Battle of Eylau (7–8 February 1807)


“Napoleon on the field of Eylau” by Antoine-Jean Gros


The Battle of Eylau, 1807 – Situation Early, 8 February


The Battle of Eylau, 1807 – Situation About 1600, 8 February

Eylau has the dubious distinction of being one of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Some 200 years after the inconclusive event, it is difficult for historians to calculate the true scale of the losses incurred by the participants. One thing remains clear: The figures involved would not look out of place in the attrition rates for the soldiers of World War I. Modern scholars put a figure of 25,000 men on French casualties, approximately one man in three. The opposing Russians lost some 15,000 men, including a number of Prussians. One officer described it as “the bloodiest day, the most horrible butchery of men that had taken place since the beginning of the Revolutionary wars” (quoted in Haythornthwaite 2001, 56). The grueling combat, which saw the forces under Napoleon pitted against Russian troops under General Levin Bennigsen, is also noteworthy for a number of other reasons. It gave rise to one of the greatest cavalry charges in history (spearheaded by Marshal Joachim Murat); it was fought in some of the most atrocious weather conditions; and was one of the few occasions when the Emperor himself almost fell into the hands of his enemies.

Following an indecisive action at Jankovo, Napoleon, on 7 February 1807, with 30,000 men under his corps commanders Murat and Marshal Nicolas Soult, met the Russian army of 67,000 near the small village of Preussisch Eylau in Poland. The Russians drew up in a line running roughly from the north to the east behind the town. The French were drawn up from just northwest of the town down to the southeast. Hostilities began when, probably ignorant of the enemy’s presence, Napoleon’s own baggage train entered Eylau in search of cover for the night. Bitter street fighting ensued, accompanied by intense combat in the town graveyard. Eylau changed hands several times until Bennigsen conceded the place to the French and pulled back to a ridge behind the town, leaving around 4,000 casualties on each side. With French supply wagons lagging behind the army and the Russian supply system on the verge of collapse, both sides suffered from severe shortages of food. Worse still for Bennigsen, loss of the village forced his men to spend the night in subzero temperatures. During the evening 15,000 French reinforcements arrived, with an equal number again expected on the following day under Marshal Louis Davout. To the northwest stood a corps under Marshal Michel Ney, operating independently to keep the 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm Lestocq from uniting with the Russians, but with orders to join the main body on the eighth.

The size of the respective armies during the second day’s fighting remains unknown, but it is estimated that though Napoleon was clearly outnumbered in the morning, the successive appearance of troops over the course of the day increased the strength of each side until they stood about equal-perhaps 75,000 men, but with Bennigsen enjoying a clear superiority in artillery: 460 guns to about 200 for Napoleon.

The French, occupying heights slightly north of the town and only 1,200 yards from the Russian positions, stood in expectation of a frontal attack. At about 8:00 A. M. the massed artillery of the Russians opened the battle with a bombardment that left the village of Eylau ablaze, but in concentrating their guns at relatively short range they exposed themselves to counterbattery fire from the French, whose accuracy soon began to tell. Amid a shrieking blizzard, Soult, supported by cavalry under General Antoine Lasalle, carried out a diversionary attack against the Russian right to deflect attention from the arrival of Davout from the southwest, where Napoleon hoped the decisive blow would be delivered. At about 9:00 A. M., however, Soult was beaten off by the stoic Russians, and General Louis Friant’s division (the advance guard of Davout’s corps) was effectively stalled by an attack at about the same time by a large body of Russian cavalry.

The stage was set for even more carnage. With both his flanks seriously threatened, Napoleon ordered the 9,000 men under Marshal Pierre Augereau, on the French right, to counterattack the Russian center, with a division under General Louis St. Hilaire in support. Augereau’s ill health and the atrocious weather conditions ensured that the attack ended in grisly chaos. The columns became separated, and Augereau’s men-advancing blindly and losing their way-ended up walking directly into the mouths of seventy massed Russian guns. A withering bombardment ensued, while the beleaguered French troops were also subjected to fire from their own artillery, whose gunners could not make out anything through the swirling snow. By 10:30-in under an hour-Augereau’s corps had all but been destroyed, with over 5,000 killed and wounded, Augereau included among the latter, and St. Hilaire’s men had been halted in their tracks.

Napoleon’s fortunes were taking a turn for the worse as General Dmitry Dokhturov’s reserve infantry corps pushed into Eylau on the heels of Augereau’s reeling formations. With the appearance of something on the order of 6,000 Russians in the town, the Emperor himself only narrowly avoided capture, thanks to the self-sacrifice of his escort, who lost heavily until relieved by the arrival of Imperial Guard infantry. Characteristic of the carnage of the day’s fighting was the fate of the French 14th Regiment of the Line: Finding itself completely encircled by the enemy, it refused to surrender and was consequently annihilated near the cemetery.

With the battle reaching a critical phase and with only one major formation still uncommitted, Napoleon ordered the 10,500 men of his reserve cavalry into the fray. Around noon, Murat deployed his eighty squadrons into two vast columns before launching them against the Russian center in a maneuver that has become almost legendary. It gave rise to the oft-quoted vignette in which General Louis Lepic exhorted his men as they waited for the charge with the rejoinder: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!” (quoted in Lachouque and Brown 1997, 88). With inexorable momentum, Murat’s massed horsemen smashed through Bennigsen’s infantry and rode over a seventy-gun battery before reforming, facing about, and returning to friendly lines as a single column through the wreckage left by their initial advance. The charge cost the French 1,500 men, but it brought the relief Napoleon’s infantry desperately needed, allowing him to restore order among his hard-pressed formations. Historians have pointed out that Murat’s feat validated the cavalry as an independent (and useful) fighting force in its own right rather than as a mere adjunct to the artillery or infantry.

While Lestocq’s Prussians had meanwhile arrived around 11:00 A. M. to bolster their beleaguered Russian allies, Davout’s corps was not far behind and by 1:00 P. M. was applying pressure against Bennigsen’s left, which had to shift its position by 45 degrees to maintain a solid front against ever-increasing numbers of French troops. Nevertheless, so determined was Russian resistance that despite the continuous increase of French troops on the field as the day wore on, they still found themselves unable to wrest ground from dogged Russian infantry who preferred to die where they stood.

Ney’s corps did not arrive until dusk, by which time the bulk of the fighting had ended. That night Bennigsen withdrew from the field, leaving Napoleon in possession of Eylau. Despite Napoleon’s subsequent claims in Le Moniteur, the government’s official newspaper, the battle was far from a great victory and is now generally viewed by historians as a costly draw at best, with losses estimated at 15,000 Russian casualties and as many as 25,000 French, whose exhausted state rendered pursuit impossible. Both sides, severely mauled, went back into winter quarters to recover from the bloodletting, but with the certain expectation of renewed fighting in the spring. Eylau’s significance cannot be underestimated because, as David Chandler points out (Chandler 1966, 551), it was one of the first occasions when the chinks in Napoleon’s considerable armor were exposed for all his contemporaries to see.

References and further reading Chandler, David. 1966. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan. Davidov, Denis. 1999. In the Service of the Tsar against Napoleon: The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806-1814. Trans. and ed. G Troubetzkoy. London: Greenhill. Haythornthwaite, Philip J. 2001. Die Hard: Famous Napoleonic Battles. London: Cassell. Lachouque, Henry, and Anne S. K. Brown. 1997. The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and His Guard-A Study in Leadership. London: Greenhill. Petre, F. Loraine. 1989. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1807-07. London: Greenhill. Summerville, Christopher. 2005. Napoleon’s Polish Gamble: Eylau and Friedland, 1807. London: Leo Cooper.


Map of the second day’s fighting showing the charge of the French cavalry


Murat’s Cavalry charge at Eylau

With his centre almost broken, Napoléon resorted to ordering a massive charge by Murat’s 11,000-strong cavalry reserve — aside from the Guard, the last major unbloodied body of troops remaining to the French.

Thus began one of the greatest cavalry charges in history. Somewhat obscured by the weather, Murat’s squadrons charged through the Russian infantry around Eylau and then divided into two groups. The group on the right, Grouchy’s dragoons, charged into the flank of the Russian cavalry attacking St Hilaire’s division and scattered them completely. Now led by Murat himself the dragoons wheeled left against the Russian cavalry in the centre and, joined by d’Hautpoult’s cuirassier division drove the Russian cavalry back on their infantry. Fresh Russian cavalry forced Murat and the dragoons to retire, but d’Hautpoult’s cuirassiers broke through everything and the broken Russian were cut to pieces by fresh regiments of cuirassiers. D’Hautpoult then rode through the Russian guns chasing off or sabering the gunners and burst through the first line of Russian infantry trampling a battalion of infantry that attempted to stand. The cuirassiers forced their way through the second line of Russians and only after 2,500 yards did the charge finally expend its force in front of the Russian reserves. A second wave of cavalry consisting of the Guards and Grouchy’s dragoons now charged the Russians as they attempted to reform and also rode through both lines of infantry. Another group charged into the Russian infantry in the area where Augereau’s corps had made its stand. Not content with these heavy blows, the cavalry reformed, wheeled, and charged back again, finally retiring under the protection of the Guard cavalry. Murat had lost 1,000 to 1,500 well-trained troopers, but relieved the pressure on Augereau, Saint-Hilaire, and Soult paralyzing the Russians long enough to allow Davout to deploy in strength. Rarely had French cavalry played such a pivotal part in a battle. In part this was because, for the first time, Murat’s men were now mounted on the best cavalry horses in Europe, freshly requisitioned in the aftermath of the conquest of Prussia.

Imperial Russian Air Force in 1916 Part I

Before exploring aviation’s contribution to the Russian battlefield in 1916, it is important to consider some of the differences between the Eastern and Western fronts. The Western Front was much shorter, only about 400 miles, yet its combat zone contained a significant concentration of British, French, and German soldiers, accompanied by a massive number of artillery and machine guns that put in harm’s way almost every square yard of the elaborate trench system that ran from the North Sea southeastward to neutral Switzerland. At the same time, this much smaller front was home to far more aircraft than were assigned to the Eastern Front. In 1916 the French and Germans each maintained an inventory of planes that approached 1,500. During the Battle of the Somme, the British employed not just 4 air detachments, as the Russians might have done, but more than 27 squadrons, equipped with 410 aircraft. In short, there was a big difference between the air activity on the Eastern and Western fronts. The Germans, for example, claimed 7,067 air combat victories in the West, but they reported only 358 triumphs in the East against Russian pilots. In the West, when weather permitted, hundreds of air missions and a dozen dogfights occurred every day, with bombers, scouting craft, and fighters on both sides. Meanwhile, in the much more expansive Eastern Front, which extended from Riga in the north to Czernowitz (near Romania) in the south, there were some minimally contested areas that never drew a single airplane from either side.

The amazing thing about the Eastern Front is that by March 1916 Chief of Staff Mikhail V. Alekseev succeeded in rejuvenating twelve Russian armies. Facilitating his rebuilding effort was the Russian industrial expansion, which led to the manufacture of military hardware that put the Russian armies on a more competitive footing with enemy forces. But three critical factors enhanced the larger picture for the Russians. First, German and Austrian troops killed or captured 2.5 million Russian soldiers, whom Petrograd had to replace by enlarging the draft. Such horrific losses deeply undermined the morale of Russian troops, especially those who faced German armies in the north. Unsurprisingly, offensives on the Russian Northwestern Front faltered in 1916. Second, industry’s massive effort to replenish war materiel caused disastrous problems for the economy. Russian cities could not barter machine guns for grain and other agricultural products. Collapse of the urban-rural exchange system, coupled with a diminished supply of fuel through industrial use, ignited the Russian Revolution in 1917. Third, Russia depended on foreign imports for the war—and not just airplanes and aircraft engines. Between 1914 and 1917, for example, Russia imported 836 million dollars’ worth of products from the United States—then a fortune—including airplanes, aircraft engines, armored cars, barbed wire, boots, copper, cotton, dyes, electric machinery, gunpowder, harnesses, horseshoes, howitzer shells, lead, leather, locomotives, machine tools, medicines, nickel, rails, railroad cars, rifles, rubber, saddles, shrapnel, surgical instruments, trucks, wool, and zinc. Together, these imports and Russian industrial output helped create an army in 1916 that was better equipped than at any other time during the war.

In goods directly related to aviation, Russian industry built over six times more aircraft in January 1916 than it had in August 1914. The original monthly production for each of the 5 major Russian firms was 25 planes for Russo-Baltic; 35 for Lebedev; 40 for Anatra; 50 for Shchetinin; and 60 for Dukh. Six smaller workshops constructed and added 6 to 8 airframes to the monthly base of 217. As might be expected, the number of aviation laborers, ranging from those assembling airframes to those building propellers, more than doubled in 1916 to 5,029 workers. Even so, the shortage of engines continued; the French motor subsidiaries in Russia did not come close to manufacturing enough aircraft engines to match the number of airframes being produced. By year’s end France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States had exported to Russia via Arkhangel’sk or Vladivostok some 2,500 aviation engines, which greatly (but not completely) helped meet the empire’s requirements. By year’s end these countries also exported about 900 assembled aircraft to Russia. Despite these imports and Russia’s increased domestic production, the problem of supplying the Russian military with enough aircraft remained because monthly loss rates often approached 50 percent. Regardless, each of the 12 armies fielded several squadrons of planes, and heavy combat areas received additional special bombing and fighter aircraft detachments.

