The unrest, which had been felt in Herzegovina before, provoked an uprising in July 1875 after an attack by a hajduk company on Turkish kiridji on the Mostar-Nevesinje road. The whole of southern Herzegovina took up arms, and the Ottoman Empire was not able to quickly quell the uprising using regular troops but had to draw them from other parts of the empire. The first successes of the insurgents disturbed and startled the spirits in Serbia at the beginning of August. A patriotic sense of public opinion was awakened in the Principality, which sought to help the one-tribe brothers. In Serbia, the bureaucratic government of Danilo Stevanović supported the warlike current and openly helped the Herzegovinian insurgents. In July 1876, Prince Milan Obrenović visited Vienna. During the meeting with the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Jules Andrassy, he received assurances that the uprising was only a local event, which would not disturb the peace, because the Trinity Alliance, formed in 1873 by agreement between Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, would not allow it. On that occasion, the prince received advice that it is wisest for the Balkan states to remain strictly neutral. Milan got engaged to Natalie Keshko in Vienna and, calmed down by the conversation with Andrassy, he thought that the Herzegovinian uprising was not so important. His return to Belgrade showed him all the greatness of the patriotic charge and nationalist enthusiasm of the Serbian audience. However, the young prince was an opponent of the war. According to Slobodan Jovanović, deprived of belligerent feelings and burning nationalism as a man brought up abroad, and with a sharp mind, he soberly observed the political situation. Without allies, in a situation where the Great Powers want to preserve peace, Milan foresaw the probable defeat of Serbian weapons in the fight against the Ottoman Empire and the danger to his own survival on the throne.

The government of Stevča Mihailović, formed in August 1875, where the tone of foreign policy was set by Jovan Ristić, did not want to remain just an observer of events in Herzegovina. Both the prince and the government left the newly elected Parliament, which was liberal in its course, to resolve the issue of the attitude towards the uprising. At the session of the Parliament at the end of August 1875 in Kragujevac, a decision was made to support the Herzegovinian movement. Only Prince Milan, due to the pressure of the Great Powers to calm down the conflict and the belligerent attitude of the Ottoman Empire, was inclined to inactivity and refused to sign the decisions of the Parliament. The young ruler decided to take an unusual step. At the beginning of October, he suddenly appeared in the Parliament, wanting to address it directly without the presence of ministers. The government resigned on this sign of distrust. Prince Milan gave a speech against the current entry into the war, and then he received the Members of Parliament at the court and asked them to declare whether they were in favor of the conflict or not. With a bold move, the young ruler took over the leadership of the Parliament from the Liberals and made it up to him whether there would be a war or not. The diplomacy of the Trinity Alliance approved Milan’s move, believing that it preserved peace, while the reactions in the country were completely different. Namely, Serbian public opinion was in favor of the war, and the few opponents of the war did not express their opinion publicly. The prince was forced to form a new government that will not be as belligerent as the previous one and will make it seem that the prince did not betray the national struggle. The government of Ljubomir Kaljević was formed, composed of younger conservatives and liberals, which was considered to direct Serbia in the direction of peaceful politics. True, the prepared volunteer companies were disarmed, troops were not sent to the border, and at the end of March 1876, the government, under pressure from Austria-Hungary, stated that Serbia would not attack Turkey and would not interfere with the conciliatory policies of the Great Powers. But, as the conflict in Herzegovina did not end, the insurgents were given money and weapons, the Parliament’s decisions related to supporting the uprising, although mitigated, were accepted and neither enthusiasm nor preparation for war was interrupted. Prince Milan had the last word on the war. But his position was not easy. Without a political party that would support him, without support in the army, without personal authority, unsure of the encouragement of the forces in the Trinity Alliance to persevere in peaceful politics, especially because of the belligerent writing of the unofficial Russian press and the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, the young ruler could not long resist the nationalist enthusiasm of the Serbian public. After months of hesitation, Prince Milan decided to go to war with the Ottoman Empire.

