Empire of Liberty: Bosporus

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

In Constantinople, a flurry of activity occurred throughout the night. Mustafa ordered immediate repairs to the walls. An attempt was made to use the ancient piping system and flood the moat but at most the Turks could only get a consistent one to two feet of water in some parts of the moat. The Turks spent most of the night clearing debris and crossings out of the ditch in an attempt to force the coalition troops to do their work all over again. General Aleksey Gorchakov, commander of Russian forces in the city, only ascertained that the Zubovs’ army had been defeated and largely captured around 11 p.m. Later that evening, around 2 a.m. word came that the British had placed troops on the Asiatic side of the straits as part of their campaign against the Dardanelles. The lower wall had fallen in mere hours to modern cannons and several smaller breaches penetrated the secondary walls. So far the inner walls had held save for one section breached with ladders due to fog and the chaos of the battle outside the gates.

It is important to note that both Mustafa and Gorchakov believed the city could hold. The Dardanelles has always been a military stronghold and there was no reason to believe that the multitude of forts at the narrows would fall. So long as those forts held, the Russians and Mustafa controlled the seas. Even if the forts fell, the Russo-Turkish fleet was well prepared to deal with them. Moreover, if the coalition navy managed to get through all of that, Constantinople itself was well equipped to hold off a siege from the sea. No indication yet existed that the inner walls couldn’t hold against modern artillery and, when breaches did inevitably occur, there were still nearly 20,000 defenders ready to bear arms in the city itself. Furthermore, Gorchakov had dispatched the transports that previously carried the Zubovs’ army towards the Pontic Coast to obtain the battle-hardened army of Pytor Bagration. Lastly, everyone was well aware that the Tsar was never hurting for soldiers. The losses at Vidin stung, but only as far as those losses ended imperial dreams of Russian hegemony in an extremely distant location. Closer to Moscow, the Tsar was raising a new army of 80,000 men under the command of General Levin August von Bennigsen (who distinguished himself at Craiova and was permitted the honor of presenting the Austrian standards to the Tsar, thus meaning he missed Vidin). Getting them out of Russia and into the battlefield could take up to a month or more but the Romans literally built the city to withstand long sieges.

In the coalition camp, the officers and Napoleon spent the evening hours reorganizing the army and taking account of casualties. Teams of soldiers scoured the battlefield for wounded men while other teams began the arduous task of digging graves. In all, the first day of fighting had claimed the lives of some 3,700 men from both sides, resulted in 5,800 wounded and another 1,000 missing (mostly unaccounted Russians from the Zubovs’ armies). Valerian Zubov was among the dead, a victim of his last mad dash push to turn the French flank. Several of Napoleon’s officers, most notably Moreau, practically pleaded with the Consul to give the army a day’s break and focus instead of rest, resupply and proper military burials. Napoleon was insistent; every day wasted was a day the Royal Navy had to blast through the Dardanelles and steal the victory. In Napoleon’s mind, the victory over the Zubovs meant that victory over Constantinople was all but guaranteed. While he led a coalition army, it was 85 percent French and he would not let the soldier’s sacrifice from the day before be in vain, so the English could get a bigger seat at the table.

Napoleon did acquiesce to a later hour for the resumption of the siege. Famous for the minimal amount of sleep he would obtain, especially while on campaign, Napoleon slept an impressive six and a half hours that night, possibly a result of battle fatigue and blood loss. The first cannons thundered at 8 a.m. on the morning of the 30th, approximately the same time the fighting began on the Gallipoli Peninsula and just as Selim was losing sight of the island of Rhodes. As before, the modern guns made short work of the low wall but this time French engineers had no fog to provide cover as they worked to fill the ditch. Casualties were heavy and Napoleon repeatedly found himself ordering his moat-fillers back so his guns could rain canister shot down on the defenders. This cat and mouse game substantially slowed progress. Cannons directed to fire canister shot obviously meant fewer cannons firing to knock down walls. Cannons firing over the moat meant no soldiers could be filling the moat. Several times throughout the day, coalition soldiers could only watch helplessly as defenders patched a breach in the secondary wall as the moat in front of them remained unfilled.

