The Plevna Delay

Winchesters and Peabody-Martinis in the Russo-Turkish War

A small Turkish army is trapped, but with the help of surprising firepower,
they hold up the entire Russian Campaign for over five months.

by Richard T. Trenk, Sr.

(Originally published in Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 19, Number Four, August, 1997)
(copyright Man at Arms, 1997, used with kind Permission of Man At Arms)

 Man at Arms Magazine, published by Mowbray Publishing, is "The NRA Journal for the American Arms Collector", and may be the finest scholarly journal devoted to arms collecting published in the English language.  Information regarding subscriptions, articles and back issues, including the issue containing a more complete and graphically superior version of the following article, (including additional photos of Peabody-Martini and Winchester rifles and additional illustrations) may be found at the Man At Arms website at:  http://www.manatarmsbooks.com/

As Field Marshal Osman Pasha lay wounded in a small peasant cottage, surrendering his Turkish forces to General Ganetsky, the Russian general ordered his interpreter to say that he much admired the brilliant tactics and defensive positions that the outnumbered Turk had employed for over five months. General Ganetsky then shook the hand of the man who had held up a combined Russian and Romanian army, inflicting horrendous casualties rivaling those at the Antietam, Shiloh and Wilderness battles of the American Civil War.  Lt. Gen. Skobeleff, whose brigades were among the first to suffer massive losses at the hands of Osman Pasha's forces said, "He is the greatest general of the age, for he has saved the honor of his country.  I will offer him my hand and tell him so personally." The year was 1877, and the Russians were in the midst of their 12th conflict (since 1676) with the Ottoman Empire. Osman Pasha, with 15,000 men and 174 modern Krupp artillery pieces, had been on his way to bolster Turkish forces at Nikopolis in Bulgaria. Upon learning that the Turks at Nikopolis had surrendered, he quickly marched his small army to the town of Plevna (modern name, Pleven), which is located 75 miles southwest of Bucharest. Russian intelligence completely failed to notice this force and had no idea that it was now located at Plevna, busily constructing trenches, redoubts, fortifications and gun emplacements that would soon baffle the Russian generals and, at the same time, introduce the repeating rifle into European warfare.  Standard Turkish practice was to mark off the yardage on anticipated battlefields using sticks with ribbons attached, or recording the distance to natural objects such as trees, rocks or other visible objects.  At Plevna, Osman Pasha had plenty of time to do all this measuring and marking, and it soon paid off in Russian casualties.

    Oliver F. Winchester had sent fancy .44 caliber Model 1866 Winchester rifles to selected Turkish officers and politicians, and this gift giving finally resulted in a small order being received in 1869. Tests showed that ordinary Turkish soldiers could easily learn to load and fire this lever action rifle very quickly. In 1870 and 1871, the Turkish government placed additional orders totaling 5,000 carbines and 45,000 muskets with bayonets.

    Factory records do not indicate how much ammunition the Turks purchased, but based upon various battle accounts that describe long periods of constant firing, it would appear that the Turks purchased at least 40,000,000 and as much as 60,000,000 rounds from Winchester. After the final Turkish surrender in 1878, the Russians reported that they had captured 500,000,000 rounds of all calibres! While this may have been an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Turkish tactics required a massive amount of rifle ammo, and soldiers were, in fact, issued large amounts of cartridges and encouraged to shoot as much as possible. By way of comparison, a German army corps of that era would have been sent into battle with 4,500,000 rounds of rifle ammunition.  The exact number of Winchester Model '66s that Osman had on hand has not been recorded, but based upon the results, he employed at least 8,000 and as many as 12,000.

  The standard Turkish infantry rifle was the American-designed Peabody-Martini falling-block rifle in .45 caliber. This was not only a fast shooting rifle (tests produced 17 aimed shots per minute) but was also very accurate out to 700 yards, and loaded with most small bore, large capac­ity black powder cartridges, it would carry several thousand yards with a high looping trajectory. (For more information about these weapons, see "The Turkish Connection: The Saga of the Peabody-Martini Rifle" by William O. Achtermeier, Man at Arms, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 12-21, 55­57.)  The Russian infantry was equipped with the obsolete .60 cal. Krenk (Bohemian spelling, Krnka). Their rifle brigades used the more modern American designed .42 cal. Berdan rifle.

    On July 18th, 1877, 1,500 Russian cavalry were reconnoitering around Plevna. They clashed with a small number of Turkish skirmishers and, thinking the town itself was light­ly defended, reported back to their leader, Lt. Gen. Schilder-Schuldner, who decided to send his entire force of 7,500 infantry to occupy the town on July 20th after sever­al hours of cannon fire.

