The Great Russian Advance Begins

Count Nikolai Ignatiev

‘Where the imperial flag has once flown,’ Tsar Nicholas is said to have decreed, ‘it must never be lowered.’ Nor did his son Alexander have any reason to think differently. To those serving on Russia’s Asiatic frontiers the inference soon became clear. Raise the two-headed eagle first, and ask permission afterwards. Those who did just that found that they were rarely, if ever, repudiated. This turning of a blind eye to such expropriations by St Petersburg was to coincide with the rise of a new and aggressive breed of frontier officer. Not surprisingly, in view of their country’s defeat in the Crimean War, they were Anglophobes to a man. Between them, during the middle years of the nineteenth century, they were to add vast new tracts of Asia to Alexander’s domains.

One such officer was Count Nikolai Ignatiev, a brilliant and ambitious young political, who enjoyed the ear of the Tsar, and burned to settle his country’s scores with the British. As the latter would soon learn to their cost, he was to prove himself a consummate player in the Great Game. While serving as military attaché in London during the Indian Mutiny, he had repeatedly urged his chiefs in St Petersburg to take full advantage of Britain’s weakness in order to steal a march on her in Asia and elsewhere. Although he attempted to conceal his anti-British feelings, and enjoyed considerable popularity in London society, he did not entirely fool the Foreign Office. Describing him in a confidential report as a ‘clever, wily fellow’, it had him closely watched after a London map dealer informed the authorities that he had been discreetly buying up all available maps of Britain’s ports and railways.

In 1858, aged 26 and already earmarked for rapid promotion, he was chosen by Alexander to lead a secret mission to Central Asia. His task was to try to discover how far the British had penetrated the region, politically and commercially, and to undermine any influence which they might already have acquired in Khiva and Bokhara. For the Tsar was concerned about reports reaching Russian outposts on the Syr-Darya that British agents were becoming increasingly active in the region. If this were to turn into a race for the valuable markets of Central Asia, then St Petersburg was determined to win it. Ignatiev was instructed therefore to try to establish regular commercial links with both Khiva and Bokhara, if possible securing favourable terms and assured protection for Russian traders and goods. He also had orders to gather as much military, political and other intelligence as he could, including an evaluation of the khanates’ capacity for war. Finally he was to discover all he could about the navigability of the Oxus, and about the routes leading into Afghanistan, Persia and northern India.

Ignatiev’s mission, nearly a hundred strong, including a Cossack escort and porters, reached Khiva in the summer of 1858. The Khan had agreed to receive them, and they brought with them an impressive array of gifts, including an organ. These proved too bulky to be transported across the desert, having instead to be ferried across the Aral Sea and up the Oxus, thus providing the Russians with the opportunity to survey the latter’s lower reaches. It was a Great Game subterfuge borrowed from the British, who had charted the River Indus in somewhat similar manner nearly thirty years previously. Nor was the gift of an organ to an Eastern potentate entirely original, the British Levant Company having presented the Turkish Sultan with one more than two centuries earlier. The Khan was not that easily fooled, however. He received Ignatiev politely, accepted the gifts, but adamantly refused to let the Russian vessels proceed any further up the Oxus towards Bokhara. Even so, Ignatiev persuaded the Khan to open his markets to Russian merchants, only to see this collapse at the last moment when a Persian slave sought asylum aboard a Russian vessel. Nonetheless he left Khiva for Bokhara with a good deal of valuable intelligence, not to mention hawkish views on the need to cut the Khan down to size by annexing his territories.

Ignatiev was to fare marginally better in Bokhara, where, sixteen years after the beheading of Conolly and Stoddart, the cruel and tyrannical Emir Nasrullah was still firmly on the throne. Nor had age mellowed him. When, not long before, his chief of artillery had displeased him, he had personally cut him in half with an axe. For Ignatiev, however, he was prepared to put himself out a little. Once again he was at war with his old adversary and neighbour, the Khan of Khokand, and was anxious to do nothing likely to provoke the Russians into supporting his foe. He promised to free all Russians then being held in Bokhara as slaves, and actively to encourage trade between their two countries. He even suggested that they should divide the Khan of Khiva’s domains between them if the latter persisted in denying Russian vessels access to the Oxus from the Aral Sea. Finally he undertook not to receive any emissaries from the British, and to urge his Afghan neighbours not to allow any of them to cross the Oxus.

Ignatiev knew perfectly well that the Emir’s promises were worthless, and that he had no intention of keeping any of them once the threat from Khokand was over. Nonetheless, as at Khiva, he and his men were able to gather valuable intelligence which was to come in useful later. Altogether it had been a bold journey, fraught with hardship and danger, and even if it had failed in its objectives it had helped to restore Russian self-esteem. Ignatiev returned to St Petersburg to find himself a celebrity and more highly regarded than ever by his superiors. In the detailed report which he produced on the mission he urged the immediate annexation of the Central Asian khanates, lest the British get there first. While this was being carefully considered by the Tsar and his advisers, he was assigned to an even more challenging task, this time 3,500 miles away to the east, in China. His new mission was to give Ignatiev considerable satisfaction, for not only was he raised to the temporary rank of general, so as to invest him with the authority he would require, but it also offered him the chance to pit his wits against the British.

A crisis had arisen over Alexander’s fears for his new and ill-guarded possessions in the Far East, which his Siberian garrisons had acquired for him during the previous three or four years at the expense of the Chinese. Fearful lest the British gain possession of China, as they already had India, the Russian commanders had been driving remorselessly eastwards along the great Amur river, and southwards down the Pacific seaboard towards what is now Vladivostok. The Chinese Emperor, being fully engaged at this time with the Taiping rebellion, and with British and French demands for land concessions and other privileges, was in no position to stop them. Thus, at little cost to themselves, the Russians were able to relieve him of nearly 400,000 square miles of his empire. Now, however, they found their new possessions threatened by the British.

Just how this came about is too complex to go into in any detail here, but broadly it resulted from the Second Opium War, the so-called Arrow War, between Britain and China in 1856. Following their victory, the British had made various demands of the Emperor, to which he had reluctantly agreed. These included the right of European powers to have diplomats residing in Peking, the opening of more ports to foreign trade, and the payment of a huge indemnity to Britain. When the Emperor tried to go back on these, a powerful British and French force was dispatched to enforce them, with orders to march on Peking if necessary. The prospect of the British thus gaining a foothold in the Manchu capital struck fear into the Russians, lest it imperil their Far Eastern domains. Such was the situation when Ignatiev set out by sleigh and on horseback for distant Peking in the spring of 1859. His most urgent task was to secure the Tsar’s new territories by coercing the Chinese Emperor into formally ceding them to Russia, thereby making them a permanent part of the Russian Empire. It was a classic Great Game mission, and St Petersburg could not have entrusted it to a more determined or resourceful player.

On reaching the Forbidden City, Ignatiev immediately offered his services to the hard-pressed Emperor as an intermediary between himself and his European foes. At first these were declined, for it was feared that despite his protests of strict neutrality he might in fact be in league with the British and French. Nor, as it would later transpire, were they that far out, for Ignatiev was playing a double game. At first he assisted the invaders, discreetly supplying them with maps of the Chinese positions and with intelligence from inside the capital, to which he had access. At the same time he did everything he could to prevent them from coming to terms with the Chinese, fanning the flames of discord, and encouraging them to press on towards Peking. Finally, when the British and French troops were at the very walls of the city, he again offered his services to the Chinese as a mediator. By now the Emperor had fled the capital, leaving his brother to cope with the enemy. Already the latter had burned down the magnificent Summer Palace, which lay five miles outside Peking, and fearing the wholesale destruction of the city if foreign troops entered it, the defenders gratefully accepted Ignatiev’s offer.

Faced by the onset of the cruel winter of northern China, the British and French were anxious to enforce the provisions which the Emperor had originally agreed to, and then to depart. Ignatiev, however, was careful to keep this from the Chinese. Instead he played on their fears of the foreign troops staying on, and indeed Lord Elgin, the British commander, did momentarily toy with the idea, writing to Lord John Russell, then Foreign Secretary: ‘We might annex the Chinese Empire if we were in the humour to take a second India in hand.’ Finally the British and French settled for their original demands, both signing separate treaties with the Chinese, and then made plans to leave at once. Ignatiev succeeded in convincing the Chinese that he had not only hastened the departure of the foreign troops, but had also persuaded them to reduce the indemnity they were demanding. He now set about negotiating a treaty with the defeated Chinese on behalf of his own government, the formal ceding of Russia’s new Pacific territories being its main provision. When the Chinese hesitated over his demands, he used a brief, and purely administrative, delay in the troops’ departure to frighten them into agreement, claiming that he had ordered it. On November 6, 1860, the last of the foreign troops left. Eleven days later, without the British or the French suspecting what was afoot until it was too late to prevent it, the Russians, in the person of Ignatiev, and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Peking.

It had been a Machiavellian performance of the highest order by the young Ignatiev, then still in his late twenties, and a remarkable diplomatic triumph for the Russians. First, they had formally added a vast tract of territory, the size of France and Germany together, to their already huge northern Asiatic empire. Second, they had got the Chinese to agree to their opening consulates at Kashgar, in Eastern Turkestan, and at Urga, the capital of Mongolia, then both under Peking’s rule. They had thereby stolen a march on their rivals, the British, who had obtained no such facility, for the establishment of consulates meant that Russian merchants and goods would have exclusive access to these important new markets. It was with considerable satisfaction, therefore, that Ignatiev left Peking on November 22 and rode hard for St Petersburg. ‘Not since 1815’, one British historian has written, ‘had Russia concluded such an advantageous treaty, and probably never before had such a feat been carried off by so young a Russian diplomat. The successes of 1860 went far to obliterate the bitter memories of the Crimean defeat, the more especially as they had been achieved in good measure by hoodwinking the English.’


