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Chapter 2 - The Soldier - Part 5


The service by which Gordon set his mark on the history of Russia and of Europe was the subjugation of the Strelitzers. These were a power more immediate and menacing than the corporations, if not in reality so deeply founded; and it was necessary that this power should be broken before the autocracy of the empire could be fully developed. The Strelitzers were the guards or household troops of Muscovy, and in their constitution and fate they have often been compared with the janissaries of Turkey. They had bean created by Ivan the Terrible, in the middle of the sixteenth century, for the purpose of breaking the power of the independent Boyards. Their distinctive peculiarity—that they were solely under the command of the Czar himself—intended to make them potent agents of despotism, enabled them in reality to set up on their own account. In their desire to take their orders immediately from their master, they refused obedience to the officers set over them; and on some occasions showed their zeal for their master by taking the labour and responsibility of punishment out of his hands, and knouting, shooting, or hanging those officers who had not, in their opinion, acted faithfully in the discharge of their duty to the Czar.

It was a corollary, and a very formidable one, to such principles of duty, that it lay with themselves to decide who was the proper Czar from whom they were to take their instructions. Such was the body with whom Peter had to deal in the early and unstable period of his reign. Immediately before its commencement, they had performed one of their most terrible outbreaks of loyalty, ending in the slaughter of several officers; while others, probably to save their lives, were knouted in the presence of the Strelitzers to appease their just indignation, which, like that of the sepoys, arose out of a religious difficulty: their consciences had been violated by their being ordered on duty during Easter week. Gordon’s first affair with them appears to have given its turn to the memorable struggle between Peter and his sister Sophia for the actual government, while their imbecile brother Ivan still lived and held nominal office as senior Czar.

The princess got the ear of the Strelitzers, who promised to surprise and slay her brother. According to Gordon’s account, they were as close to success as failure could well be. He describes how his young master—he was then but seventeen—hearing at dead of night that the bloody band were surrounding him, sprang out of bed, and, without waiting to dress himself, leapt upon a horse and galloped to the nearest wood. There, waiting a short time for clothing, he pursued his flight, and reached the monastery of the Troitzca, or Holy Trinity, about six o’clock in the morning. Here he was protected by the sanctity of the place, and issued his orders to the officers of the Strelitzers, and to the foreign officers in the Russian service. The former had taken their course; the critical point lay with the foreigners. Gordon took a short time to consider and inquire. He then said he had made up his mind: whatever orders came from the Kremlin, he was to march to Troitzca, and take his own orders there. This decided the others; and the foreign officers, with their troops, made their welcome appearance at the gates of the monastery. The contest was thus decided. Two days afterwards, the youth who became Peter the Great entered Moscow in triumph; and then of course came the usual conclusion of the drama in torturings and executions.

The Strelitzers, as a body, conformed outwardly to the new order, and remained composed and powerful as ever. It was in the year 1697 that Peter left his home on his celebrated ramble among the working districts of Europe; and if he had not left Gordon with four thousand troops under his separate command to guard the Kremlin, he would probably have found a change of occupancy on his return, and a difficulty in getting access to his own house. The main army of Russia was then stationed on the frontiers of Poland, for the purpose of influencing the election of a king to succeed John Sobieski. A rumour spread through the ranks of the Strelitzers that the Czar had died abroad; and as they always felt it their duty to see the right person placed on the throne, they resolved, without consulting the Commander-in-Chief, to march to Moscow, for the purpose of installing the heir, Alexis Petrowich, and appointing a regent during his minority. There were thus eight thousand troops, in high discipline and compact order, approaching the capital, and only four thousand to defend it. Gordon seems to have at once resolved to save the town the horrors of a siege by meeting the enemy at a distance. He had an element which compensated the inequality of numbers, in the possession of twenty-seven field pieces—six to ten pounders. He intrenched himself strongly on the road which the mutineers must pass, never hesitating in the resolution to subdue them, or doubting his ability to do so. He parleyed with and exhorted them over and over again to return to their duty, and there is no doubt that he was sincere in recording the sorrow he says he felt in the contemplation of their fatal obstinacy. When he was driven to action, he took that most humane of all courses when an irrational and helpless mass of men are to be brought to a sense of their position—he made quick and sharp work of it. His own brief and practical account of the conclusion is:-

