The Russian Campaign 1812: Ultimate Chance for Peace?

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French Fusiliers in Bardin Regulation. This is how these men would have looked in the 1812 Russian campaign.

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Russian Army. Flügel-Adjutant of Infantry, campaign dress (1812), Field officer, Infantry, summer dress (1812), Capt., Izmailovski Lifeguard, summer dress (1812)

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Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graph showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow (brown line, from left to right) and back (black line, from right to left) with the size of the army equal to the width of the line. Temperature is plotted on the lower graph for the return journey (multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celsius, e.g. −30 °R = −37.5 °C).

War having been declared on him, in fact if not in law, could Napoleon have avoided the invasion of Russia? Briefly, he considered waiting in Poland for Alexander to attack him. He quickly perceived that the tsar had no such intention. Alexander feared a new Friedland that would not, this time, lead to a new Tilsit. Time was on Alexander’s side. He had a sufficient period to complete the mobilization of the most powerful army ever possessed by Russia. He had all the time he needed.

From Napoleon’s perspective, the situation was completely different. It was obviously not in his interest to await the completion of Russian military preparations. He could only maintain for a short time the enforced allied mobilization that provided his new Grand Armeé. Above all, he needed to act prior to the opening of a British front in Western Europe. The war in Spain gave him enough concerns by itself! He regretted even having waited until summer. A spring offensive would probably have permitted him to avoid the coming catastrophe.

Napoleon issued his traditional order of the day to the Grand Armeé on June 21:

Soldiers: The second Polish war has begun. The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance with France and war against England. Today Russia violates its oaths. Does it believe that we are degenerate? Are we not still the soldiers of Austerlitz? Russia has placed us between war and dishonor. There can be no doubt as to which we will choose.

Beginning on June 24 with a spectacular yet unopposed crossing of the Niemen in the Kovno area, the war with Russia ended in tragedy in December. This war consisted of two very distinct phases: first, a diabolic pursuit of the Russian army to Moscow, marked by the indecisive victory of Borodino or the Moskva; next, a catastrophic retreat back to Poland from October to December.

The Diabolical Pursuit

Once again, no desire for territorial conquest underpinned the Russian campaign. The goal of Napoleon’s campaign was to destroy the enemy army, thereby forcing Russia to make peace.

The army operating in Russia approached a total of 600,000 men. Half were assigned to hold occupied territories and provide logistical support, while the other half were first-line combat troops.

The invading force consisted only of the attack echelon of the Grand Armeé, whose unprecedented strength of more than half-a-million men stretched from the Rhine to the Niemen. Its international composition was one of the more original aspects of this gigantic military amalgam. Frenchmen represented only a third of the total force and half of the attack echelon. It was a true European army, an army of “twenty nations” as it was labeled at the time.

The largest foreign contingent, 100,000 men, came from the Confederation of the Rhine (Bavaria, Westphalia, Württemberg, Baden, Saxony, and several duchies and principalities). Next in descending order were Poland (50,000), Austria (32,000), Italy (30,000), Prussia (20,000), and Switzerland (10,000). The Netherlands, Denmark, Naples, Spain, and Croatia also provided contingents of several thousand soldiers each.

Such a disparate and uneven ensemble could not go far without experiencing problems of cohesion and logistics. It was a long way from the minuscule and uncouth Army of Italy of 1796!

Barclay de Tolly, Peter Bagration, and Alexander Tormasov commanded the Russian armies, more than 300,000 men with some 900 guns. The Russians deployed thusly: (1) Barclay de Tolly’s main body of 140,000 blocked the axis from Vilna to Saint Petersburg; (2) a secondary body of 60,000 men, commanded by Bagration, operated on Barclay de Tolly’s left on the axis of Moscow; and (3) and Tormasov’s reserve army was being formed south of the Pripiat Marshes.

Napoleon operated on four axes: (1) in the north, Macdonald with the Prussian and Bavarian contingents; (2) in the center with the emperor were Prince Eugene, Oudinot, and the Imperial Guard; (3) in the south, Davout and Jerome; (4) in the extreme south, Charles-Philippe Schwartzenberg’s Austrian corps as flank guard against Tormasov along the Pripiat Marshes.

Eugene’s slowness of movement permitted Barclay de Tolly to escape encirclement in the area of Vilna, which fell without fighting on June 26. The tsar sent his police minister, Balashov, to Napoleon with a message offering negotiations if the Grand Armeé returned to Poland. In full retreat, the vanquished dared to dictate unacceptable conditions to the victor. The purpose was obvious. Alexander sought only to gain precious time to permit Barclay de Tolly to recover and to complete the concentration of Tormasov’s army. If he genuinely wanted peace, why did he not ask to open negotiations without preconditions? Why, at Vilna before hostilities began, did he refuse to receive Ambassador Lauriston, who was carrying a final attempt at peace?

Continuing its advance under weather conditions so extreme that they slowed its progress, the Grand Armeé occupied Vitebsk without opposition on July 27.

The heat, dust, thirst, mud, and mosquitoes inflicted an inhuman trial on the men. Unit strengths visibly declined under the effects of illness.

Barclay de Tolly and Bagration linked up at Smolensk. The city resisted an initial attack on August 16-17. Napoleon believed that he finally had found an opportunity for a great, decisive battle. Once more, however, Barclay de Tolly retreated after setting the city on fire.

The scorched earth policy of the Russian army owed more to the force of circumstances than to a deliberate choice. The Russian army’s leadership was divided into two groups: those who wished at all costs to prevent the Grand Armeé from reaching Moscow, the historic and religious heart of Russia, and those who sought at any price to preserve the army from disaster by evading a great battle against the invincible Napoleon. Up until Smolensk, Russia was fortunate to have in Barclay de Tolly a partisan of the second group; otherwise, the Russian campaign would have reached its conclusion before Vilna or Vitebsk.

Barclay de Tolly’s refusal to defend Smolensk set off a crisis in the Russian high command, a crisis that had been brewing from the start of the campaign. The aristocracy rebelled against a retreat that was without end and that damaged its dignity. Without doubt, the aristocrats also feared that the presence of the Grand Armeé in the heart of Russia might encourage an uprising among the serfs. Alexander eventually yielded to his aristocracy by replacing Barclay de Tolly with Kutusov, the brave vanquished of Austerlitz.

The new commander-in-chief decided to stop Napoleon at a position between Borodino and the River Moskva.

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DMITRY ALEXEYEVICH MILYUTIN

(1816-1912), count (1878), political and military figure, military historian, and Imperial Russian war minister (1861-1881).

