25. 500 Russians against 40 000 Persians

At the time when fame of French Emperor Napoleon blossomed on the battlefields of Europe and Russian troops, which fought against the Frenchmen, performed new feats for the glory of Russian arms; halfway around the world, in the Caucasus, Russian soldiers and officers did great things as well. Colonel of the 17th regiment of chasseurs Karyagin Pavel Michaylovich and his detachment add one of the gold pages to the history of Caucasian wars.

State of affairs in the Caucasus was extremely difficult by 1805. Persian sovereign Baba Khan longed to get back Tehran’s influence which he lost after Russian coming to the Caucasus. The seizure of Ganja Khanate by the troops under leadership of Grand Duke Tsitsianov triggered the war.

Pavel Dmitrievich Tsitsianov

The moment was chosen absolutely perfect: Petersburg could not commit any extra soldier to the Caucasus. In one of his reports Grand Duke complained that there were not enough forces to fulfill the Monarch’s will and to capture Erivan and Baku Khanates during spring and autumn 1804. In May 1804 Tsitsianov began military campaign against Erivan Khanate which was a disputed territory between Russia and Persia for a long time. In return Persian khan sent a detachment led by Abbas Mirza in June 1804. After series of conflicts with the Persians, the Russians began the assault against Erivan. There are several feats by the Russians which are described in the literature and connected with those events. “Such feats could be found only in epic works of Greece as well as in famous Caucasian war just as Tsitsianov and Kotlyarevsky lived and fought.” For instance there is a story about Major Nolde. He and 150 people defended the redoubt against attacks of several thousands of Persians and managed to hold it. At the end of summer – in the beginning of autumn after Baba Khan with reinforcement group of 15 000 people arrived, Tsitsianov withdrew from Erivan to Georgia where in addition his presence was required because of started unrests.

Due to the war with France, Petersburg could not extend the number of Caucasian corps. By May there were almost 6000 infantry and 1400 cavalry. And troops were scattered on the vast area. Owing to diseases and poor food the troops were undermanned. So according to records there were 991 soldiers in three battalions of the 17th regiment of chasseurs but in fact there were 201 people in formation.

In June 1805 Persian prince Abbas Mirza launched an offensive against Tiflis. The Persians had an overwhelming disparity in numbers. Georgia faced the risk of a recurrence of slaughter of 1795. Shah Baba-khan swore to massacre and exterminate all the Russians in Georgia to the last man. The campaign began when enemy crossed Aras River at Khudoperinsk crossing. The battalion of the 17th regiment of chasseurs under the command of Major Lisanevich, which protected it, was unable to hold the Persians and retreated to Shusha. From Erivan Mekhty Khan Qajar brought Persian garrison of 3000 people into a fortress on the 13th of June, arrested former ruler Mamed and assumed a title of Erivan Khan by his own.

When top military commander of Russian army in Caucasus Great Duke Tsitsianov heard about coming of large Persian formation he sent as much support as he could send. (493 soldiers, 2 cannons and 2 officers: Karyagin and Kotlyarevsky. There is another story about Kotlyarevsky and Russian military spirit.)

Shusha fortress was only 80 versts of the Persian borders and under its shelter it was possible for enemy to gather significant forces for attacks against Georgia. Disturbances erupted in Shusha which were certainly sparked with support of Persian policy. Lisanevich realized clearly that without troops treason could open the fortress gates easily and let the Persians in. And if the Persians had occupied Shusha, Russia would have lost Karabakh Khanate and would have been forced to war on its own territory. Tsitsianov himself was aware of it.

Shusha fortress

So on the 18th of July Karyagin’s detachment consisting of 493 soldiers, an officer and 2 guns advanced from Elisavetpol toward Shusha. All of the fears of Tsitsianov were confirmed. The Persians occupied Askaran fortress and blocked the road to Shusha for Karyagin.