In May 1876, the government of Kaljević gave way to the government of Stevča Mihailović, called the Ministry of Action. The government’s first moves were to complete financial and diplomatic preparations for the war, but it did not have much success. Only Montenegro has agreed to take part in the future conflict. The great powers were resolutely against any further complications in the Balkans, and the government and the prince were especially interested in the attitude of Russia, on which Serbia, since 1871 and Milan’s trip to Livadia, relied. Authoritative Russian diplomatic circles have advised refraining from interfering in the Herzegovinian uprising, but Russia’s envoy to Constantinople, General Ignatiev, unofficial press and the “Slavic Committees” encouraged Serbian action. The arrival of the famous General Chernyayev in Serbia in May 1876, as an envoy of the Slavophile current, indicated the existence of Russian support. However, official Moscow did not approve of General Chernyayev’s mission. An additional confusion was introduced by the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Kartsov, who at one point transmitted message from one side and at another messages from the other side. At the same time, negotiations between Russia and Austria-Hungary were underway, which would result in the agreement in the Reichstadt of July 8th, 1876. According to the agreement, if the Ottoman Empire defeats Serbia and Montenegro in the war, they will be guaranteed the position and land they had before the war, and if the Ottoman Empire loses, Serbia and Montenegro would expand territorially in the Novi Pazar Sandžak, while Austro-Hungary got Bosnia, and Russia Bessarabia. Encouraged by the attitude of Slavophiles, the prince and the government embarked on a war adventure, initially unaware of the agreement between the two Great Powers and the fact that there is no support from official Russian diplomatic circles.

Veteran’s Memorial of Milan M. Obrenović IV, December 28th, 1878, Belgrade, printed on paper, 33.6 x 24.2 cm, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-1704).

Already in the middle of May, the plan of war operations of the Serbian army against the Ottoman Empire was determined. Under the pressure of Prince Milan and General Chernyayev, the prevailing opinion was that the main attack would be directed in the direction of Niš, where the majority of enemy troops were, while the defense was planned in the west towards Bosnia. Four large armies were organized: Moravia, under the command of General Chernyayev with 68,000 fighters, which marched in the direction of Niš; Timok, under the command of Colonel Lešjanin with 25,000 fighters, defending the eastern border; Drina, under the command of General Alimpić with 20,000 fighters, with the task of defending the western border, and Ibar, under the command of General Zach with 11,500 fighters, which was directed towards Sjenica.

The proclamation of war was published on June 30th, 1876, and the first platoon was fired two days later. The war started, but without much success. The Drina Army crossed the Drina, reached Bjeljina, where it fortified itself. The Ibar Army crossed the border and headed towards Sjenica, where it was stopped after the battle, and General Zach was removed. The Timok Army captured Kula but was quickly suppressed and relinquished a strategically important position – Veliki Izvor. The Moravian Army conquered the position of Babina glava and approached Ak-Palanka, but it had to withdraw on the news of the failure of the Timok army. On July 18th, 1876, an attempt by the Timok army, aided by part of the Moravian Gate of Veliki Izvor, ended in failure.

The beginning of the war revealed the real balance of power of the warring parties. It turned out that the army of the Ottoman Empire has newer and better weapons, that, in contrast to the Serbian, mostly people’s army, it sent the best regular troops. The Serbian side did not have enough officers and lacked the skills of senior command. On top of all that, the planned general Balkan uprising against Turkey was missing, there was no operational cooperation with the Montenegrin army, and Russian aid was neither as good as expected at first. The Supreme Commander of the Serbian Army, Milan Obrenović, quickly saw the real situation and saw that the Serbian Army did not have the strength for offensive actions, and as he was afraid of joining the defensive, he proposed a two-month truce to the government. The government advocated an offensive on the western border but agreed with the young ruler that the attack would be postponed until the Turkish attack from the east was repulsed, and that Milan would not seek a truce on its own.

