The battle of Alma was a battle of critical importance in the Crimean War
. Here's something I wrote on it:
On the 14th of September 1854 the Anglo/French allied force disembarked at Calamita Bay, on the western coast of the Crimean peninsula, in the Black Sea. They were there along with a smaller number of Turks, who were the real enemies of the Russians in the Crimea.
Their objective at that time was to take the vital Russian naval base in the area: Sevastapol. This base was located in the south of the peninsula. They aimed to take it within six weeks of landing. Since Calamita Bay was thirty-five miles north of Sevastapol the Allied forces had to march south.
The Russians were already aware of the attack on Sevastapol due to a premature announcement by the Times, back in England. The French had made a failed feint into what is modern day Romania. The Russians had plenty of time to make whatever preparations they desired while the English and French organised themselves. The new British quartermaster general, Airey took until the 19th of September to organise supplies, and the arrangements for their transport alongside the army.
Even when the allies did set off, on the 19th at 9am, progress was very slow. Cholera, which was one of the great problems during the Crimean war claimed new victims every hour. The average British infantryman had to carry a huge weight of equipment. This included: nine pounds of food, his own water, spare boots and socks, a greatcoat, a blanket and a rifle with about fifty rounds. This was in addition to the clothes in which he had to fight, and any personal possessions.
Due to these factors making the Anglo/French army very slow, the Russians, having found out the direction from which the attack on Sevastapol would occur could prepare their defence. They were able to choose the location at which they would fight.
The chosen location was just to the south of the river Alma. This was the second of three rivers that the British and French had to cross to reach Sevastapol. In addition to being an excellent defensive position, it was one through their enemy would have to pass. The road to Sevastapol crossed the river several miles inland. To the south of the river the road passed between two large hills. The first, to the west was the Telegraph Hill, so called because of the Russian telegraph station of the top of it. The second, larger hill, to the east of the road was the Kourgane Hill. The Russians built two defensive earthworks on the Kourgane Hill. On the western side, overlooking the road was the Greater Redoubt and on the eastern side was the Lesser Redoubt. They also place posts in the ground to mark the ranges from their positions, to enable more effective artillery fire. Up to the Telegraph Hill the southern bank of the Alma had high cliffs. The Russians though that these couldn’t be scaled by an enemy force during battle. The Russian commanders thought that if they stayed in defensive positions they could cover all the vital areas, such as the road with heavy gunfire. They would only have to wait for the enemy and then shoot them to pieces to gain at victory, and to protect Sevastapol.
The force that the Russians assembled was numerically superior to their opponents. It was commanded by Prince Mentshikoff, who hated the Turks even more than most Russians. This hatred extended towards their allies, the British and the French.
The Allied forces came into view of the Russian position on the 20th of September. The task then fell to the commanders of inventing a suitable battle plan. The Russian deployment involved a strong central force, with little on the flanks, especially the western flank, above the cliffs by the river. Only one battalion was placed here. The Russians sent away their unnecessary personnel and baggage, while making preparations for the wounded that would have to be treated in the inevitable battle.
The Allies, sensing weakness on this flank decided that they should make a strong assault at this position with the French forces, which were already on this side of the Allied line. It could be made easy by the use of naval gunfire from the nearby fleet. The Russians would hopefully rush to defend this flank, thereby leaving them weak on the other flank, where the main British force, which had been bombarding the centre of the army with artillery, would stage a ferocious pincer attack, taking the defensive earthworks on the Kourgane Hill. The total number of men with which these plans could be executed was something around 60,000.
General Bosquet formed his division into two columns for the initial attack on what was the left flank of the allied forces, or the western end of the battlefield on a map. Behind him were the Turkish troops. To his left the divisions of Canrobert and Napoleon would attack. These would receive second line support from the division of Forey.
The Commander in Chief of the British forces, Field Marshal Lord Raglan decided to arrange the British troops as follows. The Front line of the British consisted of two full divisions, the 2nd and the Light. Each of these was subdivided into a right and a left brigade. Each brigade in turn consisted of three separate regiments. The British had one division to act as a second line during the battle. The right brigade of this was the Brigade of Guards and the left was the Highland Brigade, commanded by Sir Colin Campbell. The British reserves included another two divisions, as well as some Cavalry and the Artillery.
The Allied attack began at around midday on the 21st of September 1854. The plan had been for the attack to start at 5.30 in the morning, but the British forces had not been ready when the French were in position.
The fleet opened fire on the seaward flank, and the French began their assault on that flank, towards the small village of Almatamack. Remarkably, General Bosquet’s division were able to scale the West Cliff, and managed to take 12 guns with them. Shocked by this, and realising his inferiority in that area, Prince Menshikov decided to withdraw his troops. However, General Bosquet was unable to advance any further because he needed reinforcement, and no other forces were in position yet. The rest of the French army had more difficulty advancing, both along the West Cliff and towards the Telegraph Hill. It is likely that if the Russians had tried, they could have forced General Bosquet’s division off the cliff while he waited.
Lord Raglan then decided that it was time for the British forces to attack. They attacked in spread out formation only two men deep. However the line extended for two miles. Some of the British forces, in particular the 2nd division found the advance tough going, having to struggle through vineyards and orchards while under the fire of the Russian artillery. The neatly arrayed and well disciplined British army began to break up into a poorly organised rabble that the officers could not rearrange.
The light division had an easier time during their advance, and the British were soon advancing towards the Great Redoubt. A large body of men from the Kazan Russian regiment began to advance towards the British before a lot of the Russian guns were firing. They were driven back by the accurate and professional fire of he British infantrymen. The Russian infantry having retreated the British soldiers charged on up the Kourgane Hill towards the Greater Redoubt. The Russian guns were able to cut large holes in the British ranks but due to their lack of depth these losses were not a problem to the force as a whole. Rifle fire was exchanged with the defending Russian infantry and again the British came off the better. Hearing the Russian guns being withdrawn from the Greater Redoubt the British pushed on up the Kourgane Hill and managed to capture the Greater Redoubt.