    Small numbers of Turks in trenches were easily over­come and allowed to flee. Resistance seemed to have ended. The Russian infantry walked right into the town, acting like visiting tourists. Osman Pasha, who had carefully concealed his main force inside houses and barns and behind other sheltered locations, allowed the Russians to enter the town in considerable numbers before springing the trap. With a bugle signal, the Turks revealed themselves and began pouring massive rifle fire into the startled Russians. Only a small number of those who made it into Plevna man­aged to escape the town. Their leader, Maj. Gen. Knorring, fell as did the commander of the Archangel Rgt., Col. Rosenbaum.  At virtually point-blank range, the Winchesters had poured out the majority of the bullets, and the Peabody-Martinis kept up a lingering long-range fire upon the retreating Russians. Turkish losses were only 12 killed and 30 wounded. In this first battle at Plevna. Russian losses amounted to 74 officers and 2,771 men who fell in a fire fight that lasted only 15-20 minutes. They left behind on the field 17 wagons of ammunition.

    The Grand Duke Nicholas was commander in chief of the Russian army (see note on the Russian Imperial family, below).  He and his General Staff realized that his army could not bypass Osman Pasha's forces (which, in a few days. received another 5,000 men). A force this large, equipped with the longer ranging Krupp artillery, could play havoc with communications and supply lines. He ordered Lt.Gen. Baron Krudner, who commanded the right wing of the Russian armies, to take his IX Corps, reinforced with a brigade of the XI Corps and a full division of the IV Corps, to Plevna to eliminate this rascal who dared to block his path.

    In 1877 a Russian army corps normally had 25,000 men, but many units were understrength, so Krudner also received what would later prove to be a mobile disaster, in the person of Lt. Gen. Prince Schachowskoi, who was commander of the 11th Army Corps. When the Prince arrived with one infantry and one cavalry brigade, he had already established a reputation for wild and foolish tactics, which sometimes succeeded and some­times failed, but always at the cost of lives and equipment.

    The Turkish General Staff at Sophia was overjoyed at the unexpected success that Osman Pasha had provided them. By July 22nd. they had brought his forces at Plevna up to 45,000 effectives and added to the number of Winchesters on hand.

    The Grand Duke wanted immediate action and sent Krudner an order to "Attack at the earliest possible moment."  Krudner responded by telegraph, saying that he had but 26,000 men and 186 artillery pieces, and the Turks had 50,000 men and unknown artillery at Plevna. The Grand Duke messaged back that his own intelligence was certain that there were only 27,000 Turks at Plevna and for Krudner to, "Attack at once!"

    General Michael Skobeleff of the 11th Corps was assigned to reconnoiter in strength and try to dislodge the Turks from Lovatz (modem name, Lovech), which is locat­ed about 20 miles south of Plevna on the Osma River. He observed large numbers of Turks but avoided serious con­tact, and, more importantly, he failed to recognize that the Turks in the Plevna region now outnumbered the Russians who were going to be sent against them.

    By July 30th, Krudner had received more ammunition and supplies and was ready to mount the attack demanded by the Grand Duke. A two-pronged attack on the north and eastern approaches to Plevna would consist of a left flank force having Maj. Gen. Skobeleff at the extreme end with one brigade of Cossacks plus one battalion of horse-drawn artillery with 16 guns. The inner left flank was commanded by Prince

Schachowskoi and had two brigades of infantry plus two squadrons of lancers and 48 guns. Two squadrons of lancers provided links between these left flank groups.

    On the extreme right flank was Maj. Gen. Loscharef with one regiment and one horse battery of six guns. The inner right flank was commanded by Lt. Gen. Veliaminof and consisted of two divisions of infantry with 80 guns. Another two squadrons of lancers would act as links between the two right flank groups. Gen. Krudner would personally keep control of the reserves (between the flanks), which con­sisted of one infantry brigade and four squadrons of lancers and dragoons, as well as one horse battery of 30 guns.

    Besides being outnumbered, the Russians had fatal defects in their plan. The two groups were too far apart to be of assistance to each other once the action commenced. Also, Osman Pasha had carefully placed his lines of trenches in undulating terrain, and attacking forces could not actually see the second and third lines of trenches until they would crest the various hills and ridges, at which time they were then exposed to rifle and cannon fire while the defend­ers remained well protected (see battle map of Plevna defenses).

Positions.jpg

from  Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 19, Number Four, August, 1997)
(copyright Man at Arms, 1997, Permission for use requested)
This drawing could be downloaded and expanded for additional detail.

Bibliography

Furneaux, Rupert. The Siege of Plevna.
Greene, F.V., Russian Campaigns In Turkey 1877-78.
Herbert, William V.Von Harlessem, The Defense of Plevna 1877.
Hozier, Capt. H.M., The Russo-Turkish War.
McDowell, R. Bruce, Evolution Of The Winchester.
Parsons, John E., The First Winchester.
Smith and Smith, The Small Arms Of The World.
Trotha, Thilo Von, Tactical Studies On The Battles Around Plevna.
Wilson, R.L., Winchester, An American Legend.

