”C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”-Marshal Pierre Bosquet
The Danubian War, also known as the First Balkan War, and in Russia as the ‘Eastern War of 1853–1855’ (Russian: Восточная война, Vostochnaya Voina) was a major war where several eastern European powers, Russia, Austria, and Greece, fought against the Ottoman Empire , Britain, and France. The war stemmed from a dispute over church control in the Holy Land, yet Russian expansionism, and the Ottoman Empire’s decline, made war inevitable. The war began with a Russian occupation of the Danubian Principalities, and an offensive into the Caucuses. Soon after, Austria intervened, sending 280,000 troops into the Principalities, under Joseph Radetzky , and more into Bosnia and Serbia. After this and the Battle of Sinop , with the Ottomans on the verge of collapse, Britain and France intervened, landing their army at Varna. Under the leadership of Radetzky and Ivan Paskevich , the Franco-British (aka allied) troops were forced back to Varna where they were besieged. In the Caucuses, the Russians continued pushing back the Ottomans, and Radetzky bypassed Varna and marched on Istanbul. the allies moved their forces to defend Istanbul, but after the Battle of San Stefano , sued for peace. The Russians dictated harsh terms, stripping the Ottomans of nearly all their european possessions, and creating a string of new Balkan nations. The war, along with the Indian Revolt of 1857, led to the British not pursuing continental wars, while the French experience eventually led to alliance with Prussia and Sardinia against Austria. The war led to reforms within Austria, Russia, and Britain.
A Slow Slide Towards War
Piece by Piece, the Ottoman Empire inexorably crumbled. Nicholas I was not a man who would let such a golden opportunity for expansion pass, yet Britain feared a powerful Russia, especially one with Mediterranean access and newly Crowned Napoleon III needed a foreign policy victory to prop up his regime. Though Russia, as part of the Holy Alliance assisted Austria during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Austria felt cautious, wanting to preserve Europe’s balance of power, especially fearing a powerful neighbor. Despite being part of the Holy Alliance, Prussia remained neutral, making large amounts of money due to being the only avenue for Russian trade during the war. Greece was always eager to gain new territory, but initially waited, seeing which side would emerge victorious.
Napoleon always pandered to the Catholic base, especially in his foreign policy. (Such as the crushing of the Roman Republic.) Now, with the support of his ministers, Napoleon put pressure of Abdülmecid to give the Catholic Church, instead of the Eastern Orthodox, control of the Holy Land. At first, the Sublime Porte rejected Napoleon’s offer, yet caved in when he sent warships to Istanbul. Nicholas, furious, sent Price Menshikov to try to convince the Porte to give Russia control of the empire’s Orthodox, as well as the Holy Land access. Backed by the British, the Ottomans rejected the terms, and the Russians invaded the Danubian Principalities in July 1853, as an allied fleet lay off the Dardanelles. In Vienna, the Austrian court initially wavered, but eventually, heeding the value of a long-term alliance with Russia, joined the war. The Austrian involvement badly pressured the Ottomans, scaring the Allies, who began to gather armies. The final straw came when the Russians annihilated the Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Sinope . The war’s last participant, Greece, sympathized with Russia form the beginning but only joined when the Austro-Russians began steamrolling towards Istanbul.
BalkansIn February, the Russian army, under Prince Gorchakov occupied the Danubian Principalities, leading shortly to Austrian and Ottoman declarations of war in September. The Ottoman army, under the capable leadership of Omar Pasha
, advanced winning a victory at Oltenița, but thanks to the large number of Austrians and the skill of Marshal Radetzky, lost decisively at Cetate, Calafat, Vidin and Silistra. In November, the grand Russian naval victory at Sinop led to the Western Allies declaring war. Also, Austrian forces entered into Bosnia and Serbia, skirmishing with local Ottoman forces. Prince Gorchakov resigned during April 1854, giving command to the far more capable Marshal Ivan Paskevich , though the Allies, thinking to scare Greece, occupied Piraeus, tying down much of the Greek army. In June, the Allies landed at Varna, but took time to unload their equipment. On the 18 of July, the european armies met for the fist time at Karapelit, where in a day’s fierce and bloody fighting, the Marshals managed to defeat the Allies, though the Allied army escaped to Varna, where the Austro-Russians besieged them at the end of the month.
