Shipka: the phenomenal stamina of the Russian soldier and the miscalculations of the command

Weekly “Argumenty i Fakty” No. 34. Model locality. How is our auto industry “changing shoes”? 08/24/2022

145 years ago, on August 21, 1877, the battle for Shipka Pass began – one of the most demonstrative battles of the Russian army, which has become a symbol of the last victorious war of the Russian Empire.

It was here that the qualities of the Russian soldier and some features of the domestic style of warfare, dating back to the dark times of the Tatar-Mongol yoke, were fully manifested.

In those distant years, the Russian army acquired phenomenal stability in defense. During the period of the Horde raids, the combat mission of the Russian troops was to occupy some line, and then bleed out defending it. Thus giving civilians a chance to take refuge in swamp forests and avoid mass extermination. If you look at the most glorious, loudest battles of the Russian army, it turns out that in their structure they were all defensive: the Battle of Kulikovo. Standing on the Ugra. Poltava. Borodino. Stalin­grad. Kursk Bulge.

Russian Blitzkrieg

In all the cases mentioned, stability in defense and contempt for death formed the basis of the operation from the very beginning. Unfortunately, more often than not, a war conceived as a blitzkrieg, due to the miscalculations of the performers, began to slip, and then turned into a series of defeats. That's when stability in defense became a lifesaver. And this is just the case of Shipka. The mountain with a height of 1523 m and the Bulgarian village of the same name became the “assembly point” the entire campaign, the place where the fate of the war of 1877–1878 was decided.

In the war plan, which was developed by General Nikolai Obruchev,Shipka figured only as a crossing point for the Balkan mountain range of the main strike force of the Russian army. It was necessary to transfer the corps with a total number of up to 120 thousand people. What would make possible the rapid advance of the Russian army on Constantinople-Istanbul and the imposition of Russian peace conditions on the Ottoman Empire. The march to the capital of the Ottoman Empire had to be done before England and Austria-Hungary joined the Great Balkan Game on the side of the Turks. The plan was good and quite feasible. Logic dictated that this plan should be carried out by its author, that is, Nikolai Obruchev. height=”485″ width=”377″ style=”display: block;” />

Nikolai Nikolaevich Obruchev. Photo: Commons.wikimedia.org

Sabotage or insanity?

However, the commander-in-chief,Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich,the younger brother of Emperor Alexander II,vehemently opposed it. His personal dislike for Obruchev was so great that he went to a very mean act – slandered the general before the emperor, stating that Obruchev, they say, once maintained friendly relations with the “troublemaker Chernyshevsky”; and under his influence refused to participate in the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863.

Modern historians have proven that this was a lie. But in 1877, the smart and talented Obruchev was pushed to the Caucasus. And the headquarters of the Danube army was formed from people about whom Colonel Nikolai Bobrikov,seconded to the commander-in-chief, he will later say: “Weak in spirit, but boundlessly puffy, they did not fulfill their direct duties. Minutes of deep faith in one's infallibility quickly gave way to hours of utter insanity…"

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“Snow trenches” (Russian positions on the Shipka Pass). Vasily Vereshchagin. Photo: Public Domain

According to Obruchev's plan, for the occupation and defense of the passes through the Balkans and the subsequent march to the enemy's capital, it was supposed to allocate three corps of 35-40 thousand people each. Instead, the Commander-in-Chief sends the so-called forward detachment of Lieutenant General Iosif Gurkoto 5.8 thousand people to this most critical area of ​​hostilities. Yes, he managed to cross the Balkans and make a big rustle – panic in the headquarters of the Turkish command rose serious. Gurko even managed to occupy that same Shipka. Detachments of the Turkish commander Hulussi Pashafled from the pass, abandoning their cannons and provisions. The path to the capital of the enemy was open.

One of the axioms of strategy says: “He who has an advantage must attack under the threat of losing this advantage.” However, the high command of the Danube army did not understand that Shipka – an advantage that must be used and at the same time cherished like the apple of an eye. ­26 ­August, in the midst of the final battle for the pass, Minister of War Dmitry Milyutinwill tear and throw: “For a whole month, the main command of the army did not take care to ensure the defense of the Balkan passages occupied by us and did not even inquire about exactly how these passages were occupied!”

Sculptural composition on Shipka — Russian soldiers on the pass in the winter of 1877. Photo: Public Domain

“Let's lay down the bones”

This same month of Russian delay was used by the Turkish command. From Montenegro, the corps of Suleiman Pasha,was transferred by sea, who was tasked with driving the Russians out of the pass at all costs. Suleiman Pasha's 27,000-strong corps with 48 guns approached Shipka virtually without interference, which was occupied by the Russian-Bulgarian detachment of General Nikolai Stoletovnumbering 6 thousand people with 27 guns and almost worthless fortifications. The general carelessness emanating from the very top, managed to hit the middle command staff of the Russian army. The staff captain Ivan Polikarpov recalled: “At the most superficial glance at the fortifications, it was clear that they were all extremely hasty and could not constitute any serious obstacles.”

The Russian command saw the light literally on the eve of the assault on Shipka. Nikolai Stoletov, at the military council on the night before the assault, admitted that now all hope is solely on the qualities of the Russian soldier: “We will stand to the last, we will lie down with bones. But we won't give up our position.” style=”display: block” />

Guns of the “Steel Battery” on Shipka. Photo: Public Domain

Suleiman Pasha hoped for numerical superiority: “Our soldiers must march without interruption. Let them fall by the thousands – others will take their place. And the Turks were coming. And the Russians stood. In the course of an almost continuous six-day battle, more than once it came to hand-to-hand: “The infantrymen ran out of ammunition, and they fought with bayonets, butts and stones. Both attackers and defenders seemed to have lost their minds – they grabbed each other by the throat or tried to gouge out their eyes ""

The German General Staff, analyzing the battle for Shipka, came to the conclusion: "It was difficult to hold out in this position for three days". The case then was saved only by the incredible stamina of the Russian soldier on the defensive. This stamina was enough for six days of continuous fighting. And then for another 4 months of the siege.

The war, as you know, ended in victory. The victory, as expected, was celebrated with a parade. Those regiments that defended Shipka were to take part in it. But their appearance so impressed the gentlemen from the headquarters with their unpresentability that the heroes of Shipka were put on the sidelines, shielding the more fit and brave soldiers with their backs. Then the bitter proverb was born: “At the parade, back, but what’s the matter – ahead».

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