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 Battle of the Alma

The Battle of the Alma, 20 September 1854,

 

The march resumed on the morning of 20 September. Kinglake, the chronicler who rode with the army, wrote that it 'was like some remembered day of June in England for the sun was undaunted, and the soft breeze of the morning had lulled to a breath at noontide'. Five days earlier, naval reports had warned Raglan that the Russians were gathering in strength south of the Alma (the second river), which ran into the Black Sea across the allies' front 5 miles (8km) beyond the Bulganek. The ground on its northern (right) bank, across which the Allies must approach, sloped gently towards the river. The south bank, however, rose steeply in places to 15ft (4.5m) and above it 300 to 500ft (90-150m) undulating downs presented an ideal position from which to dominate the river and its approaches. At the extreme western end of the 5.5 miles (9km) of rolling countryside, a 350ft (105m) cliff abutted the Black Sea, where an old Tartar fort overlooked the river-mouth. A ford at the village of Almatamack (a mile [1.6km]) inland and, like Bourliouk and Tarkhanlar, on the north bank) led to a wagon track suitable for artillery; three other paths further east were less accessible.

Three miles (5km) inland, the post road from Eupatoria to Sevastopol passed close to the village of Bourliouk, crossed a wooden bridge and climbed through a gorge overlooked to the east by Kourgane Hill (450ft, 135m), to the west by Telegraph Height. Menshikov discounted any serious attack west of Telegraph Height, identifying the post road as the crucial point. He fortified Kourgane Hill (site of his headquarters) with the so-called Great and Lesser redoubts, respectively armed with 12 and nine cannon. In reality, these 'redoubts' were low breastworks 3-4ft third village, Tarkhanlar, 1.25 miles (2km) east of Bourliouk, played no part in the ensuing battle and is omitted from most British maps and accounts.

At the Alma, Menshikov had General P. D. Gorchakov commanding 6 Corps (Lieutenant-General D. A. Kvintsinsky's 16 Infantry Division and Lieutenant-General V. Ia. Kiriakov's 17 Infantry Division) plus one brigade from 14 Infantry Division; a hussar brigade and two Don Cossack regiments of cavalry; four 13 Infantry Division infantry battalions (two from the Belostok and two from the Brest regiments); one rifle battalion; one naval battalion; and one engineer regiment. In all, therefore, he had 42 infantry battalions, 16 squadrons of light cavalry, 11 squadrons of Cossacks and 84 guns. An indeterminate number of patriotic civilian volunteers, hastily enrolled, temporarily swelled the ranks and promptly- vanished once the shooting started.

Allied HQ staff

 

 

 

Believing that the steep track on to the heights close to the sea was impassable for military purposes, Menshikov deployed a single battalion of the Minsk regiment with half a battery of field guns near Ulkul Akles, a mile (1.6km) south of the river-mouth. Its purpose was predominantly to warn of undue activity at sea, with one company forward in the Tartar fort to observe allied movement from the north. Menshikov appears not to have ridden over ground himself, but relied on reports from staff officers.

Convinced that the allies could not embarrass him west of Telegraph Height, Menshikov did not position defenders along the Alma until about 2,000yds (1,830m)
from the sea, just east of Almatamack. Between there and Telegraph Height (approximately 2,500yds [2,285m]) he placed the four battalions of the Brest and Belostok regiments, with the Tarutin regiment in reserve. Supported by two field batteries of artillery, the Borodin regiment held Telegraph Height, with the Moskov (sent by Khomutov from eastern Cr reserve. These units west of the post were evidently under Kiriakov, but i retrospect confusion appears to have occurred over direction of the Borodin regiment, administratively part of Kvitsinsky's 16 Division. An added complication was that Kiriakov was placed under Menshikov's direct command, not that of Gorchakov, his corps commander. Some accounts maintain that Menshikov kept personal control of all the reserves.

Kvitsinsky, still responsible to Gorchakov, exercised tactical command of Kourgane Hill, where he deployed the Kazan regiment in direct support of the two redoubts, holding the Vladimir and Uglit regiments with two Don Cossack field batteries in reserve. Guarding the flank were the Suzdal regiment and two Don Cossack regiments. Astride the post road, 2,000yds (1,830m) south of the Alma, Gorchakov had seven infantry battalions in reserve (the Volyn regiment and three battalions of the Minsk) with a hussar brigade (two regiments) and a light horse battery. Even more cavalry were waiting south of Kourgane Hill.

Vineyards north of the river had been cleared to remove cover for the allies and expose an unhindered field of fire for the Russians. Cavalry patrols scouted towards the Bulganek and riflemen were placed in Almatamack and Bourliouk. Apart from the few dedicated riflemen, the Russians had under 100 rifles to each infantry regiment. Reliance on the short-range, smooth-bore musket meant that artillery had to cover the river crossings. The newly arrived Congreve rockets proved useless because no launcher frames had been sent with them. Nevertheless, Menshikov had 33,000 infantry, 3,400 cavalry, 2,600 gunners and 116 guns at his disposal and a powerful natural position to defend. Including reserves, approximately 20,000 men and 80 guns were east of Telegraph Height, covering the gorge and Kourgane Hill, the remaining 13,000 men and 36 guns from Telegraph Height to the sea.

