Battle of Alma

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Alma (September 20, 1854), the first battle of the Crimean War (1854 - 1856), took place in the vicinity of the River Alma in the Crimea. A Franco-British force gained a victory against General Menshikov's Russian army, which lost around 6,000 troops. General St. Arnaud commanded the French, while Lord Raglan commanded the British.

Contents

Prelude

The Franco-British forces landed on the western coast of the Crimean peninsula some 35 miles north of Sevastopol, on the 13th September 1854, at Calamity Bay. Although disorganised and weakened by disease (cholera, dysentery) mostly) the lack of opposition these landings met allowed a beachhead of 4 miles inland to be made. Six days later the two armies headed south. The march involved crossing three rivers and it was at the second of these, the River Alma, that the Russians decided to stand. The Russian Army was numerically superior than the combined Anglo-French army and occupied a nautral defensive position. The British and French bivouacked on the northern bank of the river, where the the ground sloped gently down to the river. Running along the Russian southern bank of the river were precipitous cliffs, 350 feet high, continuing inland from the river's mouth for almost two miles where they met a less steep, but equally high hill known as the Telegraph Hill across the river from the village of Bourliouk. To its east lay the Kourgane Hill, a natural strongpoint with fields of fire covering most approaches, and the key to the whole position. Two redoubts had been constructed to protect the Kourgane Hill from infantry assault; the Lesser Redoubt on the eastern slope and the Greater Redoubt on the west. The road to Sevastopol ran between the Telegraph and Kourgane Hills, covered by Russian batteries sited on the hills and in the narrow valley between them.

The Plan

The Russians had only to hold their ground and keep the pass closed to achieve victory. The French, however, had a plan. Positioned on the allies' right (the western section of allied line, nearest the sea) they would assault the cliffs across the river. In theory, such an obvious attempt to turn the Russian flank would so concern the Russians that they would fail to notice a British attack on their centre and left.

First Attack the Greater Redoubt

On the far right, General Bousquet's division, supported by the guns of the French fleet, crossed the river, scaled the cliffs and were able to expel the Russian infantry and artillery stationed there. Bousquet could not continue the advance without reinforcements, reinforcements that would not arrive quickly. On Bousquet's left, French troops under General Canrobert crossed the river but were unable to move their guns up the steep cliffs. To Canrobert's left Prince Napoleon's division were not even able cross the river. In the face of heavy fire from the Telegraph Hill their advance stalled and the troops took shelter in the vineyards outside the village of Bourliouk.

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The second battalion the Rifle Brigade preparing the way across the River Alma.

Meanwhile, the British had moved forward. The army was arranged in two lines; the first had the Light Division on the left under Sir George Brown and the 2nd Division under Sir George de Lacy Evans on the right. Behind them on the right of the second line, Sir Richard England led his 3rd Division while on his left the Duke of Cambridge commanded the 1st Division. The 4th division under Sir George Cathcart and the cavalry under Lord Lucan were held in reserve. Unfortunately, the Light Division had not extended its line far enough to the left and as it advanced it did so at a slight angle. Sir George Brown was extremely shortsighted and he failed to notice that this had occurred. Soon the troops on the right of the Light Division and the left of the 2nd Division were merging. The parade ground exactness with which the British had set off had now been lost, Sir George Brown turning red with rage, the Russians now faced not with a disciplined British formation, but something with the outward appearance of a mob.

Unable to reorganise their men into anything like their original makeup, British officers finally ordered their men to charge as they were. The men charged, and as they struggled up the slope a densely-packed mass of Russian infantry came towards them. The British troops stopped and opened fire on the Russians. The skill of the British as professional rifleman forced the Russians back. As the red-coated line started back up the hill, the Russian guns opened up. Scrambling up the slopes of the Kourgane Hill in the face of determined artillery fire, the British line was no solid mass of troops, more a thick skirmishing line leaving the Russian guns unable to stop the attack, only hurt it.

The British continued upward and on until they finally tumbled over the walls of the Greater Redoubt, as the Russians were trying to move their guns. As some of the men celebrated from the redoubt, carving their initials on captured Russian guns and marvelling at their achievement the lack of reinforcements soon made itself clear. The First Division, consisting of the Guards and Highland Brigades, was still crossing the river and a great Russian column was moving straight for the Greater redoubt in counterattack.

As the British prepared to meet the Russian attack an unknown officer shouted "Don't fire! They are French." Other officers shouted to fire and in the confusion of conflicting orders, the British troops began to withdraw from the Redoubt.