The Russian air forces and those of several other belligerents as well appeared to reach a degree of autonomy during that period. Before war’s end, Great Britain, for example, combined its Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), under Major General Hugh Trenchard as chief of staff. Theoretically, the RAF held the same status as the British army and navy. By mid-1915, Grand Duke Aleksandr commanded the Directorate of the Military Aerial Fleet. On November 24, 1916, with Order No. 1632 from the chief of the General Staff, the grand duke also took complete charge of all Air Force inspectors. In the case of Russia, however, true autonomy for aviation existed more on paper than in reality. In effect, aircraft operations continued to be administered by army field generals and navy sea commanders. (As mentioned previously, pilots could not be promoted above the rank of army captain. The lone exception was in the EVK.) When the Great Retreat forced Stavka to evacuate Baranovichi for Mogilëv, the grand duke shifted his headquarters to Kiev. Naturally he kept in touch with Stavka, but his autobiography reveals that he increasingly spent time interacting with the Romanov family and expressing concern about the tsar and the tsar’s future.

The grand duke admitted that he was in Petrograd quite frequently; he could justify the visits there, since three large aircraft manufacturing firms operated in the empire’s capital city. He remembered: “Each time I came back to Kieff [Kiev] with my strength sapped and my mind poisoned.” From his vantage point the rumors that were spreading across the capital city about Tsar Nikolai II and his wife, Aleksandra Feodorovich, were downright ugly and wicked. The grand duke noted false rumors alleging that the tsar had become an alcoholic; that he took Mongolian drugs that clogged his brain; that his prime minister was in league with German agents in neutral Sweden; that his German-born wife favored Russia’s defeat; and that she had had sexual relations with the uncouth and self-proclaimed holy man, Grigorii E. Rasputin. Rasputin’s unsavory reputation, though, was very real and well-deserved. He argued that salvation followed sin, and he sinned incessantly. He exerted influence over the royal couple—including their appointment of some of his “favorites” to high ministerial positions—because his calming powers had saved the couple’s only son and heir to the throne from potentially fatal episodes of severe bleeding due to hemophilia. Later that year Grand Duke Aleksandr said he had “felt glad to be rid of Rasputin” when the “holy man” was murdered after dinner in the home of Aleksandr’s daughter, Irina, and son-in-law, Prince Feliks Iusupov. But Rasputin’s death had come way too late to help save the Romanov dynasty.

The grand duke’s effectiveness as head of the Directorate of the Military Aerial Fleet was limited by his focus on Rasputin and the problems of the tsar. At the beginning of 1916, the Russian air force had reached the serious level of 53 squadrons—42 army corps, 8 fighter corps, and 3 special detachments to protect Imperial residences. The grand duke’s distance from Stavka’s headquarters and his uneven attention to aviation issues prevented the directorate from moving toward greater autonomy for military aircraft. And even if the grand duke had wanted to create a semi-independent air force, Stavka continued to prevent him from elevating the rank of pilots above the level of captain. Fortunately, the grand duke had nothing to do with the EVK, which he disliked; it remained in the hands of Stavka. The Il’ia Muromets aircraft, formidable weapons for their time, conducted 442 combat missions during the war. The reconnaissance-bombers destroyed 40 enemy planes, took 7,000 high-quality photographs of enemy positions, and dropped more than 2,000 bombs. By the end of 1916, their varied engines could be rated as high as 225 hp; they carried some armor plating, were equipped with protected fuel tanks, and housed 7 or more machine guns and occasionally a small-bore, quick-firing cannon. The plane represented an early version of what Americans would later call the B-17 flying fortress.

Once the EVK headquarters had been established at Zegevol’d, close to Pskov but not far from Riga in the north, Russian authorities created two other detachments for the 1916 campaign that were close to the middle and south of the Eastern Front—Stan’kovo, near Minsk, and Kolodziievska, near Tarnopol in the region of Galicia. It is easy to argue that Zegevol’d was the most important aerodrome for an EVK detachment. If the Germans were to capture Riga, the enemy would inherit a direct rail line to the empire’s capital in Petrograd. Riga’s extremely important strategic position helps explain why the EVK headquarters was stationed near that city. Understandably, Stavka wanted to do everything necessary to keep the Germans from taking Riga, which seemingly was the objective most desired by General Ludendorff, who planned the German campaign along the Baltic shore. Nevertheless, by the end of the German offensive enemy troops ended up stalled and dug in about twenty-five miles from that key urban center. During the later winter of 1916 when weather permitted the EVK detachment at Zegevol’d began regular photographic reconnaissance in Courland and the southwestern shore of the Gulf of Riga detailing the German positions for the Russian Twelfth and Fifth armies.

In April 1916 the photographs reinforced the need for the EVK detachment at Zegevol’d to repeat its bombing of the railroad station in Courland at Friedrichstadt, which supplied the Niemen Army. The EVK sent the tenth version of the Il’ia Muromets Model V, piloted by Lieutenant Avenir M. Konstenchik. Born the son of a Russian Orthodox priest in the city of Grodno (now in Belarus), Konstenchik completed his basic education by attending a Russian Orthodox seminary. Yet the young man chose not to continue his seminary studies, which would have led to priesthood, but rather attended a special military academy. After graduation, he served in the Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment, then transferred to aviation and became a pilot. His first aviation assignment took him to the air squadron attached to the Brest-Litovsk Fortress. In September 1914 Konstenchik was selected to be one of the first pilots to learn how to fly one of the ten Il’ia Muromets aircraft ordered by the military.

Those joining Konstenchik on the April 13 (O.S.) mission included the deputy commander, Lieutenant Viktor F. Iankovius; artillery officer and reconnaissance photographer, Lieutenant Georgii N. Shmeur; machine gunner, Sergeant Major Vladimir Kasatkin; and engine mechanic, Sergeant Major Marcel Pliat. Pliat had been assigned under an exchange program with France designed to help cement the military alliance between the two countries and enable them to share air combat techniques. Besides maintaining and repairing engines, Pliat manned the tail machine gun. He also was a special EVK member because of his Franco-African background. He proved to be the savior of the plane and crew in keeping a couple of Sunbeam motors in operation during flight. Imported from Great Britain, each Sunbeam liquid-cooled engine produced a rating of only 150 hp. Fortuitously, Sikorsky’s redesign of the big plane resulted in a craft that was so aerodynamically improved that it could carry crew and bombs to an altitude above 7,800 feet.

Being able to fly at higher altitudes kept the reconnaissance-bomber well above small-arms ground fire from the enemy. The first pass over the large Daudzevas railroad station near Friedrichstadt went smoothly enough as the Il’ia Muromets dropped a half dozen of its thirteen bombs. During the return pass to finish the bombing run and take photographs, the Russians discovered how much the Germans valued the huge station and its warehouses. The enemy protected the rail facilities with guns that fired exploding ordnance that could reach high-altitude aircraft flying at 15,000 feet. A shell exploded near the cockpit; metal fragments from the shell-shattered glass wounded Konstenchik and damaged three of the four engines. Shrapnel also struck the hands of the artillery officer and shattered the camera that he was holding. When the pilot was hit with pieces of metal, he fell from his seat and pulled the steering column backward. The result was an abrupt climb, which caused a stall. As the plane dropped toward the ground, Iankovius slid into the pilot’s seat. He was able to get the plane out of the stall and stabilize flight at about 3,000 feet as Kasatkin applied emergency first aid to Konstenchik. Fortunately, Pliat, in the plane’s tail, held on tightly to save himself from falling away from the plane as it dropped during the stall; when the aircraft recovered from its near-fatal descent, he worked his way forward through the fuselage to join the other crew members.

Pliat then climbed out on the wing and, ignoring grave danger to himself, managed to keep 2 of the plane’s 4 engines running. Limited power forced the Il’ia Muromets to continue flying only at a low altitude of 1,000 meters [about 3,075 feet]. For 26 kilometers (a little more than 16 miles) the plane flew over German troops, who took pleasure in firing rifles at the Russian plane, wounding crew members. When the bullet-riddled aircraft landed at a Russian aerodrome and came to a stop, its right wing dropped completely to the ground. Despite such obvious combat damage, the plane’s safe landing only added to the legend of the miracle survivability of the Il’ia Muromets. This mission resulted in a series of awards: Lieutenant Konstenchik received the Order of Saint George, Fourth Degree; Lieutenant Iankovius, the Sword of Saint George; and Sergeant Major Pliat, the Cross of Saint George. Sergeant Major Kasatkin received a commission as an officer.

Meanwhile, several of large EVK planes continued to aid the Russian Twelfth and Fifth armies in their defense of Riga by photographing and bombing German targets of opportunity. Then, in July 1916, came several extraordinary events that would have a major impact on the EVK. First, future ace pilot Alexander Seversky returned to combat duty—minus a major portion of his right leg—as part of Second Bombing-Reconnaissance Squadron. Although the squadron was headquartered at the naval air station at Zerel on the southern point of Ösel Island’s Sworbe Peninsula, it established an auxiliary base on tiny Runo Island, about forty-five miles east-southeast of Zerel, near the center of the Gulf of Riga. With Runo Island as a base, Russian pilots searched intensely for German submarines. In one of Seversky’s first scouting flights from Runo, in a Grigorovich M-9 flying boat, he shot down a German Albatros C.Ia. The German land plane had been converted to a seaplane by replacing its wheels with floats. The victory was a jolt to Seversky, his squadron, and the Baltic Fleet. It meant that the Germans had some type of seaplane base near the Gulf of Riga. Subsequently, another squadron member in an M-9 spotted an Albatros C.Ia seaplane taking off from Lake Angern. Less than a mile into the interior, the lake parallels the western shore of the gulf for ten miles. The Germans loved it because their seaplane base was completely invisible to vessels of the gulf’s Imperial Russian Navy.

Imperial Russian Air Force in 1916 Part II

The German seaplane base on Lake Angern posed a threat not only to the aviation presence on Runo Island but also to the passage of Russian naval vessels in the gulf. The Russians responded quickly. Using the radio unit on Runo, the navy ordered the Second Bombing-Reconnaissance Squadron to send several bomb-loaded M-9s over the enemy seaplane station to see how much damage they could inflict. Joining Seversky for the perilous honor of attacking the Germans in August were lieutenants Diterikhs and Steklov, each of them accompanied on the right side of the M-9’s cockpit by a sergeant mechanic-observer who manned a single rotating machine gun. As in the case of the FBAs of the previous year, bombs were installed left and right of the hull and next to the pilot and sergeant. The flight from Runo to the gulf shoreline adjacent to Lake Angern went smoothly enough. As the three flying boats approached the enemy’s air base, however, their noisy, clattering Salmson engines warned the Germans of their arrival. Russian pilots and crews ignored the ground fire from small arms and at least one antiaircraft cannon as the three M-9 pilots focused on dropping ordnance on several station sheds.

The end of the successful pass over target resulted in gains and setbacks for the Russians. The good news was that although a number of German bullets and shell fragments had struck the M-9s, the aircrafts’ thick planked hulls had served as protective cocoons for pilots and sergeants; no metal fragments punctured the flesh of crew members. The bad news contained multiple parts. Lieutenant Steklov had to abandon the small detachment and flee to the northeast; an exploding shell had pocked-marked a radiator that then spewed out steam. Steklov would be saved. The M-9 carried two elongated radiators, one on each side of the liquid-cooled engine. The second intact radiator bought Steklov a few precious minutes of flight before the overheated engine froze and turned his flying boat into an unpowered glider. Fortunately for him, his motor enabled him to reach the gulf, where he was able to glide far enough from shore to be picked up safely by a Russian gunboat. Meanwhile, Diterikhs and Seversky circled back toward the enemy, intending to use their M-9 machine guns to damage the unmanned German seaplanes. But the pilots and sergeants soon discovered that their combat mission had actually just begun. Russian planes were entering a new and very dangerous phase of battle.

When the M-9s approached the German base, some seaplanes already had taken off to confront the Russians. Soon Diterikhs and Seversky faced a flight of seven Albatros planes with crews eager to seek revenge for the damage caused by Russian bombs. Thus began one of the great, epic air battles of the Eastern Front, which continued for at least an hour. It was prolonged in part because of the machine gun setups on the two opposing types of aircraft. With motor and propeller in front, the Albatros biplane was pulled through the air. The pilot sat behind the engine and behind the pilot sat the observer, who operated the machine gun from the second cockpit. But the only clear firing view for the German machine gun was in the arc between the two open sides of the seaplane. Firing straight ahead would kill the pilot, and even a slightly slanted forward aim would potentially destroy the struts and wire braces that supported the wings. By contrast, the M-9 crew sat in front of the engine and propeller, which pushed the craft through the air. As a result, the M-9 machine gun swiveled and the crew had a clear shot at anything in the 180-degree arc from side to side in front of it.