"I brought up the infantry and twenty-five cannon to a fit position, surrounded their camp on the other side with cavalry, and then sent an officer to summon and exhort them once more to submit. As they again declined, I sent yet another to demand a categorical decision. But they rejected all proposals of compromise, and boasted that they were as ready to defend themselves by force as we were to attack. Seeing that all hope of their submission was vain, I made a round of the cannon be fired. But, as we fired over their heads, this only emboldened them more, so that they began to wave their colours, and throw up their caps, and prepare for resistance. At the next discharge of the cannon, however, seeing their comrades fall on all sides, they began to waver. Out of despair, or to protect themselves from the cannon, they made a sally by a lane, which, however, we had occupied by a strong body. To make yet surer, I brought up several detachments to the spot, so as to command the hollow way out of which they were Suing. Seeing ibis, they returned to their camp, and some of them betook themselves to the barns and outhouses of the adjoining village. At the third discharge of the guns, many of them rushed out of the camp towards the infantry and cavalry. After the fourth round of fire, very few of them remained in their waggon rampart; and I moved down with two battalions to their camp, and posted guards round it. During this affair, which lasted about an hour, a few of our men were wounded. The rebels had twenty-two killed on the spot, and about forty wounded, mostly mortally."

So far as open contest was concerned, the affair was at an end. The conquest was obtained, one would say, at a small sacrifice of life. But while, in ordinary warfare, slaughter is at an end for a time when the battle is over, and the victors are then occupied in saving the lives and alleviating the sufferings of their enemies—in such an affair as this the slaughter and suffering were only in a manner inaugurated by the battle; and the subsequent journal which records, not the victorious general’s doings, but other people’s, has such entries as— "To-day seventy men were hanged, by fives and threes, on one gallows."

I must send the reader to the Diary itself for the successive events of Gordon’s long professional career. He died on the 29th November 1699; and we are briefly but effectively told by the editor of the Diary that "the Czar, who had visited him five times in his illness, and had been twice with him during the nights stood weeping by his bed as he drew his last breath—and the eyes of him who had left Scotland a poor unfriended wanderer were closed by the hand of an Emperor."

At a much later period Samuel Greig, another Scotsman, gave a helping hand to the waxing power of Russia. He appears to have been the son of a merchant sea-captain or skipper in Inverkeithing, where he was born in 1735. He was bred to the sea-service, but seems to have been amphibious in his combative capacities, as his most important service to Russia lay in military engineering. His entrance into the Russian service was quite legitimate. He was a lieutenant in the British navy at the peace of 1763, with fair chances of moderate promotion, when the Russian Government applied to the British for the loan of a few officers to help to improve their own navy. Greig, one of these, soon made his capacity felt, and was intrusted with high cornmand. The old Fifeshire skippers name of Charles was dragged out of its obscurity to give the usual Russian patronymic of nobility, and the young officer became Samuel Carlovich Greig. It is odd to find one of the few notices of this remarkable man in the Memoirs of the late Rev. Christopher Anderson, the historian of the English Bible. Mr Anderson’s mother was a relation of the Greigs, and was able to certify of the old skipper’s wife, after her son had gone on a career so widely different from his early surroundings, that "his mother's supplications in his behalf had followed him in that career so perilous to piety, and she lived to hear from his own lips, on a visit he paid her late in life, that he had not forgot a father’s instruction or a mother’s prayer."

He was made commodore of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean in the war with the Turks in 1769, and thus became a great, perhaps the greatest, instrument in the annexation of the Crimea, where so many of his countrymen were to leave their bones after fighting to undo what he had done.

