On 12 April 1877 /24 April in the modern calendar/, in Chisinau, Russian Emperor Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman Empire that would become a liberation war for the Bulgarian nation. On the same day a military parade was held in which units from the Bulgarian volunteer corps marched side by side Russian troops. The conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been provoked by unheard of atrocities committed by the Turks as they quelled the 1876 April Uprising in the Bulgarian lands. In its aftermath the Bulgarian Question topped the agenda of the ambassador conference held by the Great Powers in Constantinople.
Prince Nikolai Nikolaevich
Under St. Petersburg’s plan for the military operations, the offensive against the Turkish troops would take place on two fronts – the Caucasian and the Danube ones. The main blow against the enemy had to be dealt along the Danube front and across the Bulgarian ethnic territories, towards Adrianopolis and Constantinople. Russia deployed about 270,000 troops and 1014 cannons to the Balkans. In turn Romania undertook to support the Danube Army led by the Grand Prince Nikolay Nikolaevich, with 40,000 troops.
According to information from the Russian intelligence the Ottoman troops’ strength was about 700,000. Of them 280,000 were deployed to the Balkan Peninsula. The total of 186,000 was sent to the territories adjacent to the River Danube. The first battles broke out at the Caucasian front on 12 April 1877. The Russian offensive in the Balkans was launched on 10 June 1877 with a landing at Galati. However this landing was devised to mislead the Turkish command about the direction of the main blow.
"Crossing the Danube" at Svishtov, by painter Nikolay Dmitriev-Orenburgski
Crownprince Alexander Alexandrovich, General Nikolai Kridener and General Yosif Gurko
The transfer of the main Russian units to the south of the Danube started on 15 June 1877 at the town of Svishtov. On the eve of the passage of the river the Russian artillery carried out massive shelling of Tutrakan, Rousse, Nikopol and Vidin with the purpose of deluding the defense of the enemy. The Danube Army was divided into three detachments. The Eastern Detachment commanded by Crown Prince Alexander Alexandrovich had the assignment to block the Turkish Army in the fortified quadrangle Rousse-Silistra-Varna-Shumen. General Kridener commanded the Western Detachment that should seize the Vidin Fortress and take control over the Northwestern Bulgarian lands. The most important task was assigned to the Forefront Detachment commanded by Gen. Gurko. It was to move towards Tarnovo, take the Balkan Range passes and if possible, head to Plovdiv, Adrianopolis and Constantinople. The Bulgarian volunteer corps was part of the Forefront Detachment.
"The battle for the Samara banner at Stara Zagora" by painter Petar Morozov
The scholars who explore the war have agreed that military operations could be divided into three periods. The first phase covered the time of the Russian Army crossing the Danube by end-July 1877. The second period included the dramatic battles for Stara Zagora, the Shipka Pass and Pleven. It was then that the hardest military operations were held that to a great extent determined the outcome of the conflict. The third phase started with the conquest of Pleven on 28 November 1877 and closed with the Adrianopolis Truce from 19 January 1878.
"Before the attack", Pleven 1877, by painter Vassilii Vereschagin
The Russo-Turkish War ended with the signature of the San Stefano Preliminary Treaty on 19 February (3 March in the new calendar) 1878. The final political decisions about Bulgaria’s future however were made a few months later, in July, at the Berlin Congress of the Great Powers. Under the Treaty of Berlin the Principality of Bulgaria was constituted. Its territory included the lands between the Balkan Range and the Danube as well as the Sofia Region. In the lands between the Balkan Range and the Rhodopi Mountains to the south, the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia was created with a Bulgarian governor however controlled by the Turkish sultan. Macedonia, Eastern and Western Thrace remained within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.
"The Split Bulgaria after the Berlin Congress", an etching by Nikolai Pavlovich
In this way a large part of the territories with predominantly Bulgarian population remained outside the boundaries of the newly founded principality. This would nurture future conflicts between the Balkan countries and would lead to new liberation struggles for Bulgarians. However it is a universally accepted fact that the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War played a decisive role for the restoration of Bulgarian statehood and thanks to it the foundations of the future progress of the young Bulgarian principality were laid.
Translated by Daniela Konstantinova