General Adjutant Milyutin was born in Moscow, the scion of a Tver noble family. He completed the gymnasium at Moscow University (1832) and the Nicholas Military Academy (1836). After a brief period with the Guards’ General Staff, he served from 1839 to 1840 with the Separate Caucasian Corps. While convalescing from wounds during 1840 and 1841, he traveled widely in Europe, where he decided to devote himself to the cause of reform in Russia. As a professor at the Nicholas Academy from 1845 to 1853, he founded the discipline of military statistics and provided the impulse for compilation of a military-statistical description of the Russian Empire. In 1852 and 1853 he published a prize-winning five-volume history of Generalissimo A. V. Suvorov’s Italian campaign of 1799. As a member of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society he associated with a number of future reformers, including Konstantin Kavelin, P. P. Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, Nikolai Bunge, and his brother, Nikolai Milyutin. An opponent of serfdom, the future war minister freed his own peasants and subsequently (in 1856) wrote a tract advocating the liberation of Russian serfs.

As a major general within the War Ministry during the Crimean War, Milyutin concluded that the army required fundamental reform. While serving from 1856 to 1860 as chief of staff for Prince Alexander Baryatinsky’s Caucasian Corps, Milyutin directly influenced the successful outcome of the campaign against the rebellious mountaineer Shamil. After becoming War Minister in November 1861, Milyutin almost immediately submitted to Tsar Alexander II a report that outlined a program for comprehensive military reform. The objectives were to modernize the army, to restructure military administration at the center, and to create a territorial system of military districts for peacetime maintenance of the army. Although efficiency remained an important goal, Milyutin’s reform legislation also revealed a humanitarian side: abolition of corporal punishment, creation of a modern military justice system, and a complete restructuring of the military-educational system to emphasize spiritual values and the welfare of the rank-andfile. These and related changes consumed the war minister’s energies until capstone legislation of 1874 enacted a universal military service obligation. Often in the face of powerful opposition, Milyutin had orchestrated a grand achievement, although the acknowledged price included increased bureaucratic formalism and rigidity within the War Ministry.

Within a larger imperial context, Milyutin consistently advanced Russian geopolitical interests and objectives. He favored suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863-1864, supported the conquest of Central Asia, and advocated an activist policy in the Balkans. On the eve of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, he endorsed a military resolution of differences with Turkey, holding that the Eastern Question was primarily Russia’s to decide. During the war itself, he accompanied the field army into the Balkans, where he counseled persistence at Plevna, asserting that successful resolution of the battle-turned-siege would serve as prelude to further victories. After the war, Milyutin became the de facto arbiter of Russian foreign policy.

Within Russia, after the Berlin Congress of 1878, Milyutin pressed for continuation of Alexander II’s Great Reforms, supporting the liberal program of the Interior Ministry’s Mikhail Loris- Melikov. However, after the accession of Alexander III and publication in May 1881 of an imperial manifesto reasserting autocratic authority, Milyutin retired to his Crimean estate. He continued to maintain an insightful diary and commenced his memoirs. The latter grew to embrace almost the entire history of nineteenth-century Russia, with important perspectives on the Russian Empire and contiguous lands and on its relations with Europe, Asia, and America.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Brooks, Edwin Willis. (1970). “D. A. Miliutin: Life and Activity to 1856.” Ph. D. diss., Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Menning, Bruce W. (1992, 2000). Bayonets before Bullets: The Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Miller, Forrestt A. (1968). Dmitrii Miliutin and the Reform Era in Russia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Admiral Lazarev class monitor

The Admiral Lazarev class was a pair of monitors built for the Imperial Russian Navy in the late 1860s (designated frigates by the navy). Four ships were ordered, but the last two were significantly modified and became the separate Admiral Spiridov class of ships. Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Greig became the first turreted warships in the Russian Navy.

The ships were similar in size to earlier Russian ironclads. They had a shorter beam due to the turret, rather than broadside weaponry. A longer draft made the ships more stable at the sea. Due to the heavy weight, the masts of the ships were significantly lighter and smaller than initially planned, but the more powerful 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kW) engine made the ships somewhat faster than earlier monitors, with the top speed of 11 knots (20 km/h).

The ships were protected by a 4.5 in (114 mm) armor belt and turrets by 6.5 in (165 mm) armor. The main armament was three gun turrets, each with two 9-inch (229 mm) guns. Later, all four ships had turrets refitted with 11-inch (279 mm) guns, one gun per turret. With the new guns, the Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Spiridov classes became among the most powerful ships of the Baltic Fleet.

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Rebuilding the Army – summer 1813 the Russian army Part I

During the truce of summer 1813 the Russian army was transformed. By the time the autumn campaign began it was not just rested, well fed and reorganized but also much larger than had been the case in May. To understand how this happened requires us to retrace our steps a little and to look at events behind the front lines. In part this means understanding the complicated process of raising, training and equipping the hundreds of thousands of conscripts who reinforced the field armies in 1812–14. Just moving these forces from the Russian heartland to German battlefields was a challenge. In the autumn of 1812 the main training area of the reserve armies was in Nizhnii Novgorod province, some 1,840 kilometres even from Russia’s frontier with the Duchy of Warsaw. The war ministry reckoned that it took fifteen weeks of marching to cover this distance.

Once in Poland and Germany, Russian armies had to be fed and supplied while operating a huge distance from their home bases. One way of putting this in perspective is to remember that more than half a million Russian soldiers served outside the empire’s borders in 1813– 14, and this in a Europe where only two cities had populations of more than 500,000. It is equally useful to recall Russia’s experience in the Seven Years War (1756–63), when Russian armies operated in the same German regions as in 1813. Their efforts were crucially undermined by the need to retreat eastwards hundreds of kilometres every autumn because they could not supply themselves on Prussian soil. For the Russians in 1813–14, to defeat Napoleon was only half the problem. Getting large armies to the battlefield in a state to fight him was as great a challenge and an achievement.

In accordance with Barclay de Tolly’s January 1812 law on the field armies, as Russian troops advanced westwards a network of military roads spread across eastern and central Europe. It began well within the Russian Empire and stretched all the way to the front lines. Down these roads travelled the great majority of the reinforcements, ammunition and other supplies which kept the Russian army strong and in the field. At regular intervals along these roads food depots and hospitals were set up, and town commandants appointed. These commandants had detachments of up to 100 Bashkir and Kalmyk cavalry at their disposal, who if properly supervised were formidable military police. The commandant’s job was to make sure that roads and bridges were in good repair, and hospitals and depots properly supplied and administered. He registered the arrival and departure of all units on his stretch of road, reporting all movements to headquarters every ten days. The military roads made it much easier to ensure that troops en route to the front line were properly watched over, fed and cared for. The system was also a disincentive to desertion or marauding.

