HC Deb 11 July 1856 vol 143 cc645-52

On the question that the House at its rising should adjourn till Monday,


Sir, I rise pursuant to notice to call the attention of the House to the services of the corps of Royal Engineers in the Crimea. I do so because there is a disposition abroad to depreciate the services of the British army in the Crimea. I think it high time that something should be done to counteract this tendency to detract, and I believe that my statement this evening will be a step in that direction. No detractor has ventured to question the courage and the conduct of the British soldiers of the general service. So far as the special corps are concerned, I have never heard any one bold enough to say the British Artillery was second to any in the world, and my statement this evening, I trust, will show that the British Engineers were equal, to say the very least, to any body of Engineers that ever took the field. The war that has just terminated, unlike any other modern war on record, narrowed itself into one mighty siege. The victory of the Alma was but the introduction to the siege of Sebastopol, and the battles of Balaklava, of Inkerman, and of the Tchernaya, were but futile attempts on the part of the Russians to raise that siege. A fortress important rather for its uses than for its strength—a fortress so low in the scale of scientific defence that it was supposed, erroneously enough, to be open to a surprise, so moderately fortified that it was considered liable to the affront of a coup de main, became, under the pressure of circumstances and by the mere force of earthworks erected by the genius of Todtleben, one of the strongest places on record, and held at bay for eleven months the chivalrous valour and the military science of the world. This war, then, being a siege, it follows that the battle was fought by science. It was a war of engineers, and I rise in my place to claim for the British Engineers their full share in the achieving that great result which has brought about the peace. There were three great turning points on which the success of the war depended. First, there was the selection of a place of landing in the Crimea; secondly, there was the decision as to which front of Sebastopol should be attacked—for we were not in a condition to invest the whole, according to the real acceptation of the term; and thirdly, and most important, was the discovery of the key to the position of the front to be attacked. Now, Sir, I may at once avow that I claim for the British Engineers the decision on all these three points, and I shall confine myself, as much as possible, to proving that this was the case. I must trust to the indulgence of hon. Members while I place historically before them these three questions in their relative positions. It will be seen at a glance that this question widens itself from a corps question into a national one. What I now say, by the aid of the press, will be spread far and wide. What I now say will, doubtless, by many be impugned, and it therefore behoves me to start on a proper base, and to go on adding fact to fact in order to be able to defy all contradiction. In January, 1854, on account of the appearances in the East, Colonel Vicars, with three engineers, left England to place themselves under the orders of Admiral Dundas, who commanded in the East. At Gibraltar, Colonel Vicars was taken ill, and the command devolved upon Captain Chapman, now Colonel Chapman, whose distinguished services I have had occasion previously to bring under the notice of the House. These officers joined the fleet in the Bosphorus, and were despatched to reconnoitre the strong position of Maidos, near the Dardanelles. Now, at this juncture the home authorities were without any precise information with regard to the East. In this dilemma, Sir John Burgoyne, whose high position as Inspector General of Fortifications, might well have excused him from the arduous undertaking, volunteered his services, at this inclement season, to proceed to the East, to make military observations of such forces as should be sent by the allied French and English armies in support of the Turks, in the event of a war with Russia which then appeared imminent. His services were accepted with eagerness. On his way through Paris the Emperor Napoleon associated with him, Colonel Ardant, an officer of French Engineers. These two officers proceeded together to the Dardanelles, and inspected the position of Maidos, and afterwards of Boulahir, preferring which latter the officers of Engineers were withdrawn from Maidos to reconnoitre Boulahir, which they did in that inclement season, the snow being then deep on the ground. Sir John Burgoyne and Colonel Ardant then proceeded to Constantinople to reconnoitre the position of Bujukchekmedji, about twelve miles from Constantinople, a strong position, intended to be made the base of operations and to cover Constantinople. Colonel Ardant went forward to examine the position of Kara-su, where strong lines of defence were available, connecting the sea of Marmora with the Black Sea. Sir John Burgoyne meantime went to Shumla to confer with Omar Pasha, and he reconnoitred and reported upon Varna. Thence he returned to England, leaving Colonel Ardant at Gallipoli. Now, while Sir John Burgoyne was at Constantinople, there was presented to him a project for the defence of that town by certain French officers attached to the embassy—these lines of defence were to pass from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn, and from that to the Bosphorus, passing within a mile of the suburbs of Constantinople. The ground no doubt was ably