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Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8


Russian Conquests in Asia; their Extent and Importance - Views of Lord Aberdeen in 1829 - The Frontier Line in Armenia - Gumri and Bayazid - Anxiety of the British Cabinet in 1854 - Corruption of the Pashas - Outbreak of War in 1853 - Defeats of the Turks - Vely Pasha at Kars - Ruins the Army - Arrival of Generals Guyon and Kmety - Turkish Forces in 1854 - Appointment of Zarif Pasha - Selim Pasha defeated at Urzughetti - Prince Bebutoff takes the offensive - Another Selim Pasha defeated at Bayazid - Battle of Kuruk-Dereh - Defeat of Zarif Pasha - Flight to Kars - Colonel Fenwick Williams ordered to Asia - His Discoveries of Peculation - He fortifies Erzeroum - Colonel Lake arrives at Kars and entrenches it (1855) - Description of Kars - Appointment of Vassif Pasha - Opening of the Campaign of 1855 - Williams Pasha goes to Kars - General Mouravief invades Armenia; attempts to surprise Kars, and fails - Blockades the Camp - Progress of the Works - Mouravief scours the Country - Russian March towards Erzeroum - General Brunner defeated before Kars - Schemes for relieving the place - Discord in the Cabinets of the Allies - Trials of the Garrison - Turks routed at Pennek - Mouravief resolves to storm Kars - Battle of the 29th of September - Awful Losses of the Russians - Splendid Defence of the Garrison - Omer Pasha's Diversion a Failure - Cowardice of a third Selim Pasha - The Kars Garrison abandoned to itself - Its Sufferings - Capitulation, November 27th - End of the Campaign.
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Russian schemes of conquest have been marked by great deliberation and tenacity of purpose ever since the days of Peter I. To make Russia a great European Power was the least part of the design which was initiated by the greatest of Czars. The policy which he set on foot had for its object the resuscitation of the Empire of Byzantium, and the establishment of a throne which, from Constantinople, should become dominant in two continents. The first steps toward this end were taken rapidly, considering the magnitude of the conquests effected. In little more than a century the Russian frontiers had advanced many hundreds of miles in all directions. In Europe Poland had been absorbed, Sweden plundered of a province, and Turkey deprived of Bessarabia, the Crimea, and the Kouban. In Asia the Caucasus had been passed, and Georgia seized. Large tracts of territory had been shorn off Persia and Asiatic Turkey. Russia had become master of the Caspian, and from Gumri and Erivan stood across the roads leading by Erzeroum and Trebizond to Constantinople, and at the head of the valleys leading to Syria and the Persian Gulf. Her outposts on the Caspian were nearer to Lahore than to Moscow. Her grasping ambition led her not only to assail Central and Western Europe on both flanks, from the Baltic and from the Black Sea, but to seek a road to Hindostan over the body of the Persian monarchy. The great object, however, was that famous seat of power on the Bosphorus which we have seen the allies defend by striking at Sebastopol; and around Constantinople the Czars had drawn a net which it required the swords of the West to cut asunder. It was not at Odessa, and Nicolaief, and Sebastopol alone that the Russians had accumulated the means of assault upon Turkey. The only road to Constantinople did not, and does not, lie through the Balkan. If the Sultan were his sole antagonist, the Czar knew that, aided by his powerful fleet, he would probably be able to reach the goal of his ambition by a simultaneous march from the Danube and from Armenia. At least, by attacking the Turks in Asia, he would always be able to diminish their means of defence in Europe, and could not fail to gain either territory or prestige. By degrees he might get control of the great road from the Black Sea ports to Ispahan, and with it the control of the large commerce passing thereby. "The cession of the Asiatic fortresses, with their neighbouring districts," wrote Lord Aberdeen in 1829, in commenting on the Treaty of Adrianople, "not only secures to Russia the uninterrupted occupation of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, but places her in a situation so commanding as to control at pleasure the destiny of Asia Minor. Prominently advanced into the centre of Armenia, in the midst of a Christian population, Russia holds the keys both of the Persian and the Turkish provinces; and whether she may be disposed to extend her conquests to the East or to the West, to Teheran or to Constantinople, no serious obstacle can arrest her progress." Assuming that the Western Powers did not interfere with the execution of the march to the West, every year sufficed to show the soundness of the conclusions to which Lord Aberdeen came in 1829; and although the presence of the allied fleets in the Black Sea did offer a serious obstacle in 1854-5, yet that was an accident, which only for a time diminished the value of the Russian position in Armenia. Without the aid of a fleet the Russians were still very formidable. The strong fortress of Gumri not only barred the road to Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, but commanded the plain of Kars. The fort of Akalzik shut out the Turks in Kars from direct communication with the seaport of Batoum. The tracing of the frontier of the province of Erivan placed Russia within a couple of marches of Bayazid. "Constructing a fortress such as Gumri, in an advanced and commanding position," writes General Macintosh, who travelled in these countries for the purpose of estimating the military value of roads, passes, rivers, forts, "may be compared to making a breaching battery near the walls of a city. In this Russia may be said to possess, in a military sense, the whole open plain of Kars; and she can occupy the entire portion of the road between Erzeroum and Bayazid, and cut off all communication between Turkey and Persia... I do not think," he adds, " there is a place of greater importance than Bayazid, in a military point of view, in the whole of Western Asia." And why? Because it opens to the I enemy a road at once to the Persian Gulf and Syria. Actual inspection by competent military eyes thus confirmed the view adopted by Lord Aberdeen in 1829. The line of country from Akalzik to Erivan, which Russia had then just conquered, and which she had so long coveted, opened to her the gates of Persia and Asia Minor. Both sides in 1854 knew the value of the prize for which they were contending. The Turks owed the preservation of Anatolia to the energy and courage of a Hungarian and a few Englishmen. The Russians sent one of their best generals to command on that frontier, and had not the European officers stopped him "by holding Kars until they were on the brink of famine, that general would have carried the flag of Russia to Trebizond.

