The Taking of Malakoff by Horace Vernet. A British officer salutes the French flag.
The defeat on the Chernaia was a catastrophe for the Russians. It was now only a question of time before Sevastopol would fall to the allies. ‘I am sure that this is the second-to-last bloody act of our operations in the Crimea,’ wrote Herbé to his parents on 25 August, after being wounded on the Chernaia; ‘the last will be the capture of Sevastopol.’ According to Nikolai Miloshevich, one of the defenders of the naval base, after the defeat ‘the Russian troops lost all their trust in their officers and generals’. Another soldier wrote: ‘The morning of 16 August was our last hope. By the evening it had disappeared. We began to say farewell to Sevastopol.’
Realizing that the situation was hopeless, the Russians now prepared to evacuate Sevastopol, as Gorchakov had warned they would have to do if they were defeated on the Chernaia in his letter to the Minister of War on the eve of the battle. The evacuation plan centred on the building of a floating bridge across the sea harbour to the North Side, where the Russians would have a commanding position against the allied forces if they occupied the town on the southern side. The idea of a bridge was first advanced by General Bukhmeier, a brilliant engineer, in the first week of July. It was rejected by scores of engineers on the grounds that it would be impossible to build, especially where Bukhmeier had suggested, between Fort Nicholas and the Mikhailov Battery, where the sea harbour was 960 metres wide (which would make it one of the longest pontoon bridges ever built) and strong winds often made the water very rough. But the urgency of the situation persuaded Gorchakov to give his backing to the dangerous plan, and with several hundred soldiers to cart the timbers from as far as Kherson, 300 kilometres away, and vast teams of sailors to link them to the pontoons, Bukhmeier organized the building of the bridge, which was finally completed on 27 August.
Meanwhile the allies were preparing for another assault on the Malakhov and the Redan. By the end of August they had come to realize that the Russians could not hold out much longer. The flow of deserters from Sevastopol had become a flood after the defeat on the Chernaia – and they all told the same stories of the terrible conditions in the town. Once the allied commanders recognized that a new assault would probably succeed, they were all the more determined to launch it as soon as possible. September was approaching, the weather would soon turn, and there was nothing they feared more than a second winter in the Crimea.
Pélissier took the lead. His position had been greatly strengthened by the routing of the Russians on the Chernaia. Napoleon had had his doubts about Pélissier’s policy of persisting with the siege – he had been in favour of a field campaign – but with this new victory he set aside these reservations and gave his full support to his commander to push ahead for the victory he craved.
Where the French commander led, the British were obliged to follow: they lacked the troops or record of success to impose their military policies. After the catastrophe of 18 June, Panmure was determined to prevent a repeat of the unsuccessful British attack against the Redan, and for a while it seemed a new assault involving the British had been ruled out. But, with the victory at the Chernaia, things looked very different, and from the momentum of events a new logic developed that drew the British into a new assault.
By this time the French had sapped up to the abbatis of the Malakhov, only 20 metres from the fortress ditch, and were taking heavy casualties from the Russian guns. They had dug so close to the Malakhov that when they talked they could be clearly heard by the Russians. The British too had dug as far as they were able in the rocky ground towards the Redan – they were 200 metres from the fort – and were also losing many men. From the top of the naval library, the Russians could make out the facial features of the British soldiers in the exposed trenches. Their sharpshooters in the Redan could take them out without any difficulty as soon as they raised their heads. Every day, the allied armies were losing between 250 and 300 men. The situation was untenable. There was no point delaying an assault: if it could not succeed now, it would probably never do so, in which case the whole idea of continuing the siege should be abandoned before the onset of winter. That was the logic by which the British government now permitted Raglan’s replacement, General James Simpson, to join Pélissier in planning a last attempt to take Sevastopol by an infantry assault.
The date for the operation was set for 8 September. This time, in contrast to the botched attempt of 18 June, the assault was preceded by a massive bombardment of the Russian defences, beginning on 5 September, though even before that, from the last days of August, the intensity of the allies’ artillery fire had been steadily growing. Firing 50,000 shells a day, and from a much closer range than ever before, the French and British guns caused immense damage. Hardly a building was left standing in the centre of the town, which looked as if it had been hit by an earthquake. The casualties were horrendous – something like a thousand Russians were killed or wounded every day from the last week of August and nearly 8,000 in the three days of the bombardment – but the last brave defenders of Sevastopol dared not think of abandoning the town. ‘On the contrary,’ recalled Ershov,
even though we were defending a half-destroyed Sevastopol, essentially a phantom of a town, without any more significance except for its name, we prepared ourselves to fight for it to the last man in the streets: we moved our stores to the North Side, put up barricades and got ready to transform every ruined building into an armed citadel.