Besides being badly outnumbered by enemy planes, the Russians faced another problem. Due to the high drag produced by the hull, two radiators, and the Salmson engine, the M-9 had a top speed of only 110 kmh (about 68 mph). The Albatros C.Ia, with wheels for landing gear, flew 142 kmh (about 88 mph), but substituting pontoons for wheels, as the designer did, reduced the plane’s speed. Nevertheless, German seaplanes remained somewhat faster than Russian flying boats. Diterikhs and Seversky understood only too well that the odds were against them in guns and speed; a frontal attack against multiple German aircraft would be suicidal. Instead the Russian pilots initiated a flight of movement and maneuver that appeared to be an aerobatic dance in the sky. The pair wove their flying boats synchronously, in and out, with tight crossovers, creating an imaginary chain that proved difficult for the Germans to penetrate. Without the benefit of radio communications, German attacks lacked any type of logical coordination. Individual Albatros aircraft moved forward and back, exchanging gunfire with the M-9s. Seversky’s plane took more than thirty hits in the running gun battle, but the M-9 hull preserved its occupants, and all control surfaces remained functional.

The Germans were not so fortunate. Their designers had used wooden veneer as the covering for the Albatros fuselage. Bullets penetrated the covering and exposed the crew to deadly fire. As the aerobatic chain moved the air duel away from the enemy base and into the gulf toward Runo Island, Seversky’s M-9 shot down two of the German planes. All seemed to go well for the Russians until Diterikhs’ machine gun jammed, leaving the Grigorovich defenseless. When an Albatros moved forward to finish off the M-9, Seversky abruptly and fearlessly changed the heading of his plane to a collision course with the Albatros, but his object was not to initiate the taran. Instead, his machine gun opened fire, smashing bullets into the fore and aft cockpits, killing the crew and sending the Albatros into the Gulf of Riga. Seversky’s brazen action and the appearance of several more M-9s from Runo helped remind German pilots that their planes were low on fuel and they needed to return to their base at Lake Angern.

As might be expected, the one-legged aviator gained promotion to senior lieutenant (starshii leitenant). Tsar Nikolai II, in his role as commander in chief (glavnokomanduiushchii) of the Imperial Russian Military, awarded Seversky the Gold Sword as Knight of the Order of Saint George. It was Imperial Russia’s highest decoration and is sometimes equated with the top U.S. military decoration, the Medal of Honor. Seversky certainly demonstrated courage worthy of the decoration. Subsequent scouting reports, however, revealed that the Germans on Lake Angern quickly recovered from the M-9 bombs and the loss of the three Albatros aircraft. The enemy seaplane base posed a threat to Russian naval vessels, especially in providing air intelligence reports about Russian ships to German submarines in the Gulf of Riga. Regardless, the Baltic Fleet recommended that Stavka ask the EVK to conduct a significant bombing operation against the German seaplane station. The first thing the EVK did was to send a single Il’ia Muromets on a reconnaissance flight to the enemy base.

The plane’s commander, Lieutenant Vladimir Lobov, and his crew enjoyed a very successful intelligence run over the German air base. Sharp photographs clearly outlined sheds, hangars, barracks, and other facilities. A half-dozen Albatros aircraft took off and tried to intercept the Russian four-engine plane, but the bomber’s crew fired so many Lewis machine guns that the German aerial attack failed completely. On September 4, 1916 (N.S.), four Il’ia Muromets aircraft left the Zegevol’d Aerodrome near Pskov under the command of Lieutenant Georgii I. Lavrov. The detachment flew to Lake Angern and dropped seventy-three bombs on the German station, which housed seventeen seaplanes. Observers on the Russian aircraft confirmed the destruction and fires that consumed aircraft, hangars, and various structures. Multiple machine guns on the four reconnaissance-bombers suppressed enemy antiaircraft fire from the ground. As the Russians headed back to their aerodrome, they noted that columns of smoke were rising where the German seaplane station had been. The four large planes suffered no damage and returned safely from their mission to Zegevol’d.

The Il’ia Muromets aircraft assigned to the Stan’kovo Aerodrome near Minsk were equipped with less powerful, British-made Sunbeam engines that had a tendency to reduce the performance of the large reconnaissance-bombers. There was one IM Kievskii model that carried better Argus motors. In the summer and fall of 1916, the detachment carried out numerous bombing and photographing missions on behalf of the Russian Second, Tenth, and Fourth armies. With EVK aid these armies close to the center of the Eastern Front maintained a fairly stable combat line against the enemy. In order to distract the Germans in the north from a planned Russian offensive, the EVK decided to put on a show of force by sponsoring a major air attack against the headquarters of a German reserve division near the town of Boruna, just below the Russian offensive. The attacking force comprised four Il’ia Muromets planes and sixteen Morane-Saulnier French fighters, built by the Russian Dukh Company. The planes took off separately on September 25, 1916 (N.S.). Unfortunately, both the plans and their execution failed. The fighters missed linking up with the bombers and three of the larger aircraft never reached the target. One of the three Il’ia Muromets planes encountered German fighters supplied with explosive ordnance. An intercepted radio message later revealed that the Germans had lost three of their planes in the air battle; however, enemy bullets exploded one of the Russian bombers’ fuel tanks. The plane crashed, killing the entire crew, including its commander, Lieutenant Dimitrii K. Makhsheiev. Only the IM Kievskii completed the mission in triumph; overall, the show of airpower miscarried miserably.

Meanwhile, the offensive against the German forces on the Russian Northwestern Front simply failed. Occasionally, the Russian armies, under the leadership of General Aleksei N. Kuropatkin, nudged enemy troops back a short distance. Kuropatkin, the officer corps, and conscripted soldiers lost heart over Russia’s ability to defeat Germany. The Kuropatkin debacle was in sharp contrast to the performance of the four armies on the Southwestern Front commanded by General Aleksei A. Brusilov. After a crushing artillery barrage on June 4, 1916 (N.S.), Brusilov’s forces successfully attacked soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A major ingredient in the spectacular advance of the Brusilov offensive involved the EVK squadron that operated close to the Russian Seventh Army, which had spearheaded the attack against enemy troops. Led by Staff-Captain Aleksei V. Pankrat’ev, the EVK detachment photographed and secured important intelligence on the disposition of Austrian units and artillery. Performing two missions a day, the large planes also bombed railway stations, railroad beds, warehouses, and towns occupied by enemy soldiers. When the Russians occupied new territory, ground troops saw first-hand evidence of the destruction caused by Il’ia Muromets aircraft and heard tales of how Austrian troops abandoned in panic their positions after a Russian bombing run.

In action by single-engine planes, it should come as no surprise that Russia’s top two ace pilots flew in the very active Southwestern Front, where aviation and aviators were held in high esteem by Brusilov, the front’s offensive-minded commander. As noted earlier, in 1915 a type of Russian fighter aircraft emerged that employed a machine gun in the front of a pusher-type aircraft. A Grigorovich M-5 flying boat of 1915 also could carry that weapon, and in 1915–1916 a machine gun could be placed on the top wing of a Nieuport biplane that was pulled through the air by its propeller. The formal creation of fighter detachments with six aircraft each took place in March 1916 under Order No. 30, signed by Tsar Nikolai II. By August of that year, there were a dozen fighter squadrons, one for each of the twelve Russian armies. The use of such detachments could not begin to protect all aircraft that performed reconnaissance missions over enemy forces; nevertheless, on the Russian Southwestern Front, the country’s second-highest ace pilot, Vasili I. Ianchenko, was credited over time with sixteen enemy kills.

As a youth, Ianchenko studied mathematics and mechanical engineering at the Saratov Technical School, graduating in 1913 at age nineteen. His enthusiasm for airplanes prompted him to take flying lessons, and when war broke out, in 1914, he volunteered for military aviation service. Interestingly, because he had entered the army from the lower-middle class, failed to attend a military school, and had begun army life as a private (riadovoi), he never attained a rank higher than ensign (praporshchik). Over the winter of 1914–1915 he attended ground school at the Saint Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. Once he completed the aeronautics course he received orders to travel by train south to the Sevastopol’ Aviation School. In the spring and summer of 1915, he finished military flight training there on the French-designed, Russian-built Morane-Saulnier monoplane. That fall he transferred to the Twelfth Air Corps Squadron, where he demonstrated such outstanding skills as a pilot that he received orders to attend an air school in Moscow where he learned to fly an advanced Morane-Saulnier fighter. After finishing that course early in 1916, he went to a squadron in the central regions of the Eastern Front. Ianchenko flew ten combat missions, but after hearing about the tsar’s order he requested transfer to Russia’s first formal fighter detachment—the Seventh Fighter Squadron, attached to the Russian Seventh Army. He joined what proved to be a busy squadron, preparing for the Brusilov offensive. Between April and October 1916, he flew eighty combat missions and became one of Russia’s most decorated pilots.

Russia’s top ace pilot was Aleksandr A. Kozakov, who had amassed twenty confirmed kills. Somewhat older than other pilots, he was born in 1889, the son of a nobleman. He attended military schools in his youth and graduated from the Elizavetgrad Cavalry School. The junior lieutenant (kornet—cavalry rank) spent his first years in a horse regiment, but transferred to aviation as a senior lieutenant (poruchik—cavalry rank) in 1914. After completing ground school and flight training in October, he was assigned to the Fourth Corps Air Squadron, north of Warsaw, where he flew the two-seat Morane-Saulnier monowing reconnaissance plane. Near the end of the 1915 Great Retreat he was promoted to staff-captain (shtabs-rotmistr—cavalry rank) and appointed to head the Russian Eighth Army’s Nineteenth Corps Air Squadron on the Southwestern Front. Early in 1916, on his own initiative, Kozakov had a Maxim machine gun installed on the top wing of his Nieuport 10 biplane. After multiple kills, he became the leader of the three Russian Eighth Army Corps aviation detachments that formed the First Combat Air Group. To protect the Eighth Army’s recent victory in the skies over the Austrian city of Lutsk, a major railway hub, the combat group received special Nieuport 11 and SPAD SA.2 fighters imported from France.

Austria hoped to regain Lutsk and destroy or damage railway facilities, so Kozakov and the First Combat Air Group engaged numerous Austrian fighter and scouting aircraft. The Austrian Brandenburg plane actually had been designed by a German, Ernst Heinkel, and originally was built in Germany by the Hansa und Brandenburgische Flugzeug-Werke. Moreover, Germans often piloted the “Austrian” airplanes. The Russians’ effort succeeded. In 4 months, they captured 417,000 Austrian prisoners, 1,795 machine guns, 581 artillery pieces, and 25,000 square kilometers (15,500 square miles) of territory, according to an enthusiastic account of the Brusilov offensive written 15 years later by Russian general Nicholas N. Golovine (an anglicized version of Nikolai N. Golovin) in The Russian Army in the World War. None of the Allied powers could match the success of the Russian attack. The Austrian military nearly collapsed; it had to end its own offensive against Italy by transferring 15 divisions to the Eastern Front. Germany, fearful that the Austro-Hungarian Empire might sue for peace, sent 18 divisions from the Western Front and 4 reserve divisions that had been housed in Germany in order to bolster Austrian forces and keep them in the war.

Airpower made an observable contribution to the success of the Brusilov offensive. The EVK used extensive photography to reveal fully the enemy’s defensive order of battle. The Russian Southwestern Front employed 17 squadrons, comprising 90 pilots and 88 single-engine aircraft. (The last two numbers clearly illustrate the Russians’ chronic problem of not having enough pilots and planes to operate the expected standard of 6 airplanes per squadron.) Nonetheless, Russian fighters hampered the ability of Austrian air reconnaissance to identify the point of Russian attacks; the fighters also tried to protect Russian aircraft that carried out intelligence-gathering missions. This combination of scouting and EVK photography enabled Russian artillery to suppress and destroy the opponent’s defenses and to cause more damage with fewer cannon. During the breakthrough period of the Russian advance, the 17 air squadrons carried out 1,805 combat missions. Peak activity occurred in August 1916, when pilots completed 749 flights under battle conditions. By October the Brusilov offensive stalled, partly because of Russian casualties, autumn rains, and the fact that the Austrian line of defense had been greatly strengthened by the large number of new Austrian and German military divisions. Finally, the static nature of the Southwestern Front in the fall of 1916, coupled with the long-term stability of the Northwestern Front, explains the rapid expansion in the number of balloon detachments that year. By December there were some 73 balloon observer stations in 13 balloon divisions operating from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Although balloons often were subjected to enemy gunfire, they played an important role in observing activity in the forward lines of German and Austrian troops.

The achievement of Russian armies in advancing into Austrian Galicia was more than matched by the power and work of the Black Sea Fleet in checking the Central Powers and turning the sea into a Russian lake. First, the fleet continued to send hydrocruiser task forces and their shipborne flying boats to intervene and disrupt the transit of coal by attacking Turkish steamers and sailing ships. The effort proved so thorough that at times Turko-German ships, including the Goeben and Breslau, lacked the fuel necessary to steam into the Black Sea. By December 1916 the Russians had sunk or captured more than a thousand Turkish coastal craft. On one of the hydrocruiser visits to Zonguldak the following February 6 (N.S.) fourteen Grigorovich aircraft dropped thirty-eight bombs on the ex-German collier Irmingard—the largest vessel to be lost to an air attack in any theater of battle during the Great War. Second, task groups repeatedly bombarded the Bulgarian port of Varna. On August 25 (N.S.) the aircraft carriers Almaz, Aleksandr, and Nikolai sent nineteen planes into the harbor to bomb German submarines.

