Empire of Liberty: The Brothers Zubov

Excerpt from Harris Chandler’s “A History of Napoleonic France, Vol. I”, Random House Publishing, 2018.

Napoleon established his siege lines throughout the day of July 28. Bernadotte would command the north end of the siege line, Moreau would command the middle and Jean-de-Dieu Soult was given command of the southern edge. Napoleon also dispatched Saint-Hilaire to cross the Golden Horn and lay siege to the town of Galata. Scouts were fanned throughout the countryside to keep guard for an Ottoman or Russian armies that attempted to cross from the Asian side or approach from the Black Sea. The massive scale of the battlefield precluded any actual fighting until the 29th.

By the evening of the 28th Napoleon was aware that operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula were well at hand and he anticipated a report from Soult at any hour that would sight white sails. To his credit, Napoleon requested a constant watch and any information on enemy ships in the region. A handful remained in the Golden Horn and Constantinople’s harbors; reports immediately dispatched to Admirals Collingwood and Villeneuve. No lines of sight from the city allowed observation of the Russo-Turkish fleet anchored near Marmara Island waiting to ambush the coalition fleet passing through the Dardanelles. That night, the situation was quiet and precarious. At 6 p.m., he dispatched standing orders to his generals outlining how they should form their lines in the event a Russian army came from behind. Afterwards, over an alfresco dinner of potatoes and fried onions, he dictated some ideas about the establishment of the Saint-Denis boarding school for daughters of distinguished veterans from the campaign. Before spending the remainder of the evening strolling the camp from fire to fire and conversing with the men, Napoleon drafted his Order of the Day, which posted the next morning:

“Soldiers! We stand in the shadow of ancient greatness and prepare to test our mettle before walls that once stopped Romans, Arabs, Persians and Russians. These walls and the treachorus defenders within have never seen armies of our caliber. Do they believe us degenerates who would abandon our allies to oppression? Do they forget the valor you displayed before the Pyramids, at Jaffa, and Casteggio? Soldiers of Greece, of Serbia, of Rumelia! I do not come to you as a French Consul, but as a protector of your lands and peoples. Today we fight together and I am entirely confident in your bravery. For hundreds of years Ottoman flags, protected by France, have guaranteed peace over these lands. Traitors deserve no such protection or honor. Today we will free this great city from these tyrants who seek to harm your country. They would partition your lands, disband your units and oppress your peoples. Soldiers! This war is the last you will fight against your enemies; attack them with the bayonet and annihilate them!”

At 4 a.m. on July 29, 1804, the coalition troops were moved to their initial positions through a dense fog that shrouded the Bosporus throughout the morning. Napoleon later recalled that had he not been preparing to attack the strongest walls in world history he would have begun maneuvers that morning to take advantage of the mist. Instead, 30 kilometers to the north at a Black Sea beach draped in the same fog, approximately 10,000 men under the command of Nikolay and Valerian Zubov quietly landed and organized for a march. The Zubovs’ army, fresh off their specular victories against the Austrians had spent the past several months reveling in the comforts of Budapest before marching back across the Carpathian Mountains to the port at Odessa. Expecting a fleet to carry them back up the Volga and into the heart of Russia, the men were surprised to find orders from Tsar Alexander that they should proceed across the Black Sea to Constantinople. Intending to disembark the troops closer to the actual city, the flotilla was fortunate to encounter a Russian merchant vessel on July 27 who informed them that Napoleon’s army was at the city gates and seemed concentrated near the city. With dreams of securing the city and avenging the disaster at Vidin, the Zubov’s landed their army near Karaburun. With the assistance of the fog, the great army slipped six miles inland to the town of Arnavutköy before the midday sunned began burning the mists away, revealing to French scouts just how dangerous their situation truly stood.

