Crimean War Siege in the Caucasus

The British and Ottoman defenders of Kars had been forgotten heroes of the Crimean Struggle

Typically within the Caucasus Mountains the sounds of battle can reverberate for a really lengthy distance, leaving the listener with an eerie sense of approaching battle. Within the years 1853-56, the sounds of battle traveled simply so far as they do right now, and despatched an ominous shiver down the backs of those that heard them. Slightly recognized however essential occasion within the Crimean Struggle occurred on this jap portion of what was then the Ottoman Empire. On the city of Kars, British profession officer Brigadier Normal William Fenwick Williams took command of an undermanned, underfed Turkish subject pressure and nearly defeated a Russian military. With the primary present on the Crimean Peninsula dominating the world’s consideration on the time, historical past has had little to say of Williams and the Turks he led. However his battle towards corruption, illness and famine, in addition to an awesome Russian pressure, deserves wider recognition.

Williams had beforehand served within the British military in quite a lot of capacities, together with a mission to northeastern Persia in 1852, the place he noticed a devastating cholera epidemic among the many area’s Turkish, Kurdish and Persian populations. On the outset of the Crimean Struggle, he turned a member of the Turkish Contingent, which comprised British officers, primarily from the Indian military, assigned to indifferent obligation with the Ottoman military. James Skene, an assistant to the British ambassador at Istanbul, described them: “Among the British officers, each of the Common and Irregular Divisions of the Turkish Contingent, had been aged Indians with disordered livers, who had lengthy since dropped out of harness, and had been buried of their golf equipment, to be dug up and despatched to command Turkish troops. Others, nonetheless younger, had been so given to bluster and ‘bahawdering,’ that Mrs. Rapidly will surely have objected to such ‘swaggering companions.’ The Struggle Division didn’t appear to have a really exalted notion of the {qualifications} for officers, within the Irregular Cavalry particularly.” An “aged Indian” was a British officer who had served a few years within the East Indian military, throughout which he had drunk a lot that he suffered from a “disordered liver.” To “bahawder” was to brag as if one was, to make use of the Moghul time period, a bahadur, or courageous warrior. On reflection, Williams doesn’t appear to have belonged to that class of officer, however one or two of his assistants may need.

Williams’ workers included Colonel Atwell Lake, Main Christopher C. Teesdale, Captain Henry Langhorne Thompson and Dr. Humphry Sandwith. Lake was a Royal Engineer who had served within the Madras military. Teesdale was a Royal Artillery officer. Thompson had served as a junior officer within the 68th Bengal Native Infantry, a sepoy unit, and had been wounded in the course of the Burma marketing campaign of 1852. Sandwith had come to Williams’ assist very early within the existence of the British Navy Fee to Anatolia, Turkey, and at first functioned extra as an administrative assistant than as a medical physician.

On the time of the Crimean Struggle, the Turkish military opened its officer ranks to European army males with expertise—no questions requested. Numerous such officers crossed Williams’ path in the course of the marketing campaign in jap Turkey, males who had mainly been concerned in failed revolutions throughout 1848 and 1849, and had since been pressured to flee their homelands to keep away from jail or execution. For instance, György Kmety and Jozsef Kollmann had fled Hungary after Austria and Russia crushed its 1849 struggle for independence, becoming a member of the Ottoman ranks with Turkish names and excessive pasha (normal’s) ranks. Polish exiles fleeing the Russian-occupied areas of their misplaced nation additionally turned up as junior officers in Williams’ pressure at Kars, and one such Pole, utilizing the adopted Muslim identify of Mahmud Efendi, assisted Williams in defeating the Kurdish revolt of 1855.

The Turkish military of jap Anatolia encountered critical difficulties. Reform within the military had begun lower than 30 years earlier than. European advisers akin to Helmuth von Moltke the elder, founding father of the Prussian complete struggle technique, had suggested the sultan on army issues within the 1830s. If the old-style Turkish commanders now not existed within the new reform military, the new-style commanders weren’t effectively educated in fashionable army technique, techniques and group. Williams disliked the Turkish officers however admired the widespread Turkish soldier, whom he thought-about a wonderful fighter—so long as he may combat behind an earthwork.

Along with the common military, Ottoman forces had been supplemented by levies of irregular troopers, together with Kurds, Turcomen, Bedouin Arabs, Caucasian mountaineers (referred to as Circassians) and Laz mountaineers. These colourful troopers served as irregular cavalry—apart from the Laz, who fashioned infantry items—and the British officers noticed them as helpful for finishing up patrols or raids behind enemy strains, picket obligation and skirmishing.

