General Skobelev, commander of the Russian expeditionary force that confronted the Turkomans in 1881 at their capital, Geok Tepe.
The culmination of Russia’s conquest of central Asia, the capture of Geok Tepe showed the Russian’s mastery of modern warfare and their determination to break a defiant but inferior military power. The decisive victory brought Russia’s borders closer to the British Empire in India and threatened to lead to further Russian dominance in Asia.
‘Do not publish this,’ said General Skobelev with a smile, ‘or I shall be called a barbarian by the Peace Society. But I hold it as a principle that in Asia the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they will be quiet afterwards. We killed nearly 20,000 Turkmen at Geok Tepe. The survivors will not soon forget the lesson.’ Skobelev spoke these words at St Petersburg in 1882 and the savage sentiments therein still resound in central Asia more than a century later.
For centuries, Russia had suffered from the raiding campaigns of Mongols and Turks, but in the 16th century it began to reverse this process. Adopting western European weapons and strategic organization, the Russians took the first steps towards creating an empire by defeating the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and invading Siberia to set up trading strongholds.
The Russian Army grew in strength over the next two centuries until it reached the point in the middle of the 19th century when the government felt confident enough to challenge the Turkic states of central Asia, those which sat upon the ancient Silk Route to China. Russia wished to expand its commercial opportunities by selling manufactured goods to these people, and Russian merchants therefore had to be respected, having frequently been threatened in the past with enslavement. In addition, the Russians had recently suffered the humiliation of the Crimean War and they wished to re-establish their military prestige, especially by making the British feel uncomfortable in India.
In the 1860s, Russian expeditionary forces entered Uzbekistan and captured the key trading cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. In the 1870s the Russians turned their attention to Khiva, capital of the Turkomans, lying to the south of the Aral Sea on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By the end of these campaigns, the empire had been expanded by 210,000 sq km (80,000 sq miles) and the Russian frontier had advanced 500km (300 miles) southwards. The Turkomans had not been wholly beaten, however, and merely retreated into the wilderness. It was then that the Russians found themselves in trouble.
THE BLACK DESERT
Kara Kum means ‘black desert’, and for hundreds of kilometres its shifting dunes of sand and fossil shells, alternating with barren tracts of cracked clay, stretch across central Asia. This was once a seabed, but the sun long ago evaporated the water and turned it into dead land. It was to this desert that the Turkomans retreated. Two Russian armies went after them, in 1878 and 1879. Heatstroke, bad water and fever thinned their ranks. Even their camels died.
The first expedition gave up and returned. The second expedition, despite the death of its general, carried on to Geok Tepe, the mud-built fortress capital of the Turkomans. The Russians bombarded the fort and slaughtered men, women and children, but when they came to storm it, the maddened tribesmen repulsed them. As the Russians retreated, the Turkomans picked off the stragglers. It was a disastrous defeat for an imperial army that had all but conquered the Turkomans years earlier in 1873. Across the Northwest Frontier in India, the British wondered if the Russian threat was really all that great.
General Skobelev liked a challenge. His contemporaries considered him a rising star. ‘Though he has lived but thirty-five years,’ an American attache to the Russian Army wrote, ‘his stupendous military genius is such that… history will speak of him as one of the great soldiers of this century, side by side with Napoleon, Wellington, Grant and Moltke.’ A product of the Russian staff college, Skobelev had observed the Prussians in action and was a veteran of the campaigns of the 1870s m Central Asia, being made governor of Uzbekistan. He was determined to avenge the defeat of 1879 and set about it with tenacious precision.
Skobelev’s first major step was to construct a railway track across the desert so as to maintain his communication and supply line. A telegraph was then erected alongside it. Once his supplies had been delivered across the Caspian Sea by steamboats, Skobelev was ready, and his troops descended on central Asia in April 1880. Through negotiation, he removed some of the Turkic tribesmen who had allied themselves with the Turkomans at Geok Tepe and they supplied him with thousands of camels. Leading just a thousand men armed with a handful of artillery, machine guns and rockets, Skobelev attempted a rapid strike against Geok Tepe. The assault failed, but it demonstrated his determination and convinced him that the only way he could take the city was with a full-scale siege. He now called for twelve thousand men and one hundred guns to reinforce his army.
