Episode 44 – Alexander Suvorov versus Charles the Hammer Martel

Today, we move on over to the Military bracket where we will introduce you to two great generals, the undefeated Russian, Alexander Suvorov and his opponent, the man who led his troops to victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours which we covered in episode 28, Charles the Hammer Martel.

First off, here are my primary and secondary sources. The first is History’s Greatest Generals by fellow podcaster, host of History Unplugged Michael Scott Rank, Battles that Changed History, by numerous authors, 100 Decisive Battles by Paul K. Davis, Battle by R.G. Grant, The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe by Ed West, and A History of Russia by Riasanovsky and Steinberg.

General Alexander Suvorov
General Alexander Suvorov

Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov was born to a noble family on November 24, 1730, during the reign of Empress Anna, the second female Tsar of Russia. Suvorov’s father, Vassily was a general-in-chief as well as a senator and his mother Avodotya Fyodorovna Manukova, was an Armenian. 

Alexander was a very sickly boy, so sick that his father thought there was no chance that he would follow him into military service. But the young Suvorov would have none of that. Instead of letting his father’s low expectations color his future, as Scott Rank put it, “However, the young Suvorov worked hard to become of sound mind and body, overcoming the limiting beliefs his father had placed on upon him. He taught himself four languages and studied military history, strategy, and tactics using his father’s vast library. He engaged in rigorous physical exercise to strengthen his constitution.”

One of the controversies about Suvorov was his heritage. His family was from Novgorod, but he claimed that his family was originally from Sweden and had helped the Kievan Rus with their fight against the Mongol invasion. This was called into question early on by none other than Catherine the Great. Russian historians point out that the family crest of the Suvorov’s had nothing Swedish in it, exclusively Russian.

When he was 12, General Gannibal, one of the most interesting people in Russian history, a former African slave who was a gift to Peter the Great, was told how sickly Alexander was by his father. Gannibal asked to speak to the boy and was so impressed that he convinced Vasily to allow the boy to continue his education with a military career in mind. Suvorov entered the army in 1748 and served in the Semyonovsky Life Guard Regiment for six years.

In 1756, the Seven Years War began, and Suvorov was to make his first mark on his superiors. He did so well that he was quickly promoted to colonel. Before the war ended in 1763, he caught the eye of Catherine the Great. She had him assigned to Poland where rebellions were cropping up everywhere. His victories against Polish General Pulaski’s Army crushed the insurgency. The win prompted his superiors to once again to promote him this time to major-general.

The next war was one of the many Russo-Turkish War’s, this one was fought between 1768 and 1774. It was here that we see his brilliance of battle conflict with his disdain for political maneuvering. Suvorov won battle after battle which endeared him to Empress Catherine but began to make his superiors jealous. When he fought a series of actions against the Ottoman’s without permission, Suvorov was put on trial for insubordination and subsequently sentenced to death. Catherine was not willing to lose one of her top generals, so she rescinded the verdict. This was to be a brilliant move.

At the Battle of Kozluca, Suvorov was faced with a Turkish army vastly more massive than his, but that didn’t matter, as he crushed his opponents. This win demoralized the Ottoman’s which caused them to come to the bargaining table. They were forced to give up the northern shore of the Black Sea, something the Russian’s had long yearned for. Now, Suvorov was elevated to the position of lieutenant-general.

There are many reasons why Suvorov was such a great leader, his tactics, which Rank says was due to an “emphasis of attack over patience.” As the Russian general put it, “Judgement of eye, speed, and attack are the basis of victory.” I think the main reason for his ability to win against overwhelming odds though was his reputation for being “The Soldier’s General.” Suvorov made sure his men were well fed, equipped and most importantly, promptly paid. 

One of the essential contributions the Russian general made was his writings. In the Science of Victory, Suvorov would write about his preference for the use of the bayonet and hand-to-hand combat over the use of rifles. As he put it, “The bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about.”

