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

If you think the state of Russo-Turkish relations is bad these days…well, actually it’s kind of good lately. But historically that hasn’t always been the case. Consider that 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, who were on the ascendance for most of this period, won most of these wars, while the Ottomans, who were not so ascendant, needed help from Britain and France to win their biggest victory against the Russians, in the Crimean War.

By 1877, both empires were in pretty steep decline. What was on the rise was Balkan nationalism. All those Christian and/or European provinces and peoples that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and who were already more than fed up with the protected/second-class status of Christians living within the empire, started, in the early 19th century, to absorb some funny ideas about national identity and self-determination from the rest of Europe. Those ideas were reinforced when the 1821-1832 Greek War of Independence ended with, well, Greek independence. Serbians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians, and many others figured, hey, if the Greeks could be independent, why can’t we? Many of these peoples were (are, really; they haven’t gone anywhere) 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 them 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 outbreak of two separate uprisings in the mid-1870s (in Herzegovina and Bulgaria) and one Ottoman war (with Serbia) provided Russia with the justification it needed to start its own war with the Ottomans. 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 militias committed a series of brutal atrocities, massacring somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Bulgarians and generating outrage around the world. Meanwhile, when the war turned against Serbia, it appealed to the European powers for relief. Britain and France, already offended by events in Bulgaria, were further alienated from the Ottomans when Istanbul refused to abide by the terms they offered in order to settle the conflict with Serbia.

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. Very quickly, 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 Turkish fortresses. When the Russians opted to march 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, but 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 a fairly astonishing level of resistance, considering the 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 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 be easily 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 advance on Istanbul when Britain and France 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 now-independent Serbia and Montenegro. Russia gained control of several former Ottoman territories in the Caucasus.

But France and Britain 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 (modern 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 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 Bulgaria 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.

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4 thoughts on “Today in European History: the Russians capture Plevna (1877)

  1. Oh, so that’s how the AustroHungarians got their hands on Bosnia-Herzegovina.

    I am reminded of Watzlawick’s “Pragmatics of Human Communication” in the sense that history is a dialog that began thousands of years ago, so when telling your own story you must pick a point and say “this is where time began.” Most of the stories I read begin with the annexation as an accomplished fact and get down to proving that Germany was uniquely responsible for starting The Great War.

    Thanks, and interesting as always.

  2. 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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