The January 1812 (OS) army law also set out in some detail how Russian soldiers were to be supplied and fed when serving abroad. A sharp distinction was made between operating on the territory of allies, where all such matters were regulated by treaties between the states involved, and campaigning on enemy soil. The law made no allowance for neutrals: their territory should be treated in the same way as that of enemies. On hostile or neutral territory the army must supply itself from the land by requisition. Its day-to-day upkeep must not be the responsibility of the Russian treasury. Requisitioning should be carried out in orderly fashion, however, in order to preserve the troops’ discipline and protect the local population and economy. Wherever possible this must be done through the local administration, overseen by officials of the army’s intendancy. The intendant-general of the field army was ex officio to be the governor-general of all occupied territory and all officials were bound to obey his orders under threat of severe penalties for disobedience. Receipts were to be given for all food and materials requisitioned in order to prevent disorder and allow the local authorities to equalize burdens by repaying the holders of these receipts from their tax revenues.

In the first half of 1813 Russian armies operated above all in Prussia and Poland. Well before the alliance with Frederick William was signed Alexander had agreed to pay for food requisitioned in Prussia. One-fifth of the value was to be paid immediately in Russian paper rubles, the rest subsequently in return for receipts. The instigator of this policy was Stein, who argued for it on political grounds and because it made no sense to ruin the population of a future ally, all of whose meagre resources would soon be needed for the war effort. This concession to the Prussians was never repeated when Russian troops were campaigning on Saxon and French territory.

Immediately after the Russo-Prussian treaty of alliance was signed, the two governments came to an agreement on the upkeep of Russian forces operating on Prussian territory. Prussian commissars attached to Russian corps would requisition the necessary food in return for receipts. The commissars would then either arrange for food to be supplied from stores or for troops to be quartered on the population. The terms of repayment for the overall upkeep of the Russian forces on Prussian soil were generous. Food prices were calculated on a six-month average across the whole of Prussia, not at the hugely inflated rates of the districts in which masses of troops were actually operating. Three-eighths of the cost was to be covered by shipping grain from Russia to the Prussian ports, which the Russians were intending to do anyway for their own army. A further three-eighths would be in receipts, repayable after the end of the war. The final two-eighths was to be paid in paper rubles. Completely avoided was any requirement for the Russians to part with scarce silver and gold coin.

The situation in the Duchy of Warsaw was very different, for this was conquered enemy territory. Polish food was to be crucial to the Russian war effort in 1813. Without it the Russian army could not have remained in the field in the summer and autumn of that year. The fact that all this requisitioned food was free was also vital for the Russian treasury. Though precision is impossible, the contribution of the Duchy of Warsaw to feeding and supplying both the Russian field armies and the Reserve Army, which was quartered on Polish territory from spring 1813, amounted to tens of millions of rubles.

Russian policy in Poland was ambivalent, however. On the one hand, the Poles had to be milked if the Russian war effort was to be sustained. On the other hand, the emperor was anxious to win the loyalty of the Poles, whom he wished to make his future subjects. Kutuzov’s proclamation setting up the Polish provisional government in March 1813 promised that ‘all classes should feel His Imperial Majesty’s care for them and through this, and also through the abolition of conscription, would experience how great was the difference between his fatherly administration and the former one, which had been forced to plunder in order to satisfy the insatiable thirst for conquest of masters who called themselves allies’. Promised full pay, full protection for persons and property, and strict punishment for any bad behaviour by the troops, the overwhelming majority of Polish officials in the Duchy of Warsaw stayed in their jobs. This was a great benefit to the Russians, who could not remotely have found the cadres to run Poland themselves. It did mean, however, that most officials in Poland would only requisition energetically for the Russians if their own lives and careers were clearly at stake.

The new provisional government was headed by two Russians: its deputy head was Alexander’s old friend, Nikolai Novosiltsev, a shrewd and tactful political operator whose appointment showed just how high a priority winning over the Poles was for the emperor. The head of the government, and simultaneously the governor-general of the Duchy, was the former intendant-general of Kutuzov’s army, Vasili Lanskoy, who was himself now replaced by Georg Kankrin. Lanskoy’s appointment underlined the even higher priority of using Poland to feed the Russian army, though most generals soon came to believe that he had ‘gone native’ and was serving Polish rather than Russian interests. For the Russians, however, the big problem was not in Warsaw but at provincial level. Despite what was said in the army law, it was impossible for the overstretched army’s intendancy to spare officials to oversee the Polish provincial administration. Nor could the army spare front-line officers. Kutuzov had appealed to Alexander to send officials from the Russian interior instead and this is what was done. But the number and quality of these officials was well below what was needed.

On the whole, from January until the middle of May 1813 the feeding of the troops went well and caused few clashes. This was especially true in Prussia and in Prussian settlements in the Duchy of Warsaw, where the population detested Napoleon and saw the Russian troops as liberators. Even in Polish areas matters usually went reasonably well, though Kutuzov’s advance guard moving through the centre of the Duchy of Warsaw subsisted on biscuit for most of January and only received its wartime meat and vodka rations from the beginning of February. The Poles undoubtedly suffered but not as much as civilian populations in areas conquered by Napoleon or, in the Seven Years War, by Frederick the Great. The Russians imposed neither conscription nor a war indemnity. Their leaders tried with some success to sustain discipline and protect the civilian population. For example, on 18 February 1813 Kankrin published instructions for the feeding of the Russian troops from Polish stores or by the households on which they were quartered. After spelling out the troops’ proper rations, which for soldiers operating abroad included meat and spirits three times a week, he encouraged the local population to report any excessive demands or misbehaviour by the soldiers. Given the men’s exhaustion and the way in which traditional distrust of Poles had been fed by the events of 1812, the regular troops appear to have behaved remarkably well. On 23 March, writing from Kalicz, Kutuzov told his wife that ‘our soldiers’ behaviour surprises everyone here and the morals shown by the troops even surprise me’.

For six weeks from mid-May 1813, however, the army faced a crisis as regards food supply. Barclay explained the reasons for this crisis in a key memorandum for Alexander. He stated that the army’s problems were the consequence of a year’s campaigning back and forth across an enormous area in a manner which had no precedent in history. Disorder was inevitable. ‘The army has drawn far ahead of the supplies prepared in Russia and has almost no food reserve left with its units.’ According to the terms of the convention, the Prussian government was supposed to feed Russian troops when they were on Prussian soil. In Silesia, however, the Prussians did not have enough in their magazines to feed even their own troops in May 1813. A little could be done if one was prepared to purchase supplies with silver but the army’s treasury was almost empty. It had received thus far in 1813 less than one-quarter of the money owed it by the ministry of finance. In the longer term, however, the answer to the army’s needs was not the use of limited Russian funds to buy food but instead effective requisitioning in the Duchy of Warsaw. The key aims of Barclay’s memorandum were to get Alexander to force the finance minister, Dmitrii Gurev, to release funds immediately and to make the governor-general of Warsaw, Vasili Lanskoy, carry out the army’s plan for massive requisitioning in the Duchy. Barclay concluded by stating that unless Alexander did this, ‘I cannot guarantee that we will not face catastrophic consequences which will have a fatal impact on our soldiers and on military operations’.