Suvorov would win many other battles, mostly small skirmishes. In the next, Russo-Turkish War of 1787-1792, he would take control of the whole army. Here he showed his signature attacking spirit, “A strong pursuit, gives no time for the enemy to think, takes advantage of victory, uproots him, and cuts off his escape route.”

His next spectacular win was the siege of the Fortress of Ismail on the Danube River. The fort was considered impenetrable, but not to Suvorov. His victory led to yet another win for the Russians and swiftly ended the war.

Suvorov’s next encounter was to be a significant blemish on his reputation, especially in Europe. It was the crushing of yet another major rebellion in Poland. The attack on Warsaw and Praga led to a slaughter of 20,000 civilians by the Cossacks. It caused an end to the war, but the damage to his reputation was complete. Suvorov defended his orders this way, “It is very difficult to do one’s duty. I was considered a barbarian because of the Praga 7,000 people were killed. Europe says that I am a monster. I myself have read this in the papers, but I would like to talk to people about this and ask them: is it not better to finish a war with the death of 7,000 people rather than to drag it on and kill 100,000?” When the war was won, his message to Catherine the Great was typical of his style, “Hurrah, from Warsaw, Suvorov.” 

He now decided that at the age of 64, it was time to take a break and retire to his estate. Shortly after that, there was a change in government in Russia as his benefactor, Catherine had died replaced by her incompetent son, Paul. The new Tsar hated everything about his mother, and he had Suvorov dismissed unceremoniously. Two years later though with the threat of Napoleon looming, he was recruited to help oust the French from Italy. Here, Suvorov got to go toe to toe with some of the best generals under Napoleon, Jean Moreau and Etienne MacDonald. With an army numbering about 45,000, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  In fact, Suvorov did so well that the allies, Austria and Great Britain feared that he and the Russians could threaten them, so they ordered him to support the Austrians through Switzerland instead of marching into France itself. 

Time and time again, he kept beating the French as he marched his troops through the Alps, despite not getting the promised supplies from the Austrians. Then, Suvorov pulled a move out of Hannibal’s book and pushed his men over a 9,000-foot mountain pass which impressed everyone despite him losing a third of his army. It was 1800, and the old man was getting tired. Tsar Paul recalled him to St. Petersburg, promising a victory parade, something the ruler reneged on, likely due to jealousy. His rank, titles, and command were taken away by the impetuous Tsar, and he was forced to retire to his family estate. 

His relationship with his family and especially his wife was a cold one. Suvorov was a military man and not a family man. An example of this chilling relationship can be found in one of his short letters to his wife during a campaign. In it he writes, “Alive, In health, Serving, Suvorov.”

On May 18, 1800, Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov died. His gravestone mirrored his style as it merely read, “Here lies Suvorov.” His record on the battlefield was an astonishing 93-0, one of, if not the, greatest record in history. His military brilliance overcame his total lack of political prowess or diplomatic style. It is unfortunate that historians tend to scoff at his career, as some have done with a previous undefeated contestant, Khalid ibn al-Walid.  

Now on to our second contestant, someone history has shined a brighter light on, Charles the Hammer Martel. Before we move on, to not offend those historians out there, Martel translates into the Hammer. It just sounds better to put the two together. 

Charles Martel
Charles Martel

Charles was the illegitimate son of Pippin II of Herstal, the mayor of the palace of Austrasia. In this era, the so-called kings had very little real power, it was in the hands of the mayors of the palace. Austrasia was a medieval kingdom that existed in the area now known as France with part of Germany. It was the land left to Theuderic I by his father Clovis I in 1511. It would continue on until 751 when it would become the Carolingian Empire of which Charles Martel, the father of the first king Pepin II. Charles is also the grandfather of one of the great leaders in the tournament, Charlemagne.  

Many historians call Charles illegitimate, but that may be a misnomer given the times. Many rulers and noblemen of the time had many wives and with that many children. Many have viewed anyone who was born of anyone but the first wife illegitimate, but that may be a Christianized version of history. I will no longer view Charles as anything but a true son of Pepin.

