Battle of the Alma, 20 September 1854

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The Battle of the Alma was the first major engagement between the British, French and Russians in the Crimean War. The Allied armada had aimed to concentrate in Balchik Bay, fifteen miles north of Varna but delayed due to bad weather.

Battle of the Alma
Lord Raglan arrived in Balchik on the 5 September but found that the French commander, Marshal Armand Jacques Leroy de St Arnaud had already left. It wasn't until the 8 September, with the invasion fleet now strung out, had Raglan finally caught up with him. Raglan learnt that the French now favoured a landing at Kaffa, 100 miles east of Sebastopol. A conference the next day rejected Kaffa and Raglan, as well as eleven other British and French officers, sailed to reconnoitre the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula. They returned to the rendezvous where the rest of the fleet had gathered, forty miles west of Cape Tarakan. The site of the invasion was now in Calamita Bay, some thirty miles north of Sebastopol. The fleet proceeded eastwards and the Allies occupied the small port of Eupatoria on the 13 September with the main landings taking place the next day and continuing for four days due to stormy weather.

The Allies Move South

The Allies started to move south on the morning of the 19 September. The British were on the left flank with two regiments of light cavalry in front of them, while the French and Turks were adjacent to the coast on the right. The Allies subsequently came to the small Bulganek River, which was the first of four major water obstacles to be crossed (the other three were the Alma, Katcha and Belbec Rivers - the Tchernaya River flowed southeast from the Bay) before reaching the Bay of Sebastopol which divided its northern suburbs from the southern dockyards. Raglan sent across the light cavalry to investigate the sighting of Russian Cossacks beyond. As they crossed the sun caught the bayonets of massed Russian infantry hidden in dead ground, waiting in ambush. The cavalry skilfully withdrew covered by 6 and 9pdr field guns. The first skirmish on Crimean ground had occurred.

The march resumed the following day, with the knowledge that the Russians were gathering in strength on the south bank of the Alma, the second river that ran into the Black Sea only five miles from the Bulganek. The northern bank of the river (from which the Allies had to cross from) sloped gently into the river while the southern bank rose, in some places, to fifteen feet, and then to between 300 and 500 feet, presenting an ideal position from which to dominate the river and its approaches. Where the river ran into the sea there was a 350ft cliff with an old Tartar fort overlooking the river-mouth. The three villages in the area (going west to east, Almatamack, Bourliouk and Tarkhanlar) were all on the northern bank and had fords leading to a wagon track, which was suitable for artillery. The old Post Road that led from Eupatoria to Sebastopol passed close to Bourliouk, crossed a wooden bridge and climbed through a gorge dominated by Kourgane Hill (450ft) to the east and Telegraph Height (named from the unfinished telegraph station on the top) to the east. Raglan, who had been in conference with St Arnaud the evening before, had refused to be committed to a stringent plan of battle by the Frenchman. As the Allies approached the Alma River and discerned the overall dispositions of the Russian forces under Prince Menshikov, Raglan's caution the night before was justified. He did however, now accept the basic plan under pressure from St Arnaud, but declined to throw the British forces against the strongest part of the Russian defence at a definite time. Ideally the moment would come after the French had taken the Heights on the right flank and the Russians were disorganised and in some confusion, but Raglan was determined that only he could choose the precise moment.

The Russian Position

Prince Menshikov had discounted the possibility of a serious attack from the west of Telegraph Hill and thought that the Post Road would be the key. He had fortified Kourgane Hill with two positions, called the Greater and Lesser redoubts, which were armed with 12 and nine cannon respectively. Both were in fact low breastworks, 3 - 4ft high. The larger one was a formidable position and the smaller one, built facing the northeast to deter a flank assault, could prove troublesome to a frontal attacker too.