The first battle against Persian cavalry (about 3000), which forced a crossing over Shakh-Bulakh River, took place on the 24th of June. Keeping his head (At that time battles against an enemy with tenfold disparity in numbers were not considered as battles and were mentioned in reports as “maneuvers in conditions close to real ones”.),  Karyagin lined his troops in square and went on his way repelling futile attacks of Persian cavalry till the evening. Having marched 14 versts, the detachment   camped at the bottom of barrow (and Tatar graveyard) at Kara-Agach-Baba near Askerna River and built so called wagon fort or in Russian gulyay-gorod – a mobile fortification made of wagons. (Considering Caucasian lack of roads and absence of supply chain, the troops had to carry a lot of supplies on the wagons). Numerous gravestones and constructions (gumbet or darbasy) were thrown about hilly area and those were some kind of cover against shooting.

At 18.00 the Persians started the storm of Russian camp. They were attacking with little breaks till the night. After that they were induced to cease fire for a moment and to sort out piles of dead bodies and to cry and to write postcards to bereaved families. Persian loss was huge. The Russians also had losses. Karyagin was able to hold the graveyard but it cost him losing of 197 people, id est nearly half of the detachment. “Neglecting great number of Persians – he wrote at that very day to Tsitsianov – I would work my way to Shusha with bayonets but great is a number of wounded people whom to rouse I have no resources. That makes impossible any attempt to leave position.” By the morning Persian commander withdrew his groups to the hills around the camp.

Military history does not know a lot of examples when a detachment surrounded by a hundred times stronger enemy would not accept honorable capitulation. But Karyagin did not even mean to surrender. Honestly, at first he counted on Karabakh Khan’s assistance but soon he had to abandon this hope. It became clear that khan betrayed and his son with Karabakh cavalry came to Persian camp. Several times the Persians suggested that commander and his detachment lay down arms but the Russians denied it invariably. 

On the third day, 26th of June the Persians, wishing to precipitate outcome, sealed off the water and placed four falconet batteries that were firing at gulyay-gorod day and night. Since that time state of detachment became unbearable and losses were growing rapidly. According to the reminiscences of one of the combat participants – “Our situation was very unenviable and was getting worse with every hour. Unendurable heat exhausted our strength. We were terribly thirsty. And fire of the enemy cannons didn’t stop.” Karyagin himself was contused three times, wounded to the chest and to the head and with the bullet right through his side. Most of the officers became casualty and there were only 150 soldiers left who could fight.  If you add to that the raging thirst, the intolerable heat, the disturbed and sleepless nights, then it is hardly possible to realize formidable persistence of soldiers who bore up firmly under unbelievable hardships and furthermore they found enough strength to make attacks and fight against the Persians.

From report of Colonel Karyagin to Great Duke Tsitsianov dated the 26th of June 1805 – “Three times   Major Kotlyarevsky was sent by me to drive away the enemy who was on the front hill. He drove away the crowds with bravery. Captains Parfyonov and Klyukin were sent by me with carbines in different occasions during the battle and they struck the enemy with fearlessness.”

During one of those runs on the night of the 27th of June, in order not to lose the only source of water, soldiers under command of Lieutenant Ladinsky (according to other sources – Lieutenant Klyukin and Second Lieutenant Great Duke Tumanov) penetrated even into the Persian camp and captured four batteries on Askoran River. They not only ravaged the batteries and got water, they brought 15 falconets. Nevertheless it did not save the day. It needs to be said that there were 350 people in the detachment left by that day and half of them received miscellaneous wounds.

Achievement of that attack surpassed the most daring expectations of Karyagin. He came out to thank brave chasseurs but could not find any words and ended up kissing them in front of the whole detachment. Unfortunately, Ladinsky, who survived during his bold deed on the enemy batteries, was seriously wounded by Persian bullet in the Russian camp next day.