Retreat and Second Attack

As the Russians column marched down to the Greater Redoubt, an astonishing fact became apparent. Earlier in the day, Menshikov had left the Kourgane Hill and proceeded to view the action on the far left of the Russian army where the French had seemed to, initially, be causing a danger. Now his second in command, watching his men push the British down the hill, looked westward for sign of Menshikov. Instead he saw the cocked hats and white plumes of British staff officers atop a spur of the Telegraph Hill calmly watching the battle. Lord Raglan had wanted a better view of the proceedings and followed by his staff had ridden past the French skirmishers on the left of Prince Napoleon's division and through the Russian skirmishers facing them.
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Sutherland Highlanders in the Battle of Alma.
Stumbling across an upward path, he finally found himself on a ridge jutting out from the Telegraph Hill, overlooking the Kourgane Hill and the valley between. Suggesting to his staff that it might be a good idea to have some guns in such a commanding position, the thought was taken as an order and soon two nine-pounders were firing from the ridge. The Russian batteries in the valley were forced to withdraw by fire from these guns, and a few shots fired in their direction persuaded the Russians pursuing the retreating British down the hill was not wise.

By now, the First Division had finally crossed the river and the Russians by the Greater Redoubt saw approaching below them the Grenadier Guards on the right of the British line, the Royal Scots Fusilier Guards in the centre and the Coldstream Guards on the left. Out of sight on the far left was the Highland Brigade. Below the Greater Redoubt, however, a group of Royal Welch Fusiliers had held their ground when their comrades had retreated and were firing up at the redoubt. Suddenly the Russians unleashed hundreds of soldiers, who swarmed over the parapets of the retaken redoubt and poured a shattering volley of musket fire downwards. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were smashed and rushed down the hill, crashing into the advancing Scots Guards with such force that the line was torn in many places. The Scots Guards faltered, and when they were 40 yards from the redoubt the Russians mounted a massive bayonet charge. The Scots Guards were forced to retreat and they did so stopping only when they reached the river. Almost 200 of them lay dead on the slope.

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Captain Lindsay of the Scots Guards advancing with the colours which were shot through and staff broken.

A large gap now existed between the Grenadiers and the Coldstream guards. The Russian generals saw their chance and pushed two battalions into the gap. As the Grenadiers prepared to meet this charge, again strange orders were given, as had occurred earlier in the Greater Redoubt. An equally unknown officer told the Grenadiers to retire. The colonel commanding the left-wing company of the Grenadiers, however, felt this order to be foolish and instead ordered his company retired to form a right angle with the rest of the battalion which thus now assumed an 'L' shape, with the base of the 'L' pointing back down to the river. As the Russians moved into the gap, his men were able to pour deadly accurate fire into their flank. The recently invented 'Minie ball' bullet combined with this well executed manouevre caused the Russians to hesitate in their attack. Seeing this, the British advanced and soon the Russians themselves retreated. The Greater Redoubt was again in British hands and the defences on the left of the Russian centre were shattered.

The Final Stage

The last act came on the far right of the Russian line where 10,000 troops were still unused and uncommitted. They were faced by the advancing Highland Brigade; a mere three battalions. Led by Sir Colin Campbell, the 93rd Highlanders, the Cameron Highlanders and the Black Watch were advancing in a dangerously thin line extended for almost 2,000 yards although in the smoke and confusion of battle the Russians were unable to see that it was only two ranks deep. The disciplined Highland Brigade advanced firing, a task difficult to accomplish in those days of warfare. For the Russians it proved too much and they fell back. The Battle of the Alma was effectively over and a British victory. On the right of the allied line, Canrobert had finally got his guns up the cliffs and his Zouaves seized the Telegraph Hill. The ridge Lord Raglan had so dramatically made his own was now swarming with red-coated troops. The Russian right was fleeing before the Highland Brigade, the Greater Redoubt was taken and the road to Sevastopol was now open.

The Russian retreat became a rout and Lord Raglan sought permission to pursue the Russians, but General St. Arnaud decided this was impossible for his French troops had left their packs at their start points across the river and would have to go back for them before further advances. Raglan was unwilling to pursue the enemy without French support and the broken Russian army was able to escape unmolested.

Aftermath

During the battle, the first battalion of Zouaves lost 222 men, the second battalion 74 men and the third battalion 63 men.

Side note: "Alma", as a girls name, became popular in the United Kingdom as a result of the victory.fr:Bataille de l'Alma

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