The main Russian forces consisted of 6 Corps under General P D Gorchakov (Lieutenant General D A Kvintsinsky's 16 Infantry Division and Lieutenant General V Ia Kiriakov's 17 Infantry Division) plus one brigade from 14 Infantry Division; a Hussar brigade and two Don Cossack regiments of cavalry; 4 battalions from the 13 Infantry Division (two from the Belostock and two from the Brest regiments); one rifle battalion; one naval battalion; and one engineer regiment. In total, he had some forty-two infantry battalions, sixteen squadrons of light cavalry, eleven squadrons of Cossacks and eighty-four guns. Menshikov was under the impression that the track onto the heights close to the sea was unable to be used for military purposes, and so deployed a single battalion of the Minsk Regiment with half a battery of field guns near to Ulkul Akles, a mile to the south of the river mouth, with a single company forward in the Tartar fort. The main Russian defence line therefore started about 2,000yds along the Alma, just east of Almatamack. There, Menshikov stationed the four battalions of the Brest and Belostock regiments, with the Tarutin Regiment available in reserve to support. To the east of them, the Borodin Regiment straddled the Post Road, supported by two batteries of field artillery, while the Moskov Regiment was held in reserve to support them. The Kazan Regiment was deployed to defend the Greater Redoubt, with the Vladimir and Uglitz regiments, aided by two Don Cossack field batteries in reserve. The Suzdel Regiment guarded the flank in the Lesser Redoubt and had two Don Cossack regiments supporting it. Additional reserves were available some 2,000yds south of the Alma, astride the old Post Road (the Volyn Regiment, three battalions from the Minsk Regiment, a Hussar brigade and a light horse battery).

There seems to have been some confusion in the Russian ranks as to who exactly commanded what, as the units west of the Post Road seem to have been under Kiriakov, but the Borodin Regiment was actually still administratively part of Kvintsinsky's 16 Division. Added to that, Kiriakov was under Menshikov's direct command, not that of his Corps commander, Gorchakov. Kvitsinsky exercised tactical command of Kourgane Hill. Menshikov therefore had some 33,000 infantry, 3,400 cavalry and 116 guns at his disposal and an excellent natural position to defend. Some 20,000 men and eighty guns were east of Telegraph Height covering the gorge and Kourgane Hill while 13,000 men and thirty-six guns were stationed between Telegraph Height and the sea.

The Allied Deployment

The French and Turks deployed some 37,000 men and sixty-eight field guns on the Allied right next to the sea (and so could be supported by steamers just offshore). The two brigades of the French 2nd Division under Bosquet would use the steep coastal path and the track near Almatamack, while the 1st Division under Canrobert, positioned to the east of Bosquet, would advance directly south (passing just to the east of Almatamack) and use another identified track. To the east of Canrobert was the 3rd Division under Prince Napoleon, which would attack Telegraph Height directly and be supported by General Forey's 4th Division on an 'as required' basis. The British force was on the Allied left and Raglan had some 26,000 men and sixty guns and faced he strongest part of the enemy defence. The 2nd Division was to the east of the French 3rd Division, in line with the Light Division on the Allied far left. The 3rd and 1st Divisions formed a second line (the 3rd behind the 2nd and the 1st behind the Light), with the 4th Division in reserve and the Light Brigade guarding the flank.

The Allies had been slow to move away from their camp but my 11.30am the main Allied force had halted 1.5 miles from the Alma while it waited for Bosquet to continue his advance. Either through poor staff work or inexperience, the British now found themselves too close to their Allies and did not have sufficient room in which to deploy properly. A number of units overlapped and the resulting congestion was never really sorted out. Naval gunfire started around noon in support, and the Russian company in the Tartar fort withdrew as the French approached. By 1pm Bosquet had reached the heights close to the sea and the British resumed their advance. After half-an-hour they halted and waited for French success against Telegraph Height. They were now just within Russian artillery range which started a constant barrage. Bosquet's two brigades, under Bouat and Autemarre, began their advance up their respective tracks. After some time their artillery arrived and St Arnaud gave the order for Canrobert and Napoleon to start their assault. At this point things began to unravel. As Canrobert moved forward, he found that the track he was to use (the second from the sea) was unfit for artillery and so sent it around to follow in the wake of Autemarre's. This caused a delay, which almost proved fatal. Canrobert's 1st Division, like Bouat's brigade, could not continue the advance until their artillery were in position and therefore could not contribute to the overall attack. The Russians by this time had started to react to the French presence and had started to shift troops and artillery to bring fire to bear on both Canrobert and Napoleon's divisions. After an hour-and-a-half the French had failed to take Telegraph Height, as they were still unable to get sufficient field guns onto the high ground to support the attack as doctrine required. Unfortunately, Bosquet was in no position to assist. Raglan, always sensitive to the suffering of his men, realised that his immobile forces were taking casualties in their exposed position and so ordered a resumption of the advance at 3pm.