At 10 a.m. Napoleon received good news from the north when word arrived of Saint-Hilaire’s successful capture of Galata. For two days the primarily Greco-Italian port suburb located across the Golden Horn from the heart of Constantinople held out as a tough Russian garrison of 1,500 forced the French to pay for every rampart and street corner. Needing to reorganize the defenses and seeing little value in holding Galata, the Russians retreated across the Horn to the main city in the night. An assault at 9 a.m. by the French resulted in nothing but ominous silence and no casualties as the division captured the abandoned town. Of course, without control of the Bosporus, there was little Napoleon could actually do with the town. Napoleon dispatched Saint-Hilaire to assist with the mixed success Soult was finding against the Golden Gate.

Finally, at nearing 3 p.m. the stars aligned and Soult’s cannons opened a sizeable break in the secondary wall where a filled portion of the moat allowed an assault. The key to Moreau’s success the day before with ladders had been the fog. When Lannes ordered his small companies to assault the town, they met success because hundreds of defenders had been sent out into the battlefield (along with the element of surprise thanks to the sheer audacity of the plan). There would be no cover for Soult’s soldiers. A barrage of canister shot did what it could to sweep the walls clean of defenders and at 4 p.m., a regiment of French soldiers and the Greek regiment, charged the walls with ladders in hand. Unfortunately, for the invaders, the breach was perilously close to the Golden Gate; arguably the most well defended point in the city. It also required the invaders to take the Golden Gate if they hoped to fling open any one of the entrances and end the battle. For hours the fighting raged on the ramparts near the breach but eventually the defenders repulsed the coalition soldiers in the dark chaos after sunset. Even a foray by Saint-Hilaire’s relatively fresh men around 7 p.m. netted no results. Moreau’s hopes for a quiet day to rest the troops and bury the dead came true, it just happened to occur despite the Consul’s best efforts. Indeed, as the day’s siege appeared to wind down with little progress, Napoleon opted to visit the battlefield from the day before. Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp would later recall:

“Whole lines of Russian regiments, lying on the ground wet with their blood, showed that they preferred death to retiring a single step. Napoleon collected all possible information on these sorrowful places, he even observed the numbers on the buttons on their uniforms in order…to ascertain the nature and positions of the Corps put in motion by the enemy, but what he was chiefly anxious about was the care of the wounded.”

While riding the field, Napoleon came across a dying Russian soldier left lingering on the field since the day before. Bausset recalled, “he lavished the attentions of humanity on this unfortunate creature.” When one of Napoleon’s officers pointed out that the soldier was “only a Russian” the Consul curtly responded, “After a victory there are no enemies, only men.”

While the siege stagnated on the 30th, the fighting for the fortresses on the Gallipoli Peninsula raged throughout the day. French, English and Irish soldiers hopped from one castle to the next and, with the help of the Royal Navy’s big guns, slowly ticked off the forts that needed taking to secure the Dardanelles. By 8 p.m. that day, the powerful fortresses of the Narrows were under coalition control. The price was heavy, but Admirals Collingwood and Villeneuve pushed their fleets through towards the Sea of Marmara. At 4 a.m. the fleet formally entered the Sea of Marmara and it was there that at 8 a.m. the Russo-Turkish fleet lying in wait near the Island of Marmara sprung its ambush.

The Battle of Marmara would rage for the next eight hours as light winds forced the battle to move at a snail’s pace. The tactics of the battle were simple. Concealed by the Island of Marmara, Admirals Mehmed Kadri Pasha and Fyodor Ushakov (the great, undefeated, Russian admiral) would amass their 44 ships in a line-of-battle formation and round the island to engage their coalition adversaries after they entered the sea. This would give the Russo-Turks ample opportunity to levy numerous broadsides at their enemies before the coalition navy could form up to counter them. Furthermore, the tight confines of the Sea of Marmara should give the advantage to the defenders.

