Battle of Kars, Repulse of the Russians, Sept. 29th 1855.
Siege of Kars
The downfall of Sevastopol was cheered by crowds in London and Paris. There was dancing and drinking and much singing of patriotic anthems in the streets. Many people thought that this meant the end of the war. The capture of the naval base and the destruction of the Tsar’s Black Sea Fleet had been the focus of the allied war plans, at least in so far as these were communicated to the general public, and these had now been achieved. But in fact, in military terms, the loss of Sevastopol was a long way from the defeat of Russia: a large-scale land invasion to capture Moscow or a victory in the Baltic against St Petersburg would be needed to accomplish that.
If some Western leaders hoped that the capture of Sevastopol would force the Tsar to sue for peace, they were quickly disappointed. The Imperial Manifesto announcing the loss to the Russian people struck a note of defiance. On 13 September Alexander moved to Moscow, entering it in a staged re-enactment of Alexander I’s dramatic appearance in the ‘national’ capital after the invasion by Napoleon in July 1812, when cheering crowds had greeted him on his way to the Kremlin. ‘Remember 1812,’ the Tsar wrote to Gorchakov, his commander-in-chief, on 14 September. ‘Sevastopol is not Moscow. The Crimea is not Russia. Two years after the burning of Moscow, our victorious troops were in Paris. We are still the same Russians and God is with us.’
Alexander thought of ways to carry on the war. In late September he wrote a detailed plan for a new Balkan offensive in 1856: it would take the war to Russia’s enemies on European soil by instigating partisan and nationalist revolts among the Slavs and Orthodox. According to Tiutcheva, Alexander ‘reprimanded anyone who talked of making peace’. Nesselrode was certainly in favour of peace negotiations, and told the Austrians that he would welcome proposals from the allies if they were ‘compatible with our honour’. But for the moment all the talk in St Petersburg and Moscow was about continuing the war, even if that talk was largely bluff to pressure the allies into offering better peace terms to Russia. The Tsar knew that the French were tired of the war, and that Napoleon would favour peace, once he had achieved the ‘glorious victory’ that the fall of Sevastopol symbolized. It was the British who would be less inclined to end the war, Alexander realized. For Palmerston, the campaign in the Crimea had always been the start of a broader war to reduce the power of the Russian Empire in the world, and the British public, as far as one can tell, were generally in favour of continuing. Even Queen Victoria could not endure the idea that the British army’s ‘failure on the Redan should be’, as she put it, ‘our last fait d’armes’.
After neglecting the fronts in Asia Minor and the Caucasus for so long, the main concern for Britain was the Russian siege of Kars. Alexander stepped up pressure on the Turkish fortress town to strengthen his negotiating position in peace talks with the British following the downfall of Sevastopol. The capture of Kars would open the way for the Tsar’s troops to advance towards Erzurum and Anatolia, threatening British interests on the land route to India. Alexander had ordered the attack against Kars in June in the hope of diverting allied troops from Sevastopol. A Russian force of 21,000 infantry, 6,000 Cossacks and 88 guns led by General Muraviev advanced from the Russian-Turkish border to Kars, 70 kilometres away, where a Turkish force of 18,000 troops under the command of the British General William Williams, knowing they would be defeated in an open battlefield, had spent all their energies on the fortification of the town. Among the many foreign officers in the Turkish force at Kars – a legion of Polish, Italian and Hungarian refugees from the failed rebellions of 1848–9 – there were many skilful engineers. The Russians launched their first attack on 16 June, but when this was vigorously repulsed they laid siege to the city, intending to starve the city’s defenders into surrendering. The Russians saw the siege of Kars as their answer to the allied siege of Sevastopol.