The Theory of Plunging Fire

plunging.jpg

from  Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 19, Number Four, August, 1997)
(copyright Man at Arms, 1997, Permission for use requested)

 Due to air resistance, a round ball bullet loses velocity much more rapidly than an elongated bullet. This resulted in muzzleloading (round ball) shoulder weapons being essentially unable to fire effectively at long range. Attacking forces could form up in plain view of the enemy, knowing that there would be no accurate small arms fire beyond 200-300 yards. For smoothbore, unrifled muskets, even this distance would be shortened to 40-100 yards.

     With the adoption of the breechloading rifle employing linen, paper or metallic cartridges, elongated bullets became the standard. Typically, such bul­lets were 2.0 to 2.8 calibers in length, with the average .42 to .45 cal. bullet being 2.4 calibers (1.08 inch) long. Such a bullet, when fired at 1,400 feet per second (fps) muzzle velocity (mv), had excellent total range and good terminal velocity due to its superior wind drag factor, heavier weight and sectional density.

     The year 1877 was still the era of the bayonet, sword and lance. The offi­cer corps in every army believed in the mantra of "Giving Them Cold Steel," and, in open field combat, it was indeed necessary to not have your charging ranks too far apart, lest the first ranks be unsupported when initial hand-to-hand contact was made. Military thinkers quickly determined that oncoming ranks of infantry that were bunched up closely were vulnerable to rifle fire far beyond the range at which the shooter could actually aim at a specific target.

     The accompanying diagram shows that a cartridge having a high trajectory permitted infantry to maintain relatively close spacing between their ranks at longer distances but at closer range or when a cartridge has a flatter trajectory, this safe distance between ranks is much greater. In the excitement and heat of battle it was all too easy to forget about rank spacing, and the Turks at Plevna not only had the terrain well marked and measured, but they were continually presented with ranks of Russian infantry that were much too close together, resulting in the soldiers in two or more ranks being potentially struck by any one bullet.

     The terrible losses experienced at long ranges were accepted by the Rus­sians without much thought to the cause. Military analysts and news reporters on the scene also failed to recognize what was being done incorrectly, and simply spoke of the "heavy casualties from long range fire."

How far will they shoot?
Maximum range for some 19th and 20th century military cartridges.

Name                                     Bullet wt.          Muzzle Vel. (fps)          Extreme Rng (yds)
U.S. 45 70 Govt.                     500gr.                       1,315                               3,500 (1)
French 1 I mm Gras                386gr.                       1,427                               3,271 ( 1 )
Spain/Egypt 43 Rem.              387gr.                       1,340                               3,062 (1)
U.S, 45 Peabody-Martini        485gr.                       1,375                               3,200 (1)(2)
U.S. 30-40 Krag                      220gr.                       2,000                               4,050
U.S. 30-06 M2                        152gr.                       2,800                               3,500 (3)
U.S. 30-06 MI                         174gr.BT                  2,600                               5,500 (3)
308 Win. (7.62 NATO)           150gr.                       2,820                               3,300 (2)(3)
223 Rem.(5,56mm NATO)       55gr                        3,240                               4,500 (2)(3)

(1) Black powder cartridge;  (2) Estimated data;    (3) Pointed nose. All others are round nose.

A Note on Names in the Russian Imperial Family...

As anyone who has read War and Peace can tell you, keeping track of Russian names can be an ordeal. This is especially true with the members of the Imperial family, which, with a singular lack of imagination, used the same names over and over again. Their titles don’t help much either since the Russians didn't make use of place names in their titles, as did the English.

   All of the sons of the Tzar except the Tsarevich, were Grand Dukes, as were all of the Tsar's Brothers and the sons of his brothers.  Between 1801 and 1917. there were five Tsars who were named Nicholas, and three were named Alexander.

   The Grand Duke Nicholas Nicilovich, who commanded the Russian Army in the war of 1877 was a son of Tsar Nicholas I and brother of Tsar Alexander II, then on the throne.  He was born in 1839 and died in 1891.  In World War I, the Russian army was also commanded by a Grand duke Nicholas Nikilovich, who was a son of this man -- making him a cousin of Tsar Alexander III and a second cousin of Tsar Nicholas II.  If all of this is very confusing to you, you’re not alone.  Anton Denikin, a prominent white general of the Russian civil war, recorded this story about his father:

 Conscripted as a serf in the reign of Nicholas I, Denikin’s father served twenty-five years and, because of his good record, was allowed to take an examination for an Officer’s Commission in the Frontier Guards. The qualifications were: The ability to do simple math, a simple test of reading and writing, regular attendance at church and knowing the genealogy of the Imperial family.

    (Joseph V. Puleo, Technical Editor)

Contact:  Man At Arms Magazine, for a copy of the back issue containing this article and for additional information on subscriptions and books published by Mowbray Publications.

Updated: Oct 29, 2021