What was the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)?


The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 (24 April 1877 to 03 March 1878) (Turkish: 93 Harbi, lit. ’War of ’93′, named for the year 1293 in the Islamic calendar; Bulgarian: Руско-турска Освободителна война, romanised: Rusko-turska Osvoboditelna vojna, “Russian-Turkish Liberation war”) was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox coalition led by the Russian Empire and composed of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Fought in the Balkans and in the Caucasus, it originated in emerging 19th-century Balkan nationalism. Additional factors included Russian goals of recovering territorial losses endured during the Crimean War of 1853-1956, re-establishing itself in the Black Sea and supporting the political movement attempting to free Balkan nations from the Ottoman Empire.

The Russian-led coalition won the war, pushing the Ottomans back all the way to the gates of Constantinople but for the timely intervention of the western European great powers.

As a result, Russia succeeded in claiming provinces in the Caucasus, namely Kars and Batum, and also annexed the Budjak region. The principalities of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, each of which had de facto sovereignty for some years, formally proclaimed independence from the Ottoman Empire. After almost five centuries of Ottoman domination (1386-1878), an autonomous Bulgarian state emerged with the help and military intervention of Russia: the Principality of Bulgaria, covering the land between the Danube River and the Balkan Mountains (except Northern Dobrudja which was given to Romania), as well as the region of Sofia, which became the new state’s capital. The Congress of Berlin in 1878 also allowed Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina and Great Britain to take over Cyprus.

The initial Treaty of San Stefano, signed on 03 March 1878, is today celebrated on Liberation Day in Bulgaria, although the occasion somewhat fell out of favour during the years of Communist rule.


Treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire

Article 9 of the 1856 Paris Peace Treaty, concluded at the end of the Crimean War, obliged the Ottoman Empire to grant Christians equal rights with Muslims. Before the treaty was signed, the Ottoman government issued an edict, the Edict of Gülhane, which proclaimed the principle of the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims, and produced some specific reforms to this end. For example, the jizya tax was abolished and non-Muslims were allowed to join the army.

However, some key aspects of dhimmi status were retained, including that the testimony of Christians against Muslims was not accepted in courts, which granted Muslims effective immunity for offenses conducted against Christians. Although local-level relations between communities were often good, this practice encouraged exploitation. Abuses were at their worst in regions with a predominantly Christian population, where local authorities often openly supported abuse as a means to keep Christians subjugated.

Crisis in Lebanon (1860)

In 1858, the Maronite peasants, stirred by the clergy, revolted against their Druze feudal overlords and established a peasant republic. In southern Lebanon, where Maronite peasants worked for Druze overlords, Druze peasants sided with their overlords against the Maronites, transforming the conflict into a civil war. Although both sides suffered, about 10,000 Maronites were massacred at the hands of the Druze.

Under the threat of European intervention, Ottoman authorities restored order. Nevertheless, French and British intervention followed. Under further European pressure, the Sultan agreed to appoint a Christian governor in Lebanon, whose candidacy was to be submitted by the Sultan and approved by the European powers.

On 27 May 1860 a group of Maronites raided a Druze village.[citation needed] Massacres and reprisal massacres followed, not only in Lebanon but also in Syria. In the end, between 7,000 and 12,000 people of all religions[citation needed] had been killed, and over 300 villages, 500 churches, 40 monasteries, and 30 schools were destroyed. Christian attacks on Muslims in Beirut stirred the Muslim population of Damascus to attack the Christian minority with between 5,000 and 25,000 of the latter being killed, including the American and Dutch consuls, giving the event an international dimension.

Ottoman foreign minister Mehmed Fuad Pasha came to Syria and solved the problems by seeking out and executing the culprits, including the governor and other officials. Order was restored, and preparations made to give Lebanon new autonomy to avoid European intervention. Nevertheless, in September 1860 France sent a fleet, and Britain joined to prevent a unilateral intervention that could help increase French influence in the area at Britain’s expense.

The Revolt in Crete (1866-1869)

The Cretan Revolt, which began in 1866, resulted from the failure of the Ottoman Empire to apply reforms for improving the life of the population and the Cretans’ desire for enosis – union with Greece. The insurgents gained control over the whole island, except for five fortified cities where the Muslims took refuge. The Greek press claimed that Muslims had massacred Greeks and the word was spread throughout Europe. Thousands of Greek volunteers were mobilized and sent to the island.

The siege of Moni Arkadiou monastery became particularly well known. In November 1866, about 250 Cretan Greek combatants and around 600 women and children were besieged by about 23,000 mainly Cretan Muslims aided by Ottoman troops, and this became widely known in Europe. After a bloody battle with a large number of casualties on both sides, the Cretan Greeks finally surrendered when their ammunition ran out but were killed upon surrender.

