced the Russians to destroy and evacuate, the advance got bogged down in front of Erivan. Further momentum was lost when the Russians checked the southern Turkish advance at Akhaltsihk, and the central push was checked at Ongusli. With no time remaining to develop further operations before the ferocious onset of freezing weather, the armies went into winter quarters. The inhospitable terrain ruled out field encampments, so the Turks on the central axis pulled back into the one remotely suitable town — Kars.
Although the Russians had made much of their successes, nowhere could they have been accurately described as significantly victorious. The Turkish land offensive had been checked, but on no occasion had their formations been forced to leave the field of battle. The Turkish troops resented that they had fought bravely and well, but had received no recognition for it. They felt with some justification that they had been let down by their officers. As the British Army in Burma in World War 2 found out, it was a short step from being geographically remote to feeling forgotten. Alarmed by reports of breakdown in morale, the Porte appointed a new commander, Zarif Mustapha Pasha. Zarif had a reputation for daring and aggression in battle and the men looked up to him. He reorganised the staff, and instituted a proper medical service with clean hospital accommodation. In spite of the fact that no money was forthcoming from Constantinople for replacement of worn out stores and equipment, he had made significant headway towards restoring morale by the time the better spring weather arrived.
1854 Seaborne Initiative
The 1854 fighting season started promisingly for the Turks in April on the Black Sea coast where Selim Pasha took Ozergthi almost without a shot being fired. A month later a joint Anglo–French naval squadron under Admiral Lyons began clearing the Russians from their other coastal forts. Lyons and the French Captain Chabannes were keen to organise joint operations with Circassian cavalry along the coastal strip. They arranged a council of war attended by several Circassian warlords. The allies could dangle a useful carrot — 37,000 musket balls captured from a Russian ship. The Circassians agreed to cooperate, though remaining somewhat reticent at the suggestion that they hold themselves ready to unite under Shamyl for possible future major operations. Sadly there was no opportunity for this interesting experiment to be tested, as the important forts of Sukhom Kaleh and Redoubt Kaleh were captured without a shot being fired — the Russians had already withdrawn from the former and outwitted the allies to get away in the nick of time from the latter. By the end of May the Russians had evacuated all coastal installations south of the Caucasus.
On Land in 1854
The land war on the other hand went from bad to worse for the Turks. Hassan Bey, Selim's right hand man who had competently handled the onshore operation at the capture of St Nicholas in 1853, took the initiative against General Andronikov's Corps in south western Georgia but his force was beaten off with heavy loss of life including his own. Andronikov vigorously pressed his advantage, and caught a back–pedalling Selim with his back to the River Choruk. After three hours of fighting the Turks fled, leaving their guns and baggage, and not stopping until they reached Batum. This time there could be no question about who had won.
Once again, the threat of Shamyl at their back prevented the Russians from moving on into Anatolia. He was also preventing any move into Turkish Armenia. The Russian plan was for Prince Bebutoff's Gumri–based force to move on Kars, and for General Wrangel from Erivan to retake Bayezid and loop round to Erzerum. But for the whole month of July Shamyl was lurking menacingly close to Tiflis and they dared not move. But Shamyl could not maintain such a forward position indefinitely and immediately when he withdrew, Wrangel moved on Bayazid where another part of Selim's corps vaporised in front of him. This was finally too much for the Porte and Selim was sacked, not before time.
In the centre, Prince Beboutov's tactic was to draw Zarif into battle. Zarif had received precise instructions to maintain a defensive posture at all costs. However these orders had not envisaged the current situation, with Wrangel faced with the appetising option of either joining Beboutov or nosing towards Erzenoom and threatening to cut Zarif off. In the circumstances he felt he had no option but to move against the immediate threat to his front.
Although much play was subsequently made of his major numerical superiority in infantry, Zarif's main problem, which he appreciated as much as the Porte did, was his lack of cavalry. For that reason after initial contact he would attempt to occupy dominating ground in the mountainous terrain where he could make his infantry firepower superiority tell and limit the power of the cavalry to deploy and gather momentum. This conception was not shared by all his foreign advisers who included the highly esteemed Irish soldier of fortune Gahan — known as Guyon — and disagreements between them would play a significant part in the outcome of the battle.