The coalition army began peppering strategic points in the walls with cannon fire at 5 a.m. By 6:30 a.m., French artillery breached the vulnerable low wall and brave engineers began the process of gathering debris under fire with which to fill sections of the moat. Exchanges of fire combined with the dense fog to keep their efforts less deadly that one would expect but it also impaired their work since officers struggled to oversee the fill-in operations. Since much of the French artillery had already sighted the low wall the previous day, realigning the cannons to bombard the second and third walls was far trickier thanks to the fog. By 11 a.m., the first reports of significant breaches in the second wall trickled back to the French lines. Moreau, seeking to take advantage of the fog (and believing the inner wall too thick for even modern guns to do much about anyways) ordered his men around 11:30 a.m. forward with ladders to cross the filled in moat, the breached two walls and scale the third. Concentrating his attack near the Gate of St. Romanus, Moreau hoped his men could successfully hold a portion of the third wall long enough to open the gate and allow a general charge. To the south, Soult’s men breached the second wall by 11:30 a.m. but the general withheld an assault until he could confirm breaches of all three walls. By 11:30 a.m., the fog began to burn off making a ladder attack far riskier than necessary and the proximity of the nearby stronghold of the Golden Gate urged him to extra caution. Luckily for the entire army, Bernadotte’s soldiers had yet to achieve any breech in the second wall by midday, possibly due to the more complex series of defenses that exist where the Theodosian Walls intersect with the Blachernae Walls near the Golden Horn. Owing to his northerly position, Bernadotte was the first commanding officer to learn of the Russian approach when a scout informed him around 1:30 p.m. Bernadotte sent messengers scurrying to Napoleon and the other officers and began the arduous process of wheeling his divisions around from siege warfare to line warfare. Having the least ground to cover in his turn around, Bernadotte managed to complete the astonishing process in less than 30 minutes.

At the center, Moreau’s attempt to seize the inner wall was proving mixed. The fog had fully burned off by noon allowing the Turkish defenders to pinpoint the exact locations of the French breaches and attacks. Several dozen French soldiers successfully scaled the wall but found hand-to-hand fighting as they tried to match Turkish spears and scimitars with their own sabres and bayonets. By 12:30 p.m., the French held a section of ramparts along several hundred feet of the wall but well placed Turkish cannons hurling grapeshot into the invader’s ranks prevented them from coming off the ramparts or seriously threatening the barricaded gate.

Napoleon received word of the approaching Russians at 2 p.m. and sent the army into a furry of maneuvers to wheel around and meet this unseen enemy. The prearranged orders for this possibility likely saved the army. Soult learned about the Russians around 2:45 p.m. and began the process of swinging his army around and marching north to form a new left flank for army. The timing could not have been better as Soult was preparing to send in a ladder charge of his own at 3 p.m. but now he found himself needing to rein in several thousand men preparing for a charge, turn them around, form them up, and march six kilometers, likely into a battle.

Napoleon immediately instructed Moreau to call off his assault on the walls. One grenadier from Toulon recounted:

“The sound of the retreat being called greatly dismayed the men already on the ramparts. We believed we were moments away from securing access to the castle gate and we could win the battle in less than ten minutes. Some men had to be carried back to the lines by their comrades. Only upon our return did we realize why the situation had changed.”

Napoleon now found himself in personal command of the new front lines with his reserves and the Consular Guard acting as front line troops. This was not unexpected as all of the officers knew it would take Soult time to bring his army around. As Moreau’s division began to form up around 2:45 p.m., they reconstituted the new center formation allowing Napoleon to slide his troops to the left flank. From there they would exchange places with Soult’s division when he arrived. By 3:30 p.m. the army had reorganized itself into proper line formation (albeit without a reserve while they waited for Soult) to meet the Russians, an astonishing feat that took only two hours from the first moment Bernadotte learned of the new enemy.

While the reformed army waited for the approach of the Russians, Napoleon gave command of the token forces left to continue the siege of the walls to General Jean Lannes. Neither Napoleon nor Lannes expected him to make a breakthrough but rather defend the rear of the great army from a sudden Turkish charge. None of the coalition commanders had any idea as to the strength of the defenders in the city. Moreau’s front line troops quickly estimated they were engaged against “300 Turks” but little could actually be extrapolated from that estimate. Ottoman records seem to indicate that there were 30,000 Turkish defenders (mostly conscripts and city guardsmen) and 5,000 Russians defending the city.

The Zubov army entered the field at 5 p.m. Giving their soldiers 15 minutes rest to prepare for the engagement; the first Russian advances began at 5:15 p.m. It is unknown why the Zubovs pressed their army into attack so quickly after an all-day march, but the prevailing theories are that the Russian generals knew the French were still forming up and there is a belief that Russian supplies would not last a prolonged stalemate. Believing the French center (Moreau) to be the strongest section, and seeing the French right flank (Bernadotte) bordering the Golden Horn, the Zubovs estimated that the best likely flank they could turn would be the French left (Napoleon). With Soult less than hour’s march away, Napoleon found himself in personal command at the heart of the battle. A Russian division of 4,000 under the command of General Sergey Uvarov ran straight into the best soldiers in the French army. To sow some confusion into the French ranks, the Zubovs sent 2,000 men under the command of Generalmajor Dmitrii Neverovski towards Bernadotte’s force. The new formations roughly split Moreau’s center from Bernadotte’s right flank along the Lycus River and Neverovski hoped his offensive could turn one of Bernadotte’s flanks along either the Golden Horn or the river.