Six weeks after leaving Peking, Ignatiev arrived in St Petersburg. Once again he had ridden the whole way across Asia, this time in the middle of winter. After his filthy clothes, crawling with lice and fleas, had been removed and burned, he was summoned to report to the Tsar at the Winter Palace. There, in recognition of his remarkable services to his country, he was awarded the coveted Order of St Vladimir by the delighted Alexander. He was also allowed to retain his temporary rank of general. Finally, to make full use of his firsthand experience of the region and its peoples, he was made head of the recently formed Asiatic Department of the Foreign Ministry. Ignatiev thus joined the growing number of hawks and Anglophobes holding high positions in St Petersburg or on Russia’s frontiers. Among these was the energetic War Minister, Count Dmitri Milyutin, who had been appointed at the age of only 34. Another was Count Nikolai Muraviev, the forceful Governor-General of Eastern Siberia. It was he who had originally seized the vast Pacific territories which Ignatiev had now secured permanently for the Tsar. A third was Prince Alexander Baryatinsky, Governor-General of the Caucasus, who viewed the halting of British political and commercial penetration in Asia as a matter of urgency. In 1859, using new strategies, he had finally forced the submission of Imam Shamyl, thereby bringing to an end, except in parts of Circassia, four decades of bloody resistance to Russian rule. He saw the Caucasus as a powerful base from which the Tsar’s armies could ‘descend like an avalanche on Turkey, Persia and the road to India.’

Nor was this new mood for empire-building confined to the highest echelons of government. Most of the younger army officers favoured forward policies in Asia, and were eager to spoil what they believed to be Britain’s game there. Indeed the entire army, which Milyutin was drastically reorganising, was thirsting for fresh conquests following its successes in the Far East, not to mention the chance to expunge the memory of its Crimean defeat. As for the risks of a collision with Britain, most soldiers believed that sooner or later another war with Britain was inevitable anyway. In addition, Russian merchants and factory owners were pressing for the markets of Central Asia, as well as China, to be opened up to their goods, provided the caravans could be protected from plunder by Kazakh, Kirghiz and Turcoman raiders. Finally, the hawks at the top had an unexpected ally in Otto von Bismarck, then Prussian ambassador to St Petersburg, and soon to become his country’s chief minister and the architect of the German Empire. Believing that the more the Russians became involved in Asia the less of a threat they would be in Europe, he strongly encouraged them to embark on what he called their ‘great civilising mission’.

But those close to the Tsar who urged him to press southwards into Central Asia before the British got there had to bide their time. For Alexander had more critical matters to attend to at home. Largely as a result of the many shortcomings in Russian society which the Crimean War had shown up, he had embarked on a series of major liberal reforms aimed at modernising the country. The most momentous of these was the emancipation in 1861 of some forty million serfs, and the distribution of land to them, which predictably was resisted fiercely by many landowners. At the same time Alexander faced yet another uprising in Poland, which took him eighteen months to put down, and earned him much opprobrium in Europe. There were senior officials around him, moreover, who opposed forward policies in Central Asia. One was Count Mikhail Reutern, the Minister of Finance, who strongly cautioned him against taking on any new financial burdens until the country had recovered from the economic ruin resulting from the Crimean War. Another was Prince Alexander Gorchakov, who in 1856 had succeeded Nesselrode as Foreign Minister. It had been his uncomfortable task to try to justify the crushing of the Polish uprising to the rest of Europe. He now warned Alexander that the importance which the British accorded to India would make any moves by Russian troops towards its frontiers too perilous to contemplate.

Ignatiev and his allies were to win the day, however. Freed finally from his other problems, Alexander allowed himself to be persuaded by them of the need to steal a march in Central Asia on the scheming British. Any fears of a strong British reaction to moves there by Russia were brushed aside by Ignatiev. He pointed out that the British, after a succession of costly wars – with Afghanistan, Russia, Persia and China – not to mention a bloody insurrection in India, showed clear signs of entering a passive phase, and of wishing to avoid becoming embroiled in further conflicts. But what finally decided the Tsar was something which had happened in America, whose Southern States had long been Russia’s principal source of raw cotton. As a result of the civil war there, supplies of this vital commodity had been cut off, badly affecting the whole of Europe. The Russians, however, were more fortunate than most. For some time they had known that the Khokand region of Central Asia, especially the fertile Ferghana valley, was particularly suitable for growing cotton, with the potential to produce it in very substantial quantities. Alexander was determined to get his hands on the cotton-fields of Central Asia, or at least on the crop itself, before anyone else did. And that meant the British.

Originally it had been hoped that cordial relations and commercial co-operation might be established with the individual khanates by means of alliances, thereby avoiding bloodshed, expense and any risk of provoking untoward British reaction. But Ignatiev insisted, from his own recent experience at Khiva and Bokhara, that this was merely naïve. The rulers of Central Asia, he said, were untrustworthy and totally incapable of keeping to any agreement. Conquest was the only way of being sure, and thus keeping the British out. His view, which enjoyed the support of Count Milyutin, was to prevail. By the end of 1863 any remaining hopes of imperialism by negotiation had been finally abandoned. The Russians were ready to move into Central Asia, albeit gradually at first.

Their initial move, in the summer of 1864, was to consolidate their existing southern frontier with Central Asia by closing a gap, 500 miles wide, in the middle. It involved seizing several small towns and forts situated in the northern domains of the Khan of Khokand, and was achieved without difficulty.

Alarmed by these aggressive moves, which had robbed him of the oasis towns of Chimkent and Turkestan, the Khan immediately dispatched an emissary to India to beg for military assistance from the British. However, this was politely refused, for the doctrine of ‘masterly inactivity’ now guided British policy in Central Asia. What frontier activity there was, including mapping the hitherto unmapped and the construction of strategic roads, was confined to areas close to India’s own frontiers, in the somewhat pious hope that the Russians might show similar restraint. It would take more than that, though, to convince St Petersburg that the British had lost interest in Central Asia.

The Russians now prepared for their next step, encouraged no doubt by Britain’s failure to respond to the Khan of Khokand’s plea for help. But anticipating the outcry, particularly from the British, which would follow any further advances into Central Asia, the Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov, first sat down to prepare an official ‘explanation’ for such moves which, he hoped, would allay European fears and suspicions. It was skilfully designed, moreover, to make it difficult for powers like Britain, France, Holland, and even America, to object. For it compared Russia’s position in Central Asia to theirs in their own extensive colonial territories. In December 1864 Gorchakov’s memorandum was circulated, via the Tsar’s ambassadors, to the major European powers.

‘The position of Russia in Central Asia’, declared this celebrated document, ‘is that of all civilised states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organisation. In such cases it always happens that the more civilised state is forced, in the interests of the security of its frontiers and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendancy over those whose turbulent and unsettled character make them undesirable neighbours.’ In their turn these newly pacified regions had to be protected from the depredations of the lawless tribes beyond them, and so on. The Russian government therefore had to choose between bringing civilisation to those suffering under barbarian rule and abandoning its frontiers to anarchy and bloodshed. ‘Such has been the fate’, Gorchakov wrote, ‘of every country which has found itself in a similar position.’ Britain and the other colonial powers had been ‘irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march’. The greatest difficulty, he concluded, lay in deciding where to stop. Nonetheless, having consolidated its frontier with Khokand, Russia was intending to advance no further.

‘We find ourselves’, he assured the other powers, ‘in the presence of a more solid, less unsettled and better organised state, fixing for us with geographical precision that point at which we must halt.’ Whether he himself really believed this, or whether he was merely playing for time on behalf of a government already bent on subjugating the khanates, is a question which still exercises scholars. Certainly N. A. Khalfin, the Soviet historian of this era, believes that it was a deliberate smokescreen aimed at deceiving the British. Needless to say, the Russian advance did not stop there as Gorchakov had promised. Within a few months they were driving south once more. The great Russian push into Central Asia was about to begin. It was not destined to halt until the khanates of Central Asia lay prostrate at the Tsar’s feet.


Scots in Russian Naval Service

Samuel Greig, or Samuil Karlovich Greig as he was known in Russia (30 November 1735, Inverkeithing, Fife, Scotland – 15 October 1788, Tallinn, Estonia, Russian Empire) was a Scottish-born Russian admiral who distinguished himself in the Battle of Chesma (1770) and the Battle of Hogland (1788). His son Alexey Greig also made a spectacular career in the Imperial Russian Navy.

Battle of Chesma, by Ivan Aivazovsky

Peter the Great recruited officers and shipbuilders from Britain, the Low Countries and Denmark to help fulfil his ambitions for a Russian navy. For example, shipwrights went to Russia from Davenport. In the early 1700s Peter ousted the Swedes to acquire control over the head of the Gulf of Finland and embarked on the building of the great capital city named after him. The island of Kotlina was fortified to become the naval base of Kronstadt and the growth of the Russian fleet in the Baltic began. By 1713, the year of the indecisive naval battle with Sweden at Högland, Peter had a fleet that included fourteen ships of the line and several frigates. One of his captains was Andrew Simpson, who, in command of the 52-gun St Michael, took part in several brushes with the Swedes in 1714. Other Scots were Thomas Gordon, William Hay and Adam Urquhart. In the autumn of 1718 Gordon was promoted to rear-admiral of the Red (the Russian navy adopted colour names for its squadrons, as did the Royal Navy) and became involved in the disputes that seem often to have broken out among the members of an officer corps drawn from different nations. Probably emboldened by booze, Gordon complained to Peter in 1721 about preference being given to Danish and Dutch officers, to the detriment of the British and their ships. The Russian general-admiral, Feodor Apraxin, let his emperor know that ‘he looked upon Gordon and his associates as men of turbulent dispositions and malevolent principles; that having set their native country in a flame . . . some of them were forced to fly from justice and were now caballing to foment divisions in Russia’. This was a reference to the fact that some of the British were Jacobites. Despite these opinions, Peter, sensing Gordon’s talents, appealed to his officers to live in peace with each other. In the summer of 1722 Lord Duffus arrived in St Petersburg to become superintendent of the shipyard and magazine at an annual salary of 1,000 roubles (around £500). For general officers the pay Peter offered was slightly less than that they received in the Royal Navy (£20 per month against £21 per month) but seamen and warrant officers obtained a higher remuneration from the Russians. Andrew Simpson was dismissed from the service in 1714 for unknown reasons. Adam Urquhart was killed accidentally in the service in 1719 while cutting masts free after his ship, the Portsmouth, had run aground in bad weather on a sandbank 5 leagues from Kronstadt. More Jacobites went over to Russian service in the 1760s.