Pepin’s first son died just a short while before his father did. In his will, Pepin left his power to his grandchildren who were all underage. His wife, Plectrude was made regent. This enraged Charles who was initially imprisoned in Cologne by his stepmother. Escaping, a civil war broke out with many combatants. The mind-numbing number of characters vying for control includes Theudoald, Grinvoald, Dagobert, Ragenfrid, Chilperic and Radbod to name a few. Needless to say, the end result of the war was Charles coming out on top. 

His generalship and the loyalty his men gave to him made him the superior leader in the land. Then he turned towards outside enemies like the Frisians, Saxons, and Bavarians who were raiding his eastern borderlands. Charles was also aiding the Christian church in trying to convert the Germanic people. 

A more powerful force was moving into towards his territory, threatening Gaul and Hispania and that was the Muslim Moors. As we saw in episode 28, the looming Battle of Tours, also known as the Battle of Poitiers was the clash that would halt the Islamic invasion of Europe. 

From the book, The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe, author Ed West writes this, “With the west lying in ruins after the fall of Rome, Charles Martel’s victory would become the defining battle of the age, leading a chronicler soon after to describe the defenders by a new term -‘Europeans’.”

Most of Europe feared the Muslim invaders because they pretty much won every encounter with a European force until Charles defeated them. The Battle of Tours also allowed Martel to further consolidate power with the eventual capitulation of Burgundy. This was not done entirely through battle, but by placing men in control that were loyal to him. Charles Martel was not only a brilliant military man, but he was also a shrewd negotiator.  

With his lands pretty much under his control and with a stable, peaceful situation as was possible in medieval Europe, Charles could easily have proclaimed himself king, but he chose not to. Instead, he decided to integrate his kingdom into the church. Charles created four dioceses in Bavaria handing them over to the future St. Boniface.

Before Charles Martel died in on October 22, 741, he split his kingdom in half by giving part to Pepin, known as Pepin the Short and Carloman. It was Pepin who would assume the role of the first king of the Franks and would father the great Charlemagne. 

Charles Martel will go down in history as the man who saved Europe for Christianity, but he was so much more than that. He united a fractured peoples and created an ideal of being European. Before, the people were under the banner of the Roman Empire, but that had come apart some 300 years before his time. 

Now it’s on to the scoring.

First, we have the fifteen points for the length of time in service to his country or people. With Alexander Suvorov, we begin with his actions in 1748 and end with his dismissal by Tsar Paul and subsequent death in 1800 for a total of 52 years. Charles Martel started his service in 715 and ended with his death in 741 for a total of 26 years. The Russian general gets 15 points, Martel, 8.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Suvorov fought throughout Russia, the Balkans, Italy, and eastern Europe for all of his career. Martel was primarily in the areas of what is now known as France, Germany, and Spain. Alexander’s military prowess helped weaken the Ottoman Empire and ousted Napoleon from Italy while Charles halted the Moorish invasion. This is a close one, but I’m giving the 20 to Suvorov with Martel getting 15 points. 

We now move on to the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. This one leans heavily in favor of Charles Martel for two reasons. Obviously, Tours is a significant turning point in history, but he also laid the groundwork for his grandson, Charlemagne to unite Europe and create the European identity. Suvorov was able to give Russia an opening to the warm water ports of the Black Sea, and, depending from which direction you see it, he allowed for two significant partitions of Poland, expanding the Russian Empire. Here, I will give Martel 25 points and Suvorov 18.

Last, but certainly not least, we have to give away forty points for how they affected their country for the better and this one is the closest of all. Suvorov never lost a battle for his country and also never had a significant loss of life of his men. He solidified Russia’s southern border, and his writings and lessons to other Russian military men led to the eventual defeat of Napoleon. Martel protected his lands from foreign invasion and consolidated his lands into a new empire. For these reasons, I am giving Martel the slight lead, 40 to 36 over Suvorov. 

And in one of the closest battles in Battle Ground History, Alexander Suvorov wins over Charles Martel, 89 to 88. Suvorov moves on to the second round where he will face off against the Roman general Sulla. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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