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Catherine the Great’s Military Contribution to the Struggle against France

By Robert Goetz

In 1793 the coalition against France included all of the major powers of Europe except Russia.  Russia’s empress, Catherine II, deplored the excesses of the French revolution and publicly denounced events in France but steadfastly refused to become involved in an armed conflict that did not directly threaten Russia or Russian interests.  The perennial hostility of the Turks and Swedes, particularly in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-91 and the surprise attack of the Swedes in Finland in 1788-90, required vigilance on both the northwest and southwest frontiers.  Prussia’s support for Turkey and attempts to isolate Russia diplomatically, combined with the defensive treaty signed between Prussia and Poland in March 1790, made war with Prussia appear inevitable.  With hostile neighbors to the north, south and west, Catherine’s reluctance to project her forces as far as the Rhine, where Russia’s interests were not directly threatened, is readily understood.

Russia’s intervention in Poland from 1792-96, which resulted in the second and third partitions, pitted Russia against both rebelling Polish patriots led by Kosciuszko and Prussian ambitions.  With both Prussia and Russia vying for territorial gain at the expense of Poland, a second partition was worked out in 1793.  The Polish revolt of 1794 brought Russian and Prussian armies into Poland to crush it, but by 1795 the situation in Poland was even more tense than it had been in 1792-3 as Russia and Prussia vying for control of what was left of Poland.  With the Treaty of Basel (5 April 1795) Prussia was free to turn her full attention eastwards while Russia’s primary ally, Austria, remained heavily committed against France.  In June 1795 Catherine, with encouragement from Vienna, mobilized forces on the Prussian and Polish frontiers to be prepared for the possibility of war with Prussia.  Austria mobilized a smaller force on the frontier as well to apply pressure on Prussia and quickly worked out a separate Austro-Russian partition that excluded Prussia.  In the face of Austrian and Russian opposition, Prussia reluctantly agreed to the third partition.

While relations between Russia and Prussia remained tense, Catherine achieved some diplomatic successes.  Early in 1795 Britain, suspecting Prussia’s intention to withdraw from the coalition, began wooing Catherine to join the war against France.  Catherine, who was not interested in accepting money just to help advance British objectives, initially rejected offers of subsidies.  Britain wanted Russian troops in the struggle with France while Catherine sought British support in the event of war with Prussia, Turkey or Sweden.  After considerable negotiation, an Anglo-Russian alliance was signed in February 1795, promising mutual aid in the event of war – excluding the current war with France.  This alliance helped to secure Russia’s position in the event of war on her frontiers without obligating Catherine to commit forces to the war with France.

Despite her reluctance to commit land forces to the war with France, Catherine did agree to commit some Russian naval forces.  In the spring of 1795 she ordered a large squadron to the North Sea to participate in the blockade of Dutch ports, which expanded on Russia’s naval presence in the North Sea.[1]  This squadron, commanded by Blue Admiral Khanykov, left Kronstadt on 12 June 1795 and sailed for the coast of Denmark.  Two smaller squadrons left Reval on 26 June and 2 July and rendezvoused with Khanykov off Copenhagen in early August.  Detaching three of his frigates to escort a convoy sailing from Copenhagen to England, Khanykov proceeded to the North Sea with the combined squadron consisting of 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates.  Khanykov’s squadron anchored in the Downs[2] on 18 August and two weeks later sailed to join Admiral Duncan’s small British squadron of four ships off the Texel on the Dutch coast. The Russian squadron wintered in British ports, and during the first half of 1796 various detachments took turns supporting Duncan’s squadron, which had been reinforced by the addition of four more British ships.[3]

