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

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The “Skirmish at Bendery” (known in Swedish as the Kalabaliken i Bender, from the Turkish word kalabalık or “crowd”) is a relatively silly affair, but it shows that, even in 1713 when they were supposedly in “decline,” the Ottomans were still capable of the occasional muscle flexing in Europe. It’s the climax of a chapter in the 1700-1721 Great Northern War, which otherwise didn’t involve the Ottomans at all and 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 sizable empire around the Baltic Sea, which left it holding, among other things, Russia’s former Baltic 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.

Most of that war is pretty tangential to today’s story, 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 there 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 and instead invaded Russia, Peter did the thing that Russian rulers usually 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. By the time Charles laid siege to Poltava his invading force was half of what it had been when it set out. Needless to say his army lost, badly.

Charles (seated) and Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa pondering their circumstances after Poltava, by 19th-20th century Swedish painter Gustaf Cederström (Wikimedia Commons)

Charles’s army was mostly wiped out by the combination of the march and the battle. But Charles himself, 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 Bendery just so happened to be Ottoman territory. Though Charles remained King of Sweden this entire time, he wouldn’t actually return to Sweden for another five years.

Peter pursued Charles as far as he could and then, when he hit Ottoman soil, he demanded that the empire hand Charles over. Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III (who died 1736 but was deposed in a Janissary revolt in 1730) refused. This kicked off the 1710-1711 Russo-Ottoman War, also known as the “Pruth River Campaign” because it really wasn't that much of a war. Peter crossed into Moldavian territory with the support of the local nobility, who would have been thrilled to see the Russians drive the Ottomans out of their principality. But a funny thing happened: the Russians and Ottomans met at the Battle of Stănileşti on July 18, 1711, and the Ottomans won. The Russians had captured the port city of Brăila (in modern Romania) just a couple of days earlier, but the defeat at Stănileşti was decisive, particularly since Peter himself was there.

Three days after the battle, the Ottomans and Russians concluded the Treaty of the Pruth, which in addition to granting safe passage back to Sweden for Charles forced Peter to return Azov to the Ottomans, required him to demolish several Russian forts in the region, and obliged him to stay out of Polish-Lithuanian affairs. Considering that Peter himself had just surrendered to the Ottomans and he was in a pretty precarious situation, these were not particularly onerous terms, and it’s not entirely clear why the Ottomans settled so easily. The Ottoman Grand Vizier, Baltacı Mehmet Pasha, appears to have choked, more or less, though he was later accused by enemies in Constantinople of taking a bribe from Peter to go easy on the terms.

It didn’t take long, then, for Baltacı Mehmet Pasha’s standing at court to go south. In fact, it was Charles XII, along with Crimean Khan Devlet II Giray—both of whom very much wanted the Ottomans to go back to war with Russia and hand Peter a resounding defeat—who worked behind the scenes at court to turn people against the Grand Vizier, who was dismissed and exiled in November 1711, and died several months later.

Charles succeeded in getting the Ottomans to go to war with the Russians again in April 1713, but to little avail. The two sides never even seriously engaged with one another before concluding the Treaty of Adrianople in June. Adrianople basically affirmed the Treaty of the Pruth. The Ottoman ruler, Sultan Ahmed III, seems to have gotten annoyed at Charles and Devlet Giray at some point after he’d declared war. Possibly this was due to their constant agitation for the war, or maybe it had something to do with Charles’s habit of running up massive debts with Ottoman merchants. Whatever the reason, Ahmed deposed Devlet (this was the second—and final—time the Ottomans removed him as khan), and decided that Charles’s little Ottoman vacation needed to come to an end.

Ahmed sent forces to Bendery to encourage the king to pack up and get out. On February 1, 1713, after an artillery bombardment the day before, Ottoman troops marched in to the Swedish 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 vacate their defensive positions, at which point they were snatched up. Charles was held prisoner until the Ottomans got word of the major Swedish victory in the Battle of Gadebusch (this had happened in November 1712 but word still traveled pretty slowly in 18th century Europe) against a combined Danish-Saxon army. This was to be Sweden’s last significant victory in the Great Northern War, but the Ottomans had no way of knowing that at the time. All they knew was that it seemed like an opportune moment for Charles to leave his safe space and head on back to his kingdom.

It still took a while for the Ottomans to coax Charles into heading for the exit, and then it took about two weeks riding across Europe before he and his men finally returned to Sweden in November 1714. Things had been going badly for Sweden since Gadebusch, and he resolved to turn the war around with a dramatic invasion of Norway. Whether this plan would have worked remains a mystery, since Charles was shot and killed in the middle of executing it, during the siege of Fredriksten in the fall of 1718.