Bashi Bazooks and the Bulgarian Massacres

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, in which Britannia’s Wolf is set, was characterised by massive suffering of civilian populations on both sides. In the book Nicholas Dawlish experiences these horrors at first hand but, even then, much of what he encounters falls short of the worst of the atrocities.

The initial trigger for the conflict was the rising of Bulgarian Christians against their Ottoman Turkish overlords in April 1876. The Turks retaliated savagely, not just employing units of the regular army but unleashing irregular units of “Bashi Bazooks”. Such forces were usually only raised in times of crisis and often from Albania and the more lawless parts of Anatolia, most notably the Kurdish area in the east. Though receiving weapons and equipment, usually at a minimal level, from the Government, these men received no pay but were rewarded by a virtual licence to plunder. Unleashed on the Bulgarian population, whether partaking in the April Rising or not, these Bashi Bazooks went on an orgy of murder, rape and looting.

As many as 30,000 may have been massacred, according to contemporary Bulgarian reports, but the total, though still high, may have been substantially lower.  The massacres were in themselves little different to what had often happened before in the Christian Provinces of the Ottoman Empire. What was different in 1876 however was the Western eyewitnesses were able to visit the scenes of the worst atrocities and that the telegraph and the popular press in Europe and America were now available to publicise the news. Outrage was all but universal and in Britain William E. Gladstone, former British Prime Minister, left retirement to denounce the atrocities, demanding in thunderous tones that “the Turks now carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned.”

Anger was even higher in Russia, which saw itself as having a responsibility for protection of Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, and this high moral stance dovetailed conveniently with long-term Russian ambitions to control Constantinople/Istanbul and the straits leading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Attempts to defuse the mounting tension between the Russian and Ottoman Empires and Russia declared war in April 1877. Public outrage in Britain about the atrocities was still sufficiently strong as to make it impossible for the government of Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, the current Prime Minister, to side openly with Turkey, as it had done in the Crimean War, despite the British strategic interests at stake.

In the months that followed, up to the end of the war, lawless troops of Bashi Bazooks continued to scourge Bulgaria, many of the atrocities being described – and sketched – by correspondents and artists attached to the armies. Now however a new element entered the scene – Bulgarian Christian irregulars, armed by the Russian forces, with their own tragedies to avenge. Advancing with the Russian forces, they in turn fell on helpless Muslim villagers, inflicting atrocities as savage, though probably on a smaller scale, than they had endured themselves. Columns of Muslim refugees plodded through winter snow and ice from Bulgaria towards the often illusory safety of Thrace. Atrocity demanded counter-atrocity in a vicious spiral of savagery.

Looking back from the early 21st Century on what happened in Bulgaria in 1876-78, one cannot but be reminded of the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Back in 1876-78 the atrocities were read about in newspapers but in the 1990s we saw them on television. And we in the West did almost nothing until it was too late. And now we seem the same again as Christian communities are wiped out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria…

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