Tucked away in the car park of Finland’s Ministry of Defence is a little known memorial to a little known battle.
I came across this memorial doing research on the military of the Grand Duchy of Finland. I knew that Finnish troops had seen limited service during the Russian Empire era but wasn’t aware of any large scale battles.
|The memorial as it stands today. Source: puolustusministeriö|
So recently I was returning to Northern Ireland to visit family and thought I would see if I could visit the memorial for pictures. However due to not being a Finnish citizen and the area is classified as a military zone, I wasn’t allowed to visit. Gratefully though the Public Affairs Officer offered to send my a USB with pictures of the memorial for me to use.
How it all arrived. Source: Personal Collection
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 is seen by many historians as the most important war between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. The two empires had clashed several times since the formation of the Russian Empire in 1721, as well as numerous times before that. The main reason for their conflicts was the gaining and regaining of territories along each others borders but there was always underlying and secondary factors as well.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the mighty Ottoman Empire in decline due to economic instability, internal insecurity and outside influences. Within the multinational empire, a growing nationalism resulted in several rebellions starting with the Serbian Revolution of 1804-17. By 1875 the Ottoman Empire was in bankruptcy, suffering from famine and strife, and thanks to the abuses of the local leaders, Bosnia and Herzegovina broke out in rebellion. This rebellion started the Balkan Crisis; the Bulgarian Uprising of 1876, the Serbo-Turkish War 1876–78 and Montenegrin–Ottoman War 1876–78.
|Soliders of the Battalion taken shortly after the conclusion of the Battle of Gorni Dubnik. Source: Wikimedia|
Russia saw an opportunity to gain territory, as well as establishing independent, Pan-Salvic Balkan nations to help secure their southern borders. After some diplomatic maneuvering with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia declared war on the Ottomans on 24 April 1877 and sent a force of 185,000 through the Turkish ruled Principality of Romania. The Ottomans were overconfident and believed that a strategy of passive defence focused around their forts equipped with superior firepower coupled with the stereotype of Russian incompetence would win them the day. It was not to be the case. While the campaign did highlight massive flaws within the Russian military, caused higher casualties and forced the Great Powers of Europe to intervene on side of the Turks, the Russian military succeed in marching to the steps of Constantinople. The end result of the war saw Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro independence, regaining of Kars and Batum (which Russia had lost during the Crimean War) and the establishing of the Principality of Bulgaria.
The Battle of Gorni Dubnik
The Russian military quickly advanced through Romania and crossed the Danube, in response to this the Ottoman high command ordered Osman Nuri Paşa to take his force of 15,000 to hold the fortress of Nikopol. Before he could get there though, the fortress had been captured by Russian forces and so Osman redirected his troops to the town of Plevna. He knew the small rural town set within a deep rocky valley would be on the route of the advancing Russians and so set about making the area defensible. Almost overnight the area was turned into a formidable redoubt, covered in trenches, earthworks and gun emplacements. General Yuri Schilder-Schuldner of the Russian 9th Division had been ordered to take his 9,000 strong division to take the town of Plevna. When he arrived on the evening of the 19th July he saw the impressive defences arrayed before him and told his guns to begin their bombardment.
|Map of the battle. The Finnish Guard can be seen on the bottom right of the picture. Source: Wikimedia|
The morning of the 20th July saw the beginning of a 5 month siege that dragged in approximately 200,000 soldiers and resulted in the deaths of over 55,000. By the end of the summer, the Russians had concluded that the town would not fall through means of forced frontal assaults. With this in mind, a new strategy of encirclement and cutting off the chains of supply was enacted. This meant that the surrounding towns and villages needed to be brought under Russian control. One of these was the village of Gorni Dubnik.
Gorni Dubnik was a small village which lay on the road between Plevna and Sofia and thus made it a crucial communication line for the Turkish forces besieged in Plevna. Ahmed Hifzi Pasha and his force of 7,000-10,000 men had built up a strong defence with two redoubts encompassed with numerous entrenchments and had orders to hold at all costs. The Russians brought some 20,000 troops with them, including the Finnish Guards' Rifle Battalion, under the command of General Iosif Vladimirovich Roman-Gurko. General Gurko planned the attack to strike from three sides, the north-east, east and south-east, with the advance starting at 7 in the morning of the 24 October 1877. The Finnish Guards’ were part of the north-east advance and engaged the enemy soon after. The engagement was bloody and the Russian forces, which preferred the Suvorov doctrine of Cold Steel over long range rifle fire, saw their casualties mount. However by 3 in the afternoon, the decisive attack was launched, with all forces pushing against the main redoubt. The battle became so intertwined by the two opposing forces that the Russia guns were forced to cease fire for fear of hitting their own men. After a viscous assault by infantry and a heavy close range cannonade, the white flag was hoisted over the burning garrison at 6 in the evening. The battlefield had claimed over 850 Russian lives and over 1,000 Turkish lives.
|Close up of the memorial. Source: puolustusministeriö|
For the Finnish Guard, they had suffered 22 dead and 95 wounded (two of the wounded died soon afterwards). During the battle they had fired some 1,850 shots and had advanced all the way to the redoubt. This first blooding for the Battalion had a profound effect upon not only the unit but upon the Finnish nation as a whole, who held the battle up as an example of their loyalty to their Emperor and of the bravery of the Finnish people. The Battalion saw itself used in a handful of minor engagements after that, even making its way to San Stefano by the end of the war. Due to their sacrifices, bravery and loyalty, the Emperor promoted the Battalion to the status of the Old Guards.
On the fourth anniversary of the battle a memorial was unveiled in the courtyard of the Guards’ barracks. The work of Finnish Swede Frans Anatolius Sjöström, it was placed as a monument to those who gave their lives during the war but also as a place to celebrate the courageousness of the Finnish Guard.
|Close up of part of the memorial. Written first in Swedish and then Finnish, the dedication is for the remembrance of the fallen. Source: puolustusministeriö|
On the memorial is the names of 27 of the fallen (some died from a later Typhoid fever epidemic) and sees a wreath laying twice a year, on the anniversary of the battle and Liberation Day, Bulgaria’s national day, 3rd March.
|Some of the names upon the memorial. Source: puolustusministeriö|
Unfortunately the site is within the courtyard of the Ministry of Defence and as such is a military area. This means it is a restricted area, so please don’t attempt to visit without seeking permission from the Ministry beforehand. A special thanks to the puolustusministeriö public affairs team for answering my email and providing a USB with the pictures.
Laitila, Teuvo, The Finnish Guard in the Balkans (Gummerus Oy, Saarijärvi, 2003)
Luntinen, Pertti, The Imperial Russian Army and Navy in Finland 1808-1918 (Suomen Historiallinen Seura, Helsinki, 1997)