The British and Ottoman defenders of Kars were forgotten heroes of the Crimean War
Sometimes in the Caucasus Mountains the sounds of battle can reverberate for a very long distance, leaving the listener with an eerie sense of approaching conflict. In the years 1853-56, the sounds of battle traveled just as far as they do today, and sent an ominous shiver down the backs of those who heard them. A little known but important event in the Crimean War occurred in this eastern portion of what was then the Ottoman Empire. At the town of Kars, British career officer Brigadier General William Fenwick Williams took command of an undermanned, underfed Turkish field force and almost defeated a Russian army. With the main show on the Crimean Peninsula dominating the world’s attention at the time, history has had little to say of Williams and the Turks he led. But his struggle against corruption, disease and famine, as well as an overwhelming Russian force, deserves wider recognition.
Williams had previously served in the British army in a variety of capacities, including a mission to northeastern Persia in 1852, where he observed a devastating cholera epidemic among the region’s Turkish, Kurdish and Persian populations. At the outset of the Crimean War, he became a member of the Turkish Contingent, which comprised British officers, mainly from the Indian army, assigned to detached duty with the Ottoman army. James Skene, an assistant to the British ambassador at Istanbul, described them: “Some of the British officers, both of the Regular and Irregular Divisions of the Turkish Contingent, were elderly Indians with disordered livers, who had long since dropped out of harness, and had been buried in their clubs, to be dug up and sent to command Turkish troops. Others, still young, were so given to bluster and ‘bahawdering,’ that Mrs. Quickly would certainly have objected to such ‘swaggering companions.’ The War Department did not seem to have a very exalted notion of the qualifications for officers, in the Irregular Cavalry especially.” An “elderly Indian” was a British officer who had served many years in the East Indian army, during which he had drunk so much that he suffered from a “disordered liver.” To “bahawder” was to brag as if one was, to use the Moghul term, a bahadur, or brave warrior. In retrospect, Williams does not seem to have belonged to that category of officer, but one or two of his assistants might have.
Williams’ staff included Colonel Atwell Lake, Major Christopher C. Teesdale, Captain Henry Langhorne Thompson and Dr. Humphry Sandwith. Lake was a Royal Engineer who had served in the Madras army. Teesdale was a Royal Artillery officer. Thompson had served as a junior officer in the 68th Bengal Native Infantry, a sepoy unit, and had been wounded during the Burma campaign of 1852. Sandwith had come to Williams’ aid very early in the existence of the British Military Commission to Anatolia, Turkey, and at first functioned more as an administrative assistant than as a medical doctor.
At the time of the Crimean War, the Turkish army opened its officer ranks to European military men with experience—no questions asked. A number of such officers crossed Williams’ path during the campaign in eastern Turkey, men who had chiefly been involved in failed revolutions during 1848 and 1849, and had since been forced to flee their homelands to avoid prison or execution. For example, György Kmety and Jozsef Kollmann had fled Hungary after Austria and Russia crushed its 1849 war for independence, joining the Ottoman ranks with Turkish names and high pasha (general’s) ranks. Polish exiles fleeing the Russian-occupied regions of their lost country also turned up as junior officers in Williams’ force at Kars, and one such Pole, using the adopted Muslim name of Mahmud Efendi, assisted Williams in defeating the Kurdish revolt of 1855.
The Turkish army of eastern Anatolia encountered serious difficulties. Reform in the army had begun less than 30 years before. European advisers such as Helmuth von Moltke the elder, founder of the Prussian total war strategy, had advised the sultan on military matters in the 1830s. If the old-style Turkish commanders no longer existed in the new reform army, the new-style commanders were not well trained in modern military strategy, tactics and organization. Williams disliked the Turkish officers but admired the common Turkish soldier, whom he considered an excellent fighter—as long as he could fight behind an earthwork.
In addition to the regular army, Ottoman forces were supplemented by levies of irregular soldiers, including Kurds, Turcomen, Bedouin Arabs, Caucasian mountaineers (known as Circassians) and Laz mountaineers. These colorful soldiers served as irregular cavalry—except for the Laz, who formed infantry units—and the British officers saw them as useful for carrying out patrols or raids behind enemy lines, picket duty and skirmishing.