The Turks favoured sending an expeditionary force to relieve Kars. Omer Pasha pleaded with the British and the French to let him redeploy his Turkish forces in Kerch and Evpatoria (some 25,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry) and ‘throw myself upon some point of the coast of Circassia, and by menacing from thence the communication of the Russians, oblige them to abandon the siege of Kars’. The allied commanders were reluctant to make a decision and passed the matter on to the politicians in London and Paris, who were at first unwilling to move the Turkish contingent from the Crimea, and then approved the plan in general terms but argued over the best way to get to Kars. It was only on 6 September that Omer Pasha left the Crimea for Sukhumi, on the Georgian coast, from where it would take his army of 40,000 men several weeks to cross the southern Caucasus.
Meanwhile Muraviev was getting restless before Kars. The siege had taken a terrible toll on the town’s defenders, who suffered from shortages of food and from cholera; but Sevastopol had fallen, the Tsar needed Kars quickly, and with Omer Pasha’s army on its way, he could not wait for the blockade to break the morale of the Turks. On 29 September the Russians launched a full-scale assault on the bastions of Kars. Despite their weakened state, the Turkish forces fought extremely well, deploying their artillery to great effect, and the Russians suffered heavy casualties, about 2,500 dead and twice that number wounded, compared to about 1,000 Turkish casualties. Muraviev returned to his siege tactics. By mid-October, when Omer Pasha, after several delays, was only just beginning his long march south from Sukhumi, the defenders of Kars were starving; the hospital was packed with victims of scurvy. Women were bringing their children to the house of General Williams and leaving them there for him to feed. The horses of the town had all been slaughtered for their meat. People were reduced to eating grass and roots.
On 22 October word arrived that Selim Pasha, Omer Pasha’s son, had landed an army of 20,000 men on the north coast of Turkey and was marching towards Erzurum. But by the time he reached the town, only a few days’ march away, the situation in Kars had become even worse: a hundred people were dying every day, and soldiers were deserting all the time. Among those who were fit to struggle on, morale sank to an all-time low. Heavy snowfalls at the end of October made it practically impossible for the Turkish relief forces to reach Kars. Omer Pasha’s army was held up by Russian forces in Mingrelia, and then showed no sign of hurrying towards Kars, resting for five days in Zugdedi, the capital of Mingrelia, where the troops became distracted by pillaging and kidnapping children to sell as slaves. From there, they failed to make much headway in very heavy rain through the deeply forested and marshy territory. Selim Pasha’s forces were even slower to advance from Erzurum. It turned out that he did not have 20,000 men, but less than half that number, far too few to defeat Muraviev’s forces on their own, so Selim Pasha decided not to try. On 22 November a note was handed by a British diplomat to General Williams, informing him that Selim Pasha’s army would not come to Kars. With all hope gone, Williams surrendered the garrison to Muraviev, who, to his credit, ensured that the 4,000 sick and wounded Turkish soldiers were well cared for, and distributed food to the 30,000 soldiers and civilians he had starved into submission.
Having taken Kars, the Russians controlled more enemy territory than the allied powers. Alexander saw his victory at Kars as a counterbalance to the loss of Sevastopol, and now thought the time was right to put out peace feelers to the Austrians and the French. Direct contact was established between Paris and St Petersburg at the end of November, when Baron von Seebach, Nesselrode’s son-in-law, who looked after Russia’s interests in the French capital, was approached by Count Walewski, Napoleon’s cousin and Foreign Minister. Walewski was ‘personally well-inclined’ towards peace talks with Russia, Seebach reported back to Nesselrode, but had warned that Napoleon was ‘dominated by his fear of England’ and determined to maintain his alliance with that country. If Russia wanted peace, it would have to make proposals – starting with the limitation of Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea – that enabled France to overcome the reluctance of the British to start talks.