Williams’ first battle was fought with the excessive command of the jap Turkish military, primarily based at Erzurum and Kars. There, he found corruption from the best normal to the bottom firm commander. The Turkish commanders, together with Zarif Mustafa Pasha, had created false muster rolls. After the early battles of 1853-54, useless and wounded troopers had been reported as being on obligation. All issues pertaining to these males—meals, provides, weapons, ammunition, uniforms and wages—had been embezzled by the commanders, with the complicity of some lesser officers. To make issues worse, these Turkish generals intercepted most provides meant for his or her troopers and offered them again to military contractors for fats income. The troopers’ wages had been additionally embezzled, in order that many males had acquired no cash in any respect for a lot of months. The implications had been disastrous. Half the Turkish military died from illness and frostbite as a result of they’d poor rations and no winter uniforms to guard them from the chilly. In a letter to a good friend named Hanson on November 9, 1854, Williams described the circumstances he encountered: “Having achieved all I can for this garrison, which now consists of 12,000 males of all arms, effectively housed & I belief they are going to be effectively fed, I’m off tomorrow for Erzeroom [sic]….How fortunate the Pashas and Colonels are that I don’t command, for tomorrow at daylight I’d shew them a ‘gallows tree’ with a least 10 ropes connected thereto!”

Williams didn’t command the military at that time, however his persistent letter writing and his skill to doc fraud ultimately gained him success. By mid -December 1854, he turned the de facto commander of the surviving 16,000 Ottoman troopers, and he subsequently engineered the dismissal of a number of corrupt generals, who had been changed by extra trustworthy officers. Williams relied upon Vasif Pasha, the de jure Ottoman commander in chief, and artillery commander Tahir Pasha. The British officer instantly dispatched provides to the dwindling garrison in Kars, then snowbound, and made preparations to carry extra British officers to his help. An Irish officer from County Armagh, Captain William Olpherts, and a French officer, Baron de Schwarzen berg, assisted within the logistical operations in jap Turkey. By the spring of 1855, Williams had Colonel Lake constructing the siegeworks at Kars and Captain Thompson offering much-needed drill and coaching to the Ottoman infantry.

The British Navy Fee achieved ample authority after the corrupt generals’ dismissal that Thompson felt he may function as a dignitary. In a letter dwelling in 1855, he described his routine: “On week-days we journey about among the many troops, and see them drilled, take care of the provisions, bully the Colonels and Pashas, write out studies, eat our dinner, and go to mattress. There isn’t a selection. ‘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 ready for a siege, whilst a Russian military was marching towards it. Williams took command of the town itself on June 7, 1855. On June 16, the date of a Russian non secular competition, large Russian formations commenced their assault in neat and orderly ranks. Cossack and Russian cavalry sparred with Ottoman irregulars and compelled them into Kars. Cossacks drove the Ottoman cavalry in slowly because the Russian infantry battalions superior from the rear. Immediately, the Turkish common and irregular cavalry collapsed and made a rush for the gateway resulting in the defensive works round Kars. The Russian cavalry and infantry tried to enter quickly behind the panicked mass of skirmishers. Captain Thompson’s artillery and infantry, holding an exterior redoubt on the defensive perimeter referred to as Karadagh (“Black Mountain”), opened a murderous fireplace, killing about 150 Russian attackers and forcing them to retire. The Russian assault halted, and the siege started in earnest.

In the course of the stalemate that adopted all through the summer season and into the autumn, Williams strove to develop a technique to persuade his Russian counterpart, Normal Mikhail Muraviev, that the Kars garrison had loads of provides and excessive morale. The Russians, nevertheless, knew higher. Their plan was to encircle the town, depriving the garrison of any outlying provide caches, then wait patiently till hunger and pestilence took their toll.

In the course of the months of relative inactivity in Kars, Colonel Lake saved busy supervising the constructing of trench after trench, redoubt after redoubt, till the outer defensive community was almost impregnable. Working all day as an engineer, he additionally did obligation at night time as commander of the guard, using across the complete circuit of Kars’ in depth trench community to examine each guard put up and picket, making certain that the lads didn’t sleep on obligation or neglect their assignments. At most, Lake slept three hours per night time for months. Main Teesdale and Captain Thompson com manded Ottoman battalions and artillery of their redoubts, constructed on the excessive floor surrounding the city. Thompson, a prolific author, scribbled away on a nightly foundation to maintain from succumbing to tedium and apathy.