Finally, in 1916 the army-dominated Stavka finally decided to take a step that it had refused two years before. Vice Admiral Andrei A. Eberhardt, an aggressive commander, had wanted from the beginning of the war to prepare the Black Sea Fleet for amphibious operations should the Ottoman Empire become a member of the Central Powers. Even though Stavka had mistakenly predicted that the Turks would remain neutral, the army did not want to commit a substantial number of soldiers for waterborne military action. What we now call “if history” is fiction, of course, but if the Russian army had approved the preparation of amphibious troops with the Black Sea Fleet, such a force might have collaborated with the Allied attack at Gallipoli. British and French warships bombarded the peninsula in February 1915 and later landed troops there. A major amphibious assault by Russian soldiers disembarked from the Black Sea near Constantinople might have led to the occupation of the Turkish capital, knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and brought Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania into the conflict on the side of the Allies. Black Sea ports would then have been opened to safe and copious trade and the entire chemistry of the war would have been altered.

The Black Sea Fleet and its hydrocruiser task forces housing flying boats also assisted the Imperial Russian Army in its Caucasus campaign against the Turks. The navy and its Grigorovich aircraft interrupted, captured, or sank Turkish ships that carried troops and supplies eastward to the front against Russia. When an army-sized Turkish relief force under Vehip Pasha marched along the northern coast of Anatolia, Russian war vessels and aircraft harassed the troops and damaged supply columns, leaving the relief force no option but to retreat. Then, in March 1916, Stavka finally agreed to an amphibious operation against the Ottoman Empire. The dreadnought Rostislav, gunboat Kubanets, 4 torpedo boats, 2,100 soldiers (shipped on 2 transports), and 3 flat-bottomed minesweepers entered the small Atina harbor. Just behind Turkish lines, the amphibious exercise caught Russia’s enemy in a surprising pincer that enabled the Russian Army to advance westward into the Turkish port of Rize on March 6 (N.S.).

The Black Sea Fleet became heavily involved in augmenting Russian troops and supplies for the Caucasian Front. On April 7 (N.S.) approximately 16,000 Cossack soldiers were shipped to Rize on 36 smaller transports, with 8 flat-bottomed Elpidifor craft for the amphibious coastal landing stage. The substantial number of infantrymen had the protection of a dreadnought, 3 cruisers, and 15 torpedo boats. Three hydrocruisers holding 19 flying boats accompanied the naval task force. Aircraft provided a reconnaissance screen against German submarines and Turko-German warships. The additional troops enabled the Russians to stall and then defeat a serious Turkish counterattack. By April 19 (N.S.) the Russians had pushed the enemy westward and occupied the major Turkish port of Trabzon (anglicized as Trebizond). In the second half of May and early June, the Black Sea Fleet then used two convoys to transfer to Trabzon the 123rd and 127th infantry divisions, which included more than 34,000 men. Once again hydrocruisers used cranes to unload M-9s to the sea—planes that then flew scouting missions to help protect the convoys from enemy ships and U-boats.

In July 1916 Vice Admiral Aleksandr V. Kolchak replaced Eberhardt as commander of the Black Sea Fleet. It would be nice to say that Eberhardt deservedly retired with honor, but the reality is that in both government and military, administrators and officers often engaged in politics and infighting to gain preferred appointments. Nevertheless, as a rear admiral Kolchak had been an excellent chief over the Baltic Sea’s destroyer force, and he clearly valued aircraft now. While Eberhardt had established naval air stations at Batum, Rize, and Trabzon, Kolchak tripled the number of airplanes in some cases. On September 11 (N.S.) he dispatched flying boats to bomb the Bulgarian port of Varna as well as the Eukhinograd German submarine base. In August he also began secretly laying hundreds of mines around the Bosporus and later Varna; the minefields were constantly augmented, so that in essence the Central Powers were denied access to the Black Sea. It would be eleven months before the Breslau dared to steam through the Bosporus. Finally, Romania’s entry into the war as a member of the Allies in 1916 led to that country’s defeat by a German-Bulgarian-Turkish army under Mackensen. On December 16, 1916 (N.S.), Romania’s main port of Constanta also was mined. The only Turkish vessels remaining in the Black Sea were smaller sailing ships berthed in lesser ports along the coast of Anatolia.

Battle of Friedland, the decisive battle of the campaign of 1807.


Napoleon Watching The Battle Of Friedland 1807




A major engagement between French forces under Napoleon and the Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen Friedland was the decisive battle of the campaign of 1807. Following the bloody stalemate at Eylau in February, the Russian and French armies spent the spring recuperating and preparing for a new round of fighting. The Russians launched their offensive on 5 June, threatening Marshal Michel Ney’s corps around Guttstädt. However, the Russian attack was poorly executed, allowing Ney to make a fighting retreat to the Passarge River. Napoleon quickly concentrated his forces at Deppen on the Passarge and counterattacked on 7 June, driving the Russians out of Guttstädt. Three days later, the French attacked the Russian fortified camp at Heilsberg and suffered heavy casualties. However, Bennigsen feared a flanking maneuver by Napoleon and ordered further retreat toward the Russian frontier.

Late on the afternoon of 13 June, the Russian advance guard approached Friedland and found it already occupied by the advance guard of Marshal Jean Lannes’s corps. After a cavalry skirmish, the Russians carried the town and established a cavalry screen on the left bank of the river Alle. The French prisoners indicated that only Lannes’s advance guard was some 2 miles from Friedland waiting for the rest of V Corps to arrive. The leading units of the main Russian army arrived after 8:00 P. M., and Bennigsen moved General Dmitry Dokhturov’s 7th and 8th Divisions to the left bank to support the Russian Imperial Guard and cavalry already deployed there. During the night, the rest of the army concentrated on the right bank. Bennigsen initially did not intend to give battle around Friedland but wanted to secure his march northward to Wehlau, whence he planned to attack Napoleon’s flank and rear if the French advanced to Königsberg.

Bennigsen was exhausted and in poor health, so on the evening of 13 June he left the army to spend the night in a town house in Friedland. He had barely received any rest when, at 11:00 P. M., he was informed that General Nicolas Oudinot’s troops were deployed near Postehnen. Concerned about his positions, Bennigsen moved additional troops across the river and took up positions near the forest of Sortlach. By late evening there were some 25,000 Russians on the left bank of the Alle. Furthermore, that same evening two pontoon bridges were constructed, and additional forces moved to the left bank to secure the flanks. Ataman Matvei Platov’s Cossacks, supported by the Preobrazhensky Guard, the cavalry of the Guard, Finnish Dragoons, and Oliovopol Hussars, were dispatched northward to seize crossing sites at Allenburg and on the Pregel River. Bennigsen moved most of his cavalry to the left flank and posted Prince Peter Bagration with his advance guard on the left. Thus, the Russian troops were deployed in a half-circle around Friedland. This position was extremely unfavorable for several reasons. First, a deep ravine, Muhlen Teich, in the center divided the Russian forces into two parts and complicated communications between them. Second, the troops were deployed on marshy terrain with their backs to the Alle. In case of defeat, the Russians could escape only through the narrow streets and across one small wooden bridge and three pontoon bridges at Friedland. No attempt was made to reconnoiter the river for fords or to examine the terrain on the flanks.

Late on the night of 13 June, Lannes learned about the Russian occupation of Friedland. He instructed Oudinot to reconnoiter the Russian positions and to recapture the town if he found himself faced only by small Russian detachments. Oudinot reached Postehnen, where he encountered a Russian cavalry screen and observed the enemy main columns in the distance. As he was reading Oudinot’s report, Lannes also received instructions from Napoleon to prevent Bennigsen from crossing the Alle and was told that General Emmanuel marquis de Grouchy was en route with his dragoon division to reinforce V Corps for this mission. Around midnight, Lannes received reinforcements, increasing his forces to some 13,000 men. He deployed these troops between Postehnen and Heinrichsdorf, with the light cavalry deployed on the right flank and Grouchy’s dragoons kept in reserve near Postehnen.

Some time after 2:00 A. M., Oudinot, supported by General François Ruffin’s troops, reached Postehnen and engaged the Russian outposts in the woods of Sortlach. The fighting rapidly grew intense, and an hour later Grouchy arrived with his cavalry; he was initially driven back by the numerically superior Russian cavalry, but new French reinforcements (Dutch cavalry of General Adolphe Mortier’s corps) arrived and forced the Russians back. Simultaneously, General Andrey Gorchakov’s troops advanced toward Heinrichsdorf, forcing Lannes to shift part of his cavalry to the right flank. The fighting continued for the next three hours, in the course of which Heinrichsdorf changed hands several times.

On the Russian left flank, Bagration arrived at Sortlach shortly after 3:00 A. M. and deployed his infantry in two lines. In addition, he deployed most of his Jäger regiments (some 3,000 men) as skirmishers in the woods of Sortlach; two battalions, five squadrons, and four guns were placed behind them as reserves and another two battalions, five squadrons, and four guns were placed at Sortlach. As the French attacked, the fighting on the left flank was particularly violent as the French tirailleurs (skirmishers) and Bagration’s Jäger regiments stubbornly contested the ground in the woods. Bagration launched a series of attacks against Oudinot, but French grenadiers repulsed him each time. The 9th Hussars and the Saxon cavalry also counterattacked but suffered heavy losses.

Lannes skillfully used the terrain and protected his troops with a dense screen of skirmishers in the woods. He had mobile columns moving between the lines to create the illusion of arriving reinforcements. He was already told that Napoleon was hurrying with the rest of the army, so he had to pin down Bennigsen for as long as possible. Bennigsen ordered more troops to cross the Alle to support forces already there. The Russian troops crossed the river and, by 9:00 A. M., Bennigsen had most of his cavalry deployed on the right flank, supported by the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Divisions; Gorchakov commanded these forces. On the left flank, the 1st and 2nd Divisions reinforced Bagration. The 14th Division and the Imperial Guard were kept in reserve.

Around 7:00 A. M. Bagration launched another assault. He spread General Nikolay Rayevsky’s 20th Jägers in a skirmish line and arranged the Life Guard Jäger Regiment, with the Rostov Musketeers in reserve, in two columns behind them. A battalion of the 20th Jägers, spearheaded the attack. In hand-to-hand combat, the Life Guard Jägers captured three officers and forty-eight men, but lost two officers and six men themselves. As the French counterattacked, Bagration committed the Moscow Grenadiers, the Pskov Musketeers, and the Alexandria Hussars and deployed Colonel Aleksey Ermolov’s horse artillery battery. The 3rd and 7th Jäger Regiments were ordered to hold their ground in the center while the 5th Jägers remained at Sortlach. Bagration also instructed Rayevsky to disengage the 20th and Life Guard Jägers and rally them in the valley behind the forest. The Jägers slowly retreated, pursued by the French, who stopped on the edge of the woods and continued harassing the Russian lines.

At the same time, Oudinot moved part of his division to seize Sortlach on Bagration’s left, but he was beaten back by the 5th Jäger Regiment. Simultaneously, Rayevsky rallied his troops (20th Jägers and Life Guard Jägers) on the plain behind the Sortlach woods. The French cavalry soon charged him there, but a squadron of the Life Guard Horse Regiment drove them back. Early in the morning, Bagration called up General Karl Baggovut’s detachment. He wanted to make a decisive attack to clear and secure the woods, where Oudinot’s grenadiers had found good positions from which to harass Bagration’s troops. Bagration deployed the 26th Jägers in line, followed by the 4th and 25th Jägers in column. The Russians overwhelmed Oudinot’s troops and drove them out of the Sortlach. To secure his position in the forest, Bagration reinforced Baggovut with a battalion of Olonetsk militia.

Hearing of this success, Bennigsen ordered the rest of his army to adjust the line with the front held by Bagration’s troops. As a result, the Russians advanced 1,000 paces. At the same time, several major cavalry actions took place around Heinrichsdorf, where regular cavalry under General Fedor Uvarov and the Cossacks threatened to envelop the French flank. However, the cavalry of I and VI Corps arrived in time to repulse the Russians and secure the flank. Shortly after 9:00 A. M., Mortier’s corps also arrived on the battlefield near Heinrichsdorf in time to counter a new Russian attack.

It was an important moment in the battle. Unable to defeat Lannes’s corps, Bennigsen could have recalled his army and safely retreated across the Alle before Napoleon’s entire army arrived. However, he decided to remain at Friedland, though he took no precautions to protect his exposed army.

The Russian troops, already exhausted by the previous days’ marches and the early fighting, lapsed into a brief lull between 2:00 and 5:00 P. M. Both sides exchanged artillery fire, but no major actions took place. Bagration, meantime, met Bennigsen in Friedland and turned his attention to the arrival of the French corps. He urged Bennigsen to take measures to strengthen the positions around Friedland. Furthermore, Bagration anticipated that Napoleon would direct a main attack against his flank, so he requested more reinforcements; his appeals were all turned down. Finally, shortly after 4:00 P. M., Bennigsen observed the French corps taking up new positions from which to attack and realized the danger to his exposed army. He ordered a retreat, but Gorchakov argued it was better to defend the current positions until night. Bagration disagreed with this suggestion and began preparing his troops to withdraw to Friedland.

