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

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Although they’ve settled into a kind of love-hate rut nowadays, historically relations between the precursors of modern Russia and modern Turkey have tended not to be so great. Consider that the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, two of those precursors, 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 won most of these wars, while the Ottomans, suffice to say, did not. The Sick Man of Europe needed help from Britain and France to win their biggest victory against the Russians, in the 1853-1856 Crimean War.

By 1877, both empires had seen better days, and the Ottomans in particular were struggling with a relatively new concept: Balkan nationalism. All those European provinces and peoples that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries—many of whom were fed up with the 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 elsewhere in Europe. Those ideas were reinforced when the 1821-1832 Greek War of Independence ended with, well, an independent Greece. Serbs, Bulgarians, Albanians, and many others figured, hey, if the Greeks could be independent, why can't we? This was the heyday of “pan-slavism,” and Russia, which was 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 its fellow Slavs win their freedom from the hated Turk.

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 for war. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (d. 1918) just ran out of soldiers to fight these multiple 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, the Ottomans' best pals two decades earlier, were offended by events in Bulgaria. The Ottomans then further offended those European powers by rejecting the terms they offered as a settlement for 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 and 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 then made a few strategic errors. The Ottomans 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 inside those strongholds for the Russian attack. When the Russians opted to march south via a more inland route, the Ottomans were caught flat-footed and couldn't block their movement into the Balkans. The Russians, however, underestimated Ottoman military strength and initially sent too few soldiers into the Balkans, which meant their offensive couldn’t really get off the ground.

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. The Ottoman commander opted to find a defensive position whence he could prevent the Russian army from controlling key routes through the Balkan mountains. He settled on the town of Plevna (modern Pleven, in Bulgaria), and his forces hurriedly erected defenses around it. 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 a little surprised by this, were much better-armed than the Russians, with the latest in German artillery and American repeating rifles. With this edge in firepower, the Ottomans put up a robust defense, especially 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 fortified positions and attack, and in a pitched battle 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 around 40,000 on the other side. Many thousands more Ottoman soldiers, however, died while being marched off to prison camps 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 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 advance on Istanbul when Britain and France warned them against any further advancement. Balance of powers, you know the drill. 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.

All's well that ends well, I guess...except that's not how things ended. France and Britain objected to the size of the new Bulgaria in the treaty, and so the whole arrangement was scrapped in favor of the Treaty of Berlin, signed in July 1878. That treaty largely stuck to the San Stefano terms, but it reduced the size of Bulgaria (modern North Macedonia was carved off and returned to the Ottomans) and gave Austria-Hungary the right to establish a protectorate in Bosnia and 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 Ottoman authorities, who were more than a little angry that many Armenians had welcomed the Russian invaders. This tension was one of the early factors that contributed to the Armenian Genocide.

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 and the perceived heroism of the Ottoman defenders gave Britain and France time and cause 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. 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 implications for 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.