Kutuzov has spent most of military career fighting the Turks.
On April 1, 1811, one-eyed General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov arrived in Bucharest to take command of Russia’s army in Moldavia and Wallachia. An exhausting and indecisive war had smoldered between the Russian and Ottoman empires since 1806, and each year Russian and Turkish armies marched and countermarched on fortresses along both banks of the Danube River. Prior to Kutuzov’s arrival command of the Russian army had changed hands a half-dozen times. Under such capable and aggressive commanders as Count Nikolai Kamenski and Prince Pyotr Bagration the fighting intensified and the Russians gained ground. Otherwise, combat was largely limited to raiding and skirmishing.
By early 1811 war clouds had once again gathered over France and Russia. The honeymoon between Czar Alexander I and Napoléon Bonaparte, following the July 7, 1807, Treaty of Tilsit, had long lapsed, and both powers were massing troops on their respective sides of the Neman River in Poland. Alexander’s instructions to Kutuzov were to conclude the war with the Ottoman Turks as quickly as possible, thus freeing every available Russian soldier for the impending conflict with Napoléon. Shortly before Kutuzov’s arrival, five out of nine infantry divisions in Moldavia marched north to rejoin the main Russian army. The remaining 46,000 men under Kutuzov’s command comprised four infantry divisions with their attendant cavalry, Cossacks and artillery. Stretched thin along the Danube, it was a pitifully small force with which to defend more than 600 miles of the de facto border between the Russian and Ottoman empires.
On arriving in Bucharest, Kutuzov made preparations for the upcoming campaign, gathering supplies and ramping up training of his largely conscript army. The increased Russian activity spiked the Turks’ attention, and detachments from their European possessions soon began arriving on the Danube. Some 80,000 Ottoman troops under Sultan Mahmud II’s newly appointed Grand Vizier Laz Aziz Ahmet Pasha ultimately gathered opposite the main Russian army.
The czar could not have made a better choice than Kutuzov to lead the Russian forces on the Danube. A protégé of the late great Generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov, Kutuzov had spent most of his military career fighting the Turks, playing a role in the Russian victories at Ochakov in 1788 and Izmail in 1790. Leading his troops from the front, Kutuzov had been shot in the left temple on two separate occasions, the bullet exiting out of his right eye socket in each instance and ultimately claiming the sight in that eye. During a 1793–94 stint as Russian ambassador to Constantinople (Istanbul) Kutuzov had gained invaluable firsthand knowledge of the Ottomans, notably their military strengths and weaknesses.
Knowing that only the destruction of its field army would bring the Ottoman empire to the negotiating table, Kutuzov marshaled his forces for the decisive battle. Leaving 12 infantry battalions to garrison the Ruschuk fortress on the right (south) bank of the Danube, the Russian commander concentrated the bulk of his force on the left bank, near the Zhurzha fortress. After dispatching the necessary observation and blocking detachments, he had a mobile force of almost 18,000 men under his direct command.
Kutuzov’s strategy in 1811 was practically the mirror image of one he would employ against Napoléon the following year. By drawing in the Turks and wearing them down, Kutuzov sought to create the conditions for a decisive action.
In mid-June the 60,000-strong Ottoman army advanced on Ruschuk (present-day Ruse, Bulgaria) with 78 fieldpieces. Believing the bulk of the Russian army had withdrawn north of the Danube, Ahmet Pasha expected to face only the town’s small garrison. However, Kutuzov recrossed the Danube on June 19 with his main force and took up positions 3 miles south of Ruschuk.
Kutuzov’s 18,000 Russians comprised 32 infantry battalions, 40 regular cavalry squadrons and three Cossack regiments, and it fielded 114 cannon. Ravines, orchards and vineyards crisscrossed the hilly terrain south of Ruschuk; Kutuzov planned to deploy his force in the limited open area, where his troops could negate the enemy’s numerical advantage. The Turkish commander, in turn, planned to work his forces around the Russian flanks, bypass the Ruschuk fortress, capture the town itself and its bridges over the Danube, and after pinning the Russian army against the river, force it to surrender.
Early on June 20, under the cover of thick fog, a strong body of Turkish cavalry charged the Russian pickets. Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Voinov, well on the way to establishing a reputation as a brave and daring commander, personally led two cavalry regiments and four infantry battalions in a counterattack that forced the Turkish horsemen to withdraw.
The next day the adversaries inched warily toward one another. The Turks left their fortified camp and halted 3 miles in front of the Russians. Kutuzov, after detaching six infantry battalions to garrison Ruschuk, took to the field with his main body and spent the night deployed in a three-line battle formation.
Well aware the Turks would seek to exploit their superior numbers of cavalry, Kutuzov deployed his infantry in 11 regimental squares. The first line of the Russian formation comprised five squares, the second four, arranged in a checkerboard pattern for mutual support, with artillery pieces deployed in the spaces between the squares. The terrain made the Russian left flank vulnerable, so Kutuzov held three infantry battalions in columns and a squadron of dragoons as a reaction force. Lt. Gen. Peter Essen commanded the five squares on the right flank, while French émigré Lt. Gen. Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron, commanded those on the left. The third of Kutuzov’s battle lines comprised five cavalry regiments under Voinov.