Napoleon, meanwhile, was rapidly concentrating his corps at Friedland. He personally arrived near the town shortly before noon, declaring to his troops “Today is a happy day-it is the anniversary of Marengo” (Chandler 1966, 577). Examining the Russian positions, he realized that he had a chance of destroying the Russian army in a single battle. He urged Ney, General Claude Victor, and the Imperial Guard to accelerate their march to the battlefield as he prepared new dispositions for the battle. He rested his troops in the woods of Sortlach and made sure they had enough ammunition. He then placed Victor’s troops and part of the cavalry in reserve near Postehnen. On the left flank, Mortier’s corps, supported by most of the French cavalry, defended Heinrichsdorf and the road to Königsberg. However, Mortier was instructed not to advance, as the movement would be by the French right flank, pivoting on the left. Napoleon had two corps designed for this flanking attack. Ney was ordered to move to the right flank, passing Postehnen toward the woods of Sortlach. Lannes would form the center in front of Postehnen, while Oudinot’s troops were to turn to the left in order to draw upon themselves the attention of the enemy. Napoleon’s planned maneuver was aimed at destroying the bridges at Friedland and cutting the Russian line of retreat.

At 5:30 P. M. a salvo of twenty French guns signaled the renewal of battle. Ney’s corps advanced from Postehnen to the woods of Sortlach, where Bagration had posted his Jägers. After an hour of vicious fighting, Bagration had to withdraw his exhausted Jägers, allowing the French to occupy the woods and open fire on his main forces. Ney organized his troops in columns in three broad clearings in the forest; General Jean Gabriel Marchand’s division was on the right, General Baptiste Bisson on the left with the cavalry of General Marie- Charles Latour-Maubourg following them behind. The superior French forces drove Bagration’s Jägers out of the woods and carried Sortlach, which was partly abandoned on Bagration’s orders. As the French advanced, several Russian batteries on the right bank opened fire at them, while Bagration deployed his troops in new positions. He then moved the Life Guard Ismailovsk and Semeyonovsk Regiments forward.

The advancing French came under fire from Bagration’s troops and from the batteries on the opposite bank. General Alexandre Antoine Senarmont, chief of artillery of Victor’s corps, later recalled that the Russian batteries, deployed on the opposite side of the Alle, fired on the French flanks and decimated them. Bagration initially counterattacked with the Life Guard Horse Regiment and then moved the Pavlovsk and St. Petersburg Grenadier Regiments forward. The Russians drove the French columns back and captured the eagle of the 69th Line in the process. Ney’s troops fell back in confusion but were quickly rallied when General Pierre Dupont moved his division with the cavalry under generals Armand Lahoussaye and Antoine Auguste Durosnel closely behind. The Russian cavalry continued its attack but came under fire from Dupont’s batteries and was counterattacked by Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry. As the Russians fell back, Dupont changed the direction of his troops to the right and covered the gap on Ney’s left.

Simultaneously, Senarmont moved his twelve guns forward and organized two companies of fifteen guns, with six pieces in reserve, and placed them on both flanks of Dupont’s division. As the French advanced, Senarmont outpaced the infantry and opened fire on Bagration’s troops from close range. The fire was very effective because the Russians were massed in a narrow defile between the Muhlen Teich and the Alle. Realizing the danger of these batteries, Bagration directed his artillery against them. Senarmont disregarded the Russian artillery and concentrated his fire on the enemy infantry. His guns initially fired at 600 paces, then moved to 300 paces; Senarmont’s guns operated with remarkable intensity, firing over 3,000 rounds into the Russian troops. Bagration sent his cavalry to destroy the French guns, but Senarmont calmly awaited their advance before ordering canister fire, which in the event literally mowed down the enemy ranks. The Russians then attacked with the Life Guard Izmailovsk and Pavlovsk Grenadier Regiments, but the French fire virtually wiped out these regiments as well; the third battalion of the Izmailovsk Regiment lost some 400 men out of 520. Realizing the utter futility of his orders, Bagration finally fell back to Friedland, where he unsuccessfully attempted to delay the French advance. By 8:00 P. M. Bagration had withdrawn into Friedland and had the houses in the southern suburbs set on fire to slow down the French. At the same time, as he approached the river, Bagration found the bridges had already been set ablaze by the Russians.

On the Russian right flank, Gorchakov made a desperate assault with his four divisions on Lannes and Mortier. The French contained General Dmitry Golitsyn’s efforts with the support of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. However, senior French commanders did not exploit their numerical superiority in cavalry (forty squadrons against twenty-five) and allowed the Russians to retreat. The French artillery on the left bank of the Muhlen Teich soon engaged Gorchakov’s forces in flank. The arrival of Gorchakov’s troops in the crowded streets of Friedland created havoc at the bridges, which were already on fire. Bagration and Gorchakov dispatched numerous officers to look for fords along the river, which were quickly found.

The Battle of Friedland was the final engagement of a long campaign. The Russian army had suffered a crushing defeat and could not field another army. The casualties were staggering, as the Russians lost some 20,000 killed and wounded; the French lost 7,000-8,000. Bennigsen had undertaken some effective operations in the early months of 1807, but he committed a fatal blunder at Friedland. Furthermore, the Russian high command played virtually no role in the battle, since Bennigsen was in poor health, his quartermaster general, Fadey Steingeldt, and his duty general, Ivan Essen, were wounded and unavailable for duty, and the Russian headquarters were full of incompetent officers and observers.

Friedland was a decisive military and diplomatic victory for Napoleon. It proved the superiority of French military organization: A single corps had repulsed attacks of the Russian army and allowed the rest of the French to concentrate for a counterattack. It put an end to the Fourth Coalition and led to rapprochement between Russia and France. The meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander at Tilsit and the subsequent treaty of alliance was a direct result of this victory. In addition, Napoleon spread his sphere of influence to the territory between the Oder and the Niemen rivers and found eager supporters in Poland.

References and further reading Both, Carl von. 1807. Relation de la bataille de Friedland le 14 juin 1807. Berlin: Schropp. Chandler, David G. 1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Derode, M. 1839. Nouvelle relation de la bataille de Friedland. Paris: Anselin et Laguionie. Grenier, E. 1911. Etude sur 1807: Manoeuvres d’Eylau et Friedland. Paris: Lavauzelle. Horne, Alistair. 1979. Napoleon, Master of Europe: 1805-1807. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. 1896. Der krieg von 1806 und 1807. Berlin: Mittler und Sohn. Michel, Lt. Col. 1909. Etude sur la période du 5 au 14 juin de la campagne de 1807. Paris: Berger-Levrault. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Alexander. 1846. Opisanie vtoroi voini Imperatora Aleksandra s Napoleonom v 1806-1807 godakh [Description of the Second War of the Emperor Alexander against Napoleon in 1806-1807]. St. Petersburg: N. p. Petre, F. Loraine. 2001. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806-07. London: Greenhill. Summerville, Christopher. 2005. Napoleon’s Polish Gamble: Eylau and Friedland, 1807. London: Leo Cooper.

Fedor Mateyevitch Apraxin, (1661-1728)


Russian admiral. Along with Peter I, Apraxin was the founder of the modern Russian Navy. In 1700 Peter appointed Apraxin governor of Azov, where he was ordered to build and sustain a Black Sea fleet for operations against the Ottoman Empire. He built blue-water ships and river boats and barges, based in large part on information Peter gathered in the West. Apraxin also built and oversaw new dockyards, warehouses, and repair facilities-in short, the full apparatus of a permanent navy-and roughly gathered related ship-building crafts and industries and workers under his control. In 1707 he moved north and was named “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” tasked with defending the new capital of St. Petersburg while Peter and the Army were away fighting Karl XII in Poland and Ukraine, as the Great Northern War (1700-1721) crested in the east and south. Apraxin drove away a small Swedish column and fleet sent toward St. Petersburg as a double feint to draw Peter back north. In 1714 he commanded a Russian fleet of 30 sail and 180 galleys which defeated a much diminished Swedish fleet at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714). Before the war was over, Apraxin drove the Swedish Navy from Karelian and Finnish waters and conducted amphibious raids and bombardments of coastal Sweden itself, even threatening Stockholm. Apraxin and the new Navy both declined in influence after Peter’s death, but even a number of years of neglect could not wholly erase the permanent changes wrought in the Black Sea and the Baltic.

Peter I was also devoted to the modernization of most aspects of Russian national life. He began with the military, building the Navy essentially from scratch to a force that at his death boasted fully 36 ships-of-the-line, 86 additional significant warships (frigates and galleys), and 280 support vessels. So dedicated was Peter to the Russian Navy that he made chopping down an oak tree a capital offense, and he also punished the collection of forest windfalls, reserving all hardwood for ship-building. He imported hundreds of foreign artisans, engineers, and mercenaries and sent Russian nobles abroad to study.

The United Provinces and England were already united against France on land. At sea, they acted in concert as the “Maritime Powers,” despite being hard rivals for trade in a world where English ships were making increasing inroads at the expense of the Dutch. In the lead-up to the Great Northern War, these maritime allies sought to maintain the Baltic balance of power principally because their own sea power was dependent on naval imports from the Baltic, most importantly of masts and hemp. They also hoped to bring armies from Denmark and Sweden into the Grand Alliance that was reforming against France.

With the Maritime Powers and Brandenburg neutral at best, Denmark was forced to seek allies in the east for any war against Sweden. It found a willing partner in Augustus II of Poland. In 1699, Peter I agreed to an anti-Swedish alliance with Augustus II and Fredrik IV, newly installed in Copenhagen. The deal was engineered by Johann Reinhold Patkul (1660-1707), a Baltic German who had spent some time in Swedish service. By this secret alliance, the three sovereigns declared an intention to wage a war of aggression leading to partition of the Swedish empire, in order to take advantage of the passing of the more formidable Karl XI and the youthful inexperience of the new Swedish king.

Karl XII now showed precocious strategic and diplomatic skills. He and his advisers secured support of the Maritime Powers for the status quo in Schleswig by promising to uphold the Treaty of Ryswick (September 20, 1697). Then, keenly focusing on the weakest of its three enemies, Sweden proceeded to knock Denmark out of the war with a bold amphibious operation. Over the protests of his naval commanders, Karl ordered the Swedish fleet to navigate the “Flinterend,” a dangerous passage between Sweden and the island of Sjælland (or Zealand). This enabled a landing of his army near Copenhagen in late July, followed by a quick advance on the city. The frightened Danish king agreed to exit the alliance and war by signing the Peace of Travendal (August 7/18, 1700). That permitted Karl to turn his army east, where it met and routed a much larger Russian force initially led by Peter, who had invaded Ingria in late October and was bombarding and besieging Narva with 35,000 men. The fight that ensued at Narva (November 19/30, 1700) in the midst of a snowstorm ended in a complete rout that dashed Peter’s hopes of annexing Ingria and Estonia.


Peter spent that summer campaigning to take more territory from the Swedes, this time in Karelia and Finland. His troops took Helsingfors and Åbo and occupied Helsinki that May, subtracting another province from the tax and recruitment tallies formerly collected by Sweden. By 1714 Peter had captured and occupied all the Baltic territories of the Swedish Empire, from Livonia to Estonia and Karelia. His “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” Fedor Apraxin, also defeated the Swedish Navy at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714), off the southern tip of Finland. That victory established Russian naval domination of the Baltic and opened Finland, and indeed Sweden itself, to Russia’s amphibious raids and coastal bombardments. In 1716, Peter even assumed temporary command of British, Danish, Dutch, and Russian fleets allied against the hard-pressed Swedes. In 1717 he visited Paris, where he made clear his intention that Russia would displace Sweden within the European balance of power system and as the dominant Baltic power. This bold proposal reflected new facts on the ground in the east and atop the waters of the Baltic Sea. It was therefore readily accepted by the other Great Powers.

Karl XII scraped together an army from a war-weary and disheartened kingdom, and moved to attack the Danes in Norway in 1717. He campaigned in Norway again during 1718. Seemingly not content with his extant enemies, Karl provoked Great Britain to declare war on Sweden by attempting to block British access to the Baltic trades vital to the Royal Navy and to prosperity, and by foolishly supporting the already hopeless Jacobite cause. Karl was shot and killed while fighting at the siege of Fredrikshald (Fredriksten) in Norway on November 30/December 11, 1718. The next year, a new, fully modern Russian battlefleet built by Peter over the course of the Great Northern War arrived off the Swedish coast. It bombarded several harbor towns, an affront to the national homeland that could not have been imagined in Stockholm 20 years earlier. The next year Peter’s northern navy won a significant victory at Grengham (July 16/27, 1720). That caused Sweden to finally sue for peace with at least the lesser of its carrion-eating neighbors.