In his report Barclay told Alexander that the only thing which had saved the soldiers from starvation in early June was the providential arrival of the mobile magazine of Chichagov’s former Army of the Danube. The large store of biscuit it carried had tided the troops over for a number of weeks. Initially put together in Podolia and Volhynia in the summer of 1812, the 2,340 surviving carts of this magazine had struggled forward through snow and mud for 1,000 kilometres or more, despite the fact that heavily loaded peasant carts were supposed to be able to operate over distances of only 150 kilometres. Many of the carts had been hastily constructed of unseasoned wood. Most were of light construction and all were low slung with small wheels. In the autumn and spring mud it was almost impossible for horses to pull them. In comparison to Austrian carts, noted the magazine’s commander subsequently, the Russian civilian ones in his magazine carried less goods, were more fragile, and required more horses.

Matters were not improved by the fact that initially many of these carts were drawn by oxen. Given their voracious appetites, it was impossible for a train pulled by oxen to move in winter. In January and February 1813 therefore the mobile magazine had come to a halt and its oxen had been turned into rations. Urged on by Kutuzov, the mobile magazine had got under way again once spring arrived, its oxen replaced by requisitioned horses, but its Heath Robinson appearance was accentuated by the fact that most of the horses were having to pull the carts with furnishings initially designed for oxen. Many of the drivers had never had to deal with horses before, had not been paid since departure, and were in some cases individuals whom their landlords were trying to get rid of. In the circumstances it was a miracle that the magazine turned up.

The arrival of the mobile magazine bought enough time for the Prussians to get their system for supplying the Russians back in order. Once it became clear that the armistice would last for weeks, it was possible to disperse the army into quarters. The Russian cavalry commanders were always extremely concerned about their horses’ proper feeding: now their regiments could be redeployed to areas well behind the front where oats were plentiful. Meanwhile the Prussian authorities had been helpful in organizing a deal between Kankrin and private Prussian contractors, who offered 55,000 daily rations of flour and bread partly on credit and partly for paper rubles. In a theatre of operations the first deficit item was always carts. The arrival in mid-July of 4,000 carts of the main army’s mobile magazine was therefore a huge asset. Kankrin divided some of the mobile magazines’ carts into echelons to bring up supplies from Poland by stages. Others were utilized to pick up food purchased from or provided by the Prussians, which had previously been impossible to transport.

By the time the main army’s magazine arrived, Alexander had already responded effectively to Barclay’s appeal for money. He immediately commandeered for army headquarters almost 2.5 million paper rubles of ministry of finance funds held in Germany and he ordered Gurev to remit the remainder immediately, commenting that he himself was a witness to the army’s urgent needs. Faced with a direct imperial command, Gurev wrote to Barclay on 13 July that he had already sent him 4.8 million silver and 4 million paper rubles, and more was on the way.

From the perspective of headquarters Gurev’s delay in sending money already agreed in the military budget was indefensible. Inevitably, the finance minister saw things differently. Even before Napoleon’s invasion, budget deficits could only be covered by the printing of paper money and fears of financial collapse were common. As a result of the war, expenditure shot up and revenues shrank. Nearly 25 per cent of anticipated revenue had failed to arrive in 1812. In the first quarter of 1813 things were worse: only 54 per cent of expected revenues had come in by late April. Gurev blamed ‘the shock felt throughout the state in 1812, when on top of normal taxes, both traditional and newly established in that year, the population was burdened by the mobilization of the militia, by recruit levies, by military demands, duties and contributions: by a very conservative estimate all this amounted to over 200 million rubles’. Faced with a vast looming deficit all Gurev could do was to reduce expenditure wherever possible and fill the gap with additional printing of paper money. In April 1813 he predicted that if the war lasted throughout 1814 and its financing continued as at present then ‘no means will remain to rescue us from the final destruction of our financial system’.

Although Gurev feared hyper-inflation within Russia he tended to believe that the enormous amount of economic activity linked to repairing the damage caused by Napoleon’s invasion would mop up much of the newly issued paper money. So too would growing Russian external trade now the Continental System was destroyed once and for all. The finance minister’s true source of panic was the large amounts of Russian paper money which the Field Army was spending abroad. No foreigner would wish to hang on to this money, nor would private individuals use it in payment for goods and services provided by other Germans. Therefore the entire sum was likely to be remitted back to Russia for exchange, with dire consequences for the ruble’s rate against foreign currencies.

Gurev warned that if the paper ruble’s exchange rate collapsed, the Field Army’s financing would become impossible. To avoid this he dragged his heels as regards remitting funds to army headquarters and got the committee of ministers to agree to a number of proposals, including paying officers and men abroad only half their pay with the remainder to be given them on return to Russia. Gurev’s argument, partly true, was that officers and men serving abroad to a great extent lived off the land and did not need much cash. Nevertheless, had it been implemented, the impact of this policy on the morale of the troops can easily be imagined: the army was already very badly paid by European standards and was fighting an exhausting campaign on foreign territory in a cause many even of the officers did not understand.

Faced with peremptory orders from the emperor, Gurev would have released funds for the army in all circumstances but he was also greatly encouraged in this direction by news of a large impending British subsidy, of which he had despaired. In 1812 Alexander had not requested a British subsidy. This was partly a question of pride. In addition, fighting on his own territory he could finance the war without great difficulty. Perhaps for this reason, it was actually many months after diplomatic relations with Britain were restored that Alexander got round to appointing an ambassador in London. Once Russian armies advanced across the empire’s borders, however, the matter became urgent and the emperor nominated Christoph Lieven and sent him to London in January 1813 with a message for the British government: ‘In the present circumstances every dispatch of troops abroad is becoming very expensive for me. It requires the emission of metallic currency which totally undermines our rate of exchange. This would have a serious effect on our finances which they could not ultimately sustain, since the state’s revenues are bound to shrink considerably this year as a result of the complete devastation of some provinces.’ Lieven was ordered both to ask for a subsidy and to present the British government with a scheme for ‘Federal Paper Money’. This paper was to bear interest and to be redeemable immediately after the war. It was to be guaranteed by the British, Russian and Prussian governments, and was to be used to pay for part of the Russian and Prussian war effort. The scheme had been devised in Petersburg with the help, among others, not just of Stein but of the British financier Sir Francis d’Ivernois.