Numbers and defensive positioning largely held off Neverovski’s assault and Bernadotte’s solid forces sent the Russians retreating around 5:45 p.m. To the west, Napoleon found himself in a slugfest. Commanding from the front, he had difficulty keeping the battle in order. In his memoirs he would later explain that had he known what was happening around the battlefield, he would have ordered Moreau’s forces forward to charge the “hinge” between Uvarov’s division and the remaining Russian line. The gap in the center would then be filled by Soult’s division allowing Napoleon and Bernadotte to attack on the flanks. Instead, at 5:39 p.m. while leading from the front, Napoleon took a Russian sabre to his face that forced his immediate evacuation. While not fatal, the wound left Napoleon with his trademark scar (miraculously leaving no eye damage) on the right side of his face and rumor of his death scattered through the army. At 5:50 p.m., the French left flank faltered and soldiers began to retreat. Bandaged and bleeding, Napoleon ordered his doctors to put him back on his mount and the Consul rode through the troops haranguing them back into order. With Uvarov pushing his flank to the breaking point, Napoleon ordered General Jochim Murat and Emmanuel de Grouchy on a massive cavalry charge to scatter the Russian threat while he reformed his lines. The desperate maneuver worked, catching Uvarov’s men off-guard and breaking up their lines. Sensing that the battle hinged on this moment, the Zubov’s ordered their remaining men forward on all fronts. Neverovski made an attempt at Bernadotte’s line once more at 6:15 p.m., Generalmajor Pavel Turchaninov led 4,000 men down the middle towards Moreau, hoping to turn their flank along the river, and Valerian Zubov took the Russian reserves personally towards the left flank. Russian cavalry engaged Murat’s and Grouchy’s forces, forcing them off the main battlefield and leaving Valerian and Uvarov to make a final push to break the French lines in two.

Things went from bad to worse, at 6 p.m. the under guarded Belgrade Gate opened allowing 12,000 Turkish and Russian soldiers out onto the battlefield hoping to catch the coalition army from behind. With only 9,000 men to hold the siege lines, the wily Lannes performed a miracle. Unable to form proper lines, Lannes organized his scattered troops into decentralized companies of 250 men each with distinct orders. The companies closest to the gate and the rear of the coalition lines, would form more proper lines under the command of Lannes himself. To the north, roughly 2,000 men ordered to keep up the siege, suddenly charged southeast and made an unexpected attempt on the walls where Moreau’s men had been so close to a breach just hours before. To the south, roughly 1,500 men would take their companies immediately north and attempt to crush the Russo-Turks in a vice.

At 6:10 p.m., twenty minutes after the initial break in the French flank after Napoleon was wounded, Soult and his 12,000 men arrived on the battlefield. Reinforcing the lines Napoleon was attempting to reorganize, the Russians pushed directly into a fresh division. For the next twenty minutes the fighting raged across the battlefield. At 6:20 p.m., horns blared from the city walls recalling several thousand of the Russo-Turkish reinforcements. Napoleon’s Consular Guard and his personal company of mamluks wheeled around once more and charged in at 6:25 p.m. to hold Lannes’ flagging rearguard action. The reinforcements allowed the southern companies to complete their maneuver, annihilating the remaining 7,000 Russo-Turkish soldiers who had remained on the battlefield. Having failed to turn any of the possible French flanks by 6:30 p.m. the Russians sounded a retreat.

Yet, horns continued to blow from the city itself. Quickly ascertaining the chaotic situation, Napoleon and Lannes surmised that his northern companies had successfully breached the walls where Moreau’s forces had almost done so. Napoleon ordered Bernadotte to pursue the retreating Zubovs, for Soult to form a new siege line and ordered Moreau’s soldiers back towards the walls. Over an hour after receiving his wound, Napoleon allowed his doctor’s to finally treat him. Despite hopes that a breach was imminent, the exhausted coalition troops reached their limit. Lannes’ companies had breached the walls but, like Moreau’s previous attempt, could not dislodge themselves from the ramparts and access the St. Romanus Gate castle. At 7:20 p.m., French horns sounded their own retreat from the city walls. The last major action of July 29 occurred near 8 p.m. when the 5,000 men of the Zubov army, retreating towards the Bosporus and a hoped for retreat across to Asia, ran into Saint-Hilaire’s division. Unable to make the main battle in time, the division played its part and took custody of the remaining Russians. As the sun finally set across the city, the coalition army had taken a beating but survived.

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