With western Europe already enjoying the peace that followed the settlement at Utrecht in 1713, eastern European powers were also finally ready to settle. The anti-Swedish coalition also began to break apart in face of the realization that Peter’s Russia had replaced Karl’s Sweden-not just as a member of the club of Great Powers, but also as the main predator of the north. Concern for the regional balance of power if Sweden were to be further reduced to Russia’s advantage began to tell against the urge to carve up and divide Sweden’s remaining provinces. Great Britain, in particular, was concerned about Russian naval plans in the Baltic. In this concern, royal interest in endowing Hanover with a greater Baltic naval presence was matched by perceived national interests. At the diplomatic table, Sweden thus regained some lands from Poland, which was a major loser in the Great Northern War.

Russia’s victory in the Great Northern War was so complete that it was permanently established as Sweden’s replacement as a Great Power in the European system and as the dominant power in the Baltic.

Russia: fighting in Syria?

Su-34 Taking off From Khmeimim Airbase in Syria

Map of the Syrian Civil War

Moscow managed to preserve the Syrian regime but it has failed to achieve all its goals in Syria.

Their original objectives were before we mention what they actually achieved.

Firstly, the Russian Federation was requested to intervene by President Bashar Assad- a point that particularly undermines any NATO or ‘Western Coalition’ reasons as they worked along the United Nations framework for military intervention in sovereign states; Russia is the only legitimate foreign agent in Syria.

Secondly, Russia’s main claim was that there were at least 20,000, (in 2015 at least) Islamic State affiliates who were of Russian or former- Soviet origin. And following any demobilisation, would potentially return and commit acts of terrorism on home soil. Therefore Russia acted in an extension of its own foreign policy to safeguard against these individuals. Therefore Russia they had to tackle Islamic State and eradicate its forces before their return to Russian lands.

The return of battle- hardened Islamic extremists complete with battlefield skills to areas of Russia such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan- areas with previous Islamic ambitions in the 1990s that effectively border the Middle East is something that would threaten to sow seeds of discord in Russian affairs and could not be tolerated.

The third objective for Russia in Syria is most probably twofold; to preserve the most strategic foreign outpost- in this case the port of Tartus and now Kmeimim airbase- and also to showcase/test-drive recent additions to the Russian military’s inventory.

Following the demise of the USSR the Russians have no large global bases apart from Tartus and a port leased from Vietnam since the Cold War; Crimea is now itself a part of Russia so Sevastopol is a domestic base. Their Cuban bases are often touted as candidates for reopening but financial restraints prevent this. The threat of losing Tartus- which effectively allows a Russian presence in the Mediterranean and helps to prevent a blockade of the Black Sea in the event of a war is a huge problem that would allow NATO to ‘contain’ Russian naval forces and overall force projection. The German navy during WW2 was a brutal force, but once contained within the Baltic was effectively suppressed.

Russia has now brokered a deal that gives them an almost endless lease of Tartus, with a view to retrofitting it to host its larger ships for a much, much longer duration. They have also now secured Kmeimim airbase for a similar vague length of time, which now gives them an effective landing strip in the Middle East with which to operate any number of fighters or reconnaissance aircraft into once exclusive NATO airspace.

Following the modernisation process of the Russian armed forces after 2008- a long overdue drive to replace outdated Soviet hardware and doctrine- the Russians have amassed an array of shiny new toys, that unlike NATO don’t have too many conflicts in which to be tested. Syria proved to be a perfect testbed for this purpose.

Precision munitions, submarine and air- launched cruise missiles, new aircraft- (Su30, Su34, Su35, MiG31) and old (Su25, Tu95, Tu22M3, Tu160), and unique systems such as the T90 tank, BMPT2 “Terminator”, S-400 Triumf and Pantsir AA systems to name but a few. Islamic State operatives also prove to be an opponent that few have sympathy for, unlike Afghanistan or Chechnya etc.

These systems have received intense battle experience, in a hostile environment and in unforgiving terrain and so far have proved their worth. This sort of testing is worth its weight and for Russia to have effectively most of Syria in which to test it in has reinforced confidence in their armed forces but has also worked to showcase their capabilities to NATO- who since 1991 has approached Russian borders.

The media hysteria surrounding Russia’s arrival into Syria has worked to make NATO tread lightly in E. Europe, but has also led to the notion of a Russian “Resurgence” or attempt to regain Soviet glory. Russia has effectively hemmed in American efforts to destabilise Syria and together with Turkey and Iran have effectively shut them out from any political dialogue.

With Russia also sending half of its forces home in 2016, and steadily demobilising its forces from Syria it allows them to A) save money, B) show a level of military and political restraint and C) draws focus upon America’s vastly extended and bloated military campaign in Afghanistan. Russia has sent a limited military force into a foreign land, defeated the enemy and united political factions to a successful degree, and then also withdrawn.

This has seen Russia blow away comparisons with the Soviet Union, and enter a much more legitimate period of political maturity that the United States has forlorn under Trump. A political coup on the international stage, it has seen weapons exports increase to new client states who have witnessed their Syrian exploits. A ‘modern Russia’ has emerged; the Soviets are not becoming “resurgent”.


On September 30, 2015, the Russian Federation formally entered the Syrian civil war as President Bashar al-Assad’s rule was increasingly under threat.

Since 2011, intense fighting and mass desertion had weakened the Syrian Arab Army. Even the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the deployment of Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, and regular shipments of Russian weaponry had not been enough to stop the advance of the opposition and radical armed groups.

In March 2015, the Syrian government lost a second provincial capital, Idlib, when Jeish al-Fattah, a loose coalition of various armed groups, led a successful offensive on the city in the country’s northwest.

The provincial capital of Raqqa, with its strategic oil and water resources, had been captured the previous year and had become the main stronghold of the rising Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In addition, the Syrian government had lost control of large swathes of several provinces – Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Az Zor, Hassakeh, Deraa and Quneitra – and was struggling to control Hama, Homs and the Damascus countryside.

The Russian intervention stopped the advance of the opposition, which was backed by the West, Turkey and the Gulf, and effectively preserved the Baathist regime in Damascus. This paved the way for a more assertive Russian presence in the Middle East, leading some observers to talk about “Russian resurgence” or even to make parallels with Cold War-era regional dynamics.

So after five years of the war effort in Syria, where does Russia stand today? Has the Kremlin achieved its goals and has it challenged the US dominance of the region?

Why did Russia intervene?

Some observers have attributed the Russian decision to intervene formally in Syria to a July 2015 visit to Moscow by General Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, who was assassinated by the United States in Baghdad in early January this year. The Iranian general supposedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops and save the Syrian government.

However, it does not seem like the Kremlin needed convincing. The fall of al-Assad would have threatened Russia’s interests and eliminated another regional ally. This would have been a major blow to Moscow, particularly after the Western-backed toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which Putin, then a prime minister, personally opposed and criticised then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for enabling.

The decision to intervene in Syria also reflected the Kremlin’s fear of the so-called “colour revolutions” and their potential success sparking a major anti-government uprising in Russia itself. A year earlier, the pro-West Maidan revolution in Ukraine provoked a sharp reaction in Moscow, which led to the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in the Donbas region. This, in turn, triggered Western sanctions, which hurt the Russian economy, particularly business circles close to the Kremlin.

Tense relations with the West also motivated Moscow to put troops on the ground in Syria. Given the deadlock on the Ukrainian crisis, an intervention in the Syrian conflict, which Western powers had been heavily involved in, presented the Russian government with another front where it could pressure the West into negotiations.

The rise of ISIL provided an opportunity to wrap the intervention in anti-terror rhetoric, ensuring domestic support, while the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved more heavily in the Syrian conflict – to avoid an “Iraq repeat” – and the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal reassured Moscow that there would be no direct clash with the US.

What has Russia achieved politically in Syria?

Russia’s superior military power managed to shift the dynamics on the ground in Syria relatively quickly. Although the declared goal of its operation was to fight “terrorist” groups, the Russian army, along with its Syrian allies, first targeted groups of the moderate opposition backed by the West, who at that time were already suffering from internal divisions and having to fight on two fronts – against Damascus and ISIL.

Less than a year later, Russian troops, along with Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government forces, laid siege on East Aleppo, and by November, forced opposition armed groups to surrender and leave the city. This was a turning point in the conflict, as it marked the steady retreat of opposition forces and ushered in a new axis between Russia, Iran and Turkey, seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis while excluding the West and Arab powers.

In January 2017, the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) format was launched which brought together the Syrian opposition, including armed groups formerly supported by the West but by then largely abandoned, and the Syrian government, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey. Later that year, under this format, Russia managed to establish four de-escalation zones where all sides committed to pause military activities. This removed the burden of fighting on multiple fronts and allowed Syrian government forces, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, to take over one opposition-held area after the other. Parts of Idlib province now form the last de-escalation zone remaining in opposition control.

In the span of five years, Russia not only managed to preserve the Syrian government but also largely eliminated and marginalised the moderate opposition – the main challenger to al-Assad’s legitimacy and the only other political-military force whose participation in government would have been acceptable to the West.

Russia’s leading role in Syria also gave it regional leverage beyond the Syrian borders. It forced Turkey to re-engage, following a crisis in relations caused by the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces, in 2015. The failed coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2016, accelerated the process.

Russia’s perceived success in Syria also encouraged other countries in the Middle East to seek improved relations with Moscow amid the US pivot out of the region. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Sudan, and Israel have all paid visits to Moscow in recent years. This allowed Russia to enter into the Libyan fray, albeit late, and seek a say in the future of the country by backing the offensive of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar on the capital Tripoli.

Despite the increased diplomatic engagement in the region and the prestige on the international scene that has come with it, Russia has not really achieved the same level of influence the US has had.

“It’s clear for everybody now that [Russia] is a superpower now and [it is] playing a crucial role in the Middle East. But at the same time, there are limits to its economic and political resources,” Leonid Isaev, senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, said.

Moscow has also failed to leverage its position in the Syrian conflict to jump-start dialogue with the West on sanctions or even get Western Europe to commit to funding the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria.

At the same time, Russia is not in full control of Damascus. Despite Putin’s repeated gestures of disparagement towards al-Assad, who he is said to personally dislike, he is not the only decision-maker in Syria.

“There is mutual understanding between Iran and Russia in Syria and there is a division of spheres of influence and competencies,” Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst, said. “It is difficult to say which one can influence Assad more. The regime is quite independent and is able to use both Moscow and Tehran to ensure its survival.”

In addition, the continued Turkish and American military presence in resource-rich northern Syria also guarantees Ankara and Washington a say in the future of Syria. It also prevents the advance of Syrian government forces and their Iranian and Russian allies to re-establish Damascus’s full territorial control.

What has Russia gained economically?

Russia entered the Syrian war amid an economic crisis due to slumping oil prices and the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis. This initially caused domestic concern about the cost of the war.

According to the government, the first six months of the operation cost $464m, which compared with the US spending in Iraq (nearly $2 trillion in 16 years or about $125bn per year), was a relatively modest number.

Two years after the start of the intervention, Russia’s defence budget dropped from 5.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) ($79bn) in 2016 to 3.7 percent ($61.4bn) in 2018, alleviating fears of overspending on the military.

At the same time, the Russian government has presented the operation in Syria as an opportunity to test and promote Russian weaponry (something other large arms exporters, like the US and Israel, have also done in the region). In 2017, the defence ministry said some 600 new weapons had been tested in military action in Syria.

The Syrian war has also boosted the mercenary business in Russia, particularly the Wagner group associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for catering at events attended by the Russian president. In recent years, there have been reports of Wagner mercenaries being employed in Venezuela, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Libya and elsewhere.

Prigozhin, along with another Russian businessman considered close to the Kremlin, Gennady Timchenko, has won some lucrative contracts in Syria.

“Putin’s chef” has been linked to oil and gas deals with Damascus, while Timchenko has acquired the right to mine phosphates and operate the port of Tartous, where a $500m Russian investment has been announced.

But apart from these two investors and some smaller Russian companies, there have been no significant economic and trade opportunities for Russian business in Syria, whose oil and gas reserves are much more modest than Iraq’s.

“Apart from Timchenko and Prigozhin, Russian businesses do not want to work in Syria. This has much to do with the impact of sanctions,” said Semenov.

The European Union and the US are major trade partners of Russia and both have imposed heavy sanctions on Syria, which Russian businesses would rather avoid.

This has also complicated the reconstruction process in areas badly damaged by fighting where the Syrian government has regained control. Russia itself has not committed any significant funding for reconstruction and has failed to convince the EU or Gulf countries to do so.

The situation has further been exacerbated by Syria’s deepening economic troubles, including its currency collapse, which was deepened by the crisis in Lebanon. The financial lifeline, which Tehran was able to extend since the beginning of the war, has also dried up due to US sanctions on the Iranian economy.

While economic opportunities have not been that significant for the Russian economy, the political leverage that Russia acquired with its intervention in Syria opened the door to increased economic cooperation with other countries in the region.

“[Russia] has some political assets which it tries to sell to the Gulf countries … In return, [it is] looking for stronger economic and investment cooperation with the Gulf,” Isaev said.

In recent years, Russia has signed investment pledges and deals worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Russian companies have also acquired lucrative energy contracts in Egypt, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey.

