The Siege of Smolensk 1632-33

Mikhail Shein surrendering to the Poles in Smolensk

Smolensk War: Smolensk Voivodeship, showing in red the disputed territory.

Diplomatic maneuvering in Stockholm and the Crimea completed Russia’s war preparations. Gustaphus Adolphus had recently intervened in the Thirty Years War as an ally of the Protestant princes and consequently welcomed Russia’s proposed attack on Poland, hoping that it would secure his Livonian flank. Negotiations with the Tatars, although less smooth, finally resulted in the Khanate’s promise of neutrality.

Confident that Russia was ready, Filaret made his final choice for war when he learned of the sudden death of King Zygmunt III in April 1632. A Poland distracted by the quarrels and intrigues of an interregnum, Filaret reasoned, would be more vulnerable than ever. Accordingly Moscow ordered the concentration of the troops of foreign formation and commanded the cavalry troops to “ready themselves for service, assemble supplies, and feed their horses.” Voevody (district military leaders) and namestniki (provincial viceroys) were ordered to cooperate with the recruiting officers who would shortly arrive to verify the musters of the local nobility. All those processes required time. At last, by August the Muscovite state had at its disposal 29,000 troops and 158 guns. Overall command rested with the aged boyar Mikhail Borisovich Shein. Shein’s qualifications for his post were his close association with Filaret (the two men hand endured Polish captivity together), his prestige as a hero of the Smuta and his intimate knowledge of the fortress of Smolensk (as commandant of the garrison there during the Polish siege of 1609–11).

A nakaz, an instruction issued in the name of the tsar, spelled out for Shein the general objectives of the war and the overall strategy he was to follow in their pursuit. Russia’s goals were in fact modestly limited to the reconquest of the territories that had been lost to Poland in 1618. Russia’s forces were supposed to capture Dorogobuzh and as many other frontier outposts as they could, as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, they were to issue proclamations calling on the Orthodox subjects of the Poles to rise in rebellion. Then they were to move briskly to invest and take the important town of Smolensk, some 45 miles southwest of Dorogobuzh. Possession of Smolensk was critical to Muscovy’s plan for the entire campaign. The lands Russia wanted to reacquire lay roughly within the oval described by the Dniepr river to the west and Desna to the east. Smolensk was located on the Dniepr at the northern end of the oval, less than 30 miles from the headwaters of the Desna.

The war began splendidly for the Muscovites. By mid-October 1632, Dorogobuzh and twenty other frontier forts were in Russian hands. On October 18, Shein and the main army arrived at the outskirts of Smolensk and prepared to besiege it.

To seize Smolensk was, however, no easy matter, for the town was protected by series of daunting natural and man-made obstacles. The core of the city was ringed by a wall almost 50 feet high and 15 feet thick. Thirty-eight bastions furthered strengthened this defense. Although those fortifications had been considerably damaged during the 1609–11 siege, the Poles had recently devoted great attention to their repair. They had augmented them by erecting a five-bastion outwork to the west of the city (known as King Zygmunt’s fort), which was furnished with its own artillery and subterranean secret passages to facilitate sorties and countermining. To the north the city was defended by the Dniepr and to the east by a flooded marsh. The southern side of the city consequently offered the most promising approach for an assault, but here the Poles had build a strong, palisaded earthen rampart. The garrison, under the Polish voevod Stanislaw, was also relatively strong, comprising 600 regular infantry, 600 regular cavalry, and 250 town Cossacks. Stanislaw could rely on the townspeople to man the walls in a pinch and could also enlist the services of several hundred nobles of the local levy, who, armed and mounted, had taken refuge within the town of Smolensk at the news of the Muscovite advance.

Smolensk thus confronted Shein with formidable military problems: a resolute garrison, strong fortifications, and natural obstacles. Shein’s troop dispositions were commendable for prudence, economy, and foresight. He recognized that the same natural obstacles (the Dniepr, the flooded marsh) that protected the Poles to the north and east also hemmed them in, serving as natural siege works. That made a complete set of lines of countervallation unnecessary. Shein therefore deployed his troops to achieve three purposes: the possession of all tactically significant positions, such as patches of high ground around the city; the protection of his own lines of communication, supply, and retreat; and defense against potential relief columns. He ordered Colonel Mattison to occupy the Pokrowska Hill due north of the town of Smolensk on the opposite side of the Dniepr. The site was clearly the one most suitable for the emplacement of artillery batteries. Due west of the city Shein stationed the formations of Prince Prozorovskii. Prozorovskii, whose back was to the Dniepr, enclosed the rest of his camp with an enormous half-circle of earthworks (the wall alone was over 30 feet high). His purpose was both to menace the Polish ramparts on his right flank and to serve as the first line of defense against any Polish army of relief coming from the west. Between Prozorovskii and the walls of Smolensk, Shein placed van Damm’s infantry and d’Ebert’s heavy cavalry. Colonel Alexander Lesly, Colonel Thomas Sanderson, and Colonel Tobias

Unzen, in command of the main body of Russian forces (almost nine thousand men) positioned themselves along the perimeter of the enemy’s palisades to the south. To the east Karl Jacob and one thousand Russian infantry of new formation formed a screen behind the flooded marsh. Two and a half miles farther east, in a pocket formed by the bend in the Dniepr, was Shein’s own fortified camp. Shein’s camp protected not only the army’s wagon trains and magazines, but also two pontoon bridges the Muscovites had erected across the Dniepr to secure communications with Dorogobuzh, where the reserves of food were stockpiled.