Four days a cluster of heroes faced and fight against the Persian army. But on the fifth day the lack of bullets and food came to light. The soldiers ate up their last dry crusts and the officers had already been eating grass and roofs for a long time. At dawn of the 27th June newly arrived Persian forces began assault of the camp.  And again they were attacking all day long. In such extreme situation Karyagin decided to send 40 men foraging for food to the nearest settlement. They had to get some meat and, if it is possible, some bread.  At four o’clock in the afternoon there was an incident that remained as a black spot in the glorious history of the regiment. The group of foragers went under officer’s command and that man was suspicious. He was a foreigner of uncertain nationality, introduced himself under Russian surname Lisenkov (Lisenko). Apparently he was the only one who found his position as burdensome. Afterwards from the intercepted correspondence it turned out that he was actually a French spy. Lieutenant Lisenko and six low ranks deserted to the enemy.

By the dawn of the 28th only six people of the sent party came back with the news that they were attacked by the Persians and that the officer was missing and the rest of the soldiers were hacked to death. There are some details of that unfortunate expedition based on a statement by wounded Sergeant Major Petrov. “As soon as we reached the village – Petrov told – at once Lieutenant Lisenkov ordered us to leave our rifles, take off our accoutrements and walk on the roofs of the saklyas. I reported to him that we could not do such things on enemy ground; because, one never knew, enemy could foray. But Lieutenant shouted at me and said there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. I let people go. I felt there was something wrong and climbed up the barrow and started looking around. Suddenly I could see there was the Persian cavalry galloping. Well, I meant, it was bad. I rushed to the village and there were the Persians already. I defended myself with a bayonet and started shouting at soldiers in order that they caught their rifles. I just managed to do it. We gathered and fought our way. “So, guys,” I said, “one cannot swim against the tide, let’s run into the bushes, and then with God’s help we might escape.” With these words we stampeded. But only six of us, wounded, managed to reach the bushes. The Persians tried to follow us but we welcomed them so well that they left us alone soon”

As soon as the defectors told about the plight of the Russians, Abbas Mirza threw his troops into the decisive storm but, suffering significant casualties, had to reject further trying to break resistance of cluster of courageous people.

Fatal failure with foraging impressed the people very much. After defence the detachment was small in numbers but it lost 35 strong young men more. At night 19 soldiers deserted to the Persians.

Still Karyagin’s determination was unwavering. One more day of fighting and Karyagin apprehended that 300 Russian soldiers could not slay the whole Persian army. Being aware of the precarious situation and that the defection created pessimism among the soldiers, Colonel Karyagin adopted to breach the siege, approach Shakh-Bulakh River and occupy a small fortress on the bank of the river.

Having left wagon train and buried captured   falconet and said their prayers to God, they loaded the guns with buckshot, took the wounded in the stretchers and in the middle of the night of 29th June they left the camp quietly, without any noise. Because of lack of horses the chasseurs were towing cannons. Only three wounded officers rode horses: Karyagin, Kotlyarevsky and Ladinsky. And that was only because the soldiers did not allow them to dismount and promised to carry cannons out if necessary.

At first they advanced in total silence, then there was an armed conflict with the mounted patrol and the Persians ran down the detachment.  And even on the march the attempts to annihilate this wounded and tired to death but still militant group did not bring the Persians success. Pitch-dark night, storm and Russian spirit saved Karyagin’s detachment from probable destruction. Furthermore – most of the persecutors rushed to sack the empty Russian camp. By the dawn the detachment reached the Shakh-Bulakh’s walls and there was a small Persian garrison located. According to the legends Shakh-Bulakh castle was built by shah Nadir, and it was named after the brook nearby. There was a garrison (150 people) under command of Emir-khan and Fial-khan in the castle and some posts around it.

