Even this romanticized depiction of the death of Lieutenant General Sir George Cathcart, who had rashly led his men into a ravine exposed to Russian fire, conveys something of the battleground confusion at Inkerman.
The above map illustrates the narrow front of the engagement along the ridges, interspersed by ravines, above Sevastopoi. This concentration served the British defenders well and reduced the effect of superior Russian numbers.
Date: 5 November 1854
Location: southwest Crimea. Ukraine
- 7,500 British and 8,200 French on Inkerman Ridge
- Commanders-in-Chief: General Lord Raglan (British); General F.C. Canrobert (French)
- British: 635 killed, 1,938 wounded; French : 175 killed, 1,625 wounded
- 35,000 men on Inkerman Ridge
- Commanders: General-Adjutant and Admiral Prince A. S. Menshikov (commander-in-chief) and General P. A. Dannenberg
- c. 5,000 killed, c. 7,000 wounded
The Crimean War of 1854-56 arose from Russia’s attempts to expand southwards at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and from the determination of Britain and France to prevent that. Russia occupied Turkey’s Danubian provinces in July 1853; Turkey declared war in October and Britain and France the following March. When the Russians, threatened by Austrian intervention, withdrew from the Danubian theatre, the allied armies focused on the Crimean peninsula and the destruction of the naval base at Sevastopol from which Russia controlled the Black Sea and threatened Constantinople.
The Anglo-French forces landed on 14 September and, moving south towards Sevastopol, fought a major battle at the Alma River. Though Sevastopol was soon under siege, most of the Russian army remained at large in the peninsula’s interior and could communicate with the incompletely invested town and threaten the besiegers. The Russians sought to break through to the British supply harbour at Balaklava on 25 October, and the next day a Russian sortie probed the right extension of the British-held part of the siege line. Though recognizing the vulnerability of this flank, the allied commanders, Canrobert and Raglan, chose to concentrate their limited resources on a decisive assault on the town before winter closed in. Menshikov, the Russian commander-in-chief, was under pressure from the Tsar to strike early to break the siege and expel the invaders from the Crimea; the arrival of reinforcements from the Danube theatre now gave him marked superiority in manpower and artillery. He designed a decisive blow of his own through a pincer movement aimed at the weak British right. Two converging forces would scale and seize the thinly defended lnkerman Ridge and occupy the Chersonese plateau behind the besieging forces, while diversionary attacks occupied the French. Menshikov entrusted field command to General Dannenberg who had arrived with the Danubian troops.
The Russian attack began in the dark early hours of Sunday 5 November. Infantry 19,000-strong with supporting artillery, commanded by lieutenant General Soimonov, advanced from Sevastopol towards the right end of the British lines on Inkerman Ridge. A second force of 16,000 men under Lieutenant General Pavlov, accompanied by Dannenberg, was to make a simultaneous advance across the Tchernaya River to join Solmonov’s troops in breaching the British lines. But repairs to Inkerman Bridge and Dannenberg’s changes to Menshikov’s timetable prevented the conjunction of the two forces which attacked consecutively instead of simultaneously. Aided by darkness, drizzle, mist and the terrain, Soimonov achieved total surprise, but the British 2nd Division commander, Brigadier General Pennefather, decided to throw men forward as they became available to reinforce his pickets rather than withdraw to the plateau to await larger reinforcement. This tactic prevented the superiority of Russian numbers and guns (artillery had been installed on Shell Hill, supplemented by two gun boats in the bay below) from having full effect.
Neither side was fully aware of the other’s numbers and dispositions, even when the mist part ially cleared and a series of fierce and disconnected encounters developed along the ridges and scrub-lined ravines of the plateau’s edge. Though the Minie rifle used by some of the British was markedly superior to the Russian muskets, the detrimental effect of overnight rain on these rifles, ammunition shortages and the close engagement meant that there was unusually heavy reliance on the bayonet in hand-to-hand fighting. The Coldstream Guards made eleven bayonet charges. The frenzied and improvised resistance of Pennefather’s division of 3,000 men broke Soimonov’s advance, killing the Russian general himself, so that the British line on Home Ridge was still intact when Pavlov’s division arrived. Raglan, present on the field , left local responses to sector commanders, but made two crucial decisions: to request French assistance (earlier declined) and to order up two 18-pounder siege guns to counter the enemy’s artillery.
The much larger French forces had faced two diversionary attacks, the first a fierce sally from the town on the left of the siege line, the second a feint attack south of the plateau from a force of 22,000 commanded by General Gorchakov, The weakness of the pressure from Gorchakov left the French General Bosquet confident enough to dispatch several of his regiments northwards to assist the British. In this second phase, as arriving detachments were thrown in desperately, the battered British line developed a gap, with confusion and indiscipline among commanders contributing to the problem. Only the impact of the 18-pounders in clearing the enemy artillery and the arrival of Bosquet’s regiments (mainly Zouaves) turned the day and, after taking heavy casualties, Dannenberg ordered withdrawal.
The clear superiority of Russian resources, aided by the advantage of surprise, had not achieved victory. Failures of co-ordination among Russian commanders and the forward engagement by British troops – restricting the enemy to a narrow front and difficult terrain where his full resources could not be deployed – had permitted the line to be held until the French arrived. Inkerman, a wholly defensive and reactive battle as fought by the allies, would stand as ‘a soldier’s battle’, as well as a notably bloody one. One junior officer concluded, ‘We owe our existence as an army to the pluck of the private soldiers’.
The initial outcome of the battle was negative for both sides. The British were shaken, only the heroism of the infantry having prevented a disaster, and casualties were high (50 per cent in some units). One general suffered a nervous breakdown and another advised the abandonment of the whole campaign. The planned assault on Sevastopol was now impossible and the siege had to continue over the winter. A great storm which destroyed the British supply ships and depot at Balaklava on 14 November increased the privations and losses through the winter of 1854- 55. Major reinforcements were poured into the Crimea to give the allies military superiority. The impact on the Russian side was even greater. A third major battle had failed to dislodge the invaders and, as the allied build-up proceeded, it was clear Sevastopol was doomed. After a last break-out attempt, the town fell in September 1855 and the war ended as an Anglo-French victory. The Treaty of Paris (1856) demilitarized the Black Sea and stalled Russia’s expansion at Turkey’s expense for 20 years. Russia’s loss of the aura of military invincibility retained since 1815 would have profound domestic and international consequences. But the international standing of Palmerston’s Britain was confirmed and that of the Emperor Louis Napoleon’s France enhanced.