While Russian naval forces were supporting the British blockade of French controlled ports, negotiations for the commitment of land forces to the struggle continued.  The coalition against France desperately needed Russian support.  Following the withdrawal of Prussia from the war, Spain had also negotiated a separate peace leaving Austria as the only major continental power to oppose France.  Recognizing that she was not strong enough to face France alone, Austria urged Russia to support her so that she would not be forced to sign a “dishonorable” peace with France.[4]  Where British gold had failed to sway her, Austrian honor had more success with Catherine.  With matters in Poland stabilizing and the pledge of British naval support in the event of war with either Swedes or Turks, Catherine agreed to begin planning cooperative action on the Rhine and opened negotiations with Britain for subsidies to fund the venture.  On 18 August, Catherine notified the Austrian ambassador in St. Petersburg that she would immediately dispatch 60,000 troops to the Rhine.  On 28 September 1796 Catherine signed a subsidy agreement with Britain, formally joining the coalition. By 8 October the preliminary planning establishing the framework for Russian involvement had already been completed.[5]

The plan of operations for the coalition, drafted by the Austrians in the autumn of 1796, resembled the general plan that had been pursued by the coalition in cooperation with Prussia in 1793-4.  Each army was to be independent of the other, but this time the armies were to cooperate under the supreme command of a Russian general.  The combined armies would be arrayed on the Rhine in two main groups.  The northern group, operating between Mainz and Coblenz (the area where Prussian troops had been committed) would consist of 60,000 Russians, 20-30,000 troops contributed by the German princes, and the 10,000-strong French émigré corps of Prince Condé.  The Austrian forces already on the Rhine would be concentrated on the upper Rhine between Mannheim and Basel and would be augmented by the contingents of other German princes.  While the plan called for assuming the offensive, the Austrians persisted in planning a war of positions, targeting the fortresses of Saarlouis, Thionville and Metz as the objective for the Russians while the Austrian army focused on the fortresses of Alsace.  General Marquis Chasteler was to be sent to St. Petersburg to work out the details of the cooperation.[6]

Russian preparations began immediately, including the selection of the specific forces to be committed to the Rhine and the officers to command this force.  Catherine appointed Field Marshal Graf Suvorov as overall commander of the Russian forces – which meant that he would also assume overall command of the combined forces according to the Austrian plan.  Three columns (called divisions) were formed from the forces on the western frontier that had been mobilized in June 1795, the majority being drawn from Suvorov’s 8th Ekaterinoslav Division.[7]  These columns, totaling 51,904 combatants, would concentrate at Krakow and then proceed to the Rhine.  The musketeer and cavalry regiments were to leave understrength reserve battalions and squadrons in Russia that would be completed by recruiting and used to reinforce the field battalions.[8]  This would bring the total contingent to approximately 60,000 men.  This measure appears to indicate that the regiments would not wait for additional recruits to bring them up to full strength but rather would march as soon as the regiments were assembled and the logistics of supply and route of march worked out.  While it does not appear that a firm date was set for the force to march, it seems likely that they were to be in position on the Rhine for the opening of the spring 1797 campaign.[9]

While Suvorov’s corps was assembling, most of Khanykov’s North Sea squadron returned to Russia in the fall of 1796 to refit.  A portion of Khanykov’s fleet, under Rear Admiral M. K. Makarov, consisting of three ships of the line and four frigates, stopped briefly at Copenhagen while the remainder returned to Russia.  Makarov’s squadron left Copenhagen on 4 November to return to the North Sea.  By the time Makarov reached England and anchored in the Nore (Thames estuary) on 26 November the situation had changed radically.  Catherine II had died on 17 November 1796, and her son, Paul immediately called off Suvorov’s campaign against France, even as Chasteler and his Austrian staff were in St. Petersburg planning routes and coordinating strategy with their Russian counterparts.  Paul’s motivation in this is not clear, as he appears to have shared the general hostility towards revolutionary France that was common in Russia at this time.  Distrust of Suvorov and many of the senior officers in the army may have played a part in calling off the expedition.  Paul allowed Makarov’s squadron to remain in England, but it remained in port at the Nore – perhaps a good thing, as the Russian squadron reportedly assisted in putting down the Nore mutiny in May 1797.  Makarov joined Duncan off the Texel for a few weeks in June 1797 before returning to Russia, effectively ending Russian participation in the war against France until French operations in the eastern Mediterranean provoked Tsar Paul to join the 2nd Coalition in 1798.[10]