By early 1869, the insurrection was suppressed, but the Porte offered some concessions, introducing island self-rule and increasing Christian rights on the island. Although the Cretan crisis ended better for the Ottomans than almost any other diplomatic confrontation of the century, the insurrection, and especially the brutality with which it was suppressed, led to greater public attention in Europe to the oppression of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Small as the amount of attention is which can be given by the people of England to the affairs of Turkey … enough was transpiring from time to time to produce a vague but a settled and general impression that the Sultans were not fulfilling the “solemn promises” they had made to Europe; that the vices of the Turkish government were ineradicable; and that whenever another crisis might arise affecting the “independence” of the Ottoman Empire, it would be wholly impossible to afford to it again the support we had afforded in the Crimean war.

Changing Balance of Power in Europe

Although on the winning side in the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire continued to decline in power and prestige. The financial strain on the treasury forced the Ottoman government to take a series of foreign loans at such steep interest rates that, despite all the fiscal reforms that followed, pushed it into unpayable debts and economic difficulties. This was further aggravated by the need to accommodate more than 600,000 Muslim Circassians, expelled by the Russians from the Caucasus, to the Black Sea ports of north Anatolia and the Balkan ports of Constanța and Varna, which cost a great deal in money and in civil disorder to the Ottoman authorities.

The New European Concert

The Concert of Europe established in 1814 was shaken in 1859 when France and Austria fought over Italy. It came apart completely as a result of the wars of German Unification, when the Kingdom of Prussia, led by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, defeated Austria in 1866 and France in 1870, replacing Austria-Hungary as the dominant power in Central Europe. Britain, diverted by the Irish question and adverse to warfare, chose not to intervene again to restore the European balance. Bismarck did not wish the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to create rivalries that might lead to war, so he took up the Tsar’s earlier suggestion that arrangements be made in case the Ottoman Empire fell apart, creating the Three Emperors’ League with Austria and Russia to keep France isolated on the continent.

France responded by supporting self-determination movements, particularly if they concerned the three emperors and the Sultan. Thus revolts in Poland against Russia and national aspirations in the Balkans were encouraged by France. Russia worked to regain its right to maintain a fleet on the Black Sea and vied with the French in gaining influence in the Balkans by using the new Pan-Slavic idea that all Slavs should be united under Russian leadership. This could be done only by destroying the two empires where most non-Russian Slavs lived, the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires. The ambitions and the rivalries of the Russians and French in the Balkans surfaced in Serbia, which was experiencing its own national revival and had ambitions that partly conflicted with those of the great powers.

Russia after the Crimean War

Russia ended the Crimean War with minimal territorial losses, but was forced to destroy its Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol fortifications. Russian international prestige was damaged, and for many years revenge for the Crimean War became the main goal of Russian foreign policy. This was not easy though – the Paris Peace Treaty included guarantees of Ottoman territorial integrity by Great Britain, France and Austria; only Prussia remained friendly to Russia.

The newly appointed Russian chancellor, Alexander Gorchakov depended upon alliance with Prussia and its chancellor Bismarck. Russia consistently supported Prussia in her wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870). In March 1871, using the crushing French defeat and the support of a grateful Germany, Russia achieved international recognition of its earlier denouncement of Article 11 of the Paris Peace Treaty, thus enabling it to revive the Black Sea Fleet.

Other clauses of the Paris Peace Treaty, however, remained in force, specifically Article 8 with guarantees of Ottoman territorial integrity by Great Britain, France and Austria. Therefore, Russia was extremely cautious in its relations with the Ottoman Empire, coordinating all its actions with other European powers. A Russian war with Turkey would require at least the tacit support of all other Great Powers, and Russian diplomacy was waiting for a convenient moment.

Balkan Crisis of 1875-1876

The state of Ottoman administration in the Balkans continued to deteriorate throughout the 19th century, with the central government occasionally losing control over whole provinces. Reforms imposed by European powers did little to improve the conditions of the Christian population, while managing to dissatisfy a sizable portion of the Muslim population. Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered at least two waves of rebellion by the local Muslim population, the most recent in 1850.

Austria consolidated after the turmoil of the first half of the century and sought to reinvigorate its longstanding policy of expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the nominally autonomous, de facto independent principalities of Serbia and Montenegro also sought to expand into regions inhabited by their compatriots. Nationalist and irredentist sentiments were strong and were encouraged by Russia and her agents. At the same time, a severe drought in Anatolia in 1873 and flooding in 1874 caused famine and widespread discontent in the heart of the Empire. The agricultural shortages precluded the collection of necessary taxes, which forced the Ottoman government to declare bankruptcy in October 1875 and increase taxes on outlying provinces including the Balkans.

