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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‘Do not publish this,’ said General Skobelev with a smile,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.


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


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

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

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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