Abatis Lines

Abatis Lines


a system of defense fortifications in the 16th and 17th centuries on the southern and southeastern frontiers of the Russian state. They were built for defense against the invasion of the Tatars and also as strong points for offensive action. The abatis lines consisted of barriers made up of felled trees supplemented by natural local obstacles alternating in treeless sectors with palisades, post obstacles, and earth walls.

Abatis were built as early as the 13th century on the invasion routes of the Tatar Mongols, but their real development dates from the 16th century, after the formation of the centralized Russian state. The Great Abatis Line in the south of the country, completed in 1566, was of great importance. It stretched from Pereiaslavl’-Riazanskii to Tula, Belev, and Zhizdra; on its most important sectors the abatis line was made up of two rows of fortifications (between Tula and Venev), three rows (between Belev and Likhvin), and even four rows (between Belev and Peremyshl’). The Shatsk and Riazhsk abatis formed the southeastern flank of the line.

For security and protection, the abatis were divided into small links set off from each other by natural landmarks, such as stumps and cut markers on trees. Strong points with towers, drawbridges, blockhouses, and palisades were built at the places where the population passed through the line. Fortress cities were built on the most frequent routes of invasion of the Tatars on the Russian state. The forests through which the abatis passed were designated as preserves, and it was prohibited by law to fell trees and to build roads in them without government permission.

During the Polish and Swedish intervention in the early 17th century the Tatars intensified their raids and destroyed many fortifications along the abatis line. From 1618 to 1630 the Tatars attacked more rarely, but the raids caused considerable damage because the fortifications had aged considerably by that time. The raids became more frequent again during the Russo-Polish War of 1632–34. Therefore, the Russian government restored and reinforced the lines during 1635–38.

The depths of the line varied: in some sectors it was 40–60 m, where there was only a moat, a wall, or a swamp; at other sectors it was 40–60 km. The total length of the Great Abatis Line was over 1,000 km in 1638.

After 1550 special taxes, called abatis money, were collected to cover the expenditures for the repair and reinforcement of the abatis line. The defense of the abatis line was in the hands of the border guards, recruited from the populace at the rate of one person for every 20 households. In the second half of the 16th century the abatis guards numbered 30,000–35,000 soldiers.

The abatis lines were protected by detachments which sent out guards and mounted patrols to observe the vast region in front of the abatis line. The commanders of the abatis were variously called voevodas, golovy, and zasechnye prikazchiki, who had local and conscripted guards under their command. In the 1630’s there were more than 40 cities beyond and along the Oka River that served as strongholds along the line. These cities, such as Putivl’, Sevsk, Orel, and Novosil’, had big garrisons, numbering up to 1,500 men, and a varying number of guns (37 in Ryl’sk). The field army that was assembled in the summer of each year was deployed on the Odoev-Tula-Riazan’ line; the headquarters of the army was in Tula and its advanced detachment in Mtsensk. The strength of the army varied from 5,000 men in 1631 to 17,000 men in 1636. As the Russian frontier moved farther south, the importance of the Great Abatis Line diminished.

The Belgorod Line was built in the late 1630’s and the 1640’s. The valuable experience gained in fighting the Tatars on the southern frontiers of the Russian state with the abatis lines was also applied on the southeastern frontiers, where the Simbirsk Line was erected between 1648 and 1654 and the Transkama Line between 1652 and 1656. Beginning in the 18th century the experience of constructing and defending abatis lines was drawn on to erect border fortification lines.


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