Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
AT THE GATES OF CONSTANTINOPLE
 FROM the days of Rurik down, a single desire—a single passion, we may say—has had a strong
hold upon the Russian heart, the desire to possess Constantinople, that grand gate-city between
Europe and Asia, with its control of the avenue to the southern seas. While it continued the capital
of the Greek empire it was more than once assailed by Russian armies. After it became the metropolis
of the Turkish dominion renewed attempts were made. But Greek and Turk alike valiantly held their
own, and the city of the straits defied its northern foes. Through the centuries war after war with
Turkey was fought, the possession of Constantinople their main purpose, but the Moslem clung to his
capital with fierce pertinacity, and not until the year 1878 did he give way and a Russian army set
eyes on the city so long desired.
In 1875 an insurrection broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, two Christian provinces under Turkish
rule. The rebellious sentiment spread to Bulgaria, and in 1876 Turkey began a policy of repression
so cruel as to make all Europe quiver with horror. Thousands of its most savage soldiery were let
loose upon the Christian populations south of the Balkans, with full license to murder and burn, and
 carnival of torture and massacre began. More than a hundred towns were destroyed, and their
inhabitants treated with revolting inhumanity. In the month of June, 1876, about forty thousand
Bulgarians, of all ages and sexes, were put to death, many of the children being sold as slaves in
the Turkish cities.
Of all the powers of Europe, Russia was the only one that took arms to avenge these slaughtered
populations. England stood impassive, the other nations held aloof, but Alexander II. called out his
troops, and once more the Russian battalions were set en route for the Danube, with Constantinople
as their ultimate goal.
In June, 1877, the Danube was crossed and the Russian host entered Bulgaria, the Turks retiring as
they advanced. But the march of invasion was soon arrested. The Balkan Mountains, nature's line of
defence for Turkey, lay before the Russian troops, and on the high-road to its passes stood the town
of Plevna, a fortress which must be taken before the mountains could safely be crossed. The works
were very strong, and behind them lay Osman Pacha, one of the boldest and bravest of the Turkish
soldiers, with a gallant little army under his command. The defence of this city was the central
event of the war. From July to September the Russians sought its capture, making three desperate
assaults, all of which were repulsed. In October the city was invested with an army of forty
thousand men, under the intrepid General Skobeleff, with a determination to win. But Osman held out
with all his old
stubborn-  ness, and continued his unflinching defence until starvation forced him to yield. He had lost his
city, but had held back the Russian army for nearly half a year and won the admiration of the world.
The fall of Plevna set free the large Russian army that had been tied up by its siege. What should
be done with these troops, more than one hundred thousand strong? The Balkans, whose gateways Plevna
had closed, now lay open before them, but winter was at hand, winter with its frosts and snows. An
attempt to cross the mountains at this time, even if successful, would bring them before strong
Turkish fortresses in midwinter, with a chain of mountains in the rear, over which it would be
impossible to maintain a line of supplies. The prudent course would have been to put the men into
winter quarters at the foot of the Balkans on the north and wait for spring before venturing upon
the mountain passes.
The Grand Duke Nicholas, however, was not governed by such considerations of prudence, but
deter-mined, at all hazards, to strike the Turks before they had time to reorganize and recuperate.
The army was, therefore, at once set in motion, General Gourko marching upon the Araba-Konak,
Radetzky upon the Shipka Pass. The story of these movements is a long one, but must be given here in
a few words. The bitter cold, the deep snow, the natural difficulties of the passes, the efforts of
the enemy, all failed to check the Russian advance. Gourko forced his way through all opposition,
took the powerful for-tress of Sophia without a blow, and routed an army
 of fifty thousand men on his march to Philippopolis. Radetzky did even better, since he captured the
Turkish army defending the Shipka Pass, thirty-six thousand strong. The whole Turkish defence of the
Balkans had gone down with a crash, and the Russians found themselves on the south side of the
mountains with the enemy everywhere on the retreat, a broken and demoralized host.
Meanwhile what had become of the Turkish population of the Balkans and Roumelia? There were none of
them to be seen; no fugitives were passed; not a Turk was visible in Sophia; the whole region
traversed up to Philippopolis seemed to have only a Christian population. But on leaving the
last-named city the situation changed, and a terrible scene of bloodshed, death, and misery met the
eyes of the marching hosts. It was now easy to see what had become of the Turks: they were here in
multitudes in full flight for their lives. The Bulgarians had avenged themselves bitterly on their
late oppressors. Dead bodies of men and animals, broken carts, heaps of abandoned household goods,
and tatters of clothing seemed to mark every step of the way. Fierce and terrible had been the
struggle, dreadful the result, Turks and Bulgarians lying thickly side by side in death. Here
appeared the bodies of Bulgarian peasants horrible with gaping wounds and mutilations, the marks of
Turkish vengeance; there beside them lay corpses of dignified old Turks, their white beards stained
with their blood.
While the men had died from violence, the women and children had perished from cold and hunger,
 many of them being frozen to death, the faces and tiny hands of dead children visible through the
shrouding snows. The living were dragging their slow way onward through this ghastly array of the
dead, in a seemingly endless procession of wagons, drawn by half-starved oxen, and bearing sick and
feeble human beings and loads of household goods. Beside the laden vehicles the wretched,
famine-stricken, worn-out fugitives walked, pushing forward in unceasing fear of their merciless
Farther on the scene grew even more terrible. The road was strewn with discarded bedding, carpets,
and other household goods. In one village were visible the bodies of some Turkish soldiers whom the
Bulgarians had stoned to death, the corpses half covered with the heaps of stones and bricks which
had been hurled at them.
