18th Century Russian Campaigning in Eastern Europe I

Russian Grenadier Officer and Infantry Officer.

The cost of campaigning in Eastern Europe had to be counted not in currency alone, but in terms of human lives, horses, and matériel as well. We have already had occasion to disparage the popular caricature of eighteenth-century warfare as a tepid, bloodless sequence of maneuvers. Misleading enough with respect to wars on the western part of the continent (how, for instance, does it square with the butchery of Malplaquet?), it is simply preposterous to apply it to conflict in the east. In Eastern Europe warfare was more sanguinary, more savage, more gruesome—in a word more costly—than it was in the West.

Sometimes the high mortality of East European war stemmed from the engagement of the religious passions of the belligerents. Russians and Turks, for example, were rarely inclined to give each other quarter or benefit of the “courtesies of war,” believing as they did that the cause of religious truth itself was at stake in the struggle between Christianity and Islam. Certainly West European observers found warfare in the East rather different from what they were accustomed to. Richardson, the British diplomat, in a letter home in 1769, outlined the ways in which the ongoing Russo-Turkish war differed from warfare in the West:

Fertile provinces rendered desolate; towns and villages in flames; numerous herds of cattle rapaciously driven away; the inhabitants butchered or carried into captivity, constitute the dreadful features of Russian and Tatarian warfare.

That Richardson was not just letting a hyperactive imagination run riot is substantiated by the enormous number of undeniable atrocities the Turks and Russians perpetrated against each other. The mention of one such massacre will have to take the place of many. On December 6, 1788, Russian forces under the command of Prince Potemkin successfully stormed the Turkish fortress of Ochakov. The victorious army was allowed to loot, rape, and murder for three days. The frenzied Russian troops killed at least 10,000 Turkish men, women, and children in the course of this outrage. Even more macabre, since the suspension of discipline precluded organizing proper burial parties, most of the corpses froze solid where they lay and remained contorted in icy agony until the following spring.

Religious prejudice by itself cannot explain the savagery of East European warfare, however. Even when the Russian army was not fighting Tatars or Turks, it tended to engage in pitched battle more frequently than Western armies. The casualty toll from those battles was, as a rule, higher as well. Consider the battle of Zorndorf, fought between Russia and Prussia on August 14, 1758. Here Russia lost 22,600 men—a full 60 percent of the forces it had committed. Of that number, 13,000 were killed outright. Prussia did not escape unscathed, either. More than 11,000 men—a third of Frederick the Great’s army—were also slain.

But the costs of war in Eastern Europe were greater than even the awesome body count from battles and atrocities can indicate, for the geographic, topographic, climatic, and demographic characteristics of the theaters of military operation there imposed substantive costs of their own. As we noted in Chapter 1, Russia had wrestled with those problems in the seventeenth century; in the eighteenth, they assumed still more dangerous proportions, precisely because Russia was attempting to do more with its armed forces than it had attempted in the past.

In order to get to the theater of war, a Russian army, after mustering, typically had to march hundreds of miles across desolate, underpopulated territories. And what did the terrain look like? To the south the approaches to the Crimea were guarded by 360 square miles that were, essentially, an inhospitable desert.82 During his disastrous Crimean campaigns Prince Golitsyn had had occasion to discover exactly how arid the southern reaches of the steppe could be; in the 1730s Field Marshal Münnich actually employed camels (and regretted only that he did not have more of them). The Wallachian and Moldavian plains, where Russian troops so often found themselves during Catherine the Great’s Turkish wars, were transsected by numerous gorges and ravines. To the north, Finland (where most of the Russo-Swedish hostilities in the century took place) was a patchwork of lakes, swamps, and impenetrable forests. To the northwest, the Baltic lake zone impeded Russian access to Poland and East Prussia. And Prussia itself was a country pocked with rivers, marshes, and bogs.

Then there was the weather. The climates of the territories in which Russia campaigned were almost all insalubrious in one way or another. Winters, of course, were bitterly cold. Spring brought the dreaded rasputitsa or thaw, which turned the plains into oceans of mud. Freak rainstorms and flash floods were hazards of summer, especially in the southern theaters of war. Summer also brought burning heat, drought, and millions of swarming insects. Russian soldiers were successively forced to fight in almost every variety of unwholesome climate imaginable.

The hostility of nature, the impediments of terrain, and the scarcity of population—all were constraints on Russian military operations in the eighteenth century. For one thing, bad weather could frequently impede (if not immobilize) the entire army. During the summer of 1739 Münnich had to halt his advance when sudden heavy rains caused the Dniestr to overflow, cutting his infantry off from the artillery and baggage marooned on the other side of the river. Years later, General P. A. Rumiantsev ran into similar trouble at Ushpol’ in Poland as a result of the rasputitsa. In a report of May 1757 to his superior, Rumiantsev spoke of “mud and swamps whose condition Your Excellency could not possibly imagine.” The Russians also suffered much from the climate during their Transdanubian campaign of 1773. They had to postpone the entire operation until May, since the spring thaw made the flooded waters of the Danube impassible. But almost at the moment the river had been crossed, rain gave way to intense heat that parched the soil and dried up even the largest of springs. Rumiantsev’s exceptionally successful campaign of the subsequent year (it finally forced Constantinople to sue for peace) was itself retarded by bad weather; Rumiantsev was unable to besiege the forts of Rushchuk and Silistriia until the middle of July owing, once again, to rainstorms and flooding. To cite just one final example, in the late fall of 1788 General Mikhail Kamenskii’s effort to disperse a strong Turkish column advancing on Bender was derailed by the weather as well; the sudden advent of below-zero temperatures coupled with a freakish blizzard took the lives of more than a quarter of his men.

