“In July of 1804 the forces of four great powers clashed before the eternal gates of Constantinople. If only we had known what history lie before the one power not represented on that fateful day perhaps we could have prevented everything. Perhaps not…”
~ Guy-Victor Duperré
adapted excerpt from HBO’s miniseries “Vive L’Empereur”, broadcast summer 2015
A messenger sprinted down the marble halls of the Topkapi Palace. In his hand he tightly clutched a small, rolled up, piece of paper. Ahead of him, turbaned royal guards caught sight of the man and hurriedly opened the doors to the Sultan’s audience chamber. Perhaps only two men in the entire empire could expect such an unchecked entrance, the Sultan’s Grand Vizier and this man, young Hamoud, the Sultan’s appointed messenger.
The past few days, all eyes in the palace waited for the appearance of Hamoud, and the message he carried. Today he finally arrived and ran through the open door, under the besmele benediction inscribed above the entrance reading “In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful” .
Hamoud dashed into the ornate chamber with its ultramarine ceiling, speckled with golden stars, flanked by blue, white and turquoise tiles along the walls. Around him stood silent dignitaries, janissaries and courtiers in their brilliantly colored turbans and flowing robes and vests. A handful of older courtiers, caught off guard by his sudden entrance, remained on their comfortable red pillows. Before him, on an elevated golden throne strewn with precious stones sat the Ottoman Sultan, Mustafa IV. The sultan’s eyes narrowed, as if he knew the hour had come.
To his right stood the grand vizier, Osman Pazvantoğlu in his trademark black vest, baggy white pants and white turban, a single grey feather pinned to the top.
“The message Hamoud,” Pazvantoğlu asked with defiant resignation.
“They left Çorlu this morning my Lord, just before dawn. All three of the French generals were present as was Alemdar Mustafa Pasha and some of his soldiers. I caught glimpses of a few Serbian and Greek banners but cannot accurately give their numbers or their commanders.”
“How many?” inquired Pazvantoğlu.
“At least 50,000, perhaps more.”
A hush fell over the room. Pazvantoğlu stroked his mustache in contemplation. The rumors of a more exacting Russian toll upon the French at Vidin appeared exaggerated. Combined with the sea power of the English, they could not hold the city. Perhaps there was still time for the court to retreat to Ankara? Surely Napoleon and the Europeans wouldn’t chase them into the heart of Anatolia?
Before he could formulate his thoughts, the sultan arose and spoke.
“The Christians might have us beaten in terms of numbers but they forget that numbers mean nothing before the walls of the city. It took my ancestors’ cannons, far larger than anything the French bring to our gates, to breach these walls and even then the Romans almost held! The Russian garrison will match their firepower and our coastal guns will match whatever the English think they can muster against us. The walls will negate their numbers. With all their advantages checked we will then hold the greatest advantage of all, soldiers fighting for their homes.”
With that, Mustafa ordered the outskirts of the city to retreat into the safety of the gates and all possible provisions secured. No one needed to ask Hamoud the question of when the Europeans would arrive. Everyone in the chamber knew they would be before the city in a matter of hours.
Excerpt from Harris Chandler’s “A History of Napoleonic France, Vol I”, Random House Publishing, 2018.
On July 24, 1804 the French armies of Jean Victor Marie Moreau, Jean Baptise Bernadotte, and Napoleon converged at Çorlu. Located roughly 60 kilometers from Constantinople, Napoleon’s control now extended across most of Thrace, save for some isolated pockets and the strong coastal fortifications. One key town the coalitionary forces captured was the port of Alexandroupoli. From this port all manner of supplies poured into the great army converging on Constantinople. Correspondence from French officers and Napoleon himself describe all manner of delays and problems with the lengthy French baggage train and supply routes. Ever since departing Belgrade, and certainly since leaving Vidin, the army found itself replying more and more on foraging and purchases on credit. With the army living on bread and scraps, the soldiers rejoiced to see wagonloads of wine, cheese, pork, tea, and brandy approaching from the coast. Napoleon would later give Jean-François Aimé, his chief supply officer operating back in France, the title Count of Alexandroupoli in honor of his timely logistics.
As Napoleon continued his final approach to Constantinople, a series of key decisions lingered. His British military liaisons, Miles Nightingall and Robert Hennah who represented the Royal army and Royal navy respectively, pressed Napoleon to lay siege to the city and begin by attacking the coastal fortress of the Dardanelles from land. Securing these fortresses would secure Royal Navy access to the Bosporus and thus naval support during the final battle. Hennah, who acted as the direct representative to Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood the lead commander of British operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, also knew that any delay would give Selim and his Ottoman forces time to approach Constantinople from the Asian side. Word of Napoleon’s arrival at Adrianople came to Antalya on July 27 and Selim departed under a Royal Navy escort with 8,000 men on July 28. With Napoleon literally at the city gates, Selim needed to make record speed if he was to have a say in retaking his own empire. The journey from Antalya to Constantinople by sail can take approximately a week, Selim made the journey in six days. If Selim and the Royal Navy could position themselves as critical axises in the coming fight, not only could it save lives, but it would diminish the French victory and allow for a more balanced peace.
