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The Liberation

The Turkish atrocities that accompanied the April uprising illustrated to the whole world the true face of the Ottoman state and its barbarity. World public opinion raised its voice in defence of the Bulgarian people. British, American, Italian, French, German and Russian journalists and consuls made known to their governments and their peoples the truth about these monstrous crimes. Prominent statesmen, political and public figures, intellectuals and scholars to whom the Bulgarians would always be indebted, joined in a campaign for the Bulgarians' right to lead free life. Some of the names that stand out among the champions of the Bulgarian people's cause are those of William Gladstone - leader of the Liberal party of Britain, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi. The first Chancellor of the German Reich, Bismarck made a speech in the Reictistag to the effect that the abominable bloodshed in Bulgaria had rendered Turkey no longer eligible to a place in the community of the European states.

The events in Bulgaria had admittedly raised a tide of compassion, solidarity and willingness for support among the Russian public. The Russian people, sharing with the Bulgarians kindred languages, cultures and religions, insisted that its emperor and government circles declare war on Turkey.

The Russian government did not evidently see any reasons for not responding to the Russian and European public outcry since it coincided with the long-term objectives of Russian policies with respect to Turkey. These envisaged total destruction of the Turkish empire and annexation of most of its lands to the Russian empire. The plan was to achieve this either directly or by allowing the existence of formally independent states which would effectively come under Russia's sway. Russia's interests in this region, however, clashed with the interests of other European powers such as Britain and Austria-Hungary. Either of them claimed its share of the Ottoman heritage. Moreover, everybody was afraid of a big, strong and independent state emerging in southern Europe as it could seriously impugn the Great Powers' presence in that part of the European continent. Appalled and indignant as it could be, the European public opinion also urged their respective governments to undertake decisive actions against the Asiatic barbarians.

In the summer, autumn and winter of 1876 the Russian government went out of its way to settle the Bulgarian question in a peaceful way. It made attempts to smooth its contradictions with the other European powers. The so-called Tsarigrad conference (the south Slavonic name for Constantinople) which took place in December 1876, was the culmination of their diplomatic effort with Russia, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy all taking part in it. The joint reform-prescribing plan to which Turkey committed itself in advance, made provision for the autonomy of all Bulgarian-inhabited lands in Macedonia, Moesia, Thrace and Dobrudja. These lands were part of the two Bulgarian states with their respective capital cities of Turnovo and Sofia. The territories of these two states extended as far as the ethnic boundaries of the Bulgarian people and, despite their artificial division, they were adequate to the Bulgarians' needs and aspirations. Turkey, however, impudently rejected that plan on the very day of its signing. This last-minute prestige-harming flop made even the Turkey-supporting West European states withdraw their customary back-up and agree to a military settlement of the Bulgarian question.

After preliminary talks with the European Great Powers on the possible outcome of hostilities, Russia declared war on Turkey on 12 April 1877. As early as that day, a military campaign was launched along the Russo-Turkish Caucasian border. On the Balkans the Russian army had to overcome the Danube - a major water barrier, before coming anywhere near the Turkish troops. The Russians crossed the Danube in June 1877. The Russian strategic war plan appeared to be based on the miscalculated presumption that Turkey was a colossus on clay stilts which should collapse at the first blow and envisaged the engagement of only a small Russian contingent 15 000-strong. Linder General Gurko's command it was to rush through a narrow corridor to Constantinople and to prompt the terms of peace to the Turkish government. According to this same plan the 300 000-strong Ottoman troops in Bulgaria had to be counteracted by the Russian officers and soldiers about 250 000-strong in attacks outfianking the narrow passage.

The Bulgarian people met the news of the Russo-Turkish war with great enthusiasm and it too, rose against its centuries long oppressor. A Bulgarian military detachment called 'Bulgarian volunteers', consisting of 12 battalions 12 500-strong, joined the Russian army. Hundreds of concomitant guerrilla detachmentsfrom several dozens to several hundreds of soldiers were organized, too. These were particularly efficient in dealing with the communications and the small military groups of the enemy. Thousands of other Bulgarians directly joined the Russian army to help as reconnaissance officers, engineers of fortification facilities, medical orderlies, suppliers of fodder and food, etc.

