The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 had its origins in a rise in nationalism in the Balkans as well as in the Russian goal of recovering territorial losses it had suffered during the Crimean War, reestablishing itself in the Black Sea and following the political movement attempting to free Balkan nations from the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the war, the principalities of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, each of which had de facto sovereignty for some time, formally proclaimed independence from the Ottoman Empire. After almost five centuries of Ottoman domination (1396-1878), the Bulgarian state was reestablished as the Principality of Bulgaria, covering the land between the Danube River and the Balkan Mountains (except Northern Dobrudja which was given to Romania) and the region of Sofia, which became the new state's capital. The Congress of Berlin also allowed Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina and Great Britain to take over Cyprus, while the Russian Empire annexed Southern Bessarabia and the Kars region.
However, some key aspects of Dhimmi status was retained, for example the testimony of Christians against Muslims was not accepted in courts, which granted Muslims effective immunity for offenses conducted against Christians. Although on a local level, relations between communities were often good, this practice encouraged the worst elements of Muslim society to exploit the situation. The abuses were at their worst in regions with a predominantly Christian population, mainly located in the European part of the empire, where local authorities often openly supported them as a means to keep Christians subjugated.
The financial strain on the treasury caused by the Crimean War 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 insoluble 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 Constanţa and Varna, which cost a great deal in money and in civil disorder to the Ottoman authorities.
In Syria, events in Lebanon stirred the Muslim population of Damascus to attack the Christian minority with between 5,000 to over 25,000 of the latter being killed, including the American and Dutch consuls, giving the event an international dimension.
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.
The Cretan revolt was the result of two things: 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 cities where the Muslims were fortified. 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.
By early 1869 the insurrection was suppressed, but the Porte offered some concessions, introducing island self-rule and increased Christian rights on the island. The siege of Moni Arkadiou monastery, when about 150 Cretan combatants accompanied by about 600 woman and children were besieged by about 23,000 Turkish troops, became widely known in Europe after several hundred women and children who sheltered in the monastery's gunpowder room chose to blow themselves up rather than surrender to the Turks.
An important effect of the Cretan Insurrection, and especially the brutality with which it was suppressed by the Turks, was the growth of public attention in Europe, and in Great Britain in particular, to the issue of the oppressed state of the 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.
The crisis came to an end, with the Ottomans more victorious than they had been or would be in almost any other diplomatic confrontation during the century.
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.
It was on alliance with Prussia and her chancellor Bismarck that the newly appointed Russian chancellor, Alexander Gorchakov, depended. 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 her earlier denouncement of Article XI of the Paris Peace Treaty, thus enabling her to revive her 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. This made Russia use extreme caution in its relations with the Ottoman empire and coordinate all its actions with other European powers. War with Turkey tête-à-tête was possible only after getting a carte blanche from other European powers, and Russian diplomacy was waiting for a convenient moment.
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.
The nominally autonomous, de facto independent principalities of Serbia and Montenegro sought the opportunity to expand into regions inhabited by their Serbian compatriots. The situation in Serbia was especially complicated. The principality made expansion to neighboring Serbian inhabited areas, south Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia its priority. The ruling House of Obrenović enjoyed good connections with Vienna, and was at first reluctant to risk a military adventure against the Ottoman empire. However public opinion was heavily pro war, encouraged by the diplomatic victory of 1862 and the expulsion of Ottoman troops from their last garrisons on the territory of the principality. The presence of Russian agents was also very strong.
Montenegro, ruled by the ambitious Prince Nikola, was in a position to advocate a much more adventurous policy. When an uprising of orthodox Christians erupted in Herzegovina in 1875, Montenegrins promptly intervened to help their fellow tribesmen, declaring war on the Ottoman empire. Soon an uprising in Bulgaria erupted. Compelled by these events and by overwhelming pressure from the public, prince Milan Obrenović declared war on the Ottoman empire in 1876.
An anti-Ottoman uprising occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the summer of 1875. The main reason for this revolt was the heavy tax burden imposed by the cash-starved Ottoman administration. Both Montenegro and Serbia intervened with armed bands. Despite some relaxation of taxes, the uprising continued well after the end of 1875 and eventually triggered the Bulgarian April uprising of 1876.