Those arrangements were certainly intelligent, yet Shein from the beginning was incommoded by a lack of artillery. Heavy rains in the late spring and early summer of 1632 had turned the roads to mud. In the interests of surprise, Shein had decided to advance on Dorogobuzh, leaving most of his heavier guns behind. Thus the Muscovites had only seventy mostly light artillery pieces on hand in October. The rest of the field artillery was not delivered to Shein until the end of the year. It took until March of 1633 (five months into the siege) for the Russians to drag the nineteen heavy siege guns from their arsenal in Moscow to Shein’s camp on the Dniepr. Part of the delay resulted from the massive size and weight of the siege pieces: more than 450 wagons were required to carry the guns, the shot, and the powder to the theater of war; the two largest guns fired projectiles weighing about 200 pounds.

Without heavy guns, and siege pieces in particular, Shein was unable to effect a close blockade of Smolensk. The Poles profited hugely from this. News of the siege of Smolensk reached Warsaw by early November. Within two weeks the Diet appropriated money to put a 23,000-man crown army into the field. In the meantime the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Prince Krzysztof Radziwill, mustered elements of the separate Lithuanian army and advanced on Smolensk himself. Although Radziwill did not have enough troops to raise the siege unaided, he was able to bring Smolensk some succor. By means of two night operations in March of 1633 he broke through Shein’s lines and delivered food, munitions, and more than a thousand reinforcements to the beleaguered town. That, however, was the limit of Radziwill’s capability. Thereafter he withdrew from the city and engaged in guerrilla attacks on the Muscovite camps. Those attacks were more annoyances than serious threats.

By April the Russians had demolished the earthen ramparts the Poles had constructed south of the city. Shein now trained his guns on the walls of Smolensk itself in the hope of achieving a breach. Simultaneously he ordered that two mines be dug: one west from the camp of Jacob; and one northwest from Lesly’s position to the Malaclowski gate. By mid-July, Muscovite gunners had reduced one section of wall almost 100 feet broad to rubble, while Lesly’s sappers, under the direction of chief engineer David Nichol, had succeeded in implacing in another section a gigantic bomb of twenty-four powder kegs. On the appointed day the mine went off with such concussive force that tons of rock and timber were catapulted into the ranks of the Muscovite soldiers, who had been assembled too close to the wall for safety. In addition to the hundreds of casualties inflicted on the infantry, the blast also took the lives of thirty miners, who had been unable to scramble out of the tunnel in time. Still worse, Shein was not even able to exploit the 400-foot breach the mine had created, because the Polish defenders improvised hasty (but nonetheless substantial) barricades from the debris. The Russians consequently had no choice but to break off their attack.

They never got a chance at a second assault. In part as a response to the gravity of the military emergency, the Polish and Lithuanian magnates in Warsaw had composed their differences and had chosen the son of the deceased monarch as Poland’s new king. On August 23, 1633, King Wladyslaw IV arrived at Smolensk at the head of 23,000 men. From that point on the campaign was an unbroken litany of Muscovite military disasters.

On September 7 Wladyslaw launched diversionary attacks against both Mattison and Prozorovskii that made possible the conveyance of still more men and supplies into Smolensk. On September 21, despite Russian countermeasures, the Poles succeeded in smashing Mattison’s defensive works to the north and west. Believing that the Pokrowska hill was now untenable, Shein ordered it evacuated.

The siege of Smolensk had effectively been lifted. The Muscovite army was now split in two; almost 10 miles separated Shein from the isolated detachments still holding positions west of Smolensk. The destruction of van Damm, d’Ebert, and Prozorvoskii was now Wladyslaw’s top priority. On the night of September 27 the Poles began a series of nonstop assaults. Powerless to resist the pressure and aware that certain of his foreign troops had already deserted to the enemy, in early October Shein ordered Prozorovskii to abandon his enormous fort and retire to the main Russian camp downriver. This retreat entailed leaving tons of guns, powder, and supplies behind. Prozorovskii tried to blow up this military equipment prior to his departure, but a sudden downpour unfortunately extinguished the fuses and delivered his arsenal to the Polish king intact.

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