20 June 19

“You have to persuade enough people to buy your product, in order to get the price low enough,
to persuade enough people to buy your product!”

Axiom of Capitalism

Western technology makes a surprise debut in Eastern Europe:

The Siege of Pleven (present-day Plevna, Bulgaria), 20 July 1877 through 10 Dec 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Fear of Islamic rule by mostly Christian Eastern Europeans dates back centuries and has sparked countless armed struggles in the region, but conflicting international interests often generated unlikely alliances!

As an example, the Crimean War (1853-56) pitted Russians against a fragile Ottoman/French/British alliance.

The French and British had scant affection for Islamic Ottomans, but they worried over Russian expansion into the area even more. And, with Ottoman power and influence within the region in serious decline, to no one’s surprise Russia’s was expanding!

Even so, France’s and Britain’s participation was notoriously half-hearted.

From Moscow, Karl Marx said of them:

“There they are, the French doing nothing, and the British helping them- as fast as possible.”

Like most wars of the era, the Crimean is remembered today mostly for its abject butchery, endless massacres of prisoners and non-combatants alike, and amazing incompetence on the part of military leaders, on all fronts.

Local civilian populations were fearful of both sides!

Massacres of Christians by Ottomans were common, as were massacres of Islamics by Christian Troops.

Many Jews, sometimes entire communities fled from Russians, right along with Ottoman troops, some finding refuge in, of all places, Constantinople! They surely feared Islamics, but feared Russian “Christians” even more. The “Crusades” had not been forgotten!

With few friends on her side, Russia sued for peace in March of 1856.

The French and British were grateful, as the War had become increasingly unpopular in both countries, but the “Paris Treaty” of 1856, like most, failed to settle contentious issues and thus virtually guaranteed fighting would break-out again, after a short “peace.”

The Ottomans never had any intention of complying!

Staggering Russian losses during the Crimean War served as a catalyst for long-overdue military and social reforms within Russia, but under Czar Nicolas I, they were slow in coming.

Too slow, as it turns out!

When fighting broke-out again (over the same, largely unsettled issues), Russia was unready, having failed to “modernize” fast enough, and although they would come out on top this time, they paid a hideous price!

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 pitted (once more) Ottomans against Russia.

Russia was joined by Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, all fearful of Islamic rule!

The British and French sat on the sidelines this time.

The Russian-led coalition “won,” with a number of contested regions formally breaking-away from Ottoman control, at least temporarily. Yet, as noted above, Ottomans never abandoned their ambition of controlling the entire area. That ambition and goal has remained uninterrupted to this day!

The Ottoman military, controlled from far-away Constantinople, was timid and ponderous.

Russians, after bitter lessons from the Crimean War, were more nimble, responsive, and less top-heavy this time.

In August 1877, a massive concentration of Romanian and Russian troops, led by General Alexandru Cernat, crossed the Danube and assaulted the Ottoman stronghold at Pleven. The strategy included a frontal attack, involving wave after wave moving forward over open ground onto dug-in Ottoman positions.

Unknown to Russians and their allies, the Ottomans had purchased 50,000 Model 1866 lever-action Winchester rifles, made in America, several years earlier, and they were on-hand in Pleven that morning!

By contrast, Russians were equipped with slow-firing, single-shot Krnka (muzzle-loaders converted to breech-loaders) and “trap-door” Berdan rifles.

The mismatch rapidly translated into monumental casualties among the Russians!

Line after line of advancing Russian infantry were mowed-down. Russian casualties were staggering, even by standards of the day!

Russian commanders were flabbergasted, having no idea the Ottomans possessed such firepower!

Only ten months earlier in the USA, George Custer’s command received a similar “surprise” in June of 1876 at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in present-day Montana, when Winchester-equipped Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho were able to generate sweeping firepower when attacking Custer’s troops, who were equipped with single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfield rifles.

An aggressive Ottoman counter-attack at that moment would have likely driven the astonished Russians all the way back to the Danube, but overly-cautious Ottomans never capitalized on their lop-sided victory, and paid a terrible price for their inaction!

For their part, Russians, embarrassingly forced to abandon their ruinous frontal-assault strategy, subsequently surrounded the city and settled-in for a prolonged siege. Their scheduled “advance” was thus held-up until the end of the year.

Ottoman General Osman was ultimately forced to surrender the City (now in the middle of winter) and what remained of his garrison.

The vast majority of Osman’s troops subsequently perished while in Russian captivity, of exposure and starvation.

That same unhappy fate awaited captured German soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad in February of 1943, just sixty-six years later.

Russians at that point (in both cases) were in no charitable mood!

They rarely are!

The “Treaty of San Stefano,” signed on 3 March 1878, is still to this day celebrated as “Liberation Day” in Bulgaria!

But, like the preceding Treaty of Paris of 1856, it settled little!

As a result of the embarrassing slaughter suffered at Pleven, Imperial Russia finally faced the fact that they needed to modernize. That realization was ultimately manifested in the excellent bolt-action Mosin-Nagant Rifle, but the process saw just its beginnings at Pleven.

The Mosin-Nagant Rifle would not be officially adopted by the Russians until 1891!

Curiously even after Pleven (and the Little Bighorn), repeating firepower inherent to Winchester lever-action rifles never attracted large military purchases, before, nor since!

Winchester lever-actions were expensive, far more costly than single-shot, even bolt-action rifles.

In addition, the prevailing belief among war planners of the era, was that common soldiers, mostly inadequately-trained conscripts, would predictably panic and squander ammunition when issued such advanced technology.

They also believed Winchester repeating rifles were not durable enough, and too difficult to maintain, to be considered for serious military service.

Except for the expense question, none of that was true. Nevertheless, the world’s armies would stick with single-shot rifles until the 1900s, after which war planners timidly started issuing magazine-fed, bolt-action rifles.

Although autoloading military rifles had existed since the turn of the Century, none were destined to see the light of day until WWII, mostly afterward!

As the 1800s came to a close, the world was to witness the nearly simultaneous “Last of the ‘Little’ Wars:”

Two Anglo-Boer (Dutch) Wars in South Africa

The Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria

The Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Philippines

The “Boxer Rebellion” in China

All fought with single-shot and bolt-action rifles.

Afterward, with less than a decade of “peace,” the Great Powers would be swept-up in WWI!

Bolt-action rifles would continue to rule the day!

Competing Russian, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian interests continued to define Eastern European politics, assorted “treaties” notwithstanding, and continue to this day!

“To be philosophical, one must love wisdom for its own sake, accept its permanent validity and yet its perpetual irrelevance.

It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history, yet never shape it.”

Shashi Tharoor