By this time, the British commander in chief, Lord Raglan and his staff officers had climbed to a spur on the Telegraph Hill where he thought that he might be able to better view the battle. This was a point that was eight hundred yards inside Russian lines, but no troops come close enough to threaten him. He ordered some guns to be brought to this position.
On the Greater Redoubt the British were undergoing Russian artillery bombardment, and saw a huge Russian force from the Vladmir Regiment advancing towards them. Thinking that their position was not secure enough the Infantry began to retreat down the hill towards their advancing reserves. The fire from the guns newly placed on the Telegraph Hill helped to ensure that the Russians did not pursue them down the Kourgane Hill. Again the Russians were not able to exploit their advantage due to the fact that the commander, Prince Menshikov was not concentrating on this matter, and was riding up and down the Russian line.
Both the Guards and the Highlanders were now advancing against Russian positions. The Guards were supporting the Light Division in its attack on the Greater Redoubt, and the valley, while the Highlanders attacked on the left, against the Russian flank, and the Lesser Redoubt. Leading the Guards were the Scots Fusiliers, followed by the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards.
Prince Menshikov had finally managed to bring some of his forces to his left flank, where the French had overrun him. He brought the considerable force of eight battalions with him. Worried by this the French requested help from the British forces. Lord Raglan agreed to send one battalion, but in the end this was unnecessary because of the arrival of General Canrobert’s artillery, which held the Russians off.
The Guards advance was hampered by the retreating Light Division. The ranks had to open up to let through the Light Division. Upon approaching the Greater Redoubt the Scots Guards were subjected to a huge volume of Russian musket fire from behind the walls of the Redoubt. The Scots Guards were forced to retreat, having lost many men, and having had their formation severely disrupted.
Prince Gorchakev, a Russian officer ordered two Russian battalions to make a bayonet charge through the gap that had been torn in the Guards line. But the Grenadier Guards shot into the charging Russians with their rifles to great effect. Prince Gorchakev’s horse was killed and the Russian advance hesitated. The Russians began to retreat, and the Guards began another attack on the Greater Redoubt. Russian fire was ineffective during this advance, most of it passing over the heads of the British men. The Guards then reached the Redoubt, and captured it for the second time.
The Highland Division also did well on the Russians’ right flank. They were able to go around the back of the Kourgane Hill, while constantly pouring accurate fire from a long range onto the densely packed Russians columns behind the Hill. At this point the Russians began a general retreat, leaving the battlefield to the Anglo/French forces.
The British cavalry were desperate to pursue the fleeing Russians, but they did not for several reasons. Lord Raglan though that the cavalry were too reckless, and could easily be wiped out by the Russians. Also, the French had left their knapsacks on the other side of the Alma, and would not go on without first retrieving them.
Estimated losses for the battle are about 2000 British men, 1300 French men and over 5000 Russian men.
Why Did the Russians lose?
Leading up to the Battle of Alma the Russian side appeared to have the clear advantage. But in the end the Anglo/French army’s had a huge victory. They lost far fewer men, and succeeded in their objectives while preventing the Russians from doing theirs.
One aspect of the Russians that may have lead to their downfall could be overconfidence. Prince Menshikov expected the Russians forces to be able to hold the position on the Alma for three weeks, when it was taken in one day. Some Russian ladies had even been brought along as spectators, expecting to see the Russians easily turn back the Anglo/French allied forces.
A factor of the British army that won many conflicts for them was the superior firepower of their infantry. Unlike the Russians they used guns with rifled barrels that spun the bullet, enabling it to travel further and more accurately. The British were highly trained with their both in marksmanship and in when to use them. The Russians preferred infantry tactic was a bayonet charge, but the British liked to fire from a long range. The Russian artillery had not been provided with enough long ranged ammunition, and so was ineffective against the British infantry except when they were advancing.
Russian tactics involved large numbers of men being manoeuvred on flat battlefields. They were not used to battling on difficult ground, and were not able to bring their full force to bear.
The Russian command was also poor. Prince Menshikov did not react sufficiently quickly to the French crossing of the river on the western flank, or to destroy the retreating British force from the Greater Redoubt. He had not prepared his army sufficiently, as shown by the lack of non-grape ammunition for his artillery, and did not understand his enemies.
Consequences of the Battle
The result of the Battle of Alma shaped the rest of the Crimean war. If the British and their allies had been defeated at the battle it could have been the end of the war. Even if sufficient troops had remained after a defeat they would still have had to get past the Russian forces at the Alma, something that would have been unlikely with the Russians having even more time to prepare themselves.
As the victory was a large one, the British and French knew that the Russians would most likely retreat to Sevastapol itself to organise its defence so that they might avoid the loss of even more men. This enabled the Allies to swiftly travel towards Sevastapol without having to worry too much about any Russian resistance.
Victory at the battle helped boost British and French morale, and enabled them to discover tactics that would work against the Russians. The most important of these was the use of their accurate long-range rifle fire against the Russian infantry who were unable to defend themselves from it. It was a warning to the Russians not to be overconfident, as they had thought that the position at the Alma could be better defended than Sevastapol itself.
Finally, Alma was a battle that the British and French could be proud of their victory at. Streets in Britain, like the one where my gran grew up have been named after the battle.
This writup brought to you by Node your Homework, I've lost my list of sources, so don't go badgering me for them, I'll put them up if I find them.