Two Scots in particular stand out in the annals: John Elphinstone and Samuel Greig. John Elphinston may have been born at Lopness on the island of Sanday, a low, windswept finger of land and rock reaching out towards Scandinavia, and if this is so it was a highly appropriate birthplace for this fighting captain. At the age of seventeen, in 1739, he joined the Royal Navy. By 1760 he had reached the rank of captain. In the following year he captured a French frigate. His combat experience, combined with demonstrated skills in hydrography and combined operations, made him, when he was put on half-pay after the Seven Years War – the normal method adopted by the Admiralty when it had to reduce its manpower – a prime catch for the Russian navy when it launched a recruitment drive. Elphinstone received a commission as a rear-admiral in the Baltic in May 1769. Samuel Greig was born in 1735, the son of a shipowner in Inverkeithing. He went to sea in the merchant service before joining the Royal Navy, where he quickly reached the warrant rank of master’s mate. He was still rated thus in 1762, although he had passed his examinations to be a lieutenant, and he also was attracted to transfer to the Russian navy, where swifter promotion beckoned.

Catherine II was crowned in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin in September 1762. As a young Prussian woman, she had come to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, a grandson of Peter the Great and Catherine I. It was still a land of contrasts, in the view of a French diplomat, ‘two different nations on the same soil . . . simultaneously in the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries’.9 Catherine II had great plans for her adopted country and, once she had disposed of her estranged husband (he was murdered in the summer of 1762 by officers loyal to her) she set about their implementation. In all she brought thirty British naval officers into her service. One of her ambitions was to continue the policy of Peter the Great to strengthen Russia and gain access to the Black Sea. The land war against Turkey was prosecuted successfully until Crimea was almost within Russia’s grasp, and as part of a broader strategy against the Ottomans the decision was taken to send a Russian fleet from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

Count Alexei Orlov, a scar-faced man of immense stature who was said to be able to down a bottle of champagne in one, was appointed to command this fleet, although he readily admitted he had little experience of the sea. Samuel Greig, who had already quietly made an impression as a competent and innovative officer and had risen in rank, was placed in command of a division of the fleet under Vice-Admiral Grigory Spiridov, and was taken on as adviser and flag-captain by Orlov. Whereas Greig exercised tact, Elphinstone made no secret of his opinion of the poorly equipped, poorly led fleet, and in essence he had good grounds for his complaints. The first fleet sailed from Kronstadt, while Elphinstone stayed behind to prepare a second of three 66-gun ships and two 32-gun frigates, ‘the fitting out of which was likely to be attended with delay and many difficulties’. Spiridov had gone away with most of the stores and the best officers, and Elphinstone also had to contend with the ‘very tedious’ Russian ‘forms of office’ until Catherine gave him the power to cut through the red tape. Once at sea, Elphinstone had other problems. One ship had to turn back, but she later caught up with the others at Copenhagen, and a frigate sank in the Gulf of Finland. Some officers enjoyed the delights of the Danish capital and neglected their duties to the extent that the fleet sailed on just before winter choked their passage with ice. Stormy weather in the North Sea scattered the ships and drove them into various English ports, and Christmas was upon them before they re-assembled at Portsmouth to effect repairs and recuperate from the rigours of the voyage.

At last, in the spring of 1770, the Russian ships assembled at Livorno. Elphinstone and Spiridov quarrelled vigorously until Greig dropped a word in Orlov’s ear that it might be a good idea to let the fiery rear-admiral go off in command of an independent squadron to hunt on his own. After the capture of Navarino (now Pylos) Elphinstone, sailing in the 84-gunned Syvatoslav, along with the Ne Tron Menya and the Saratov, and the frigates Nadezhda and Afrika, found out that a fleet of Turkish ships was lurking off Nafplio on the east Peloponnese coast and engaged them on 27 May. ‘We bore down upon them with all the sail we could croud, with colours flying, whilst the drums and trumpets animated us to battle.’ The Na Tron Menya and the Saratov put three Turks out of action before a change of wind direction made them vulnerable to galley attack, but then Elphinstone attacked with explosive shells. The Turks withdrew into Nafplio. Although Elphinstone had had to fire on his own ships to encourage the reluctant commanders into the fray, he thought that the ordinary sailors ‘fearless of danger . . . fought at their guns like lions’. On the following day, after another attack ending with a bombardment of the port, he sailed off to rejoin the main fleet.

On 3 July the Russians tracked down the main Turkish fleet to the bay of Çesme, opposite the hilly island of Chios, where some sixteen ships of the line with a large number of smaller vessels were anchored in three lines. At nine on the morning of the 5th Elphinstone went aboard Orlov’s flagship to propose his plan of attack but found to his surprise that everything had been already decided: that the Russians would attack from the south, with Spiridov having the honour of leading the van, followed by Orlov and Greig in the centre, and with Elphinstone’s squadron bringing up the rear. Elphinstone did not like this but Orlov was adamant, and the Orkneyman had grumpily to agree to obey orders, although he made it clear he thought the whole venture ‘too uncertain for him to risque his reputation upon’.

At noon Orlov hoisted the red flag to signal the attack. The Russian ships ranged up and formed their battle line, gliding northwards alongside the enemy. Some of the Russian ships had difficulty in maintaining their position, and left and rejoined the line as the exchange of broadsides thundered across the sea. At one point the Sv. Evstafii, Spiridov’s flagship, was fired on in error by Orlov’s flagship, Trech Ierarchov, and then sailed into a fierce, close-range cannoning with the Turkish battleship Real Mustafa. The Turk’s mainmast fell on the Russian’s deck, and both ships blew up as fire took hold on them. Spiridov had already transferred to another ship before this happened. After over two hours of fighting, the Turkish fleet cut their cables and retreated into the bay to adopt a defensive battle line.

On the following day, the Russians subjected the ships and the shore to a bombardment but it must have been clear that something more effective would be needed to overcome them. Greig now masterminded a devastating blow to the Turks. Shortly after midnight on the 7th, he hoisted his broad pennant aboard the Ratislav to lead the Netromena and the Europa into the jaws of the bay, taking on the guns of the batteries and covering the advance of fireships. The Authentic Narrative, a near contemporary account of the event, says there were three of these, prepared from commandeered Greek boats, but the map in the same book plainly states there were four, two of which did not go in as the Russian officers were ‘dead Drunk’. The largest of the fireships was commanded by Lieutenant Robert Dugdale. As it neared its target at the north end of the Turkish line, Dugdale’s crew deserted him, either because they misunderstood their orders or because they panicked – they ‘jumped into the boat and rowed away as fast as they could . . . whilst [the fireship] was going with all her sails set down the enemy’. Dugdale carried on alone until he was sure his doomed vessel would reach its target, ‘fired a pistol into the train [the gunpowder], stayed to see it take fire, then boldly leaped into the sea and was fortunately taken up by a Greek boat (that was passing among the ships) just as he was sinking with fatigue.’ In his understandable haste, he had fired too soon, and his fireship drifted ashore ‘to little purpose’. In the second fireship, Lieutenant Thomas Mackenzie’s crew stayed with him until the right moment. They abandoned the burning vessel to sail down on the southern end of the Turkish line, where it caused a ‘conflagration, which soon raged with irresistible fury’. In the crowded anchorage the fire spread, provoking the author of the Authentic Narrative to write: ‘A fleet consisting upwards of one hundred sail, almost in one general blaze, presented a picture of distress and horror, dreadfully sublime.’ The damage to the Turkish navy was irrecoverable.

Catherine II heaped honours upon Orlov, although he was honest enough to admit privately that he owed everything to Greig, who was now promoted to rear-admiral. Elphinstone boiled with resentment at being overlooked – he had proposed a combined operation ‘to pass the Dardanelles and burn Constantinople, and should now think myself morally certain of success’, which had been rejected – and in 1771 he left the Russian service to return to the Royal Navy. The discreet Greig kept his thoughts to himself and prospered in Orlov’s good books. In 1775 he became vice-admiral and was placed in command of the Kronstadt base; various honours and decorations also came his way and Catherine dined aboard his flagship after a fleet review. Greig oversaw many improvements to the main Baltic base and the fleet, but, predictably, his use of foreign experts provoked grumbling.

In 1788 other British officers in the Russian service persuaded him to support them in an effort to prevent John Paul Jones being promoted to rear-admiral. Jones had been born a Scot before emigrating to the Americas as a teenager and thereafter making a considerable name for himself in the American navy in the War of Independence, defeating the Royal Navy frigate HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head and at one point threatening to bombard Leith. In 1788 he joined the Russian navy. The ever-tactful Greig changed his mind over opposition to Jones’s promotion, and Jones did become a rear-admiral and served in the Black Sea in June of the same year before he left the service.

War broke out in 1788 with Sweden again and in this conflict Greig played a leading part. His fleet blocked the Swedes in the Gulf of Finland and fought them off Högland on 17 July. The engagement was indecisive, with roughly equal losses on both sides, but the thwarting of the enemy’s ambition to wipe out the Baltic fleet and to descend on St Petersburg determined the strategic outcome was in Russia’s favour. For the rest of the summer and autumn Greig kept the Swedish ships bottled up in Sveaborg, at the entrance to Helsinki harbour, until in early October he fell ill aboard his flagship, the Rotislav, and died. Catherine wept for the loss and gave her rear-admiral a state funeral in Reval (now Tallinn). His son Alexis Samuilovich Greig became an admiral in the Russian navy.

Imperial Russia’s Retreat 1915

German Cavalry entering Warsaw on August 5, 1915.

Not until April 1915 did OHL inform OAK in Vienna how it planned to use Mackensen’s 11th Army, and only then because it required Conrad to transfer two corps of his 4th Army to Mackensen’s command. Conrad again protested that the area of intended operations was on the front of which he was commander-in-chief, but had to accept this partial usurpation of his authority, since it seemed the only way to force Brusilov’s retreat from the Carpathian passes, where he was little more than 100 miles from Budapest, twin capital of the dual monarchy.

