by Victor Kamenir
By the late 1870s, Turkey, the so-called “Sick Man of Europe,” was in terminal decline. While Sultan Abdul Hamid sequestered himself in his palatial compound through paranoid fear of an assassination, the Ottoman Empire was tearing itself apart. National uprisings were flaring all across Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Montenegro. European countries, led by England and Russia, were clamoring for greater autonomy and rights for the Empire’s Christian subjects.
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When the sultan rejected outside interference in the Ottoman Empire’s internal matters, Czar Alexander II jumped. Loss of prestige from Russia’s defeat during the Crimean War was still fresh in Alexander’s mind. The guise of protecting the Ottoman Empire’s oppressed Christian population provided a convenient pretext for territorial gain in the Balkans. As Peter the Great had wanted his “window to Europe” through the Baltic Sea, so Alexander II—in hopes of imitating his famous ancestor’s feat—desired to stretch the Russian Empire to the Mediterranean. On April 24, 1877, Russia and Turkey went to war for the third time in the 19th century; the Russo-Turkish War had officially begun.
Russia Heads for Constantinople
Russian plans called for finishing the war in one campaigning season, occupying Bulgaria and, if at all possible, capturing the Turkish capital of Constantinople. The Turks also planned to fight offensively, reestablish a firm hold on Romania, and take the war to the Russians in Bessarabia. However, shortly before hostilities commenced, the Ottoman Empire’s high command decided on new plans: The Turks were to fight defensively, using fortresses and other strongpoints to wear down the Russians and only then seek a decisive battle in the field.
Two strong Russian armies, commanded by the czar’s brothers, invaded Ottoman territory from two directions. In Asia, Grand Duke Michael led his 150,000-strong army against the eastern bulwarks of Turkey. In Europe, a 200,000-man force under Grand Duke Nicholas attacked across Romania into Bulgaria, the site of recent Turkish atrocities. The Romanians promptly declared their independence from the Ottoman Empire and began to enroll volunteers to fight alongside their Russian liberators. The overall Ottoman Empire commander in Europe, Abdul-Kerim Nadir Pasha, received many ominous reports of forward Turkish garrisons falling one after another. The Russian invasion was beginning to look like a triumphant march to Constantinople. Then it was brought to a halt at the sleepy Bulgarian town of Plevna.
Lying in Wait at Plevna
Nestled in a narrow valley, Plevna (modern day Pleven) sits astride a strategic road junction leading to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and on to Constantinople. Deep ravines, rocky ridges, and steep hillsides surrounded the town on three sides. The Janik Bair Ridge dominated the fourth. Practically undefended, there was no reason why Plevna would not fall to the approaching Russian army.
Unknown to the Russians, they were in a foot race with a Turkish force charging to block their progress. Led by a 40-year-old Crimean War veteran named Osman Pasha, a Turkish corps force-marched 115 miles in seven days from the fortress of Viddin on the Upper Danube. This army comprised 19 infantry battalions, six cavalry squadrons, and nine artillery batteries totaling 12,000 men and 54 guns. Upon arriving at Plevna on June 19, Osman—a short, stocky disciplinarian respected by his troops—immediately conducted a reconnaissance of his surroundings. With the three infantry battalions that comprised the previous garrison and three more battalions that joined him en route, Osman now had 25 infantry battalions under his command.
The Russian Attack Ends in Disaster
Not wasting any time, and aided by his chief engineer Tefik Pasha, Osman threw the bulk of his force into digging redoubts, field fortifications, and trenches around the town. Working in shifts around the clock, Turkish troops quickly constructed defensive positions along the Janik Bair Ridge which rose 400 meters above the town. The right flank of this position was anchored on two redoubts just north of Grivitsa Village. These two formidable, mutually supportive fieldworks each held a garrison of a thousand men. Walls 20 feet thick and 20 feet high, with moats and trenches, constituted the main defenses of each redoubt east of Plevna. Food and ammunition were distributed and measures were taken to ensure evacuation of the wounded.
On July 6, Russian advance cavalry pickets soon appeared near the town and Turkish cavalry got the upper hand in several skirmishes. Some enterprising Turkish troopers sold items of looted Russian uniforms and personal possessions in Plevna’s bazaar. Osman Pasha did not interfere with this traditional disposition of Ottoman spoils. He did step in, however, after several Bulgarian stores were looted. The trust of the local population was quickly restored by the quick execution of several wrongdoers.
The bulk of the Russian column sent to capture Plevna arrived on the evening of July 7th. Commanded by Lt. Gen. U.I. Schilder-Schuldner, this detachment comprised 8,600 men and 46 field artillery pieces. The very next morning, Schilder-Schuldner, not bothering to conduct reconnaissance and thinking that Plevna was occupied by only a small Turkish detachment, launched his force in a general assault. The attack was a disaster. After several hours of fruitless charges, the Russian force pulled back to regroup. Over 2,400 men, almost a third of the Russian troops present, were killed or wounded. The Turkish defenders, well entrenched in their redoubts, suffered just several hundred casualties.