Battle of the Tchernaya

Fall of Sevastopol, 7 June- 8 September 1855

The Fedioukine Hills lay 1,000yds (915m) from Sapoune Ridge and comprised three separate features scarred by deep ravines, which impeded easy movement. To reach them from the Mackenzie Heights, the Russians needed to cross the Tchernaya, 25ft (8m) wide, 6ft (2m) deep and edged with treacherous marshland, besides negotiating in front of it an aqueduct (canal) with steep masonry sides. Defending the Fedioukine Hills, the French had 18,000 men with 48 guns under General Herbillon deployed each side of the road from Tractir Bridge across the Plain of Balaclava, and they established a bridgehead east of the Tchernaya protected by earthworks.

On the French right flank, some 2,000yds (1,830m) further south and 3,000yds (2,745m) from the escarpment, lay high ground at right angles to the Woronzov Heights, overlooking bridges across the Tchernaya and the aqueduct. This t and its vicinity were occupied by 9,000 Sardinians and 36 guns, with a infantry and artillery detachment o the river on Telegraph Hill. A further 50 squadrons of French and British were in the area between the Fedioukine Hills and Kadikoi; 20 squadrons of French cavalry, two infantry divisions and 12 guns in the Baidar Valley. Ten thousand Turkish infantry and 36 guns formed additional reserves.
The allies knew that Russians were constructing portable bridges for the river and aqueduct; in turn, Gorchakov was aware that the allies expected an attack. Nevertheless, he was committed to mounting one. On the Russian right, General-Adjutant N. A. Read with two infantry divisions was ordered 'to engage the Fediukin [sic] by artillery fire and prepare to cross the river' in the area of Tractir Bridge, but not to do so without Gorchakov's specific permission. On Read's left, Lieutenant-General P. P. Liprandi, also with two divisions, was similarly to seize Telegraph Hill with one division and await further orders. His second division would move towards Chorgun and the Baidar Valley.


Battle of the Tchernaya, 16 August 1855. Russian troops from the Mackenzie Heights (background) cross the Tractir Bridge (centre) and a narrow bridge over the aqueduct (foreground) to be driven back from the Fedioukine Hills by French units including Zouaves. (Author's collection)




Herbillon, alerted by reports of unusual movement on the Mackenzie Heights during 15 August, was ready when Russian artillery opened up at dawn the following day. Whether Read did so at Gorchakov's behest or independently remains uncertain. But, as part of Liprandi's 6th Division demonstrated towards the Baidar Valley, he sent his troops across Tchernaya under cover of mist shortly after 5 am. Soon they were engaged in bitter close-quarter fighting. Made aware of their predicament, Gorchakov brought up his reserve 5th Division, but like Menshikov at the Alma, he could not make up his mind when or where to commit it. When the mist lifted, the French artillery devastated Read's battalions, as Plissier ordered forward infantry reinforcements. By 7.30 am, with its commander killed, Read's corps had been chased back over the Tchernaya.

Riding on to the field at about 8 am, Gorchakov ordered eight battalions from Liprandi's force, which had taken Telegraph a general retreat. The Battle of the Tchernaya (Chernaia Rechka to the Russians) on 16 August had lasted five hours. It cost the French 1,800 casualties; the Russians an estimated 8,000 (2,273 killed); the Sardinians 28 killed.

As Todleben foresaw, the last hurrah of the Russian army during the Crimean War had proved as disastrous as it was fruitless. To Alexander II, Gorchakov blamed the dead Read for not carrying out 'my orders to the letter' - orders that at the time were open to different interpretations and, even in retrospect, remain obscure. Major-General P. V. Veimarn, Read's chief of staff, believed that even if the Fedioukine Hills had been taken, the weight of allied reserves have prevented any assault on Sap Ridge and obliged the Russians to a their gains by nightfall. Field Mars Paskevich concluded that the battle 'without aim, without calculation, without necessity and most of all finally eliminated the possibility of attacking anything thereafter' - a damning, but justified, indictment of Gorchakov and his surrender to pressure from Moscow. Four divisions had been used piecemeal; most of Liprandi's force and the reserve division saw no action at all.






  Renewed bombardment


Chronology of The Crimean War