On paper, the Central Powers now had a coordinated strategy from the Baltic coast right down to the Romanian frontier. In East Prussia, Hindenburg’s forces consisted of the new 10th Army, 8th Army under von Below and 9th Army facing Warsaw. South of the salient, Austro-Hungarian forces were, from north to south, 2nd, 1st, 4th and 3rd armies. Russian forces holding the line were 10th Army in the north on the East Prussian border, 1st and 2nd armies defending Warsaw in the salient and the new 12th Army to the north-east of Warsaw. South of the salient, facing the Austro-Hungarians, were 5th, 4th, 9th, 3rd, 8th and 11th armies.

On 2 May Mackensen’s artillery loosed a devastating 4-hour barrage on a 35-mile stretch of the lines of Russian 3rd Army. He had tried to break through west of the River Narev in February and March, and was determined not to fail again. Mackensen had just over ten divisions in the line and another in reserve against the seven divisions of Russian 1st and 12th armies. He had 1,000 guns on this small front, with 400,000 rounds of shell, all coordinated by General Bruchmüller, the artillery expert, facing 377 guns with only forty rounds apiece. Immediately following the barrage, German infantry moved in, ready to tackle Russian survivors emerging from dugout shelters, but found instead almost all the men in the badly constructed front line, as well as the reserves, who had been held too far forward, lying dead because they had been cut to pieces in their trenches by shrapnel bursts and literally vaporised by high explosive (HE). It was about this time that the enormous numbers of casualties on the Russian fronts led to burials in ‘brothers’ graves’, where dozens and sometimes hundreds of men were buried in the same mass grave without discrimination of nationality, race or religion.

For the reality of what lies behind the bland body counts we have an eye-witness account. For those not killed outright and lucky enough to be brought to a letuchka, or mobile surgical unit, everyday nursing was in the hands of the krestovaye sestry – Red Cross sisters. A few of these women who braved all the discomforts and dangers of working close to the front lines were English. Florence Farmborough was a 27-year-old governess employed by a surgeon in Moscow, who had volunteered and been given a few weeks’ training in a hospital before spending a whole month in trains to reach the south-western front. Fortunately, she kept a diary, writing down events whenever she had time. With the general insufficiency of field hospitals, delay in treating even a small wound often meant death from infection. So the letuchki worked very close to the lines, moving frequently to keep up with advances and retreats. Florence’s first base was in a well-built house with several pleasant, airy rooms, where the nurses’ first task was to scrub every surface clean and paint or whitewash the walls. An operating theatre was set up and a pharmacy stocked with medicines and surgical material. They were told not to think they would be there long: the stay might be six months or six hours, depending on the movement of the front. Not knowing exactly what to expect, she took some solace in the scenery of the undulating Carpathian foothills.

Mackensen pressed on with the German 11th Army in the centre, flanked by Austrian 3rd and 4th armies, demolishing any sustained Russian resistance with more massive artillery bombardments. Conventionally, Russian units north and south of the CP advance should have attacked the flanks, but Stavka was afraid of Brusilov’s 8th Army being too exposed on the south-western front and ordered a general withdrawal to straighten the line, in the absence of sufficient heavy artillery – and especially sufficient stocks of shell – to even slow down the CP advance. Casualties rapidly mounted to the million mark, with reinforcements arriving and being thrown into battle after only two or three weeks’ training.

Three days after Florence’s arrival on this front, there was a sense of foreboding in her entry for 28 April, which recorded the arrival of a first batch of fifty wounded men, whose wounds had to be dressed before they were sent on to Yaslo. Against the booming of cannon fire, the soldiers voiced their dismay that German troops and heavy artillery had been sent to this section of the Front. ‘We are not afraid of the Austrians,’ they said, ‘but the German soldiers are quite different.’

Two days later, the new nurse of Letuchka No. 2 was shocked by a colossal influx of seriously wounded men after Russian 3rd Army was cut to pieces and 61st Division – to which the letuchka was attached – lost many thousands of men. The reality of a combat nurse’s exhausting life had sunk in:

We were called from our beds before dawn on Saturday 1 May. The Germans had launched their offensive. Explosion after explosion rent the air. Shells and shrapnel fell all around. Our house shook to its very foundations. Death was very busy, his hands full of victims. Then the victims started to arrive until we were overwhelmed by their numbers. They came in their hundreds from all directions, some able to walk, others dragging themselves along the ground. We worked day and night. The thunder of the guns never ceased. Soon shells were exploding all around our unit. The stream of wounded was endless. We dressed their severe wounds where they lay on the open ground, first alleviating their pain by injections. On Sunday the terrible word retreat was heard. In that one word lies all the agony of the last few days. The first-line troops came into sight: a long procession of dirt-bespattered, weary, desperate men. Orders: we were to start without delay, leaving behind all the wounded and the unit’s equipment! ‘Skoro, skoro! Quickly! The Germans are outside the town!’

Again and again, the surgeon, orderlies and nurses of Letuchka No. 2 fled eastwards out of towns and villages as the German spearheads entered them from the west. The arrival of a Cossack despatch-rider on his mud-flecked pony meant packing up the instruments and tents, always to head further east. Sleep-deprived, the nurses nodded off to get whatever rest they could in the jolting horse-drawn carts bumping over unmade roads. This was the Great Retreat of 1915.

In April 1915 Hindenburg also continued his push on the northern front into Russian-occupied Lithuania and Courland, relieving Königsberg and capturing the Russian naval base of Libau (modern Liepaja) on the Baltic coast in early May. On 2 May Mackensen’s now very mixed armies opened an attack from the line of the Vistula River, all the way south to the Carpathian Mountains. Preceded by an enormous barrage, it was a huge success, with Russian 3rd Army suffering severe losses. The advance continued with the capture of the ruined fortress of Przemyśl – which could not be defended because of all the damage caused during the Russian siege and the demolitions carried out by the Austrian garrison before surrendering in March. Less than three weeks later, Lemberg was also recaptured. The joint German-Austrian attack continued its momentum, driving the Russians back to the River San just over a week after that. By the end of the month, the front had shifted 100 miles to the east.

By 15 June Letuchka No. 2 had moved so many times as the front collapsed that it was back inside Russia, but the retreat was not over yet. Asleep on their feet, the nursing sisters collected up all the equipment and re-packed again and again as the temporary haven of care for the suffering where they had worked the previous day fell into the hands of the enemy. Bumping along the bad roads in unsprung carts, two of the nurses were ill – partly, Florence thought, from the sustained anxiety. Trying at night to sleep on a carpet of pine needles in the forest, she heard the nurse lying beside her crying quietly. When dawn came, they merged again into the stream of humans and animals, all moving eastwards. Entire herds of cattle were being driven by their owners with droves of sheep and pigs. And always behind them black clouds of smoke rose into the sky as all the peasants’ hayricks and barns full of straw were fired, to deny them to the enemy. She wrote:

It was said that the Cossacks had received orders to force all the inhabitants to leave their homes so they could not act as spies. In order that the enemy should encounter widespread devastation, the homesteads were set on fire and crops destroyed. The peasants were heart-rending. They took what they could with them but before long the animals’ strength gave out and we would see panting, dying creatures by the roadside, unable to go any farther. One woman, with a sleeping infant in her arms, was bowed almost double by a large wicker basket containing poultry, which was strapped to her back. Sometimes a cart had broken down and the family, bewildered and frightened, chose to remain with their precious possessions, until they too were driven onwards by the threatening knout of the Cossack or the more terrifying prospect of the proximity of the enemy.

Near Lublin in the salient 5,000 Cossack cavalry and Russian artillery wiped out two crack Austrian cavalry regiments, mostly killed in medieval manner by sabre or lance. Knox described one Austrian officer taken prisoner after having the whole of his lower jaw carried away on the point of a lance. Joseph Bumby described his capture like this:

I was left alone in front of the Russian trenches with six dead men on my left and the forest on my right. The Russians were 200 paces behind me when I was shot in the neck. In the evening when the firing died down, some Russian soldiers came close and called out to me. One escorted me to a house in the village of Něgartova where they gave me bread, tea and cigarettes, but they stole my gloves and some canned goods I had. Then they gave me some straw to sleep on.

One always recalls the first night in captivity, after which it all becomes a blur.

After General Alexander von Linsingen recaptured Strij with the Galician oilfields, which were 60 per cent British-owned, a cartel of businessmen in Berlin pre-echoed Hitler’s plan to enslave the populations of Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. The southern end of the Russian lines was now floating unanchored and Mackensen continued pressing his advantage for four months with the tsarist forces retreating all along the Russian fronts – which ran from Latvia in the north, looped around Warsaw and, with most of Galicia back in Austrian hands, continued south to the Romanian border.

On 7 July Russian forces took thousands of POWs on the northern front and pressed on to take the key fortresses at Königsberg and Allenstein before being driven back. Florence Farmborough’s mobile surgical unit was then attached to 5th Caucasian Infantry Corps. Her diary records that, of 25,000 men, only 2,000 were left. But the major defeat of that terrible midsummer was due to a joint German and Austrian push towards Warsaw. Although Stavka managed to extricate three armies from encirclement, once the loss of the Polish salient became inevitable, an evacuation of all civilians was ordered, with the destruction of all homes, food and animals in the scorched-earth policy used against Napoleon. Knox recorded the start of the Third Battle for Warsaw on 13 July, of which the first warning came when human intelligence indicated that the frontier railway stations at Willenberg, Soldau and Neidenburg were being enlarged to handle more traffic. After a feint along the River Vistula, the Germans opened up a hurricane barrage on 12 July, which showed that they had no shortage of shells on this occasion. The weather had been dry and roads were at their best, so one corps of Russian 1st Army had to counter forty-two large-calibre enemy guns with only two of its own, with the result that an entire Siberian division was virtually wiped out amid widespread panic. The infantry attack came in on 13 July, when the Russian troops withdrew from the front line without pausing to defend a second defensive line that had been prepared on the line Przasnysz–Tsyekhanov–Plonsk–Chervinsk. The majority of Russian conscripts being of peasant origin, when a scorched-earth policy was ordered in retreats, they routinely drove off livestock and looted other possessions from civilians, which slowed down their movement, with the result during this retreat the enemy cavalry caught up and broke through in the centre of the line, attacking the slow-moving and vulnerable transport columns. The term ‘scorched earth’ requires clarification. It seems that poor peasants lost everything, as did the Jews. But noble estates belonging to rich Polish landowners who had connections with German, Austrian and Russian high commands, could ‘arrange’ for their lands and property to be left intact.