Rebuilding the Army – summer 1813 the Russian army Part II

Given British resistance to subsidies in 1806–7, Alexander may have expected tough negotiations in London. In fact Lieven found that the British were willing to offer Russia £1.33 million in subsidy and that a further £3.3 million would accrue as their share of the Federal Paper scheme. In the context of overall British overseas payments and subsidies these sums were relatively modest. The war in the Peninsula had cost the British £11 million in 1811 and all subsidies represented less than 8 per cent of the cost of Britain’s own armed forces. When calculated in paper rubles, however, £4.6 million was a mighty sum, which in principle should cover almost all Russian projected expenditure on the campaign in Germany for the remaining seven months of 1813. To be sure, the cash was slow to arrive, exchange and discounting costs took their toll, and some predictions on expenditure proved optimistic, but the British subsidy went some way towards calming Gurev’s worries at least for a time.

If Alexander’s orders to Gurev were peremptory, his instructions to the governor-general of Warsaw, Vasili Lanskoy, were positively brutal. On 12 June Kankrin had set out the army’s requirement from the Duchy for 3 million kilos of flour, 400,000 kilos of groats, 250,000 litres of vodka, 330,000 kilos of meat and 1,000 cattle on the hoof, and a huge amount of oats for the horses. Barclay wrote to Lanskoy the next day that ‘all the supplies assigned from the provinces of the Duchy of Warsaw are to be levied immediately for it is these supplies alone which can guarantee the army’s victualling…the slightest slowness or deficits can lead to the troops suffering from severe hunger and can wreck the army’s condition and its ability to conduct military operations’. When Lanskoy pleaded the Duchy’s poverty and the foodstuffs already requisitioned by the army, he received one of the fiercest letters written by the emperor during the whole course of 1812–14. Telling his governor-general that the fate of the army, the war and of Europe depended on this requisition, Alexander warned him that he would bear personal responsibility for any failure to levy the full amount and deliver it to the army on time and by requisitioned Polish civilian carts.

After receiving this command from Alexander, Lanskoy of course caved in totally, telling local officials that ‘no excuses of any sort will be accepted from anyone’, but Barclay remained unconvinced that the Polish provincial administration would carry out the requisition promptly and strictly. He therefore sent two special commissars to watch over them, armed with all the powers provided for in the Field Army law when it came to dealing with obstruction by officials in conquered territory. He gave these commissars an open letter commanding all officials ‘to execute the orders concerning the requisitioning and dispatch of supplies to the letter and without any deviation: any slowness, mistakes or, still worse, disobedience…will without fail result in a court martial under the army’s regulations for field courts martial and on a charge of treason’. Meanwhile orders went out to the commanding officer in the Duchy, General Dokhturov, to use his troops to enforce the levy. The Ukrainian mounted militia, in some cases of little use against the French, were formidable when it came to requisitioning Polish peasants’ carts to transport the supplies.

Immediately after the armistice was signed Barclay got down to the business of reorganizing, re-equipping and training his troops. For this task he was the perfect leader. On 10 June he issued an order of the day to the soldiers and their commanding officers. He told the troops that they had not been defeated, and that they had lost not a gun nor an unwounded prisoner of war to the enemy. The armistice meant not peace but a chance to concentrate Russian and allied strength and make the preparations essential for a new and victorious campaign. Commanding officers were instructed that ‘their duty during the armistice period will be to devote all their efforts to ensuring that weapons, equipment and suchlike are in proper order; to maintaining the soldiers’ health; to preserving strict order and discipline; to training inexperienced soldiers in military skills; in a word to bringing each unit to a state of perfect readiness to achieve new victories’.

During the two-month truce the measures taken earlier to re-uniform the troops bore fruit. On 16 July Kankrin reported that enough canvas for summer trousers and enough boots had now arrived for the entire army. In March Alexander had authorized the expenditure of 3.5 million rubles to pay for new coats and tunics for most units of the line. These were provided by private contractors in Königsberg and arrived during the armistice. Initially the cost was expected to be greater but Barclay de Tolly found and requisitioned a large store of excellent cloth in Posen in February initially earmarked for Napoleon’s army. This met the needs not just of Barclay’s own corps but also of the Guards. Still better, it was paid for by the Polish taxpayer.

Meanwhile, immediately after the armistice was signed and as an urgent priority, Barclay ordered a check on all muskets to try to reduce the number of different weapons and calibres in battalions. Captain Radozhitsky was one of the artillery officers assigned to this job. He wrote in his memoirs that he checked 30,000 firearms in ten days and came to the conclusion that the main problem lay with men returning from hospital who were simply given the first gun available before being dispatched to their regiments. He also stated that many soldiers in the line infantry regiments had old and useless muskets, though in fact this was only true in some divisions. Thanks to the efforts of Radozhitsky and his comrades, muskets were swapped between battalions to ensure much greater uniformity and thereby make the supply of ammunition more efficient.

None of these efforts by Barclay would have added up to much had he not got down immediately to sorting out the administrative confusion bequeathed, in part anyway, by Wittgenstein. It was after all hard to feed or re-equip men if headquarters did not know where units were or how many soldiers were actually in their ranks. Passing orders down the military hierarchy was impossible if divisions were apart from their correct corps, or regiments from their brigades and divisions. Another prerequisite for any kind of order in the army was reuniting detachments with their parent regiments and getting rid of temporary composite units. It was time too to reunite the shrunken reserve (i.e. second) battalions with the rest of their regiments. Immediately after the truce was agreed Barclay went to war on these issues. Within a week he had new tables issued listing the brigades, divisions and corps to which every regiment belonged and showing where all these units were to be deployed and quartered. He enjoyed about 95 per cent success in re-imposing a clear and logical structure on his army by the end of June. So long as ‘partisan’ units existed and combined a majority of Cossacks with detached squadrons of regular cavalry total success was impossible.

There remained one vital task: to integrate into the Field Army the tens of thousands of reinforcements who arrived during the armistice. Some of these were men returning from hospital or from detachments. As veterans, they were particularly valuable. Most of the new arrivals, however, came from the 200,000-strong reserve units formed in Russia during the winter of 1812–13 from new conscripts. For each regiment on campaign, a reserve battalion of 1,000 men, divided into four companies, was created within Russia. When these new battalions were ready, Alexander’s plan was that some of their companies would be dispatched to reinforce the armies in the field but a sufficient cadre would remain behind to train the next wave of recruits. These would bring the battalion back to full strength and allow, in time, yet more reinforcements to be sent to join the field armies. Similar arrangements were to be made for the artillery and cavalry. In the latter’s case, for every regiment on campaign, two reserve squadrons, each of 201 men, would be formed within the empire.