That was not going to be easy. With the fall of Kars, the British government was even more determined to go on with the war and take it into new theatres. In December the cabinet discussed sending half the force in the Crimea to Trebizond to cut off a potential Russian advance from Kars towards Erzurum and Anatolia. Plans for the operation were prepared for consideration by the allied war council in January. There was also talk of a major new campaign in the Baltic, where the destruction of the naval base at Sveaborg on 9 August had shown the allied leaders what could be achieved with steam-powered armoured ships and long-range guns. Beyond Westminster, there was an almost unanimous consensus that the fall of Sevastopol should be only the start of a broader war against Russia. Even Gladstone, a firm advocate of peace, was obliged to acknowledge that the British public did not want the war to end. The Russophobic press called on Palmerston to launch a spring campaign in the Baltic. It called for the destruction of Kronstadt, the blockade of St Petersburg, and the expulsion of the Russians from Finland: Russia was to be destroyed as a threat to European liberty and to British interests in the Near East.
Palmerston and his ‘war party’ had their own agenda for a broad crusade against Russia. It went well beyond the original objective of the war – the defence of Turkey – in its plans for the permanent containment and weakening of Russia as an imperial rival to Britain. ‘The main and real object of the war is to curb the aggressive ambition of Russia,’ Palmerston had written to Clarendon on 25 September. ‘We went to war not so much to keep the Sultan and his Musselmen in Turkey, as to keep the Russians out of Turkey; but we have an equally strong interest in keeping the Russians out of Norway and Sweden.’ Palmerston proposed continuing the war on a pan-European scale as well as in Asia ‘to contain the power of Russia’. As he saw it, the Baltic states, like Turkey, if they joined this enlarged war, would be established as ‘part of a long line of circumvallation to confine the future extension of Russia’. Palmerston insisted that Russia had ‘not yet been beaten half enough’ and demanded that the war go on for at least another year – until the Crimea and the Caucasus had been detached from Russia and Polish independence had been won.
It was not just a question of surrounding Russia with Western-aligned states, but of a broader ‘war of nationalities’ to break up the Russian Empire from within. The idea was first advanced by Palmerston in his memorandum to the cabinet in March 1854. Then he had proposed to return the Crimea and the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire; to give Finland to Sweden, the Baltic provinces to Prussia, and Bessarabia to Austria; and to restore Poland as a kingdom independent from Russia. Such ideas had been discussed and tacitly acknowledged as the unofficial war aims of the British cabinet by various figures in the Westminster establishment during the Crimean War. The basic premise, as explained by the Duke of Argyll in a letter to Clarendon in October 1854, was that while the Four Points were ‘good and sufficient’ as war aims in so far as they allowed ‘for any amount of change or extension’, the dismemberment of Russia would become desirable and possible ‘if and when a successful war can place it within our reach’. With the fall of Sevastopol, these ideas were advanced once again within the inner circles of Palmerston’s war cabinet. ‘I suspect Palmerston would wish the war to glide imperceptibly into a war of nationalities, as it is called, but would not like to profess it openly now,’ the political diarist Charles Greville wrote on 6 December.
Throughout the autumn of 1855 Palmerston supported the idea of preparing for a continuation of the war the following spring, if only as a means of keeping up the pressure on the Russians to accept the punitive peace terms he had in mind. He was furious with the French and the Austrians for opening direct talks with the Russians, and for considering relatively moderate terms based on the Four Points. He was convinced, as he wrote to Clarendon on 9 October, that ‘Nesselrode and his spies’ were ‘working on the French in Paris and Brussels’, and that, ‘with the Austrians and Prussians cooperating in Nesselrode’s endeavours’, it would require ‘all our steadiness and skill to avoid being drawn into a peace which would disappoint the first expectations of the country and leave unaccomplished the real objects of the war’. In the same note Palmerston outlined what he saw as the minimum conditions of a settlement: Russia was to end its interference in the Danubian principalities, where the Sultan was to ‘give the princes a good constitution to be previously agreed to by England and France’; the Danube delta was to be given up by Russia to Turkey; and the Russians were to lose all their naval bases in the Black Sea, along with any ‘portions of territory which are in their hands rallying places for attacks upon her neighbours’, territories among which he included the Crimea and the Caucasus. As for Poland, Palmerston was no longer sure whether Britain could support a war of independence, but he thought the French should run with the idea, which had been advanced by Walewski, to put further pressure on the Russians to accept a diminution of their power in the world.