On 16 July the fortified line Makov–Naselsk–Novo Georgievsk was reached, where Russian 4th Corps was sent immediately into combat as they stepped off the trains from Warsaw. Even this desperate measure was too little, too late. On the night of 18 July the retreat continued to the River Narev. After four German divisions forced a bridgehead on the right bank, it was decided to evacuate Warsaw. By this time, Russian 2nd Army had only a single corps remaining on the left bank, 4 miles outside the city. On the night of 4 August this too retreated to the right bank, after which the Vistula bridges were blown at 0300hrs on 5 August. The German scouts reached the left bank at 6 a.m.

By the time Warsaw fell to Mackensen that day, Russian losses in the war totalled 1.4 million casualties and nearly a million officers and men taken prisoner. The ‘black summer’ continued, but the German advance – in places up to 125 miles from the nearest railhead – was fraught with problems, corps commanders complaining that fodder for horses was impossible to obtain in sufficient quantity as they drove through primeval forest and hit the Pripyat marshes where, ironically, there was no drinking water for men or horses until it had been boiled.

There was already trouble brewing in the subject nations on both sides. A Czech independence faction wanted to use the war to break away from Austrian domination. The Slovaks wanted independence from Hungary. If not the Tsar, at least the Russian government was aware that the Finns, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, as well as the Caucasian nations subdued in the nineteenth century, were all waiting for the right moment to escape from Russian hegemony. In a feeble attempt to purchase the loyalty of the vassal races, the tsarist government promised reforms – which stopped short of independence – to Poles and Finns, to the Slavs of Galicia and to the Jews, although Nicholas was a strident anti-Semite.

Morale in some Russian units was still good although losses already totalled 3.8 million killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Even these figures are to some extent conjectural. General Hindenburg wrote:

In the Great War ledger the page on which the Russian losses were written had been torn out. No one knows the figure. 5 millions or 8 millions? We too have no idea. All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.

On the day following the surrender of Warsaw, Colonel Knox lunched about 1,000yd from the firing line with the commander of the elite Preobrazhenskii Guards Regiment, founded by Peter the Great. They ate from a camp table covered with a clean white cloth and all the officers seemed in excellent spirits. When Knox asked about strategy, one of them joked: ‘We will retire to the Urals. When we get there, the enemy’s pursuing army have dwindled to a single German and a single Austrian. The Austrian will, according to custom, give himself up as a prisoner, and we will kill the German.’ There was laughter all round.

In another light-hearted moment Knox recorded two Jews discussing the progress of the war in a market. When one said, ‘Our side will win,’ and the other agreed, a Pole standing nearby asked which side was ‘ours’. Both the Jews said: ‘Why, the side that will win.’

What was the truth of the Russian belief that Slavs in Austro-Hungarian uniform would willingly surrender at the first opportunity? Firstly, as Bolshevik commissars were to do with fellow Russians a few years later, the officers and senior NCOs of Conrad’s predominantly Slavic units were ordered to shoot any men preparing to give up without a fight – as did also British and French NCOs and military police on the Western Front. Secondly, unless all the men in a particular group were agreed about surrender, there was always the possibility of an informer giving away the plan. Ferdinand Filacek was a Czech metal-worker from Litomysl who was called up, aged 18, in August 1914. Arriving at the front in mid-November, he was taken prisoner near Novy Sad on 5 December. It is true that he was temporarily out of danger, but the next year was spent in three different POW camps at Kainsk, Novo-Nikolajevsk and Semipalatinsk (modern Semeï in Kazakhstan) a sparsely inhabited area 2,000 miles east of Moscow, where the Soviet Union would explode hundreds of nuclear devices during the Cold War.

18th Century Russian Campaigning in Eastern Europe I

Russian Grenadier Officer and Infantry Officer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18th Century Russian Campaigning in Eastern Europe II

Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

The size of the Russian logistical apparatus and the nature of East European terrain thus produced chronic shortages of fodder and often of food whenever Russian armies went off to war. One reason why so many of Russia’s eighteenth-century campaigns appear so irritatingly indecisive to modern observers is that although Russia might frequently take an objective, capture a city, or even conquer an entire province, it often was forced to evacuate it owing to a lack of victuals and forage. In the middle of June 1736, for example, Münnich breached the fortifications of Perekop and, for the first time in Russian history, led an invading Slavic army into the Crimean peninsula; the stunned Turks and Tatars fell back respectively on Kaffa and the Yaila mountains. Yet by the end of August Münnich had to retreat, for he had all but exhausted his own stock of food and water. He could not rely on locally obtained supplies, because his enemies had taken the precaution of burning the granaries and poisoning the wells. The following summer Münnich took the Turkish fortress of Ochakov after ferocious fighting in which perhaps as much as 80 percent of the defenders and inhabitants were butchered. Yet on the July 5, 1737 Münnich had no choice but to break camp and march the main Russian army away from Ochakov, this time because of a dearth of forage. The field marshal reported to St. Petersburg that 1,720 horses and 685 teams of oxen had died from the heat or from lack of fodder.

Insufficient forage was a problem that dogged the Russians in other wars years later. It was most particularly acute (and damaging) during the Seven Years War, when it severely compromised many military operations. P. A. Rumiantsev, then in Brandenburg, wrote to V. V. Fermor in July 1758 that he often lacked the cavalry necessary for even the simplest reconnaissance because of the undernourishment of his horses. Skimpy forage often precluded decisive military action. Armchair generals have often lambasted Apraksin for his conduct after the battle of Gross Jägersdorf (August 30, 1757). They maintain that after having gained the advantage there, Apraksin should have harried the Prussians with a vigorous strategic pursuit instead of retreating. It is quite true that Apraksin did not have to retreat, but it is equally true that strategic pursuit was totally beyond his capacity in view of the condition of his underfed cavalry horses. Apraksin’s inability to renew offensive action after Gross Jägersdorf did in fact provide Der Alte Fritz with the time he needed to regroup and defeat the French at Rossbach. There was little, however, that Apraksin could have done to prevent that, no matter how aggressive and offensive-minded he might have been.

Indeed, shortage of forage was a problem that just would not go away. Almost two years later in the war, P. S. Saltykov explained to the Empress Elizabeth that he was organizing scavenging raids for the seizure of

. . . as many horses and kine as possible and also provisions, as in the army of Your Imperial Majesty. . . . the baggage and artillery horses and oxen [have] fallen into extreme exhaustion because of the great heat and poor feeding.

Elsewhere in the same missive, Saltykov noted that his artillery was largely useless because it had not been resupplied with shells; that in itself was a consequence of the inadequate quality and quantity of draft animals.

The adamantine laws of the military ecosystem thus forced the Russian government and its military commanders constantly to calculate and recalculate the requirements of human and equine alimentation. Sometimes an apparent good really concealed an evil. During the Swedish war of 1788, for instance, the provisioning department requested Catherine II’s permission to send four hundred horses to transport food and forage to Russia’s Finnish magazines and its army in the field there. Catherine referred the petition to her Council of State, where it was rejected as “deeply onerous” since “the feeding of these horses in a poor country [Finland] would increase the need of the regimental horses already there for food.” In other words, the possession of additional beasts of burden would actually disadvantage the army, as the liability of their food consumption would totally outweigh any benefit from their labor power.

Warfare in Eastern Europe thus naturally entailed very high rates of attrition. Distances were vast, terrain difficult, operations intense, and rations short. It was not uncommon for a regiment to ruin most of its equipment from hard use in the course of one summer campaign. In August 1739 Münnich sent his prisoners-of-war back to Russia under an escort of four entire regiments. The reason for employing such a large convoy was that these regiments, in Münnich’s words, “were completely without uniforms,” that is, they had thoroughly worn out their uniforms.

The conditions in which Russia waged war also promoted the spread of disease. The health of the troops was most definitely not furthered by the common practice of randomly appointing regimental surgeons from among the untrained peasants in the ranks. Examples of astonishing military epidemics abound during the eighteenth century. In the 1722–39 period, for instance, Russia kept certain districts of Transcaspian Persia under the military occupation of 30,000 men. When the St. Petersburg government agreed to withdraw its forces, it did so more because of pathology than geopolitics. Almost 130,000 Russian troops had perished from disease while on garrison duty in Persia—a full half of all who served there—over the seventeen years. The Turkish war of 1735–39 was itself a medical catastrophe. During it, as Manstein observed, the Russian army had more to fear from “hunger, thirst, continual fatigue, and marches in the intensest heats of the summer” than from the Tatars or the Turks. Münnich’s son, a passionate booster of his father’s military reputation, nonetheless conceded that the “bad climate, combined with the unbearable heat and drought, produced many illnesses among the men.” Some 30,000 soldiers are said to have died in the first year of the war, chiefly from disease. During the campaigning season of 1737 Russia’s army suffered 25,000 deaths, 60 percent of them from disease. In the following year Münnich wanted to chase the Turks into Moldavia but had to halt at the Dniester when plague broke out among the men. The majority of the 100,000 Russian casualties incurred from 1735–39 were clearly traceable to sickness.

In terms of both morbidity and mortality, the Russo-Turkish war of the 1730s was perhaps the worst of the post-Petrine eighteenth century. But infectious disease stalked Russian armies in later wars as well. Twelve thousand soldiers, for instance, died in one year (1757) of the Seven Years War—9,500 of them, or 80 percent, of diseases. In the Turkish wars of the second half of the century, the Russian soldier’s most dreaded enemy was cholera, whose outbreak in 1771 (just to adduce one example) totally spoiled Russia’s planned campaign.

