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The Powder Keg

Russia, Turkey and Britain in the mid-1870s

The Background to Britannia’s Wolf

The period 1815-1914 in Europe is often described as characterised by one of relative peace, yet during it in this period there were a number of vicious, but usually short-lived, wars between various European powers. In general however only two, and rarely more, countries were involved, as was the case with French and Austro-Hungarian involvement in the wars of Italian unification and Prussia’s three wars which Bismarck triggered in his calculated mission to unify Germany under a single emperor. The Crimean War of 1854-56 was the exception, involving Britain, France, Russia, Turkey and – bizarrely – the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. This war was essentially blundered into, and though it had the potential for expansion to a general European War it ended more by exhaustion of the ill-prepared combatants than by any permanent resolution of the issues.

One other war of the century – the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 – had the potential to morph not only into a general European War, but into something even bigger, due to its strategic implications. In the worst case it might have brought 1914 forward by four decades. When Russia and Turkey fought on this occasion the dynamics had changed, strategically, politically and technologically, as compared with the Crimean conflict.

Russia and Britain – The Great Game

Russia’s prospects in the early 1870s were positive. Though still an autocracy, the liberally-minded Czar, Alexander II, had pushed through emancipation of the serfs in 1862, despite internal opposition. Foreign investment was growing and the country was establishing itself as the breadbasket of Europe, exporting wheat through the Black Sea. Democratic reforms were under discussion and the restrictions on intellectual life, which Alexander’s father had imposed so rigidly, had been relaxed. A reserve-based Army had been established on the Prussian pattern. Brilliant generals – such as Mikhail Skobelev, described by Field Marshal Montgomery wrote as the world's "ablest single commander" between 1870 and 1914 - had masterminded conquests which had added huge areas in Central Asia to the Russian Empire and there was alarm in Britain that it might soon dominate Afghanistan and threaten India. The Great Game, in which Britain and Russia would eye each other warily across the Hindu Kush for a quarter-century, had begun.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had shortened Britain’s sea-route to India and Australia. India’s position as Britain’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ had been emphasised by the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1876. The Suez Canal’s importance was underlined in the same year by the decision of Britain’s maverick Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, to purchase a controlling share in the company that owned and operated the canal so as to forestall a similar French move. With the canal in British hands India could be reinforced quickly against any Russian threat from Central Asia – and as long as a Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean could be prevented the canal was secure. And the block to this was the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey - An Empire in Decline

Known as the  ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in this period, the vast, sprawling Ottoman Turkish Empire that the Sultan ruled – nominally at least – from Istanbul included most of the modern countries of the Middle East, other than Iran, as well as Libya and  much of the Balkans and Libya in North Africa. The edges were fraying however – Serbia had been essentially independent since the 1830s and Romania had followed suit in the 1860s. Egypt, which also nominally governed the Sudan, had been de-facto independent since the 1830s.

The Ottoman Empire was inefficient and corrupt, a fact recognised by many intelligent would-be reformers within it, and was an amalgam of the modern (banks, steamships, railways, telegraphs, a growing bureaucracy) and the traditional (Biblical-era agriculture and pastoralism, subservience of women, confused and inadequate legal structures). Though most to the Sultan’s subjects were Muslims, the Balkan provinces, including Bulgaria, were largely Christian, major Greek and Armenian Christian minorities were present in Anatolia and Jewish communities were to be found throughout the Empire. The fact that these minorities were often well-educated, Western or Russian-oriented and were commercially successful was widely resented. They had limited civil rights and were frequently exposed to unpredictable but viciousand random persecution. In all provinces legal rights were few for everybody, regardless of religion,  and rule was frequently brutal.

Attempts at reform had been spasmodic and only partly successful since the 1820s, not helped by a low tax-base that made the Ottoman Empire increasingly indebted to foreign lenders. By the mid-1870s however a new wave of reform had led to a constitution which would allowed for limited democratic representation and promised fuller participation for to minorities. A new Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, had just come to the throne and was generally perceived to be weak. In the circumstances the prospects for the Constitution – the Mesrutiyet – looked promising.

Britain’s First Line of Defence

Turkey’s strategic location, and above all its control of the exit from the Black Sea through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, meant that propping-up of the Ottoman Empire became a major concern of British policy. Conversely, a major focus of Russian policy was to gain control of Constantinople/Istanbul and thereby gain access to the Mediterranean. There was a quasi-religious element to this also – as the main Orthodox-Christian power Russia had ambitions to control the city which was still the home of Orthodoxy. Russia had gone to war with the Ottomans no less than 10 times before 1877. This had resulted in a steady push-back of Ottoman power and over the preceding century the Crimea, the Ukraine and much of the Caucuses had been incorporated in the Czar’s empire. Russian support was also critical in ensuring the independence of Serbia and the semi-independence of Romania from Ottoman rule.

Successive British governments had seen the Ottoman Empire as its first line of defence against Russian expansion – better for the Turks fight the Russians than the British – but in an extreme case Britain might have to intervene directly, as it had done in the Crimean conflict in the 1850s.