The Turkomans themselves were not lacking in daring, and their commander, Takma Sardar, personally led a raid against a detachment of Cossacks and transport horses. All of the horses were captured, including Skobelev’s personal charger. Takma Sardar was wounded in the raid and it prompted Skobelev to write to his officers, ‘An enemy whose leader can throw himself upon his adversary’s bayonet deserves serious attention, and all commanders must bear this in mind and take all military precautions on all occasions… so as not to be caught unawares.’ The Turkomans appealed to the British in India for help, but were ignored. Instead, they had to rely on themselves and some thirty thousand warriors who were raised from the surrounding Turkic tribes to help them.
In November 1880, Skobelev began his general advance with eight thousand soldiers. All the towns of the Tekke Turkoman peoples en route to Geok Tepe were stormed. Raids and counter-raids harassed both sides. Once within sight of the capital, Skobelev halted his army and scouted the area closely. He deduced that the nearby fort of Yangi Kala supplied the city’s water and assaulted this first, capturing it quickly. At daybreak on 4 January 1881, the Russians pushed out from Yangi Kala to within 730m (800yds) of Geok Tepe, where they laid the first parallel siege trench. A battle then took place during which the Turkomans made a series of desperate onslaughts on the Russian line. In one spot on the Russian left flank, they left more than three hundred bodies. By 7 January, the first parallel trench was strengthened and the second had been begun 365m (400yds) away from the main ramparts.
At dusk on 9 January, a large body of Turkomans burst out from the town, overwhelmed a Russian force and took the second parallel. Skobelev sent out reserves from Yangi Kala and the Turkoman attack faltered; the Russians had recaptured their trench and artillery, but only at the cost of many dead. However, a simultaneous attack on the Russian camp by Turkoman horsemen was driven off. Skobelev then ordered the digging of a third parallel trench, and a bombardment of the ramparts on the east side of the city began. On 16 January, twelve thousand Turkoman warriors made a final sortie from the town and a terrific fight took place, but the Russians were prepared for it and their artillery plus bayonet charges forced the Turkomans back into the town with heavy losses. Skobelev now ordered his miners to go to work digging tunnels beneath the ramparts. The Turkomans prepared for the inevitable assault.
On the night of 23 January, Russian volunteers carried dynamite into the tunnel dug beneath the town’s eastern rampart. The next morning, Skobelev ordered the main assault. At 07.00 hours, Colonel Gaidaroff began the attack against the southern ramparts with 36 cannons firing in concert against the mud walls. At the same time, the mine, containing two tons of explosives, was ignited under the eastern rampart and a column of earth and smoke rose up into the air. Several hundred defenders were killed immediately. Many of the Turkomans thought it was an earthquake and began to panic, but others bravely stood their ground as the Russians surged into the breaches and fought with bayonet against sabre.
At 13.30 hours, Gaidaroff broke over the southern rampart and entered the town. Soon all three Russian columns were in the town and advancing through the narrow lanes. The last stand of the Turkomans took place around the sacred hill of Geok Tepe, from which the town took its name. Takma Sardar had tried to rally his own men after the mine explosion, but even he had to admit defeat and fled into the desert as the last of his warriors were mown down by Russian artillery. General Skobelev then entered the city at the head of his dragoons and cossacks.
The Turkomans had lost six thousand five hundred people in the defence of their city and eight thousand during the pursuit by the Russian cavalry. The total Russian losses were just over a thousand. Despite this disparity in numbers, Skobelev’s losses during this campaign were greater than those in all previous campaigns in the conquest of central Asia since 1853. That said, it was a decisive victory and the Turkomans never again achieved independence until after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a century later. From that time on, central Asia remained part of the Russian Empire and the Communists subsequently kept it that way, despite several bloody revolts in the 1920s.