taken up, but Sir John Burgoyne at once pointed out that it was faulty, because it passed close to an enormous population, and a city liable to conflagration as Constantinople notoriously was; but the principal objection, however, was, that it abandoned to the enemy the Bosphorus, which was our only means of communication with the Black Sea. This plan of defence, therefore, was abandoned in favour of that of Kara-su, which in every point resembled the lines of Lisbon, with a similar advantage of the stronghold of Bujukchekmedji. War being at length declared, the allied army was sent to Gallipoli, and took up the intrenched post of Boulahir; they then proceeded to Constantinople, leaving a small force to occupy Gallipoli. The Russians having made no impression on the Danube, notwithstanding their vast military resources, and the allied armies having advanced to Varna, in support of the Turks, the proceedings of Sir John Burgoyne and of Colonel Ardant were criticised as being too cautious and unenterprising, by taking up a defensive position for Constantinople and the Dardanelles; but it must be remembered that at that time the war had not begun, and it could not have been supposed that the Russians, who, in so arrogant a manner, had forced on the war, should have been held entirely in check by the Turks; and it was therefore requisite that Constantinople should be protected, and the Dardanelles, without which there were no means of communicating with the Sea of Marmora, the Bosphorus, or the Black Sea, which latter was at that time in the possession of the Russian fleet; in a word, it would have been impossible to trust an allied army in that country if such a strong position as Gallipoli and its adjacents had not been found. Such was the opinion of the Emperor Napoleon, and, what is more to my purpose, such was the opinion of Sir John Burgoyne. In August, Sir John Burgoyne was sent out to command the engineers in the Crimea, and was placed upon the staff. In September the army embarked at Varna for the purpose of invading the Crimea. And now, Sir, I come to the first point I wish to prove, namely, the selection of the part of the Crimea in which the landing was to be effected. A council of war assembled on board the Caradoc. It was attended, on the part of the French, by General Canrobert, by Colonel Trochu, one of the French staff, and by General Bizot, the French engineer; and on the part of the English, by Lord Raglan, by Sir George Brown, by Sir Edmund Lyons, and by Sir John Burgoyne. The French held the opinion that the best place to land was at the mouth of the Katcha, and I believe that Sir George Brown coincided with that opinion, but he said, "Before coming to a decision on this point, I think we ought to know the opinion of Sir John Burgoyne, who has had more practical experience than any other officer present." On this Sir John Burgoyne declared that the Katcha was not the proper place to land, that it was a difficult and defensible ground, and close to the resources and reserves of the Russians, and he pointed out, on the other hand, that the safest place for the allied forces to land was at the Old Fort. Sir John Burgoyne's representations were made known to Marshal St. Arnaud, who at once grasped the idea and consented to the proposition. The landing, therefore, was safely effected at the Old Fort, and Eupatoria in the rear was seized and occupied. The abandoning of the idea of landing at the Katcha was very distasteful to some of the officers of the French staff, but when that place fell into our hands, it was seen that Sir John Burgoyne's estimate of the difficulty was right, and that an attempt to land there would most probably have been followed by failure and disaster. I therefore think, Sir, that I have now proved my first point, and that I have a right to claim the selection of the place of landing for the British engineers. I come now, Sir, to my second point—that is, the selection of the side on which Sebastopol was to be attacked. After the battle of the Alma the troops advanced towards Sebastopol, across the rivers Katcha and the Belbek. Now, the intention of the French, and for which they had prepared projects, was to attack Sebastopol on the north side. Sebastopol on the north side was situated on a promontory, and its defences were placed on rocky heights, having in front of them strong ground of a very defensible character, narrowed by the bay of Belbek on one side and the broad and deep valley of the Tchernaya at the head of the harbour on the other side, the promontory being dominated by a strong permanent work called the "Severnaia." Now, Sir John Burgoyne did not think that the north side of Sebastopol was the side to be effectually attacked; he rather held to the opinion that it should be attacked on the south side, and he wrote a Report to Lord Raglan, giving his reasons for holding that opinion, an extract from which Report I will now, with the permission of the House, proceed to read— The communications with the fleet, whence all resources were necessarily obtained, would be from the fine bays and harbours of Balaklava, Kamiesch, and Kazatch, instead of from an entirely open beach, which was alone available on the north. The fronts that were exposed to attack were extensive, and, though naturally of great strength, were not more so than that of the north, which was limited, and, consequently, admitted of defence after defence. The south side covered the docks, barracks, and all the great establishments of the place; whereas, if the north promontory were obtained, there was the harbour still intervening, which could not be crossed by any