A strong bombardment preceded waves of Turkish cavalry that smashed into the Russian line at first light on June 22. But the furious Ottoman charges wilted in the face of Russian discipline and firepower. In an action reminiscent of Napoléon’s repulse of the Mamluks at the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids, Kutuzov’s immovable infantry squares blasted their attackers back to their starting positions.
Even before the ragged survivors of the first charge had returned, Ahmet Pasha launched a second attack, throwing cavalry against the Russian right flank. While the horsemen and supporting artillery engaged the Russians frontally, Turkish infantry worked around the enemy’s right flank, skillfully using the cover of numerous gullies. Despite mounting casualties the Turks pressed hard against two Russian infantry regiments, which stubbornly held their positions.
Seeing that his right-hand regiments were in danger of being flanked, Kutuzov sent the 37th Jäger Regiment forward with orders to extend the line. The Russian light infantrymen deployed into skirmish formation, then advanced through a series of gardens and vineyards. The Turkish commander on the embattled Russian flank quickly adapted to the developing situation and in turn sent infantry to outflank the 37th Jägers, but the timely arrival of dragoons and Cossacks tilted the balance in the Russians’ favor. Closely following their cavalry, Russian musketeers and jägers charged with fixed bayonets and managed to clear the Turks from the orchards and gullies on the right flank.
Despite the intense fighting the Turkish advance was merely a feint. At around 9 a.m. more than 10,000 Sipahis, or feudal cavalrymen, launched an all-out attack against the enemy’s left. The Ottoman horsemen burst through both lines of infantry squares on that side and fell upon the cavalry in the third line, routing two regiments. Exploiting this success, the Turkish cavalry split into two parts: One made straight for Ruschuk, while the other veered left to envelop the Russian line from the rear.
The Turks driving on Ruschuk were to bypass the fortress and rapidly capture the town and its bridges, cutting off the main Russian force on the right bank of the Danube. However, the six Russian infantry battalions Kutuzov left to garrison the town grimly clung to their positions and repulsed all attacks by the Ottoman cavalry. Lacking infantry support, the Turkish horsemen were unable to capture Ruschuk despite their best efforts.
Sensing the critical moment was at hand, Kutuzov ordered Voinov to lead his horsemen against the Turkish cavalry in the Russian rear. Decimated by the musketry of the Russian squares and vigorously counterattacked by cavalry, the Ottoman horsemen gave way. Sheltering behind a small hill, the besieged Turks sought to reorganize for a counterattack on the Russian left, but at that moment the three Russian infantry battalions charged the hill with fixed bayonets. Supported by Voinov’s cavalry, the foot soldiers cleared the hill and inflicted heavy casualties on the milling Ottoman horsemen.
Following close on the heels of the retreating Turks, Kutuzov ordered a general advance, and the entire Russian line moved ponderously forward. After clearing the field of the enemy, Russian infantry stopped short of attacking the Turkish fortified camp and returned to Ruschuk.
Despite the Turks’ 3-to-1 numerical superiority, the Russians’ discipline and stubborn courage through 12 hours of grueling combat won the day. Turkish casualties amounted to more than 1,500 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Russian losses, by comparison, totaled roughly 800 men. In a report to Czar Alexander, Kutuzov gave high marks to the “steadfastness of our infantry and skills of our artillery, inflicting terrible harm upon the enemy.” He also paid his respects to the fighting qualities of the Turkish cavalry, stating he had never seen Ottoman horsemen act with such determination.
Both sides spent June 23 recovering from their wounds. The Ottomans had suffered a severe reversal, but they were far from finished. Ahmet Pasha reorganized his forces in and around his fortified field camp, hoping the Russians would press the previous day’s victory by attacking Turkish positions. Indeed, many emboldened senior Russian officers advocated for such a course of action. Kutuzov, however, knew how foolhardy it would be to attack a numerically superior opponent in a fortified position. After four days of inactivity he chose a different solution. Again showing a glimpse of the strategy he was to employ against Napoléon the following year, Kutuzov ordered a retreat north across the Danube. The Russian commander had the Ruschuk fortress—object of the intense struggle just days earlier—blown up and, after concentrating all available Russian forces on the left bank of the Danube, ordered the destruction of the bridge spanning the river on June 28.
Over the next month both sides pulled in their outlying detachments to concentrate forces for the inevitable showdown. Some 56,000 Turks under Ahmet Pasha’s direct control assembled near Ruschuk, soon joined by 20,000 men under commander Ismail Bey.
On July 22, after crossing the Danube, Ismail Bey advanced against the Russian outposts. Severely outnumbered, Lt. Gen. Andrey Zass’ division skillfully used the complicated terrain on the left bank of the Danube near Vidin to resist the Turkish attack; channeling Ottoman forces into several narrow defiles, the Russians defended the ground for almost eight hours. Unable to dislodge the stubborn defenders, Ismail Bey withdrew his forces back south across the Danube.
