Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Zouaves at the Malakoff

General Lebrun’s account of the capture of the Malakoff by the French.

General Barthelmy Lebrun was the Chef d’Etat Major (Chief of Staff) to General – later Marechal – Patrice MacMahon. He recounts in his letters how the capture of the Malakoff was far from easy and could have ended in a serious disaster for the French due to the scaling ladders, planks and gabions intended to cross the ditch being late and too few in number.

“The eighth, at eleven o'clock, the troops commanded by General Mc Mahon were met in the trenches and arranged until the time of the assault.  At twenty minutes past eleven, General MacMahon and officers of his staff formed in the small parade that was not advanced to the highlight of Malakoff, a small group around which were piled on each other. The Zouaves of the company designated the forlorn hope marched under the command of Captain Sée, to the head of the assaulting column. But at that hour, the scaling-ladders that the officers had had the genius to build had not yet arrived, and General MacMahon showed himself somewhat impatiently. I ran to meet them in the cut on the side by which they were to be made. Soon I found Chef de Bataillon de Marcilly of the Engineers who was responsible for transportation of the scaling-ladders. He explained to me that in his despair, he was late, which was because the trenches were crowded with troops, he had experienced the greatest difficulties in order to advance his soldiers carrying the ladders and boards, mainly at the points where the trenches crossed, forcing them to pass through narrow corridors. I took out the scaling ladders of the trench and ordered the Commander de Marcilly to carry the scaling-ladders, the men walking on the side of the trench, even if they for this, by putting himself in the open, exposed to Russian rifle fire Then, casting a glance at my watch and saw that 10 minutes later it would mark the noon hour: "I leave you,” I say to the commander, “I must go and join General Mac Mahon; but God! Arrive as soon as possible! “
Income to the General, I learned that they had to depend on the scaling ladders he expected, because they were too far for them to arrive before noon. This was one of the most unfortunate set backs, because they alone could affect the success of the assault. General MacMahon, all with regret, however, thought that it was impossible to delay the time of the operation, and he decided that he would run to the minute indicated, whatever might happen.  A moment later, all who were in the trench around the General MacMahon was struck by the wonderful array that met their eyes. This picture here I would call "the expectation of the assault," said strikingly the great drama that was accomplished.
The moment was solemn. I was near the General MacMahon, taking my watch in front of them and carefully following the progress of the big hand, waiting for her mark noon. Captain Sée of the Zouaves, with moist hand clinging to the gabions that crowned the crest of the parapet of the trench, to be able to leap quickly over that trench, had his eyes fixed on my watch. At the same time, all the French and British batteries, which, throughout the morning, had not ceased for a moment, to cover their missiles defences of the place, the intensity, redoubled their fire, and Russian artillery replied with a similar intensity. Was the resounding roar of about 1,500 and uninterrupted guns of large caliber, which could be heard from right to left the work of attack and defence, all around the walls of the place Sevastopol.

From the top rampart of the Malakoff, the Russian gunners constantly projected on the verge of the trench, in which was General MacMahon, small bombs exploded around the General. Nobody said a word, but each is repeated in petto, "What would happen if, God forbid, a flash of the bombs were to hit the general? "

The impatience and anxiety were written on every face. Nobody said a word do I say, I am wrong, Colonel La Tour Dupin then whispered  the question to: "Do you hear the gun? - How, I replied in the same tone, it's a terrible uproar, over 1,500 guns shoot both at home and the Russians! - It's amazing, said the colonel, I hear absolutely nothing. "

