When Russia wanted to conquer India

One of the most bizarre and short lived military campaign in the history of Russia was the plan to try to conquer India in 1801.

Russia and Britain were allied during the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. In 1799 they even attempted to invade the Netherlands together. When this operation failed, the Russian Emperor Paul I (the son of Catherine the Great) very quickly and very drastically changed his attitude toward the British crown. To make matters worse, the following year England invaded Malta, while Paul I was Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller. He hastily broke with Britain and allied himself with Napoleon who came up with an extravagant plan that would allow them both to get revenge against Britain.

The secret plan of the expedition to attack the British possessions in India, as preserved in the Russian archives, contemplated the joint operations of two infantry corps of 35,000 men each, one French (with artillery support) and one Russian, for a total force of 70,000 men, plus artillery and a large contingent of Cossack cavalry.

Bizarre as it may seem, the plan made a certain amount of sense: Britain itself was almost impervious to direct attack, being an island nation with a formidable navy, but the British had left India largely unguarded and would have great difficulty staving off a force that came over land to attack it.

The French expedition corps actually started their journey Eastwards in May 1801 planning to eventually cross the Black Sea and arrive in Astrakhan, where they would meet the Russian forces. Then the joint Russo-French corps would then cross the Caspian Sea and land at the Iranian port of Astrabad. The whole trip from France to Astrabad was calculated to take eighty days. Further advance would take another fifty days via Herat and Kandahar before reaching the main areas of India in September of the same year.

In January 1801, the Don Cossack ataman Vasily Petrovich Orlov received orders for his cavalry force to march toward India, thus starting the whole operation a full two months before the French. The route of advance schedule was to reach the steppe fort of Orenburg in a month, and from there to move via Bukhara and Khiva to the Indus River. Soon after receiving these orders, the 20,000-strong Cossack force started for the Kazakh steppes.

An interesting fact to fully grasp how different things were at that time, a little over 200 years ago, suffice to say that the Russian Emperor had not been able to obtain a detailed map of India before the Cossacks’ departure from Orenburg. In his book about the Great GamePeter Hopkirk narrates Paul I wrote to Orlov: “My maps only go as far as Khiva and the River Oxus. Beyond these points it is your affair to gain information about the possessions of the English, and the condition of the native population subject to their rule“.

Orlov’s Cossack contingent advanced as far south as the Aral Sea, before they received intelligence of the Emperor’s assassination, which had taken place in Saint Petersburg on the night of 23 March 1801. The Indian March was brought to a halt, and before long the Cossacks were commanded to retreat.

The British public learned about the incident years later, but it firmly imprinted on the popular consciousness, contributing to feelings of mutual suspicion and distrust associated with the Great Game.

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