While no record exists of any observer or spy sighting the Russo-Turkish Navy before the battle, Admiral Collingwood urged Admiral Villeneuve to split the coalitionary line in two once it was beyond the range of the remaining enemy fortress guarding the Dardanelles. While Villeneuve was technically the most senior officer in the fleet and thus in command, he routinely deferred to Collingwood’s advice and adhered the proposal. Somewhere around 2 a.m. the great fleet began splitting into two columns. The southernmost, commanded by Villeneuve, consisted primarily of French and Spanish ships while the northern line, commanded by Collingwood, consisted primarily of British ships. In total, the coalition fleet featured 38 ships: 17 British, 13 French, four Castilian, two Aragonese and a single Genoese and American ship. These lines anticipated a Russo-Turkish trap (Collingwood questioned before the battle “are they to make their stand in the Pacific?”) and planned to absorb several broadsides while they maintained a northeasterly direction. By holding course, the coalition navy would pierce the Russo-Turkish lines in two locations, forcing their ships to turn and engage them directly, while leaving the vanguard stuck between the coast and a forced turn west. In this way, Collingwood could break the enemy line, force the smaller engagements that favored British and American gunnery skills, and force a third of the enemy fleet to wield westward unless they crashed upon the shore.

Sunrise occurs on the Bosporus around 6 a.m. that time of year and very shortly after dawn, the first sightings of enemy ships occurred for both navies. The first broadsides began “a quarter past the eighth hour” according to the logbook of the Andrei Pervozvannyi. Records reveal little about Mehmed Kadri Pasha’s battle tactics but we must assume he followed the lead of Ushakov who proved a brilliant naval tactician throughout the 1780’s and 1790’s. Despite Collingwood’s hope that Ushakov would be forced to turn his line west or crash into the coast, Ushakov always intended to maneuver his fleet east once they had presented their broadsides. The battle did not truly begin until 10:45 a.m. when the first coalition ships, having taken the brunt of the Russo-Turkish broadsides, pierced their lines and began forcing ships to turn. At 11:15 a.m. it became obvious to Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign that Ushakov’s fleet was not going to turn west out of necessity but always intended to turn east as part of their own trap. By noon, the northern line found itself in the no-man’s land of age of sail warfare: stuck between two enemy lines.

Ushakov’s double trap decimated the British northern line. Twin broadsides wrecked ten British ships while the remaining seven took evasive action to avoid falling into the trap. It also decimated his own central line that found itself caught between British broadsides to the north and coalitionary broadsides to the south. The light wind ensured that the damage inflicted would not be over shortly. Leading the front of the line, the Russo-Turks blasted the Royal Sovereign on both sides resulting in catastrophic damage to Collingwood’s flagship. Ushakov did experience a bit of a pyrrhic victory. At the time, British gunners could typically get off three shots for every enemy volley and even with the trap sprung, the Royal Navy inflicted serious damage of Ushakov’s ships. By 1 p.m. the three most northerly lines (two Russo-Turkish and one British) were sufficiently bloodied. The British ships, caught between two enemy lines were reduced to three operational vessels. To make matters worse, around 1:30 p.m. a cannonball shattered Collingwood’s left arm and shoulder. The injury proved too much and the admiral died just before 3 p.m. The Russo-Turks of the middle line were reduced to one vessel. The Russo-Turks of the most northern line were reduced to four vessels. Only the Franco-Coalition line at the southernmost section of the battle fared relatively well, losing two vessels. At 2 p.m. Ushakov released a lone rocket into the sky from his flagship, signaling his reserve force. A hallmark of Ushakov’s tactics since the 1780’s was holding several ships back in reserve so he could adjust as the battle progressed. The Battle of Marmara was a masterstroke in this regard. It was no surprise to any coalitionary naval officer that a Russo-Turkish fleet awaited them somewhere in the sea, it was a surprise that a second smaller line lie in wait for the perfect opportunity. Just as initial lines began to break down, once Ushakov released that signal rocket, another six reserve ships set sail from the opposite side of the Island of Marmara and engaged the remaining coalition fleet, largely taking on the southern line that fared decently in the initial push. The fresh ships overwhelmed the allies and at 3:45 p.m. Villeneuve gave the signal to retreat. Near 9 p.m. the bloodied fleet anchored near the captured fortresses of the narrows and a stalemate ensued.

