Some Words Regarding Lieutenant General Ryzhovs
of the Battle of Balaklava.
By Stepan Kozhukhov.
(From Russkii Arkhiv, 1870, Nos. 8 and 9, Year 8. Pages 1668-1676, Neskolko slov po povodu zapiski General-Leitenanta Ryzhova o Balaklavskom srazhenii. Translated by Mark Conrad, 1999.)
In Book 4 of Russkii Vestnik for 1870 there was printed Lt. Gen. Ryzhovs account of the Battle of Balaklava. I published my own description of this same battle in Russkii Arkhiv No. 2 for 1869, in the article "Crimean Memoirs of the Last War." At the time I was a subaltern in the 12th Brigades 8th Light Battery, which for the battle was assigned to the reserve, along with the Ukraine Regiment (to protect the ravine leading to the village of Chorgun, where our entire wagon train was parked), and in my relation I limited myself to describing only the general course of the battle, since our battery was not a participant in it. I only related details for those events which happened right before our eyes: the battles finale, i.e. the disordered retreat of our hussars and cossacks who did not withstand the English cavalry attack, and the destruction of the latter.
In 1854, General Ryzhov was chief of the cavalry in the Crimea and took part in the Battle of Balaklava, commanding all the forces cavalry. In his account he first describes our cavalrys actions in great detail. He extols the hussars bravery when, after the infantry occupied the redoubts, they attacked the enemy in his fortified position. He complains that General Liprandi did mention in his report anything about the hussars accomplishments, and expresses the hope that in the future these deeds will be sure to be a brilliant page in the history of the Russian cavalry. Along with this, he completely confirms the truth of my declared fact that our entire cavalry, attacked at the end of the battle by an enemy very much smaller in numbers, did not withstand this attack, and instead got jumbled together and with a loud cry of "Ura!"ran away. Consequently, anyone who read General Ryzhovs account must be compelled to pose the question: how did these one and the same hussars, in the same battle, at first perform miracles of bravery, smash the enemy, and erect a monument to themselves in the pages of history, but at the end of the affair, without any good reason, flee from this same enemy, i.e. (in the words of General Ryzhov) "perform an misdeed shameful to the honor of the Russian soldier"? This would really imply that it is only one step from courage to cowardice, from greatness to a state of total confusion. But that is neither here nor there. What concerns us now is that General Ryzhov, while confirming the facts as I told them, sees them in a way which cannot be accepted. In his complaining, and apparently through his justifying himself by referring to certain persons with bad intentions, the author of the "Notes" sheds any responsibility as the commander for the catastrophe that occurred. He imputes all blame to the inexperience of the young officers who took the places of the squadron and division commanders who became casualties, as well as to the hussar platoons being somewhat weakened in numbers, having suffered losses in the initial attack. Of course, this is only General Ryzhovs personal opinion, and each person may accept or reject it. But if that opinion is expressed in print and concerns as well an historically important topic, then it is necessary that the expressed opinion be backed with evidence and based on some firm facts. Let us see how well founded General Ryzhovs opinion is.
General Ryzhov himself says that during the hussars first attack on the enemy position, some thirty field and company-grade officers became casualties, which was only a third of their whole number. And since it cannot be supposed that the thirty persons were all older officers, while the younger ones remained unharmed, it means that a third of the division and squadron commanders were replaced by young officers. Such losses, though certainly significant, are nevertheless a very common occurrence in battles, and even mediocre troops never run away from this cause alone when commanders have taken precautions before hand.
The second reason put forth by General Ryzhov is an argument even less convincing. Our cavalry so much outnumbered the attacking English cavalry that such insignificant losses (a little over 200 men in two regiments) as were incurred by the hussars in the initial attack could not have any effect on their steadiness.
If, in addition to what is set forth above, we also take into consideration that the hussars were not green novices just come out of barracks, but had already taken part in the Battle of the Alma and then for several months lived an active campaign life in sight of the enemy (thus even the young officers in these regiments could not be inexperienced and frightened boys), and if we secondly realize that the enemy cavalry attacked alone and unsupported while our cavalry, much more numerous, was protected by two Don horse batteries, one foot battery, and two battalions of the Odessa Regiment, immediately reformed into a square, then it becomes completely clear that the reasons for the shameful catastrophe that occurred were not those referred to by General Ryzhov, but some others.
In my previous article printed in R. Arkhiv, I, as an eyewitness, presented only facts which occurred in front of my eyes. I did not express any personal views on these facts and did not even report those rumors which at that time were widespread throughout the army. But now, in light of General Ryzhovs statement that our cavalry did not withstand the attack mainly due to the unsteadiness of our young officers, I consider it impossible to remain silent regarding these rumors, and indeed find it imperative to set them out alongside General Ryzhovs opinions and see which side appears more truthful.
