Empire of Liberty: Vidin

“Go forth and fear no darkness! Arise, arise riders of France! Spears shall be shaken. Shields shall be splintered. A sword day! A red day! Ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride for ruin and the world’s ending!”

~ François Étienne de  Kellerman prior to the Charge of the Marisy Brigade

 

Excerpt from Dr. Phạm Quang Hải’s “Battles That Shaped The Modern World”, University of Sài Gòn Press, 2012

The small river town of Vidin is known for its role in the Napoleonic Wars but has a far more ancient military history than most realize. Originally settled by Celts, the Romans built the first fixed fortifications here and named the city Bononias. It quickly became a strategic point with roads leading into Dacia, back to Italy, southeast towards Constantinople and south to Greece. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Bulgars settled in the region and the town became known by its Bulgarian name: “Bdin” which has morphed into the modern Vidin. The city was conquered as part of the Second Bulgarian Empire but spent much of the 13th and 14th centuries oscillating between acting as its own independent kingdom or as part of larger Hungarian and Bulgarian states. In 1396, Vidin fell to Ottoman conquerors who turned it into a key administrative and military fixture on the frontier with Europe. The great wars between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries saw Vidin frequently occupied by soldiers from the warring powers. As Ottoman power waned in the late 18th century, Vidin once more became the center of power struggles. In 1798, it became the focal point of the entire mess in the Balkans when it acted as the homebase for Osman Pazvantoğlu and his raids into Serbia and across Wallachia.

An 1850’s description of Vidin in The Times of London stated:

“A considerable town, with a population of about 26,000, and a garrison of 8,000 to 10,000 men. Widdin is one of the important fortified places of the military line of the Danube. It covers the approaches of Servia, commands Little Wallachia, the defiles of Transylvania, and, above all, the opening of the road which leads through Nissia and Sophia on to Adrianople. Its form is an irregular pentagon; it is strongly bastioned, possesses a fortified castle, with two redoubts in the islands, and its defences are completed by an extensive marsh.[1]”

It is appropriate then that this fortress town would be the central clashing point for one of the greatest battles of in military history and arguably the battle that determined the fate of the entire region.

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Excerpt from “Vidin National Military Park – About the Park Webpage”, nphs.gov/vidin, 2018

Preserved Structures and Sites

As an ancient site at the center of many conflicts, it should be noted that the Military Park does not include all of the battlefields, structures and sites of interest where major historical events have occurred in the city and its environs. Many places of historic interest in the area are preserved in the local park system and/or in conjunction with the efforts of the National Register of Historic Places and the European Realm Archeological Agency.

The Park preserves four main aspects of Vidin’s military history: the Napoleonic-era battlefields, the 10th century Baba Vida castle, the 18th century walls, and the Calafat Preserve on the opposite shore of the Danube.

All permits can be obtained at the Park’s Visitor Center. Federal, Realm and State Holidays apply.

The walls and the parks and walking trails in their immediate vicinity are part of the park and are open from sunrise to sunset. Visitors are not allowed on the walls unless they have a permit. Climbing on the river walls is strictly prohibited. The Park preserves several gates within the wall system. Some of these gates are permanently open to facilitate pedestrian access around the town and therefore never close. Some gates open and close as part of historical demonstrations. The Park strives to provide easy detours in these events, ask a Ranger if you need assistance bypassing a closed gate. Guided wall and gate tours leave from the Stambol Gate and Market Gate at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Entrance to the Baba Vida Castle requires obtaining a permit. The Castle is open from to 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day of the week.

The Napoleonic Battlefields are part of the larger Vidin area ecological system, including some working agricultural land, and therefore never close. However, visitors are required to stay on the designated walking paths or roadways to prevent damage to the delicate wetlands ecosystem. Interference of any kind with crops or livestock is strictly prohibited and may result in felony prosecution.

The Calafat Preserve is located on the opposite bank of the Danube River and preserves the entirety of Little and Great Calafat Islands and portions of the bluffs on the opposite bank of the Danube.

Baba Vida

The original Vidin castle was constructed in the 10th century on the site of an even more ancient 3rd century Roman outpost when Vidin used to be the Roman town of Bononia. The castle became the home of many local rulers during Vidin’s intermittent periods of independence. Byzantine histories indicate that Basil II laid siege to the castle for eight months and while it survived, it experienced significant damage that warranted a substantial repair job. Several inner walls were constructed on the order of Ivan Shishman, the 14th century Tsar of Bulgaria. The Ottomans made some improvements upon their acquisition of the region but the advent of gunpowder warfare meant that the castle mainly became an armory. Thus, the modern structure has an effective construction history range from the 200’s to the 1300’s A.D. The advent of gunpowder warfare also meant that a new type of fortress was necessary.