“Action in war,” Clausewitz writes in Vom Krieg, “is like movement in a resistant element.” He continues to explain his concept of friction, those forces that in warfare grind armies down and make “the apparently easy so difficult.” Friction was an inescapable feature of warfare in eighteenth-century Western Europe as well. Western armies, like Russian ones, suffered from disease and logistic shortfalls. In view of the greater population density and agricultural productivity of Western Europe, however, talented commanders could minimize the effects of friction in ways their Russian counterparts could not. In the spring of 1704, for instance, Marlborough was able to march from Coblenz to the Danube while keeping his army virtually intact: he traversed populous country and made shrewd use of prepositioned magazines. That justly famous maneuver could not, however, have been accomplished in Eastern Europe. As the century progressed, the disparity between West and East European warfare grew still greater, as Western commanders benefited from population growth, rising agricultural outputs, and expanding networks of roads. To be sure, friction remained, but in East European warfare there was a superabundance of friction by comparison. Military power is after all a consumable resource, one not readily renewed. Yet the speed with which any military operation at all devoured power in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe represented a real constraint on Russian strategy and statescraft.

Ottoman Enemies: Austria and Russia

In 1643 the Ottomans retook Baghdad from Persia; in the 1660s the Koprulu grand viziers finally destroyed Venetian power in the Levant, and took Ukraine; in 1711 Peter the Great and his army were holed up on the River Pruth, and sued for an abject peace; even in the 1730s the Austrians, hoping for a whirlwind victory like the one Prince Eugene had won for them twenty years before, were driven out of Belgrade instead. Sometimes it seemed that by a convulsive effort the empire could shake off lethargy and confusion, and discover some of its old direction.

But the troughs from which the Ottomans climbed were deeper every time. In 1674 they lost their first land battle against the Habsburgs at St Gotthard. Then came the crushing failure at Vienna in 1683; a string of defeats culminating in the humiliating treaty of Karlowitz in 1699; the no less disastrous treaty of Passarowitz, in 1718; the inescapable rise of Russian power in the eighteenth century, and the indefatigable resistance of Persia. These were hammer blows the empire sought to deflect by a variety of retreats: into diplomacy, safer territory, nostalgic fantasy, or selfishness. People moved to carve themselves out a place in an enterprise which struggled, first to maintain the status of a lofty power, then against failure, and lastly against disintegration, as the effort to pull together and recoup grew harder with the years.

The treaty of Belgrade in 1739, and treaties with Persia in 1748, gave the empire almost half a century of unprecedented peace. When the Ottomans chose to break that peace with a new series of Russian wars in 1784, they were roundly defeated, and the exercise proved only how fantastic all their expectations had become, and what little use they had made of this respite. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russian armies could lunge at Edirne; Napoleon took Egypt in 1800; and the integrity of Ottoman dominion, such as it was, was maintained as much by the bickerings of foreign diplomats as by any active policy of the state.

Some say that the causes of Ottoman decline are to be sought on the periphery, which no longer provided the empire with fresh blood; others blame it on the behaviour of the palace. Old-fashioned historians observed that the warrior blood of early sultans had been diluted, drop by drop, by the foreign slave-girls of the harem; as late as 1911 Professor Libyer computed the falling-off, and declared that the Ottoman Sultan possessed no more than one part in a million of Turkish blood (another historian corrected him by factoring in the Turkish odalisques, and thus arrived at a sum of about 1/16,000). But they also point to the entry of Muslim boys into the slave caste of the empire. Some see the empire’s nemesis not in western imbroglios but in the perpetual struggle with Shi’ite Persia, which promoted a stale orthodoxy and beggared the treasury. Foreign historians tend to blame the international forces of capitalism – their capital, their force – and suggest that the West reduced the empire to a peripheral producer of raw materials. Turkish historians repatriate the faults: they demonstrate that western trade had a negligible influence on the empire until the nineteenth century. But the military experts, taking the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 as a moment of reckoning, suggest that Austria and Russia were beginning to learn lessons that the Ottomans themselves had already started to forget.

War provided an excuse to raise more taxes, a full quarter of which were spent on the Sultan and his palace. War took the janissaries and the spahi cavalry off the streets. War brought the Ottoman Empire into the field, kindled some of the old flame, and set the elderly mechanism creaking and whirring into life again. Success or failure at the march’s end was really beside the point; and wars continued to be punctiliously waged even when Ottoman armies journeyed, not as a glorious caravan to lands of booty, but to dismal and near-inevitable defeats.

Both Austria and Russia benefited from coming late to the imperial feast: they were able to arrange their command structures, their tax-gathering efforts, and their technology to suit the modern style of warfare. The superiority of massive infantry divisions backed by mobile field artillery over medieval cavalry charges and heavy bronze siege cannon had been proved in Central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, when the strategy had been imported from France and Italy. It demanded much more from the state, for while knights who took revenues from their own lands were satisfied with the plunder they could seize from others, and remained, in essence, marauding hordes, the new style of warfare demanded huge discipline, systems of co-ordination, and a massive investment of funds – training, wages and supply. This in turn called for a very efficient tax system, encouraging the growth of a sophisticated bureaucracy backed by military force: if the countryside was to be milked, it had to be held hard.

The Russians eventually turned out to be very good at this. With their seemingly limitless reserves of manpower, they were quick to settle, cultivate and tax newly conquered lands, which paid for the army moving up ahead. Because they were moving on the whole into underpopulated territory, north and north-west of the Black Sea, their conquests had greater homogeneity than the Austrians could impose in Central Europe, or the Ottomans had ever considered imposing on the Balkans when they slipped in their horsemen as one link in the tax system. The passage of Ottoman armies, not composed of disciplined conscripts but of predatory horsemen and hired guns, and the high-handed attitude of the privileged janissaries towards peasants, did nothing to encourage settlement on the Ottoman frontier. Austria and Russia used armies as a palisade behind which people could be settled for tax and cultivation, which financed the next advance. The Ottomans left settlement to private initiative.

The support mechanisms which the Ottomans had excelled at establishing from early times were now looking old-fashioned. The guild-bound artisans of Constantinople were not up to manufacturing matériel and arms on the scale that modern war demanded. The tax system was fairly rudimentary, and nothing in Ottoman experience or training prepared them for the business of managing the enormous funds a modern state was obliged to raise, protect and disburse for war. Ottomans did not, on the whole, engage in trade; they worked in administration; their minorities, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, separated from them by a gulf of culture and sympathy, traditionally looked after the money side.

The Austrian years were dominated by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who brought drill and discipline, promotion by merit and a clear command structure to the Austrian armies. Within a few years the Austrians were able to inflict regular defeats on the Ottomans with armies no larger than before. Under Eugene, the Austrians had taken Belgrade and Nis; in 1697 they had defeated Sultan Mustafa IV in person at Zenta, on the lower Tisza, thwarting Ottoman efforts to recover the middle Danube, and created the conditions by which the Habsburgs gained Hungary and Transylvania in the peace of Karlowitz in 1699. Following a resumption of war, the treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 established Habsburg rule over Serbia itself, and it might have seemed that the Austrians were poised to sweep the Ottomans back into Asia. But ‘pride spread the veil of negligence over the eye of sagacity’, as an Ottoman historian once wrote. Eugene’s brilliance and daring so overawed his junior officers that when he was dead, and they had the command, they fatally sought to imitate his daring, while possessing none of his brilliance. Trying to repeat history without Eugene in the campaigns of 1734–6 they found themselves losing most of their gains to Ottoman armies which, if not brilliantly generalled, and no longer splendidly equipped, were very obdurate. The treaty of Belgrade in 1739 overturned many of the decisions of Passarowitz, and Serbia was returned to the empire.

The spirit of victory now moved decisively to Russia. The Tsars began to develop a sort of scientific rhythm to secure and settle the great steppe, which extended south of Muscovy to the northern shores of the Black Sea; after which they could reach out with both arms to encircle the so-called Turkish lake. By 1774, when Russia inflicted the humiliating treaty of Kucuk Kainardji on the Ottomans, Austria’s own twin-headed eagle seemed to peer uncertainly now east, now west; and in token of her confusion she was working as Russia’s poor relation, in the field at least. Austrian armies suffered one of their most terrible defeats near Slatina in 1788, when the order to halt one night was mistaken, by men further down the column, as the shout of ‘Allah!’ Believing the Turks had sprung an ambush, the troops panicked. The drivers of the ammunition carts lashed their horses to full speed, and at the terrible sound of their wheels, which sounded to the infantry like the charge of enemy cavalry, the soldiers fell out of line and clustered together in terrified huddles, firing wildly in all directions. At daybreak, without an enemy in sight, the corpses of 10,000 Austrian soldiers lay scattered across the snow.

The momentum of Russian victory, though, was slow to gather. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Russians were harassing and nibbling at the frontiers of the Crimea, where the treaty of Karlowitz had given them a toehold. They had, as the Tartar chief informed the Sultan, begun to intrigue with his orthodox flock, reaya, the Tsar casting himself in the light of a redeemer. The Swedes, at war with Russia, urged the dangers of the bear. In 1710, accordingly, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa licensing war against Russia as not only justifiable but necessary. Thirty thousand janissaries were enrolled; the Kapudan Pasha readied the fleet, and the Russian ambassador was clapped up in the Castle of the Seven Towers, by way of declaring war.

Peter the Great secured his advance into Ottoman realms by buying the favour of the two hospodars, of Wallachia and Moldavia – but Prince Brancovich of Moldavia was playing a deep game, and when Peter’s army had crossed the River Prut to begin its advance through the principality the Tsar found that the supplies he wanted were not forthcoming. His men were already suffering from hunger and disease, and he boldly determined to push on and capture a vast stockpile of weapons and food which the Ottomans had made for themselves further south. The Ottomans had undoubtedly benefited from the unpalatable defeats registered by the treaty of Karlowitz twelve years before, and had been spurred into making improvements in their army and intelligence. While Peter marched down the right bank of the Prut, believing the Grand Vizier’s army still far away, the Ottoman army was even now advancing up the left bank to meet him. Ten thousand Crimean Tartars had brushed aside an advance guard which attempted to prevent them crossing, and very soon the entire Russian army found itself holed up between the Prut and a marsh. From the opposite bank the Ottoman guns prevented any soldier from approaching the river, and after two days of desperate fighting the Russians were unable to break the Turkish encirclement.