Albanian Revolts

Franklin Parker states that the Albanian highlanders resented new taxes and conscription, and fought against the Ottomans in the war.

Balkan Uprisings

Herzegovina Uprising

An uprising against Ottoman rule began in Herzegovina in July 1875. By August almost all of Herzegovina had been seized and the revolt had spread into Bosnia. Supported by nationalist volunteers from Serbia and Montenegro, the uprising continued as the Ottomans committed more and more troops to suppress it.

Bulgarian Uprising

The revolt of Bosnia and Herzegovina spurred Bucharest-based Bulgarian revolutionaries into action. In 1875, a Bulgarian uprising was hastily prepared to take advantage of Ottoman preoccupation, but it fizzled before it started. In the spring of 1876, another uprising erupted in the south-central Bulgarian lands despite the fact that there were numerous regular Turkish troops in those areas.

A special Turkish military committee was established to quell the uprising. Regular troops (Nisam) and irregular ones (Redif or Bashi-bazouk) were directed to fight the Bulgarians (11 May to 09 June 1876). The irregulars were mostly drawn from the Muslim inhabitants of the Bulgarian regions, many of whom were Circassian Islamic population which migrated from the Caucasus or Crimean Tatars who were expelled during the Crimean War and even Islamized Bulgarians. The Turkish army suppressed the revolt, massacring up to 30,000 people in the process. Five thousand out of the seven thousand villagers of Batak were put to death. Both Batak and Perushtitsa, where the majority of the population was also massacred, participated in the rebellion. Many of the perpetrators of those massacres were later decorated by the Ottoman high command. Modern historians have estimated the number of killed Bulgarian population is between 30,000 and 100,000. The Turkish military carried on unjust acts upon the Bulgarian populations.

International Reaction to Atrocities in Bulgaria

Word of the bashi-bazouks’ atrocities filtered to the outside world by way of the American-run Robert College located in Constantinople. The majority of the students were Bulgarian, and many received news of the events from their families back home. Soon the Western diplomatic community in Constantinople was abuzz with rumours, which eventually found their way into newspapers in the West. While in Constantinople in 1879, Protestant missionary George Warren Wood reported Turkish authorities in Amasia brutally persecuting Christian Armenian refugees from Soukoum Kaleh. He was able to coordinate with British diplomat Edward Malet to bring the matter to the attention of the Sublime Porte, and then to the British foreign secretary Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (the Marquess of Salisbury). In Britain, where Disraeli’s government was committed to supporting the Ottomans in the ongoing Balkan crisis, the Liberal opposition newspaper Daily News hired American journalist Januarius A. MacGahan to report on the massacre stories firsthand.

MacGahan toured the stricken regions of the Bulgarian uprising, and his report, splashed across the Daily News’s front pages, galvanized British public opinion against Disraeli’s pro-Ottoman policy. In September, opposition leader William Gladstone published his Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East calling upon Britain to withdraw its support for Turkey and proposing that Europe demand independence for Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the details became known across Europe, many dignitaries, including Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, publicly condemned the Ottoman abuses in Bulgaria.

The strongest reaction came from Russia. Widespread sympathy for the Bulgarian cause led to a nationwide surge in patriotism on a scale comparable with the one during the Patriotic War of 1812. From autumn 1875, the movement to support the Bulgarian uprising involved all classes of Russian society. This was accompanied by sharp public discussions about Russian goals in this conflict: Slavophiles, including Dostoevsky, saw in the impending war the chance to unite all Orthodox nations under Russia’s helm, thus fulfilling what they believed was the historic mission of Russia, while their opponents, westernizers, inspired by Turgenev, denied the importance of religion and believed that Russian goals should not be defence of Orthodoxy but liberation of Bulgaria.

Serbo-Turkish War and Diplomatic Manoeuvring

On 30 June 1876, Serbia, followed by Montenegro, declared war on the Ottoman Empire. In July and August, the ill-prepared and poorly equipped Serbian army helped by Russian volunteers failed to achieve offensive objectives but did manage to repulse the Ottoman offensive into Serbia. Meanwhile, Russia’s Alexander II and Prince Gorchakov met Austria-Hungary’s Franz Joseph I and Count Andrássy in the Reichstadt castle in Bohemia. No written agreement was made, but during the discussions, Russia agreed to support Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Austria-Hungary, in exchange, agreed to support the return of Southern Bessarabia – lost by Russia during the Crimean War – and Russian annexation of the port of Batum on the east coast of the Black Sea. Bulgaria was to become autonomous (independent, according to the Russian records).