At the battle of Scio in 1770, Greig, with four ships of the line and two frigates, bore in upon the Turkish fleet in harbour, and burned them with fireships. It is recorded that this operation was so new and terrible to the Russian sailors, that the British officers required to hold pistols to the heads of the steersmen to keep them to their duty. After the fleet was destroyed, the town was bombarded; and so effectively did Greig perform his work, that ere nine o’clock at night there was scarcely a vestige of the town or fortress, or of the fleet that had existed at mid-day.

In the subsequent war with Sweden he commanded at the battle of Hogeland in 1788. The affair is remarkable among sea-battles, not only for the determined and obstinate fighting on either side, but for being fought in a storm, and in a narrow sea full of shoals, currents, and other perils. In one of the German collections of favourite passages I have found the following account of this affair, written by an author favourable to the Swedish side, and I insert it because so little can be discovered about the services which a man like Greig performed for a government which permitted the world to know only what it thought politic to tell:—

"The great Russian fleet, seventeen ships of the line and seven large frigates strong, sailed from Cronstadt under the command of a most experienced seaman, Admiral Greig, a Briton. They encountered the Swedish fleet of fifteen ships of the line and five large frigates, under the High Admiral Prince Charles of Sudermanuland and Admiral Count Wrangel (17th July), seven miles westward of the island of Hogeland.

"Greig had been commanded by his Empress first to destroy the Swedish fleet, and then without delay to pursue his voyage to the Archipelago; and, if ever there was one, he was the man to be honoured by such a commission. He was at home on the sea, he had been present at the celebrated capture of the Havannah (1761), and he had led the terrible combat at Tschesme.

"Between four and five o’clock in the afternoon he bore down before a favourable wind on the Swedes. The thunder of war began on both sides with terrible fury.

"The Swedes, who now again for the first time since the remotest ages had taken rank as a naval power, showed in the advance of their fleet an accuracy of line and an ease in evolutions seldom excelled even in manoeuvres of a peaceful kind at sea. Alter the lapse of an hour, the Russian leader, and two other Russian ships, were so damaged that they were obliged to be withdrawn behind the line. But again did the Russians concentrate their greatest strength against the Swedish van; the Swedes grounded in their manoeuvres in the stream at Eckholm, and all efforts to bring them into the wind were in vain. In this perilous position the Swedish admiral’s ship, Gustav IlI., of 68 guns, which proudly displayed the national flag, and was commanded by the High Admiral Charles of Sudermannland, with Admiral Count Wrangel under him, was so furiously attacked by the Russian Admiral’s ship, of 108 guns, in which Greig himself was, and by two other Russian ships, each of 74 guns, that it was easy to see that the Russian Admiral’s chief object was to make the Duke himself his prisoner. Peace might then, no doubt, have been obtained on easier terms; but the Duke, preserving his coolness, gave his people the example of the most astonishing bravery. From all quarters the deadly mouths of the Russian cannon blazed on his ship while he coolly smoked his pipe; a cannon-ball slew his servant close by him, but he did not leave the deck, and strove, by his constant cry of ‘conquer or die,’ to inspire his soldiers and sailors with his own courage. Some of the sailors, who considered farther resistance useless, began to speak of striking. ‘Rather let us be blown into the air,’ cried Charles, in his sternest voice, ‘than surrender!’ Accordingly, he snatched his match from an artilleryman, took his place by the powder-magazine, then asked Admiral Wrangel whether he thought there was no farther chance of saving the ship? A no from Wrangel, and the ship would have been scattered in fragments to the wind. ‘It will be tough work,’ said the Admiral, ‘but we will do our utmost.’ The fire was now kept up with the most extreme vehemence, till the other Swedish ships coming up made the combat more equal. The Russians had a long list of killed, Greig himself was severely wounded, and his ship was obliged to leave the line.

"Meantime, the darkness of night came over the sea. At ten o’clock the firing ceased. The Russians had taken a Swedish ship of the line, Prince Gustav, of 68 guns, in which the Swedish Vice-Admiral Count Wachtmeister had led the Swedish van during the combat, and which, after miracles of heroism, was drifting about with 300 killed and wounded on board, pierced everywhere with shots, and without a flag. The Swedes, in return, had seized a Russian ship of the line, the Wladislaus, of 74 guns, had run two others aground, and, on the whole, had inflicted much more injury on the Russian fleet than it had sustained from it.