Finally, the feverishly awaited second arrived. I lowered the blade of my sword, saying aloud: "Midi! "And the General MacMahon said:" Forward! Long Live the Emperor! "He wanted to cross the parapet at the head of his Zouaves, but his aide, Major Borel and I stopped him, holding him by the skirt of his coat:" It will be enough time for you, I said, when we will see some Zouaves on the other side of the ditch. "
The fire of all the French batteries had stopped suddenly. The Zouaves, leaping like lions over the crest of the parapet, rushed at full speed towards the gap in Malakoff. It's who of them will arrive first. Our engineer officers felt that they would have little a distance of 25 to 30 meters in order to achieve. But instead, more than 75 meters there is between the parapet and the ditch, and they have to travel under very heavy fire of the Russians. It's not all, the area of ​​land they have to cross was deeply moved during the last attack, the bombs have dug around deep excavations, so that our brave soldiers are tumbling at every step they do and that their race is very slow. Anyone! Now, after more than one minute, they arrive breathless at the edge of the ditch. But such is their amazement and disappointment when they recognize that, far from being filled with earth, as   they had hoped they would find, the moat has a depth of 6 to 7 meters, and its slope of scarp and counterscarp are perpendicular in the rock.
Captain Sée that the order is, in this moment, as trembled. But his soldiers, themselves, are not dismayed and, without hesitation, at the risk of death or to break arms and legs, they throw themselves over the precipice before them. The majority of them remain there, they know it, but the fellows who can get on their feet do not continue their business less heroically.
A moment passes, this time of anguish that seems very long, during which the anxiety of General MacMahon is unspeakable. He has lost the Zouaves, and are in the ditch, but he does not see them reappear on the lowering of the parapet of Malakoff. "It does not bite, he said then - But wait a bit, 'said I in my turn, wait until they have had time to climb the scarp of the ditch. "And no sooner had I uttered these words, that the few Zouaves who first had come out of the ditch began to rise to climbing the slope outside the highlight of Malakoff. How these brave soldiers were there they took to the rise of the scarp of the wall that was carved into the sheer rock? I think the reader to take some interest in what I learn. Of all the Zouaves who had jumped into the ditch, some had been mortally wounded, many seriously enough to not be able to fight. But among those who were unwounded, the men who had been carefully marked with workmen’s tools had cunningly used this tool. Using the pick down gradually in the wall of the scarp, they have risen to the top of the ditch. Other Zouaves, who had no pickaxes, had used other means to achieve the same goal. They had used the lessons they had taught gymnastics at the regiment to do with each other, what is known in technical terms a leg up. All who attended gymnastic exercises know what this kind of scale. Once at the top of the scarp, the Zouaves carrying peaks as well as those that went up without this tool, had taken over their rifles, carried far shoulder.

To appear on the other side of the ditch, General MacMahon rushed to join them. Right now reached the Chef de Bataillon de Marcilly, bringing ladders and planks, and it was a delight in truth because otherwise the General MacMahon also would undoubtedly thrown into the ditch, and then General, without giving the commander time to throw more and cover them with boards, passed on this scale, at the risk of tripping and being rushed to the bottom of the ditch. The staff officers followed his example. Then passed over the parapet of Malakoff one of these moving scenes that the pen is powerless to describe.

Our Zouaves, numbering two dozen at most, approach the top of the parapet, but then rise suddenly before them a number of Russian infantry and gunners, some out of their shelters, others with their batteries, and who receive them with guns or swab. Russian bullets rain down. The artillerymen use their ramrod as clubs, beating down the Zouaves, and several are thrown into the ditch of the entrenchment. But soon, fortunately, the Zouaves fighting with bayonets on top of the parapet, are supported by the comrades who followed them and after a minute of struggle, the Russians repelled the highlight of Malakoff, and ran to take refuge behind a cross slope that faces the inside of the rampart which our soldiers come to take over.

General Mac Mahon arrives at that moment the highlight of Malakoff, and it kills the big flag that Corporal Gihaut brings him. At the signal given by this flag, the action will commit the offensive side of the English, and also on the side of the troops of the French army.