As the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina continued, Serbia suffered a string of setbacks and asked the European powers to mediate an end to the war. A joint ultimatum by the European powers forced the Porte to give Serbia a one-month truce and start peace negotiations. Turkish peace conditions however were refused by European powers as too harsh. In early October, after the truce expired, the Turkish army resumed its offensive and the Serbian position quickly became desperate. On 31 October, Russia issued an ultimatum requiring the Ottoman Empire to stop the hostilities and sign a new truce with Serbia within 48 hours. This was supported by the partial mobilisation of the Russian army (up to 20 divisions). The Sultan accepted the conditions of the ultimatum.

To resolve the crisis, on 11 December 1876, the Constantinople Conference of the Great Powers was opened in Constantinople (to which the Turks were not invited). A compromise solution was negotiated, granting autonomy to Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina under the joint control of European powers. The Ottomans, however, refused to sacrifice their independence by allowing international representatives to oversee the institution of reforms and sought to discredit the conference by announcing on 23 December, the day the conference was closed, that a constitution was adopted that declared equal rights for religious minorities within the Empire. The Ottomans attempted to use this manoeuvre to get their objections and amendments to the agreement heard. When they were rejected by the Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire announced its decision to disregard the results of the conference.

On 15 January 1877, Russia and Austria-Hungary signed a written agreement confirming the results of an earlier Reichstadt Agreement in July 1876. This assured Russia of the benevolent neutrality of Austria-Hungary in the impending war. These terms meant that in case of war Russia would do the fighting and Austria would derive most of the advantage. Russia therefore made a final effort for a peaceful settlement. After reaching an agreement with its main Balkan rival and with anti-Ottoman sympathies running high throughout Europe due to the Bulgarian atrocities and the rejection of the Constantinople agreements, Russia finally felt free to declare war.

Course of the War

Opening Manoeuvres

Russia declared war on the Ottomans on 24 April 1877 and its troops entered Romania through the newly built Eiffel Bridge near Ungheni, on the Prut river. On 12 April 1877, Romanians gave permission to the Russian troops to pass through its territory to attack the Turks, resulting in Turkish bombardments of Romanian towns on the Danube. On 10 May 1877, the Principality of Romania, which was under formal Turkish rule, declared its independence.

At the beginning of the war, the outcome was far from obvious. The Russians could send a larger army into the Balkans: about 300,000 troops were within reach. The Ottomans had about 200,000 troops on the Balkan peninsula, of which about 100,000 were assigned to fortified garrisons, leaving about 100,000 for the army of operation. The Ottomans had the advantage of being fortified, complete command of the Black Sea, and patrol boats along the Danube river. They also possessed superior arms, including new British and American-made rifles and German-made artillery.

In the event, however, the Ottomans usually resorted to passive defence, leaving the strategic initiative to the Russians, who, after making some mistakes, found a winning strategy for the war. The Ottoman military command in Constantinople made poor assumptions about Russian intentions. They decided that Russians would be too lazy to march along the Danube and cross it away from the delta, and would prefer the short way along the Black Sea coast. This would be ignoring the fact that the coast had the strongest, best supplied and garrisoned Turkish fortresses. There was only one well manned fortress along the inner part of the river Danube, Vidin. It was garrisoned only because the troops, led by Osman Pasha, had just taken part in defeating the Serbs in their recent war against the Ottoman Empire.

The Russian campaign was better planned, but it relied heavily on Turkish passivity. A crucial Russian mistake was sending too few troops initially; an expeditionary force of about 185,000 crossed the Danube in June, slightly fewer than the combined Turkish forces in the Balkans (about 200,000). After setbacks in July (at Pleven and Stara Zagora), the Russian military command realised it did not have the reserves to keep the offensive going and switched to a defensive posture. The Russians did not even have enough forces to blockade Pleven properly until late August, which effectively delayed the whole campaign for about two months.

Balkan Theatre

At the start of the war, Russia and Romania destroyed all vessels along the Danube and mined the river, thus ensuring that Russian forces could cross the Danube at any point without resistance from the Ottoman navy. The Ottoman command did not appreciate the significance of the Russians’ actions. In June, a small Russian unit crossed the Danube close to the delta, at Galați, and marched towards Ruschuk (today Ruse). This made the Ottomans even more confident that the big Russian force would come right through the middle of the Ottoman stronghold.

