The breakout was, of course, doomed from the start. And yet Osman Pasha all but brought off another miracle. Security in Plevna had been so strict that the Russians were quite unaware of the plans until a Polish spy woke up Skobeleff at 4 a.m. on the day. The Russian troops had hardly assembled before masses of Turkish troops started streaming across the snowy plain west of the town. At their head rode Osman Pasha on a chestnut stallion. Behind them rumbled thousands of wagons. Without wavering 2000 picked Turkish troops, with bands blazing and banners unfurled, charged the Russian trenches. By 8.30 a.m. they had annihilated one Russian regiment and broken the first links in the iron ring.
Without hesitation Osman charged into the attack on the inner Russian defence line, but here the opposition was stiffer as nearly 50,000 Turks and Russians fought hand to hand. Yet the Turks were holding their own against heavy odds and might well have succeeded, but for a catastrophe. A stray bullet wounded Osman Pasha. Those around him saw him lurch, then fall from his horse. In fact he was only wounded in the leg, but in a matter of moments the rumour galloped through the Turkish ranks that he had been killed. It was more than the half-starved, half-sick men could bear, and in a panic they streamed away from the Russian defences. By the time they had been regrouped, it was too late, and the Russians had occupied the Turkish redoubts, cutting off any hope of reaching a temporary sanctuary there. By one o'clock, the last shot was fired in a siege that had lasted 143 days, and from a house near the bridge, where the wounded Osman had taken refuge, a white flag fluttered.
Osman Pasha was treated as a hero by the Russians. When the Grand Duke Nicholas finally came face to face with him, he shook his hand and cried, 'I compliment you on your defence of Plevna. It is one of the most splendid exploits in history.' The immaculately booted Russian officers echoed, 'Bravo!' And when Osman Pasha first met the general in white uniform and realised it was Skobeleff, he took his hand and said to him, 'One day you will be commander-in-chief of the Russian Army.'
The Czar invited Osman Pasha to luncheon, and when Osman removed his sword the Czar returned it to him. As Osman prepared to leave for internment in Kharkov, a member of the Czar's staff offered him a sprig of myrtle – a traditional Russian sign that he was no longer their enemy.
A very different fate was reserved for the soldiers of the line. Despite repeated Russian promises that prisoners would be well treated, nearly 45,000 Turks were kept in the bitterly cold open air of Plevna for two weeks. They received virtually no food, drugs, medical aid; nor could then even drink the water of the River Vid which was contaminated by hundreds of corpses. Three thousand men died before the rest set off in the snow to various interment camps. Of the 42,000 men who started, often barefoot, on the long march to prison, barely 15,000 reached Russia. A fate as terrible awaited the seriously wounded left behind by Osman. The Bulgarians, conveniently ignoring their promises, dragged them from the hospitals and massacred every man.
One last and gruesome echo of the heroic siege of Plevna appeared in, of all places, a Bristol newspaper. It consisted of one paragraph that escaped general notice in England. In an article dealing with fertilizers, it read simply: 'Thirty tons of human bones, comprising thirty thousand skeletons, have just been landed at Bristol from Plevna.'
28 August 2013
The Turkish Defeat at Plevna, 1877
From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 189-191: