Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

At the Gates of Constantinople

From the days of Rurik down, a single desire—a single passion, we may say—has had a strong hold upon the Russian heart, the desire to possess Constantinople, that grand gate-city between Europe and Asia, with its control of the avenue to the southern seas. While it continued the capital of the Greek empire it was more than once assailed by Russian armies. After it became the metropolis of the Turkish dominion renewed attempts were made. But Greek and Turk alike valiantly held their own, and the city of the straits defied its northern foes. Through the centuries war after war with Turkey was fought, the possession of Constantinople their main purpose, but the Moslem clung to his capital with fierce pertinacity, and not until the year 1878 did he give way and a Russian army set eyes on the city so long desired.

In 1875 an insurrection broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, two Christian provinces under Turkish rule. The rebellious sentiment spread to Bulgaria, and in 1876 Turkey began a policy of repression so cruel as to make all Europe quiver with horror. Thousands of its most savage soldiery were let loose upon the Christian populations south of the Balkans, with full license to murder and burn, and a frightful carnival of torture and massacre began. More than a hundred towns were destroyed, and their inhabitants treated with revolting inhumanity. In the month of June, 1876, about forty thousand Bulgarians, of all ages and sexes, were put to death, many of the children being sold as slaves in the Turkish cities.

Of all the powers of Europe, Russia was the only one that took arms to avenge these slaughtered populations. England stood impassive, the other nations held aloof, but Alexander II. called out his troops, and once more the Russian battalions were set en route for the Danube, with Constantinople as their ultimate goal.

In June, 1877, the Danube was crossed and the Russian host entered Bulgaria, the Turks retiring as they advanced. But the march of invasion was soon arrested. The Balkan Mountains, nature's line of defence for Turkey, lay before the Russian troops, and on the high-road to its passes stood the town of Plevna, a fortress which must be taken before the mountains could safely be crossed. The works were very strong, and behind them lay Osman Pacha, one of the boldest and bravest of the Turkish soldiers, with a gallant little army under his command. The defence of this city was the central event of the war. From July to September the Russians sought its capture, making three desperate assaults, all of which were repulsed. In October the city was invested with an army of forty thousand men, under the intrepid General Skobeleff, with a determination to win. But Osman held out with all his old stubbornness, and continued his unflinching defence until starvation forced him to yield. He had lost his city, but had held back the Russian army for nearly half a year and won the admiration of the world.

The fall of Plevna set free the large Russian army that had been tied up by its siege. What should be done with these troops, more than one hundred thousand strong? The Balkans, whose gateways Plevna had closed, now lay open before them, but winter was at hand, winter with its frosts and snows. An attempt to cross the mountains at this time, even if successful, would bring them before strong Turkish fortresses in midwinter, with a chain of mountains in the rear, over which it would be impossible to maintain a line of supplies. The prudent course would have been to put the men into winter quarters at the foot of the Balkans on the north and wait for spring before venturing upon the mountain passes.

The Grand Duke Nicholas, however, was not governed by such considerations of prudence, but deter-mined, at all hazards, to strike the Turks before they had time to reorganize and recuperate. The army was, therefore, at once set in motion, General Gourko marching upon the Araba-Konak, Radetzky upon the Shipka Pass. The story of these movements is a long one, but must be given here in a few words. The bitter cold, the deep snow, the natural difficulties of the passes, the efforts of the enemy, all failed to check the Russian advance. Gourko forced his way through all opposition, took the powerful for-tress of Sophia without a blow, and routed an army of fifty thousand men on his march to Philippopolis. Radetzky did even better, since he captured the Turkish army defending the Shipka Pass, thirty-six thousand strong. The whole Turkish defence of the Balkans had gone down with a crash, and the Russians found themselves on the south side of the mountains with the enemy everywhere on the retreat, a broken and demoralized host.

Meanwhile what had become of the Turkish population of the Balkans and Roumelia? There were none of them to be seen; no fugitives were passed; not a Turk was visible in Sophia; the whole region traversed up to Philippopolis seemed to have only a Christian population. But on leaving the last-named city the situation changed, and a terrible scene of bloodshed, death, and misery met the eyes of the marching hosts. It was now easy to see what had become of the Turks: they were here in multitudes in full flight for their lives. The Bulgarians had avenged themselves bitterly on their late oppressors. Dead bodies of men and animals, broken carts, heaps of abandoned household goods, and tatters of clothing seemed to mark every step of the way. Fierce and terrible had been the struggle, dreadful the result, Turks and Bulgarians lying thickly side by side in death. Here appeared the bodies of Bulgarian peasants horrible with gaping wounds and mutilations, the marks of Turkish vengeance; there beside them lay corpses of dignified old Turks, their white beards stained with their blood.

While the men had died from violence, the women and children had perished from cold and hunger, many of them being frozen to death, the faces and tiny hands of dead children visible through the shrouding snows. The living were dragging their slow way onward through this ghastly array of the dead, in a seemingly endless procession of wagons, drawn by half-starved oxen, and bearing sick and feeble human beings and loads of household goods. Beside the laden vehicles the wretched, famine-stricken, worn-out fugitives walked, pushing forward in unceasing fear of their merciless Bulgarian foes.