In all, more than 650,000 men were conscripted into the army in 1812–14. The great majority of these were netted in the three general call-ups between August 1812 and August 1813 (83rd, 84th, 85th recruit levies) which covered almost all the empire’s provinces. In addition, however, a number of smaller call-ups targeted specific provinces. Since noble estates bore the burden of recruitment for the militia, these recruit levies above all targeted the 40 per cent of peasants who lived on state lands. The authorities realized that unless existing requirements were relaxed, they might not meet their quota of recruits. Therefore the age limit for new conscripts was raised to 40, the minimum height was reduced to just over one and a half metres, and men with minor physical defects were accepted. The huge demand for recruits meant that older and married men were conscripted in large numbers. Even if they survived the war, they faced decades of peacetime service. Tens of thousands of women would never see their husbands again but had no right to remarry, and many young families lost their main breadwinner.

The 1810 regulations for state peasants required that recruitment records be kept which would guarantee both that obligations were fairly shared among households and that the burden of conscription fell on big families with many adult males rather than on small families which it would ruin. In 1812 recruit boards were ordered by the war ministry to check these records and at least in Riazan province – for which the sources are exceptionally full – the records were actually submitted along with the conscripts to show that due process had been observed.

Pamfil Nazarov was a state peasant conscripted into the army in September 1812. His memoirs are a unique insight into conscription as seen from below. Nowhere in the memoirs does Nazarov suggest that his recruitment was unjust. On the basis of his family’s previous record of conscription and of the number of its adult males the Nazarov household was in line to provide a recruit. As was always the case, the peasant communal government targeted households, not individuals. It was up to the household itself to decide whom to send into the army. In this era most peasant households were extended families, including a number of married brothers and their children. It was notorious that the head of the household generally sent his nephews and even brothers into the army rather than his own sons. But in the Nazarov family it was clear that Pamfil was the only possible choice. Both his elder brothers were married: one had children, the other was weak. His younger brother was still under age.

Pamfil on the contrary was a strong, unmarried lad of 20. None of his family wanted to lose him: an atmosphere of misery reigned for days, with both Pamfil and his mother in particular sometimes overcome with tears. In September 1812 Napoleon was marching into the Russian heartland. Pamfil’s own province, Tver, was threatened and Moscow fell in the midst of his induction into the army. Pamfil was untouched by any feeling of patriotism or awareness of the broader political context, however. Instead he was possessed by numb misery and fear at the prospect of being ripped out of his accustomed world of family and village, and thrust into the alien and brutal life of a soldier. Resigned fortitude, and in Pamfil’s case prayer and obedience to God’s will, were his only support, as was true of the overwhelming majority of peasant conscripts in these years.

Pamfil was accompanied by his brothers and grandfather to the recruit board in the town of Tver. The governor of Tver province presided ex officio over the board and himself inspected Pamfil briefly. The medical inspection was barely more thorough. Once Pamfil stated that he was in good health it amounted to no more than a check on his teeth and a brief glance at his body. There followed immediately the two great induction rituals of the Russian conscript: Pamfil’s forehead was shaved and he took the military oath. Within a few days the recruits were sent to Petersburg: given the need for speed they travelled by cart. Once assigned to his regiment Pamfil Nazarov experienced some of the other typical aspects of the young conscript’s rite of passage. The shock of being thrust so suddenly into an alien and harsh world made him very ill: during his two-week fever his money and clothes were stolen. A fist in the face from a junior NCO for whom Pamfil refused to do an illegal favour was also typical, as was a caning when he made a mess of his first shooting practice with powder and lead.

Nevertheless, not everything in Pamfil Nazarov’s military life was pure suffering and shipwreck. The Grand Duke Constantine personally inspected the new recruits and assigned them to their regiments in Petersburg. At 1.6 metres Pamfil was too short for the Preobrazhenskys or Semenovskys, but Constantine assigned him to the light infantry of the Guards, meaning in this case the Finland Regiment. As a Guardsman Pamfil got better pay and a real uniform, rather than the shoddy recruit uniform which was the lot of most conscripts in 1812–13. Service in the Guards was no picnic: the Finland Guards suffered heavy casualties at both Borodino and Leipzig. Nevertheless the Guards regiments were in general held in reserve: service in them on campaign was not the weekly meat-grinder experienced by some regiments of the line infantry. Though wounded at Leipzig, Pamfil Nazarov was back in the ranks by the fall of Paris and he and his comrades took pride in their achievement. Unlike most men conscripted in 1812 he was to see his family again: as a reliable and exemplary Guardsman he was allowed three home leaves in the eleven years following the war. Even more unusually, Pamfil learned to read and write while serving in the Finland Regiment. When he retired after twenty-three years of service in the Guards he became a monk and was one of only two private soldiers in the Russian army of this era to write his memoirs.

So long as recruits met the height and medical requirements, on private estates the government left it to the landowners to decide which of their serfs to send to the army. Richer peasants, and indeed most of their middling neighbours, preferred to put the burden of conscription on poorer villagers, who paid less of the village’s collective tax burden. The landowner might share the view of the peasant commune that conscription should be used to rid the village of marginal or ‘uneconomic’ families. On the other hand, some aristocratic landowners did attempt to uphold fair conscription procedures and to protect vulnerable peasant families. Whether they succeeded depended greatly on their estates’ managers because wealthy aristocrats owned many properties, and were themselves in any case most often to be found in Petersburg, Moscow or on service. Success might also depend on the nature of peasant society on a specific estate. Particularly in the more commercialized and less purely agricultural estates, it might be hard for a distant landowner to control the richer peasants.

CV KUZNETSOV GROUP DEPLOYMENT OFF SYRIA, NOVEMBER 2016- JANUARY 2017

In late 2016, the Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, CV Kuznetsov embarked upon an operational deployment that would take the vessel and its attendant task group to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea where it subsequently joined the Russian effort to support Syrian Arab Republic government forces in the fight against IS (Islamic State) and other opposition groups that had, since 2011, attempted a complete take-over of Syria throwing the country into turmoil. In addition, the air group would provide a dissuader to a growing threat from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) airpower supporting a number of opposition groups (not under the NATO standard), from extending their operations against Syrian government forces. This was the first combat deployment of the Kuznetsov in that it would launch air strikes on hostile targets.

With Syrian government forces on the verge of a catastrophic collapse due to pressure from IS and other opposition groups, some of the latter being supported militarily and financially by a the western dominated anti-ISIS coalition that was, in an ironic twist, playing a large part in militarily supporting ISIS, by constantly threatening Syrian government forces, forcing the latter to make dispositions accordingly, Russia intervened militarily in the conflict commencing with air operations on 30 September 2015. The Russian intervention, which allowed the Syrian government forces to go on the offensive and retake large swathes of territory from IS and western supported opposition forces, was reduced in tempo in March 2016. However, in late 2016, western backed opposition groups fighting in Aleppo carved out closer cooperation with the extremists of the Al-Qaeda and IS affiliated Al Nusra Front. This led to a stiffening of resistance in Aleppo, the main defence of which was conducted by Al Nusra Front. To the south, IS launched an offensive against Palmyra, which had been liberated by Syrian Government forces backed by Russian airpower in March 2016. The IS offensive, which resulted in the recapture of Palmyra, was designed to take advantage of the tactical situation that saw Syrian Government Forces drawn into the Aleppo battle; the ultimate objective being the collapse of the government offensive against Aleppo as well as the capture of ground in and around Palmyra.