Such being the importance of the frontier, it is not surprising that the British Ministers watched with anxiety the progress of hostilities in that quarter; and with all the more anxiety because they were comparatively powerless to render aid. It required all the energies of England to maintain an army in the Crimea. She could not send troops, but she could send officers. France might have spared a force, but France had no wish to protect the Turks in Armenia, and had she done so we should have looked with jealousy on her efforts. There was the Turkish army under Omer Pasha, which, after the Austrians entered the Principalities, was, at least, in the spring of 1855, comparatively useless. But here again France stepped in, and would not consent to the employment upon the Armenian frontier of the only efficient general in the Sultan's service. Therefore the struggle in Asia Minor was carried on by the Turks alone, with the aid of a few European soldiers.

The Turkish Pashas on the Russian frontier drew supplies and pay (when they could get it) for 40,000 men, but they never commanded a force so large. The difference they put in their own pockets. Corruption and peculation and frauds of all kinds characterised the conduct of the greater part of these Turkish officers quite as much - and that is a high estimate - as their incapacity and cowardice. Many of the superior officers were not military men, not even military Turks; and, with a few rare exceptions, the whole mass of officers were utterly unfit to command. The soldiers, whom they plundered and neglected, were strong and warlike, and patient and much-enduring men; but they were indifferently armed, and wholly undrilled and undisciplined. Their courage was beyond question, but courage without training is of little value in armies. The artillery, as usual, was the most efficient arm in the service - indeed, the only one on which any reliance could be placed in the field. For although the infantry were brave and stubborn fighters, they were, for the most part, ill-trained and worse led; while the cavalry could not fight in the European and had been spoiled for fighting in the Asiatic manner, with the exception of a few irregulars under European officers. Nevertheless, all these troops were good behind entrenchments, and the true policy of the Turks in Armenia would have been to wage a defensive war In that course they would have found in the nature of the country a great ally, and if they had preserved the frontier intact they would have done the Sultan and the common cause good service.

But the Turkish leaders had that kind of impetuosity which accompanies incompetence. As soon as the war broke out they began to assail the enemy. A party from Batoum captured Fort Nicholas, just across the frontier, by surprise. This was not a bad move, for it stimulated the ardour of the soldiers. Unfortunately, the ambition of the Pashas was stimulated also. The commanders on the Kars frontier took the offensive, and began to engage the Russian outposts. The Commander-in-Chief was Abdi Pasha. He had been educated in the military schools of Austria, and had some talent and knowledge, yet this was marred by a constitutional inactivity and slowness. His second in command was Ahmed Pasha, an incompetent man, who shone in the intrigues of the Turkish ante-rooms. The Russians were posted at Baindir and Akisha. Learning the amount of their force at the former place, Abdi Pasha sent against them a body of troops superior in number, who, falling upon them unawares, routed them, and drove them headlong into Gumri. At the same time Ahmed Pasha had moved upon Akisha. His movements were slow, and the enemy, being prepared, inflicted upon him a severe repulse. Learning this, Abdi Pasha ordered his subordinate at once to retreat upon Kars. Ahmed Pasha would not obey nor disobey. It is a convincing proof of his stupidity that he divided his forces, sending part back to Kars, and remaining with the rest within reach of the enemy. Prince Andronikoff, who commanded the Russians, saw his opportunity, and seized it with great spirit. He quitted his entrenchments and offered battle. Nothing 10th, the Turk stood to fight. He was still superior in number. He was able to show an equal front, and at the same time to outflank his opponent. Nevertheless the Russians utterly routed their foes. They were able to do this, because Vely Pasha, who was in command of the Turkish left, which was formed across the Russian right, stood by a mere spectator of a combat which by frank valour he might have made a decisive victory. As it was, Andronikoff broke the Turkish right, Ahmed Pasha, quite incapable of command, was driven in disorder from the field, while Vely Pasha, intent on saving his men, marched away without loss. The troops hurried back to Kars in confusion. They were " a mere t rabble." The Russians did not pursue, otherwise Kars might have fallen in 1853. The untoward conduct of Ahmed ruined the whole campaign. The upshot was very remarkable. Abdi Pasha, who had won a victory, was recalled; his lieutenant, who had destroyed his own army by disobeying his superior, was appointed Commander-in-Chief; while Vely Pasha, who had run away from, the field of battle, was promoted. Such is the power of intrigue and gold. Happily for the Sultan, the Russians were not prepared for action, and were far less to be dreaded than the Pashas. Unhappily, these Pashas had ruined the Sultan's army, instead of husbanding their resources and drilling and organising for the spring campaign.