The Russians were expecting an assault – the bombardment left no room for doubt about the allies’ intentions – but they thought that it would come on 7 September, the anniversary of the battle of Borodino, their famous victory against the French in 1812 when one-third of Napoleon’s army had been destroyed. When the attack did not come, the Russian defenders let down their guard. They were even more confused on the morning of the 8th, when the bombardment started up again with a furious intensity at 5 a.m. – the French and British guns firing more than 400 shells a minute – until suddenly at ten o’clock it stopped. Again the assault did not come. The Russians had anticipated that the allies would attack either at dawn or at dusk, as they had always done before. So they interpreted this new bombardment as an indication of a possible assault that evening. That idea was reinforced at 11 a.m. when the Russian lookouts on the Inkerman Heights reported what they believed to be a preparatory build-up of allied ships. The lookouts were not mistaken: the allied plan had called for the navy to join the assault by attacking the coastal defences of the city, but that morning the fine hot weather broke and a strong north-west wind and a heavy sea forced this part of the operation to be cancelled at the last moment; so the ships that had gathered at the mouth of the sea harbour did not look as if they could be ready for an imminent attack. And yet that is precisely what the allies had in store. On Bosquet’s wise insistence, the assault had been set to start at noon – just when the Russians would be changing the guard and would expect it least.
The allied plan was simple: to repeat the actions they had tried to carry out on 18 June but with a larger force and without the mistakes. This time, instead of the three divisions they had used on 18 June, the French would employ ten and a half divisions (five and a half against the Malakhov and five against the other bastions on the Town Front), a massive assault force of 35,000 men, supported by 2,000 brave Sardinians. The French commanders, who would give the signal for the assault to begin, had watches that were synchronized so as to avoid a repetition of the confusion caused by General Mayran’s mistaking of the rocket signal to attack. At midday they gave the order to begin. The drummers beat their drums, the bugles sounded, the band played the Marseillaise, and with a resounding cheer of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, General MacMahon’s Division, some 9,000 men in all, surged out of the French trenches, followed by the rest of the French infantry. Led by the courageous Zouaves, they ran towards the Malakhov, and, using planks and ladders to cross the ditch, climbed the walls of the fortress. The Russians were caught by surprise. At the time of the attack the garrison was being changed and many of the soldiers had retired for their lunch, thinking that the halt in the bombardment meant that all was safe. ‘The French were in the Malakhov before our boys had a chance to grab their guns,’ recalled Prokofii Podpalov, who watched in horror from the Redan. ‘In a few seconds they had filled the fort with hundreds of their men, and hardly a shot was fired from our side. A few minutes later, the French flag was raised on the turret.’
The Russians were overwhelmed by the sheer force of the French attack. They turned their backs and fled in panic from the Malakhov. Most of the soldiers in the bastion were teenagers from the 15th Reserve Infantry Division who had no experience of combat. They were no match for the Zouaves.
Once they had overrun the Malakhov, MacMahon’s men swarmed across the Russian defences, joining the Zouaves in fearsome hand-to-hand fighting against the Russians on the Zherve (Gervais) Battery, on the left flank of the Malakhov, while other units launched attacks against the other bastions along the line. The Zouaves captured the Zherve Battery but on the right they were unable to dislodge the Kazan Regiment, who bravely stood their ground until reinforcements were brought up from Sevastopol, enabling the Russians to launch a counter-attack. There followed some of the fiercest fighting of the war. ‘Time after time we charged them with our bayonets,’ recalled one of the Russian soldiers, Anatoly Viazmitinov. ‘We had no idea what our objective was, and never asked ourselves if it could succeed. We simply hurled ourselves forward, totally intoxicated by the excitement of the fight.’ Within minutes the ground between the Zherve Battery and the Malakhov was covered with the dead, the Russians and the French all entangled; and with each successive charge another layer of dead was added to the heap, on which the two sides went on fighting, treading on the wounded and the dead, until the battlefield became a ‘mound of bodies’, as Viazmitinov later wrote, ‘and the air was filled with a thick red dust from the bloody ground, making it impossible for us to see the enemy. All we could do was fire through the dust in their direction, making sure to keep our muskets parallel to the ground in front of us.’ Eventually, with more troops arriving all the time, MacMahon’s infantry overwhelmed the Russians with their superior rifle power and forced them to retreat. Then they consolidated their control of the Malakhov by building makeshift barricades – using the dead and even wounded Russians as human sandbags along with reclaimed gabions, fascines and embrasures from the half-destroyed defences – behind which they turned their heavy guns towards Sevastopol.