The Ottomans, lacking adequate regular troops because of the problems in the northwest, were compelled to use irregular Bashi-bazouks to quell the Bulgarians. (May 11-June 9, 1876) Those irregulars mostly were drawn from Muslim inhabitants of the Bulgarian regions, many of whom were Circassian refugees expelled from the Caucasus or Crimean Tatar refugees expelled during the Crimean War. Both were either expelled by the Russians or had suffered at the rebels' hands. Making little distinction between rebels and passive peasants, bashi-bazouks, true to their reputation, brutally suppressed the revolt, massacring between 4,000 and 15,000 people in the process, 12,000 being the mostly agreed upon number. ("Later Bulgarian nationalists exaggerated the toll to as high as 100,000.) Kinross stated, "Their orgy of slaughter and arson and rape culminated in the mountain village of Batak. Here a thousand Christians found refuge in a church, to which the irregular troops set fire with rags soaked in petrol, burning all to death but a single old woman. In all, so it was reported, five thousand out of the seven thousand villagers of Batak perished at their hands.
News of the massacres of Bulgarians filtered into Britain from missionaries, journalists, and diplomatic agents in the Balkans. The British press trumpeted the charse of "Bulgarian Horrors" claiming that thousands of defensless Christian villagers had been slaughtered by fanatical Muslims. American missionaries estimated that as many as 15,000 Christians had been killed, and the Bulgarians leaped ahead to estimates from 30,000 to 100,000. The Western press did not report the killings of "considerably more than 4,000 Muslims during the rebellion.
MacGahan toured the stricken regions of the Bulgarian uprising, accompanied unofficially by Eugene Schuyler, a member of the American legation in Constantinople, and officially by Walter Baring of the British legation, who was sent along by his superiors to whitewash any unpleasantness that might be uncovered. While the reports of both Americans confirmed the savagery of the Ottoman retribution, MacGahan's purple descriptive prose, splashed across the Daily News's front pages, galvanized British public opinion against Disraeli's pro-Ottoman policy. Most public support for the Ottomans melted when Gladstone published his The Bulgarian Horrors. Hands tied by public pressure, Disraeli was forced to stand aside when Russia (where MacGahan's emotionally charged report had been circulated in translation) declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1877 with the publicly avowed goal of winning independence for the Bulgarians.
When the details became known in Europe, many dignitaries, including Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi publicly condemned the Ottoman abuses in Bulgaria. In the United Kingdom, the opposition leader, William Gladstone, wrote a booklet denouncing what he called "the Bulgarian Horrors," and calling upon Britain to withdraw its support for Turkey.
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, led by 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, ru:Западничество, led by Turgenev, denied the importance of religion and believed that Russian goals should not be defense of Orthodoxy but liberation of Bulgaria.
A number of works by Russian painters and writers were dedicated to the Bulgarian uprising:
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.
On April 12, 1877, Romania 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 May 10, 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 into the Balkans a larger army: 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 defense, 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 of 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 crushing the Serbs in their recent war against the Ottoman Empire.
The Russian campaign was better planned, but it relied heavily on Turkish passivity; if the Turks had been more aggressive, the outcome of the campaign would have been very uncertain. A crucial Russian mistake was sending too few troops initially; the Danube was crossed in June by an expeditionary force of about 185,000, which was slightly less than the combined Turkish forces in the Balkans (about 200,000). After setbacks in July (at Pleven and Stara Zagora), the Russian military command realized 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 Plevna properly until late August, which effectively delayed the whole campaign for about two months.
At the start of the war, Russia and Romania destroyed all vessels along the Danube and mined the river, thus ensuring it could cross the Danube at any point it wanted. This did not mean anything to the Turkish command. In June, a small Russian unit passed the Danube close to the delta, at Galaţi and marched towards Ruse. This made the Ottomans even more confident that the big Russian force would come right through the middle of the Ottoman stronghold.
Then in July, the Russians, unobstructed, constructed a bridge across the Danube at Svishtov, and began crossing. There were no significant Ottoman troops in the area. The command in Constantinople ordered Osman Pasha to march in that direction and fortify the nearby fortress of Nikopol. On his way to Nikopol, Osman Pasha learned that the Russians had already secured it, and so moved to Plevna, now Pleven.