The “Kaleto” Walls

Turkish for “Fortress”, the Kaleto walls were constructed from 1704 to 1735 to provide Vidin a more effective type of defense against cannon fire. Designed by the Hungarian convert Gesar Mustafa and constructed by Bulgarian Christian master masons “Gigo, Nicholas and Tanas”, the new fortress became a key strong point for Ottoman control in the Balkan region. The walls protect a 1.5 km arc around the old city. An 18-meter wide, roughly six meters deep, moat guards the approach to the walls. Any would be invader would have to bring siege engines or cannons across several kilometers of marsh only to find themselves confronted with walls, cannons and a small river to cross.

Napoleon’s Magnum Opus

Shortly after the dramatic Russian victory over Hapsburg forces at Craiova, the soon to be French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marched his army out of Belgrade towards Wallachia to engage the Russians. Assisted by the first clear weather in weeks, the French rapidly marched across rough Serbian terrain and into fertile eastern valleys of the Danube River. Still licking their wounds after the fierce battle at Craiova, the Russian armies under Mikhail Kutuzov and Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron, marched west to gain favorable ground against Napoleon. They arrived in the ancient fortress town of Vidin, stronghold of their janissary allies, on May 16. Throughout the 16th and 17th the Russians prepared the extensive series of fortifications the Turks had constructed at Vidin.

Napoleon’s force arrived on the morning of May 18 and began establishing a roughly 7-kilometer defensive perimeter arc around the city. With the city surrounded by marshes and only five roads providing decent access points to and from the walls, Napoleon concentrated his forces on the roads and positioned his cannons on ridges overlooking them. With nearly 65,000 Russians encamped behind the kaleto walls, Kutuzov and Langeron believed Napoleon’s army was several days away and had been caught in a poor position. Furthermore, Langeron was suffering from severe migraines and ceded sole command of the massive Russian army to Kutuzov. Kutuzov now faced a race against time to organize and fight his way out of his own fortress less Napoleon trap tens of thousands of soldiers in an undersupplied town.

Russian troops raced south along the Montana Road and took control of the Chuban Bridge over the Voynishka River. This movement was countered by General Léonard Mathurin Duphot who set up his lines on the northern bank of the Vidbol River. If the Russians hoped to break out south they would have to break Duphot, cross the Vidbol and escape on the southern road. Another Russian battalion racing along the Zaječar Road dug in at the village of Novoselo. Consisting of less than a dozen small structures, it stood on the edge of the marsh and would soon become the focal point of the entire battle. Opposite of them stood 9,000 troops under the command of Louis-Vincent-Joseph Le Blond de Saint-Hilaire. Napoleon himself established his headquarters at the village of Inova, which looked down from a slight bluff onto the entirety of Vidin. General André Masséna took up his position at the village of Katova, which he quickly learned required only a mere kilometer’s push through marshland before his forces could be at the town’s walls (easily the narrowest stretch of marsh on the battlefield). Russian attempts to establish control of the three remaining northern and eastern roads away from town floundered. To prevent a siege, everything depended on Kutuzov’s ability to exploit his gains on the southern roads and maintaining control over the right bank of the Danube. Establishing control of one of the southern roads would allow thousands of Russians to march out of Vidin and give Napoleon a proper line battle, or simply march away to choose another battlefield. If none of the roads could be controlled, then Kutuzov could fall back on two dozen small ferryboats to transport his vast army to the right bank of the Danube. The marshes, moat and great walls of Vidin would ensure that even a token force could hold back a full French assault while the bulk of the army slipped away.

By 1:00 p.m. the battlefield largely became set and Napoleon realized the importance of the events on the southern roads. He dispatched Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte and his V Corps south to take the Chuban Bridge and begin pressing an offensive up the Montana Road. He sent François Étienne de Kellerman and his cavalry to reinforce Saint-Hilaire and press an attack on Novoselo. Kellerman’s cavalry had little success and Napoleon pulled them out and sent them on another, more secret, errand. The French managed to occupy the town itself well-enough but Dmitry Sergeyevich Dokhturov was pressing nearly 5,000 Russians down the narrow road and fanned his soldiers into the marshes to fire on French positions from the literal weeds. Bernadotte’s assault on the Chuban Bridge saw a proper line battle between 10,000 French soldiers and 12,000 Russians. Despite being outnumbered, Bernadotte’s forces performed valiantly and pushed the Russians back along the bridge and into the marshes. At 5:00 p.m., Napoleon received word that Bernadotte had taken the bridge and had a dozen cannons, prepared to rain canister shot, pointed onto the crucial chokepoint in the event another Russian army made an attempt. Fighting around Novoselo would linger into the night as neither side could gain the advantage. Napoleon ultimately instructed Saint-Hilaire to pull his men out of the town and rest instead of spend a terrifying night firing into blackwater full of snakes and bayonet-wielding Russians.