Meanwhile, the British launched their own assault on the Redan. In some ways the Redan was much harder to capture than the Malakhov. The British could not dig their trenches in the rocky ground in front of it and would therefore have to run across this open space and then clamber over the abbatis under close-range fire from the enemy. The broad V-shape of the Redan also meant that the storming parties would be exposed to flanking fire as they crossed the ditch and climbed the parapet. It was also rumoured that the Redan had been mined by the Russians. But once the French had occupied the Malakhov, the Redan was more vulnerable to attack.
As in June, the British waited for the French to take the lead, but as soon as they saw the tricolour on the Malakhov they raced forward towards the Redan. Running through a storm of roundshot, grape and musketry, a good number of the storming party of a thousand men managed to cross the abbatis and climb down into the ditch, although at least half the ladders had been dropped along the way. There was chaos in the ditch as the stormers came under point-blank fire from the Russian gunners on the parapets above their heads. Some began to waver, unsure how to climb the parapet; others tried to find some shelter at the bottom of the ditch. But in the end a group of men succeeded in scrambling up the wall and climbing into the fortress. Most were killed, but they had set an example, and others followed them. Among them was Lieutenant Griffith of the 23rd (Royal Welch) Fusiliers:
We rushed madly along the trenches, grapeshot flying about our ears. Several officers we met coming back wounded said they had been in the Redan and that the supports were only wanted to complete the victory. On we rushed impeded more and more by the wounded officers and men carried back from the front … . ‘On the 23rd! This way!’ cried the staff officers. We scrambled out of the trench into open ground. That was a fearful moment. I rushed across the space about 200 yards, I think, grapeshot striking the ground all the way and men falling down on all sides. When I got to the edge of the ditch of the Redan I found our men all mixed up in confusion but keeping up a steady fire on the enemy … [In the ditch] there were lots of men of different regiments all huddled together – scaling ladders placed against the parapet crowded with our fellows. Radcliffe and I got hold of the ladder and went up it to the top of the parapet where we were stopped by the press – wounded and dead men kept tumbling down on us – it was indeed an exciting and fearful scene.
The ditch and the slopes leading up to the parapet quickly filled with new arrivals, like Griffith, who could not climb the parapet because of the ‘press’ created by the fighting above them. The interior of the Redan was strongly defended with a series of traverses manned by the Russians feeding in their supports from behind; the few stormers who managed to fight their way into the fortress were hemmed in by them, vastly outnumbered and subjected to a devastating crossfire from both flanks at the northern end of the V-shape. The morale of the soldiers crowded in the ditch began to fall apart. Ignoring the commands of their officers to climb the parapet, ‘the men clung to the outside of the salient angle in hundreds’, recalled Lieutenant Colin Campbell, watching from the trenches, ‘although they were swept down by the flanking fire in scores’. Many lost their nerve entirely and ran back to the trenches, which themselves were full of men waiting for the order to attack. Discipline broke down. There was a general stampede to the rear. Griffith joined the panic flight:
Feeling disgraced, tho’ I had done my best, unwillingly I turned to follow the men. I saw our trench at some distance but I never expected to reach it. The fire was fearful and I kept tumbling over the dead and wounded men who literally covered the ground. At last to my great joy I gained our Parallels and tumbled somehow into the trench … I should have said that on the way a bullet hit my water-bottle, which was slung at my side, spilt all the water and glanced off. A stone thrown up by a grapeshot hit me in the leg but didn’t hurt me much. Soon after we found … a few men and by degrees mustered most of the unhurt. It was very melancholy we found so many missing.