Beyond this was reached a vast mass of closely packed wagons extending widely over roads and fields,
not fewer than twenty thousand in all. The oxen were still in the yokes, but the people had
vanished, and Bulgarian plunderers were helping themselves unresisted to the spoil. The great
company, numbering fully two hundred thousand, had fled in terror to the mountains from some Russian
cavalry who had been fired upon by the escort of the fugitives and were about to fire in return.
Abandoning their property, the able-bodied had fled in panic fear, leaving the old, the sick, and
the infants to perish in the snow, and their cherished effects to the hands of Bulgarian pilferers.
In advance lay Adrianople, the ancient capital of
 Turkey and the second city in the empire. Here, if anywhere, the Turks should have made a stand. But
news came that this stronghold had been abandoned by its garrison, that the wildest panic prevailed,
and that the Turkish population of the city and the surrounding villages was in full flight. At
daylight of the 20th of January the city was entered by the cavalry, and on the 22nd Skobeleff
marched in with his infantry, at once despatching the cavalry in pursuit of the retreating enemy.
The defence of Adrianople had been well provided for by an extensive system of earthworks, but not
an effort was made to bold it, and an incredible panic seemed everywhere to have seized the Turks.
Russia had almost accomplished the task for which it had been striving during ten centuries.
Constantinople at last lay at its mercy. The Turks still had an army, still had strong positions for
defence, but every shred of courage seemed to have fled from their hearts, and their powers of
resistance to be at an end. They were in a state of utter demoralization and ready to give way to
Russia at all points and accept almost any terms they could obtain. Had they decided to continue the
fight, they still possessed a position famous for its adaptation to defence, behind which it was
possible to hold at bay all the power of Russia.
This was the celebrated position of Buyak-Tchekmedje, a defensive line twenty-five miles from
Constantinople and of remarkable military strength. The peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea
of Marmora is at this point only twenty miles wide,
 and twelve of these miles are occupied by broad lakes which extend inland from either shore. Of the
remaining distance, about half is made up of swamps which are almost or quite impassable, while
dense and difficult thickets occupy the rest of the line. Behind this stretch of lake, swamp, and
thicket there extends from sea to sea a ridge from four hundred to seven hundred feet in height, the
whole forming a most admirable position for defence. This ridge had been fortified by the Turks with
redoubts, trenches, and rifle-pits, which, fully garrisoned and mounted with guns, might have proved
impregnable to the strongest force. The thirty thousand men within them could have given great
trouble to the whole Russian army, and double that number might have completely arrested its march.
Yet this great natural stronghold was given up without a blow, signed away with a stroke of the pen.
THE WALLS OF CONSTANTINOPLE
On January 31 an armistice was signed, one of whose terms was that this formidable defensive line
should be evacuated by the Turks, who were to retire to an inner line, while the Russians were to
occupy a position about ten miles distant. It was no consideration for Turkey that now kept the
Russians outside the great capital, but dread of the powers of Europe, which jealously distrusted an
increase of the power of Russia, and were bent on saving Turkey from the hands of the czar.
On February 12 an event took place that threatened ominous results. The British fleet forced the
passage of the Dardanelles and moved upon Constantinople, on the pretence of protecting the lives of
 British subjects in that city. As soon as news of this movement reached St. Petersburg the emperor
telegraphed to the Grand Duke Nicholas, giving him authority to march a part of his army into
Constantinople, on the same plea that the British had made. In response the grand duke demanded of
the sultan the right to occupy a part of the environs of his capital with Russian soldiers, the
negotiations ending with the permission to occupy the village of San Stefano, on the Sea of Marmora,
about six miles from the walls of the threatened city.
What would be the end of it all was difficult to foresee. On the waters of the city floated the
English iron-clads, with their mute threat of war; around the walls Turkish troops were rapidly
throwing up earthworks; leading officers in the Russian army chafed at the thought of stopping so
near their longed-for goal, and burned with the desire to make a final end of the empire of the
Turks and add Constantinople to the dominions of the czar. Yet though thus, as it were, on the edge
of a volcano, their ordinary policy of delay and hesitation was shown by the Turkish diplomats, and
the treaty of peace was not concluded and signed until the 3rd of March. The Russians had used their
controlling position with effect, and the treaty largely put an end to Turkish dominion in Europe.
The news of the signing was received with cheers of enthusiasm by the Russian army, drawn up on the
shores of the inland sea, the Preobrajensky, the famous regiment of Peter the Great, holding the
post of honor. Scarce a rifle-shot distant, crowding
 in groups the crests of the neighboring hills, and deeply interested spectators of the scene,
appeared numbers of their late opponents. The news received, the cheering battalions wheeled into
column, and past the grand duke went the army in rapid review, the march still continuing after
darkness had descended on the scene.
And thus ended the war, with the Russians within sight of the walls of that city which for so many
centuries they had longed and struggled to possess. Only for the threatening aspect of the powers of
Europe the Ottoman empire would have ended then and there, and the Turk, "encamped in Europe," would
have ended forever his rule over Christian realms.