Having lost control of all but one road out of town, Kutuzov determined Vidin could not be held and decided to withdraw his forces across the river. At 9:00 p.m. the first Russian soldiers began to be ferried across the Danube to the opposite bank village of Calafat. With thirty boats at their disposal, and each roundtrip taking approximately 40 minutes, this meant Kutuzov could rely on roughly 12-14 trips per boat, for a grand total of 420 trips that could place 8,000 to 10,000 men on the opposite shore by dawn on the 19th. By the time the French realized the Russian plan, he could have 20,000 men ready to defend any incursion against the right bank. Napoleon could either split his force and play a game of ferry boats, attack the brutal defenses of Vidin, or helplessly watch the Russian army slip away to fight another day. What Kutuzov did not expect was the sound of gunfire from the opposite shore at dawn and the scene of several hundred French cavalry descending down the Calafat bluff into the surprised heart of several thousand Russian soldiers. Unknown to Kutuzov, Napoleon began ferrying the 650 men and horses of Kellerman’s Marisy Bridge shortly after their ineffective attack on Novoselo. In twenty minutes the French had cut off the last Russian avenue for retreat that did not risk mass casualties.

Desperate to rectify the situation, Kutuzov sent 10,000 men down the road to Novoselo with instructions to establish a “bridgehead” and allow proper line movements and a decisive battle on the firm ground between the villages of Tatardjik and Ruptza. Another 10,000 men were sent under the command of the Polish Prince Ignancy Przybyszewski northward towards Katova through the narrowest stretch of marsh. A portion of his army (mainly cannons and cavalry) marched on the road while many more (mostly infantry) waded through chest high muck in search of solid ground. Behind the kaleto walls, 25,000 Russians stood ready to reinforce any successful breakout. Napoleon would later write in his memoirs of the moment he saw the Russian divisions marching on the narrow road towards Novoselo:

“In that moment, I knew Kutuzov had decided that the fate of the Balkans would be determined on that day.”

Whether this is merely nostalgic bluster, or his actual thought in the moment, his words proved accurate. The fighting around Novoselo was brutal with nearly 8,000 men falling between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. alone. Russian officers later admitted that their final body count was likely inaccurate as many bodies fell into the blackwater never to be seen again. The stagnant swamp water made even minor wounds incredibly dangerous. Interestingly, it was here that the famed French surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey noticed the higher rate of “soured wounds” amongst the men of Saint-Hilarie’s divisions than Duphot’s and Massena’s troops who mostly avoided fighting in the actual marshes. By 1:00 p.m. though, the relentless and heroic Russian push allowed roughly 18,000 troops to form proper battalions on the battleplane outside of Novoselo. It had taken two days but finally there would be a proper battle to counter the brutal siege warfare.

To the north, Przybyszewski’s forces emerged from the marshes and began forming lines on drier ground around 11:30 a.m. Until this point, Massena’s troops had largely spent the battle on the sideline and were more than prepared for a battle. Less than intense than the onslaught at Novoselo, the afternoon fighting at Katova was also fierce. Unlike Novoselo, Przybyszewski could never gain enough ground to properly organize reinforcements. A desperate charge around 2:00 p.m. resulted in over 1,000 Russian deaths from canister shot alone. Their spirit broken, and unable to touch Massena’s lines, thousands of panicked troops fled back to Vidin. Massena actually intended to send a cavalry charge to sabre the retreating soldiers along the narrow road and, if he was lucky, charge through an open gate and bring the fighting inside the walls. This notion ultimately failed. Tens of thousands of footsteps, horse tracks, and wheel ruts over two days had devastated the quality of the narrow roads in and out of Vidin to the point where there was little difference between the roads and the marshes.

Eastward, the final battle for Vidin played out on the field just east of the killing swamp around Novoselo. With Saint-Hilarie’s division bloodied, Massena occupied, Kellerman occupying the right bank of the river, and Duphot needed to keep watch on the southern road, Napoleon could only recall Bernadotte to the scene to reinforce the main battle. The several thousand men of Napoleon’s own Consular Guard moved south from Inova to act as reserves if needed. This left two unused roads dangerously undermanned but, amazingly, Kutuzov never tested his options. It also proved to be the tipping point in the battle. Had Kutuzov sent the bulk of his forces against Saint-Hilarie’s battered troops, he likely could have sent the French lines running allowing a mass Russian breakout. Instead, Kutuzov saw thousands of the same crack troops that had held on at Novoselo for two days reinforced by thousands of Napoleon’s personal soldiers forming to the center and the left. Thus, he pressed into what he saw as the weaker right flank of the French lines, which happened to be Bernadotte’s relatively fresh soldiers. Bernadotte held his own against the Russian attack and bought the French valuable time to recall other reserves to the critical point. Around 2:30 p.m. the Russian attack created an imbalance in the Russian lines, producing a “hinge” of the type that Napoleon loved to exploit. Napoleon ordered General Louis Friant and the 108th Line to “smash them where they are most tender and win us the day”, an order he followed to perfection. The 108th’s charge finally broke the exhausted Russians and split their tenuous line in two. Bernadotte crushed the Russian’s between his and Friant’s bayonets while the Consular Guard and St. Hilaire’s elated troops pushed thousands of Russians back into the marshes. By 3:00 p.n. the fighting was finished and the French had added nearly 9,000 captured Russians to the casualty list. While he knew that Napoleon could not effectively attack Vidin, Kutuzov also knew that he was surrounded with no help coming anytime soon and perilously low supplies. Holding on for pride would only forsake the hundreds of wounded men scattered throughout the marshes and condemn many more trapped within Vidin to other demises. At 5:00 p.m. on May 19, 1804, Kutuzov surrendered.