Less than 24 hours after Osman Pasha fortified Plevna, numerous Russian forces under the charismatic "White General" Mikhail Skobelev attacked the city. Osman Pasha organized a brilliant defence and repelled two Russian attacks with huge casualties on the Russian side. At that point, the sides were almost equal in numbers and the Russian army was very discouraged. Most analysts agree that a counter-attack would have allowed the Turks to gain control of and destroy the passing bridge. However, Osman Pasha had orders to stay fortified in Pleven, and so did not leave that fortress.
Russia had no more troops to throw against Plevna, so they besieged it, and subsequently asked the Romanians to provide extra troops. Soon afterwards, Romanian forces crossed the Danube and joined the siege. On August 16, at Gorni-Studen, the armies around Pleven — renamed the West Armies — were placed under the command of the Romanian Prince Carol, aided by the Russian general Pavel Dmitrievich Zotov and the Romanian general Alexandru Cernat.
The Russians fought bravely to capture the Grivitsa redoubts around Pleven , and kept them under their control until the very end of the siege. The siege of Pleven (July–December 1877) turned to victory only after Russian and Romanian forces cut off all supply routes to the fortified Turks. With supplies running low Osman Pasha made an attempt to break the Russian siege in the direction of Opanets. On December 9, the Turks silently emerged, at dead of night, threw bridges over and crossed the Vit River, attacked on a 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 Turks almost 5 to 1, the Russians drove the Turks back across the Vit. Osman Pasha was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet, which killed his horse beneath him. Rumours of his death created panic. Making a brief stand, the Turks 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 honorably, but his troops perished in the snows by the thousand as they straggled off into captivity. The more seriously wounded were left behind in their camp hospitals, only to be atrociously murdered by the Bulgarians.
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. 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 to come into contact, and had designs to spread its own influence into the area. The Ottomans, outnumbered unlike two years before, mostly confined themselves to passive defense of fortified positions. By the end of hostilities the Serbs liberated 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 which 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 Turkish troops stayed fortified along the Black Sea coast and engaged in very few operations.
Besides the Romanian Army (which mobilized 130,000 men, losing 10,000 of them to this war), a strong Finnish contingent and 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. To express his gratitude to the Finnish battalion, the Tsar elevated the regiment on their return home to the name Old Guard Battalion, which they still hold.
Stationed in the Caucasus in Georgia and Armenia was a Russian force composed of approximately 75,000 men under the command of Count Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov; his force stood against a Turkish army of 20,000 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 bested, for example, by the superior British artillery Muhtar Pasha had in his possession.
Many of the commanders under Muravyov were of Armenian descent including generals Beybut Shelkovnikov, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Ivan Lazarev and Arshak Ter-Ghukasov. It was the forces under Lieutenant-general Ter-Ghukasov, stationed near Yerevan, who began the first assault into Ottoman territory by capturing the town of Bayazid on April 27, 1877. Capitalizing on Ter-Ghukasov's victory in Bayazid, Russian forces advanced further, taking the region of Ardahan on May 17; Russian units also besieged the region of Kars in the final week of May although Turkish reinforcements lifted the siege and repulsed them.
In October 1877, the Turkish army launched a massive counteroffensive against Russian forces near Ajaria. By July 19 Muhtar Pasha's forces were holding the mountainous heights around Ajaria. In the following months, the Russian forces under General Lazarev attempted to take the region back but failed to do so at each turn. His forces were able to stave off another Turkish offensive in October and then advance forward to take the region on October 15. Turkish casualties in the battle for Ajaria amounted to 5-6,000 dead or injured while over 8,500 became prisoners of war; the number of Russian dead was close to 15,500.
Under pressure from the British and having suffered enormous losses (by some estimates about 200,000 men) Russia accepted the truce offered by Ottoman Empire on January 31, 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 March 3, by which the Ottoman Empire would recognize the independence of Romania, Serbia, 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 (Principality of 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.
During the conflict a number of Muslim buildings and cultural centers were destroyed. A large library of old Turkish books was destroyed when a mosque in Turnovo was burned in 1877. Sofia lost most of its mosques, seven of them in one night in December 1878 when a thunderstorm masked the noise of the explosions arranged by Russian military engineers.
Iran, which neighbors both countries, considered them to be rivals, and probably considered the Red Crescent in particular to be an Ottoman symbol; except for the Red Crescent being centered and without a star, it is a color 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 recognize the Red Lion and Sun as an emblem of protection.