The Siege of Plevna

Stephen Crane

Lippincott’s/May, 1900

When the Russian army swarmed through the Shipka Pass of the Balkans there was really nothing before it but a man and an opportunity. Osman Pasha suddenly and with great dexterity took his force into Plevna, a small Bulgarian town near the Russian line of march.

The military importance of Plevna lay in the fact that this mere village of seventeen hundred people was the junction of the roads from Widin, Sophia, Biela, Zimnitza, Nikopolis, and the Shipka Pass. Osman’s move was almost entirely on his own initiative. He had no great reputation, and, like Wellington in the early part of the Peninsula campaign, he was obliged to do everything with the strength of his own shoulders. The stupidity of his superiors amounted almost to an oppression.

The Russians recognised the strategic importance of Plevna a moment too late. On July 18, 1877, General Krudener at Nikopolis received orders to occupy Plevna at once. He seems to have moved promptly, but long before he could arrive Osman’s tired but dogged battalions were already in the position.

The Turkish regular of that day must have resembled very closely his fellow of the present. Von Moltke, who knew the Turks well, and whose remarkable mind clearly outlined and prophesied the result of several more recent Balkan campaigns, said, “An impetuous attack may be expected from the Turks, but not an obstinate and lasting defense.” Historically, the opinion of the great German field-marshal seems very curious. Even in the late war between Greece and Turkey the attacks of the Turkish troops were usually anything but impetuous. They were fearless, but very leisurely. As to the lasting and obstinate defense, one has only to regard the siege of Plevna to understand that Von Moltke was for the moment writing carelessly.

After Plevna, the word went forth that the most valuable weapon of the Turk was his shovel. When Osman arrived, the defenses of Plevna consisted of an ordinary block-house, but he at once set his troops at work digging entrenchments and throwing up redoubts, which were located with great skill. Soon the vicinity of the town was one great fortress. Osman coolly was attempting to stem the Russian invasion with a force of these strange Turkish troops, patient, enduring, sweet-tempered, and ignorant, dressed in slovenly overcoats and sheep-skin sandals, living on a diet of black bread and cucumbers.

Receiving the order from the Grand Duke Nicolas, General Krudener at Nikopolis dispatched at dawn of the next day six thousand five hundred men, with about seven batteries, to Plevna. No effective scouting had been done. The Russian general, Schilder-Schuldner, riding comfortably in his carriage in the customary way of Russian commanders of the time, had absolutely no information that a strong Turkish force had occupied the position. His column had been allowed to distribute itself over a distance of seventeen miles. On the morning of the 20th an attack was made with great confidence by the troops which had come up. Two Russian regiments even marched victoriously through the streets of Plevna, throwing down their heavy packs and singing for joy of the easy capture. But suddenly a frightful fusillade began from all sides. The elated regiments melted in the streets. Infuriated by religious ardour, despising the value of a Christian’s life, the Turks poured out from their concealed places, and there occurred a great butchery. The Russian Nineteenth Regiment of the line was cut- down to a few fragments. Much artillery ammunition was captured. The Russians lost two thousand seven hundred men. The knives of the Circassians and Bashi-Bazouks had been busy in the streets.

After this victory Osman might have whipped Krudener, but the Russian leaders had been suddenly aroused to the importance of taking Plevna, and Krudener was almost immediately reinforced with three divisions. Within the circle of defense the Turk was using his shovel. Osman gave the garrison no rest. If a man was not shooting, he was digging. The well-known Grivitza Redoubt was greatly strengthened, and some defenses on the east side of the town were completed. Osman’s situation was desperate, but his duty to his country was vividly defined. If he could hold this strong Turkish force on the flank of the Russians, their advance on Constantinople would hardly be possible. The Russian leaders now thoroughly understood this fact, and they tried to make the army investing Plevna more than a containing force.

The Grand Duke Nicolas had decided to order an assault on the 30th of July. Krudener telegraphed—the grand duke was thirty miles from Plevna—that he hesitated in his views of prospective success. The grand duke replied sharply, ordering that the assault be made. It seems that Krudener went into the field in the full expectation of being beaten.

Now appears in the history of the siege a figure at once sinister and foolish. Subordinate in command to Krudener was Lieutenant-General Prince Schahofskoy, who had an acute sense of his own intelligence, and in most cases dared to act independently of the orders of his chief. But to offset him there suddenly galloped into his camp a brilliant young Russian commander, a man who has set his name upon Plevna, even as the word underlies the towering reputation of Osman Pasha. General Skobeleff had come from the Grand Duke Nicolas with an order directing Prince Schahofskoy to place the young man in command of a certain brigade of Caucasian Cossacks. The prince grew stormy with outraged pride, and practically told Skobeleff to take the Cossacks and go to the devil with them.

