A masterful military engineer, Totleben was largely responsible for prolonging the misery inflicted upon British and French forces in the Crimea.
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Eduard Ivanovich Totleben was a Baltic German who was born at Mitau in Courland (now Latvia). After an elementary education in Riga he entered the school of engineering at St. Petersburg before joining the Imperial Russian Army in 1836. Totleben served as a captain of engineers under Prince Argoutinsky-Dolgoroukoff in the campaign against Imam Shamil in the Caucasus (1848-50), demonstrating personal bravery alongside sound engineering acumen during the siege of the fortress of Tchokh, which was conducted under his direction.
Following the outbreak of war with Ottoman Turkey in 1853, he against served with distinction during the Russian siege of Silistria on the Danube. However, fear of a British-French landing in the Crimea led his superiors to transfer Totleben to the Russian naval base of Sevastopol.
Although Sevastopol was strongly fortified toward the sea, it was almost unprotected on the landward side. Lieutenant-Colonel Totleben, although a relatively junior field officer, soon became key to its defence. On his advice, the Russian commander Prince Menshikov scuttled the fleet in order to block the mouth of the harbour, and had the landward defences improved. The landing of the British and French armies on 14 September 1854 meant that the construction of earthworks and redoubts had to be done quickly. A delayed Allied advance, alongside the vigorous leadership of Totleben, meant they were eventually completed before the bombardment of the city began on 17 October.
Totleben also moved the guns from the scuttled Russian ships to the new landward defences and they soon joined the seaward bastions in opposing the Allies. In only a few weeks Totleben succeeded in erecting so formidable a series of works that the Allies were forced to abandon any plans for a quick assault. They were compelled to begin a laborious siege.
As the siege progressed, Totleben moulded his fortifications to the terrain, placing them so as to prevent outflanking manoeuvres. He also made extensive use of earthworks rather than masonry, created concentrated fields of fire and built flexible trench systems linked to redoubts such as the Redan and Malakoff. His ongoing improvisation of both the defences and offensive counterworks met the changing phases of the Allied attack on Sevastopol. During the night his men built new obstacles such as counter-approaches, tunnels, rifle pits and buried land mines. They took part in raids on enemy saps and attempted to capture the lips of blown mines.
In many ways, this style of fighting had more in common with the First World War than earlier forms of siege warfare. Totleben was one of the originators of the idea that a fortress be considered not as a walled town, but as an entrenched position, closely linked with the offensive and defensive capacities of an army and as equally susceptible to tactical changes. At the height of the siege Totleben had over 10,000 men either fighting or working in the trenches around the city.
Totleben inflicted several reverses on the Allies, including the repulse of the British from the Redan on 17-18 June 1855, an attack that cost 1,500 casualties. Russian losses were also high though. During the bombardment in early June his garrison lost hundreds of men a day. On 20 June 1855 Totleben was wounded in the leg and was not present on 8 September during the second British attack on the Redan and the French assault on the Malakoff, a success that led to the fall of the city. In the course of the siege he had risen to the rank of lieutenant-general and been made an aide-de-camp to the Tsar.
On recovery he was employed in strengthening the fortifications at the mouth of the River Dnieper and also oversaw changes to the Kronstadt Fortress on the Baltic. In 1860 Totleben became head of the department of engineers with the rank of general and in 1863 he was appointed Assistant Inspector General of Engineering. While in this post he developed a system of border fortifications that included improvements to the Brest fortress, reorganised the Russian Army’s engineering units and introduced instruction in sapping operations for all infantry, cavalry and artillery personnel.
Totleben was initially without a command at the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), but following reverses at the Siege of Plevna in Bulgaria he was made assistant commander of the Western Detachment and sent to oversee operations. He decided on a complete encirclement of the city and its defenders to cut off communication with other Turkish forces. In due time Plevna fell. Totleben followed this up with the siege of several Bulgarian fortresses before taking command of the entire Russian field army until the signing of peace. After the war, Totleben was appointed governor general of Bessarabia. In 1880 he became governor-general of Vilna, Kovno and Grodno and was made commander of the Vilna Military District, posts he held until his death at Bad Soden in Germany.
"His name will live as long as that of Sebastopol itself. The man who laboured so successfully in that immortal siege, whose genius sheltered the army, and covered the fleet..."
William Howard Russell, 'General Todleben's History of the Defence of Sebastopol, 1854-5: A Review' (1865)
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