Battle of Inkerman

Battle of Inkerman

The Battle of Inkerman on November 5, 1854, was the largest and most deadly land engagement of the Crimean War (1854–1856). Fighting between the Ottoman Empire and Russia began in October 1853 as the Russians sought to dismember the Ottoman Empire. The British and French governments were much alarmed at the designs of Czar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) on Ottoman territory and especially by the possibility that Russia might gain control of the straits and naval access to the Mediterranean.

In January 1854 on the suggestion of French emperor Napoleon III, French and British warships entered the Black Sea to protect the Ottoman coasts against a Russian naval attack. Russia responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Britain and France, which then demanded that Russia evacuate the Ottoman Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (later joined as Romania) that it had occupied the previous July. After Russian troops crossed the Danube, Britain and France declared war against Russia on March 28, 1854, beginning what became known as the Crimean War.

Austria mobilized its own forces, but on Vienna’s threat to intervene, the Russians evacuated the principalities in August. The Ottomans had also forced the Russians to lift their siege of Silistria (in present-day Romania) and retire across the Danube. It appeared as if the war was a draw, but British public opinion sought a decisive victory, and the French government was bent on winning prestige. As the Russian fleet was still a threat, the British-French expeditionary force was diverted to the Crimea. The objectives were the capture of the great Russian naval base of Sevastopol (Sebastopol) and the destruction of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

On September 13, 1854, allied troops began landing on an open beach on the Crimean Peninsula about 30 miles north of Sevastopol. Bad weather delayed the debarkation, which the Russians under Prince Aleksandr Sergeyevich Menshikov did not contest. Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, Lord Raglan, commanded the British forces, while General Armand-Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud had charge of the French forces. On September 19 the allied expeditionary force of about 51,000 British, French, and Ottoman infantry along with 1,000 British cavalry and 128 guns began moving south toward Sevastopol. The allied fleet kept pace with them offshore. On September 20 the allies ran into 34,000 Russians under Menshikov on the bank of the Alma River. In the resulting Battle of the Alma River the allies were victorious. The allies (mostly British) suffered about 3,000 casualties, and the Russians suffered perhaps 5,700 casualties.

The Russians had not completed all of their land defenses, and a quick assault on Sevastopol might have been successful had Raglan not rejected that approach in favor of a siege, which began on October 8. Meanwhile, General Saint-Arnaud died of cholera and was succeeded by General François Certain Canrobert. On October 17 the allies first subjected Sevastopol to artillery shelling but lacked sufficient numbers of heavy guns to accomplish much. The Russians had sunk ships in the harbor entrance, preventing a naval assault. If Sevastopol was to be taken, it would have to be from the north by land.

On October 25 the allies won another battle, this one at Balaclava, a small seaport only eight miles from Sevastopol. Menshikov initiated the battle in an attempt to place his forces between the British base at Balaclava and the siege lines farther south. The Russians took some Ottoman guns, but an attempt by their cavalry to exploit the situation was defeated by the British Heavy Cavalry Brigade and men of the 93rd Highlanders (the “thin red line”). The battle also saw the tragic but heroic charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade. Through the stupidity of its commander Brigadier General James Thomas Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, the Light Brigade attacked Russian artillery at the end of a narrow mile-long valley (“the Valley of Death,” in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson). During the 20-minute ride the brigade lost 247 men and 497 horses. French general Pierre F. J. Bosquet remarked, “It is magnificent, but it is not war.”

On November 5 Menshikov again attempted to cut the lines connecting the besiegers with their base areas. Beginning at dawn, enveloped in a heavy fog that ensured a lack of control on both sides, Menshikov’s 35,000 Russians with more than 100 guns attacked British forces numbering perhaps 7,500 men and 38 guns on Inkerman Ridge under the temporary commander of the 2nd Division, Major General John L. Pennefather. The British Guards regiments bore the brunt of  the Russian attack, which was poorly coordinated. Lieutenant Gerneral F. I. Soimonov, with 19,000 men and 38 guns, was to join with Lieutenant General P. I. Pavlov, with 16,000 men and 96 guns, for a simultaneous attack, but Pavlov was delayed crossing the Tchernaya River by repairs to the Tractir Bridge and changes in orders. Thus, the two Russian forces struck consecutively rather than simultaneously.

The battle raged all day, and much of the fighting was hand to hand. Meanwhile, some 20,000 Russians under Prince Mikhail Gorchakov were demonstrating against the French to hold them in place, but Gorchakov’s lack of aggressiveness led General Bosquet to conclude that his attack was a feint. Bosquet dispatched 8,200 men (chiefly Zouaves) and 18 guns that afternoon to assist the hard-pressed British. The arrival of the French reinforcements brought a Russian withdrawal.

In the Battle of Inkerman the Russians suffered 10,729 killed (including Soi monov), wounded, or taken prisoner. British losses were 635 killed and 1,938 wounded, while the French sustained 175 killed and 1,625 wounded. Both sides then settled in for the winter. The Russian failure to break the allied ring around Sevastopol ensured that the siege would continue, but the battle also prevented an allied attack on Sevastopol before the onset of winter. Russian colonel Frank Todleben meanwhile supervised a substantial strengthening of the Sevastopol defenses. The allies, who had expected a short campaign, were without adequate tents or supplies. Even medicine was in short supply. The French were better prepared, but the British in particular passed a horrible winter with heavy losses from disease, especially cholera.

References

Barker, A. J. The War against Russia, 1854–1856. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Barthorp, Michael. Heroes of the Crimea: The Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman. London: Blandford, 1992.

Edgerton, Robert B. Death of Glory: The Legacy of the Crimean War. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

Mercer, Patrick. “Give Them a Volley and Charge!”: The Battle of Inkerman, 1854. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 1998.