Today in European history: the Skirmish at Bender (1713)

The Ottoman Empire of 1713 wasn’t the Ottoman Empire of 1513 or even 1613, but it was still a formidable enough power that it could play an active role in European affairs. The so-called “Skirmish at Bendery” (known in Swedish as the Kalabaliken i Bender, from the Turkish word kalabalık or “crowd”) shows that the Ottomans were still capable of the occasional muscle flexing. It’s actually a chapter in the 1700-1721 Great Northern War, which otherwise didn’t involve the Ottomans at all, but was fought between Charles XII’s (d. 1718) Swedish Empire and a coalition of opponents, led by Tsar Peter (the Great) of Russia (d. 1725). Sweden had spent most of the 17th century amassing a significant empire around the Baltic Sea, which left it holding Russia’s former Baltic Sea ports. Peter allied with Denmark-Norway and the German state of Saxony (whose elector also happened to be the king of Poland), both of which had also suffered from Sweden’s expansion.

The Swedish Empire at its maximum extent (Wikimedia | Zakuragi)

The rest of that war doesn’t really matter to us here, but we do need to talk about the Battle of Poltava, in June 1709. Charles’s army besieged the city of Poltava, which today is in central Ukraine, but it was met and crushed by Peter’s much larger relief force. Until this point in the war, Sweden was on the offensive, so much so that Peter had actually offered to surrender to Charles in 1706. When Charles refused to accept it, Peter did the thing that Russian rulers always do in the face of invading armies: he pulled his forces back, ordered them to burn everything in their path, and counted on starvation and the Russian winter to do their worst to the attackers. This strategy worked even on soldiers from Sweden, who you’d assume had lived through a harsh winter or two in their lives (EDIT: or not), and by the time Charles laid siege to Poltava his invading force was half of what it had been when they set out.

Charles, along with about 1500 men, managed to escape Poltava and run like hell to Bendery, Moldavia, which today is the town of Bender in Moldova. This is where the Ottomans come in, because this happened to be Ottoman territory. Peter pursued Charles as far as he could and then began to demand that the Ottomans relinquish him into Russian hands. The Ottomans refused, which kicked off the 1710-1711 Pruth River Campaign. Peter crossed into Moldavian territory with the support of the Moldavian nobility, who would have been thrilled to see the Russians push the Ottomans out of their principality. But a funny thing happened: the Russians and Ottomans met at the Battle of Stănileşti in July 1711, and the Ottomans won a decisive victory. Then an even funnier thing happened: instead of taking Peter prisoner and potentially breaking the power of the Russian Empire, the Ottomans signed a treaty that only forced Peter to make some relatively minor concessions: he agreed to return Azov to the Ottomans, agreed to demolish the forts he’d erected during his march into Moldavia, and agreed to stay out of Polish affairs. That’s it.

Then Ottoman attention turned to Charles, who had decided to set up his own little court-in-exile in Moldavia rather than risk the march back to Sweden across enemy territory. The Ottomans had gone to war rather than hand Charles over to the Russians because they didn’t feel like taking orders from the Russians, but they had no desire to see Charles continue squatting on their turf. Charles didn’t help matters by agitating, with the cooperation of the Crimean Tatars (who were desperate to see the Ottomans squash the Russians ASAP lest the Russians one day take Crimea), for Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III (d. 1736, deposed in 1730) to reopen the war with Russia, or by running up huge debts with local merchants. Ahmed finally had enough of Charles overstaying his welcome, and so on February 1, 1713, after an artillery bombardment the day before, Ottoman troops marched in to Charles’s camp. Even though Charles and his 40 or so men were vastly outnumbered, we’re told that they managed to hold the Ottomans off for hours, until finally the attackers pulled back and decided to employ fire archers. As the camp burned around them, Charles and his men had no choice but to exit their defensive positions, at which point they were snatched up.

The Ottomans allowed Charles to leave in fall 1714, and in what must have been a harrowing two-week ride he managed to make his way back to Sweden in November. Things had been going badly for Sweden while he’d been in self-imposed exile, and it was now on the defensive in the war. Charles’s plan to change that, by invading Norway, was cut short when he was shot and killed during the siege of Fredriksten in the fall of 1718.

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2 thoughts on “Today in European history: the Skirmish at Bender (1713)

  1. Minor detail: the Scandinavian Peninsula juts out into the Atlantic, where the circulation belts keep the climate quite a bit milder than most Americans realize. The parts of Sweden where the bulk of the Swedes live don’t really get much in the way of cold-cold, The interior of Russia, far from the moderating influence of the sea, gets really nasty by their standards.

    Otherwise, great work! I love this kind of thing.

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