The last defenders of the Malakoff Tower
The Attack on Malakoff
The church at the back of the redan showing damage from shot and shell
The Battle of Malakoff, during the Crimean War, was fought between the Allied and Russian armies on 7 September 1855 as a part of the Siege of Sevastopol. It resulted in the French army under General MacMahon successfully storming the Malakoff redoubt, though a simultaneous British attack on the Redan to the south of the Malakoff was repulsed. In one of the war's defining moments, the French zouave Eugène Libaut installed the French flag on the top of the Russian redoubt. Malakoff brought about the capture of Sevastopol after one of the most memorable sieges of the 19th century.
The harbour of Sevastopol, formed by the estuary of the Chernaya, was protected against attack by sea not only by the Russian war-vessels, afloat and sunken, but also by heavy granite forts on the south side and by the defensive works. For the town itself and the Karabelnaya suburb the trace of the works had been laid down for years. The Malakoff, a great tower of stone, covered the suburb, flanked on either side by the Redan and the Little Redan. The town was covered by a line of works marked by the Flagstaff and central bastions, and separated from the Redan by the inner harbour.
Lieut.-Col. Eduard Totleben, the Russian chief engineer, had very early begun work on these sites, and daily re-creating, rearming and improving the fortifications, finally connected them by a continuous enceinte. Yet Sevastopol was not, early in October 1854, the towering fortress it afterwards became, and Totleben himself maintained that, had the allies immediately assaulted, they would have succeeded in taking the place. There were, however, many reasons against so decided a course, and it was not until 17 October that the first attack took place.
All that day a tremendous artillery duel raged. The French siege corps suffered heavy losses and its guns were overpowered. The fleet engaged the harbour batteries close inshore, and suffered a loss of 500 men, besides severe damage to the ships. On the other hand the British siege batteries silenced the Malakoff and its annexes, and, if failure had not occurred at the other points of attack, an assault might have succeeded. As it was, by daybreak, Totleben's engineers had repaired and improved the damaged works.
For months the siege of Sevastopol continued. During July the Russians lost on an average 250 men a day, and at last it was decided that Gorchakov and the field army must make another attack at the Chernaya, the first since Inkerman. On 16 August the corps of Liprandi and Read furiously attacked the 37,000 French and Sardinian troops on the heights above Traktir Bridge. The assailants came on with the greatest determination, but the result was never for one moment doubtful. At the end of the day, the Russians drew off baffled, leaving 260 officers and 8,000 men on the field; the allies only lost 1,700.
With this defeat vanished the last chance of saving Sevastopol. On the same 16 August, the bombardment once more reduced the Malakoff and its dependencies to impotence, and it was with absolute confidence in the result that Marshal Pélissier planned the final assault. On 8 September 1855 at noon, the whole of Bosquet's corps suddenly swarmed up to the Malakoff. The fighting was of the most desperate kind: every casemate, every traverse, was taken and retaken time after time, but the French maintained the prize, and though the British attack on the Redan once more failed, the Russians crowded in that work became at once the helpless target of the siege guns.
Even on the far left, at the opposite Flagstaff and Central bastions, there was severe hand-to-hand fighting. Throughout the day the bombardment mowed down the Russian masses along the whole line. The fall of the Malakoff was the end of the siege. That night the Russians filed over the bridges to the north side, and on September 9 the victors took possession of the empty and burning prize. The losses in the last assault had been very heavy: for the Allies over 10,000 men, for the Russians 13,000. No fewer than nineteen generals had fallen on the final day. But with the capture of Sevastopol the war was decided. No serious operations were undertaken against Gorchakov who, with the field army and the remnants of the garrison, held the heights at Mackenzie's Farm. But Kinburn was attacked by sea and, from the naval point of view, became the first instance of the employment of Ironclad warships. An armistice was agreed upon on 26 February and the Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856.
The strategically decisive importance of the siege of Sevastopol lies beneath the surface: why did the fall of a place, at first almost unfortified, lead to the end of the war. At first sight Russia would seem to be almost invulnerable to a sea power, and no first success, however crushing, could have humbled Nicholas I. Indeed the mere capture of Sevastopol would not have been strategically decisive. However, once the Tsar had decided to defend it at all costs, the Allies' unlimited resources operated in their favour.
The invaders were supplied by sea with whatever they needed, whilst the desert tracks of southern Russia were littered with the corpses of men and horses who had fallen bringing supplies to Sevastopol. The hasty nature, too, of the fortifications, which, daily crushed by the fire of a thousand guns, had to be re-created every night, made huge and therefore unprotected working parties necessary, and the losses were correspondingly heavy. The double cause of loss completely exhausted even Russia's resources, and, when the Russians were forced to employ large bodies of militia in the battle of Traktir Bridge, it was obvious that the end was at hand. The short stories of Leo Tolstoy, who was present at the siege, give a graphic picture of the war from the Russian point of view, portraying the miseries of the desert march, the still greater miseries of life in the casemates, and the almost daily ordeal of manning the lines, under shell-fire, against an assault which might or might not come.