On 21 July 1711, Peter signed a treaty promising to keep within his own dominions in future, and to retreat from Azov, which had given him an entry into the Black Sea. Entirely at the mercy of the Grand Vizier, he was allowed to withdraw on astonishingly light terms. Peter himself never re-opened hostilities with the empire in his lifetime; but the project was only deferred, and in 1774, when the situation was reversed – when the Russians had swept victorious right up to the Balkan passes, and the Vizier discovered that he had just 8,000 men to defend the Bulgarian pass at Sumla and sued for peace, the Russian general Romanzoff delayed putting his signature to the treaty for four days, allowing it to fall on the anniversary of the treaty of the Pruth, to expunge the memory of that humilating reverse.

The treaty of Kucuk Kainardji, signed on 21 July 1774, was very different from the treaty extracted from Peter some sixty years before; it mirrored, rather, the treaty of Karlowitz signed with the Austrians in 1699, when the Ottomans were forced to give way in Central Europe. In 1774 they lost control of the northern shore of the Black Sea. Kucuk Kainardji made the Crimean Tartars independent of the Sultan, an obvious preliminary to their absorption into the Russian Empire, which took place ten years later. The Sultan was permitted to retain his role as Caliph, but this was a shadowy title at best (Selim the Grim, who had allegedly earned it by his conquest of Arabia and the Holy Cities, had not used it himself; its importance rose only as the temporal authority of the Sultan waned). The Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, were returned to the Porte, but the Russian ambassador was given the right to make representations on their behalf. Russian merchant ships were allowed access to Ottoman waters, which meant that for the first time since the Conquest, foreign ships might pass through the Bosphorus. The Russian ambassador was entitled to represent the interests of a new church that was to be built in Constantinople, as well as its ministers; and by sleight of hand this became, in the end, a claim by the Tsar to act as ultimate protector of all his co-religionists in the Sultan’s realms.

At St Gotthard, in 1674, the Ottomans had suffered their first true defeat on an open field (‘Who are these young girls?’ the Grand Vizier wanted to know when he saw the French cavalry advancing, with shaven faces and powdered wigs: but ‘Allons! allons! tue! tue!’ was a cry the Turks did not forget). The Austrian general in command during that engagement wrote later of the tremendous courage and obstinacy displayed by the Ottoman troops, but he was astonished, too, by their inexplicable failure to make use of the pike, which he called ‘the queen of weapons’.

The Ottomans did have a horrid arsenal to draw on all the same, from jabby little daggers to a sinister militaristic version of the long-handled scythe; yet a century later it was not the pike but the bayonet that Ottoman armies lacked. In the summer of 1774 General Suvarov appeared as Russia’s genius, and the bayonet’s devotee. ‘The ball is a fool – the bayonet a hero!’ was one of his maxims. He taught his soldiers to attack instantly and decisively: ‘attack with the cold steel – push hard with the bayonet!’ His soldiers adored him, and he never lost a single battle. He joshed with the men, called the common soldiers ‘brother’, and shrewdly presented the results of detailed planning and careful strategy as the work of inspiration. He announced the capture of Ismail in 1791 to the Tsarina Catherine in a doggerel couplet, after the assault had been pressed from house to house, room to room, and nearly every Muslim man, woman and child in the city had been killed in three days of uncontrolled massacre, 40,000 Turks dead, a few hundred taken into captivity. For all his bluffness, Suvarov later told an English traveller that when the massacre was over he went back to his tent and wept.

The Berezina 1812 Part I

Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań

On 22 November Napoleon reached Tolochin, where he took up quarters in a disused convent. He had not been there long when he heard, from a rider sent by Dabrowski, that Minsk had fallen to Chichagov six days before. ‘The Emperor, who by that one stroke lost his supplies and all the means he had been counting on since Smolensk in order to rally and reorganise his army, was momentarily struck with consternation,’ according to Caulaincourt.

He had been expecting Chichagov to manoeuvre himself into a position to be able to join up with Kutuzov so they could attack him with overwhelming force, not to move into his rear and attempt to cut him off. As it happens, Chichagov was operating in the dark. He had received only scanty orders from Kutuzov, who had instructed him to move into Napoleon’s rear and to prevent the French from linking up with Schwarzenberg. Wittgenstein was supposed to cross the Berezina further north and link up with him, so that between them they covered a long stretch of the western bank of the river.

That night Marshal Duroc and Intendant Daru were on duty at the Emperor’s bedside, and the three of them sat up late. They discussed the situation at length, and Napoleon allegedly reproached himself for his own ‘foolishness’. He dozed off for a while, and when he woke he asked them what they had been talking about, to which they answered that they had been wishing they had a balloon. ‘What on earth for?’ he asked. ‘To whisk Your Majesty away,’ one of them replied. ‘The situation is not an easy one, it is true,’ he admitted, and they discussed the possibility of his falling into Russian hands. General Grouchy was instructed to gather all the cavalry officers who still had good mounts into a ‘dedicated squadron’ whose purpose would be to spirit Napoleon to safety in an emergency. But the Emperor remained sanguine, and if he did order the burning of some state papers before they set off in the morning, that was more to lighten the load than anything else – he also ordered the burning of more non-essential carriages. He appeared confident that he would be able to fight his way through.

What he did not know was that while he was digesting the news of the fall of Minsk, Borisov had also fallen to Chichagov. The Admiral, who had a healthy respect for him, was apparently unaware that he was on a collision course with Napoleon, whose whereabouts he did not know, but whose forces he assumed to be at least 70,000. In the event, his advance guard had moved quickly, surprised and defeated the detachment of Dabrowski’s division holding the bridgehead on the western bank of the Berezina and swept into Borisov itself, which it occupied after a stubborn resistance. The Russians then made themselves at home, and their commander, Count Pahlen, sat down to a copious dinner. He had hardly swallowed a mouthful when the alarm was sounded. An advance unit of Oudinot’s corps, consisting of five hundred men of Colonel Marbot’s 23rd Chasseurs à Cheval, had burst into the town and fallen upon the unsuspecting Russians. No more than about a thousand of them managed to save themselves by fleeing back across the river, leaving behind up to nine thousand dead, wounded and prisoners, ten guns and all their luggage.

But the fleeing Russians had had the presence of mind to fire the long wooden bridge, the only crossing over the Berezina. Napoleon had reached Bobr when he heard of this, and he must have rued the decision to burn the pontoon bridge at Orsha three days before.

The boggy trough of the Berezina ran between him and freedom; cold as it was, a slight thaw had broken up the ice on it, and it represented a considerable obstacle. ‘Any other man would have been overwhelmed,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘The Emperor showed himself to be greater than his misfortune. Instead of discouraging him, these adversities brought out all the energy of this great character; he showed what a noble courage and a brave army can achieve against even the greatest adversity.’

Napoleon momentarily entertained a plan to gather up all his forces, march northwards, knock out Wittgenstein and then make for Vilna, bypassing the Berezina altogether. But he was advised that the terrain was unfavourable for such operations. Instead, he decided to fight his way across the river at Borisov. This would involve repairing the existing bridge and building new ones under enemy fire. In order to reduce the resistance, he decided to disperse Chichagov’s forces by giving him the impression that he was planning to cross elsewhere. He sent a small detachment southwards to make a demonstration of activity at a possible crossing point further downstream, and even managed to misinform some local Jewish traders that he was intending to cross there, expecting them to pass the news on.

Everything depended on speed: Wittgenstein and Kutuzov would be coming up behind him in a couple of days, and what would happen if he were caught in the rear by them while attempting to force a passage across the river did not bear thinking about. Napoleon seemed to be energised by the crisis, and did not appear downcast. ‘The Emperor seemed to have made his mind up with the calm resolve of a man about to embark on an act of last resort,’ noted his valet, Constant.

The forward units and large numbers of fugitives poured into Borisov on the night of 23 November. The town was strewn with dead bodies and debris from the previous night’s fighting. ‘This countless mass of wagons, with women, children, unarmed men had packed into Borisov in the conviction that the bridge would be repaired and that the crossing would be made there,’ wrote Józef Krasinski of Poniatowski’s 5th Corps, which had also entered the town. ‘The streets of Borisov were so jammed with this wagon train that it was impossible to pass through them without pushing and crushing people. As a result the streets were covered in mauled bodies, shattered wagons, smashed baggage, and all one could hear were shouts, calls, wails and lamentation … I remember that on one of the streets I pulled from beneath the horses’ hooves a baby lying in the middle of the road in its swaddling clothes, and further along I saw, by a small bridge, a cantinière’s wagon lying in the water into which it had been pushed by the French troops marching before us, and on that wagon the poor woman with a child in her arms was calling for help which none of us could give her.’

When General Eblé and his pontoneers reached Borisov and saw the state of the river they were discouraged. It was wider than they had anticipated, and the recent thaw meant that large blocks of ice were being swept down it by a slow but strong current. General Jomini, who was with Eblé, suggested that they cross further north, at Vesselovo, where there had been a bridge which might still be standing. But Oudinot had already identified a better place. One of his cavalry brigades, General Corbineau’s, which had been clearing the western bank of the Berezina of cossacks during the previous week, had just rejoined his corps having found a ford by the village of Studzienka, a dozen kilometres upstream from Borisov.

Oudinot had immediately informed Berthier of the existence of the ford, recommending it as the best place for a crossing. But Napoleon stuck to his intention of forcing a passage at Borisov, meaning to defeat Chichagov and then make a dash for Minsk, from where he hoped to be able to make contact with Schwarzenberg. From Loshnitsa at 1 a.m. on 25 November he repeated his orders to Oudinot, urging him to make haste so they could start crossing that very night. Oudinot, who had already ordered some of his units to Studzienka in anticipation, begged Napoleon to reconsider, and sent Corbineau to see him in person. It was only after he had discussed the matter with Corbineau that Napoleon accepted Oudinot’s suggestion, and he set off for Studzienka himself late that night.

A few hours earlier, Chichagov had moved off with his main forces in the opposite direction along the other bank of the river. He had been anxious about the possibility of Napoleon outflanking him to the south, and the combination of the reports of French activity to the south of Borisov and the information brought to him by three Jews from Borisov convinced him that this was indeed where the French were planning to cross. He left General Langeron with 1200 infantry and three hundred cossacks at Borisov, and General Czaplic with a few hundred men between there and Vesselovo, while he marched off southwards with the rest of his forces. When the first reports of French activity around Studzienka did reach him on the following day, he assumed this to be a feint meant to deceive him, and continued on his way. The course of the Berezina north of Borisov should in any case have been covered by Wittgenstein, and he had left orders with Czaplic to pull back his outlying units in the area.

