Great Eastern War - Part One
Maurizio Carbone: The First Modern Conflict in History - The Great Eastern War
Russia's First Offensive into Poland
The Great Eastern War had been launched by an enormous miscalculation. Catherine had correctly judged that the Conservative Hapsburg monarchy would be horrified by the declaration of a liberal constitution in Poland. However, she had counted that Austria’s disdain for constitutionalism would prevent her from coming to Poland’s aid in the event of a Russian attack, which appeared to be a great misjudgement. Nevertheless, the war plans that Russia went to war with seemed to assume that Austria would join any conflict. The Russian army was split into three parts. The largest group, located in the south, was commanded by the famous Alexander Suvorov, and numbered some 150,000 men. This force was to drive through Poland’s southern flank and prevent Austrian interference with the Russian invasion. The other two armies were located near Minsk under the command of Nikolai Repnin, and near Sigulda under the command of Kirill Gorchakov. They were to move briskly through Poland, defeating her armies before a response by the other great powers could be organized.
There were no Polish forces to challenge them at the border. The Polish army was outnumbered 6-1 by the Russians, and had no hope of surviving without foreign intervention. Nevertheless, Russia’s naked aggression galvanized public opinion in Poland, and alongside the proclamation of the Constitution gave the Polish king enough support to call for a mass conscription. In the summer of 1791 alone, this brought 100,000 men into the Polish army, though these troops would not be combat ready for some time. These conscripts would be of little avail to the regular army though, which set itself on retreating to a defensive line along the Vistula River. This was a foolhardy strategy, as Poland did not have the numbers to secure a line of over 600 kilometres. Nevertheless, it was necessary for the Polish army to proclaim that there was a greater strategy behind the retreat than hoping for foreign intervention.
The first engagement of the war came at Lida. The Russian army under Nikolai Repnin had been quicker than expected, taking only twenty days to catch up to the small Polish army of around 10,000 men under Pavel Kossakowski. The Poles were outnumbered almost 8-1, and faced almost certain annihilation if the Russians caught up with them. With the Russians marching almost 10km a day to the 7km of the Poles, this seemed like a distinct possibility. Kossakowski decided to leave a regiment of foot behind to try and delay the advance of the Russians as much as he could. The leader of this seemingly doomed regiment was a Polish gentlemen named Andrzej Wiśniewski. He had joined the army only a few years before, but had been an observer of the French army. He fortified the town of Lida and entrenched his troops there for what was sure to be a hard battle.
However, Wiśniewski’s defence was to be made easier by a number of key Russian mistakes. The Russians, in their haste to do battle, had left much of their artillery behind due to the Rasputitsa mud. The Russian commander who Wiśniewski would face was inexperienced and hot-headed, Fyodor Tolstoy. His diaries reveal a man who was obsessed with the idea of gaining military glory by being the first to defeat the Poles. In doing so, he neglected proper reconnaissance of the Polish position at Lida. He also declined to wait for reinforcements, deciding to march against the Poles with 3000 men, confident that these numbers would crush the resistance of the famously weak Poles.
It was the Russian skirmishers who first saw first-hand the effectiveness of the Polish defences. Even those armed with rifles found it very difficult to score casualties, with the Polish fire being unsurpressed. Corporal Vladimir Litowski, one of the skirmishers involved in the first part of the battle later wrote that “Our fire seemed to have no effect on the Poles. We could barely see them, and took to shooting into the smoke produced by their musket fire. I would have been surprised if we had killed more than ten men in that first attack”. The Russians who had been involved in the skirmishing passed along their concerns about the strength of the Polish defence, though this was ignored by Tolstoy, who reasoned that a determined attack by storm columns of infantry would break the Polish defenders.
The attack was launched at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Around 2000 Russians, arranged into the famous “storm columns” marched for the town of Lida. They charged toward the Polish infantry but were hit rifle and musket fire, as well as devastating case shot from the few Polish cannons left behind by the main army. The Russians kept advancing, but the advance stalled close to the Polish lines as the hail of fire became too thick even for the determined Russian forces. The Russian infantry stopped advancing, instead trying to take cover however best they could. Those further behind the front lines began to withdraw, seeing that there was little hope to reach the Polish lines. Russian officers tried to persuade their troops back into the fight, though with no artillery support and not enough troops to flank the Polish position, they fell back steadily. The attack was renewed once again as more Russian troops filtered into the area, though the Poles were successful in repulsing these attacks. At the end of the day, the Poles had lost 85 men dead, 169 wounded, but this paled compared to the heavy Russian casualties. Over 300 men had been killed with a similar amount wounded and missing.