On 25-26 May, a Romanian torpedo boat with a mixed Romanian-Russian crew attacked and sank an Ottoman monitor on the Danube. Under the direct command of Major-General Mikhail Ivanovich Dragomirov, on the night of 27/28 June 1877 the Russians constructed a pontoon bridge across the Danube at Svishtov. After a short battle in which the Russians suffered 812 killed and wounded, the Russian secured the opposing bank and drove off the Ottoman infantry brigade defending Svishtov. At this point the Russian force was divided into three parts: the Eastern Detachment under the command of Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich, the future Tsar Alexander III of Russia, assigned to capture the fortress of Ruschuk and cover the army’s eastern flank; the Western Detachment, to capture the fortress of Nikopol, Bulgaria and cover the army’s western flank; and the Advance Detachment under Count Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko, which was assigned to quickly move via Veliko Tarnovo and penetrate the Balkan Mountains, the most significant barrier between the Danube and Constantinople.

Responding to the Russian crossing of the Danube, the Ottoman high command in Constantinople ordered Osman Nuri Paşa to advance east from Vidin and occupy the fortress of Nikopol, just west of the Russian crossing. On his way to Nikopol, Osman Pasha learned that the Russians had already captured the fortress and so moved to the crossroads town of Plevna (now known as Pleven), which he occupied with a force of approximately 15,000 on 19 July. The Russians, approximately 9,000 under the command of General Schilder-Schuldner, reached Plevna early in the morning. Thus began the Siege of Plevna.

Osman Pasha organized a defence and repelled two Russian attacks with colossal casualties on the Russian side. At that point, the sides were almost equal in numbers and the Russian army was very discouraged. A counter-attack might have allowed the Ottomans to control and destroy the Russians’ bridge, but Osman Pasha did not leave the fortress because he had orders to stay fortified in Plevna.

Russia had no more troops to throw against Plevna, so the Russians besieged it, and subsequently asked the Romanians to cross the Danube and help them. On 09 August, Suleiman Pasha made an attempt to help Osman Pasha with 30,000 troops, but he was stopped by Bulgarians at the Battle of Shipka Pass. After three days of fighting, the volunteers were relieved by a Russian force led by General Radezky, and the Turkish forces withdrew. Soon afterwards, Romanian forces crossed the Danube and joined the siege. On 16 August, at Gorni-Studen, the armies around Plevna were placed under the command of the Romanian Prince Carol I, aided by the Russian general Pavel Dmitrievich Zotov and the Romanian general Alexandru Cernat.

The Turks maintained several fortresses around Pleven which the Russian and Romanian forces gradually reduced.[page needed] The Romanian 4th Division led by General Gheorghe Manu took the Grivitsa redoubt after four bloody assaults and managed to keep it until the very end of the siege. The siege of Plevna (July to December 1877) turned to victory only after Russian and Romanian forces cut off all supply routes to the fortified Ottomans. With supplies running low, Osman Pasha made an attempt to break the Russian siege in the direction of Opanets. On December 9, in the middle of the night the Ottomans threw bridges over the Vit River and crossed it, attacked on a 2-mile (3.2 km) front and broke through the first line of Russian trenches. Here they fought hand to hand and bayonet to bayonet, with little advantage to either side. Outnumbering the Ottomans almost 5 to 1, the Russians drove the Ottomans back across the Vit. Osman Pasha was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet, which killed his horse beneath him. Making a brief stand, the Ottomans eventually found themselves driven back into the city, losing 5,000 men to the Russians’ 2,000. The next day, Osman surrendered the city, the garrison, and his sword to the Romanian colonel, Mihail Cerchez. He was treated honourably, but his troops perished in the snows by the thousand as they straggled off into captivity.

At this point Serbia, having finally secured monetary aid from Russia, declared war on the Ottoman Empire again. This time there were far fewer Russian officers in the Serbian army but this was more than offset by the experience gained from the 1876-1877 war. Under nominal command of prince Milan Obrenović (effective command was in hands of general Kosta Protić, the army chief of staff), the Serbian Army went on offensive in what is now eastern south Serbia. A planned offensive into the Ottoman Sanjak of Novi Pazar was called off due to strong diplomatic pressure from Austria-Hungary, which wanted to prevent Serbia and Montenegro from coming into contact, and which had designs to spread Austria-Hungary’s influence through the area. The Ottomans, outnumbered unlike two years before, mostly confined themselves to passive defence of fortified positions. By the end of hostilities the Serbs had captured Ak-Palanka (today Bela Palanka), Pirot, Niš and Vranje.

Russians under Field Marshal Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko succeeded in capturing the passes at the Stara Planina mountain, which were crucial for maneuvering. Next, both sides fought a series of battles for Shipka Pass. Gourko made several attacks on the Pass and eventually secured it. Ottoman troops spent much effort to recapture this important route, to use it to reinforce Osman Pasha in Pleven, but failed. Eventually Gourko led a final offensive that crushed the Ottomans around Shipka Pass. The Ottoman offensive against Shipka Pass is considered one of the major mistakes of the war, as other passes were virtually unguarded. At this time a huge number of Ottoman troops stayed fortified along the Black Sea coast and engaged in very few operations.