The Battle of Kurukdere
The first part of Zarif's plan went well. He left his camp twenty kilometres to the west of Kars on 4 August. When news of this reached Beboutov he moved to meet Zarif along the Mescko road — the outriders of both armies met at Kurukdere in front of the heights of Kara–Dagh on to which the Turks quickly positioned themselves and established a redoubt. Initial success went to the Turks thanks partly to their well sited and well drilled artillery fire under their commanders Tahir Pasha, educated at Woolwich, and the Prussian Ibrahim Bey. The Russian right wing wilted, but the problem they posed the Turks by their thirty six dragoon squadrons and two thousand five hundred Cossacks became evident when the Turkish infantry sallied forth to exploit their success — the cavalry moved in to break up the attack and in doing so achieved an impetus which drove them up to the gun positions, capturing eight guns.
Beboutov then launched his infantry in the centre — Zarif withdrew to an excellent prepared hilltop position where he had sited twenty guns, but in doing so failed to disengage from the Russians, and desperate hand to hand fighting comparable to Inkerman ensued. As a result the Turkish centre was severely dented and their right wing was overrun. Nothing daunted, Zarif threw everything in on the left, his success swinging the axis of the battle round so that Beboutov had to redeploy all his reserves to counter the threat. In order to profit from his cavalry dominance, Beboutov redeployed his force, extending his battle line over five kilometres. The Turkish artillery had a field day while this was going on.
Nonetheless, without sufficient cavalry, Zarif was never going to be able to chase the Russians from the field. What cavalry he had was employed in extremis on the right, preventing Beboutov from exploiting his initial success. Acting on advice from some of his Europeans that the Russians were wilting, Zarif sent the infantry in on the left. This was bread and butter for the Russian cavalry as the Turkish infantry were caught in the open and the attack was never going anywhere when he mercifully called it off.
By early evening the battle subsided into stalemate, although the Russians, standing their ground, would claim victory. Zarif withdrew unmolested to his camp. Losses were probably equal on both sides, though extravagant claims preclude an exact estimate — probably around 6–8000 casualties each. If the Russians had not felt capable of using the battle as a major springboard for the invasion of Turkey, which after the battering Beboutov had received would be questionable, they could always fall back on the excuse that Shamyl was once more menacing Tiflis. On 17 August the Russians struck camp and withdrew from Turkey after blowing up Fort Bayezid.
Changes at the Top
There was also a report from a correspondent of the London Times, who in the time honoured tradition of reporters of minor league sports matches, may well have sat out the battle in a local bar. Statements like, “the [Turkish] management of the whole battle … was a series of blunders from first to last,” and “downright cowardice alone … gave the day to the Russians,” were certainly calculated to strike dread into a British government already twitchy about a Russian threat to India through Persia. Just how true they were is another matter. My account of the Kurukdere battle comes from an habitually accurate source, but I have nothing else in such detail to compare it with. There is no doubt that the author of the report that the Times published, whoever he was, had an axe to grind, as he goes on to demand the immediate despatch of British and French officers to take over the Turkish Army, making intemperate references to 'intriguants and imbeciles' characteristic of crackpot letters.
Whether or not influenced by this unwelcome publicity, the Porte's reaction to the defeat was swift, unforgiving and slightly unfair. Zarif was told he was to be sacked as soon as a replacement was found — the reason given was that he had disobeyed strict instructions not to attack, that he had put government backs up by constant requisitions for more stores and equipment which he knew could not be supplied, and that he had let the Bashi–Bazooks run riot. General Guyon was to carry the can for the confusion amongst the European advisers and was also dismissed.
Whether off his own bat or influenced by all the fuss, Lord Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, tasked a Colonel William Williams to go to Kars and report on the situation there. And thereby will hang an interesting tale …
Failure to achieve a decisive sea victory elsewhere meant that all eyes had turned expectantly to the Crimea. But the armies were still in their camps at Varna.
© COPYRIGHT JOHN BARHAM 2000 —
Links to the main sub-headings within the chapter above:
The War at Sea 1854 | The State of the Navies | Baltic Expedition | Action before Odessa | Further Afield: The White Sea | & Petropavlovsk
A Case for Poirot? | Overkill at Bomarsund | Return of the Baltic Fleet | The War in the East in 1854 | Background to 1850s Asia Minor
Asiatic Operations in 1853 | 1854 Seaborne Initiative | On Land in 1854 | The Battle of Kurukdere | Changes at the Top
Sources for Chapter 5
Contents ◄ Chapter 1 ◄ Chapter 2 ◄ Chapter 3 ◄ Chapter 4 ◄ ● ► Chapter 6