This was a disappointing start to the Russian war, and seemed to suggest that Russian shock tactics would be no match for well drilled infantry. The Poles vacated the town of Lida during the night, having successfully knocked the wind out of the Russian advance. Wiśniewski was hailed as a hero when he caught up to the main army under Kossakowski, and he received a promotion. Tolstoy on the other hand was dismissed for losing a battle that should have been won handily by the Russian forces. Repnin called for a halt around Lida to consolidate his forces and bring the artillery up. He took steps to ensure that commanders would not be so quick to attack well-prepared positions without artillery again, but his prestige had been hit nonetheless. He would resume the offensive in July, but by then the war would start to take a turn away from being a quick conquest against a week opponent.
Suvorov’s army in the south had more success, taking Lvov with minimal casualties. His task was now to hook down into the rest of Galicia and make for the Polish fortress of Przemysl, ensuring that Austrian aid could not come to the Poles were they to intervene in the conflict. However, the Austrians declared war on Russia on the 18th of July, bucking Russian expectations that their armies would not be ready until late in August. Austrian troops began moving into Poland a day later, and an Austrian force of 20,000 men joined 15,000 Poles at Przemysl. Dominated by a modern star fort, the town would be extremely difficult for Suvorov to take, even with the numbers at his disposal. The siege of Przemysl would draw out for six weeks, quick by the standards of a siege but still painfully slow for the army that was supposed to knock Poland out of the war before the Austrians and Saxons could invade Russia’s Prussian allies.
Indeed, the spread of the war seemed to compromise Russia’s invasion of Poland greatly. Sweden’s declaration of war had meant that some troops had to be taken out of Poland to defend Russia’s northern flank, and Austria’s declaration of war promised to equalise numbers in Poland before long. Russia’s hope was that Austria would focus on Prussia in the first part of the war, leaving Russia free to knock Poland out of the war before her hundred thousand conscripted troops could be thrown into the balance. Russia also began to increase conscription within her own borders, as Catherine was determined to be prepared if the war became a more drawn-out struggle. Suvorov assured her after the fall of Przemysl that a decisive battle could keep Austria from helping the Poles to a significant degree. With the news that an Austrian army of 71,000 under Field Marshall Kolowrat was on its way to Tarnow, Suvorov saw the opportunity to keep the Austrians out of Poland for the time being.
In a dizzying 19 day march from Przemysl, Suvorov and 96,000 of his men caught the Austrians at Pleśna. The Russians were exhausted from months of forced marches and campaigning, but spirits were high. Suvorov was widely believed to be an invincible commander, having been defeated only once so far in his long career. This time, Russian battlefield tactics worked as intended, with the initial skirmishers targeting officers and weakening the cohesion of the Austrian battle lines. The coordination of the Russian infantry and artillery in the battle was disconcerting to say the least. Archduke Franz, who served as a brigadier in the battle noted that “almost as soon as the Russian artillery had finished ripping great holes in our battle lines, Russian infantry appeared, firing one volley and charging into our disordered lines with a great brutal strength”. On their right flank, the Austrians had more success, with excellent gunnery on the part of the Austrians managing the keep the Russian artillery back. Nevertheless, the Austrian army suffered a significant defeat at Pleśna. The 71,000 Austrian soldiers at the beginning of the battle had been reduced to around 53,000 effectives. The Austrians reeled back across the border, allowing Suvorov to now march north toward Warsaw.
At Warsaw, around 37,000 Poles, 44,000 Austrians and 8000 Swedes prepared the last ditch defence of Poland’s territories. They were assailed by a force of around 140,000 Russians, a truly frightening number. The Russians advanced from two separate directions under Suvorov and Repnin, intending to converge near on the outnumbered allied forces. The prospects for the allies did not look positive, as they were heavily outnumbered and if they were defeated at Warsaw, the Russians would be free to break through to their beleaguered Prussian allies. The first shots of the battle were fired in the village of Zabki as Russian forces under Repnin used the nearby forest to sneak upon the Polish forces in the town. The Poles were taken completely by surprise, and after the success of Russian skirmishers, a body of around 5000 Russians stormed the village, sending its 3500 Polish defenders to flight. Repnin’s forces were now close enough to Suvorov’s for their Cossack irregulars to meet each other.