Whereas Normal Williams coordinated the assorted actions of his British and Turkish officers, Dr. Sandwith ready the hospital for a critical Russian try and storm the works, which everybody anticipated to happen any day. Every man on Sandwith’s medical workers was supplied with a civilian interpreter who assisted in giving instructions to the Turkish officers and typically, in battle conditions, additionally turned concerned within the combating. Not less than one British officer realized sufficient Turkish to converse together with his subordinates, and in Ottoman vogue sat together with his officers each day with “espresso and pipes,” making a overview of the day’s duties to be undertaken and giving orders to every of the lads. Thompson turned very pleasant together with his officers and now and again engaged in wrestling matches together with his colonels and majors.

Except for a handful of skirmishes, few important occasions occurred in the course of the summer season of 1855. On or about July 1, a Russian pressure seized shops of wheat, barley and biscuit within the village of Yenî Köy, depriving the Kars garrison and townspeople of a useful meals provide. Famine had begun to plague the outpost by July 17, when Thompson reported that he had eaten solely a slice of chilly boiled beef and was left with a ravenous urge for food for the remainder of the day. On that very same day, Williams found that the keeper of the primary storehouse, Salih Aga, had grown wealthy on a black market in meals by promoting many of the provisions in his stock. Nothing remained to make the well-known barley soup that Williams had famous in his many letters as being a staple of the Ottoman soldier’s food regimen.

The Laz infantry, which had no meals provide, had enriched Salih, however after the storekeeper’s execution, they had been pressured, like all different irregular troops within the Ottoman military, to search out their very own rations. By July 29, the Laz had been on the level of hunger and mutinied. However Williams stilled their rebel at its inception by buying oxen together with his personal cash and giving them to the Laz irregulars, thereby retaining them as garrison members. With the help of the Ottoman commander in chief, Williams additionally re organized your complete rationing system and commenced preserving higher information of meals distribution.

Ottoman troopers started to promote their very own rations to townspeople, who in any other case needed to dwell readily available outs or in town’s animal inhabitants—canine, cats and rats. Troopers more and more got here into Sandwith’s hospital, and the hard-working surgeon reported that at the very least one soldier a day died of malnutrition or illness throughout this era.

The Laz quickly started looting outlying villages. On August 4, Main Teesdale and Captain Thompson confronted some Laz freebooters, who drew their well-known lengthy knives, known as kamas, on them. After extreme combating, the British officers had the Laz ar rested and publicly flogged for insubordination and mutiny. Nonetheless, desertions elevated, with troopers of all sorts taking their probabilities at slipping by way of the Russian strains quite than face hunger.

On August 7, a Russian column made a frontal as sault on Kanli Redoubt, however the try was repulsed, with about 250 Russians killed. Sandwith wrote that he thought-about it a “most silly, inexplicable assault.”

By mid-September, information that the Crimean port of Sevastopol had fallen to the allies reached the Kars garrison. Early within the morning of September 29, Muraviev, fearing the prospect of being reduce off from Russia correct, despatched his complete infantry pressure to assault the redoubt held by Main Teesdale and Normal Kmety’s battalions. Muraviev hoped that the compounded issues of hunger and the onset of winter would immediate the Turkish troops to yield. The result of his gamble would function dramatic testimony to the futility of frontal assaults on well-de fended positions held by resolute troopers.

Three large Russian columns fashioned for the as sault and commenced to march ahead at 4 a.m. Turkish sentries alerted their re doubt commanders of the Russian advance, and firing started round 4:30. The Russians had meant to execute a shock assault within the fog and weak mild of daybreak, however they failed.

On October 3, Williams wrote in a letter that the Russian soldier had “superior together with his standard steadiness and intrepidity, however in getting inside vary, he was saluted with a crushing fireplace of artillery from all factors of the road: this un anticipated reception, nevertheless, solely drew forth hurrahs from the Russian infantry, because it rushed up the hill on the redoubts and breastworks. These works poured forth a fireplace of musketry and rifle, which informed with fearful impact on the shut columns of assault, extra particularly on the left one….” The Russian pressure on the left broke and fled, leaving 850 males useless on the sphere.