About the middle of July, the Russian leading detachment with Bulgarian volunteer forces included in it, reached as far as Stara Zagora that was almost half-way through to Constantinople. The troops meant to protect the western flank of the Russian army in Bulgaria suffered a defeat in two assaults against the strategic fortress of Pleven, located only sixty kilometers away from the Danube. The crippled Russian army at this site was not even able to keep off the besieged Turkish army. At that time the Turkish military forces, concentrated on the eastern flanks of the corridor occupied by the Russians, also grew unimpeded. Soon their number was three times as large as the Russian troops withholding them. Turkish crack regiments four times as big as the Russian advance detachment were coming on from its opposite alternative but to sucumb to the superior force, the Russians and the Bulgarians withdrew to position along the Balkan Mountain ridge in the region of the Shipka pass.

Aware of its blunder, the Russian command immediately resorted to the translocation of major military formations from Russia to Bulgaria. Given travelling speed in those days the troops could  be expected to arrive at the front line not before the beginning of September. Everyone was clear that the war would be decided by the battle outcome at Shipka. If the Turkish army from southern Bulgaria succeeded in crossing over the Balkan Range and then joining one of the Turkish armies in northern Bulgaria, the Turkish command could be sure to obtain petrifying numerical superiority over the siege-imperiled Russians who should then leave Bulgaria.

As fate has strangely willed it, the liberation of Bulgaria was entirely dependent upon the efficiency of the several thousand Bulgarian volunteers in keeping their positions on Shipka in those summer days. For, due to its misjudging the direction of the Turkish main effort, the command of the forces on Shipka had to send Russian operational reserve contingents to help in the defence of Hainboaz, another throat in the mountain. The Bulgarian volunteer detachment and only one Russian regiment remained on Shipka.

During the hot days of August 1877 epic battles took place on that mountain peak at the geographical intersection point of the Bulgarian lands. There the Bulgarians proved that they thoroughly deserved their freedom. Supported by not very many Russians the Bulgarian volunteer detachment drove off dozens of frontal and flanking attacks by the much too much stronger enemy with its manyfold superior numbers of men and equipment, expected to easily vanquish volunteers, fighting with old rifle-trophies from the Franco-Prussian War. When the arms and ammunitions finished, the volunteers resorted to blank weapons to repulse the attacks. In fierce man-to-man fighting they showered boulders and other mass of rock, even their dead comrades' bodies. Pertinaceous and murderous was the Bulgarians' effort that crushed the Turkish army and caused it to lose nearly half of its strength. The Bulgarian volunteers withstood their positions and thus, coped with a situation that spelled more and even greater danger.

A quick change of scene and reversal of the war occurred after the arrival of fresh Russian reinforcements. They took Pleven and, at the end of 1877, crossed the Balkan Mountains in a wide-ranging counter-offensive. Following victorious battles at Sofia, Plovdiv and Sheinovo, the Ottoman military machinery was shattered, dilapidated and ruined. A preliminary peace treaty was signed in the small town of San Stefano near Constantinople on 3 March 1878. It made provision for an autonomous Bulgarian state extending to almost all Bulgarian lands in the geographical areas of Macedonia, Thrace and Moesia. The treaty of San Stefano obtained justice for the Bulgarian people. Its terms of peace included the restoration of Bulgaria's state independence and the Bulgarians' reunification within the boundaries of one state. It, therefore, provided the solution to the paramount historic task which had confronted the Bulgarian people over the last five centuries.

Apprehensive of the existence of a big Bulgarian state under Russian influence, Austria-Hungary and Britain imposed revision of the San Stefano treaty. It look place at a congress of the Powers held in Berlin in the summer of 1878. War-weary Russia was not ready for new sabre-rattling and gave in.

The Berlin treaty dismembered the Bulgarian people into three parts. The northern Bulgarian lands (Moesia) were made into the principality of Bulgaria - an independent state under Turkish suzerainty. The lands of Thrace, called Eastern Rumelia, were made an autonomous province under the rule of the Turkish sultan. Macedonia and part of Thrace were unconditionally returned to the Turkish administration.

The battle for Shipka peak

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