The task group that departed from Northern Fleet bases consisted of the ACHC (Aircraft Carrying Heavy Cruiser) Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov, the Nuclear powered Heavy Missile Cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), the Large ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) ships Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov and four support vessels, including at least two x fuel/replenishment ships. This task group joined an estimated 10 other Russian ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, it is possible that one or more SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine) was present in the Eastern Mediterranean, although this is unconfirmed conjecture.

The Kuznetsov brought with her a wealth of capability, much of which was new to the Russian campaign in Syria. This included an in-flight refueling capability for strike aircraft (it is unclear if this was employed) and a rotary winged AEW (Airborne Early Warning) capability courtesy of the Ka-31 helicopter (this capability is assumed and, if present, would have been restricted to fleet protection duties). Enhancements to existing capabilities in the Syrian theatre included an enhanced scout/attack helicopter capability, air defence fighters and multirole strike fighters, as well as additional air defence capability for the naval presence courtesy of her integral air defence system and electronic warfare capabilities. The Russian surface to surface anti-ship capability was significantly enhanced by her twelve P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles, adding to the anti-ship missiles on the Peter the Great and additional Russian surface assets already in theatre – these systems being important politically as at that time misguided voices within western politics were advocating using shipborne surface to air missile systems on western coalition warships in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to engage and shoot down Syrian government and potentially Russian military aircraft. The presence of such a powerful Russian anti-ship capability within her task group being a less than subtle message that Russia was prepared to counter all threats to her air operations over Syria.

The air group consisted of a mix of Ka-27PL ASW and Ka-27PS search and rescue helicopters, Ka-31 AEW helicopters (unconfirmed), Su-33 fleet air defence fighters, MiG-29KR (and possibly KUBR) multidimensional strike fighters and a small group of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. It is known that at least one MiG-29K or KUBR was lost during a landing accident aboard the carrier on 13 November 2016.

Although details of the Kuznetsov group strike operations are sparse, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General of the Army, Valery Geriasimov, confirmed that the Kuznetsov Groups aviation assets had been involved in operations leading to the ‘liberation of Aleppo’. Operations were also, it is understood, flown against IS targets in other parts of Syria. Missions were flown over Syria by Su-33, MiG-29KR/KUBR and the small detachment of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. In addition the naval task groupings launched Kalibr cruise missile strikes on opposition targets in Syria on 15/16 November 2016. Details, released by Russia’s Northern Fleet Vice Admiral Nikolay Evmenova in early summer 2017, included a sortie total of 420 by the Kuznetsovs air group. It was noted that 117 of these sorties were flown during the hours of darkness and most of the sortie total was flown in conditions of adverse weather. More than 1,000 targets were struck, these including command facilities, groupings of enemy forces and fixed fortified fire positions.

The implementation, from 00.00 on 30 December 2016, of a shaky ceasefire which, it was hoped, would lead to the projected peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, led to a decision by Vladimir Putin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, to drawdown Russian forces in the Syria region. An obvious starting point was the early termination of the operational deployment of the Kuznetsov Group of the Northern Fleet, this being announced on 6 January 2017. The Kuznetsov group moved into Northern waters off Norway in late January 2017 and returned to Russia several days later.

Aircraft type/codes known to have taken part in the operation include Ka-27PS’s Red 55, Red 57 and Red 60, Ka-27PL Red 47, MiG-29KR(KUBR) Blue 41, Blue 47, Blue 49 and Blue 52, Su-33’s Red 62, Red 66, Red 67, Red 71, Red 76, Red 77, Red 78, Red 84, Red 85 and Red 88.

Russia and Sweden

The Swedish Victory at Narva by Gustaf Cederström, painted 1910

Peter could not make war on Sweden until his peace with the Turks was secure, but Denmark and King Augustus had no such obstacles. The latter began operations in February with a surprise move against Riga which failed to take the city, but Denmark fared even worse. Charles XII knocked the Danish king out of the war in a few weeks. Peter kept up the pretense in public that all was in order with Sweden, and no war was coming, even reassuring Kniper personally of his pacific intentions. Kniper could not quite believe that the war would really happen, but he dutifully reported the rumors that war was coming as well as Russian military preparations. Peter could not be sure of the Turkish response, and so in April he decided on an ambassador to Sweden. The eventual choice was Prince Andrei Khilkov, a relative of Prince Romodanovskii and Golovin. Khilkov would have an even more difficult task than he expected, but at the time the rumor was not that he would have the post, but instead Prince Iakov Fyodorovich Dolgorukii, only a few months before in bad odor with Peter over the inadequacies of the campaigns in the south against the Tatars. Kniper went so far as to ask his brother Boris if the rumor was true, and prince Boris denied it: Prince Iakov had too little of the tsar’s confidence for such an important post. Prince Boris was partly wrong, however, for Peter had originally chosen Iakov for the post, changing his mind a week later and appointing Khilkov. Peter preferred to keep Prince Iakov with the army and he remained in the position of general military commissar. In the summer Peter replaced Lefort in his capacity as an army commander with General Adam Weyde and appointed the Georgian Prince Alexander Archilovich of Imeretia to command the Russian artillery.

After the official Russian declaration of war on 19 August, Peter lost no time in ordering his army to besiege Narva. The choice showed Peter’s desire for a ready-made port, since Narva was not part of the lands lost to Sweden in 1617. It lay across the old border in the Swedish province of Estonia, and had been the object of Ivan the Terrible’s wars in the sixteenth century. The army command was a mixture of old and new. In June the story was that the supreme commander was to be Sheremetev, and the prince of Imeretia was to command the artillery. In August, however, Peter appointed as Field marshal the boyar and admiral, F. A. Golovin, proven as a capable diplomat and administrator but hardly a military man. Sheremetev received the cavalry, largely the traditional gentry cavalry from Novgorod and some Ukrainian Cossacks. Under Golovin the army was divided into three generalships under three full generals, Avtomon Golovin, Adam Weyde, and Prince Nikita Ivanovich Repnin. All three of them had served before in the Preobrazhenskii guards. The aristocratic Golovin was the same who had commanded at Azov, and before that the two guards regiments. Prince Repnin, who had served as a captain in the same regiment, was still on the road from Novgorod with part of his troops at the time of the battle, so Prince Ivan Iur’evich Trubetskoi replaced him in the line. Prince Trubetskoi was rather different from the former guards officers. A boyar since 1692, he had commanded part of the Azov feet in 1696 and in 1699 was named governor of Novgorod. It was he who signed the messages to the Narva garrison asking them to surrender. As in the case of Iakov Dolgorukii, his relations with the tsar had been troubled, but in spite of that he too received a major command. In the middle of the siege Peter appointed another Field marshal to carry out actual operations. This was Charles Eugene, the duke de Croy (1651-1702), an Imperial general originally from the southern Netherlands who was out of work after the peace of Karlowitz. De Croy was recommended to Peter by King Augustus with a group of other foreign officers, and arrived when the Russian army was already before Narva.

