Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774 - Brian L. Davies

Catherine II and the Ottoman Empire

It’s very rare that I buy a book the minute it is published as you are taking a big chance that you may end up being sorely disappointed but I had been eagerly waiting for this book ever since its was announced and so I took a chance. I wasn't disappointed, it is a well researched book written by someone who is an expert on the topic.

But I do have some complaints and so I am giving you advance warning that a rant is coming later on. 

Overall I did find the book a little difficult to read but this was because I had to concentrate a lot more than normal; you see there is a lot of information packed into the book and I found myself constantly re-reading paragraphs just to make sure that I had grasped everything that I had just read. The second reason I found it difficult was that I was reading the book angry and this didn't help my concentration, because of this I thought it better I wait four days after finishing the book before starting to write a review.

The book is split into eight chapters followed by a short conclusion and then a lot of notes. Each chapter is further sub-divided into very handy small two-three page sections which made it ideal for bedtime reading, it also allows you to dip in and out at will or when time is short.

Like most books of this type the content spreads either side of the actual fighting, so it also describes the run up to war and then its aftermath.

Onto the chapters.

Chapter 1 covers Russia just after the Seven Years War has ended, Catherine has only recently come to power and so was in a difficult political situation domestically. The main foreign problem she had to deal with was the failing Poland-Lithuania confederation (just Poland from now on to save space) which became a Protectorate in 1768 and whose strings Russia were in-effect pulling. Both Austria and Prussia were now eyeing it covetously looking to break away sections for themselves and it
was also riven with internal disorder. (See Haidamak Revolt & Bar Confederation). Russia therefore maintained a lot of “support” in the country (around 40,000) and it was also their decision on whose turn it would be to be King that week.

Chapters 2 and 3 both cover the same subject but from different view points. Chapter 2 is about the Ottomans and Chapter 3 is Russia. The short version is that these chapters describe how each state was organised, the changes Catherine put in place to update its administration, taxes etc and the relationships both states had with the various nomadic bands of Cossacks, which were both numerous and fragmented into many different tribes all of whom had their own agendas. Russia’s southern and SW borders included them as semi-autonomous regions and bringing them under control was a long term goal of Catherine’s. The Ottomans on the other hand had the Tartars in Crimea and its surrounding lands and who were a key ally of theirs. All these “Cossacks” had quite happily been raiding each other for centuries however this was now getting a little bit messy in this new modern age, Russia discouraged their side from un-authorised raids and to limit the economic and human damage, a series of defence lines and fortified new towns were built which slowly restricted the Tarter raids.

Chapter 4 is quite short and covers the Russian army and the improvements put in place after its experiences in the 7YW. During the war cavalry had been a big problem for the Russians and so this was completely revamped seeing a big increase in Cuirassiers and Carabineers (basically more heavy cavalry). The army as a whole was restructured, its method of recruiting, pay and conditions were all brought more up to date and new drills and tactics were introduced. Some work was also started on
organising the various border irregulars into the main army and this would be completed later on when the Cossack states were fully absorbed into the Empire. 

Chapter 5 sees the start of the fighting when war is declared by the Ottomans on Russia; The ever increasing build up of Russian forces in Poland was greatly concerning the Ottomans as it was destabilising their northern areas, also the changes that were happening around the Crimea had seen some of the bordering Tarter tribes starting to defect, added to this was increased Russian meddling in Wallachia, the Balkans and Greece, all of this gave the “war party” in Constantinople the ammunition they needed. 

The chapter starts by outlining both sides’ war plans and then moves on to cover the first full year of fighting in 1769 which is mainly the Russian attempt to capture the border fortress of Khotin while trying not to be swamped by the nearby huge Ottoman army. Activities in Poland, the Crimea and the Caucasus are also covered.

Chapter 6, “The Year of victories 1770”. A change in leadership within the main army sees better Russian results as they fight their way down to the Danube. The main battles of Larga and Kagul take place, as a wargamer I would have liked to have had much more detail rather than the couple of pages given to each but the one thing that Davies does excel in is giving you the numbers present and reasonable troop type splits. Meanwhile other armies in other theatres are busy capturing fortified towns in most cases rather easily due to poor Ottoman morale but with the occasional bloody exception. Of more interest we see the Russian navy arriving in the Mediterranean having sailed all the way from the Baltic. Their attempts to stir up rebellion in Greece and their activities against the Turkish navy is quite interesting. There is sufficient information given to organise your own fleet actions.

Destruction of the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Chesma 1771

Chapter 7 covers 1771-1774. Plague strikes in the Balkans which puts a halt to any activity for well over a year and so tenuous peace terms are brokered but which subsequently collapse, when it does all get going again, Rumiantsev the main Russian commander (occasionally this war is named after him) splits his forces and all of them cross the Danube in a sweeping advance, capturing yet more towns they close in on the key Ottoman army staging centre of Shumla. Two of his columns, one of which is lead by an up and coming general called Suvorov combine and win another battle at Kozluji, the main Ottoman army disperses, Shumla is captured without a serious fight and a treaty is signed shortly thereafter. Elsewhere the Crimea is conquered, helped no end by the Tarter forces being in the
Balkans with the main army, the Polish rebels had finally been crushed (mainly by Suvorov which then earned him a transfer to where the big boys were) and the Russian fleet is now blockading the Dardanelles. The first partition of Poland is also covered in this chapter.

Chapter 8 rounds everything up, the peace treaty and who got what etc. It goes on then to cover the changes in Russia over the next few decades, the resettlement of the border areas, the ending of Cossack self rule and the later annexation of the Crimea. That’s about it, (Rant alert, not long now)
The notes section cover forty-eight pages but there is a lot of additional information in them which is what notes should be for in my opinion.