"Both parties spent the night over against each other and not far from the place of battle. The Swedes had nearly shot away all their powder. Not an hour could they have kept up fire if the enemy had renewed the combat next day, yet they dared not attempt to reach the harbour of Sweaborg before daybreak, the wind not being quite favourable; and it seemed likely that if they had given the least suspicion of an intention to enter it, the enemy would have pursued them. There was nothing for it but patient courage. To show this, signal-guns were fired regularly the whole night, as if they only waited for daylight to begin the combat more terribly than ever. The Russians, indeed, gave signs of a renewed attack next morning. The Swedes formed in line immediately, with what feelings may be imagined. But Greig, whose retreat was favoured by the wind, now thought good, instead of a harbour in the Archipelago, to seek that of Cronstadt; and the Swedish High Admiral brought his fleet under the guns of Sweaborg.

"Such was the battle of Hogeland, the first sea-fight in which the Swedes had been engaged for a very long time, and in which they fought with the courage and discipline of veteran seamen, far surpassing the expectations of their enemy and of all Europe. Both parties claim the victory of this bloody day; in Petersburg as in Stockholm the Te Deum was chanted. ‘Is it not generous,’ says a witty write; ‘in Providence to have so arranged it as to suit both parties, and so earned, there a Greek, here a Lutheran song of praise?"

The ‘Annual Register’ for the year says: "Admiral Greig is said to have declared, in the account published by authority in St Petersburg, ‘that he never saw a fight better sustained than this was on both sides.’ This, however, accords but badly with the number of delinquent officers (of whom seventeen were captains), loaded with chains, whom he sent home in a frigate for ill behaviour in this action."

As he died a few weeks afterwards, on the 26th of October 1788, in his own ship, the Rotislow, it must be presumed that the wound he received in this fight proved mortal. So ends the career of the Inverkeithing skipper’s son, Admiral Samuel Carlovich Greig, governor of Cronstadt, and chevalier of the orders of St Andrew, St Alexander Newski, St George, St Vladimir, and St Anne. Every journal in Europe repeated the account of the gorgeous funeral bestowed on him by the Empress, though little is generally known of the man who enjoys the reputation of having made the Russian navy. He made something else, too. As governor of Cronstadt he was the author of the fortifications there; and, as a French writer remarks, the Scotsman built those walls which years afterwards checked the career of his fellow-countryman Sir Charles Napier.

It is not, after all, an entirely satisfactory task to celebrate services like these. A nation that can show unrivalled courage and endurance in the defence of its own independence, need not covet the lustre of success in foreign causes. Boasting of such renown, in quarrels selected by and not forced upon the heroes, has something akin to the bully in it. That so many Scotsmen should have thus distinguished themselves abroad was the fruit of their country’s sufferings rather than its success. The story of it all reminds one how dreary a thing it is that a community should have to dismiss the choice of its children from its own bosom, and how happy is the condition of that compact and well-rounded state which, under a strong and free government, productive of co-operation and contentment, has resources enough to keep its most active and adventurous citizens at work on national objects, and neither lends its children to the stranger, nor calls a foreign force into its own soil. There is little ultimate satisfaction in stranger laurels. Those who are the children of liberty themselves, such as the Scots and Swiss, have seen their service; by the obdurate tendency of historical destiny, almost ever assisting tyranny; and thus the sword of the freeman has done the work of the despot. The prowess and skill of our military leaders have given an undue preponderance to the strength of barbarism, and enabled it to weigh too heavily against the beneficent control of civilisation. The foreign despot is deceived with the notion that the system artificially constructed for him by strangers represents a permanent, well-founded, national power; he becomes insolent in the confidence of its possession; and the fabric of power, raised up by one generation of freeborn auxiliaries, costs the blood of another generation to keep it from destroying freedom and civilisation throughout the world. Even while this is passing through the press, the question vibrates at the conference-table, whether we are to have a struggle with another great power which several Scotsmen helped to consolidate.


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