For Peter the siege of Narva in 1700 became a famous disaster. Fresh from his lightning victory over Denmark, Charles XII landed in Estonia in October. As this news reached the Russians, Peter left the army with Fyodor Golovin to return to Moscow, putting de Croy in supreme command. On the next day, 19/30 November, Charles attacked in the snow, and to tremendous effect. He smashed the Russian army, capturing de Croy, A. M. Golovin, Trubetskoi, Weyde, Hallart, Dolgorukii, Prince Alexander of Imeretia, and other Russian generals. Only Sheremetev’s cavalry, the guards, and some of the infantry escaped more or less intact. To Prince Repnin fell the job of reorganizing them and taking up position in Novgorod.

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Peter had more immediate concerns. The boyars were not pleased with the defeat at Narva, blaming the Danish ambassador Heins for persuading Peter to break so suddenly with Sweden. Prince Boris Golitsyn was prominent among the discontented, not surprisingly as he had opposed the war from the beginning. Fortunately, Charles had withdrawn to winter quarters, so the tsar had a breathing space to reorganize. Immediately after the defeat the tsar ordered Sheremetev with the cavalry to harry the enemy in Livonia. Peter recruited new troops and assembled more artillery and powder, and sent Tikhon Streshnev, the head of the Razriad and the new Military Chancellery, to the Swedish border to supervise. Repnin was assigned to take the remaining troops under his command and help Augustus in Poland. The tsar also took care of the financial basis of the war. In January he revived the Monastery Chancellery under Ivan Musin-Pushkin, with the charge of taking control of the monastery estates, giving a stipend to the monks and the rest to the war chest. He also ordered the churches to sacrifice some of their bells so as to make cannon from the metal. He established a tax on beards, which Pleyer at least saw as a revenue device, not merely a cultural matter. All of these financial moves had the potential to create discontent, especially among the clergy and the pious. These and other recent measures also demonstrated Peter’s desire to move along in a more European direction, as Heins had noticed. Europe, he thought, ought to take care to go easy with Russia rather than reject it, for only time would tell what would become of the country under Peter’s tutelage.

During the Great Northern War (1700–1721) Sheremetev proved to be a capable but cautious and sluggish military leader. During the war he was the commander-in-chief and most senior officer in the Russian army. Sheremetev was very cautious in his movements but proved more effective than the younger Prince Menshikov, the 2nd in command whose impulsiveness was not always successful.

In June 1701, Sheremetev was appointed the supreme commander of the Russian troops facing Livonia, clearly in the full expectation of war in the region with the king of Sweden himself. That was not to be, for in July Charles defeated the Saxons before Riga and moved south into Kurland, toward Poland, the object of his attention for the next five years. Livonia was left alone to face Peter, and his forces did not wait long. While Charles was making his decision and Sheremetev assembling his army, the Swedish navy make an attempt on Archangel, but it was beaten off. The Swedish attempt reminded Peter of those who went to Egypt in search of mummies and were turned into mummies themselves by the sandy winds of the desert. In the next few years the Cossacks, the Kalmyks, and Sheremetev’s army would lay waste the land to Peter’s great satisfaction. The Swedish commander Schlippenbach was able to win small gains against the Russians, but on 30 December 1701 Sheremetev won his first victory at Errestfer. There were more to follow.

Peter was grateful to Sheremetev, for his ministers of state continued to be unhappy with the war. He sent Menshikov to present the Field marshal with the new order of St. Andrew and other gifts. Sheremetev himself came back to Moscow to celebrate:

Before the last Easter holidays the knight [sc. of Malta] Sheremetev came here himself and in the past Easter week held a meal and ball, which the tsar with most of the Boyars and great men of the country attended, but since the tsar showed himself there to be disturbed and unsatisfied against his custom and soon left, the gaiety was rather disturbed and Sheremetev takes it much to heart.

Even success in war did not bring harmony to the relationship of Field marshal and tsar, a state of affairs that may have rejected Peter’s general dissatisfaction with the management and command of his army. The tsar’s attempt to reorganize his army along European lines proceeded slowly, and the boyars were no help, for they were careless and lacked the necessary experience. Peter hoped for better things in the future, for he insisted that the young sons of the Russian princes and boyars go abroad to serve in foreign armies, not just to travel and observe. He considered plans to reorganize the administration of the Russian army into a German-type military commissariat, but for the time being left matters in the hands of the Military Chancellery.

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In summer 1702, Sheremetev defeated a Swedish army again at Hummelshof near Dorpat, and in the fall the whole Russian force moved for its first great prize, Nöteborg. The voevoda of Novgorod, Petr Apraksin (the tsar’s brother-in-law), began the campaign by clearing the Neva of Swedish troops. Peter brought with him the two guards regiments, twelve regiments of infantry, and massive artillery, all under the command of Sheremetev. General John Chambers commanded the two guards regiments, Prince Nikita Ivanovich Repnin the rest of the infantry and Iakov Bruce the artillery. The siege began in October, and after a few days of fighting the Russian army entered the fortress on 14 October, its first major conquest of the war. The two guards regiments had borne the brunt of the struggle. The tsar ordered that the fortress bear a new name, not the old Russian name Oreshek but instead Schlüsselburg. Its fortifications were hastily prepared and a small exploratory expedition went down river to Nyenskans. Peter decided to postpone its capture to the following year. He set himself to return to Moscow and order new uniforms for the guards, but not before dealing with his commanders. Menshikov received the rank of general, his first important promotion since he became the supervisor of the tsarevich. Peter also cashiered both General Repnin and General Apraksin for corruption (‘einige Malversationes’) and for Repnin’s refusal to serve under Sheremetev. These were the first of many such cases, and both generals were soon to return to important positions.

The New Year 1703 brought the completion of the Russian conquest of Ingria, and with it the further rise of Menshikov and greater jealousy of his position in the state. This year the military operations were not so complicated. Menshikov continued work to improve the fortifications of Schlüsselburg and to build boats. By early spring Peter had a large army in the area, the main force under Sheremetev, Chambers, and Prince Repnin and a covering detachment under Petr Apraksin. Nyenskans fell on 1/12 May, and the other Ingrian towns, Iam and Kopor’e, in the course of the summer. The construction of the new city down the river from Nyenskans began almost immediately with the construction of a fortress. The new town would be St. Petersburg.