Repnin now held his ground, and sent a contingent south to aid Suvorov’s assault on Wilanów, where the Polish King’s usual residence was. King Stanisław had already fled into the centre of Warsaw to rally his forces in the city itself, but the area still controlled the approaches to Warsaw from the South, and it was a crucial point for the defence of the city. Here, a mixed force of Poles and Austrians stood ready to defend the palace and its surroundings. Commanded by Kossakowski, this force gave a much better account of itself, holding the line throughout the afternoon, and ensuring that the Russians paid heavily for their gains. The Poles were finally forced out of the area at around 6 o’clock in the evening, retreating mostly in good order, unmolested by Cossack irregulars who had taken to looting the Polish palace. The Poles and Austrians left behind around 3800 dead and wounded at Wilanów, but had managed to inflict around 5200 casualties on the Russians. This admirable showing however, was not enough to safeguard the approaches to Warsaw. Warsaw was now mostly cut off from the rest of Poland, and 130,000 Russians stood ready to attack.
The second day of the Battle of Warsaw began successfully for the Russians once again. A spoiling attack against Suvorov’s forces was driven back, and Russian artillery pushed groups of Austrian and Polish defenders back toward the city. By noon, Suvorov’s forces had reached Mokotów, and were engaging in street fighting against scattered Polish defenders. The main body of the Polish army conducted a fighting retreat through the city’s outskirts. However, the battle took a turn for the unexpected in the afternoon as the Russian advance stalled. Austrian forces who had been massing to the west of Suvorov’s army hit him in the flank unexpectedly, and his forces reeled back to Wilanów. Suvorov’s army had suffered 9800 dead and wounded, and had actually lost ground. Repnin had more success, but by the evening his army too had been forced back to their starting positions. In light of the poor Austro-Polish performance the day before, this setback for the Russians was unexpected.
Among the Austro-Polish command, the situation was not a good one. The morale of the army had been boosted by the successes of the previous day, but they could not be repeated again. The army lost another 10,000 effectives, and was in danger of being bled dry. Debates continued until the night, but it was finally decided to retreat from Warsaw toward Łódź, and if needed, Austrian Silesia. Retreats planned so quickly rarely go smoothly, but the cautiousness of Repnin on the 27th of August helped the efforts of the allies greatly. While Suvorov attacked energetically, Repnin’s attacks were far more halting, with skirmishing kept up even when the situation was ripe for frontal attacks. This enabled Suvorov to capture much of the city, with Repnin resigning himself to areas on the east bank of the Vistula. The city had been captured by the evening but Suvorov had noted “Not many enemy captured or wounded. Bulk of enemy forces retreating to the West, will pursue in the morning”.
However, the Russian army was exhausted by this point. Months of forced marches and fighting had taken their toll, as had disease. Suvorov’s army the next day advanced only 5 kilometers, and in the following week, the Russians lost contact with the remnants of the Austro-Polish army. Warsaw had been won by the Russians, though the war was far from over. The Austrian forces had proven themselves to be less flexible and mobile than the Russians, but had nevertheless given a good account of themselves. Similarly, although few in number the Polish army appeared to have caught up to those of the great powers in terms of quality. The Russians now had two options open for them. They could either push on through Poznan to the Prussians, who were steadily losing ground to the Swedes and Austrians, or she could turn south and attempt an invasion of Hungary through the Carpathians to knock Austria out of the war. Having lost an estimated 90,000 men through combat, sickness or desertion in the past few months, the Russians no longer had the resources to do both.
Author's Notes: Very text heavy and military focused. The rest of the Great Eastern War will likely not be covered in quite as much detail, but I wanted to try and create an impression as to how far military science has come along in Russia. Taking more than a few notes from the Persian Army's shock tactics, they've combined them with artillery in a way that is especially devastating in Eastern Europe. However, Russia has bitten off rather more than she can chew, and even if France is prevented from intervening to protect her Polish friends by her own internal troubles, Austria may find aid from elsewhere.
As always, comments and corrections are welcomed!