A Russian army crossed the Stara Planina by a high snowy pass in winter, guided and helped by local Bulgarians, not expected by the Ottoman army, and defeated the Turks at the Battle of Tashkessen and took Sofia. The way was now open for a quick advance through Plovdiv and Edirne to Constantinople.

Besides the Romanian Army (which mobilised 130,000 men, losing 10,000 of them to this war), more than 12,000 volunteer Bulgarian troops (Opalchenie) from the local Bulgarian population as well as many hajduk detachments fought in the war on the side of the Russians.

Caucasian Theatre

The Russian Caucasus Corps was stationed in Georgia and Armenia, composed of approximately 50,000 men and 202 guns under the overall command of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, Governor General of the Caucasus. The Russian force stood opposed by an Ottoman Army of 100,000 men led by General Ahmed Muhtar Pasha. While the Russian army was better prepared for the fighting in the region, it lagged behind technologically in certain areas such as heavy artillery and was outgunned, for example, by the superior long-range Krupp artillery that Germany had supplied to the Ottomans.

The Caucasus Corps was led by a quartet of Armenian commanders: Generals Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Arshak Ter-Gukasov (Ter-Ghukasov/Ter-Ghukasyan), Ivan Lazarev and Beybut Shelkovnikov. Forces under Lieutenant-General Ter-Gukasov, stationed near Yerevan, commenced the first assault into Ottoman territory by capturing the town of Bayazid on 27 April 1877. Capitalising on Ter-Gukasov’s victory there, Russian forces advanced, taking the region of Ardahan on 17 May; Russian units also besieged the city of Kars in the final week of May, although Ottoman reinforcements lifted the siege and drove them back. Bolstered by reinforcements, in November 1877 General Lazarev launched a new attack on Kars, suppressing the southern forts leading to the city and capturing Kars itself on 18 November. On 19 February 1878 the strategic fortress town of Erzurum was taken by the Russians after a lengthy siege. Although they relinquished control of Erzerum to the Ottomans at the end the war, the Russians acquired the regions of Batum, Ardahan, Kars, Olti, and Sarikamish and reconstituted them into the Kars Oblast.

Kurdish Uprising

As the Russo-Turkish war came to a close, a Kurdish uprising began. It was led by two brothers, Husayn and Osman Pasha. The rebellion held most of the region of Bohtan for 9 months. It was ended only through duplicity, after force of arms had failed.

Civilian Government in Bulgaria during the War

After Bulgarian territories were liberated by the Imperial Russian Army during the war, they were governed initially by a provisional Russian administration, which was established in April 1877. The Treaty of Berlin (1878) provided for the termination of this provisional Russian administration in May 1879, when the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia were established. The main objectives of the temporary Russian administration were to secure peace and order and to prepare for a revival of the Bulgarian state.

Aftermath and Legacy

Intervention by the Great Powers

Under pressure from the British, Russia accepted the truce offered by the Ottoman Empire on 31 January 1878, but continued to move towards Constantinople.

The British sent a fleet of battleships to intimidate Russia from entering the city, and Russian forces stopped at San Stefano. Eventually Russia entered into a settlement under the Treaty of San Stefano on 03 March, by which the Ottoman Empire would recognise the independence of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, and the autonomy of Bulgaria.

Alarmed by the extension of Russian power into the Balkans, the Great Powers later forced modifications of the treaty in the Congress of Berlin. The main change here was that Bulgaria would be split, according to earlier agreements among the Great Powers that precluded the creation of a large new Slavic state: the northern and eastern parts to become principalities as before (Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia), though with different governors; and the Macedonian region, originally part of Bulgaria under San Stefano, would return to direct Ottoman administration.

A surprising consequence came in Hungary (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Despite memories of the terrible defeat at Mohács in 1526, elite Hungarian attitudes were becoming strongly anti-Russian. This led to active support for the Turks in the media, but only in a peaceful way, since the foreign policy of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy remained neutral.

Effects on Bulgaria’s Muslim and Christian Populations

Muslim civilian casualties during the war are often estimated in the tens of thousands. The perpetrators of those massacres are also disputed, with American historian Justin McCarthy, claiming that they were carried out by Russian soldiers, Cossacks as well as Bulgarian volunteers and villagers, though there were few civilian casualties in battle. while James J. Reid claims that Circassians were significantly responsible for the refugee flow, that there were civilian casualties from battle and even that the Ottoman army was responsible for casualties among the Muslim population. According to John Joseph the Russian troops made frequent massacres of Muslim peasants to prevent them from disrupting their supply and troop movements. During the Battle of Harmanli accompanying this retaliation on Muslim non-combatants, it was reported that a huge group of Muslim townspeople were attacked by the Russian army, which as a result thousands died and their goods confiscated. The correspondent of the Daily News describes as an eyewitness the burning of four or five Turkish villages by the Russian troops in response to the Turks firing at the Russians from the villages, instead of behind rocks or trees, which must have appeared to the Russian soldiers as guerrilla attempts by the local Muslim populace upon the Russian contingencies operating against the Ottoman forces embedded in the area.