 Taking advantage of the fact that everybody was sleeping and did not know the Russians were there, Karyagin fired the cannons, broke iron gates and took the fortress by assault in ten minutes. Its commander, Emir-khan, Crown Prince Relation was killed. His dead body was left in the Russian hands. The garrison took to flight. In his report of 28th June 1805 Karyagin wrote, “…the fortress is occupied, the enemy is driven away, we have little loss. Both Khans are killed…We have settled in the fortress. I am waiting for Your Lordship’s commands” By the evening there were only 179 people remained in the rank and 45 charges for the cannons. Having heard of it, Great Duke Tsitsianov wrote to Karyagin, “In unprecedented despair I pray you to refresh the soldiers and pray our God to support you”.

The Russians managed just to repair the gates and at the same time the main Persian forces emerged. They were worried about disappearance of their favourite Russian detachment. Abbas Mirza tried to dislodge the Russians from fortification without any preparation, but his troops suffered casualties and had to establish a blockade. But that was not the end. And even it was not the beginning of the end. After the inventory of the rest property in the fortress it was clear that there was no any food left and that they had been forced to leave their wagon train during breakthrough out of encirclement and that there was nothing to gorge. Absolutely NOTHING…Four days beleaguered people were living on grass and horse meat but at last even those poor supplies came to the end.

That enabled Karyagin to hold out one whole week more without any extremity. But situation was getting worse. Convinced that the Russians are in the trap, Abbas Mirza suggested them laying down arms in exchange of great rewards and honors if Karyagin would agree to serve in the Persian army and surrender Shakh-Bulakh. Abbas Mirza promised not to do any harm for any of Russian soldiers. Karyagin asked for four days of thinking but so that Abbas Mirza would victual the Russians while all these days. Abbas Mirza agreed and Russian detachment, receiving all it needed from Persians, got to rest and put in order.

Meantime the last armistice day ran out and in the evening Abbas Mirza sent to learn Karyagin’s decision. “Let His Highness take up Shakh-Bulakh tomorrow morning.” Karyagin replied.

Karyagin was determined to effect much more improbable step and to fight his way through enemy hordes to another, not occupied by Persians, fortress Mukhrat.

Peak of audacity, military mother wit and madness fade in front of that Russian deed.

7th of July, 22:00 o’clock was the time when Karyagin and his detachment, guided by Uzbash, left the fortress to take by storm the next, much larger fortress Mukhrat. It was more convenient for defence thanks to its mountainous location and closeness to Elizavetpol.

It is very important to concern that by 7th of July the detachment had been already fighting for 13 days continuously.

On roundabout ways, over the mountains and through the thickets the detachment was able to pass round Persian posts so secretly that enemy could notice Karyagin’s deception only before the morning. By that time vanguard, consisting of only wounded soldiers and officers, under command of Kotlyarevsky was already in Mukhrat. Karyagin with the rest of people and with cannons managed to escape dangerous defiles. Even the soldiers, who were quit to call to one another on the walls, were able to outstrip Persian pursuer and catch up with the detachment.

Only extreme topography seemed to be enough to make that venture impossible. For example, there is one of episodes of that march. This fact stands alone even in the history of Caucasian army. But Karyagin and his soldiers were inspired with truly heroic spirit.

On its way the detachment met a deep gully (according to description of Lieutenant Gorshkov, it was Kabartu-chaya riverbed) with scarps. People and horses could overcome it but what about cannons? There was not any forest nearby to build a bridge…

“Guys!” shouted battalion leader Sidorov suddenly. “There’s no sense in considering. You can’t capture a town standing still. Listen better to what I say: our sort of people believes the cannon like a lady and this lady needs to be assisted. Let’s roll it across the rifles.”

Private Gavrila Sidorov jumped down to the bottom of the gully and three soldiers followed him.

Four soldiers volunteered to relieve and, crossing themselves, lay down on the bottom and cannons were rolled across them   under crunch of bones.

Two of them stayed alive but two more paid with their lives for heroic self-sacrifice. Even being in a hurry the soldiers had time to dig a deep grave. Officers carried dead bodies to the grave and put them in.