The Russians began a heavy bombardment, to which Osman’s guns replied with spirit. The key of the position was the Grivitza Redoubt. Krudener himself at- tacked it with eighteen battalions of infantry and ten batteries. And at the same time Prince Schahofskoy thundered away on his side. The latter at last became furious at Krudener’s lack of success, and resolved to take matters into his own hands. In the afternoon he advanced with three brigades in the face of a devastating Turkish fire, took a hill, and forced the Turks to vacate their first line of entrenchments. His men were completely spent with weariness, and it is supposed that he should have waited on the hill for support from Krudener. But he urged on his tired troops and carried a second position. The Turkish batteries now concentrated their fire upon his line, and, really, the Turkish infantry whipped him soundly.

The Russians did not give up the dearly bought gain of ground without desperate fighting. Again and again they furiously charged, but only to meet failure. When night fell, the stealthy -footed irregular of the Turkish forces crept through the darkness to prey upon the route of the Russian retreat. The utter annihilation of Prince Schahofskoy’s force was prevented by Skobeleff and the brigade of Cossacks with which the prince had sent him to the devil. Skobeleff’s part in this assault was really a matter of clever maneuvering.

Krudener had failed with gallantry and intelligence. Schahofskoy had failed through pigheadedness and self-confidence.

After this attempt to carry Plevna, the important Russian generals occupied themselves in mutual recriminations, Krudener bitterly blamed Schahofskoy for not obeying his orders, and Schahofskoy acidulously begged to know why Krudener had not supported him. At the same time they both claimed that the Grand Duke Nicolas, thirty miles away, should never have given an order for an assault on a position of which he had never had a view.

But even if Russian clothing and arms and trinkets were being sold for a pittance in the bazaars of Plevna, the mosques were jammed with wounded Turks, and such was the suffering that the dead in the streets and in the fields were being gnawed by the pervasive Turkish dog.

A few days later Osman Pasha received the first proper recognition from Constantinople. A small troop of cavalry had wormed its way into Plevna. It was headed by an aide-de-camp of the Sultan. In gorgeous uniform the aide appeared to Osman and presented him with the First Order of the Osmanli, the highest Turkish military decoration. And with this order came a sword, the hilt of which flamed with diamonds. Osman Pasha may have preferred a bushel of cucumbers, but at any rate he knew that the Sultan and Turkey at last understood the value of a good soldier. To the speech of the aide Osman replied with another little speech, and the soldiers in their entrenchments cheered the Sultan.

On August 31 the Turkish general made his one offensive move. He threw part of his force against a Russian redoubt and was obliged to retire with a loss of nearly three thousand men. Afterwards he devoted his troops mainly to the business of improving the defenses. He wasted no more in attempts to break out of Plevna.

At this late day of the siege, Prince Charles of Roumania was appointed to the chief command of the whole Russo-Roumanian army. But naturally this office was nominal. General Totoff had the real disposition of affairs, but he did not hold it very long. General Levitsky, the assistant chief of the Russian general staff, arrived to advise General Totoff under direct orders from the Grand Duke Nicolas. But this siege was to be very well generalled.

The Grand Duke Nicolas himself came to Plevna. One would think that the grand duke would have ended this kaleidoscopic row of superseding generals. But the Great White Czar himself appeared. Osman Pasha, shut up in Plevna, certainly was honored with a great deal of distinguished interest.

However, Alexander II did his best to give no orders. He had no illusions concerning his military knowledge. With a spirit profoundly kind and gentle, he simply prayed that no more lives would be lost. It is difficult to think what he had to say to his multitudinous generals, each of whom was the genius of the only true plan for capturing Plevna.

At daylight on the 7th of September the Turks saw that the entire army of the enemy had closed in upon them. Amid fields of ripening grain shone the smart red jackets of the hussars. The Turks saw the Bulgarians in sheepskin caps, and with their broad scarlet sashes stuck full of knives and pistols. They saw the queer round oilskin shakoes of the Cossacks and the greatcoats of thick gray blanketing. They saw the uniforms of the Russian infantry, the green tunics striped with red. For five days the smoke lay heavy over Plevna.

The 11th was the fete-day of the emperor, and the general assault on that day was arranged as if it had been part of a fete. The cannonade was to begin at daybreak along the whole line and stop at eight o’clock in the morning. The artillery was to play again from eleven o’clock until one o’clock. Then it was to play again from half-past two o’clock to three o’clock.