The universal opinion of the whole force was unanimous in blaming not the officersor even the soldiersbut the cavalry commanders. Of course, after such an humiliating failure the hussars were not regarded with sympathy, but nevertheless everyone said that they had not stood firm only because a basic tactical rule had not been followed: to meet an attack with ones own attack. Although in his "Notes" General Ryzhov says that he ordered an attack, even with full faith in the veracity of these words they cannot be taken as disproving the accuracy of those widespread rumors. It is not enough that an attack was ordered, it was also necessary that it was commanded at the calculated right time for the attacked cavalry to have the same momentum as the attacking cavalry at the moment of collision. But could that have been the case in this instance? General Ryzhov himself says in his "Notes" that after our hussars attack of the enemy position, "everyone considered the battle over." These words of General Ryzhov are the key to revealing the truth. If the battle was thought to be over and thus no attack expected anywhere, then obviously there would not have been any need to keep the tired cavalry for several hours in that ready state which cavalry must be when expecting an attack and ready for an immediate charge. At the same time, the distance from the enemys position to ours was extremely small, so it only required a few minutes to cover it a quick walk. In such a short time it would have been impossible to form up such a large body of cavalry for a charge when they were not expecting to attacked, and to lead them into battle without confusion, in complete order and in good time. Therefore it becomes not only likely, but almost unquestionable, that either General Ryzhov ordered the attack too late or it was commanded when the hussars had not yet managed to form up, and so went into the attack as an unorganized mob and thus unsuccessfully. In both cases it would have been difficult for our cavalry to withstand a rapid assault, even if all the older officers were present and the platoons had not had any previous casualties.
Here then is the conclusion we draw, and we leave it to the reader to judge which side is more likelythat of our conclusion, or the side of General Ryzhovs opinion.
Additionally, further details of that day as related by General Ryzhov appear to be not completely accurate an in many ways exaggerations. Thus, for example, he says, "The misdeed, unforgivable for a Russian soldier, is excused by the courage and excellence of the four march squadrons of lancers who quickly and decisively attacked the enemy from the rear."
First of all, let us allow ourselves to ask why General Ryzhov calls our cavalrys misdeed unforgivable? If the reason for the catastrophe was that expressed in the rumors from that time and reported me in this article, then there was nothing to be forgiven in regard to the honor of the Russian soldier in this depressing event. There was only a sad inevitability occasioned by the commanders lack of foresight. But even if this was not the cause, General Ryzhov nonetheless cannot call the confusion of our cavalry an unforgivable misdeed, since he himself points out the reasons for our cavalrys retreat, and there was nothing to be forgiven in those reasons. Clearly, when General Ryzhov calls our cavalrys actions unforgivable, he is not referring to the causes he himself identified (otherwise in his eyes the misdeed must have been excused by those causes), but to a lack of courage which really does tarnish a soldiers honor. He just does not want to state this accusation straight out. But this accusation is so important that to express it without evidence, without clearly basing it on any fact, is to a small extent somewhat daring. The definitive history of the Sevastopol war has not yet appeared, but general opinion in regard to this epic has already solidified to a great extent, and while it sees many dark spots in the actions of the primary and secondary commanders of that great war, it puts beyond any doubt the courage, energy, and self-sacrifice of our young men who died there without complaint, with grateful respect to the memory of these fallen and the honor of those left alive.
But let us return to details. General Ryzhov says that the lancers attack was magnificent. We saw that the lancers were moving into the attack, but we did not see any magnificent attack, and there could not even have been any such thing. On the contrary, it must be assumed that either the attack did not take place at all, or it was extremely indecisive. (Note: In my first article, I reported the widespread contemporary talk that the lancers were going into the attack when they fell into complete chaos under the fire of the Odessa battalions, and retreated. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. I only know that we saw none of our lancers in the English rear.)
How otherwise can it be explained (if this attack really was magnificent) that the scattered groups of English cavalry, already tiny in numbers, without commanders or leaders, could break through a mass of fresh cavalry and get away, leaving only dead and wounded in our hands. This is a categorical impossibility, and General Ryzhov increases that impossibility in his relation of further details. He says that he halted the hussars, formed them up, and turned them against the enemy, and that the English were thus put between two fires. "From that moment," continues Ryzhov, "the battle could be likened to a rabbit hunt. Those who managed to gallop away from the hussar sabers and slip past uhlan lances were met with canister fire and rifle bullets."
We saw nothing answering that description, especially no "rabbit hunt." The hussars were not halted. On the contrary, they got mixed with the cossacks, and in large bodies surged toward the opening to the Chorgun, trying to reach it. But they were stopped by the Ukraine Regiment and our battery. It was unthinkable that order could be imposed on such chaos in just a few minutes. Therefore, there was no pursuit of the English by the hussars. In all likelihood, General Ryzhov managed to halt and rally around himself a few tens of men who were less panicked, but this still does not mean that two whole regiments were halted and put in order. Perhaps some of these tens of men set off after the retreating Englishmen, but can one really call that a pursuit? If we allow that both hussar regiments, once having been reformed, turned around to pursue the English, and if we recall that, in the words of General Ryzhov, they (i.e. the English) were magnificently attacked in the rear by lancers, then that would mean each enemy cavalryman would have faced almost a half-platoon of our cavalry. But in the midst of all this the Englishmen escaped! How can this be explained?
They escaped really because there was no effective pursuit on the part of the hussars or the lancers. They withdrew along their original fatal route and almost all of them were subject to the canister fire of the 7th Light Battery and the bullets of the Odessa Regiment, untouched by hussar sabers and not pierced by lancer spear points. This is how the affair appeared to us who were calm and objective observers.
Now it remains to say a few words regarding Gen. Ryzhovs declaration that the English were all intoxicated. This was indeed discussed at the time, but no one seriously believed it. I myself at least saw almost all the wounded and did not see one drunken man among them. It is really hard to believe that drunken cavalry could accomplish what the English did. We allow that drink can couple courage to a near total lack of sense, but really is was not a lack of sense that the English cavalry required in order to break out of that trap into which it had gotten. What was required here was a sense of duty and honor, cold-blooded and calculated courage, but a drunken man, of course, would not be capable of any of this.