Today in European History: the Russians capture Plevna (1877)

The Russian Empire, one of the precursors of modern Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, the precursor of modern Turkey, fought a whopping 12 wars against one another between the second half of the 16th century and World War I (which, of course, brought about the end of both empires). The Russians were ascendant for most of this period, and so they won most of these wars. The Ottomans, who were not so ascendant, needed a lot of help from Britain and France to “win” their biggest victory against the Russians, the Crimean War. Their 1877-1878 affair, during which the Siege of Plevna occurred, was their final conflict prior to World War I.

By 1877, both empires had seen better days. The new hotness in Eastern Europe was nationalism. The European peoples of the Ottoman Empire, many of them Christians chafing under Muslim rule, began in the early 19th century to absorb some funny ideas about national identity and self-determination from elsewhere in Europe. Those ideas were reinforced when the 1804-1817 Serbian Revolution and the 1821-1832 Greek War of Independence ended with Serbian and Greek independence (well, autonomy in the case of the Serbs, but close enough). Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians, and many others figured, hey, if these guys could be independent, why can’t we? Many of these peoples happen to be Slavic, and Russia, always interested in challenging Austria-Hungary for influence in the Balkans and acutely interested in avenging its defeat in the Crimean War, was eager to help these fellow Slavs win their freedom from the Turks.

Map - Balkans 1878-1912
The state of the Balkans, 1878-1912; you can see Plevna (Pleven) in central Bulgaria

The Russians began looking for a justification for another war with the Ottomans. As luck would have it, they found several in the 1870s, in the form of two national uprisings (in Herzegovina and Bulgaria) and one war (between the Ottomans and Serbia). It was the brutal Ottoman response to the revolution in Bulgaria that provided the Russians with a real casus belli, and it was the war with Serbia that ensured that, this time, Britain and France wouldn’t get involved to thwart Russia’s plans.

The Bulgarian brutality wasn’t entirely the Ottomans’ fault. See, Sultan Abdülhamid II (d. 1918) just plain ran out of soldiers to fight each of these conflicts, and he was reduced to employing irregular militias in Bulgaria. Those untrained militias committed a series of atrocities, massacring somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Bulgarians and generating outrage around the world. Meanwhile, when the Serbian war turned against Serbia, it appealed to the European powers for relief. Britain and France, already offended by events in Bulgaria, were further offended when the Ottomans rejected the terms the European powers offered in order to settle that conflict. So they were in no mood to rush to the Ottomans’ aid.

Russian Emperor Alexander II (d. 1881) saw his opening. He cut a deal with Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I (d. 1916), under which Austria-Hungary agreed to remain neutral in exchange for being allowed to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war. Then, in April 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottomans. Right off the bat, the Ottomans lost their Romanian vassal, which declared its independence and gave the Russian army permission to pass through its territory. Both sides mucked things up a bit at first. The Russians underestimated Ottoman military strength and initially sent too few soldiers into the Balkans, which meant their offensive couldn’t really get off the ground. The Ottomans, meanwhile, assumed that the Russian army would march south along the Black Sea coast, which would put them on a collision course with some of the Ottomans’ best-fortified strongholds. Ergo, they decided not to field an army, but to wait for the Russians to break themselves on those fortresses. When the Russians opted to move south via a more inland route, the Ottomans were unable to prevent their easy march into the Balkans.

In July, the Ottomans sent an army under the command of Osman Nuri Pasha (d. 1900) to lift a Russian siege of the Bulgarian city of Nikopol, but the Russians took the city before Osman was able to get there. He opted to find a defensive position that would prevent the Russian army from controlling key routes through the Balkan Mountains. He decided on the village of Plevna (modern Pleven, in Bulgaria), and his forces hurriedly erected defenses around the town. The Russian army, under Grand Duke Nicholas (d. 1891), arrived on July 20 and, after a couple of initial battles, settled in for what became a months-long siege. Osman only had about 40,000 men with him, compared to around 125,000 Russian and Romanian troops (eventually, after reinforcements arrived) under Nicholas’s command. However, the Ottomans–and I wouldn’t blame you for being surprised by this–were much better-armed than the Russians, with the latest in German artillery and American repeating rifles. With the edge in firepower, the Ottomans put up strong resistance, despite the much larger size of the Russian army and the haste with which the Ottomans had built their initial fortifications.

Finally, in October, the Russian Army’s chief of staff, General Eduard Totleben (d. 1884) arrived at Plevna and brought his considerable experience in siege warfare with him. To Nicholas’s credit, he let Totleben take the lead, and the general opted to use the superior Russian numbers to fully encircle the town, thereby achieving through deprivation what the Russians hadn’t yet been able to achieve by force of arms. By December 9, the starving Ottomans were forced to leave their fortifications and attack the Russians, and in an offensive action their advantage in armament couldn’t overcome the Russian advantage in numbers. Osman surrendered the city on December 10, having lost roughly 15,000 men to 40,000 on the other side. Many thousands more Ottoman soldiers, however, died while being marched off to prison in wintertime.

Russia’s Balkan offensive was certainly delayed by the Ottoman resistance at Plevna. However, a delayed offensive can always be restarted. Those 40,000 dead or captured Ottoman soldiers, on the other hand, weren’t coming back and couldn’t easily be replaced. The Russians won major victories in the Balkans and in the Caucasus over the next couple of months, and it appeared as though they were gearing up to move on Istanbul when Britain and France, finally, warned Russia against any further advancement. The war ended in March 1878 with the Treaty of San Stefano, which granted autonomy to Bulgaria, recognized Romania’s independence, and added Ottoman territory to Serbia and Montenegro. Russia also gained control of several former Ottoman territories in the Caucasus.

But France and Britain–suddenly they were in a meddling mood again–objected to the size of the new Bulgaria in the San Stefano treaty, and so the whole thing was scrapped in favor of the Treaty of Berlin, signed in July 1878. That treaty largely stuck to the San Stefano terms, but it crucially shrunk the size of Bulgaria (Macedonia was carved off and returned to the Ottomans) and also gave Austria-Hungary the right to establish a protectorate in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Treaty of Berlin also stipulated that Russian forces would be withdrawn from the rest of the Ottoman Caucasus. That left the Armenian population there quite vulnerable to the Ottoman authorities, who were more than a little angry that many Armenians had welcomed the Russian invaders. This tense state of affairs lasted for quite some time and ultimately turned out very, very badly.

The Siege of Plevna, then, didn’t stop Russia from winning the war, but it very likely limited the scope of Russia’s victory. The delay in the Russian advance gave Britain and France time to get over their outrage at what had happened in Bulgaria and Serbia, and realize that they still wanted to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion. The perceived heroism of the Ottoman defenders also won British and French admiration, and that helped them get over their resentments as well. If the Russians had won a quick victory at Plevna, it’s a decent possibility that they would have gone all the way to Istanbul, and subsequent world history might have looked a lot different in that case.

The siege also had broad implications on military history. The impressive performance of the Ottomans’ repeating rifles at Plevna led armies all over Europe to scrap their now-obsolete single-shot weapons and adopt the new technology. That’s a pretty violent legacy for such a relatively minor engagement, and yet here we are.

Author: DWD

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2 thoughts

  1. Georgian author Boris Akunin has a delightful series of historical fiction novels featuring detective Erast Fandorin. The second in the series is “The Turkish Gambit” and all the action cycles around the Siege of Plevna. It’s probably available in your local library and can certainly be ordered on Amazon.

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