But the French were less enthusiastic. Having done most of the fighting, their views carried at least as much weight as Palmerston’s. Without the support of France, Britain could not think of continuing the war, let alone involving new allies from among the European powers, who mostly preferred French to British leadership.
France had suffered more than Britain from the war. Apart from its losses on the battlefield, the French army was very badly hit by various diseases, mainly scurvy and typhus but also cholera, during the autumn and winter of 1855. The problems were similar to those of the British the previous winter: the situation of the two armies had been reversed. Where the British had drastically improved their sanitation and medical provision during the past year, the French had let their standards drop as more troops had arrived in the Crimea and they lacked the resources to cope with the increased demand.
In these circumstances it was impracticable for Napoleon to think of fighting on. He could suspend operations until the following spring, by which time his army might have recovered. But the soldiers were becoming dangerously demoralized, as their letters home made clear, and they would not stand for another winter in the Crimea. Writing on 13 October, Captain Charles Thoumas, for example, thought there was a danger of a revolt by the army if it was not brought back to France soon. Frédéric Japy, a lieutenant in the Zouaves, also thought the soldiers would rise up against their officers; they were not prepared to go on with a war which they now felt had been for mainly British interests. Henri Loizillon was afraid a new campaign would draw the French into an endless war against a country that was too big to defeat – a lesson he believed they should have learned from 1812.
Public opinion in France would not support the military campaign for much longer. The French economy had been badly affected by the war: trade was down; agriculture suffered labour shortages as a result of military conscriptions that had already taken 310,000 Frenchmen to the Crimea; and in the cities there were shortages of food which began to be widely felt in November 1855. According to the reports of the local prefects and procurators, there was a real danger of civil unrest if the war went on through the winter. Even the provincial press, which had led the calls for war in 1854, were now urging an end to it.
Always sensitive to public pressure, Napoleon spent the autumn looking for a way to end the war without alienating the British. He was keen to make the most politically of the ‘glorious victory’ that the fall of Sevastopol symbolized, but did not want to endanger his alliance with Britain, which was the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Napoleon was not opposed in principle to the idea of a broader war. He was sympathetic to Palmerston’s vision of using the war against Russia to redraw the map of Europe, fostering national revolutions to break down the 1815 system and leave France in a dominant position on the Continent at the expense of Russia and the Holy Alliance. But he would not get involved in a campaign against Russia in the Caucasus and Asia Minor, where he felt that British interests were mainly served. As Napoleon saw it, the only way he could justify the continuation of a large-scale war against Russia would be if it achieved his grand dreams for the European continent. On 22 November Napoleon wrote to Queen Victoria suggesting three alternatives: a limited defensive war of attrition; peace negotiations on the basis of the Four Points; or an ‘appeal to all the nationalities, the re-establishment of Poland, the independence of Finland and of Hungary’. As Napoleon explained, he personally favoured peace, but offered to discuss this grand proposal for a broader European war, if Britain felt that peace was not acceptable on the Four Points. ‘I could comprehend a policy’, he wrote to Victoria, ‘which would have a certain grandeur and would put the results aimed at on a level with the sacrifices to be made.’
Napoleon’s proposal was almost certainly disingenuous, a clever ploy to force the British to join peace talks. He knew that the British were not prepared for a Napoleonic war of national liberation on the Continent. Yet there are hints that he might have been prepared to launch this broader war if Palmerston had called his bluff. In 1858 Napoleon would tell Cowley that France had wanted peace and that was why he had been forced to end the war; but equally, if he had been forced into a renewal of the war by Palmerston, he would have been determined ‘not to make peace until a better equilibrium [had been] secured for Europe’