The number of Muslim refugees is estimated by R.J. Crampton to be 130,000. Richard C. Frucht estimates that only half (700,000) of the pre-war Muslim population remained after the war, 216,000 had died and the rest emigrated. Douglas Arthur Howard estimates that half the 1.5 million Muslims, for the most part Turks, in pre-war Bulgaria had disappeared by 1879. 200,000 had died, the rest became permanently refugees in Ottoman territories. However, according to one estimate, the total population of Bulgaria in its post-war borders was about 2.8 million in 1871, while according to official censuses, the total population was 2.823 million in 1880/81. And as such would make the aforementioned claim of 216,000 – 2.8 millions of persons dead due to Russian engagement and the subsequent fleeing of the majority of the Muslim population highly questionable.

During the conflict a number of Muslim buildings and cultural centres were destroyed. A large library of old Turkish books was destroyed when a mosque in Turnovo was burned in 1877. Most mosques in Sofia were destroyed, seven of them in one night in December 1878 when a thunderstorm masked the noise of the explosions arranged by Russian military engineers.”

The Christian population, especially in the initial stages of the war, that found itself in the path of the Ottoman armies also suffered greatly.

The most notable massacre of Bulgarian civilians took part after the July battle of Stara Zagora when Gurko’s forces had to retreat back to the Shipka pass. In the aftermath of the battle Suleiman Pasha’s forces burned down and plundered the town of Stara Zagora which by that time was one of the largest towns in the Bulgarian lands. The number of massacred Christian civilians during the battle is estimated at 15,000. Suleiman Pasha’s forces also established in the whole valley of the Maritsa river a system of terror taking form in the hanging at the street corners of every Bulgarian who had in any way assisted the Russians, but even villages that had not assisted the Russians were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred. As a result, as many as 100,000 civilian Bulgarians fled north to the Russian occupied territories. Later on in the campaign the Ottoman forces planned to burn the town of Sofia after Gurko had managed to overcome their resistance in the passes of Western part of the Balkan Mountains. Only the refusal of the Italian Consul Vito Positano, the French Vice Consul Léandre François René le Gay and the Austro-Hungarian Vice Consul to leave Sofia prevented that from happening. After the Ottoman retreat, Positano even organised armed detachments to protect the population from marauders (regular Ottoman Army deserters, bashi-bazouks and Circassians).

Bulgarian historians claim that 30,000 civilian Bulgarians were killed during the war, two thirds of which occurred in the Stara Zagora area.

Effects on Bulgaria’s Jewish Population

Many Jewish communities in their entirety fled with the retreating Turks as their protectors. The Bulletins de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle reported that thousands of Bulgarian Jews found refuge at the Ottoman capital of Constantinople.

Internationalisation of the Armenian Question

The conclusion of the Russo-Turkish war also led to the internationalisation of the Armenian Question. Many Armenians in the eastern provinces (Turkish Armenia) of the Ottoman Empire greeted the advancing Russians as liberators. Violence and instability directed at Armenians during the war by Kurd and Circassian bands had left many Armenians looking toward the invading Russians as the ultimate guarantors of their security. In January 1878, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople Nerses II Varzhapetian approached the Russian leadership with the view of receiving assurances that the Russians would introduce provisions in the prospective peace treaty for self-administration in the Armenian provinces. Though not as explicit, Article 16 of the Treaty of San Stefano read:

As the evacuation of the Russian troops of the territory they occupy in Armenia, and which is to be restored to Turkey, might give rise to conflicts and complications detrimental to the maintenance of good relations between the two countries, the Sublime Porte engaged to carry into effect, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians and to guarantee their security from Kurds and Circassians.

Great Britain, however, took objection to Russia holding on to so much Ottoman territory and forced it to enter into new negotiations by convening the Congress of Berlin in June 1878. An Armenian delegation led by prelate Mkrtich Khrimian travelled to Berlin to present the case of the Armenians but, much to its chagrin, was left out of the negotiations. Article 16 was modified and watered down, and all mention of the Russian forces remaining in the provinces was removed. In the final text of the Treaty of Berlin, it was transformed into Article 61, which read:

The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the powers, who will superintend their application.