Marshal Paskevich favored executing a classic siege, but Marshal Radetzky saw a golden opportunity: if the Allies remained in Varna, the Austro-Russian army could march on Istanbul with only small Ottoman forces in the way. Prince Menshikov commanded Russian troops besieging Varna, while the Marshals took the main army around, towards Istanbul. The Allied command, despite Omar Pasha ’s warnings, considered the attack to be a faint, yet did abandon the siege of Piraeus and their support for Ottoman forces in the Caucuses to block the thrust. The Allies occupied a strong position at Elhovo, situated behind a river and multiple forests, yet the better-lead, confident, and numerically superior Austro-Russian steamroller prevailed, leading to Greece joining the war. As late august turned into early September, The Allied high command began the evacuation of Varna, but it took until nearly 23 September to remove all the troops and equipment, leading to the resignation of the Earl of Aberdeen and the accession of Viscount Palmerston. On August 17, the decisive clash occurred at the small hamlet of Yulaflı along the Çorlu Çayı river. The Allies barely managed to hold, but with Russian, Austrian, and Greek forces on the way, the Allies retreated and sued for peace.
Author’s Note: This map might be useful for the geography in this section.The Caucuses remained a secondary front, with only the Russians and the Ottomans committing troops. On September 27 1853, the Ottomans launched a sudden night attack, which took the Russian border post of St. Nicholas, forcing the Russians back along the coast. Further south, however, a supporting Ottoman army, while awaiting reinforcements, suffered a defeat at Akhaltsike. (13 November) The main Turkish army marched from the fortress of Kars towards the main Russian position at Alexandropol. The Russian commander, Prince Obeliani, launched a counterattack, but barely got himself out. Orbeliani received reinforcements and attacked, driving back the Turks, but at the cost of his own life. The Turks sent a fleet with reinforcements, but Russian admiral Pavel Nakhimov destroyed it at Sinop. When the Allied fleet entered the Black Sea in spring 1854, the Russians entered their most desperate moment, when they, under partisan pressure and fearing Persian intervention, abandoned parts of the Black Sea defensive line, and even considered retreating from the Caucuses, but the Allies chose to use their forces in the Balkans. In the north, the Russians, under Eristov, pushed the Turks back to the fortress of Batum, but eventually retreated. On the Kars front, the main forces shadowed each other, unwilling to attack, until a misleading Russian scout report led to a Russian victory at the Battle of Kurekdere
, but the battle produced no territorial gains. This did convince the Persians to remain neutral, in exchange for canceling a previous war indemnity. The front remained quiet until May 1855, until the Russian besieged Kars, and numerous battles took place around the fortress, which held out until the end of the war. The war also saw many partisan raids, most notably Imam Shamil ’s June 1854 attack on Tsinandali, where his men captured and ransomed numerous Russian nobles.
The Allies sent an enormous force towards the Russian naval base at Kronstadt, yet they considered the defenses too strong, and instead attacked numerous other ports throughout April. The fleet also destroyed civilian storage areas and warehouses along the Finnish coast, causing a stir in Britain. In August, the allies attacked the Russian forces of Bomarsund and Seavborg. The defenses of Bomarsund began to collapse, but the war’s end stopped both attacks. The British placed much credit on the Russian use of mines, beginning the modern concept and use of mines.
In 1854, the British sent a three ships and 800 marines to attack northern Russian ports. They destroyed Kola and heavily damaged installations on the Solovki islands. An attempt to raid Arkhangelsk failed.
The Allies sent a large force to besiege Petropavlovsk, but the small Russian garrison held through 1855, when the approach of a larger allied force led to the Russians retreating successfully, thanks to a snowstorm.
Treaty of San StefanoNicholas followed his pan-Orthodox, expansionist dreams almost to the letter. Though the Austrians and British removed some of his more ridiculous demands, the Treaty of San Stefano
, signed in October 1855, heavily punished the Ottomans, being stripped of nearly all their european territory. The treaty split the Balkans into Greek, Austrian, and Russian spheres of influence, those being: the newly earned Greek lands: Bosnia (directly annexed), Montenegro (occupied), and Serbia (strong Austrian influence): Romania (occupied), and Bulgaria (strong Russian influence. Due to Austrian fears, Serbia was banned from a navy, and it’s coast was demilitarized, with Austrian warships allowed to dock. The Greeks allowed Russia’s navy use of Salonica, while the Ottomans gave the British use of Lesbos and Crete.
Reforms and Legacy
Soon after the war, Nicholas I died, yielding Tsardom to the liberal Alexander II, who instituted military reforms, most notably medical, as the Austrians had massively outperformed the Russians. The war also influenced Alexander's position on abolishing serfdom. Thanks to Marshal Radetzky's insistence, Austria increased its standing army.
In France, strict censorship prevented public anger, but a press firestorm erupted in Britain, but besides the end of selling commissions, little got done. The war proved the first of a trio of massive French foreign policy disasters which eventually ended the Second Empire. The British once again chose to remain aloof from all continental entanglements, but fear of Russian strength eventually led to numerous conflicts in Asia.
At first, the new Balkan nations welcomed their 'liberation' from Ottoman rule, but when the true nature of the Austro-Russian occupation became obvious, especially after the Greek Secession Crisis.
The war vastly accelerated the Ottoman decline and reliance on Britain.