Just up the sea, the battle for the city on the 31st fared much as it had the previous day. Lacking a good breach of the inner wall at any point, Napoleon instructed his artillery to keep up the siege. The night of the 29th he had allowed the army to rest after the day’s fighting (partly out of exhaustion and partly to realign their cannons and positions) which gave the Turks an opportunity to make unhindered repairs to the walls and remove debris from the moat. The night of the 30th and again on the 31st there would be no reprieve. Cannons thundered all night while musket fire and grapeshot prevented anyone from clearing the filled in points along the moat. Slowly the modern firepower would erode the ancient walls and his army would be ready.

At 6 p.m. on the 31st a rider from the coalition garrison on Gallipoli arrived at Napoleon’s tent with news of coalition navy’s defeat. All day, trickles of information filtered back about a great naval battle playing out 100 kilometers away. Upon hearing the news, Saint-Hilaire would famously quip, “it seems no one wishes to be the master of these straits save for death himself”. The loss hardly affected Napoleon who seemed nearly elated that most of the French ships survived in decent fighting shape compared to the British. Napoleon would later recount that after defeating the Zubovs he knew the city would inevitably fall so the naval theater existed purely to expedite the siege and “stoke the English ego”. The defeat meant that Britain would have a junior seat at the negotiating table when the war concluded and the loss of ships (especially compared to French losses) only gave the French navy the advantage in the inevitable next conflict. Perhaps most importantly, the Battle of Marmara finally shattered the myth of British invincibility at sea. Until now, Britain’s losses at the Windward Passage and the First Battle of the Nile appeared as fluke losses thanks to bad luck. The Battle of Marmara however was the first time a British admiral found himself completely bested by an enemy admiral in decades. Indeed, the battle cemented Ushakov’s legacy as one of the great naval commanders in history thanks to his brilliant use of geography, reserve tactics and his ability to rally the fleet despite Collingwood’s impressive attempt to force the enemy line by dividing his own fleet.

At 6 a.m. on August 1, Napoleon’s bulletin posted:

“Soldiers! The enemy is tenacious but his efforts only add to our inevitable glory. Yesterday his ships forced our own sailors back to the Aegean but only at great cost to himself. He thinks this a mighty victory that is sure to break our spirits. Does the usurper sultan think us fools? Soldiers! The enemy’s ships cannot fight on land and even if they could their sailors have never encountered any army such as this, the victors of Vidin! Let him take comfort in his hollow victory. Today the walls of the Romans come down and this illustrious city shall be yours.”

By the morning of the 1st, the constant thundering of cannons had worn on all parties. Lack of sleep permeated through the coalition camp and the city. After his lone restful night on the 29th, Napoleon’s records indicate that the Consul slept in in one to two hour stretches and routinely walked amongst the restless men throughout the night. Gorchakov sent an update to the Tsar confirming his belief that if the walls could hold until Bagration’s army arrived then the battle would be theirs and they may have a chance to reclaim lost prestige in the Balkans and bring the French revolutionaries to justice. The memo accompanied an excited description of the naval victory. Upon hearing of the great victory over a month later, Alexander would immediately award Ushakov a 1st degree of the Order of St. George, the highest military honor in Russia for:

“Mastering July 31, 1804 the Turkish Straits against innumerable difficulties and with uncommon valor.”

The sailors of both navies worked double shifts in an effort to patch the damage while other sailors carried nearly 7,300 captives to a fortress on the Asian side of the strait, mostly British, French and Castilian prisoners from captured prizes. Mustafa reviewed the city guard and lavished a banquet at the Topkapi Palace on the heroic admirals of the Russo-Turkish fleet.