The Russian middle column struck on the redoubts on the peak commanded by Teesdale and Kmety, and determined combating ensued over the following a number of hours. The Russians broke by way of the trenches on both facet of the central redoubts however by no means succeeded in getting into the redoubts themselves. Because the apparently victorious Russians ran towards the town of Kars, far away, they had been stunned by a flank assault by three Turkish infantry battalions, commanded by Colonel Lake. Thompson turned his artillery round on the heights he commanded, enfilading the charging Russian infantry. Teesdale, Kmety and different officers within the surrounded central redoubt led counterattacks and stolidly fought on. The mixture of flank assault and artillery enfilade, in addition to counterattacks by the lads within the beleaguered positions, pressured Russian survivors to retreat.

Williams estimated the Russian central column’s power at 22 infantry battalions, a big cavalry pressure of dragoons and Cossacks, and 32 artillery items. He additionally famous that Kmety and Husain Pasha, a Turkish officer, distinguished themselves by their bravery, whereas Teesdale’s valor in the course of the motion 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, known as the “English redoubts.” The battles elsewhere had drawn a few of the Turkish troops away from these positions. The Laz and different irregulars holding some a part of these trenches fought bravely, however had been thrown again. Seeing that loss, Williams ordered Thompson to ship two Turkish infantry battalions from his redoubts to counterattack. Bolstered by Lake’s three battalions, they drove the Russians from the trenches after extreme hand-to hand combating with bayonets and clubbed muskets.

Even amid the combating, the Turkish troopers, who had been flippantly clothed, took the time to strip the Russian useless of their heavier clothes—September was already very chilly in Kars. After the Russians withdrew, Lake said that his males buried 6,500 Russians, and Russian deserters claimed that an estimated 15,000 wounded stuffed their hospitals. The Russian infantry battalions had been completely crippled, however their cavalry maintained the siege.

Rumors of reduction didn’t 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 appeared. Day after determined day of unbroken siege handed. Cholera broke out, and 1,000 males died in October and November. Famine killed much more, among the many troopers in addition to the cities folks. The ladies and youngsters of Kars, who had as soon as applauded Williams and his workers, now appeared reproachfully upon them. Laz irregulars refused to go to the hospital to hunt assist from Dr. Sandwith; as they neared loss of life from hunger, they crawled into abandoned homes to die.

The defenders stood of their trenches and redoubts solely by way of Normal Williams’ iron resolve. They did obtain some encouraging information—the Russian-held Caucasus territories had been invaded by the Turkish commander in chief, Omer Pasha. They heard he had begun his march towards Kars, and that different Ottoman forces had been coming from the west to the town’s reduction.

On the finish of November, nevertheless, when famine and illness reached a important level and no signal of reduction was forthcoming, Williams determined to capitulate. Earlier than the official give up was made, he despatched all Hungarian and Polish expatriates out into the night time to make their technique to security if attainable quite than face Russian captivity. Each Hungarians es caped, and Kollmann continued to serve within the Ottoman military (underneath the Turkish identify of Feyzi Bey) in the course of the Russo-Turkish struggle of 1877-78, combating in the identical military of jap Anatolia as at Kars.

Muraviev allowed solely irregular Ottoman troops to return to their houses. Turkish common troopers had been made prisoners, and the British officers, all of whom survived the siege, hung out in a considerably luxurious Russian captivity. The malnutrition and chilly at Kars completely affected the well being of Captain Thompson, whose life within the Indian military had acclimated him to subtropical warmth. Though he started to recuperate considerably in Russia, he died shortly after returning to England in 1856. The others lived for a few years, and a lot of them wrote books about their struggle experiences. Normal Williams’ letters written in the course of the marketing campaign had been printed by the British authorities. 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 printed inside two years of the Crimean Struggle’s finish. An nameless pamphlet titled Kars and Its De fenders appeared in 1857, naming György Kmety as having performed an important position within the Ottoman garrison’s skill to repulse the Russians for such a very long time; it’s extensively believed to have been written by Kmety himself. One survivor who adopted up his expertise at Kars with deeds quite than phrases was Captain William Olpherts. Com manding the Royal Bengal Artillery in the course of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, his many fearless acts at Lucknow earned him the sobriquet of “Hellfire Jack” and the following award of the Victoria Cross.

For a time, Kars turned a cult phenomenon in Britain, and the surviving British officers had been dashing figures on the social scene. Quickly, nevertheless, the general public forgot what had occurred throughout that drawn out siege within the distant Caucasus.


James Reid writes from Gold River, Calif. For additional studying, attempt The Siege of Kars, 1855, by Tim Coates.

Initially printed within the April 2006 situation of Navy Historical past. To subscribe, click on right here. 


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