Nor were their destructive powers limited to action in the field. In the winter they allowed the army to rot in Kars. "The miserable fate of the army of Ahmed Pasha," writes Dr. Sandwith, who had the best opportunities of knowing, "is among the darkest records of the war. His whole faculties were bent upon making money." He had to repay himself the money spent in bribes to destroy the reputation of Abdi Pasha, and then to make a fortune out of the army. "I could not exaggerate the horrors the poor men suffered under his command... On the approach of cold weather, the troops were crowded into the dark, ill-ventilated hovels of Kars, and there they crouched during a long and rigorous season, deprived of their proper food and clothing, and dying of disease and hunger. During these winter months 20,000 men were carelessly buried in shallow graves in the frozen earth outside the town, and wild dogs and wolves fed on their remains." The hospitals were dreadful abodes of pain and starvation. Out of seventy doctors only forty survived the winter. "No great mortality, however, marked the muster rolls sent to Constantinople, for the pay, food, and appointments of the dead men went to fill the coffers of the Pasha and his myrmidons." Abdi Pasha, on his return, exposed to the Sultan's ministers the truth regarding Ahmed, and this scoundrel, in turn, was recalled. But, no sovereign is so badly served as the Sultan. The Minister of War could find no better man among the servants of the State than a favourite of his own - Zarif Mustapha Pasha, who had been a pipe-bearer, a writer to a regiment, an officer of the commissariat - never a soldier. Yet this was the man selected to command an army, whose business it was to protect a long and exposed frontier from the attacks of a watchful, disciplined, and intrepid foe!

It was now the spring of 1854, and the Western Powers were just sending troops to the East. Through the long winter there had been a few Europeans at Kars, and to these the army owed everything. There was the Englishman Guy on, who had carved himself a name on the records of the Hungarian War of Independence. In the winter of 1853, when Abdi and Ahmed brought their armies to near destruction, Guyon had been summoned from Damascus, and he had obeyed with a rapidity startling to the Turks. A most frank and gallant and tireless soldier, it was to his exertions that the Turks were indebted for the commencement of that entrenched camp of Kars, destined to be so famous. There was George Kmety, a Hungarian leader of valiant Honved battalions in 1848-9, and, like Guyon, driven into Turkey when Russia, throwing her sword into the scale, turned it in favour of Austria. Kmety was an excellent soldier, and although an infantry officer, he took in hand and made great use of the Turkish irregular horse with which he covered the front, and guarded Kars for months from all chance of falling by a coup de main. These two, until the arrival of Zarif, were the principal supports of Turkish power. Both were, to some extent, readily listened to, and Guyon's noble character, especially, gained for him the respect even of the Pashas. It is justly said that he saved the army from dissolution; for the soldiers took heart from his very presence and readily obeyed him. But when Zarif arrived, he brought with him several Poles and Germans, and these, by their intrigues, ruined the wholesome influence of" Guyon, whose advice was sometimes not heeded, at others disdained. The only other European officers of mark at this time in Kars were General Colman, a German, Baron de Schwarzenberg, a Belgian, and two Americans, both tried soldiers, Bonfanti and Tevis. England had not yet sent any of her sons to the aid of the Turks in Armenia.

It was a great fault of the Turkish Government that it had established no depots in Armenia. Everything, except wood and grain, had to be transported from Constantinople. The Russians had been allowed to purchase the grain crops in the two preceding years; another instance of the long-sighted policy of Nicholas, and his wilful determination to break up the Turkish Empire. Had the Turks formed a large magazine at Erzeroum, and constructed a strong camp at Kars, supposing an honest and capable Pasha could have been found, the disasters and sufferings of 1853-4 might have been avoided. On the contrary, nothing having been done in time, all that was needed had to be done in a hurry, and the army had to be supplied from Constantinople, first by sea to Trebizond, then by execrable roads over rugged mountains to Erzroum, and thence by roads equally difficult to Kars. It was by this route that supplies and reinforcements reached the front in the spring of 1854. The Turkish armies on the frontier, stationed at Batoum, Ardahan, Kars, and Bayazid, presented a nominal total of 37,000 men, of whom 20,000 were at Kars, 2,000 at Ardahan and Bayazid, and 13,000 at Batoum. The Russians had disposable 8,000 men near Batoum, 4,000 at Akiska, opposed to the 2,000 Turks at Ardahan, 15,000 at Gumri over against Kars, and 3,000 at Erivan threatening Bayazid - a total of 30,000 disciplined troops and Georgian militia. The forces on both sides were augmented some weeks later, but the proportions were not greatly changed.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

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