MILITARY HISTORY: THE SIEGE OF SEVASTOPOL
Kev Lochun looks at how blunders and outrage tainted the 11-month siege of Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol, where a Crimean winter proved as deadly as any gun or cannon
It lasted for a year, from the autumn of 1854: Kev Lochun looks at this decisive Crimean event.
The siege of Sevastopol was the defining episode of Crimean War. Lasting for 11 months from October 1854 through to September 1855, it is often described as ‘the last of the classic sieges’, a phrase that conjures a sense of romantic heroism and omits that it was an entirely appalling affair: drawn out, badly organised and criminally mismanaged by senior officers. More men died from cold, hunger and disease than the thunder of shells, a scandal brought home to the British public via eyewitness press reporting.
Most famous were the missives from The Times’ William Howard Russell, travelling with the army as what we would today describe as an embedded journalist. “These are hard truths, but the people of England must hear them,” he wrote in one scathing report. “They must know that the wretched beggar who wanders about the streets of London in the rain leads the life a prince compared with the British soldiers who are fighting here for their country.”
What he and others witnessed beggared belief: one of the richest nations in the world had sent its husbands, brothers and sons into a bitter Crimean winter and then found itself unable to supply them with adequate food, fuel and clothing. It wasn’t that they lacked the supplies; much of what the soldiers desperately needed reached Balaclava harbour, just 9.5km from the siege, but were ‘lost’ in storerooms on the quay. As the rank and file sat shivering in waterlogged trenches, the senior staff enjoyed their luxuries – from cigars to, in one startling case, a private yacht.
Most astounding was the lack of forethought on medical care. It was Thomas Chenery, The Times’ correspondent in Constantinople (home to the infamously foul Scutari hospital, where Florence Nightingale would become ‘the Lady with the Lamp’) who asked: “Not only are there not sufficient surgeons, not only are there no dressers and nurses, but what will be said when it is known that there is not even linen to make bandages for the wounded?” The answer was widespread condemnation and outrage, which sparked mercy missions of nurses out to the Crimea and contributed to the collapse of the Government in February 1855.
The siege began with promise. The British and their French allies had landed at Eupatoria on 13 September 1854, drubbed the Russians at Alma on the 20th and arrived in the environs of Sevastopol – home
to Tsar Nicholas I’s muchfeared Black Sea Fleet – five days later. They spent three weeks quietly establishing their trenches south of the six bastions that guarded the city; the feeling was that one good cannonade would send the walls tumbling down.
Dawn broke on 17 October with deafening explosions, as 120 Allied guns spat iron onto Sevastopol and shrouded it in a pall of black smoke, the Russians retorting in kind with three times as many guns and with some success, striking and blowing up a French battery. The British fared better, reducing the one bastion to ruins, but the infantry assault that should have followed never materialised. By dawn the next day, the Russians had repaired the damage.
The Russian field army, at large in the hills beyond Sevastopol, went on the offensive, leading to battles at Balaclava (and the absurd charge of the light brigade) on 25 October and Inkerman on 5 November; both repelled by the Allies, though at great cost. Undaunted by these defeats, Tsar Nicholas boasted that he would let ‘Generals January and February’ finish them off. He was very nearly right.
Winter arrived in early November with three days of freezing wind and rain,
30 ships in Balaclava harbour were wrecked, with the loss of 300 lives
culminating in a hurricane that flattened the men’s tents. 30 ships in Balaclava harbour were wrecked, with the loss of 300 lives and almost all of the British winter stores – still stashed in the holds. The next day, snow began to fall. The track between the harbour and the besiegers became impassable for days at a time. Pack horses keeled over for lack of forage, and the soldiers took to burning their salt meat rations in lieu of fuel. There should have been wooden huts for them to sleep in, but they were nowhere to be found. Cholera whipped through the ranks, and there were outbreaks of typhus, typhoid and dysentery.
The mood in the camp was bleak, with special disdain reserved for the commissariats – the men who controlled the distribution of supplies. In one instance, 150 tonnes of fresh vegetables were left to rot in a ship’s hold because no one had the correct requisition form to unload it; meanwhile, there were soldiers with scurvy who had to soak their emergency biscuit rations in water before they could bite on them with their loose teeth and swollen gums. Cases of scurvy might have been reduced following the arrival of a consignment of lime juice in December, had anyone had the wherewithal to ration it out; instead it was placed in storage for a month.
The winter months saw sorties and raids, but no major battles. Spring brought renewed hope, better weather, more provisions, and the completion of a railway between the harbour and the siege lines, finally easing the problem of moving supplies if not the organising of them. The first Allied bombardment of 1855 began on 9 April: 500 guns fired for 10 days, dropping 160,000 shells on Sevastopol, but again there was no subsequent assault. Again, the Russians repaired their walls.
On 7 June, after a day and a half of shelling, the Allies managed to take control of a pair of outer defences known as the Mamelon and the Quarry Pits, setting the stage for direct assaults on the redoubts guarding the city. The date was set for 18 June: the 40th anniversary
The completion of a railway finally eased the problem of moving supplies
of Waterloo, a symbolic choice to heal old wounds between the new allies.
For the French, it was a fiasco. For reasons unknown, their commander decided to launch his assault three hours early, without any softening bombardment and without a word to the British. The confused Frenchmen advanced piecemeal into the devouring Russian crossfires and were massacred. The British followed swiftly, but it was soon apparent that it was a hopeless endeavour; approximately 3500 French and 1500 British soldiers were killed.
The final attack came almost two months later. On 5 September, the Allies shelled the city for three full days, continuing into the morning of the 8th. As the steel storm subsided, the Russians braced themselves for an attack, remembering the events of 7 June. It didn’t come. An hour passed, then two. They began to relax – and were completely caught off guard when the French leapt out of their trenches at midday and raced towards the Malakhov bastion, followed by a British assault on a neighbouring bastion, Great Redan. Once more the British attack faltered, but soon the Tricolore flew over the parapet of the Malakhov, and in a moment siege was won.
With the loss of this one redoubt, the French could fire across the city, and most of the Russian defensive line. The Russians began evacuations that evening, detonating military installations, storerooms and anything else that could conceivably have benefitted the Allies. By 8am the next morning, the last defenders left, setting the fire to the city that an estimated 100,000 Russians had died to protect. Some 120,000 British and French soldiers had died to inherit the ashes four days later.
The evacuation of British casualties at Sevastopol
Captain Julius Robert’s mortar boats engaging the Quarantine Battery at Sevastopol on 15 August 1855
The bombardment of Sevastopol by HMS Rodney
A French map of the French (in blue) and English (red) lines at Sevastopol
A panorama of the siege from British lines
A depiction of the siege by Russian artist Grigoryi Shukaev in 1856
The Siege of Sevastopol, by Franz Roubaud, painted between 1902 and 1904
Soldiers transporting winter clothing, timber for huts and other supplies to the British camps
A contemporary illustration of the siege by George Baxter
The French assault at the Malakhov bastion, pictured by William Simpson in 1855
Roger Fenton’s 1855 photograph of the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’, showing a multitude of cannonballs on an otherwise empty battlefield