The untimeliness of Catherine’s death certainly presents one of the great “what-ifs” of the French Revolutionary Wars.  As Austria feared, without Russian support she was indeed forced to sign a “dishonorable” peace with France, though she rather cynically accepted the dishonor of partitioning Venice with her enemy without a qualm.  While the Russian army of some 50,000 men was unlikely to have proven decisive in tilting the balance of the war in Austria’s favor, the dynamic and inspired leadership of Suvorov that was crucial in sweeping the French out of Italy in 1799 would have done much to energize the flagging Austrian war effort.  Given Suvorov’s actions in Italy in1799, it seems highly unlikely that Suvorov would have followed the Austrian plans to focus on the seizure of fortresses.  Further, a force crossing the Russian frontier in late December 1796 would have found itself in Moravia by mid-February, after news of the Austrian defeat at Rivoli (14 January 1797) and when the Austrians were shifting forces to the Tyrol and Styria to oppose the victorious Bonaparte in Italy.[11]  Given events in Italy in January 1797, it seems very possible that the Russian forces would have been diverted to meet the threat from Bonaparte and to defend Vienna – a prospect that Suvorov had been eagerly anticipating since the news of Bonaparte’s exploits had reached his ears.[12]  Suvorov’s Russians would have been a very different enemy for Bonaparte to face rather than the collection of raw recruits and tattered remnants of the Austrian army of Italy led by the war-weary Charles.  Even with a delay in the arrival of the Russians, the existence of the Russian army in a position to reinforce Charles in opposing Bonaparte may well have stiffened Austrian resistance and prolonged the conflict beyond 18 April 1797 with unpredictable results.


[1] Catherine had sent a Russian squadron to the North Sea in 1793 to show the Russian flag and to support Russia’s mercantile interests in the region.  R. C. Anderson, Naval Wars in the Baltic, 1522-1850, London, 1969, pp. 295-6.

[2] Near Deal and Ramsgate northeast of Dover

[3] Duncan’s squadron originally consisted of Venerable (74), Asia (64), Calcutta (54) and Leopard (50).  Ibid., pp. 297-8; also Chernyshev’s Rossiiskii Parusnyi Flot for brief service records of individual vessels.

[4] A. Mikhailovsky-Danilevski, Geschichte des Krieges Russlands mit Frankreich unter der Regierung Kaiser Paul’s I im Jahre 1799, I, München, 1856-58, p. 14.

[5] Karl Roider, Baron Thugut and Austria’s Response to the French Revolution.  Princeton, 1987, p. 223; Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution, Volume 2: from 1793 to 1799, New York, 1964, p. 154.

[6] Mikhailovsky-Danilevski, I, pp. 14, 304-5. Mikhailovsky provides the text of the dispatch of Graf Razumovski (Russian ambassador to Vienna) dated 27 September/8 October 1796 (Arch. D. Min. D.).

[7] The use of the term “division” becomes confusing as it has different meanings.  In the case of the three divisions mobilizing it refers to an operational division, also termed “corps” or “column”.  The Divisions from which these forces were drawn were territorial or administrative divisions.

[8] The resulting regimental organization was as follows:

— Musketeer:  8 field companies musketeers + 2 field companies grenadiers + 2 companies “reserve battalion” (total 12)
— Carabineers and Light horse:  5 field squadrons, 1 reserve squadrons (total 6)
— Dragoon and Horse Jäger:  10 field squadrons, 2 reserve squadrons (total 12)

Mikhailovsky-Danilevski, I, p. 308.

[9] Ibid., 305-8; 361.

[10] Anderson, 298.

[11] General-Lieutenant Rosenberg’s column crossed the Bug River (Russian frontier) on 25 October 1799 and entered Brünn (Brno) in Moravia on 16 December (52 days later).  Christopher Duffy, Eagles Over the Alps, Chicago, 1999, pp. 40-1.

[12] Philip Longworth, The Art of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Field Marshal Suvorov, 1729-1800, New York, 1966, 232-3.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2002