But Wittgenstein had no intention of placing himself under Chichagov’s orders, which he would have had to do if he had linked up with him on the western bank. And he too was less than eager to take on Napoleon himself, preferring to spar with Victor, so he ignored Kutuzov’s orders to cross the river and cut the French line of retreat. In doing so he not only left the Berezina itself unguarded, he did not, as would have been the case if he had followed his orders, cover the other point at which Napoleon’s retreat could have been cut. A few kilometres west of the Berezina, at Ziembin, the road ran through a boggy area along a number of wooden bridges, and could effectively be cut by a platoon of cossacks with a tinderbox.

Oudinot had sent General Aubry with 750 sappers to Studzienka on 24 November to start making struts for a bridge, and followed with his main forces on the evening of the following day. They were joined there by General Eblé with four hundred pontoneers, mostly Dutchmen. Although Napoleon had ordered the pontoon bridge they were accompanying to be burnt at Orsha, Eblé had wisely hung on to six wagons of tools, two field smithies and two wagons of charcoal. The sappers dismantled the wooden houses of Studzienka, sawing the thick logs into appropriate lengths, while the pontoneers forged nails and braces, and turned the logs into trestles.

The riverbed itself, which at this point is less than two metres deep, is no more than about twenty metres across, but its banks are low and boggy, and cut by shallow arms of the main river, so any bridge would need to extend for some distance at either end. A major disadvantage of this as a crossing point was that the western bank, held by the Russians, rose steeply, and any troops occupying it would be in a position to rake the crossing with artillery fire.

Oudinot had placed his men behind a small rise, so they would be out of sight of the cossacks patrolling the western bank, and instructed them to work in silence. But Captain Arnoldi, commanding the Russian field battery of four light guns that had been positioned by General Czaplic to observe the possible crossing points near Studzienka, noticed the French activity on the opposite bank and sent urgent reports to his superior warning that they were preparing to cross the river there. He convinced Czaplic, who came to see for himself and then sent a messenger to Chichagov.

For his part, Oudinot stayed up all night, urging on the sappers and pontoneers, and nervously watching the other bank. ‘The aspect of the countryside was gripping; the moon lit up the ice floes of the Berezina and, beyond the river, a cossack picket made up of only four men,’ noted François Pils in his journal. He was a grenadier in Oudinot’s corps, but in civilian life he was a painter, which explains his sensitivity to the view. ‘In the distance beyond, one could see a few red-tinged clouds seemingly drift over the points of the fir trees; they reflected the campfires of the Russian army.’

The magnificent sight left Ney, for one, cold. ‘Our position is impossible,’ he said to Rapp. ‘If Napoleon succeeds in getting out of this today he is the very Devil.’ Murat and others were putting forward various plans to save the Emperor by sending him off with a small detachment of Polish cavalry while the rest of them made a heroic stand. ‘We shall all have to die,’ he affirmed. ‘There can be no question of surrender.’

In the early hours of the next morning, 26 November, the troops sitting around the Russian campfires began to withdraw, and Arnoldi’s four guns were limbered up and dragged away. Oudinot could hardly believe his eyes. Napoleon, who had reached Studzienka a little earlier, was jubilant: according to Rapp, his eyes sparkled with joy when he saw that his ploy had worked and Chichagov was off on his wild goose chase.

He ordered Colonel Jacqueminot to muster a squadron of Polish lancers and some Chasseurs, each of whom was to take a voltigeur riding pillion, and ford the river. Once across, the riders fanned out and, followed by the voltigeurs, chased off the few remaining cossacks and took possession of the west bank. Captain Arnoldi, who had clearly seen the French set up a battery of forty guns to cover both banks of the river, had sent a final despairing report to headquarters before withdrawing, expressing his conviction that this was the spot they had chosen for their crossing. But while Czaplic had delayed carrying out the order to withdraw, he did not dare defy it outright. Nor did he have the sense to send a troop of cavalry to hold and, if need be, burn the bridges at Ziembin.

Shortly after the withdrawal of the Russians, at eight o’clock, Captain Benthien and his Dutch pontoneers waded into the icy water and began installing the first trestles. They had stripped down to their pants, and struggled manfully in the strong current, which was carrying with it great blocks of ice up to two metres across. Every so often one of them would lose his foothold on the slimy riverbed and be swept away. They were only allowed to remain in the water for fifteen minutes at a time, but many nevertheless succumbed to hypothermia. They had been offered a bonus of fifty francs per man, but that was surely not the motive that drove them. ‘They went into the water up to their necks with a courage of which one can find no other example in history,’ recorded grenadier Pils. ‘Some fell dead, and disappeared with the current, but the sight of such a terrible end did nothing to weaken the energy of their comrades. The Emperor watched these heroes without leaving the riverbank, where he stood with the Marshal [Oudinot], Prince Murat and other generals, while the Prince de Neuchâtel [Berthier] sat on the snow expediting correspondence and writing out orders for the army.’

‘At this solemn moment Napoleon himself recovered all the elevation and energy that characterised him,’ recalled Lieutenant Colonel de Baudus. There are accounts of him looking dejected, and the story of his ordering the eagles of the Guard to be burnt in a fit of despair surfaces here and there. But most witnesses agree that he displayed remarkable self-possession throughout what continued to be a knife-edge situation, and far from ordering the eagles to be burnt, kept enjoining the men to cling to them in order to keep the semblance of a fighting force in existence. Some thought he actually appeared detached as he stood on the riverbank watching the pontoneers at their work.

Major Grünberg, a cavalryman from Württemberg, was struck by this as Napoleon caught sight of him marching past, carrying in the folds of his cloak his beloved greyhound bitch. The Emperor called him over and asked if he would sell the animal to him. Grünberg replied that she was an old companion whom he would never sell, but that if His Majesty so wished, he would give her to him. Napoleon was touched by this and replied that he would not dream of depriving him of such a close companion.

The bridge was completed around midday. It was just over a hundred metres long and about four metres wide, and rested on twenty-three trestles varying in height from one to three metres. There was not enough planking available, so the round logs laid across the top which made up the causeway were covered with flimsy roof slats taken from the houses of Studzienka topped with a dressing of bark, branches and straw. ‘As a work of craft, this bridge was certainly very deficient,’ noted Captain Brandt. ‘But when one considers in what conditions it was established, when one thinks that it salvaged the honour of France from the most terrible shipwreck, that each of the lives sacrificed in the building of it meant life and liberty to thousands, then one has to recognise that the construction of this bridge was the most admirable work of this war, perhaps of any war.’
Napoleon, who had hurriedly swallowed a cutlet for breakfast while standing on the bank, walked over to the head of the bridge, where Marshal Oudinot was preparing to march his corps across. ‘Do not cross yet, Oudinot, you might be taken,’ the Emperor called out to him, but Oudinot waved at the men drawn up behind him and answered: ‘I fear nothing in their midst, sire!’ He led his corps across, to shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ uttered with a conviction that had not resounded in the imperial presence very often of late. Turning left, he began to deploy his troops in a southerly direction in order to ward off any potential attack by Chichagov. They were quickly lost to sight in the snow that had begun to fall again.

Meanwhile Captain Busch and another team of Dutch pontoneers had been working on a second bridge, fifty metres downstream of the first. This one, built on sturdier trestles and with a causeway of plain round logs, was intended for the artillery and baggage, and it was ready by four o’clock in the afternoon. While troops continued to trudge across the lighter bridge in an orderly fashion, Oudinot’s artillery, followed by the artillery of the Guard and the main artillery park, trundled across the other. At eight o’clock that evening two of the trestles of the heavy bridge subsided into the muddy bed of the river, and the pontoneers had to abandon their firesides, strip off and wade into the water once again. The bridge was reopened at eleven o’clock, but at two in the morning of 27 November three more trestles, this time in the deepest part of the river, collapsed. Once again Benthien’s men abandoned whatever shelter they had found for the night and went into the water. After four hours, at six in the morning, the bridge was operational once more.

For the whole of that day the Grande Armée trudged across the Berezina in the lightly falling snow. The Guard began crossing at dawn, then came Napoleon with his staff and household, then Davout with the remainder of his corps, then Ney and Murat with theirs, then, in the evening, Prince Eugène, with the few hundred remaining Italians of the 4th Corps. The bridge was low, barely above the level of the water, and it swayed, so the men crossed on foot, leading their horses. The surface coating of branches and straw had to be firmed up by the sappers from time to time. Even so, the bridge subsided in places, and those crossing it sometimes had water up to their ankles. The sheer weight of numbers and the state of the bridge meant that there was some pushing and shoving, men fell over and horses collapsed, causing obstructions and leading to fights. It was not a pleasant crossing.

Meanwhile a steady flow of guns, caissons, supply wagons and carriages of every kind trundled across the other bridge, with a two-hour interruption while the pontoneers repaired two more broken trestles at four o’clock that afternoon. Here too there were jams and outbreaks of violence. The surface of the bridge was scattered with debris and corpses, and a number of horses broke their legs by getting them caught between the round logs making up the causeway. The next vehicles, themselves being pushed on from behind, would try to drive over the struggling and kicking horses rather than stop and wait for them and their vehicles to be heaved over the side. But most of the guns and materiel of the organised units, the treasury, the wagons carrying Napoleon’s booty from Moscow, and a surprising number of officers’ carriages made the crossing successfully. Madame Fusil, the actress from Moscow, drove across in the relative comfort of Marshal Bessières’ carriage.

The approaches to the bridges were guarded by gendarmes who only allowed active units onto them and ordered all stragglers and civilians, and even wounded officers travelling in various conveyances, to wait. A large number of these non-combatants had begun to arrive in the late afternoon of 27 November, cluttering the approaches to the bridge. As they could not cross immediately they settled down, built fires and began to cook whatever they had managed to pick up, scrounge or steal.