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The Serbo-TurkishWar 1876




This article deals with a little known prelude to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. For the wargamer it offers an alternative opponent for those owning a Turkish army of the period and opens up the possibility of a wider campaign game.

There was at the time significant British interest in the war. Gladstone made it the political issue of the day attacking Disraeli's policy of support for the Porte against Russian expansion. This encouraged the usual late Nineteenth century practice of professional soldiers turning up uninvited to observe (or sometimes participate in) the latest war. In addition humanitarian missions provided first aid to both sides. Happily for us several of these participants recorded their observations giving us an English language view of the war.


In 1875 a revolt broke out in Herzgovina more against the local rulers than the Ottoman Empire. Russian foreign policy influenced by the Panslavists did little to discourage Serbian and Montenegrin support for the revolt. This was the age of romantic nationalism and revolutionary drive in the Balkans and the governments of both Serbia and Montenegro were forced by public opinion into declaring war against the Ottoman Empire by the summer of 1876. 3,000 Russian volunteers poured into the area and General Cherniaev who had been responsible for Russian success in Central Asia took command of the Army of the Morava.


The main Serbian army under Cerniaev concentrated at the Southern fortress of Aleksinac. It consisted of 3 Serbian divisions and a variety of volunteer formations totaling about 45,000 men. In the North-East, Lesjanin based at Saicar commanded an infantry division (6000) with cavalry support and the Bulgarian Legion (2000). In the West there were two weak divisions (5000 each), one in the South-West at Usica commanded by Zack and one in the North-West at Sabac commanded by Alympic.

The main Turkish army was based at Sofia under Abdul Kerim with 50,000 men plus irregular Bashi-Bazouks and Circassians. There was a garrison at the border fortress of Nis commanded by Mehemet with 8000 men. In the North-West at Vidin, Osman Nuri had 23,000 men. In the west there were small garrisons at Bjelina and Zvornik with a larger force (12,000 mostly Arabs and Egyptians) under Dervish and Mehemet Ali in the Sanjak.


The war can be divided into three phases:

1. Serbian Offensive - July/August 1876

The ambitious Serbian plan was to mask Nis and attack Sofia with the main army under Cherniaev. Other armies would launch diversionary attacks. In the west these were repulsed and in the North-East Lesjanin was defeated at Kior. He failed to hold the Turkish counterattack on the Timok river and fell back to the fortress at Saicar which itself fell on 7th August.

The main advance in the south began well, thrusting down the Nisava valley and capturing the important heights at Babina Glava north of Pirot. The Turks then responded with two columns under Suleiman and Hafiz, flanking the Serbs and forcing them back up the valley. In a series of fierce actions Cherniaev was forced back to the heights covering the frontier town of Kniasevac. Wrongly believing the main attack would be at Saicar to the north, he left Colonel Horvatovic at Kniasevac with insufficient forces to repel the combined Turkish columns. Chernaiev withdrew into the mountains west of the Timok to defend the Morava valley.

2. The Morava Battles - August 1876

The Turkish commander Abdul Kerim decided against storming the difficult mountain position between the Timok and Morava. Instead he concentrated 40,000 troops at Nis and advanced up the easier country of the Morava valley towards Aleksinac. Cherniaev had less than 30,000 men stretched across both sides of the Morava and into the mountains. Turkish firepower followed by a frontal attack with the bayonet drove the Serbians in rout back to Aleksinac. Only Abdul Kerim's indecision and the arrival of Horvatovic's fresh division steadied the line at Djunis.

3. The Battles of Djunis - October 1876

Following a brief armistice and the failure of negotiations the new Serbian commander Horvatovic attacked the Turkish positions from Djunis to Aleksinac on 28th September. They were repulsed all along the front. The Turks regrouped and on 19th October the Division of Adyl Pasha launched a surprise attack on the Serbian right. This attack eventually forced the Serbians back to Deligrad. On 29 October this heavily fortified position was also stormed and the road to Belgrade lay open to the Turks.

Serbia was saved by a Russian ultimatum backed up by 200,000 troops in Bessarabia. The armistice and subsequent convention in February 1877 served only as a respite before hostilities were recommenced in the later stages of the Russo-Turkish War.


The Ottoman army of this period is well documented and readers are advised to consult Ian Drury 'The Russo-Turkish War 1877' Osprey MAA 277. Substantial numbers of Redif troops were called up for this war mostly armed with former British Sniders. The superior Peabody-Martini was becoming more widely available and was certainly used by the Egyptian troops. Krupp breechloaders are most frequently mentioned although there must have been significant numbers of bronze guns. Turkish troops performed well during the war albeit badly officered and inadequately supplied.


In 1875 the Serbian Ministry of War claimed the first ban of the army was 90,000 strong (75,000 effectives) and the second ban 51,000 (48,000 effectives). In fact less than 60,000 troops organised into six divisions materialised. The main rifle was the M.1870 Serbian Peabody which had a performance similar to the Russian Krnk. Whilst this was the best weapon available to Serbian troops many had to make do with the erratic M.1867 Serbian Greene conversion or even muzzle-loaders. Artillery batteries contained a variety of mostly bronze guns almost all inferior to the Turkish Krupps. There were very few cavalry squadrons reflecting the nature of the terrain and those which existed were poorly equipped. One volunteer squadron in the Morava army had to share a handful of pistols!

Uniform details are somewhat sparse. Knotel describes the regulation uniform as a double-breasted dark blue tunic with red distinctions, yellow metal buttons and forage caps. However eyewitness descriptions appear to indicate that this was the dress uniform worn mostly by officers and the few regular troops in the 1st ban. On campaign observers usually refer to a plain brown jacket and 'Glengarry-shaped' forage cap "cut in the same way at each end... made of coarse grayish-blue cloth". This is probably the traditional brown peasant costume which was worn by the 2nd ban. The Serbian standard (Red, Blue and White vertical stripes) was a frequent sight.

The volunteer forces add some colour to this army. Russian volunteers were initially mostly NCO's and officers, but later formed Russian battalions. There were Cossack lancers in their Russian uniforms a practice which became more common for all Russian troops as the war progressed. The Bulgarian Legion suffered heavy casualties at Kior although a reduced battalion was present in the Morava battles. There were also significant numbers of German, French, and Italian officers as well as a few British and Austrians.

Perhaps the most colourful unit was a 500 strong battalion of Montenegrins in their national dress consisting of a long white knee length coat, richly ornamented coloured waistcoat and jacket with either red or multi striped sash. Wide blue or white pantaloons and white gaiters. A black round cap with a flat crimson top. A British officer described their assault tactics as during the night before the attack laying guns at 100 yard intervals starting 700 yards from the enemy position. During the attack they would fire each gun, drop it and advance to the next line etc. The attack would be completed with the yataghan sword. They then sliced off the ears and noses of the vanquished!

Serbian troops generally did not perform well. They were mostly totally inexperienced militia whose early enthusiasm for the war was blunted by the reality of warfare with breach loading weapons.


Ottoman and Russian figures present no problems with in 15mm the most extensive range being manufactured by Awesome Enterprises. To the best of my knowledge no company produces Serbian figures, which therefore requires some modest conversions. The only real problem is the 'Glengarry' forage cap. British infantry figures are probably the best starting point as the Glengarry was the undress cap of many English as well as Scottish regiments from 1868. Just file down both ends and remove the tuft and tails.

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