While they fought, as I tell it, on top of Malakoff, the Chief Engineer Ragon had hastened to build a solid bridge to the point where General Mac Mahon had crossed the divide. For this bridge, drawn up in two or three minutes at most, the last companies of the battalion of Zouaves Captain Sée could soon go to join the first that was mounted to the assault. Iona therefore not surprising if I argue here that the scales used in the construction of the bridge played a significant role in the success of the assault. Indeed, the moment the General MacMahon arrived in person to the eminence of Malakoff, the main point for him was to have, immediately on hand, enough people to s' find it fit to hold securely.
It was about quarter past twelve, and General Mac Mahon had just won a brilliant success dearly bought, it is true, as it had cost the loss of a number of officers and soldiers put out of action during the assault and, under the very eyes of the general, Colonel de la Tour Dupin with his foot on the top of the Tower of Malakoff, fell seriously wounded hit on the head by a bullet Russian. But this success would not end the struggle, about the enclosure where it had begun. General Mac Mahon recognized quickly, as soon as he took a look at all the defences that the officers of the Russian genius had accumulated behind the entrenchments which he had been master. Indeed, it found that this retrenchment, the highlight of the Malakoff tower that his soldiers were occupying right now, was nothing but a bastion part of a larger work, a real fort which was enclosed protected throughout its development, by trenches in the ground very strong. He realized then also the wonderful power with which the commanding general engineering in the garrison of Sebastopol, was able to use for the defence of the fortress, which was the field behind the Tower of Malakoff.
As Captain Sée with his Zouaves, had removed the top of the Tower of Malakoff, Colonel Collineau with the battalion of Zouaves, with whom he worked, and Colonel Decaen with his regiment and the rifle battalion commander Gambier had been able to climb the parapet of the entrenchment Russian, the first right to the left of the second highlight of Malakoff. The commander went Gambier master of the Russian battery of St. Gervais. Immediately afterwards, the Colonels Collineau and Decaen, complying with the instructions that General MacMahon had given them before the assault, had thrown their soldiers forward, by making them hold, gradually, the peak of the two long sides of the book. As I have said before, the Russians repelled from the upper works of Malakoff had gone to hide behind the top of the defences who was behind the bastion. Those who had been expelled from the rampart forming the two sides of the bastion had followed their example. Each other and gathered together and then calling an imposing mass, tried to respond with a brisk fire to that of the battalion captain Sée towards them. But after a moment of strength, seeing the soldiers and Colonels Decaen  and Collineau, advancing more and more on the crest of the trenches which were to their left and their right hand, began to turn them and were constantly the flank and shot back, they left to go through their position on the one that was further back. They still tried to defend it, but once again forced to retreat because the two battalions of French colonels gaining more and more ground on both flanks, they decided to affect their retreat to the throat of the work. Right now the Russian numbers had increased by soldiers who had previously occupied the central part of the fort, this number was very considerable. A struggle ensued at the approach of the fort, between the Russian soldiers, who wanted to defend it, and the French soldiers who had pursued them the sword in the kidneys. But the fight that took place there, almost entirely with a knife, did not last long, two to three minutes at most. The Russians rushing into the throat of the book, or throwing up entrenchments neighbours of the groove in the ditch, fled in disorder toward the interior of Sevastopol.