Farther on the scene grew even more terrible. The road was strewn with discarded bedding, carpets, and other household goods. In one village were visible the bodies of some Turkish soldiers whom the Bulgarians had stoned to death, the corpses half covered with the heaps of stones and bricks which had been hurled at them.

Beyond this was reached a vast mass of closely packed wagons extending widely over roads and fields, not fewer than twenty thousand in all. The oxen were still in the yokes, but the people had vanished, and Bulgarian plunderers were helping themselves unresisted to the spoil. The great company, numbering fully two hundred thousand, had fled in terror to the mountains from some Russian cavalry who had been fired upon by the escort of the fugitives and were about to fire in return. Abandoning their property, the able-bodied had fled in panic fear, leaving the old, the sick, and the infants to perish in the snow, and their cherished effects to the hands of Bulgarian pilferers.

In advance lay Adrianople, the ancient capital of Turkey and the second city in the empire. Here, if anywhere, the Turks should have made a stand. But news came that this stronghold had been abandoned by its garrison, that the wildest panic prevailed, and that the Turkish population of the city and the surrounding villages was in full flight. At daylight of the 20th of January the city was entered by the cavalry, and on the 22nd Skobeleff marched in with his infantry, at once despatching the cavalry in pursuit of the retreating enemy. The defence of Adrianople had been well provided for by an extensive system of earthworks, but not an effort was made to bold it, and an incredible panic seemed everywhere to have seized the Turks.

Russia had almost accomplished the task for which it had been striving during ten centuries. Constantinople at last lay at its mercy. The Turks still had an army, still had strong positions for defence, but every shred of courage seemed to have fled from their hearts, and their powers of resistance to be at an end. They were in a state of utter demoralization and ready to give way to Russia at all points and accept almost any terms they could obtain. Had they decided to continue the fight, they still possessed a position famous for its adaptation to defence, behind which it was possible to hold at bay all the power of Russia.

This was the celebrated position of Buyak-Tchekmedje, a defensive line twenty-five miles from Constantinople and of remarkable military strength. The peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmora is at this point only twenty miles wide, and twelve of these miles are occupied by broad lakes which extend inland from either shore. Of the remaining distance, about half is made up of swamps which are almost or quite impassable, while dense and difficult thickets occupy the rest of the line. Behind this stretch of lake, swamp, and thicket there extends from sea to sea a ridge from four hundred to seven hundred feet in height, the whole forming a most admirable position for defence. This ridge had been fortified by the Turks with redoubts, trenches, and rifle-pits, which, fully garrisoned and mounted with guns, might have proved impregnable to the strongest force. The thirty thousand men within them could have given great trouble to the whole Russian army, and double that number might have completely arrested its march. Yet this great natural stronghold was given up without a blow, signed away with a stroke of the pen.



On January 31 an armistice was signed, one of whose terms was that this formidable defensive line should be evacuated by the Turks, who were to retire to an inner line, while the Russians were to occupy a position about ten miles distant. It was no consideration for Turkey that now kept the Russians outside the great capital, but dread of the powers of Europe, which jealously distrusted an increase of the power of Russia, and were bent on saving Turkey from the hands of the czar.

On February 12 an event took place that threatened ominous results. The British fleet forced the passage of the Dardanelles and moved upon Constantinople, on the pretence of protecting the lives of British subjects in that city. As soon as news of this movement reached St. Petersburg the emperor telegraphed to the Grand Duke Nicholas, giving him authority to march a part of his army into Constantinople, on the same plea that the British had made. In response the grand duke demanded of the sultan the right to occupy a part of the environs of his capital with Russian soldiers, the negotiations ending with the permission to occupy the village of San Stefano, on the Sea of Marmora, about six miles from the walls of the threatened city.

What would be the end of it all was difficult to foresee. On the waters of the city floated the English iron-clads, with their mute threat of war; around the walls Turkish troops were rapidly throwing up earthworks; leading officers in the Russian army chafed at the thought of stopping so near their longed-for goal, and burned with the desire to make a final end of the empire of the Turks and add Constantinople to the dominions of the czar. Yet though thus, as it were, on the edge of a volcano, their ordinary policy of delay and hesitation was shown by the Turkish diplomats, and the treaty of peace was not concluded and signed until the 3rd of March. The Russians had used their controlling position with effect, and the treaty largely put an end to Turkish dominion in Europe.

The news of the signing was received with cheers of enthusiasm by the Russian army, drawn up on the shores of the inland sea, the Preobrajensky, the famous regiment of Peter the Great, holding the post of honor. Scarce a rifle-shot distant, crowding in groups the crests of the neighboring hills, and deeply interested spectators of the scene, appeared numbers of their late opponents. The news received, the cheering battalions wheeled into column, and past the grand duke went the army in rapid review, the march still continuing after darkness had descended on the scene.

And thus ended the war, with the Russians within sight of the walls of that city which for so many centuries they had longed and struggled to possess. Only for the threatening aspect of the powers of Europe the Ottoman empire would have ended then and there, and the Turk, "encamped in Europe," would have ended forever his rule over Christian realms.