The Turkish offensive was launched at the end of July 1876 in the vicinity of Knjaževac, which was bravely defended by Colonel Horvatović. However, after a few days, Knjaževac fell into the hands of the enemy, followed by Zaječar. Due to this development, the Timok army was merged with the Moravian army, and General Chernyayev became the joint commander. A new Turkish offensive was launched at the beginning of August from Niš to Aleksinac, which defended the entrance to the strategically extremely important Moravian valley. Suppressing the Serbian army, Turkish troops attacked the fortified Šumatovac trench on August 11th, which withstood all attacks, aided by artillery from Aleksinac positions. The Battle of Šumatovac was the most famous feat of the Serbian army in the war with the Ottoman Empire in 1876, and the commander of the defense of Aleksinac, Colonel Kosta Protić, received the rank of general.

Exhausted after the defeat, the Turkish army directed the blade of its attack from the right to the left bank of the Morava, which was not well fortified. In the first days of September, the Serbian army was pushed from Adrovac to the Đunis-Šiljegovac defense line. The plan of the Turkish troops was to secure themselves from a side attack from the positions in Aleksinac, by crossing to the right bank of the Morava and thus cutting off the connection between Aleksinac and Deligrad. The Serbian army fortified itself on the right bank of the Morava near Bobovište and on September 11th repulsed the Turkish attack. At that moment, the initiative of the Great Powers arrived to sign an armistice. After consultations with the military commanders, Prince Milan declared that he agreed to the offered mediation. Porta agreed only after the pressure of the Great Powers, but as it had not yet agreed on the terms of peace, it agreed to an actual truce by September 25th.

Increased interest of the Russian public in the war in Serbia was caused by the collection and sending of financial aid and the increased influx of volunteers. General Chernyayev’s influence seemed to be at its peak. The Russian general, whose plan was to prolong the war until Russia joined it, proclaimed Serbia as a kingdom and Prince Milan as king at the first vote on the armistice on September 16th in Deligrad. Under pressure from the Great Powers, Prince Milan stated that “he will not give consequences to the proclamation of the kingdom”, and the “Deligrad event” did not prevent the establishment of a truce.

On September 24th, Porta proposed that the truce be extended for another seven days. Opinions on that issue were divided in the government of Stevča Mihailović, but Prince Milan decided to continue the war. As early as September 28th, 1876, General Chernyayev attacked Turkish positions on the left bank of the Morava. The two-day battle on Krevet began, the bloodiest battle of the war. Since the Turks mostly kept their positions, the battle was only a partial success of the Serbian army. Both sides were so exhausted that even without a ceasefire, hostilities ceased by the middle of next month.

The new Turkish offensive was launched in mid-October 1876 and was directed against Đunis, who was strategically extremely important due to his connections with Aleksinac, Deligrad and Kruševac. In the battle near Veliki Šiljegovec, from October 19th to 21st, the Turkish army was successful and suppressed Horvatović’s troops, which defended the access to Đunis. As early as October 29th, an attack was launched on Đunis, which was quickly conquered. The fall of Đunis was a real catastrophe and a bad end to the war for the Serbian army. General Chernyayev telegraphed that the situation was critical and that an armistice was urgently needed. After the withdrawal of the Serbian army on the line Deligrad-Kruševac, Chernyayev, accompanied by Russian soldiers, unexpectedly left Serbia.

The government of Stevče Mihailović immediately requested Russia’s mediation in order to conclude a truce. Before the Russian ultimatum, Porta agreed to cease hostilities, and a two-month truce was concluded on November 2nd. Negotiations between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire on concluding peace went more or less smoothly, because both sides were interested in returning relations to the pre-war state. The Protocol of Peace was signed on February 28th, 1877, and five days later Prince Milan announced that peace had been established.

The first war with the Ottoman Empire cost Serbia dearly. According to Slobodan Jovanović, the Serbian army had about 5,000 soldiers killed, about 9,500 wounded and about 1,000 missing. The financial damage was enormous, and the parts of the country that were occupied were terribly damaged. Although the war did not bring material, it represented a significant moral gain. The Serbian question and the common interests of the Serbian people in the Principality and Bosnia were brought before the judgement of Europe and an enviable national solidarity was shown. The Serbian army and diplomacy were beginning to gain the experience needed for the next major effort.

Darko Gučanin
historian, archivist
Director of the National Museum Kraljevo

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