means; and the only resource would have been a bombardment, and not possession. In rear of the encamping ground to be occupied by the allies in front of Sebastopol on the south side was a compact and most powerful position facing the country, and the communication to it from the harbours was direct and comparatively short, while on the north there was no favourable position on the laudside; the ground to cover the camp and landing places must have been of enormous extent, for that landing could not have been nearer than the Katcha, as the Belbek was commanded by the enemy's batteries, and the communication would have been much longer, and over two heights instead of one. The enemy, if attacked on the north, having but one front of the garrison, of moderate extent, to cover could have greatly increased the outer field army for raising the siege. In thoroughly considering every circumstance, it is impossible to conceive how the operations could possibly be sustained against the north side; nor how the army, were it to remain there, could avoid some frightful catastrophe. This Report, Sir, was sent to Marshal St. Arnaud, and that officer, with his usual sagacity, accepted the idea, and consented to attacking Sebastopol on the south side. Then came the question, how was that to be done? If there be one axiom in war more cogent than another, it is that an army should never separate itself from its base; and if there is any other axiom equal to that in cogency, it is that a flank march should never be made in the presence of a powerful or victorious enemy. Yet, at first sight, it would seem that the proposition of Sir John Burgoyne, who said "March boldly from the north to the south," embraced both these military errors; but it was not so in fact. He proposed to leave one base, but the base moved, so that he should fall upon it again; and the flank march to enable him to reach the south side of Sebastopol was not made in the face of a victorious but in the rear of a flying and disorganised enemy, and it would place the allied army between Menchikoff and Sebastopol. The movement was, therefore, undertaken, and the army sat down before Sebastopol, never to rise from it again till it left that place and its defences a shapeless ruin. I think, Sir, therefore, that I am entitled to say that I have proved my second point, and that I have a right to claim the selection of the side on which Sebastopol should be attacked for the British Engineers. The siege was now commenced with scanty military means. There were only 300 or 400 sappers where there should have been as many thousands—for it should be remembered that behind the earthworks at Sebastopol was ranged the whole military power of Russia—and where, if there had been as many thousands, it would have saved thousand of lives and millions of money to the Allies. There were eighty officers of Engineers sent to the Crimea; of these forty-three were killed, wounded, or put hors de combat—a wholesale slaughter without a parallel. Many of these officers passed in that inclement season, and under what the French call "fire of hell," 100 nights in the trenches, making nearly a third of the whole time of the siege. Under that fire the executive officers, Chapman and Gordon, erected batteries of so substantial a character that they were not damaged by the fire of the enemy. The British artillery destroyed the fire of Todtleben, the Russian artillery swept from the face of the earth the French batteries, but no missile hurled against the English batteries stopped for one single moment their steady, sure, and onward course. I shall now come to my third point. From the first reconnaissance of Sebastopol, Sir John Burgoyne perceived that the Malakoff was the key to the position of the front attack, and he so represented it to Lord Raglan. After the battle of Inkerman he again impressed on the authorities that the Malakoff was the place to be attacked. Upon the arrival of General Niel, the French aide-de-camp of engineers to the Emperor, a council of war of the allied engineers was held; at that council of war Sir John Burgoyne again represented that the Malakoff was the key to the position, and that it should be attacked. After the council of war had been held, wishing to place on record his opinion he reduced it to writing, and, through Lord Raglan, sent it to the French engineer General Niel. The following day General Niel called a council of French engineers to take under consideration Sir John Burgoyne's memoir—they prepared a procès verbal of what there took place, and sent a copy of it to Lord Raglan for Sir John Burgoyne's information. The first paragraph of that procès verbal stated that the Malakoff should be attacked in compliance with the opinion of Sir John Burgoyne. The words used were these— II résulte des dispositions adoptées en conseil, et suivant le vœu exprimé par le Lieutenant Général Sir John Burgoyne, que des travaux d'approche devront être exécutés devant la tour Malakoff, afin de pouvoir attaquer, par ce point dominant, le faubourg de Karabelnaia, en même temps qu'on donnera l'assaut à la partie ouest de la ville. I think, therefore, Sir, I have a right to say that I have made out my third point, and that I am justified in claiming the discovery of the key to the front attacked for the British Engineers. Now, Sir, that I have established the claim of the British Engineers to the merit of deciding on the three turning points of this war—they forming a part, and an important one, of the British army—what becomes of the case of those who would seek to depreciate the services of the British army in the Crimea?

Subject dropped.