Williams’ first battle was fought with the high command of the eastern Turkish army, based at Erzurum and Kars. There, he discovered corruption from the highest general to the lowest company commander. The Turkish commanders, including Zarif Mustafa Pasha, had created false muster rolls. After the early battles of 1853-54, dead and wounded soldiers were reported as being on duty. All things pertaining to those men—food, supplies, weapons, ammunition, uniforms and wages—were embezzled by the commanders, with the complicity of some lesser officers. To make matters worse, those Turkish generals intercepted most supplies intended for their soldiers and sold them back to army contractors for fat profits. The soldiers’ wages were also embezzled, so that many men had received no money at all for many months. The consequences were disastrous. Half the Turkish army died from disease and frostbite because they had poor rations and no winter uniforms to protect them from the cold. In a letter to a friend named Hanson on November 9, 1854, Williams described the conditions he encountered: “Having done all I can for this garrison, which now consists of 12,000 men of all arms, well housed & I trust they will be well fed, I am off tomorrow for Erzeroom [sic]….How lucky the Pashas and Colonels are that I do not command, for tomorrow at daylight I would shew them a ‘gallows tree’ with a least 10 ropes attached thereto!”
Williams did not command the army at that point, but his persistent letter writing and his ability to document fraud eventually gained him success. By mid -December 1854, he became the de facto commander of the surviving 16,000 Ottoman soldiers, and he subsequently engineered the dismissal of several corrupt generals, who were replaced by more honest officers. Williams relied upon Vasif Pasha, the de jure Ottoman commander in chief, and artillery commander Tahir Pasha. The British officer immediately dispatched supplies to the dwindling garrison in Kars, then snowbound, and made arrangements to bring more British officers to his assistance. An Irish officer from County Armagh, Captain William Olpherts, and a French officer, Baron de Schwarzen berg, assisted in the logistical operations in eastern Turkey. By the spring of 1855, Williams had Colonel Lake building the siegeworks at Kars and Captain Thompson providing much-needed drill and training to the Ottoman infantry.
The British Military Commission achieved sufficient authority after the corrupt generals’ dismissal that Thompson felt he could operate as a dignitary. In a letter home in 1855, he described his routine: “On week-days we ride about among the troops, and see them drilled, look after the provisions, bully the Colonels and Pashas, write out reports, eat our dinner, and go to bed. There is no variety. ‘Les jours se suivent et se resemblant [The days follow one upon the other and they all seem the same].’”
After intense labor, Kars was prepared for a siege, even as a Russian army was marching toward it. Williams took command of the city itself on June 7, 1855. On June 16, the date of a Russian religious festival, massive Russian formations commenced their assault in neat and orderly ranks. Cossack and Russian cavalry sparred with Ottoman irregulars and forced them into Kars. Cossacks drove the Ottoman cavalry in slowly as the Russian infantry battalions advanced from the rear. Suddenly, the Turkish regular and irregular cavalry collapsed and made a rush for the gateway leading to the defensive works around Kars. The Russian cavalry and infantry tried to enter rapidly behind the panicked mass of skirmishers. Captain Thompson’s artillery and infantry, holding an exterior redoubt on the defensive perimeter known as Karadagh (“Black Mountain”), opened a murderous fire, killing about 150 Russian attackers and forcing them to retire. The Russian assault halted, and the siege began in earnest.
During the stalemate that followed throughout the summer and into the fall, Williams strove to develop a strategy to convince his Russian counterpart, General Mikhail Muraviev, that the Kars garrison had plenty of supplies and high morale. The Russians, however, knew better. Their plan was to encircle the city, depriving the garrison of any outlying supply caches, then wait patiently until starvation and pestilence took their toll.
During the months of relative inactivity in Kars, Colonel Lake kept busy supervising the building of trench after trench, redoubt after redoubt, until the outer defensive network was nearly impregnable. Working all day as an engineer, he also did duty at night as commander of the guard, riding around the entire circuit of Kars’ extensive trench network to inspect every guard post and picket, ensuring that the men did not sleep on duty or neglect their assignments. At most, Lake slept three hours per night for months. Major Teesdale and Captain Thompson com manded Ottoman battalions and artillery in their redoubts, built on the high ground surrounding the town. Thompson, a prolific writer, scribbled away on a nightly basis to keep from succumbing to tedium and apathy.
