Mark Twain on the Aesthetics of Siege
Sevastopol, Crimea in 1855
“Sebastopol is probably the worst battered town in Russia or anywhere else,” American satirist Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad. Examining the wreck of a city that had hardly recovered in the fourteen years since the Crimean War, Twain compared Sevastopol unfavorably to a more famous ruin that he had already observed during his grand tour.
Ruined Pompeii is in good condition compared to Sebastopol. Here, you may look in whatsoever direction you please, and your eye encounters scarcely any thing but ruin, ruin, ruin!—fragments of houses, crumbled walls, torn and ragged hills, devastation everywhere! It is as if a mighty earthquake had spent all its terrible forces upon this one litte spot. For eighteen long minths the storms of war beat upon the helpless town, and left it at last the saddest wreck that ever the sun has looked upon. Not one solitary house escaped unscathed—not one remained habitable, even. Such utter and complete ruin one could hardly conceive of. The houses had all been solid, dressed structures; most of them were ploughed through and through by cannon balls—unroofed and sliced down form eaves to foundation—and now a row of them, half a mile long, looks merely like an endless procession of battered chimneys. No semblance of a house remains in such as these. Some of the larger buildings had corners knocked off; pillars cut in two; cornices smashed; holes driven straight through the walls. Many of these holes are round and as cleanly cut as if they had been made with an auger. Others are half pierced through, and the clean impression is there in the rock, as smooth and as shapely as if it were done in putty. Here and there a ball sticks in a wall, and from it iron tears trickle down and discolor the stone.
Although Twain describes the effects of ball ammunition in vivid prose, the missing roofs and chipped masonry were characteristic of bombardment with explosive shells, but this is not why the city lay in ruins. Twain saw the aftermath of an artillery opera that had lasted nearly a year. The greatest bombardment damage occurred during two of the six major artillery battles, the first by sea and the last by land, at the opening of the siege and then at its end — a stirring overture and triumphant climax of destruction. But this is still not what ruined the city, either.
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Because the Crimean War was the first to be photographed, and took place in the early in the 19th Century artillery revolution, the conflict left us a visual window into the early modern period when this form of warfare was developing. Scenes like this had unfolded for centuries. Now, people could get a realistic sense of what they looked like, emphasis on realism.
Whereas painters and engravers added art to their creations through their own brush-troke imperfections, the new visual medium was visceral. Cameras captured such perfect images that they contained a great deal of imperfection, the not-so-tidy or unpoised or askew parts. This was a new thing in the world. European art spent the second half of the 19th Century becoming ever less-real in response, and more abstract.
As David R. Jones records in detail in his 2017 photographic history, The Crimean War: Then and Now, Russian defenders consistently had more guns than the allied army. Since most of this “siege” was in fact only a partial encirclement of Sevastopol, regular relief brought fresh defenders and ammunition for most of the ten months it took for the allies to win. Fire superiority took that long to establish.
“About 8,700 projectiles were estimated to have been fired by the Allies and 20,000 by the Russians on the first day” of the first bombardment, Jones writes.
The rate of British fire diminished after the second day and was restricted after 25 October  because of a shortage of ammunition. Thus the first bombardment drew to a close with the Russians in no worse a position than they were before the start. Indeed, their defences were in better shape.
Lieutenant Colonel Eduard Totleben, the Russian chief engineer charged with the defense of Sevastopol, had a remarkable talent for repairing and reinforcing defenses overnight, before a day’s damage could be followed up by a morning infantry assault. With superior numbers and firepower, he was a formidable enemy. By the middle of 1855, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria’s government were ready to abandon the siege, knowing their armies could not last another winter.
Totleben’s achievements were all the more remarkable because his defense plan was far from complete when the allies arried. He reckoned that an immediate assault would have succeeded, if only they had launched one right away, and this is probably true. Instead, the allied decision to delay attacks, and prepare for a siege by fire, gave Totleben time to finish extensive earthworks and position his guns for best effect against the approaching batteries. The result was an excruciating ordeal for everyone involved.