At this point, Raglan and his staff crossed the river just west of Bourliouk to a position where he could see Kourgane Hill and the Russian reserves. He realised that the enemy might be enfiladed from this spot and so sent back for a brigade of the 2nd Division and field artillery to join him. Meanwhile the Light Division had gone rather haphazardly into the assault after having become somewhat disorganised while crossing the Alma. The division took the Great redoubt after suffering serious casualties but withdrew due to a confused order from an unknown staff officer, prompted by a rather ponderous and overly cautious Russian counterattack. At around 3.40pm, two field guns reached Raglan and started to harass the enemy positions on Kourgane Hill as the 1st Division, following up the Light Division, retook the redoubts with the Highland Brigade taking the Lesser (after a counterattack by the Suzdel Regiment), and the Guards Brigade (after becoming disorganised as the Light Division had done in crossing the Alma) taking the Greater, despite the Scots Fusilier Guards being partly carried away by the retreating Light Division. The 2nd Division continued its advance, but became seriously disorganised in its crossing of the Alma and having to move around the burning village of Bourliouk. It took time to reorganise and form up but then advanced towards the amphitheatre formed between Kourgane Hill and Telegraph Heights. One of the regiments, the 95th, become separated and moved off in the direction of where the Guards Brigade had began their assault. Another, the 55th, went to the aid of the 7th Royal Fusiliers who had become embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with the Kazan Regiment. The arrival of the 2nd Division, and close behind it the 3rd Division, both relatively fresh, finally turned the tables. The Russians started to fall back. With the British now in possession of Kourgane Hill, the French finally assaulted and occupied Telegraph Height. By 4.30pm the battle had been won and the Russians were in full retreat. Lucan sent the Light Brigade in pursuit but it was recalled by Raglan as the Russians still had some 3,000 uncommitted cavalry in reserve and Kiriakov had rallied infantry and some thirty guns two miles south of Telegraph Height. Raglan asked St Arnaud to take up the pursuit but the Frenchman declined as his troops' supplies had been left on the northern bank of the river, and his artillery was almost out of ammunition.

The British suffered some 2,000 casualties (362 killed), the French are reported to have suffered some 1,243 casualties (a number of these are thought to be cholera victims) and the Russians incurred some 5,511 casualties (1,810 killed). It was the first battle between European nations for almost forty years and a crucial victory, as failure here may well have brought the entire Crimean campaign to a premature end. Menshikov however, should not have been evicted from such a strong position so easily, his overconfidence playing a major part in the outcome. The British had used the line in attack very skilfully and while they had proved amateurish and disorganised in administration, had fought with bravery and courage. The French, while better prepared, had failed to exploit the surprise gained with their flank attack. More importantly, the Allied entente held.

Sweetman Crimean WarThe Crimean War, John Sweetman, Osprey, 2001, 96 pages. A good introduction to the events of the Crimean War, if perhaps a little too focused on the British view of the war. [see more] cover cover cover

Battles of the Crimean War, W. Baring-Pemberton, Macmillan, 1968, 256 pages. One of the best military histories of the Crimean War, with good accounts of all the major battles, well supported by quotes from the combatants. [see more] cover cover cover

ffrench Blake, R L V. The Crimean War, Sphere Books, London, 1973. cover cover cover

Glover, Michael. Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, Guild Publishing, London, 1980 cover cover

Books on the Crimean War | Subject Index: Crimean War

How to cite this article: Antill, Peter, (23 June 2001), Battle of the Alma, 20 September 1854, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_alma.html

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