Sevastopol, Kornilov wrote in his diary: 'The [Alma] position selected by the prince is particularly strong and we are therefore quite content... God does not abandon the righteous and we therefore await the outcome calmly and with patience.'

On the allied right, 37,000 French and Turkish troops were supported by 68 field guns and the fire of steamers off-shore. The two brigades of Bosquet's 1st Division were separately to use the steep coastal path and that near Alamatamack. To Bosquet's left, Canrobert's 1st Division would scale the heights via other identified tracks, with Napoleon's 3rd Division attacking Telegraph Height frontally. Forey's 4th Division in reserve would back up Napoleon as and when required. Raglan, on the left, nominally had 26,000 men (including 1,000 cavalry) and 60 guns, was out of range of naval gunfire and faced the strongest part of the enemy position.

At about 11.30, the main allied body halted 1.5 miles (2.4km) from the Alma, as Bosquet continued to advance. Naval gunfire in his immediate support commenced at noon. The overall plan provided for Bosquet to climb the heights to engage and distract the enemy, then Canrobert and Prince Napoleon, supported by Forey, would take Telegraph Height. Only after this would Raglan attack Kourgane Hill.

When Bosquet's force approached, the Russian company in the Tartar fort withdrew, and by 1 pm the French were on the heights close to the sea. At alm precisely the same moment, 4.5 miles (7.2km) further inland and still north o river, the British resumed their advance After half an hour, they halted again, deployed into line and lay down to a French success against Telegraph Height. They were now within enemy artillery range. One officer wrote: 'I think the worse part of the whole affair was lying down in lines before we received the order to advance. The shells bursting over us and blowing men to pieces, arms, legs and brains in all directions.'

Raglan realised, however, that the exposed British were taking heavy casualties on the northern slope, so at 3 pm he ordered his men forward. The Light Division was on the left of the front line, with the 2nd on its right straddling the post road facing Bourliouk village, to which Russian skirmishers had set fire. Behind the Light
and 2nd divisions respectively were 1st and 3rd with the 4th in reserve, cavalry guarded the flank.

Having issued his orders, with his Raglan crossed the river just west of Bourliouk under the lee of Telegraph to a position where he could see clearly both Kourgane Hill and the Russian reserves. Realising that the enemy might be enfiladed from this spot, he sent back for a brigade of the 2nd Division and field artillery to join him. Meanwhile, the Light Division had taken the Great Redoubt ('up the hill we went, step by step, but with a fearful Hill, as the 1st Division in the wake of the Light crossed the river and retook the redoubts; the Highland Brigade the Lesser, the Guards Brigade the Great. Ordering his command forward, Major-General Sir Colin Campbell called: 'Now men, the army is watching us. Make me proud of the Highland Brigade.' In his detached eyrie, Raglan observed with admiration: 'Look how the Guards and the Highlanders advance.'

 

Major-General Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863). Led the Highland Brigade at the Battle of the Alma, commanded the defences around Balaclava, was directly involved in the Thin Red Line' action and later in the war took charge of the newly formed Highland Division. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

 

With Kourgane Hill in British hands, and the French now on Telegraph Height, at 4.30 the battle was won. Lucan sent the Light Brigade in pursuit of the fleeing Russians, but Raglan recalled them. He knew that around 3,000 Russian cavalry had not been committed to the battle and loss of his small force would have vastly hampere further allied movement. Kiriakov had rallied infantry and 30 guns, 2 miles ( south of Telegraph Height.

As rockets sped the fleeing enemy on their way, Raglan asked St Arnaud to take up the pursuit, as he had suffered fewer casualties: the British lost 362 (including 25 officers) with another 1,640 wounded or missing. But the French commander declined, as the knapsacks of his troops had been left on the northern bank. The French reported 1,243 casualties (more conservative estimates thought 63 killed and about 500 wounded, the larger figure having included cholera deaths); the Russians incurred 5,511 casualties (including 1,810 dead).

When he heard that the French had scaled the downs further west, Menshikov had left Kourgane Hill and fruitlessly ridden back and forth, unable to decide when or where to commit his reserves. Returning eastwards, after the battle had been lost, he found a distraught, dismounted Gorchakov. Angrily asked why he was in such a state, Gorchakov replied: 'I am alone because all my aides-de-camp and the officers of my Staff have been killed or wounded. I have received six shots.' During a later truce, a Russian officer admitted: 'Yes, gentlemen, you won a brilliant victory at the Alma.'

It was also critical. Failure on 20 September would have brought the Crimean campaign to a premature, ignominious conclusion. However, Menshikov should never have been driven from such a strong position, which he had ample time to prepare. His over-confidence, which encouraged spectators to view the anticipated slaughter, played a major part in the battle's ultimate outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

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