The winter of 1854-1855 left tens of thousands of men dead or emaciated. Storms ripped the tents away, leaving French and British troops without shelter. Tenuous imperial logistics starved them of calories and supplies, while bad field sanitation led to disease breakoouts. Most lethal of all was the sheer size of the armies themselves, creating the demand for food and medicine. The situation was so nightmarish that Florence Nightingale invented conflict zone humanitarianism.
But that is another story.
Roger Fenton, an early British photographer, was one of many artists who came with the army to document its camps and cannons. Taken on 23 April 1855, just after Fenton visited the famous ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death,’ this photo “shows a position with three 13-inch sea-service mortars — two in the immediate foreground and another on the other side of a shelter or powder magazine.” Such magazines did occasionally take direct hits and explode during the artillery duels which defined the siege.
However, “these particular mortars were regarded as unwieldy and labour-intensive,” Jones explains. “This battery was eventually dismantled with the weapons being positioned elsewhere.” Artillery technology was advancing, but not quickly enough. For example, the infamous 68-pounder Lancaster gun, a brand-new Royal Navy weapon, burst with distressing frequency during the siege and was discontinued as a result. When one of them was destroyed by Russian counterbattery fire, the officers counted it a good riddance.
Whereas the above photo shows the crew practicing (or posing) their loading drill, the second photo of the mortar battery shows the gun position at the far left of the previous image, with the crew enacting a very different scene. Filmmaker Errol Morris has questioned whether Fenton moved some of the cannonballs in the roadway in his famous Valley to improve the scenery for his art. That Fenton gained the cooperation of two mortar crews at his very next stop to create these two very different scenes of the gunner’s daily existence suggests Morris could be right that Fenton was following artistic impulses, unsuspecting or uncaring that standards of ethics in war photography would develop after him.
The first bombardment of Sevastopol’s defenses did not go well. Allied ships attempting to crush the harbor defenses took significant damage and caught fire. Their cannonballs and shells silenced most of the Russian guns, but at too high a cost. During the bombardment, hundreds or thousands of missed shots landed inside the town itself. Most of the damage that Mark Twain observed as he arrived on the waterfront and entered the city would have been incurred by this attack on 17 October 1854, which is consistent with his description. Yet it still did not destroy Sevastopol altogether.
During 1855, the allies finally encircled the city and cut it off from relief, constructed a military railway to deliver supplies, and built up an artillery advantage. “While the Russians had 140 rounds for each gun and sixty rounds for each mortar” during the fourth bombardment on 17 June, “the Allies had 400-500 rounds for each piece,” Jones writes. It was the turning point. Thereafter, “the siege guns continued to fire intermittently until the end of June 1855.”
In July 1855, an average of 800 rounds were fired a day with an occasional increase, such as on 19 July when trenches on the Right Attack were advanced. During the next month, the rate of fire varied from ninety rounds on 10 August to 800 on 16 August.
Russian losses on 17 August amounted to 1,500 men with the average on the following days of bombardment being 1,000. Even when the fire was less intense after 22 August, about 500-600 were killed or wounded daily.
According to historian Hugh Small, during a truce and bural detail, one Russian officer reacted badly when told that allied losses that day had been heavy. “Losses?” he said. “You do not know what the word means! You should see our batteries; the dead lie there in heaps and heaps. Troops cannot live under such a fire of hell as you poured on us!’
Sevastopol itself would have recieved some fire from land-based artillery during this time, but again it was not directed at the city. Instead, Totleben’s earthworks were the target of all this fire. Only when the natural fortress called the Malakoff fell on 5 September did the French finally have a height from which to bombard the city directly, and they did not do this.
Sevastopol was destroyed by gunpowder charges. Totleben had been wounded leading the defense. Forced to withdraw by the storm of flames and iron, it was the end of Russian resistance in Crimea, and therefore the end of the war. On their way out of the city, Russian soldiers set off gunpowder mines to destroy every building except the hospital, where more than 2,000 wounded were left behind in catastrophic misery. When Mark Twain visited, the city had still not been rebuilt. It was a year later, when French arms were embarrassed by Prussia, that Moscow decided to throw off any pretense of upholding the neutrality of the Black Sea and rebuild the city.
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