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Excerpt from Napoleon’s General Order to the Grand Armee, May 19, 1804

“Even at this hour, before this great day shall pass away and be lost in the ocean of eternity, your Consul must address you, and say how satisfied he is with the conduct of all those who have had the good fortune to fight in this memorable battle. Soldiers! You are the finest warriors in the world. The recollection of this day, and of your deeds, will be eternal! Thousands of ages hereafter, as long as the events of the universe continue to be related, will it be told that a Russian army of 74,000 men, was annihilated by you on the banks of the Danube. [2]”

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Excerpt from Dr. Phạm Quang Hải’s “Battles That Shaped The Modern World”, University of Sài Gòn Press, 2012

Historians have long questioned why Kutuzov and Langeron opted to pack their thousands of men into the defenses of a medieval fortress town and its environs instead of fanning out and engaging Napoleon’s single army with two armies utilizing 19th century battlefield tactics. Indeed, Napoleon’s operations on May 18 look more like 12th century castle siege warfare than his revolutionary line battle tactics. The mystery appears to have been solved by a slew of Langeron family letters discovered in an attic in 1976. The long lost correspondence seems to indicate that Langeron was suffering from an unknown ailment that combined complaints of fever, severe congestion, and migraines. Believing Napoleon to be a week away from Vidin, and not a mere two days, the two Russian generals planned to fortify Vidin as a backup point, send Kutuzov north engage Napoleon directly and send Langeron west and then north to catch Napoleon from behind. Langeron seemed to believe that the decisive battle would occur somewhere between Smederevo and Kučevo. A letter dated on May 17 indicates that if fever and headaches had not passed by the morning, he would hand over control of his army to his second in command so operations could begin. Failures of Russian scouts combined with Napoleon’s rapid movements to catch the Russian armies out of place.

Lastly, the politics did not help in the matter. Vidin was a strategically important crossroads and fortress town, in the 16th century. Modern tactics were rendering such notions useless. A far better approach for the two Russian armies would have been to force Napoleon to invade deeper into Wallachia or Thrace. This would have forced the French to extend their supply lines and routes of retreat, and catch them in conjunction with a third Turkish army. Langeron actually recommended this exact tactic to the Tsar but was overruled. Alexander refused to cede territory in Wallachia and was successfully pressured by his janissary-allies to hold Vidin as the key to Constantinople. This thinking was either tactically wrong by the Osman Pazvantoğlu or an outright lie designed to persuade the Russians to fight for his home territories on his behalf. In reality, many Wallachian Christians viewed the Russians as harsh invaders just as they did the janissaries so holding territory to endear themselves to the population would not have made any difference. Based on his correspondence and seeming obsession with Constantinople, Napoleon never truly threatened an eastward march to the Black Sea. Any operation would have been horribly impractical and Napoleon knew this himself. Finally, distant Vidin was hardly the key to Constantinople. The same road through Vidin towards Constantinople forced one to go through Montana, Sofia, Haskovo and (arguably the real key town) Adrianople.

All of this combined so that the Russians cornered themselves at Vidin, a mistake that Napoleon exploited to perfection.

—————— Author’s Notes ——————

[0]: I’m not sure the most proper way to source this but much of the battlefield’s descriptions and depictions come from an 1878 map of a Romanian siege of Vidin and images of surviving structures around the modern city.

[1]: This is a direct quote about Vidin from our timeline repurposed.

[2]: This is largely ripped from Napoleon’s actual message to his troops after the victory at Austerlitz. I have changed a few things to shore it up with in timeline events. Also note Napoleon’s penchant for fudging the numbers to make his victories look more impressive.

Source Materials

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

“The Seat of War on the Danube,” The Times, December 29, 1850, p. 8

Widdin During the Roumanian Siege (1878). London, Osgood & McIlvaine & Co.

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