After the action at Vidin the opposing armies once again settled into a standoff. Finally, provoked into action by couriers from Constantinople, Ahmet Pasha ordered his forces to cross the Danube on August 28. The main body of the Turkish force, some 36,000 men, made their crossing about 2 miles upriver from Ruschuk and immediately began to dig fortifications. The other 20,000 Turks remained in their fortified camp south of the river.
The main Russian army, under Kutuzov’s direct command, numbered some 37,000 men. Surrounding the Turkish beachhead, the Danube at its back, was a semicircular chain of Russian redoubts anchored on the river. This was meant to prevent the Turks from breaking out around the Russian flanks.
Both Kutuzov’s and Ahmet Pasha’s next moves depended on Ismail Bey’s actions. The Russian commander was particularly wary of launching offensive operations against the Turkish beachhead at Ruschuk while Ismail Bey’s 20,000- strong force threatened his right flank and rear. Ahmet Pasha, in turn, was waiting for his subordinate to join him in a two-pronged offensive against the Russians.
In September, Ismail Bey twice more attempted to overcome the Russian detachment facing Vidin, hoping to break into Kutuzov’s rear. Both times Zass’ troops doggedly held their positions, repulsing all Turkish attacks with artillery fire and musketry. After losing more than 3,000 men, Ismail Bey finally gave up on his attempts to force the Danube. This eliminated the threat to Kutuzov’s flank and rear, untying his hands for action against the grand vizier.
Throughout September the Russians secretly gathered and repaired a large number of ferries and boats. During the night of September 29 a detachment under Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Markov—5,000 infantry, 2,500 cavalry and 38 guns—set out from the Russian line near the town of Slobodzeya. Observing strict noise discipline, the departing troops left their tents standing to deceive Turkish scouts. After a circuitous 12-mile march, on September 30 Markov’s troops reached the Danube and linked up with the waiting watercraft.
The Russian troops completed their river crossing in less than a day. To speed up the process, only foot soldiers and weapons were loaded on the boats; the horses swam alongside, their riders in the saddle. In fading daylight on October 1 Markov pushed his men on a six-mile trek towards Ruschuk. When they finally halted for the night, the Ottoman fortified camp was only 3 miles away. Miraculously, the Russians remained unnoticed by the enemy.
On the morning of October 2 the Turks in the camp awakened to the sound of drums and pounding hooves, as the Russian cavalry and infantry swept in unopposed. Unaware they outnumbered their attackers almost 3-to-1, the panicked Turks scattered, ultimately losing almost 2,000 men killed, wounded or captured. The victorious Russians lost fewer than 50 men.
The action left Ahmet Pasha and the main Ottoman army stranded north of the Danube, and Kutuzov’s artillery began a merciless bombardment of their encampment. After capturing tiny Gol Island—mid-river opposite the Turkish beachhead—an element of Markov’s forces constructed a large battery. Its guns, including captured Ottoman cannon, pounded away at the rear of the Turks’ position, adding to their misery. The Russian river flotilla soon joined the action, its large-caliber guns inflicting considerable damage on the Turkish positions and quickly silencing any artillery that attempted to return fire.
Realizing the futility of his situation, Ahmet Pasha escaped the encirclement with a small entourage under cover of darkness. With their supply base south of the Danube in enemy hands, the abandoned Turkish soldiers quickly ran out of food and were forced to butcher their horses. Others ate grass down to the roots. Small groups of Turks tried to flee across the river, but with Russian gunboats in the water and Cossacks patrolling the river, most such desperate attempts ended in butchery.
Having securely bottled up the larger part of the Ottoman army, Kutuzov turned his attention west toward Ismail Bey. In a series of sharp engagements the Russian commander drove the only remaining Turkish field force away from the Vidin fortress; Ismail Bey’s troops scattered and ceased to exist as a viable fighting force.
On November 14 the remaining Turks north of the Danube surrendered. Of the 36,000 men who crossed the river less than three months earlier, only 12,000 remained alive. Russian guns, starvation and disease had claimed the rest.
Its field army destroyed, the Ottoman government was forced into negotiations with the Russians, as Kutuzov had foreseen. Mahmud II, knowing Czar Alexander’s desire to reach a quick settlement, held out for better terms. Finally, in late May 1812, the Russian and Ottoman empires signed the Treaty of Bucharest. Russia gained all of Bessarabia (present-day Moldova and Ukraine) along with a series of fortresses, and the Russo-Turkish border was established along the Prut River up to its junction with the Danube. The treaty also obligated Turkey not to enter into any alliances with France—a key stipulation, as Napoléon’s invasion of Russia would come less than a month later.
Largely overlooked by Western observers, Kutuzov’s campaign against the Turks in 1811 displayed the flexibility, deep flanking maneuvers, and combination of tactical withdrawals and aggressive offensives that would stand him in good stead the following year in his struggle against Napoléon. Above all, Kutuzov succeeded where his French nemesis would fail—he destroyed the enemy’s field army and forced its head of state to the negotiating table.
For further reading Victor Kamenir recommends The Fox of the North, by Roger Parkinson, and Naval Wars in the Levant, 1559–1853, by R.C. Anderson.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.