Ok, what wasn't I happy with?

Davies uses a lot of Russian terms throughout the text: destiatiny, uezd, starshyna, obrok, etc etc.etc., after a while I gave up trying to remember what they all meant or even bothering to look back to try and find the original English translation so it became meaningless whenever I came to them. It’s nice to get the cultural feel but whatever point he was getting across was lost on me as I had no idea what he was going on about.

A minor point solely for me but it might be pertinent, the book is approximately 90% on what was happening in Russia and the war fought from the Russian army viewpoint, I had hoped to get more Ottoman information out of this to help with my armies (increase the number of Tartars is about it) but I guess the clue was in the sub-title, it doesn't spoil the book at all, its just my view. It did however really help me answer all the questions regarding my Russians.

Take Cover time, here it is.

On occasions I may have mentioned how books tend to skimp on the maps, now I don’t have a hang up on this, I realise that there can be a problem with space or finding suitable maps relevant to the book. Fair enough, I can even appreciate how things go especially when a book is running tight for time as the maps tend to be the last thing that gets done.

There is one map in this book, which numerous squids have gallantly laid down their lives for in order to supply the ink to print it. They died in vain. It is completely useless and is an embarrassment, let me explain.

Chapter 5 as I mentioned kicks off the war with the whole year spent trying to capture the important town of Khotin, the Chapter heading is called “The Khotin Campaign” I have no idea where this is as it’s not on the map. None of the battle sites are marked, also there is no indication of any of the key actions, fighting down through Wallachia until finally reaching the Danube, then capturing the key crossing points, the numerous sieges and stormed cities along the way and then across the river to capture the main town of Shumla that in effect ended the war. Nothing. Then there’s the 2nd army fighting its way down the Black sea coast in support, likewise there is no indication of any of the towns they fought over or captured. Take the vital key fortress of Bender which for centuries had been the linchpin of the Ottoman defence and which they finally managed to capture? Not a sign of where it was. In the end I looked it up on Google, apparently Bender is a Robot character in a popular cartoon series, that was more help than the map in this book.

The activities of the Russian navy, their crucial battle at Cesme Bay, the Greek campaigns. I have no idea where any of this took place.

Poland, which was the main cause of the war, the uprising and then partition, maybe a map showing who got what would have been nice, nope, sorry.

The Crimea which after all was the main objective for Russia (along with Azov), well Kerch is at least on the map but nothing else and it’s not as if much happened at Kerch that warranted its appearance.

So as I read the otherwise excellent description of the war, in a book written by an obvious expert, I was just getting angrier and angrier as every location mentioned in the text was not to be found, how can you follow a campaign when you don’t know where the activities are taking place?

I could go on but probably shouldn't. Oh yes I am!

Worst of all there are twelve completely blank pages at the end of the book, I suggest you get some crayons and with your eyes closed, randomly squiggle a map yourself of Russia and the Balkans on these pages and then stabbing wildly make some dots. If you even get a couple of towns roughly in the right place then you have made more of a contribution than the map that comes with this book.

I need to now go and lie down for a little while in a dark room with a wet flannel on my forehead and take some more of Mr Steve’s “special” pills.

Paperback only
Readable pages 248
Plus Notes 48 pages
Best price 2nd June 2016 = £18.24 Abe books

(Apart from the map this book is the book on this war - from a Russian viewpoint).
I actually quite liked it.

This has been a Mr Steve production.

Next Up:
JJ's Wargames will be posting from foreign parts in the next posts looking at a part of the world that has had a very turbulent history in the latter decades of the twentieth century and somewhere I am very excited to be seeing, and am looking forward to sharing with everyone.


  1. Hi,

    I feel your pain. I know of only 1 real remedy: buy more figures.

    Perhaps a letter to the publisher might help. It's (faintly) possible the blank pages should have contained maps. Yeah, I know, I know, but I can dream, can't I?

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

    1. Hi Chris, Thanks for your support , as it happens I am in the process of following your remedy, I will let you know the result .

  2. Good summary "Mr Steve". This is not a war I know much about, so the lack of maps would really tick me off, but the rest of the presentation seems to make sense to me.

    I look forward to seeing your forces on the table.


    1. Hi Vince , fortunately I had the excellent "Cambridge Illustrated Atlas , Warfare, Renaissance to Revolution" to fall back on which helped some what but I would rather have had the benefit of maps generated by the author who clearly knows the subject inside and out.

      Mobilisation of forces is under way. You sound like the ideal player for the Ottomans.

  3. You say the nicest things....


  4. I suspect the author had little idea of where these locations were himself. He was probably reciting information from Suvorov's memoirs and reconstructing the material as a narrative of the war instead of the general's life. I've had similar issues with the Russo-Turkish war starting in 1807. Turkish material is almost never to be found and no one wants to take the time and effort to translate it. So all anyone ever gets is the same material used over again. Your inability to find the places on even a modern map is probably because the names have changed when they became controlled by different powers. Sounds like a book with not a lot of new information to offer.

  5. Unfortunately I cannot answer your question so I have checked up on the author , Brian L. Davies is a history professor from the University of Texas and teaches Russian and Eurasian history, I was already aware that he had published other books either side of this one but as to his process I have absolutely no idea.


    I think I was more disappointed that the University of Texas has a map section online that he could easily have accessed


    As for maps, I used the following when reading this book:

    As I said in the review, he does know a lot about Russia and how it was organised .