On 8th July the detachment came to Ksapet. Karyagin sent carts with wounded under Kotlyarevsky command forward and he himself followed them. Three versts from Mukhrat the Persians attacked the column but were beaten off with fire and bayonets. One of the officers reminisced,”…as soon as  Kotlyarevsky moved away from us, we were attacked violently by several thousands of Persians and their onslaught was so strong and unexpected that they managed to capture our both cannons. There was nothing to laugh at. Karyagin shouted, “Guys, forward, forward, save the cannons.” Everybody rushed like lions and at that very moment our bayonets made the road free.” Trying to cut the Russians off the fortress, Abbas Mirza sent cavalry to occupy it but even there the Persians failed. Disabled party under Kotlyarevsky command hurled back Persian riders. By the evening Karyagin came. According to information of Bobrovsky it was 12:00 o’clock.

Only then Karyagin sent a letter to Abbas Mirza in reply to his offer to join the Persian army. “In your letter you wish to say,” wrote Karyagin to him, «that your parent has great mercy to me; and it is my honor to inform you that in a battle nobody seeks for mercy except traitors; I have turned grey being under arms, It would be my pleasure to shed my blood for His Imperial Majesty service.”

In Mukhrat the detachment could stay relatively peacefully and had enough food. And Great Duke Tsitsianov, having received report on the 9th of July, assembled troop of 2371 people, had 10 cannons and came towards Karyagin. On 15th of July the troop under Great Duke   Tsitsianov command, having hurled the Persians back from Tertara River, camped by Mardagishty settlement. Having learnt it, Karaygin left Mukhrat at night and went to Mazdikert settlement to join his commander.

There Commander in Chief welcomed him with extraordinary military honors. All the troops, dressed in full uniform, were formed up in deployed front. When the rest of the brave detachment appeared, Tsitsianov gave a command on his own, “Present arms!” “Hooray” thundered in the ranks, drums beat the march, banners were lower…

Abbas Mirza

It is necessary to say, as soon as Tsitsianov left Elizavetpol, Abbas Mirza, expecting of weakness of left garrison, stormed into Elizavetpol district and rushed to the town. Though Karyagin was exhausted by Askoran battle wounds, he had so great sense of duty, that after some days Colonel, neglecting his disease, faced Abbas Mirza again. The rumour, that Karyagin was approaching, forced Abbas Mirza to avoid meeting Russian troops. And by Shamkhor town Karyagin and his detachment of no more than 600 bayonets put Persians in flight. That was the end of Persian campaign 1805. “Fabulous things have been accomplished on the fields of the battle,” Count Rostopchin wrote to Great Duke Pavel   Tsitsianov, “Having heard about them, you surprise them and rejoice that Russian names and Tsitsianov name resounds in remote countries…”

Having performed that wonderful march, the detachment under Colonel Karyagin absorbed attention of nearly 40 000 Persians during three weeks and did not allow them to march inland. Courage of Colonel Karyagin bore great fruit.  The Persians were stopped in Karabakh and it saved Georgia from flood of Persian hordes and gave the opportunity for Tsitsianov to assemble troops, which were scattered along the borders, and to begin the offensive campaign. And although in February 1806 Great Duke Tsitsianov was perfidious assassinated in alleged passing keys to the town Baku, in general the campaign of 1805 accomplished with Russia’s conquest of Shaki, Shirvan, and Karabakh Khanates (and in October 1806 Baku Khanate).

For his march Colonel Karyagin was awarded with gold sword with engraving “For bravery”. Major Kotlyarevsky was awarded with an order of the Saint Vladimir on the 4th stage, left alive officers with orders of the Saint Anna on the 3rd stage. Avanes Uzbashy (melik Vany) was not left without award as well. He was promoted to the military rank of Ensign, was awarded with gold medal, 200 silver rubles and life pension. In the Erevans’ Headquarter in Minglis the monument was erected in honor of Private Sidorov feat in 250th Anniversary of the Regiment.