Naturally, Napoleon favored aggression and a complete victory within his control. The British were invaluable allies in keeping the seas clear of Russian ships, preventing Mustafa from eliminating Selim and securing the empire for himself, and assisting in operations in Greece but with Napoleon at the walls the Consul truly questioned if he still needed them at this point. Ultimately, Napoleon met the British halfway. Napoleon dispatched the French Navy in the region and a 1,500 man, mostly cavalry, regiment under the command of Jean-Baptiste Noirot to help. To Napoleon it mattered little if his ships were blockading or pushing down the Dardanelles nor did he believe heavy cavalry would matter much in a fight against the Theodosian Walls (though they might prove useful covering the length of the Gallipoli Peninsula).
On July 26, Noirot’s forces began their trek south towards Gallipoli, they would take the town by surprise on the 27th, the day Napoleon’s larger army began establishing its siege lines just beyond the Theodosian Walls. On the 26th, the Royal Navy began the bombardment of the fortress of Sedd el Bahr located at the very tip of the peninsula and overlooking a beach access point to the peninsula. Royal Marines made the daunting push ashore, taking nearly 50 casualties before securing the fort and the town. Another battalion of marines quietly landed later that day at Suvla Bay, about 23 kilometers up the peninsula. By the 28th, the French had secured the Bulair Isthmus, the narrowest point on the peninsula, while the British possessed the tip of Gallipoli and most of the northern shore. The 29th saw the French secure several batteries near Gallipoli, thanks in part to a dense fog that settled over the region that day, and meet with their British counterparts in the middle of the peninsula. None of these successes would matter if they could not secure the fortresses of Kilitbahir and Çanakkale, which overlooked the narrowest sea passage of the Dardanelles. Also on the 29th, the Royal Navy landed a regiment of Irish Fusiliers on the Asian side of the Dardanelles to march on Çanakkale. The decisive Battle of the Narrows took place on the 30th as the navies made their push while supported by their land forces. The bloody, all day, fight took 300 French, English and Irish lives, 600 Turkish lives, disabled three ships and resulted in the coalition’s capture of the crucial forts. Hugging the secure European bank of the strait, coalition ships streamed into the Sea of Marmara throughout the night of the 30th. However, their task was not yet complete. Waiting in the sea lie a formidable Russo-Turkish fleet and the Battle of Constantinople was already four days old.
Excerpt from Eli Jones’ “Walls, Moats and Mines: A History of Defensive Warfare”, University of Ontario Press, 1994.
The walls of Constantinople are arguably the most important defensive structure in human history. Historically a walled city, the Greek town of Byzantium controlled the key trade route between Asia Minor and Europe centuries before the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great elevated the city to its lofty station. Constantine made Byzantium (renamed Constantinople in his honor) the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and rebuilt the city to match its newfound grandeur. As part of his construction efforts, the Constantine Walls were built to defend the city’s European approaches. These walls kept the city secure until the reign of Theodosius I who ordered a second line of walls constructed to protect the city that now spilled beyond the protection of Constantine’s initial walls. The Theodosian Walls were completed in the 5th century and made the city impregnable for 800 years. Resisting attacks from Vikings, Bulgars and Arabs the only threat to the walls seemed to be earthquakes (which over time eroded the Constantine Walls, even though some portions of those great structures remain in the city to this day) . Indeed, of the several times Constantinople was actually captured, enemy control of the Bosporus appears to be a requirement. Despite the city’s excellent defensive positioning from naval attack, its once formidable seawalls, ancient chains that ran the length of the Golden Horn and its many castles both in, and outside, of the city, an amphibious assault historically seemed the best way to take the city rather than attempting the walls.
This is for good reason.
The Theodosian Walls remain an impressive series of defenses even today. Throughout history, invaders faced a 20-meter wide by seven-meter deep ditch that could be flooded in times of crisis (records show these controlled floods rarely occurred even in battle) that approached an outer wall. This wall allowed patrols to oversee the moat and provided another obstacle to attackers on their approach to a second wall. Complete with towers at regular intervals and numerous positions to fire on enemies attempting to cross the moat and the first wall, this second wall is itself fortified by a massive third “inner” wall. This final obstacle loomed over the previous challenges at five meters thick by 12-meters tall, ringed with 96 towers each 20-meters high. A staggering 60-meter distance spanned the moat to the inner wall as well as a 30-meter height difference . Ten heavily fortified gates allowed access through these daunting defenses, the most prestigious and well defended of them all being the famous Golden Gate. Medieval siege engines were completely ineffective against the walls and routinely the outnumbered Byzantines held off far larger armies thanks to the defenses alone. Only the advent of firearms and the construction of several massive Ottoman cannons allowed Mehmet the Conqueror the solution to this ancient problem. Even when the city famously fell in 1453, it should be noted it took the Ottomans perfect conditions and nearly two months to take the city, and they were almost repulsed just before finally breaching the walls.
