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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Wednesday 13 December 2023

In praise of Napoleonic engineers

 A group of us have been playing a scenario from the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12. Many of the battles in this conflict involved armies crossing the Danube and the other side responding. Alternatively, having to support a garrison on the 'wrong' side of the river. We fought a typical scenario of the Russians crossing to threaten an Ottoman fortress and the Ottomans responding. 

We played it in 15mm using Blucher rules, and a good couple of days of gaming was had by all. However, it got me thinking these actions were only possible because of the engineers on both sides. Not just the fortresses and siege works but also the crossing of the Danube itself. These are units you rarely see in a Napoleonic wargame. 

The Ottomans had the Lagimci Ocagi who undertook field works, fortifications and siege operations. They were traditionally associated with the Mortar Corps but had their own specialist schools. In 1774, Baron de Tott established a military engineering section specialising in pontoon bridges. They were recruited from traditional related trades and geographically, mainly from Albania and Bosnia. The schools taught mathematics and surveying and translated European technical works. There does not appear to have been a standard uniform or even the same headgear. Chris Flaherty has three colour plates in his book, and David Nicolle has one in the Osprey. The Ottoman engineer Selim Efendi trialled balloons for military purposes. These included sending messages into besieged forts. I may dust down my 28mm balloon!

French military missions included engineering experts. De Lafitte, Monnier, and Mehmed a Prussian convert, established the School of Fortification with the intention of training engineer officers expert in siege techniques and fortification. The total number of students was at most fifteen, but courses were open to whoever desired to attend. An Arabic script press was set up in the French Embassy and two major textbooks were printed. Kahraman Şakul has written a helpful paper on Ottoman military engineering, which can be downloaded here.

Russian engineers were an offshoot of the foot artillery and wore similar uniforms with white buttons. There is a colour plate in the Osprey of a Pontonier of a pontoon regiment. The first engineering schools were created in 1708 in Moscow and then in March 1719 in St. Petersburg. The term of study at these schools ranged from 5 to 12 years. Each army would have a Chief of Engineers to provide the specialist expertise. A Russian pioneer regiment consisted of two battalions, each of one miner and three pioneer companies. By 1806 this has expanded to two three-battalion regiments and a sapper regiment was organised in 1812.

For the Danube campaigns in particular, we should remember the role played by the river fleets. They defended bridges and transported troops. The Ottomans organised their river fleets (ince donanma) into flotillas of 10 or 12 light galleys and gunboats. They also had river transport ships called schaicks, large enough to transport troops and artillery. Ottoman naval tactics emphasised manpower rather than firepower. Emir Yener's work on the Ottoman Navy is a recommended read (Yener, E., Ottoman Seapower and Naval Technology during Catherine II’s Turkish Wars 1768-1792 (International Naval Journal, 2016, Vol. 9, Issue 1).

There are a few figure ranges that do engineer models. Minfigs used to do a Russian model in 15mm, although I can't find it in the current range. However, foot artillery figures and drivers with wagons would do fine. For the Ottomans artillery crew would again do the job. 

I suspect that other than specific scenarios, most of us treat engineering tasks as pre-battle activities. This is a practical way of dealing with the issue but we shouldn't forget the important role they played in warfare of the period.

Some of my 28mm Ottoman artillery. These are probably a little early for the period in discussion.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks. 👏
    I have a few small vessels for “turn of the last century” Danubian naval games (broadly 1880-1918). Sadly there doesn’t seem much information available on the subject. Unless you have another book waiting in the wings…?

    1. If only. There are precious few sources for even this outline. I do have an interesting monograph by Charles Fryer covering your period, 'The Royal Navy on the Danube' (Columbia Press, 1988). It covers the Royal Navy mission (Rear-Admiral Troubridge) to Serbia to help them tackle the Austrian monitors. I have always fancied doing something about this.