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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Suvorov - Russia's Eagle Over the Alps

By Robert A. Mosher

Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Suvorov, Prince of Italy, Count of Rimnikskiy, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Generalissimo of Russia's Ground and Naval forces, Field Marshal of the Austrian and Sardinian Armies, Prince of Sardinia. Seriously wounded six times, he was the recipient of the Order of St. Andrew the First Called Apostle, Order of St. George the Triumphant First Class, Order of St. Vladimir First Class, Order of St. Aleksandr Nevskiy, Order of St. Ann First Class, Grand Cross of the Order of St. Joan of Jerusalem, (Austria) Order of Maria Teresa First Class, (Prussia) Order of the Black Eagle, Order of the Red Eagle, the Pour le Merite, (Sardinia) Order of the Revered Saints Maurice and Lazarus, (Bavaria) Order of St. Gubert, the Golden Lionness, (France) Order of the Carmelite Virgin Mary, St. Lasara, (Poland) the White Eagle, the Order of St. Stanislaus.

Born into the lesser nobility, in the city of Moscow, on November 24, 1729, his father was General Vasiliy Ivanovich Suvorov (1705-1775). Aleksandr Suvorov would spend most of his 72 years in military service to the Russian Tsars and die - according to legend - of heartbreak when Tsar Paul I denied him both recognition and the opportunity of further service even in the face of ill-health and old age. While Paul I, who attempted to remake his army and empire in the Prussian model, would almost erase his accomplishments - many of the generals who would rescue Russia from Napoleon's armies served under Suvorov. And almost 150 years later, Josef Stalin would revive the memory of the last Russian before him to bear the title "Generalissimo" and create the Order of Suvorov as an effort to restore Russian morale in the face of the Nazi invasion. Today, the Suvorov academies provide initial military training and education to young men seeking a military career and the old Field Marshal is remembered on the many military holidays of the Russian Federation.

Aleksandr Suvorov followed the tradition established by Peter the Great and was enlisted as a private in the Semenovskiy Guards Regiment in 1742. Beginning active service in 1748, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant of Infantry in 1754, in the Ingermanlandskiy Infantry Regiment. He began his active soldiering in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), participating in the battles of Kunersdorf (12 August 1759), Berlin (1760), and Kolberg (16 December 1761).

In 1762, Suvorov was promoted to Colonel of the Astrakhanskiy Infantry Regiment, but the next year was named commander of the Suzdal Regiment (until 1769). In that year, Suvorov wrote a comprehensive manual for his regiment, emphasizing realistic training for battle instead of the popular Prussian-style parade ground maneuvers. When conflict with Poland began in 1768, he returned to field service as a Brigadir, winning victories at Orekhovo (1769), Landskorn, Saowicz (1771), and Krakow (1772) - while also earning a reputation as a self-willed subordinate and boldly unorthodox tactician. Nevertheless, he was promoted to Major General in 1770 and to Lieutenant General in 1773.

The new Lieutenant General went to fight in the First Turkish War (1768-1774), where his successful descent on Turkutai, his seizure and defense of the Black Sea fort of Hirsov (September 1773), and his key role in the victory over the Turkish Army (60,000) at Kozludji (20 June 1774) established his reputation for tactical brilliance, and as an "incomparable field commander" and leader of troops. In this latter battle, Suvorov (50,000) caught part of the Turkish Army trying to cross a Danube tributary. His furious assault drove them in confusion back onto the main army creating an opportunity the whole Russian Army seized, overrunning their encampment. The Turks surrendered much of the Black Sea's northern coast, as well as concessions in Bessarabia and elsewhere.

Despite such military successes, Suvorov always felt ill-at-ease at court, conscious of his scrawny, gaunt appearance and rough manners at a time when throughout Europe personal style and elegance often counted for as much or more than real ability. This awkwardness at court was not helped by a consistent inability to endear himself to his superiors. Suvorov always felt that these slowed his advancement, and despite his accomplishments against the Turks, he was promoted to General in chief only in 1787 - in time to take command in the Second Turkish War (1787-1792).