By the mid-1870s the overall balance of power in Europe was shifting. Following its defeat by the new German Empire in 1870-71, France was less willing than previously to get involved in Eastern-European adventures. Germany was building its position as the dominant new continental power. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, smarting from the loss of its Italian provinces, was however eager to compensate by filling any vacuum left in the Balkans as Ottoman power declined – ambitions that were ultimately to lead to the First World War in 1914.

A Firepower Revolution

Though separated by a scant dozen years from the end of the American Civil War, by the time Russia and Turkey went to war in 1877 developments in small-arms in that time has transformed the nature of warfare, even if few had realised it. American battlefields had been dominated by single-shot, muzzle-loading rifles, and although a sharpshooter could hit a target at much longer ranges the effective maximum range was of the order of 300 yards, and usually much less. As muzzle-loaders they were difficult to load from anything but a standing position. By the end of the American conflict a few breech-loaders had made their appearance and – even more significantly – so were repeaters, magazine rifles, such as the Spenser. In the last year of the war it became recognised – the hard way – that well dug-in, rifle-equipped infantry, were capable of repulsing direct assaults by much larger forces, inflicting fearful casualties in the process. Long trench lines – as at Petersburg in Virginia – proved almost impregnable when held by determined infantry and the spade had become as important as the rifle.

By 1877 not only had the breech-loading rifle arrived – allowing loading from a prone or kneeling position and a much faster rate, typically 4 rounds per minute, of loading and firing – but effective ranges had also lengthened. The Martini-Peabody used by Ottoman infantry was effective at 400 yards, and in the hands of a skilled marksman could kill at up to a 1000a thousand. An attacking force moving fast across up to 500 yards of open ground towards a trench line – at say 4.5 mph – would be exposed to such fire for at least 4 minutes, and in this time a skilled defender could get off some 16 aimed shots. The result would be carnage – and yet nobody seems to have anticipated it.

Ottoman, Russian and Romanian forces were to be equipped with such weapons – the Krnk and the Berdan in the case of the Russians. Repeater rifles and carbines such as the Winchester were to see limited use, especially by the Ottomans. Indebted as their empire was, they had equipped their armed forces with the best weapons money could purchase abroad, not just small arms but breech-loading Krupp cannon and British ironclads.

Serbia 1876 – and the Russians serve notice

In 1876 a rebellion broke out against Ottoman rule in Herzegovina, with the support of Serbia, which shortly after declared war on Turkey.  Significant numbers of unofficial Russian volunteers, many of them aristocratic, arrived to support the Serbians – a move so popular that Tolstoy made Anna Karenina’s lover Vronsky one of them – but the Serbs nevertheless had the worst of it. Serbia was only saved by the Russian threat of open intervention, backed by mobilisation of 20 Russian divisions. Faced with this, the Ottomans made an agreement with Serbia and brought the war to a close in late 1876. Notice had been served however that Russia was prepared to flex its muscles in the Balkans, as it had been doing in the previous decade in Central Asia.

Bulgaria 1876 – the Trigger

Bulgaria was still under direct Ottoman rule. It was a predominantly Christian province, though with a large Muslim minority. In April 1876, resentful of continuing oppression by their Turkish overlords, Bulgarian Christians rose in revolt, with independence as their ultimate goal. The rising failed and the Turkish response was savage, Bashi-Bazook irregulars being used to supplement regular Ottoman troops and being given what amounted to carte blanche to murder, loot and rape. Up to 15,000 Bulgarians may have been murdered and entire villages practically wiped out. The painting shown here, by the Russian artist Konstantin Makovsky, is proabbly a not inaccurate depiction of some of the horrors involved.


Similar massacres had occurred in the past and had gone largely unnoticed outside the Ottoman Empire. The arrival of mass-circulation newspapers had changed this however and investigation of one of the worst atrocities, in Batak, by the an American journalist Januarius MacGahan, led to outrage around the world. This was especially embarrassing to the British Government, led by the recently ennobled Benjamin Disraeli, because of its dependence on Turkey as an anti-Russian bulwark. Even in Britain disgust was sufficiently intense for the Liberal ex-Prime Minister, William Gladstone, to come out of retirement to campaign against continuing support of the Ottomans.

The most significant reaction was however, that of Russia. There was widespread support for its their Orthodox co-religionists in Bulgaria and its willingness to intervene in the Serbian crisis had shown that it would not shrink from confronting the Ottomans. Attempts by other European powers to broker a deal which might defuse the mounting crisis continued – and failed – in late 1876 and into the following year.

Russian forces crossing the Danube - they would reach the suburbs of Constantinople

                        (Painting by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky, 1883) 


In April 1877 Russian forces moved through Romania, crossed the Danube and drove into Bulgaria. Other Russian forces thrust into the Anatolian heartland from Georgia.

The blood-bath had commenced that the combination of the breech- loading rifle and the humble spade had made inevitable. Killing on this scale would not be seen again in Europe until 1914. Russia and Turkey were locked in a death-struggle and Britain stood uneasily on the side-lines, knowing that in the event of total Turkish collapse it would have no option but to intervene to block Russian victory and control of access to the Mediterraneancontrol of the Straits.. The British national mood was captured by the a music-hall song that was to give the word ‘Jingoism‘ to the English Language:

We don’t want to fight,
B but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
We’ve got the money too!
We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!

1914 had all but arrived 47-years early…


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