Henry Clifford was among the officers who tried in vain to restore discipline: ‘When the men ran in from the parapet of the Redan … . we drew our swords and beat the men and implored them to stand and not run, that all would be lost; but many fled. The trench where they ran in was so crowded that it was impossible to move without walking over the wounded who lay under our feet.’
It was hopeless to attempt to renew the attack with these panic-stricken troops, most of whom were young reservists. General Codrington, the commander of the Light Division in charge of the assault, suspended further action for the day – a day when the British had counted 2,610 fallen men, 550 of them dead. Codrington intended to renew the attack with the battle-hardened troops of the Highland Brigade the next day. But it never came to that. Later that evening the Russians decided that they could not defend the Redan against the French guns installed in the Malakhov, and evacuated the fortress. As one Russian general explained in perhaps the earliest account of these events, the Malakhov was ‘only one fortress, but it was the key to Sevastopol, from which the French would be able to bombard the town at will, killing thousands of our soldiers and civilians, and probably destroying the pontoon bridge to cut off our escape to the North Side’.
Gorchakov ordered the evacuation of the entire South Side of Sevastopol. Military installations were blown up, stores were set alight, and crowds of soldiers and civilians prepared themselves to cross the floating bridge to the North Side. A good number of the Russian soldiers believed the decision to evacuate the city was a betrayal. They had seen the previous day’s fighting as a partial victory, in so far as they had beaten off the enemy’s attacks on all the bastions except the Malakhov, and they did not understand, or refused to acknowledge, that what they had just lost was indispensable to the continued defence of the town. Many of the sailors did not want to leave Sevastopol, where they had spent their lives, and some even protested. ‘We cannot leave, there is no authority to order us,’ proclaimed one group of sailors, referring to the absence of a naval chief following the death of Nakhimov.
The soldiers can leave but we have our naval commanders, and we have not been told by them to go. How could we leave Sevastopol? Surely, everywhere the assault has been repulsed, only the Malakhov has been taken by the French, but tomorrow we can take it back, and we will remain at our posts! … We must die here, we cannot leave, what would Russia say of us?
The evacuation began at seven o’clock in the evening and went on all night. On the sea harbour quayside at Fort Nicholas a huge crowd of soldiers and civilians assembled to cross the floating bridge. The wounded and the sick, women with young children, the elderly with walking sticks, were all mixed up with soldiers, sailors, horses and artillery on carriages. The evening sky was illuminated by the flames of burning buildings, and the sound of the guns on the distant bastions was confused with explosions in Sevastopol, forts and ships, as the Russians blew up anything of use to the enemy that could not be removed. Expecting the British and the French to appear at any moment, people in the crowd began to panic, to push and shove each other to get closer to the bridge. ‘You could smell the fear,’ recalls Tatyana Tolycheva, who was waiting at the bridge with her husband and her son. ‘There was a terrific racket – people screaming, weeping, wailing, the wounded groaning, and shells flying in the sky.’ Bombs were dropping on the harbour all the time: one killed eight allied prisoners of war with a direct hit on the crowded quayside. The soldiers, horses and artillery were the first to cross, followed by the ox-drawn carts laden down with cannonballs, stacks of hay and wounded men. There was silence as they crossed the bridge – nobody was sure if they would make it to the other side. The sea was rough, the north-west wind still blowing strong, and the rain was coming down into their faces as they made their way across the sea harbour. The civilians formed a line to cross the bridge. They could take only what they carried in their arms. Among them was Tolycheva:
On the bridge there was a crush – nothing but confusion, panic, fear! The bridge almost gave way from the weight of all of us, and the water came up to our knees. Suddenly someone became scared and began to shout, ‘We’re drowning!’ People turned around and tried to make it back onto the shore. There was a struggle, with people stepping over each other. The horses became scared and began to rear … . I thought we were going to die and said a prayer.
By eight o’clock the next morning the crossing was complete. A signal was given to the last defenders to leave the bastions and set fire to the town. With the sole remaining pieces of artillery they sank the last ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the sea harbour before crossing to the North Side.
From the Star Fort, Tolstoy watched the downfall of Sevastopol. During the storming he had been placed in charge of a five-gun battery and had been one of the town’s last defenders to cross the pontoon bridge. It was his birthday, he was 27, but the sight before him now was enough to break his heart. ‘I wept when I saw the town in flames and the French flags on our bastions,’ he wrote to his aunt, ‘and generally, in many respects, it was a very sad day.’