How has the conflict affected domestic politics?

Apart from concerns about the financial cost, there was no major domestic opposition to the intervention at its outset. The Russian public, including most of the political opposition, largely embraced the Russian government’s narrative that it was going to fight “terrorists” in Syria.

Subsequent reports of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces, the targeting of hospitals by the Russian air force and a high death toll among civilians have not swayed public opinion.

However, there have been some fears, especially among the older population, of a possible repeat of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of more than 15,000 Soviet troops and a humiliating withdrawal.

Russian authorities have been sensitive to these concerns and have allegedly underreported casualties among troops and failed to acknowledge losses among mercenaries. Still, the actual death toll is believed to be in hundreds – much lower than in the Afghan war. In March 2019, the Russian defence ministry officially claimed that 116 soldiers had died in Syria since 2015.

The Kremlin has been eager to declare victory in Syria and create the impression that the conflict is nearing its conclusion. Putin himself announced the withdrawal of Russian troops twice – in 2016 and 2017, although Russian servicemen continue to be deployed on the ground. In August, a roadside bomb killed a Russian major general near the city of Deir Az Zor.

Despite the absence of an active anti-war movement in Russia and concern about the fate of the Syrian people, the Russian public is growing tired of the conflict. An April 2019 survey by the independent pollster Levada Center showed that some 55 percent of respondents said Russia should end its military operation in Syria, up from 49 percent in 2017.

This sentiment seems to be linked to the growing perception that the Russian government has major domestic problems to resolve and cannot waste its energy on a foreign conflict.

“Russia now has a lot of internal problems … like the economic impact of the COVID lockdown, the aftermath of the referendum on the constitution, the parliamentary elections next year,” said Isaev. “Now, I’m not sure we are so interested in the Syrian conflict.”

According to him, Russia’s current foreign policy priorities include the political crisis in Belarus and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. This has pushed to the background the Syrian war, wherein the Russian government is mainly interested in preserving the status quo and maintaining a frozen conflict.


The Bombardment of Sveborg, 9 August (1855)

The Battle of Suomenlinna (also known as the Battle of Viapori or the Bombardment of Sweaborg) was fought on 9–11 August 1855 between Russian defenders and a joint British/French fleet during the Åland War. It was a part of the Crimean War.

Gunboat Operations During the Crimean War, 1854–5

In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia used the excuse of a brawl between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox monks in Bethlehem to proclaim himself the guardian of the Ottoman Empire’s fourteen million Orthodox Christians. What he really wanted was Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and he was quite prepared to set about the virtual dismemberment of Turkey to achieve this. In his new-found capacity as religious champion, therefore, he demanded a number of concessions from the Sultan, knowing full well that their nature was such that no self-respecting sovereign could possibly grant them. Having, as anticipated, been rebuffed, in July he sent his troops to occupy Turkish provinces in Romania.

Unfortunately, he encountered unexpected opposition. France, now ruled by Napoleon III, regarded herself as the traditional protector of Roman Catholic interests in the Holy Land and was not prepared to have these ridden over by Russia. Simultaneously, Great Britain disliked the idea of the naval balance in the Mediterranean being disturbed by the intrusion of a Russian fleet. The despatch of British and French warships to Constantinople stiffened the Sultan’s resolve and on 4 November he declared war on Russia.

On land, the Turks did unexpectedly well, but on 30 November the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron in Sinope harbour. In January 1854 the Anglo-French fleet entered the Black Sea to protect the Turkish coastline and on 28 March the Allies declared war on Russia. At this juncture the Tsar’s adventure turned sour, for the following month Austria, with Prussian support, threatened to intervene unless he withdrew his troops from the Balkans. Reluctantly, he complied, but wrecked the ensuing peace talks by insisting on his right to pursue his bullying quarrel with Turkey. The Allies therefore decided to land an expeditionary force in the Crimea with the object of capturing and destroying the heavily fortified Russian naval base of Sevastopol.

The mismanagement of the British part of the land campaign, the blunderings of elderly or incompetent generals, the superlative courage of the troops and their terrible sufferings during the first winter of the war have all been so thoroughly covered elsewhere that there is no need to enlarge upon them here. Suffice it to say that while siege works were opened against the city and naval facilities of Sevastopol, lying on the southern side of a deep inlet, the term siege was not entirely appropriate as the inlet’s northern shore remained in Russian hands. Consequently, reinforcements and supplies continued to pour across the harbour by a bridge of boats while, to make matters yet more difficult for the Allies, a large Russian field army hovered in the Crimea’s hinterland.

The naval operations of what became known as the Crimean War were conducted in the Black Sea and the Baltic, with peripheral operations in the White Sea and the Far East. In some respects the Royal Navy was unprepared for a major war. Some of the admirals were as elderly and infirm of purpose as the generals, and so low were manning levels that ships of the Baltic Fleet were unable to complete their crews months after the war had begun. In the Black Sea, naval bombardment of Sevastopol’s coastal forts produced inconclusive results. In the Baltic the Russians declined to come out and fight, and ice put an early end to operations. Thus, beyond imposing a blockade on an essentially self-sufficient land power and disrupting such seaborne trade as it possessed, the naval operations of 1854 ended on a thoroughly unsatisfactory note.

The nub of the problem was that the line-of-battle ships, inhibited by large areas of shallow water in both the Black Sea and the Baltic, simply could not get close enough to do the enemy any real damage. What was needed were small, shallow-draught steam-propelled vessels with enough hitting power to hurt. As luck would have it, the Admiralty had already initiated a modest construction programme, intending to replace its sailing gun-brigs, the smallest ocean-going warships, with little screw steamers, and six such vessels, the Arrow class, were already in service. Recognising that these would be able to get within effective range of the Russian defences, the Admiralty also agreed that large numbers of such craft would be less vulnerable to return fire than larger ships. It was therefore decided to build four classes of what were called Crimean gunboats. The government, stung into action by press criticism of its handling of the war, willingly consented to a large construction programme; in fact, no less than 156 warships of this type were ordered, although some were completed too late to take part in the war and others, built hastily from green wood, were allowed to rot in an unfinished state.

The Crimean gunboats had a flat-bottomed hull and were powered by 20, 40 or 60 hp steam engines driving a single screw, giving a speed of between six and eight knots. The three gaff-rigged masts were stepped in tabernacles on the upper deck, through which protruded a tall, thin funnel. Armament consisted of two or three 68-pounder guns on slides, centrally mounted so that they could be moved over iron traversing rings to fire over either side. Later classes were armed with 32-pounder guns, also on slides, and 24-pounder howitzers on conventional trucks. Below decks, two-thirds of the available space was taken up by the engine, boiler, coal bunkers, water tanks, ration lockers and magazines. Fortunately, because of the simple sail plan and limited armament, only 35 men were required to handle the vessel. The men lived forward of the engine room and the two officers in a small space aft. Usually, a gunboat was a lieutenant’s command but such was the rate of expansion during the war that some were commanded by masters, i.e. senior warrant officers.

The Baltic Fleet which returned to its station under Rear Admiral the Hon. Richard Dundas in May 1855 was very different from that which had gone out the previous year in that it consisted entirely of steam-driven vessels and contained numerous small craft suited to operations in cramped or shallow waters. These included seventeen mortar vessels and the gunboats Gleaner, Pelter, Pincher, Ruby, Badger, Snapper, Biter, Dapper, Jackdaw, Magpie, Redwing, Skylark, Snap, Starling, Stork, Swinger, Thistle, Weazel and Lark. The nature of their operations, however, continued much as before. The Russian Navy remained safe behind its massive defences in Kronstadt harbour, which, it was discovered, had been further protected with moored contact mines. In other respects, the Allied effort produced only the occupation of several islands, the elimination of a few batteries and the capture of some small vessels which had risked the blockade. Dundas and his French colleague, Rear Admiral Penaud, both came under pressure from home to produce more tangible results, but as an attack on Kronstadt was out of the question, their difficulty lay in choosing a suitable objective. Some officers were for bombarding the prosperous city of Helsingfors (Helsinki), the destruction of which would have a profound effect on public opinion in Russia. This idea was rejected in favour of a bombardment of the neighbouring fortress of Sveaborg, which was built on several interconnected islands including Vargon, Gustafsvaard, East Svarto, West Svarto and Lilla Svarto.The fortifications were of modern design, were fully manned and mounted over 800 guns. Channels to the north and south of the islands were blocked by two ships of the line, moored broadside on.

On the morning of 9 August the British and French mortar vessels formed a line approximately 3300 yards from the fortifications, opening fire at 07:00. The gunboats Stork and Snapper, armed with the new Lancaster guns, circling to the right of the line, concentrated their fire on the Russian warship blocking the southern channel. To their left Starling, Thistle, Pelter, Biter and Badger circled as they fired at the western batteries, while to their left the rest of the defences were engaged by circles containing Vulture, Snap, Gleaner, Dapper and Redwing. To the north, two more gunboats, Magpie and Weazel, exchanged fire with a detached battery on the island of Stora Rantan, covering the channel in which the second Russian warship was moored. The course of the action is described by Admiral Dundas in his despatch.

A rapid fire of shot and shells was kept up from the fortress for the first few hours upon the gunboats, and the ranges of the heavy batteries extended completely beyond the mortar vessels; but the continued motion of the gunboats, and the able manner in which they were conducted by the officers who commanded them, enabled them to return the fire with great spirit, and almost with impunity throughout the day. About ten o’clock in the forenoon fires began first to be observed in the different buildings, and a heavy explosion took place on the island of Vargon, which was followed by a second about an hour afterwards on the island of Gustafsvaard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy, and tending greatly to slacken the fire from that direction. The advantage of the rapidity with which the fire from the mortars had been directed was apparent in the continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the island of Vargon.

When the gunboats were recalled at sunset the fleet’s boats took over, firing rockets which spread the blaze from Vargon to East Svarto. Dundas continues:

At daylight on the morning of the 10th, the position of several mortar vessels had been advanced within easier range, and the gunboats were again directed to engage. The three-decked ship which had been moored by the enemy to block and defend the channel between Gustafsvaard and Bakholmen, had been withdrawn during the night to a more secure position; but the fire from the batteries was increased, and the engagement was renewed with activity on both sides. Fires continued to burn without intermission within the fortress, and about noon a column of smoke, heavier and darker than any which had yet been observed, gave signs that the shells had reached combustible materials in the direction of the arsenal.

The bombardment continued for much of the night. A spy later reported that the dockyard had been wrecked, all government stores destroyed, the powder magazines blown up, 23 vessels burned and a further 18 seriously damaged, and 2000 men killed. This may well be an exaggeration of the true position although it was clear that extensive damage had been done. It is possible that the attack would have continued, but by the morning of the 11th the British mortars had been shot out to the extent that some had even split. As replacements would not reach the Baltic before the onset of winter, the mortar vessels were therefore sent home a month before the rest of the fleet. The gunboats, on the other hand, had proved themselves equal to the task for which they had been built, to the extent that Allied casualties amounted to just one man killed and several wounded. Nevertheless, it was to be with the Black Sea Fleet that their true potential was demonstrated.

The Black Sea Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral James Dundas, was less troubled by winter than that commanded by his namesake in the Baltic, and in view of the stand-off at Sevastopol consideration had been given to ejecting the enemy by means of an indirect approach rather than head-on attack. Russian roads were primitive, difficult to use in winter and almost impossible during the rasputitsa, the spring thaw which turned them into mud wallows. Consequently, it was much easier for the Russians to supply their troops in the Crimea by means of water transport, using rivers and the Sea of Azov.

Disrupting this traffic had not been possible the previous year because the Allied navies lacked suitable warships capable of penetrating the shallow waters of the Azov. By the spring of 1855, however, this defect had been remedied, although before operations against the Russian supply line could commence it was necessary to secure control of the Straits of Kerch, which provided the only entrance to this otherwise landlocked sea. This was accomplished on 24 May by an Allied amphibious operation involving heavy and light squadrons plus landing forces consisting of 7000 French, 5000 Turkish and 3500 British troops as well as a Sardinian contingent. On both sides of the straits the enemy abandoned their positions with barely a token resistance, blew up their fortifications, abandoned about 100 guns, destroyed stores, provisions and ammunition, and burned such warships as were unable to make good their escape. In simply handing the Allies the keys of the Sea of Azov the Russians made their most critical mistake of the war.

The British light squadron, commanded by Captain Edmund Lyons, included several paddle-driven warships and the new screw gunboats Wrangler, Viper, Lynx, Arrow, Snake and Beagle. Even while operations were in progress to secure the straits, Lieutenant Henry McKillop, commanding the Snake, spotted a Russian warship of comparable size attempting to escape northwards. Ignoring the enemy fortifications, he promptly gave chase. No sooner had the two ships begun exchanging shots than two more Russian warships emerged to support their comrade, leaving Snake simultaneously engaged with three opponents. The gunboat, however, was extremely handy, and the Russians, no doubt expecting her to engage with conventionally mounted broadside guns, found themselves receiving fire from unexpected directions as the centrally mounted armament was heaved round to bear on each of them in turn. Several of their shots passed clean through Snake, fortunately without causing casualties or touching a vital area. On the other hand, taking a hit from one of the gunboat’s 68-pounder shells was a serious matter for a small warship, leaving the Russians horrified that their apparently puny opponent could hit quite so hard. They had probably had enough by the time the six-gun paddler Recruit, followed by others, came thrashing her way towards the engagement, for they deliberately ran themselves aground and later set fire to their ships. The action took place within view of the Allied fleet, the French in particular being generous with their praise. McKillop was promoted commander as soon as he had completed his necessary period of sea time, with seniority from the date of his exploit.