While General Williams coordinated the various activities of his British and Turkish officers, Dr. Sandwith prepared the hospital for a serious Russian attempt to storm the works, which everyone expected to occur any day. Each man on Sandwith’s medical staff was provided with a civilian interpreter who assisted in giving commands to the Turkish officers and sometimes, in battle situations, also became involved in the fighting. At least one British officer learned enough Turkish to converse with his subordinates, and in Ottoman fashion sat with his officers on a daily basis with “coffee and pipes,” making a review of the day’s tasks to be undertaken and giving orders to each of the men. Thompson became very friendly with his officers and on occasion engaged in wrestling matches with his colonels and majors.
Aside from a handful of skirmishes, few significant events occurred during the summer of 1855. On or about July 1, a Russian force seized stores of wheat, barley and biscuit in the village of Yenî Köy, depriving the Kars garrison and townspeople of a valuable food supply. Famine had begun to plague the outpost by July 17, when Thompson reported that he had eaten only a slice of cold boiled beef and was left with a ravenous appetite for the rest of the day. On that same day, Williams discovered that the keeper of the main storehouse, Salih Aga, had grown rich on a black market in food by selling most of the provisions in his inventory. Nothing remained to make the famous barley soup that Williams had noted in his many letters as being a staple of the Ottoman soldier’s diet.
The Laz infantry, which had no food supply, had enriched Salih, but after the storekeeper’s execution, they were forced, like all other irregular troops in the Ottoman army, to find their own rations. By July 29, the Laz were at the point of starvation and mutinied. But Williams stilled their insurrection at its inception by purchasing oxen with his own money and giving them to the Laz irregulars, thereby retaining them as garrison members. With the assistance of the Ottoman commander in chief, Williams also re organized the entire rationing system and began keeping better records of food distribution.
Ottoman soldiers began to sell their own rations to townspeople, who otherwise had to live on hand outs or on the town’s animal population—dogs, cats and rats. Soldiers increasingly came into Sandwith’s hospital, and the hard-working surgeon reported that at least one soldier a day died of malnutrition or disease during this period.
The Laz soon began looting outlying villages. On August 4, Major Teesdale and Captain Thompson confronted some Laz freebooters, who drew their famous long knives, called kamas, on them. After severe fighting, the British officers had the Laz ar rested and publicly flogged for insubordination and mutiny. Still, desertions increased, with soldiers of all types taking their chances at slipping through the Russian lines rather than face starvation.
On August 7, a Russian column made a frontal as sault on Kanli Redoubt, but the attempt was repulsed, with about 250 Russians killed. Sandwith wrote that he considered it a “most stupid, inexplicable attack.”
By mid-September, news that the Crimean port of Sevastopol had fallen to the allies reached the Kars garrison. Early in the morning of September 29, Muraviev, fearing the prospect of being cut off from Russia proper, sent his entire infantry force to attack the redoubt held by Major Teesdale and General Kmety’s battalions. Muraviev hoped that the compounded problems of starvation and the onset of winter would prompt the Turkish troops to yield. The outcome of his gamble would serve as dramatic testimony to the futility of frontal assaults on well-de fended positions held by resolute soldiers.
Three massive Russian columns formed for the as sault and began to march forward at 4 a.m. Turkish sentries alerted their re doubt commanders of the Russian advance, and firing began around 4:30. The Russians had intended to execute a surprise attack in the fog and weak light of dawn, but they failed.
On October 3, Williams wrote in a letter that the Russian soldier had “advanced with his usual steadiness and intrepidity, but in getting within range, he was saluted with a crushing fire of artillery from all points of the line: this un expected reception, however, only drew forth hurrahs from the Russian infantry, as it rushed up the hill on the redoubts and breastworks. These works poured forth a fire of musketry and rifle, which told with fearful effect on the close columns of attack, more especially on the left one….” The Russian force on the left broke and fled, leaving 850 men dead on the field.
The Russian center column struck at the redoubts on the height commanded by Teesdale and Kmety, and desperate fighting ensued over the next several hours. The Russians broke through the trenches on either side of the central redoubts but never succeeded in entering the redoubts themselves. As the apparently victorious Russians ran toward the city of Kars, some distance away, they were surprised by a flank attack by three Turkish infantry battalions, commanded by Colonel Lake. Thompson turned his artillery around on the heights he commanded, enfilading the charging Russian infantry. Teesdale, Kmety and other officers in the surrounded central redoubt led counterattacks and stolidly fought on. The combination of flank attack and artillery enfilade, as well as counterattacks by the men in the beleaguered positions, forced Russian survivors to retreat.
