Object Advent Calendar Day 7

Russian Musket from the battlefield of the Alma

Russian musket captured at the battlefield of the Alma.

Russian musket captured at the battlefield of the Alma.

Today we have a captured Russian Musket, taken from the battlefield of the Alma. This object shows how advantages in military technology almost invariably lead to victory, though this is not always the case, as the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 demonstrated.

The Alma was fought on the 20th September 1854 and was the first battle of the Crimean War, 1854-1856. Russia,

wishing to exploit the weakness of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for her own gain, declared war on the Turks. The French and British, allies of the Turks, and fearful of Russian expansion into the Mediterranean declared war on Russia on 27th and 28th March 1854.

By September an Anglo-French army had landed at Calamita Bay, in the Crimean Peninsula, virtually unopposed and thus had been able to establish a bridgehead. Once organised and ready, the allied army march south towards the port city of Sebastopol. The taking of this place, which was the home port of the Tsar’s Black Sea’s Fleet, would prevent the Russians from being able to encroach on the Mediterranean.

The road to Sebastopol was protected by two dominant hills, Telegraph Hill and Kourgane Hill. The road ran between these two features and the area formed a natural pass, and superb defensive position. It was this quality that Crown Prince Aleksandr Sergeyevich Menshikov, The Commander in Chief of the Russian Forces found so appealing, and as a result he put the bulk of his Russian army on these features to hold them, and thus prevent the road to Sebastopol falling into Anglo-French hands.

The Crown Prince, along with 35,000 Russian soldiers and 100 guns, occupied the heights, and constructed two defensive features, the Lesser and Greater Redoubts, to further strengthen their position of Kourgane Hill. The position seemed a formidable obstacle, but one that had to be overcome.

The battle plan for the Anglo-French was simple. The French would attempt to scale the 300 foot cliffs that ran from the River Alma to Telegraph Hill, and attack the Russians on their left Flank. Hopefully this obvious attempt to turn the Russian Flank would occupy the enemy’s attention, and allow a British attack on the Russians centre to succeed. At first all went well General Bousquet’s division, supported by the big guns of the French Fleet, scrambled up the cliffs and expelled the Russian defenders from their defences. However at this point he was unable to exploit success and called for reinforcements, these would take a considerable time to arrive. Other French troops, under General Canrobert, were able to cross the River Alma, but were unable to bring their guns up the cliffs. Prince Napoleon’s Division was even worse off. They were unable to even cross the river, and under murderous fire from the Russians on Telegraph Hill, were forced to seek shelter in a nearby vineyard.

With the French attack stalling the British advance upon the Russian centre began. Attacking in two lines, four divisions of the British army advanced towards the Russians, and almost immediately things began to go wrong. The Light Division had not fully extended its line, and as a result advanced at a slight angle. Sir George Brown, commander of the Light Division, was extremely short sighted, and failed to notice that this had occurred. As a result of this mistake the soldiers of the first two advancing divisions began to merge, and instead of a parade perfect British line advancing towards the Russians, what the enemy faced was more like a swarming mob. Realising that order had broken down British officers ordered their men to charge the Russians as they were.

Seeing a chance to defeat the disordered mass of British the Russians advanced down the slope to meet them, and this is where the superior technology of the British weapons proved its worth. The Russians were still using smoothbore muskets, of the type used at Waterloo nearly 40 years before. The British on the other had were armed with the 1851 Minnie Rifled Musket, or the Pattern 53 Enfield Rifled Musket. The Russians needed to be within 300 paces of the British before they could fire with any hope of hitting their enemy. The British, on the other hand, were able to open up at 1200 paces.  The accurate and sustained fire of the British soon drove the Russians back in confusion, towards the heights, and the British advance continued.

Seeing their infantry in difficulty the Russian guns started to fire on the British, but here the nature of the terrain, and the disordered mass they had become, actually played into the British hands, as their lines had opened up into an almost skirmish formation, meaning that the Russian artillery did not have a good target to hit. The British meanwhile, continued their advance, and soon had captured the Greater Redoubt.

Enough time had passed doing this, that the Russians had been able to reorganise themselves, and again began to advance down the hill towards the elated British forces. At this moment there occurred one of those examples of idiocy that seem to litter military history. As the Russians came towards them a British Officer, shouted for the men in the redoubt to hold their fire, as the advancing men were French! This is despite the fact the soldiers to their front were wearing different coloured uniforms from the French, and were advancing in the wrong direction from where the French were. Other officers, more intellectually gifted than the last one, ordered the men to fire, but by now the rank and file were thoroughly confused. Fortunately for the British, the situation was saved by a moment of pure farce. Wanting to get a better view of the proceedings Lord Raglan, the British Commander in Chief, and his staff, had ridden up the slope of Telegraph Hill, through the French and the Russian skirmish line, somehow without being noticed, and found himself on the top of the hill, with no defending enemy in sight. Seeing the advantage of this situation he calmly remarked, as an aside, that here would be a rather good place to have some guns. One of his aides turned his off the cuff remark into an order, and soon a battery of British guns were in place. These were promptly turned on the advancing Russians, causing them to once more retire up the slope. However the damage had been done and the British were no longer in control of the Greater Redoubt.

By now the British reinforcements of the Guards Division and the Highland Brigade had arrived, and after a stiff fight, the Guards managed to re-occupy the redoubt, and the Russian centre left was now smashed wide open. The battle was drawing to its final conclusion, and this would occur on the centre Right of the Russian lines, where 10,000 Russian soldiers, fresh and ready were to meet the soldiers of the Highland Brigade. This brigade, made up of the 93rd, 79th and 42nd Regiments, and commanded by Sir Colin Campbell, advanced in a thin line, only two ranks deep. This was a risky formation, but fortunately the smoke of battle obscured this fact from the waiting Russians. As the Highland Brigade advanced they fired as they marched, a very difficult thing to achieve, given they stayed in formation, and this high level of skill and training proved too much for the Russians, who fell back in disorder initially, before breaking. The Highland Brigade advanced up the slope to the top of the hill and loudly proclaimed their achievement with shouts and cheers.

The battle was over, and the road to Sebastopol was open. Lord Ragland approached his French Allies and asked them to pursue the fleeing Russians with him, they refused. This was one of the great mistakes of the Crimean War. Had the allies pursued at this moment it was highly likely they would have been able to capture the city almost without a shot. By delaying though they missed the opportunity and condemned their men to two more years of brutal conflict in the Crimean Peninsula.

 

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The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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