It was then an hour or an hour and a quarter, and General MacMahon could believe he was definitely the master of the defences of Malakoff. But at this moment the enemy's batteries, which were established over the arsenal of Sebastopol began to fall on the inside of the structure occupied by French troops, a huge amount of shells that are killed or wounded many men. Certainly, General could say it was absolutely in possession of the position he had just conquered, after the last fight that decided the retreat of the defenders of Malakoff, and yet the fight had not said his last word. A quarter of an hour had passed since the General had made his great display tricolour flag on the top of Malakoff, when a British officer came to him, saying, sent by his general to ask if, as master this position, he thought he could stay there. "Tell your general, said MacMahon, as I am and that I stay. "
Already stoves mines, long prepared by officers of the Russian genius in the mountain stronghold of the parapets of Malakoff had exploded and stones through the air by these mines, falling in the interior of the corner and more particularly around the highlight of the book, had killed or wounded a large number of French officers and soldiers. He seemed quite probable that the Russians were not confined to establish furnaces of mine in the vicinity of Malakoff, but they had also built in Malakoff same, and if these furnaces were heavily loaded, it was possible that their explosion was from one moment to another hard blow the entire Russian. There was no time to spare to guard against the consequences that may result. The provisions adopted by the General MacMahon were based on this event threatening. The General decided that the first brigade of the division, hard hit by the losses it had suffered during and after the assault, would be on the field identified in the Malakoff 2em brigade (General Vinoy) and she would take the place it in the trenches. He stopped further that the Reserve Brigade (General Wimpffen) and the Zouaves of the Imperial Guard (Colonel Janin) would come as soon as possible in the Russian work, following the brigade of General Vinoy, so that 'there was in Malakoff two brigades and a regiment to repel the Russians, they undertook a counter-offensive against the trenches occupied by the French. It was understood that the troop movements in question ran with great speed, for it was urgent that imposing forces were immediately met within the confines of these limits.
For a moment I was back in the interior of the fort and I looked General MacMahon, when, by chance meeting with General Vinoy, it stopped me to share the impressions that had made him feel General MacMahon giving instructions half an hour before. "How do you find your general he said, without telling me how my brigade will jump perhaps earlier, but that does not mean that we remain master of the position, because the first brigade will stand ready to come replace mine if it comes to jump? - I confess, I replied that my general view that you have a glimpse is nothing less than appealing, but in everything you said, I did not hear anything I think, that has could you believe that he would not stay with you. Be sure, if your squad has to jump, and you with it, he will share the same fate. "
At the same time when General MacMahon is very concerned about whether the stoves did not exist in the mines and was not reduced by their explosion, blow up the bastion of Malakoff, he was informed that after removal of the bastion by the captain Sée Zouaves, a number of Russians, around 400, he said, had taken refuge in the small tower. The general wanted to go see for himself what was going on the side of the cut. I remember that as he went, his star, once again served him as a shell from the battery located above the Russian arsenal of Sebastopol, touched his head and buried itself ten feet into the ground before him. He had a narrow escape. The entrance to the cut, which was built in gabions, was open, and right and left, we saw a row of slots through which the Russian infantry occupying the tower could direct their fire on the earth full of the bastion. I went and I went to walk past the door of reduced when a soldier who was near me, holding me by the sudden piece of my clothing, almost threw me to the ground, exclaiming, "Stop me colonel, the Russians are hiding in the tower do not stop to take in the niches that you see. He cut down their balls all who pass by these slots. This is how they just killed there in this for a moment, the lieutenant of artillery which you see the body lying there just steps away from us. "
Right now, Darah Caves probably haunted me in mind, and thinking only way to get the Russians to turn and give themselves up, "Do you have matches? I said to the soldiers around me, and if so, set fire to the gabions that form the entrance to the shelter of the Russians, they will have to go out and when the smoke threaten to suffocate. "

The fire was put to the gabions and already had a certain extension, when suddenly I was seized with such terror when I realized the terrible consequences that could result in the order I gave. I remember at that time only twenty minutes earlier, visiting with General Mac Mahon some of these shelters built by the Russians in the trenches of Malakoff, I con, state the soil inside the shelter was covered a huge amount of cartridges and no doubt he would be the same in the small tower. The fire of the gabions, communicating itself to a heap of cartridges and producing an explosion, the fire was set to pit furnaces, stoves if mine had been prepared in the small.
I rushed to the few sappers who were not far from me, carry their tools, shovels and picks, "Follow me quickly, I tell them, come and lay of the land on which the gabions are burning, must extinguish the fire. "The fire began at once to dig the ground near the door of the small, covering the gabions and soil, it completely stopped the outbreak of fire in it was expressed. What would have happened without it? I still shudder just to think by writing these lines. Be understood by the rest, when I said that, while the sappers were doing the work I asked them, began their picks son discovered metal that were anything other than the son drivers of electric batteries through which the Russian officers had volunteered to fire when they deem appropriate, in the kitchen of mine prepared by them under the tower of Malakoff. Maybe if it were to rupture of son, arrived like a miracle, that the troops of General Mac Mahon have had the good fortune to escape the most terrible disasters.

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