they detest artillery, but when they are three to one they become impudent."
- Schwarzenberg, Austrian commander-in-chief
"Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
"If Napoleon had had Cossacks in his army
he'd have been Emperor of China long ago."
- Cossack officer to Caulaincourt in 1812
On the ground are corpses of French soldiers and horses.
"The Cossacks Watched
While the Russians Slept"
The name Cossack is derived from the Turkic word quzzaq and mean simply "adventurer" and "freeman". This name has been shared by several groups throughout the history of Europe and Asia. The most prominent and numerous are the Russian Cossacks of the Don, Ural and Siberia regions. Also famous were the Ukrainian Cossacks who lived on the southern steppes of modern Ukraine. They grew astronomically during the 15th-17th centuries due to numerous runway peasants from Russia and Poland respectively. Cossacks paid no taxes and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy in the management of their communal affairs.
Janet Hartley writes: "Cossacks are not a separate ethnic group (although they were designated as such in the Soviet period); they comprise mainly Russian and Ukrainian peasants and fugitives who had fled to the southern borderlands. They nevertheless regarded themselves as a separate group within the Russian empire, with separate institutional and social structure, who owed a loyalty to their Cossack host as well ass to the Russian tsar. The 18th and the early 19th century saw the transformation of CCossack communities from active resistors to central tsarist authority to loyal servitors of the state, but this did not mean that they had lost their sense of separate identity or thheir distrust of Russian officials and grandees." (Charles Esdaile - "Popular Resistance in the French Wars" p186)
Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia, the Caucasus and Asia. They also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil geographers, traders, explorers and surveyors. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Simeon Dezhnev opened a passage between America and Asia.
The Cossacks fought numerous wars with the Poles, Russians, Turks and Tartars. In the XVI century, with the dominance of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth extending south, the Cossacks were regarded by the Poles as their subjects. Registered Cossacks were a part of the Commonwealth army until 1699. In the XVI century, to protect the borderland area from Tatar invasions, Cossacks carried out sentry and patrol duties, observing Tatars and nomads of the Horde in the steppe region.
Cossacks started raiding Ottoman territories and merchant port cities. By 1615 and 1625, Cossacks had even managed to raze townships on the outskirts of Istanbul, forcing the Ottoman Sultan to flee his palace ! In about the same time the Tartars, Turks' allies, were raiding Poland and Lithuania. Treaties between the Poles and Turks called for both parties to keep the Cossacks and Tatars in check. In internal agreements, forced by the Polish side, Cossacks agreed to burn their boats and stop raiding. However, boats could be rebuilt quickly, and the Cossack lifestyle glorified raids and booty.
Cossack numbers expanded with peasants running from serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Attempts by the Polish nobles to turn the warmongering Cossacks into serfs eroded the Cossacks' once strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. Cossack ambitions to be recognised as equal to the Poles were constantly rebuffed, and plans for transforming the Polish-Lithuanian Two-Nations Commonwealth into Three Nations made no progress. Tensions increased when Poland's policies turned from tolerance to suppression of the Orthodox church, making the Cossacks strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Polish. It resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Poles.
The relations of Cossacks with Russia were varied, at times this involved combined military operations, and at others there were Cossack uprisings. One particular example was the destruction of the Zaporozhian Host, which took place at the end of the XVIII century. Nevertheless by the XIX century, Russia managed to fully annex all the control over the Cossacks.
The tactics used by the Cossacks in XVI-XVII century was very different from that used during the Napoleonic Wars. The Cossacks used boats for long range raiding against the Turks, and wagon forts in the field against the Poles. The open and flat land of Ukraine did not limit wagons' manouverability. Western Europe just did not contain these steppe like areas. The slowly moving wagon forts link (ext. link) were defended with Cossack infantry and few light guns. The wagon fort could have 3 or more defensive walls made of wagons.
French: Rйponse des Cosaques au Sultan. German: Die Kosaken schreiben dem Sultan einen Brief. Picture: Cossacks writing incredibly insulting reply to Turkish Sultan's
demand for surrender. They laugh their socks off over each word.
Picture by Illia Repin. Cossacks' letter to the mighty sultan is a document having a literary origin which was taken up in folk culture (XVI-XVII century)
Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan !
Thou Turkish Satan, ... Greetings !
What the devil kind of knight art thou that
cannot slay a hedgehog with your naked arse ?
The devil shits, and your army eats.
Thou a son of a bitch wilt not ever make subjects of Christian sons ...
Thou art the Babylonian scullion,
brewer of Jerusalem,
goat-fucker of Alexandria,
swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt,
... So the Cossacks declare, you lowlife. ...
The date we write not for no calendar have we got;
the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book, and
the day is the same with us here as with thee over there,
and thou canst kiss us thou knowest where !
During the Napoleonic Wars the Cossacks participated in numerous campaigns and battles. In late 1790s they went with Suvorov to Italy and Switzerland. In 1805 they took part in the disastrous Austerlitz Campaign. In 1806 and 1807 the Cossacks were in Eastern Prussia with Bennigsen's army. There were several Cossack regiments fighting against the Swedes and Turks in 1808, 1809 and 1810. In 1812 and 1813 the Cossacks, portrayed by some as Satan’s bastard offspring, were constant menace for the Frenchmen, Germans, Poles and Italians. The relentless pursuit by the Russian light troops and Cossacks, the winter and the tsar's and people's determination resulted in a truly disastrous defeat on Napoleon.
Napoleon's Grand Army (Grande Armee) ceased to be grand, it even ceased to be an army !
Fewer than 100 000 of the 500 000 that Napoleon had used for the invasion returned west.
In 1814 the dreaded Cossacks entered Paris. They were received with the best foods but they preferred to cook their own meals. The beautiful houses, palaces and courts, and the products of luxury which they encountered in Paris did not tempt them. In the beginning the Parisians were scared of the the unique troops. Russian and Cossack officers gathered in certain restaurannts and hammered on the tables yelling bistro ! which is Russian word for "quickly". Hence the name bistro for this type of restaurant. The no-nonsense tough warriors bivouacked in the square of the Carousel before his majesty's windows, and dried their shirts and trousers on the iron railings of the palace. They also camped out on the famous Champs Elysees.
The Cossacks were again in Paris in 1815. A large group of Cossacks was despatched to find the Prussians and English armies advancing on Paris and they were the first Allies' troops who marched through Paris very shortly after Waterloo.
Left: Don Cossack and Bug Cossack
Center: Ural Cossack
Right: Ukrainian Cossack
Picture by Oleg Parkhaiev.
to be continued