by Prof. Galina Grebenshchikova, St. Petersburg’s Naval University
This article extracted from Osmanli Devleti’nde Nehirler ve Göller (The Rivers and the Lakes in the Ottoman Empire), (ed. Şakir Batmaz-Özen Tok, Kayseri: Expres Baski, 2015, I, 61-70). We are grateful to Professor Şakir Batmaz for allowing for publishing this article at www.heritageofislam.co.uk web portal.
First of all, I must say that unfortunately, there were more war and conflict in the Russo-Turkish relations during the 18th century, than peace and co-operation. Wars were inevitable occurrences in the life of both Russian and Ottoman Empires; and two wars did happen during Empress Catherine II’s rule.
The first war had begun in 1768. Empress did not want quarrel with the Ottoman Empire. By contrast, she intended to develop the Black Sea trade, support the merchants and cultivate good relations. However, the French and Austrian diplomacy had a high political influence in Istanbul, the Ottoman capital; and they pushed Sultan to war with Russia. On the one hand, the Polish throne was a source of discord between France and Russia. On the other hand, the border divided Turkish and Polish territories. After Catherine II’s favourite Stanislav Ponyatovskiy ascended the Polish throne and became the king, Russian troops occupied Polish territories.
The large rivers, Dniester and Danube, were main borders of the Ottoman Empire. There were strong citadels and fortresses on Danube coast, including Izmail, Tulcha, Isakcha and others. Besides, the Crimean Khan who was the Sultan’s vassal was an important asset for the Ottomans before the end of the war.
On 6 October 1768, Sultan Mustafa III declared war on Russia. He mobilized an army of almost 600.000. The military operations on Danube were the most important for antagonists. To divide Turkish forces, Russian government intended to send squadrons to the Aegean Archipelago, for operations against the Ottoman fleet.
As Russia did not possess a Black Sea Fleet in that period, the Ottoman Empire had the command of the sea. Nevertheless, Empress Catherine II ordered the construction of naval forces on the Don River to fight for the Azov and Black Sea. Azov flotilla consisting of “specially built ships”, can be considered the forerunner of the Black Sea Fleet.
Operations opened first on the Danube. Field Marshall Pyotr Rumiantsov was appointed as Commander-in-Chief, and shortly afterwards his army won a brilliant victory over the Ottomans at Kagul. During 1770, Russian troops captured some key Turkish positions and advanced to Moldavia. However, it was necessary to cross from the right bank of Danube to take the initiative. Upon the realization of this goal, Russian troops captured important Kilia, Izmail and Tulcha fortresses along the Danube. The struggle for the Tulcha fortress was especially heavy, where Russian invasion troops fought against Turkish janissaries and cavalry.
War seemed to become protracted, but the Sultan decided to continue the struggle. As count Orlov’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Fleet had destroyed the Ottoman navy at the battle of Chesma in July 1770 and blockaded the Dardanelles; Sultan Mustafa III ordered the army to be provisioned overland from Anatolia. Upon that, Russian Government decided to strike a crushing blow to the Ottomans on the Danubian front, with the intention of marching directly to Istanbul and force a peace treaty. As the Azov flotilla was still not ready, Field Marshal Rumiantsov suggested to get “specially designed vessels” (schooners) built for purpose of operating on Danube, to carry out that plan. With this goal in mind, Empress Catherine II invited the British admiral Charles Knowles to Russian service and commissioned him to design the “special schooners”.
According to the plans drawn by Admiral Knowles, the dimensions of the schooners were:
- Length – 90 feet
- Breadth – 24 ½ f.
- Depth of hold – 11 f.
Only four such schooners were built, near Izmail. Besides, Russian sailors captured a great number of small, two masted Ottoman vessels and made good use of these in operations. Ottoman vessels proved very successful. After the war, one of the “Knowles schooners”, the Pobedoslav Dunayskiy, run into a gale and her commander was forced to sail to Istanbul to save his ship. Ottoman authorities allowed the schooner to be repaired, and thanks to their assistance, she came back to port. Another schooner, the Brailov, also ran into a gale near the Ottoman Ochakov fortress, where Russian sailors were allowed to stay for some weeks.
Catherine II’s first Russo-Turkish War ended on 10 July 1774, with the signing of the Kuchuk-Kaynardgy peace treaty. The most important result of the treaty was the declaration of Crimea as independent from the Sultan. However, the Russian Empress was not going to stop with Crimea’s independence, her main goal was to fully annex this territory. Catherine II declared the annexation in 1783. This move was surely going to provoke the Ottomans into a new war. She also had ordered the full preparation of a Black Sea Fleet to operate in conjunction with another planned Mediterranean expeditionary squadron from the Baltic. Russia intensified her military power and concluded an alliance with Austria. However, Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid I, who ascended the throne in 1774, also had prepared for the war. England, France and Prussia also supported Ottomans.
Catherine II’s Second Turkish War started in 1787. Once more, Danubian fortresses were the most important focus of both land and naval operations. The main naval actions on Danube began in October 1790, when the Black Sea rowing flotilla under the Spanish mercenary general José de Ribas assisted the Russian troops. The Flotilla assisted General Gudovitch who captured Kilia, Isakcha and Tultcha fortresses, which had been given back to Ottomans at the treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynardgy. During operation on the Danube, Russians captured 70 small Ottoman vessels together with 70 iron and 32 brass guns. After seizing these strongpoints, de Ribas and Gudovitch proceeded to Izmail, a fortress of great military importance.
Izmail was the last Ottoman strongpoint. With a garrison of more than 30.000 troops, the new Sultan Selim III who ascended the throne in 1789, had great confidence to this fortress. Grand Vizier Sharif-Pasha had ordered Izmail’s commander Idos-Pasha to defend the fortress to the last. Thanks to the great improvements made by the French engineer Laffite-Clavier, Izmail had become virtually unassailable. Also, there were deep ravines and ditches around the walls, as well as strong stone buildings inside. Ottoman garrison had resolved to put a stubborn resistance for a rather long time, the Russians were unwilling to take the fortress by storm. This changed at the beginning of December 1790, upon the arrival of the very aggressive general Alexander Suvoroff. As a last effort to intimidate the Ottoman garrison, a powerful siege battery of heavy guns was assembled; but shortly afterwards an all-around assault had begun. de Ribas’ Danube flotilla also opened fire on Izmail with more than 500 guns. Idos-Pasha still declined a capitulation offer by declaring, “Danube shall stop flowing before I surrender!” At last, with the slaughter of all the 30.000 man garrison, Pasha surrendered.
Fall of Izmail was a major disaster for the Ottoman Empire. The new Grand Vizir, Yusuf-Pasha intended to rapidly rectify the situation on the Danube with his almost 80.000 strong army. But all these Ottoman intentions were dashed at the end of June 1791, when Russian general N. Repnin defeated Yusuf-Pasha in the battle of Machin. Out of any more military options, Sultan Selim III agreed to the peace offer. On 29 December 1791, Russian and Turkish representatives signed the Jassy Peace Treaty, according to which Russia returned all the Danubian fortresses back to the Ottoman Empire. War was over.
As a conclusion, it is necessary to say that Russian operations on the strategically vital Danube River were decisive in Catherine II’s both two Turkish wars. This important part of naval history must be remembered and studied in both Russia and Turkey.