Suvorov first defended the fortress of Kinburn against Turkish seaborne assaults (12 October). Then, going on to the offensive, he stormed nearby Ochakov (20,000) on 17 December 1788 after a month long siege. The following year in Moldavia, with Austrian General Prince Josias von Saxe-Coburg, he (17,000) defeated Osman Pasha (30,000) at Focsani on 31 August in less than an hour. On September 22, following a 14-kilometer night march, Suvorov (25,000) drove the main army of Grand Vizier Yusuf Pasha (60,000) from its camps on the Rymnik River in a one hour battle, overturning Turkish plans for their own offensive - and winning for himself 70 guns, 100 standards, and the title of Count Rymnikskiy. On 22 December 1790 after the Danube River fortress of Izmail rejected appeals (13 December) for its surrender after seven months of siege - Suvorov successfully stormed the fortress (35,000 men and 265 guns). Despite the rejection of Suvorov's appeal for a capitulation, the subsequent three days of looting and the slaughter of most of its defenders by the victorious Russian troops tarnished Suvorov and an otherwise brilliant achievement in the eyes of many European observers.

Transferred to Finland at the end of the Turkish war to help watch the frontier with Sweden, Suvorov was called in 1793 to command the Russian forces against Thaddeusz Kosciuszko's Polish revolutionaries. Although Suvorov generally tried to restrain his troops, having declared that "humanity can conquer a foe no less than force of arms," his anti-revolutionary attitudes may have supported his equally strong and ruthless sense of military efficiency. Defeating the revolutionaries at Krupshchitse, Brest-Litovsk, and Kobila - his final storming of the Warsaw suburb of Praga (4 November) as again a shock to western opinion.

Nevertheless, he was subsequently promoted to Field Marshal, and named Commander in Chief of the Southern Army. Suvorov began to train this army according to his own ideas and in 1797 wrote his major work "The Science of Victory." His ideas emphasized speed and mobility, accuracy of fire, and the bayonet, and his colloquial style was unusual for the time and subject matter. However, Suvorov's ideas clashed with those of the new Tsar. Paul I (1796-1801) - whose idol was Frederick the Great - returned the army to his beloved Prussian model. Suvorov refused to hide his opposition and openly criticized the new Infantry Code. Suvorov was dismissed and kept under close surveillance, though no evidence of his suspected treason was found.

In 1799, Russia's new Second Coalition partner Austria requested Suvorov as Supreme Commander of the planned Austro-Russian force in Northern Italy. Still the fierce anti-revolutionary, Suvorov responded with enthusiasm and took command in February. From 15 April to August, 1799 Suvorov's combined army (45,000) defeated the French armies of Moreau (28,000) at Adda, 26-28 April, when Bagration distracted the French by his capture of the town of Lecco on their right and Suvorov prepared his successful crossriver attack into the French center; of MacDonald (33-35,000) at the River Trebbia, 17-19 June; and of Moreau (killed) and Joubert (38,000) at Novi, 15 August. This last victory virtually expelled French forces from Italy. However, Suvorov's success aroused Austrian fears for their position in Italy and as early as July, Austria and Great Britain pressed Paul I to adopt a new strategy that would send Suvorov and his army to Switzerland (27 August) instead of into France as the old Field Marshal planned.

This plan called for Suvorov (21,000 men and 25 mountain guns) to unite in Switzerland with the Army of Rimskiy-Korsakov (24,000) and, reinforced by the Austrian armies (22,000 total), face Massena who was then threatening Switzerland. However, Massena was moving against Rimsky-Korsakov, defeating him at Zurich (25-26 September). Meanwhile, the Army of Austrian Archduke Charles was already moving away from Switzerland to the Rhine in a separate operation altogether, to reach the allied armies in the Netherlands.

At Taverna, Suvorov found the ammunition and supplies promised by his Austrian allies had not been delivered and five days were lost gathering what was available. On 19 September, Suvorov's troops attacked LeCourbe (8,500) holding the St Gotthard Pass, the quickest though most difficult route to Switzerland. Suvorov sent General Rosenberg to outflank the French position as he attacked it directly and on 24 September, after three attacks, the Russians broke through when General Bagration's Russian yegers attacked the French rear. The next day, 25 September, Russian light troops again outflanked the French positions as the latter tried to hold the Lucerne-Lach tunnel and the Devil's Bridge. As Bagration's men struck the flank, Suvorov stepped on to the bridge, under fire, calling to his army, "See how an old Field Marshal faces the enemy!"