Williams estimated the Russian central column’s strength at 22 infantry battalions, a large cavalry force of dragoons and Cossacks, and 32 artillery pieces. He also noted that Kmety and Husain Pasha, a Turkish officer, distinguished themselves by their bravery, while Teesdale’s valor during the action subsequently earned him the Victoria Cross.
At 5:30 p.m. a Russian column comprising eight infantry battalions, three cavalry regiments and three artillery batteries assaulted the outlying trenches, called the “English redoubts.” The battles elsewhere had drawn some of the Turkish troops away from those positions. The Laz and other irregulars holding some part of those trenches fought bravely, but were thrown back. Seeing that loss, Williams ordered Thompson to send two Turkish infantry battalions from his redoubts to counterattack. Reinforced by Lake’s three battalions, they drove the Russians from the trenches after severe hand-to hand fighting with bayonets and clubbed muskets.
Even amid the fighting, the Turkish soldiers, who were lightly clothed, took the time to strip the Russian dead of their heavier garments—September was already very cold in Kars. After the Russians withdrew, Lake stated that his men buried 6,500 Russians, and Russian deserters claimed that an estimated 15,000 wounded filled their hospitals. The Russian infantry battalions had been totally crippled, but their cavalry maintained the siege.
Rumors of relief did not drive the Russians away and gave no optimism to Kars’ defend- ers. Their intrepidity was rewarded with negligence from the authorities in Istanbul and the Crimea, or so it seemed. Day after desperate day of unbroken siege passed. Cholera broke out, and 1,000 men died in October and November. Famine killed even more, among the soldiers as well as the towns people. The women and children of Kars, who had once applauded Williams and his staff, now looked reproachfully upon them. Laz irregulars refused to go to the hospital to seek help from Dr. Sandwith; as they neared death from starvation, they crawled into deserted houses to die.
The defenders stood in their trenches and redoubts only through General Williams’ iron resolve. They did receive some encouraging news—the Russian-held Caucasus territories had been invaded by the Turkish commander in chief, Omer Pasha. They heard he had begun his march toward Kars, and that other Ottoman forces were coming from the west to the city’s relief.
At the end of November, however, when famine and disease reached a critical point and no sign of relief was forthcoming, Williams decided to capitulate. Before the official surrender was made, he sent all Hungarian and Polish expatriates out into the night to make their way to safety if possible rather than face Russian captivity. Both Hungarians es caped, and Kollmann continued to serve in the Ottoman army (under the Turkish name of Feyzi Bey) during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, fighting in the same army of eastern Anatolia as at Kars.
Muraviev allowed only irregular Ottoman troops to return to their homes. Turkish regular soldiers were made prisoners, and the British officers, all of whom survived the siege, spent time in a somewhat luxurious Russian captivity. The malnutrition and cold at Kars permanently affected the health of Captain Thompson, whose life in the Indian army had acclimated him to subtropical heat. Although he began to recover somewhat in Russia, he died shortly after returning to England in 1856. The others lived for many years, and a number of them wrote books about their war experiences. General Williams’ letters written during the campaign were published by the British government. Colonel Atwell Lake wrote two books—Kars and Our Captivity and Narrative of the Defence of Kars—and Dr. Sandwith described his travails in Narrative of the Siege of Kars, all published within two years of the Crimean War’s end. An anonymous pamphlet titled Kars and Its De fenders appeared in 1857, naming György Kmety as having played the most important role in the Ottoman garrison’s ability to repulse the Russians for such a long time; it is widely believed to have been written by Kmety himself. One survivor who followed up his experience at Kars with deeds rather than words was Captain William Olpherts. Com manding the Royal Bengal Artillery during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, his many fearless acts at Lucknow earned him the sobriquet of “Hellfire Jack” and the subsequent award of the Victoria Cross.
For a time, Kars became a cult phenomenon in Britain, and the surviving British officers were dashing figures on the social scene. Soon, however, the public forgot what had happened during that drawn out siege in the remote Caucasus.
James Reid writes from Gold River, Calif. For further reading, try The Siege of Kars, 1855, by Tim Coates.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.