Battle of Shipka Pass
The Battle of Shipka Pass consisted of four battles that were fought between the Russian Empire, aided by Bulgarian volunteers known as opalchentsi, and the Ottoman Empire for control over the vital Shipka Pass during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). The crucial moment came in August 1877, when a group of 5,000 Bulgarian volunteers and 2,500 Russian troops repulsed an attack against the peak by a nearly 40,000 strong Ottoman army.
|Battle of Shipka Pass|
|Part of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78)|
The Defence of the Eagle's Nest, Alexey Popov, 1893
|Commanders and leaders|
(1st and 4th Stage)
(3rd and 4th Stage)
(1st to 3rd Stage)
30,000 (1st stage)
|Casualties and losses|
211 on the first day|
3,600 (2nd stage)
4,000 (3rd stage)
1,122 killed and 4,362 wounded (4th stage)
Total: 13,500+ killed and wounded
10,000 killed (2nd stage)
10,000 (3rd stage)
4,000 killed or wounded and 36,000 surrendered (4th stage)
Total: 24,000+ killed and wounded; 36,000 captured
In July, 1877 four Russian corps crossed the Danube River and entered Bulgaria. To precede the main Russian army Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko led a detachment of 11.000 men to capture the vital Balkan Mountain passes. Gourko approached Shipka Pass, which was held by an Ottoman garrison of 4,000–5,000 soldiers under Suleiman Pasha.
Gourko’s orders required him to act in concert with Maj. Gen. Prince Nikolai Mirsky’s 9th Infantry Division, which was approaching Shipka Pass from the north. However, Gourko was delayed by having to force aside Turkish detachments and arrived at Shipka Pass one day late, on July 18.
Even without Gourko’s support, Mirsky pressed his attack on July 17 with the 36th (Orlovski) Infantry Regiment and some Cossacks, a force of more than 2,000 men and six guns. He was facing the Turkish force of 4,000 regular infantry, some Bashi-Bazouks, and 12 guns. Mirsky’s attack on the main Turkish positions failed, but secondary attacks captured mountains on both sides of the pass. The next day, July 18, as Mirsky rested his force, Gourko attacked from the south. He sent forward two battalions of riflemen and some dismounted Cossacks, but their attack failed as well; they suffered roughly 150 killed and wounded.
Despite beating back two Russian attacks, the Turkish commanders at Shipka Pass realized that they could not withstand a coordinated offensive from both north and south. On the morning of July 19, while pretending to consider the terms of surrender, the Turkish garrison slipped away to the west in small groups, leaving behind a large cache of explosives, ammunition, and artillery.
In just over two weeks Gourko had captured three important mountain passes but the main army was held up the day after Shipka Pass fell in the Siege of Pleven. Thus the defense of the pass was left to Bulgarian volunteers. The Ottoman Army made two major attempts to retake the pass in 1877, but was unsuccessful, as the Bulgarian volunteers were able to hold the pass against this overwhelming force, playing an important role in the war.
The Second Battle of Shipka Pass took place in August 1877.
After taking the pass in July, 1877 the Russian forces built up a defensive position there. Russian General Stoletov placed his 7,500 defenders (5,500 Bulgarians, 2,000 Russians) on three positions at St. Nicholas (today: Peak Stoletov), Central Hill and the reserves in between these two points.
Suleiman Pasha gathered 38,000 Ottomans and was determined to retake the pass instead of simply bypassing it. On August 21, the Ottoman forces bombarded Russian positions and then made an attack against St. Nicholas. The attack was repulsed and the Ottoman forces dug in 100 yards (91 m) away. The next day the Ottoman forces moved their artillery up the mountain side and bombarded the pass while the infantry moved around the Russian flank. On August 23, the Ottoman forces attacked all Russian positions with the main effort again at St. Nicholas where most of the defenders were Bulgarian volunteers. The Ottoman forces thought that the volunteer positions would be easy to capture, but this turned out to be their greatest mistake. Instead, the first unit that began to retreat were the Russians on Central Hill. However, they rallied when the 4th Rifle Brigade arrived and all Ottoman attacks were repulsed. On the 26th, an Ottoman attack on St. Nicholas ( a position referred to as "the Eagle's Nest") reached the Russian trenches but was repulsed again by a Bulgarian bayonet charge. More Russian reinforcements arrived and on the 26th, an attack was made against the Ottoman position but driven back to Central Hill. This ended the battle for all practical purposes.
The Russians and Bulgarians had made a gallant stand. Near the end having run out of ammunition, they threw rocks and bodies of fallen comrades to repulse the Ottoman attacks. Suleiman Pasha would attempt to retake the pass one more time in 1877.
Suleiman Pasha made a second attempt to retake Shipka Pass from the Russians after a failed attempt in August. The Russian defenses had continually been worked on since August but reinforcements were limited due to the siege of Plevna. On September 13, Suleiman began to shell the Russians. The bombardment continued in earnest until the 17th when Suleiman launched a frontal assault against the St. Nicholas position. Capturing the first line of trenches, the Ottoman forces moved towards the summit. General Fyodor Radetzky, now commanding the defenses, brought up reinforcements and a Russian counterattack drove the Ottoman forces from all captured ground. Secondary Ottoman assaults to the north were repulsed as well. This would be the last attempt the Ottoman forces made to retake Shipka Pass.
The Fourth Battle of Shipka Pass from January 5–9 was the final battle for Shipka Pass and a crushing Ottoman defeat.
In December, 1877, the fortress of Plevna surrendered to the Russian Army, freeing a significant number of Russian troops. General Gourko now had as many as 65,000 soldiers to contend with the Ottomans. First Gourko forced the Araba Konak Pass and took Sofia. From Sofia, he moved south through the Balkan Mountains to cut off the Ottoman army fronting Shipka Pass.
General Fyodor Radetzky, commanding the garrison, made preparations to attack from the pass on January 5 while Gourko brought up two columns under Generals Mikhail Skobelev and Nikolai Mirskii to cut off the Ottoman retreat. On January 8, Radezky's attack began but Skobelev was held up by unexpectedly heavy resistance and Mirskii attacked unsupported, making little progress. On January 9, Mirskii faced an Ottoman counter-attack, but Skobelev was able to move forward in support and defeat the Ottoman forces. Completely surrounded, the remaining Ottoman forces under Veissel Pasha surrendered the same day.
The defensive victory at the Shipka Pass had strategic importance for the progress of the war. Had the Ottomans been able to take the pass, they would be in a position to threaten the supply lines of Russian forces in Northern Bulgaria, and organize an operation to relieve the major fortress at Pleven which was under siege at that time. If the Ottoman Empire took the Shipka pass, the war effectively would be fought only in North Bulgaria from that point on, which would have led to a stalemate with the Ottoman Empire having a major advantage in peace negotiations.
The Bulgarian volunteers played a decisive role in defending the Shipka Pass, thus denying the Ottomans a major breakthrough and a chance to turn the tide of the war. This strategic defensive victory illustrates the important role Bulgarian volunteers played in the war and was dramatized by the Bulgarian poet and writer Ivan Vazov in his ode The volunteers at Shipka.
This victory ensured the fall of the Pleven fortress on December 10th, 1877, and set the stage for the invasion of South Bulgaria. It allowed Russian forces under Gourko to crush Suleiman Pasha's army at the Battle of Philippopolis several days later and threaten Constantinople.
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