Having been reinforced with several French ships, Lyons took his light squadron into the Sea of Azov the following day. As one contemporary observer, Hamilton Williams, wrote:

It was like bursting into a vast treasure house, crammed with wealth of inestimable value. For miles along its shores stretched the countless storehouses packed with the accumulated harvests of the great corn provinces of Russia. From them the Russian armies in the field were fed; from them the beleaguered population of Sevastopol looked for preservation from the famine which already pressed hard upon them.

Furthermore, on the Kerch Straits themselves, the towns of Kerch and Yenikale contained coal stocks amounting to 12,000 tons, which would keep the Allied fleet going for a considerable period without recourse to its own colliers.

Lyons’s ships proceeded to raise hell across the widest possible area. One was sent to cruise off the mouth of the Don, while two more were detached to Genichesk at the entrance to the Swash or Putrid Sea, a stretch of water separating the north-eastern coast of the Crimea from the Sea of Azov proper by a thin 70-mile-long spit of land known as the Tongue of Arabat. On 28 May the rest of the squadron bombarded Fort Arabat, situated at the mainland end of the Tongue. The engagement lasted some 90 minutes, at the end of which the defence works were wrecked by an internal explosion. Next day the squadron moved to Genichesk, where a landing party under Lieutenant Campbell Mackenzie set fire to storehouses and numerous ships in the harbour. A sudden change of wind direction would have reduced the amount of damage caused had not two officers, Lieutenants Cecil Buckley and Hugh Burgoyne, and Gunner John Roberts, returned ashore and started fresh fires where they would do most good, despite the presence of enemy troops and being beyond the gunfire support of their ships; all three were awarded the Victoria Cross.

Many Russian ships had fled from the Black Sea to the imagined security of the Azov as soon as the war had begun, and consequently the harbours of the latter were crowded. Just four days into his mission, Lyons was able to report that the enemy’s losses thus far amounted to four naval steamers, no less than 246 merchant vessels of various types, plus supplies of corn and flour sufficient to feed 100,000 men for twelve weeks.

At the beginning of June the light squadron, reinforced with twelve launches armed with 24-pounder howitzers and rockets, began operating in the Gulf of Taganrog. When, on 3 June, the governor of Taganrog itself declined to surrender, some of the town’s storehouses were set ablaze by fire from the boats. As this did not produce quite the desired result, Lieutenant Cecil Buckley and Boatswain Henry Cooper braved the fire of the 3500-strong Russian garrison to make repeated landings from a four-oared gig and start fresh blazes. By 15:00 the storehouses and most of the town were burning fiercely and the force withdrew. Boatswain Cooper received the Victoria Cross for his part in the action. On the 5th it was the turn of Mariupol and on the 6th Yeysk, all government stores in both places being destroyed. The situation now was that sea power was not simply disrupting the supplies of the Russian forces in the Crimea, but also those of the army fighting the Turks in the Caucasus as well. Having completed the first phase of its operations, the light squadron returned to Kerch where Lyons handed over to Commander Sherard Osborn. Sadly, on 17 June, Lyons received a mortal wound while taking part in a further bombardment of Sevastopol’s sea forts.

Having replenished, the light squadron returned to its work of destruction. On 27 June a landing party destroyed a convoy of wagons near Genichesk, which was also the scene of a lively action on 3 July. On the latter occasion the gunboat Beagle, commanded by Lieutenant William Hewitt, attacked the floating bridge connecting the town with the northern extremity of the Tongue of Arabat, which provided a major supply route into the Crimea. While the gunboat gave covering fire, Hewitt sent two boats to cut the bridge’s hawsers. With the Russians lining the beach only 80 yards distant, as well as shooting from nearby houses, this was a desperate business. Despite this, although the boats were riddled, only two men were wounded. The hawsers were cut under heavy fire by Seaman Joseph Trewavas, who received a minor wound while hacking at them. Trewavas was awarded the Victoria Cross. Simultaneously, the last remaining floating bridge between the Tongue of Arabat and the Crimea was burned by the paddle gunboat Curlew.

It was now apparent that the light squadron, and the new gunboats in particular, could go wherever they wanted and the Russians were powerless to stop them. Some extracts from Osborn’s despatches convey the daily nature of operations.

Delayed by the weather, we did not reach Berdyansk until July 15th. I hoisted a flag of truce in order, if possible, to get the women and children removed from the town; but, as we met with no reply, and the surf rendered landing extremely hazardous, I hauled it down and the squadron commenced to fire over the town at the forage and corn-stacks behind it; and I soon had the satisfaction of seeing a fire break out exactly where it was wanted. It became necessary to move into deeper water for the night; and, from our distant anchorage, the fires were seen burning throughout the night.

On the 16th the Allied squadron proceeded to Fort Petrovski, between Berdyansk and Mariupol. At 9.30 a.m., all arrangements having been made, the squadron took up their positions, the light-draught gunboats taking up stations east and west of the fort, and enfilading the works front and rear, whilst the heavier vessels formed a semicircle round the fort. The heavy nature of our ordnance soon not only forced the garrison to retire from the trenches, but also kept at a respectable distance the reserve force, consisting of three strong battalions of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry. We then commenced to fire with carcasses (i.e. incendiary shells) but, although partially successful, I was obliged to send the light boats of the squadron to complete the destruction of the fort and batteries, a duty I entrusted to Lieutenant Hubert Campion. Although the enemy, from an earthwork to the rear, opened a sharp fire on our men, Lieutenant Campion completed this service in the most able manner. Leaving the Swallow to check any attempt of the enemy to reoccupy the fort, the rest of the squadron proceeded to destroy great quantities of forage, and some of the most extensive fisheries, situated upon the White House Spit.

On July 17th, in consequence of information received of extensive depots of corn and forage existing at a town called Glafirovka upon the Asiatic coast, near Yeysk, I proceeded there with the squadron. The Vesuvius and Swallow were obliged to anchor some distance offshore. I therefore sent Commander Rowley Lambert (Curlew) with the gunboats Fancy, Grinder, Boxer, Cracker, Jasper, Wrangler and the boats of Vesuvius and Swallow. He found Glafirovka and its neighbourhood swarming with cavalry and therefore very properly confined his operations to destroying some very extensive corn and fish stores.

I next proceeded to the Crooked Spit in the Gulf of Azov (Taganrog) on the 18th; and I immediately ordered Commander Craufurd, in the Swallow, supported by the gunboats Grinder, Boxer and Cracker, and the boats of Vesuvius, Fancy and Curlew, to clear the spit and destroy the great fishing establishments situated upon it. While this service was being executed, I reconnoitred the mouth of the river Mius, 15.miles west of Taganrog, in HMS Jasper. The shallow nature of the coast would not allow us to approach within a mile and three-quarters of Fort Temenos. I returned to the same place, accompanied by the boats of HMS Vesuvius and Curlew, and HM gunboats Cracker, Boxer and Jasper. When we got to Fort Temenos and the usual Cossack picket had been driven off, I and Commander Lambert proceeded at once with the light boats up the river. When immediately under Fort Temenos, which stands upon a steep escarp of 80 feet, we found ourselves looked down upon by a large body of both horse and foot, lining the ditch and parapet of the work. Landing on the opposite bank, at good rifle-shot distance, one boat’s crew under Lieutenant Rowley was sent to destroy a collection of launches and a fishery, whilst a careful and steady fire of Minie rifles kept the Russians from advancing on us. We returned to the vessels, passing within pistol-shot of the Russian ambuscade.

On July 19th I reconnoitred Taganrog in the Jasper gunboat. A new battery was being constructed on the heights near the hospital, but, although two shots were thrown into it, it did not reply. To put a stop to all traffic and to harass the enemy in this neighbourhood, I ordered Commander Craufurd to remain in the Gulf with two gunboats.

A few days later the light squadron sustained its only serious loss of the campaign. The Jasper, commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Hudson, had silenced a Russian field battery. In an excess of enthusiasm, Hudson took the captured guns aboard as trophies, forgetting that the additional weight would result in the gunboat drawing more water. The ship ran aground and, although the guns were thrown over the side, she could not be got off. She was, therefore, abandoned and blown up – prematurely, some thought, in view of the small threat presented by the supine Russians. Despite this, during the weeks that followed, the light squadron continued to raid at will, to the point that repetition would become tedious. No sooner had the Russians brought forward fresh stores than they were destroyed long before they could reach the Crimea, either by gunfire or landing parties. In this way Genichesk, Beryansk, Taganrog, Mariupol, Arabat and other places on the Azov coast were all attacked regularly, in spite of strenuous Russian attempts to strengthen their defences.

Although the Russians were having much the worst of things in the Azov, their defence of Sevastopol was conducted with characteristic stubbornness. On 17-18 June Allied attempts to storm the Malakoff and the Redan, the garrison’s two principal defence works, were repulsed with heavy loss. Nevertheless, the cutting of the Crimean supply route began to affect both Sevastopol’s defenders and the Russian field army. On 16 August the latter made one last desperate attempt to dislodge the besiegers but were decisively defeated by the French and Sardinians on Traktir Ridge. As the fortress was now clearly doomed, the Russians began burning their remaining warships and made preparations to withdraw the garrison across the harbour. These were hastened when the French stormed the Malakoff on 8 September. That night the garrison withdrew after blowing up the rest of its fortifications, and the following morning the Allies occupied the city.

The fall of Sevastopol did not mean that the little ships’ work had ended. On the eastern side of the Kerch Straits the enemy had begun assembling a small army at Taman and Fanagorinsk and it was thought that when the winter ice closed the straits, this might be used to cross it and recapture Kerch. On 24 September an Allied force including the gunboats Lynx, Arrow and Snake, plus eight French gunboats, ferried nine infantry companies to Taman and provided covering fire while the troops disembarked. Taman was hastily abandoned, as was Fanogorinsk, where the fort and barracks were occupied and 62 guns rendered unserviceable. While this was taking place some 600 Cossacks appeared, only to be dispersed by the gunboats’ fire. The force then burned the buildings and retired to Kerch with a quantity of useful stores.

In the Sea of Azov the light squadron continued its depredations. On 4 November it was the turn of Glafirovka, the defences of which had been considerably strengthened since the last visit in July. Recruit, Grinder, Boxer and Cracker first engaged the enemy trenches with shrapnel while Clinker was towing in the boats of the landing party, then set the corn stores ablaze with carcasses. The fight ended with a charge by Marines and cutlass-wielding seamen, led by Lieutenants Day and Campion, which drove the Russians out of their positions. Simultaneously, other ships raided Yeysk so that the day’s operations left a two-mile stretch of coastline in flames. The last foray carried out by the gunboats and their landing parties penetrated the river Liman on 6 November, destroying stores piled along a four-mile frontage.

In the Caucasus, the Russians captured the Turkish fortress of Kars on 26 November, enabling the ministers of the new Tsar, Alexander II, to request peace negotiations with one success to their credit. The war had cost each side about a quarter of a million deaths, the majority caused by disease. Its results included the preservation of the Ottoman Empire’s integrity and the Tsar’s loss of his role as protector of the Sultan’s Orthodox Christian subjects.

It would be simplistic to suggest that the light squadron’s operations in the Sea of Azov were entirely responsible for the fall of Sevastopol. They did, however, make a considerable contribution to that end, and as far as resources and manpower were concerned, the light squadron was the most profit-bearing formation the Allies possessed. As Osborn commented in his despatch to his Commander-in-Chief:

I despair of being able to convey to you any idea of the extraordinary quantity of corn, rye, hay, wood and other supplies so necessary for the existence of the Russian armies, both in the Caucasus and the Crimea. During these proceedings we never had more than 200 men engaged.

Furthermore, at a trivial cost to itself, the squadron tied down tens of thousands of Russian troops across a wide area in an ineffective defence when they could have been more profitably employed elsewhere. In the subsequent honours and promotions Osborn became a Companion of the Bath and was promoted to captain; the rest of the squadron’s commanders also received promotion to captain, and the majority of its lieutenants became commanders. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Kerch/Sea of Azov operations. To our eyes, used to the strict application of the modern regulations governing the supreme award for valour, this may seem a surprisingly high number. It must, however, be remembered that at the time the newly instituted Victoria Cross was the only medal that could be awarded to officers and men of both British armed services for acts of exceptional gallantry; again, few would be so mean-spirited as to argue that the instances quoted above were unworthy of recognition.

The operations in the Sea of Azov also convinced the Royal Navy that, with the bulk of the Fleet retained in home waters for the defence of the United Kingdom, the so-called Crimean gunboats provided an ideal and inexpensive means of policing the often troubled waters of a global empire that was still expanding.