As it turned out, the reforms were not forthcoming. Khrimian returned to Constantinople and delivered a famous speech in which he likened the peace conference to a “‘big cauldron of Liberty Stew’ into which the big nations dipped their ‘iron ladles’ for real results, while the Armenian delegation had only a ‘Paper Ladle’. ‘Ah dear Armenian people,’ Khrimian said, ‘could I have dipped my Paper Ladle in the cauldron it would sog and remain there! Where guns talk and sabers shine, what significance do appeals and petitions have?'” Given the absence of tangible improvements in the plight of the Armenian community, a number of Armenian intellectuals living in Europe and Russia in the 1880s and 1890s formed political parties and revolutionary societies to secure better conditions for their compatriots in Ottoman Armenia and other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Atrocities and Ethnic Cleansing

Both sides carried out massacres and an ethnic cleansing policy during the war.

Against Turks

In January 1878, advancing Russian and Bulgarian forces started committing atrocities against Muslim population in region such as Harmanli massacre, in which more than 2,000 Muslims were murdered. British reports from that time has detailed information about atrocities and massacres. According to those reports, in İssova Bâlâ, 96 of the 170 houses in village and the school were burned to the ground. The inhabitants of Yukarı Sofular were slaughtered and 12 of the 130 houses in village, a mosque and a school was burned. In Kozluca, 18 Turks were killed. Massacres of Muslim inhabitants occurred in Kazanlak too. In the village called Muflis, 127 Muslim inhabitants were kidnapped to kill by a group of Russian and Bulgarian troops. 20 of them managed to escape, but rest were killed. 400 people from Muflis were killed according to Ottoman sources. 11 inhabitants were killed in Keçidere.

Many villages in the Kars region were pillaged by Russian army during the war. The war in Caucasus caused many Muslims to migrate to remaining Ottoman lands, mostly in poverty and with poor conditions. Between 1878 and 1881, 82,000 Muslims migrated to Ottoman Empire from lands ceded to Russia in Caucasus.

There are different guesses about losses during Russo-Turkish War. Dennis Hupchik and Justin McCarthy says 260,000 people went missing and 500,000 became refugees. Turkish historian Kemal Karpat claims that 250,000-300,000 people, about 17% of the former Muslim population of Bulgaria, died as a consequence of famine, disease, and massacres, and 1 to 1,5 million people were forced to migrate. Turkish author Nedim İpek gives the same numbers as Karpat. Another source claims 400,000 Turks were massacred and 1,000,000 Turks had to migrate during war.

Against Bulgarians

Ottoman Army carried many massacres against Bulgarian civilians during the war, the most significant one being Stara Zagora massacre in which Suleiman Pasha’s Ottoman Army, composed mainly of 48,000 Albanian troops massacred 18,000 Bulgarian civilians.

Lasting Effects

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

This war caused a division in the emblems of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement which continues to this day. Both Russia and the Ottoman Empire had signed the First Geneva Convention (1864), which made the Red Cross, a colour reversal of the flag of neutral Switzerland, the sole emblem of protection for military medical personnel and facilities. However, during this war the cross instead reminded the Ottomans of the Crusades; so they elected to replace the cross with the Red Crescent instead. This ultimately became the symbol of the Movement’s national societies in most Muslim countries, and was ratified as an emblem of protection by later Geneva Conventions in 1929 and again in 1949 (the current version).

Iran, which neighboured both the Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire, considered them to be rivals, and probably considered the Red Crescent in particular to be an Ottoman symbol; except for the Red Crescent being centred and without a star, it is a colour reversal of the Ottoman flag (and the modern Turkish flag). This appears to have led to their national society in the Movement being initially known as the Red Lion and Sun Society, using a red version of the Lion and Sun, a traditional Iranian symbol. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran switched to the Red Crescent, but the Geneva Conventions continue to recognise the Red Lion and Sun as an emblem of protection.

In Popular Culture

The novella Jalaleddin, published in 1878 by the novelist Raffi describes the Kurdish massacres of Armenians in the Eastern Ottoman Empire at the time of the Russo-Turkish War. The novella follows the journey of a young man through the mountains of Anatolia. The historical descriptions in the novella correspond with information from British sources at the time.

The novel The Doll (Polish title: Lalka), written in 1887-1889 by Bolesław Prus, describes consequences of the Russo-Turkish war for merchants living in Russia and partitioned Poland. The main protagonist helped his Russian friend, a multi-millionaire, and made a fortune supplying the Russian Army in 1877-1878. The novel describes trading during political instability, and its ambiguous results for Russian and Polish societies.

The 1912 silent film Independența României depicted the war in Romania.

Russian writer Boris Akunin uses the war as the setting for the novel The Turkish Gambit (1998).


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