At Altsdorf, on 26 September, Suvorov learned of the Russian defeat at Zurich. With no roads nor boats to ferry them across the lake there, the Russians appeared trapped and the French were closing in. However, despite his own age and illness, Suvorov decided to force a way through to Glarus. Bagration's advance guard again threw back the French (Molitor) while Rosenberg's rear guard held off Massena, before rejoining Suvorov at Glarus on 4 October. Again, Suvorov found no Austrian army nor supplies. He decided that to evade the French forces awaiting him, he would march into the 9,000 foot high mountains of the Panikh range towards Ilants. After a difficult march, the Russian army reached Ilants on October 8, finally beyond the reach of the French.

Suvorov's successful escape still cost him as much as one third of his army and all of his guns, but gained him the grudging admiration of Europe and the nickname "the Russian Hannibal." However, despite the Field Marshal's determination to resume the war the following year, the Tsar had had enough of his Austrian and English allies and recalled Russia's armies from Europe. Recalled to St. Petersburg on 21 January 1800, the newly promoted Generalissimo found his hero's welcome cancelled, and his command, rank, and titles all stripped away by the Tsar over a suspected misdemeanor of military administration. Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Suvorov died, reportedly heartbroken, in St. Petersburg on 18 May 1800. He is buried in the chapel at the Aleksandr Nevskiy Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

The old Field Marshal left Russia expanded frontiers, renewed military prestige, and the generals who had served and learned from his the art of war - including Mikhayl Kutuzov. But to Russia and to the world he also left a legacy of theories on the waging of war - from organization and preparation to execution - although they have been much neglected outside of Russia.

Suvorov believed that opportunity of the battlefield is the child of fortune, but exploitation called for intelligence, experience, and an intuitive eye - the "coup d'oeil." On the battlefield, he emphasized speed, surprise, and concentration at the enemy's weakest point. At the theater or operational level, he emphasized the maneuver of forces in order to destroy the enemy's supply lines and material, and the concentration of forces against the enemy's weak point to deliver a decisive blow. At the strategic level, Suvorov emphasized speed and swiftness based upon energetic and timely mobilization of forces. While he would send units into battle piecemeal as they reached the field in order to maintain momentum, he called for concentration of mass on the enemy's weak point through which the mass must quickly and directly hit in order to sustain the attack. Afterwards must come a thorough pursuit, which could destroy the enemy. He preferred aimed fire to mass volleys but also argued for bayonet assaults for the psychological effect.

He also displayed the ability to communicate his ideas to his troops in a form clear and comprehensible to them as shown in his "Suzdal Regulations" and other works. Even in recent times, aphorisms drawn from his works are republished for the edification of the troops. The following samples are principally from the 1987 Soldier's Calendar, a daybook featuring articles of military history, etc to inspiration of the soldier. The translations are my own. Such phrases are a staple of Russian literary tradition and Suvorov's remain popular even today.

Discipline is the mother of victory.

It takes not only arms to defeat an enemy.

Although bravery, good spirits, and courage are necessary everywhere and for all cases, they are only in vain if they do not emanate from skill.

It is a veritable rule of the military art to fall straight upon the enemy's weakest point.

Who is valiant and boldly falls directly upon the enemy, he would already gain complete victory.

One minute decides the outcome of a battle, one hour - the success of a campaign, one day - the fate of an empire.

It is necessary to fight with skill, not numbers.

Consider time the principal rule governing military direction.

Without the lamp of the history of tactics - darkness.

No battle can be won in the study, and theory without practice is death.

Every soldier should understand your maneuver.

To surprise is to vanquish.

Swiftness and surprise translate into numbers, on onslaught and shock decide the battle.

Speed is essential, but haste harmful.

Know how to take advantage of position.

Never scorn your enemy, but study his troops, his methods of action, study his strong and weak sides.

Be patient in military difficulties, do not give way to dejection from failure.

Better to go to danger than to wait it in place.

A driven back enemy - unsuccessful, isolated, surrounded, scattered - equals success.


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