Directly afterwards the Roumanian allies of the Russians moved in three columns against the Grivitza Redoubt. At first all three were repulsed, but with the stimulus of Russian reinforcements they rallied, and after a long time of almost hand-to-hand fighting the evening closed with them in possession of what was called the key of the Plevna position. They had lost four thousand men. The victory was fruitless, as, anticipating the attack on Grivitza, Osman had caused the building of an inner re- doubt. After all their ferocious charging, the Russians were really no nearer to success.

At three o’clock of that afternoon Redoubt Number Ten had been assailed by General Schmidnikoff. The firing had been terrible, but the Russians had charged to the very walls of the redoubt. The Turks not only beat them off, but pursued with great spirit. Two of the scampering Russian battalions were then faced about to beat off the chase. They lay down at a distance of only two hundred yards of the redoubt, and sent the Turks pell-mell back into their fortifications.

At about the same time Skobeleff, wearing a white coat and mounted on a white charger, was leading his men over the “green hills” towards the Krishin Redoubt. There was a dense fog. Skobeleff’s troops crossed two ridges and waded a stream. They began the ascent of a steep slope. Suddenly the fog cleared ; the sun shone out brilliantly. The closely massed Russian force was exposed at short range to line after line of Turkish entrenchments. They retired once, but’ rallied splendidly, and before five o’clock Skobeleff found himself in possession of Redoubt Number Eleven and Redoubt Number Twelve.

His battalions were thrust like a wedge into the Turkish lines, but the Turkish commander appreciated the situation more clearly than any Russian save Skobeleff. The latter’s men suffered a frightful fire. Reinforcements were refused. All during the night the faithful troops of the czar fought in darkness and without hope. They even built little ramparts of dead men. But on the morning of September 12 Skobeleff was compelled to give up all he had gained. The retreat over the “green hills” was little more than a running massacre.

After his return Skobeleff was in a state of excitement and fury. His uniform was covered with blood and mud. His Cross of St. George was twisted around over his shoulder. His face was black with powder. His eyes were bloodshot. He said, ” My regiments no longer exist.”

The Russian assaults had failed at all points. They had begun this last battle with thirty thousand infantry, twelve thousand cavalry, and four hundred and forty guns, and they lost over eighteen thousand men. The multitude of generals again took counsel. There were fervid animosities, and there might have been open rupture if it were not for the presence of the czar himself, whose gentleness and good nature prevented many scenes.

It was decided that the Turks must be starved out. The Russians sent for more troops as well as for heavy supplies of clothing, ammunition, and food. The czar sent for General Todleben, who had shown great skill at Sebastopol, and the direction of the siege was put in his hands.

The Turks had been accustomed to reprovision Plevna by the skillful use of devious trails. Todleben took swift steps to put a stop to it, but he did not succeed before a huge convoy had been sent into the town through the adroit management of Chefket Pasha. But the Russian horse soon chased Chefket away, and the trails were all closed.

For the most part the September weather was fine, but this plenitude of sun made the Turkish positions about Plevna almost unbearable. Actual thousands of unburied dead lay scattered over the ridges. At one time the Russian headquarters made a polite request to be allowed to send some men to enter Grivitza and bury their own dead. But this polite request met with polite refusal.

On October 19 the Roumanians, who for weeks had been sapping their way up to the Grivitza Redoubt, made a final and desperate attack on it. They were repulsed.

In order to complete the investment, Todleben found it necessary to dislodge the Turks from four villages near Plevna.

The weeks moved by slowly with a stolid and stubborn Turk besieged by a stubborn and stolid Russian. There was occasional firing from the Russian batteries, to which the Turks did not always take occasion to reply. In Plevna there was nothing to eat but meat, and the Turkish soldiers moved about with the hoods of their dirty brown cloaks pulled over their heads. Outside Plevna there were plenty of furs and good coats, but the diet had become so plain that the sugar-loving Russian soldiers would give gold for a pot of jam.

On the cold, cloudy morning of December 1 1, when snow lay thickly on all the country, a sudden great booming of guns was heard, and the news flew swiftly that Osman had come out of Plevna at last, and was trying to break through the cordon his foes had spread about him. During the night he had abandoned all his defenses, and by daybreak he had taken the greater part of his army across the river Vid. Advancing along the Sophia road, he charged the Russian entrenchments with such energy that the Siberian Regiment stationed at that point was almost annihilated. A desperate fight went on for four hours, with the Russians coming up battalion after battalion. Some time after noon all firing ceased, and later the Turks sent up a white flag. Cheer after cheer swelled over the dreary plain. Osman had surrendered.

The siege had lasted one hundred and forty-two days. The Russians had lost forty thousand men. The Turks had lost thirty thousand men.

The advance on Constantinople had been checked. Skobeleff said, “Osman the Victorious he will remain, in spite of his surrender.”


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