Upon capturing the city, Mehmet ordered the damage to the walls repaired and the Golden Gate even became the castle that housed the Ottoman treasury. Earthquakes and a lack of urgency when needed repairs occasionally cropped up left these defenses in a state of semi-disrepair by the late 18th century. However, the 1803 janissarial capture of the city from Selim III led to Mustafa IV’s orders to shore up the walls in preparation from any eventually attempt by Selim and his European allies to retake the city. When Napoleon famously approached Constantinople in the summer of 1804 he would find these ancient barriers in the best condition they had been in since the 15th century.
Novel adapted excerpt from HBO’s miniseries “Vive L’Empereur”, broadcast summer 2015
Roughly a dozen or so officers exited the small house Napoleon had commandeered as his camp’s headquarters. Murat, Bernadotte, Saint-Hilaire, Berthier, Moreau and Ney all departed along with several other French generals but also two British military attachés, the loyal janissary Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, and commanders of volunteer Greek and Serbian legions. The polyglot army was now less than a day’s march from the base of the Theodosian Walls. The cool Bosporus air was electric with anticipation across the camp. For the last six months, the bulk of this army had crossed France, Italy and the whole of the Balkans to arrive at this point.
Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne remained to gather documents and properly file everything, the last thing anyone needed was a critical order or map lost in some donkey’s pack at the height of battle . Napoleon lingered as well, pouring over reports from the Royal Navy as they blasted their way up the Dardanelles. Napoleon paused when he noticed Louis lingering.
“Louis, how many sieges do you think this city has endured?”
“I’m not sure my general, at least a dozen in Roman times and several times more near the end of the empire, certainly the fall in 1453 and then the battle last year. I’d say about 18?”
Napoleon smiled, Bourrienne was closer than he thought.
“23, tomorrow begins the 24th siege of Constantinople.”
“And how many of those were successful?”
“This city has outlasted Persians, Arabs, Vikings and several times the Turks themselves. In all those long years it has fallen six times. Once to the Delian League Greeks, a second time to Severus, once to the crusaders, again to the Greeks as they retook the town, the Turks in 1453 and last year to the janissaries. Two of those occurred before Constantine and Theodosius built their walls, one was hardly a battle and another two involved treachery. You could say monsieur Bourrienne that only once in two thousand years has this city truly been captured in a proper battle.”
Napoleon stood up and walked to a nearby pack, producing a bottle of wine. Bourrienne hurriedly procured a glass for the Consul. Napoleon stopped him short and insisted, “Two monsieur”. Bourrienne grabbed a second glass and handed both to the general.
“Say what you will about the English but they always seem to have a bottle of Madeira on them for whatever reason.” Napoleon chuckled as he poured the two glasses. Taking one for himself and handing the second to Bourrienne. Bourrienne took it and raised it in a toast.
“To your health Consul, good fortune on the eve of battle, and to history. Few men clearly have this chance to prove themselves.”
Napoleon raised his glass in turn. “A chance to prove ourselves my friend, I am but one man. Mehmed the Conqueror didn’t scale the walls himself 350 year ago.”
“Aye sire, but history remembers the generals, not the men.”
Napoleon pondered this for a moment and then raised his glass again. “You are correct Louis, but history has not yet been made. Therefore, I propose another toast. Fuck history, too good fortune and destiny.”
Bourrienne smiled and raised his glass “Fuck history, to good fortune and destiny.”
————— Author’s Notes —————
: Often the “Viking attacks” on Constantinople is a confused nomenclature referring to several instances where the Kievan Rus attacked the city.
: It is hard for me to describe what this is so see the Livius.org source material link for a picture.
: In our timeline Napoleon quietly sacked Bourrienne in favor of his longtime secretary in 1803 because Bourrienne was involved in several corruption scandals. In this timeline, the War of the Second Coalition morphs into the War of the Third Coalition so seamlessly that Napoleon is pretty much on a war footing and in the field from 1797 through this point (1805), so he never follows through on his peacetime replacement of Bourrienne (yet).
“Constantinople, Theodosian Walls.” Livius.org. April 1, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. http://www.livius.org/articles/place/constantinople-istanbul/constantinople-photos/constantinople-theodosian-walls/.
Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.