By the morning of August 1, the nonstop bombardment sufficiently eroded portions of the walls enough that Napoleon believed an assault to be viable. Once again, the breach was the same that Soult and Saint-Hilaire had been working on for over two days near the Golden Gate castle. This time, the gap in the second wall had been widened and enough damage to the inner wall allowed a debris pile up that soldiers could scramble up without the use of ladders. If they could just take the Golden Gate itself, not only could they open the doors but also they would possess the strongest foothold they could hope for in the city. At noon, the assault began with thundering volleys of grapeshot followed by an initial charge of nearly 3,000 men across the filled-in moat, through the breached lower and second walls and up the rubble pile onto the ramparts of the inner wall. Fighting was fierce and at close range. Bayonets and swords were far more effective than firearms and the scene surely seemed like something from the 15th century battle. At 1 p.m. the defenders realized the extent of the danger and deployed nearly 7,000 city guardsmen to the Golden Gate. Just as Mustafa executed these movements, the brave Greek regiment that had been stubbornly working on this breach for days used ladders to breach one of the towers on the Golden Gate itself. At 1:15 p.m. the Greeks flew the flags of the Greek Republic and the French Tricolor from the tower and more soldiers streamed up the ladder and down into the castle itself. Several thousand more soldiers began their march towards the walls. Rumor of an imminent breach swept through the camp like a current of electricity. At 1:30 p.m. the first reinforcements arrived at the castle as city guardsmen rushed through Constantinople to ward off the invaders. Twenty minutes swung the entire battle as the drama played out in the Golden Gate. One soldier from Gascony recalled:

“At a quarter to two in the afternoon the inner gate opened and hundreds of Turks rushed into the castle wielding pistols and curved swords while screeching high pitched war cries. A few of our men were in the courtyard when this occurred and found themselves quickly cut down unless they fled back into the ramparts and towers of the castle. I knew we possessed two of the seven towers of the castle and were fighting for the towers that controlled the inner gate. I did not know at the time that we actually possessed four of the seven castles including the towers that controlled the outer gate. I was on a rampart connecting the two northernmost towers which allowed me a fine view of the battle. Below me, the Turks streamed into the courtyard while around me my comrades fired into the mass below. To my left lie a view of the city, which almost appeared peaceful and serene while my right provided me a view of our siege lines. At that moment, not even five minutes after the Turks opened the inner gate, our soldiers thrust open the outer gate. Hundreds of our soldiers charged the courtyard to the surprise of the Turks, bayonets fixed and determined to end the stalemate. In a few minutes it was over, our barrage from above combined with the unexpected charge of our soldiers through the gate routed the defenders. With the castle under our control and both gates opened, entire divisions poured through the castle and into the city.”

The final breach occurred shortly before 2 p.m. and the Golden Gate was secured by 2:10 p.m. Napoleon, by now observing alongside Soult and Saint-Hilaire, became aware of the breach around 2:15 p.m. Dispatches quickly dispersed amongst the army and entire divisions began their march towards the gate. By 4 p.m. only a bare bones siege line remained as tens of thousands of coalition soldiers charged the city. Inside Constantinople, Gorchakov learned of the breach before Mustafa’s court. Having established a command post at the Sancaktar Hayrettin Mosque, he was a mere 1,500 meters away from the site of the breach itself. Taking personal command of 2,000 Russian soldiers, he led a defense of the city at the Samatya Quarter. While this valiant stand did buy the rest of the city some time to learn about the breach and make military adjustments, it ultimately proved fruitless. Gorchakov would be wounded in the fighting and holed up with about 200 men in the ruins of the Saint Melas church. By 3 p.m. the invaders penetrated the defenses at Samatya and poured into the city, roughly the same time Mustafa and the janissarial court learned of the breach at the Topkapi Palace. By 3:30 p.m. any semblance of an organized defense crumbled. Soldiers on other parts of the wall fled to their homes or generally blended into the chaos of the city. A mad rush existed to get to the docks and flee to Russia or Anatolia. Just before 4 p.m., Admirals Ushakov and Mehmed Kadri Pasha managed to conduct a relatively orderly evacuation of the remaining Russian garrison, a number of prominent janissaries, ayans and other notables as well as several dozen prominent Greeks who feared being caught and executed as collaborators. Perhaps most notably, the relatively new ecumenical patriarch Cyril VI was among those who evacuated (there is evidence he was forced) which had major ramifications amongst the Orthodox community. Mustafa IV and Osman Pazvantoğlu also fled on this flotilla with a sizeable portion of the state treasury. At 4:45 p.m. the flotilla departed as coalition troops began reaching the tip of the city. Lacking a naval presence thanks to the defeat the previous day, the coalition soldiers could do little but watch as scores of high profile enemy officials slowly sunk up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea.

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