The under-population of the theaters of war or of the districts that the army had to traverse before arriving in those theaters also contributed to the slowness and inefficiency of Russian military operations. As had been true in the previous century, low population density meant that an army on the march could not readily live off the land. The fewer the peasants in a region, the less the available stocks of food. Thus the army was obliged, as in the past, to haul with it large quantities of the victuals it expected to consume en route. And that, of course, entailed gigantic baggage trains and sluggish advances, for the army as a whole could travel no faster than the sickest and most crippled ox hitched to the supply wagons.

Many contemporaries were highly critical of the size of the Russian military wagon trains. The Austrian Captain Paradies, who served with Münnich during the 1730s, disdainfully remarked of the Russians that “their army is immobilized by such an unprecedentedly large baggage train. I have never seen the army set out on march earlier than two, three, or even four hours after sunrise.” What Paradies was alluding to here was the time lost each morning in herding the horses and oxen, untangling wagon tongues, fastening harness, forming up the wagon train, and pointing it in the right direction.

The huge size of supply trains, apparently, was not always justifiable. Russian officers on occasion encumbered the army unnecessarily by traveling with hundreds of pounds of personal baggage. Field Marshal S. F. Apraksin, the unmilitary, luxury-loving courtier who initially held command in the Seven Years War, required 250 horses to transport his personal possessions into the field. Nor was his case unique. In September 1760 the Empress Elizabeth herself condemned the extravagant dimensions of officers’ personal freight, noting that she had heard “with great chagrin” of “the unbelievable number of horses” that had been requisitioned to bear those superfluous loads.

But much of the condemnation of the Russian baggage trains is unfounded and unfair. On the overwhelming majority of occasions, the baggage trains were large not so much because effete officers had crammed them with feather beds, clocks, and silver services as because they contained the food, water, and firewood requisite to the army’s survival. Peter the Great’s forces had displayed considerable mobility, but only at the expense of hunger, even starvation. In light of the locales where Russia campaigned, its baggage trains were big because they had to be. When Münnich, that accomplished logistician, began military operations against Turkey at the end of May 1739, he was accompanied by 27,862 oxen and 6,202 drivers. That may seem at first glance to be an enormous cavalcade, but we should note that Münnich believed that he really could have used at least 10,000 more of the beasts despite the additional encumbrance that would have placed on his movements.

The larger the baggage train, the slower the army. Yet perhaps this was a self-correcting problem. Surely during the course of a campaign, as food and firewood were consumed, the total weight an army hauled about with it would diminish. That sometimes happened, but it was not the desired outcome. In the first place, prudent commanders tried to replenish supplies as they were used, if possible. In the second place, it was often true that the more victories a Russian army won, the longer its wagon trains became. Victory itself could be an impediment to mobility. Armies that won battles, sacked towns, and seized supply depots were typically heavier than their vanquished foes, because they were laden with booty and wounded. Defeated forces obviously had no loot to show for their pains and were, moreover, often forced to abandon their wounded on the battlefield. Victories on the tactical level could thus undermine the mobility necessary to achieve strategic objectives. On August 1, 1759, the Russian army under Saltykov delivered a crushing defeat to Frederick the Great in the battle of Kunersdorf. In theory, that opened the road for a savage Russian drive on Berlin. But Saltykov did not dash to Berlin. Indeed, he did not even amble in that direction, but instead withdrew for a rendezvous with his Austrian ally, General Daun. And Saltykov’s main rationale for doing so was that his army was encumbered with thousands of sick and injured men, and laden with booty besides.

The relationship between the size of the wagon trains, soldiers’ rations, and fodder for the animals was a kind of vicious military ecosystem that placed automatic upper limits on the well-being of any Russian army in the field. Large baggage trains entailed other consequences besides the deceleration of tempos of advance. The heavier the quantity of victuals and supplies that had to be carried, the greater the number of oxen and horses required. But large numbers of horses and oxen inevitably put great strains on locally available forage. Too many horses, and there might not be pasturage enough for them all. In that event, horses and other draft animals would become enfeebled or die, resulting in the abandonment of wagons and foodstuffs needed by the soldiers themselves. On the other hand, if a general foolishly underestimated the amount of provisions his men needed and set off with too few wagons and animals, he could lead his army into defeat by starvation before the enemy ever came into sight. In the circumstances, then, Russian military leaders usually preferred larger baggage trains to smaller ones.


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