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130 years since the Battle for Shipka Pass

The Shipka Battle - oil on canvas by Dimitar Gyudjenov
Photo: Архив
The battles in the Russo-Turkish war for the defense of the Shipka pass were described in hundreds of books, publications and researches and most of them tell on the heroism of its defenders. This battle is one of the key ones during the war in 1877-1878. It contributes to the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke that lasted for 5 centuries.

August 11( old style date) or August 23( new style) was the most dramatic day of all. The battles, which lasted for 6 days at Shipka pass are known as The Shipka epopee. Between August 9 and August 11( old style) the Turks led by Sulleiman Pasha advanced with a huge army from the south and attacked the detachment led by General Stoletov, who had to fight the Turks back and stop them from reaching the north part Stara Planina mountain. Otherwise the enemy would go behind the back of the Russian troops, who were located in North Bulgaria. In that case the Turks could have easily fought the Russian army beyond river Danube and the outcome of the battle would have been completely different.

The prehistory of those battles shows that the Balkan troops of General Radetski had the difficult mission to defend a long area of nearly 100 kilometers along the mountain passes of Stara Planina. Thus General Stoletov who had to defend the Shipka pass got a short numbered army of 5 Bulgarian voluntary troops, 3 battalions from the eagle infantry regiment, 27 field-guns, 6 squadrons, 1 infantry brigade and 1 cavalry brigade, which made a total of 5500 soldiers.

After the battle near the town of Stara Zagora (South Bulgaria), Suleiman Pasha recruited his army with more soldiers, weapons and ammunition. He has 27000 soldiers, an army of 10 000 bashi-bazouk, 34 field guns. He prepared his army to cross Stara Planina Mountain. The Russian army was not aware of the offensive of the Turks and General Radetski made the bad mistake to relocate his troops from the town of Veliko Tarnovo to the town of Elena only a day before the Turkish attack against Shipka pass. The Russians were expecting Suleiman Pasha to cross Stara Planina through Tvardishki pass, but they were wrong.

The real intention of the Turks became clear on August 8(old style), when General Stoletov reported that the corps of Suleiman Pasha was drawn up near Shipka pass. The defenders of the pass were short-numbered, but they were ready to fight to the end. General Stoletov sent a message that he needed reinforcement badly. On August 9, 16 battalions led by Redzhep Pasha started to attack the troops at Saint Nikola mount, and the front military unit of Shakir Pasha approached the rocky area of Eagle’s Nest. The defenders of the pass started to run out of water as the Turks kept firing at the only water source there- a spring at the eastern foot of Saint Nikola mount. The defenders of Shipka pass show great heroism and fought back 11 attacks in the first day of the battle. Many of them were killed or wounded though. Finally the defenders received support by the 35th Bryan infantry regiment at noon.

On the following day the battles continued. Turkish troops approached not only from south and south- east but from west as well. They were aiming at cutting the link of the defenders with the rear brigades. Tens of Cossacs and some 200 Bulgarian volunteers joined the defenders of the pass that day. The armies that left Tarnovo and Elena to join them had to cover a long distance and only few of them managed to join the battle in the 3rd and most important day. Until noon on August 11, the soldiers of Suleiman Pasha made 6 attacks over the Shipka pass and their offensive from west reached the trenches of the defenders and threatend to take possession of the road to the town of Gabrovo (Central North Bulgaria). In the most dramatic moment of the battle, around 5 pm defenders received support from General Radetski, who sent 2 Cossacs brigades and the 4th rifle brigade. At that time the Bulgarian and the Russian troops, who were defending the pass were running out of power. All defenders, including the wounded take part in the battle. The Turkish soldiers were horrified when stones, wood and bodies started to fly towards them.

By the end of the 4th day of the battle it was clear that some 3500 Russian and Bulgarian soldiers lost their life there. The enemy lost over 6750 people. Thus, after 6 days of heavy battles, the mount Shipka was successfully defended. This battle remained in History as one of the most heroic ones in the Russo-Turkish war. Thus all volunteers showed us that freedom was not granted, but it was won with the blood and the sacrifice of thousands of Bulgarians. 

Translated by: Kostadin Atanasov

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