Bismarck recognized the potential dangers posed by a Franco-Russian alliance. In 1875, France’s rapid military recovery led to public concern in Germany, prompting press rumors of a possible German preventive war and an ensuing European war scare. Bismarck, to his dismay, saw both Great Britain and Russia fall into alignment and pressure Germany to avoid such a strike. While no such attack was in the offing, the German chancellor recognized the reality of a possible British-Russian alliance should Germany move offensively against France. Just as important, the scare focused French attention on securing an agreement with Russia. For the time being, however, any such alliance, be it with Russia or Austria, remained more of a dream than likelihood.
The situation in the Balkans further complicated German efforts to prevent either Austria or Russia from moving toward the French. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was more than the sick man of Europe; it was the terminal man of Europe. The various Christian ethnic groups in the Balkans—Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians, and even Muslims in Bosnia and Albania—sought independence. The Serbs, independent since 1867, wanted more territory and an outlet to the Adriatic. This reality caused perpetual instability in the region that complicated the diplomacy of not just Germany, but also the rest of the European powers. To further complicate matters, as Bismarck sought to navigate Balkan intrigues while maintaining ties with Russia and Austria, he simultaneously worked to extend German influence in the Ottoman Empire.
Austria and Russia, especially the latter, had their own designs on the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. The Austrians feared that unrest and nationalist sentiments in the Balkans could undermine their own rule over the non-German and mostly Slavic peoples—Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Croatians, Slovenes, Serbs, and the mixed Slavic populations of Montenegro and Herzegovina—of their own empire. Russian policy was driven by two forces: a long-standing desire to control the Turkish straits and pan-Slavic sentiment that meant support for Bulgarian and Serbian nationalists, which presumed a new political alignment in the Balkans and the probable collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
In July 1875, as the war scare swept European capitals, an insurrection erupted in Herzegovina, and then another in Bosnia, against Ottoman rule. The following May, the revolt spread to Bulgaria. In June, the Serbs joined the conflict against the Turks, and in July, the Montenegrins entered the battle.
The Ottomans still had some fight left in them and, compared to their Balkan enemies, were well armed and equipped. By September, the Turks had soundly defeated the Serbs, who turned to Russia for help. The Russians approached the Germans for support, but Berlin refused. On 31 October, the Russians moved unilaterally and issued an ultimatum that forced the Turks to halt their offensive. A congress convened in Istanbul in December 1875, but failed to reach an accord. In January 1876, the Russians, eager to avoid a broader war, reached a bilateral accord with the Austrians and on 24 April 1877 declared war on the Ottoman Empire. On 10 May 1877, the principality of Romania, which, despite being under nominal Turkish rule, had granted permission to the Russians to cross its territory, declared its independence from the Ottomans.
The Ottoman Empire, despite its state of decline, was not entirely outclassed by Russia. Wartime reports from foreign military observers traveling or serving with the tsar’s army documented its innumerable flaws, including lackluster leadership and planning by an amateurish officer corps, abysmal medical care for the ranks with regard to the treatment of combat casualties and the avoidance of disease, notable weaknesses among the transport service and supply corps, and poor discipline among the Cossack units. Geography also worked against the Russians. Neither railroads nor adequate sea transport in the Black Sea basin connected the two theaters of war—the Caucasus and the Balkans. To reach Istanbul, the Russians had to march over 450 miles and cross the Lower Danube and the Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountains). Moreover, in an industrial-era war in which troops, supplies, and ammunition were usually transported by rail, the Russians had to move nearly everything overland. There were no direct rail connections running between the Russian and the Ottoman empires. There were rail systems in both Romania and Bulgaria, but they were not well interconnected. Worse yet, the Russian rail gauge was wider than that of the Romanian railroads. As a result, rail transport required frequent offloading and reloading, until the Russian engineers could convert the existing net, assuming the Turks did not have time to destroy it. During the American Civil War, the Union army rarely moved more than fifty miles from a sea or rail head; the Russians had to operate 450 miles from theirs. Given their difficulties, it took the Russians ten weeks to reach the Danube; by comparison, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 were both decided in only seven weeks.
While the Turks enjoyed interior rail lines, they gained no benefit because their own rail system did not extend into the eastern reaches of Anatolia, nor of their control of the Black Sea. Nevertheless, the Ottomans had established a system of depots throughout the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria, and had the advantage of a rail net, albeit somewhat primitive, running from Istanbul toward the front, giving them the logistical advantage.
The Turks also enjoyed a weaponry advantage over the Russians, just as they had over the Serbs. By the 1870s, the Ottoman Empire had given up efforts to develop its own armaments industry and had accepted the reality of dependence on foreign sources. The Russians, conversely, were developing an indigenous arms industry, although not without difficulties. Most Russian infantryman carried the Krinka, a converted muzzle-to-breech-loading rifle with a range of 1,000 yards, while other Russian soldiers carried imported, American-made Berdan rifled breechloaders, which had a range of 1,200 yards. By the start of the conflict, the Ottomans had imported about 300,000 American-made Peabody-Martini breechloaders for their army, and the Americans shipped another 200,000 during the war. Other Turkish troops carried English-made Snyders. The Peabody-Martini rifles, the same weapons used by the British army during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, had a range of 1,500 yards. While the Turkish artillery was a hodgepodge assortment of cannon, including some museum pieces, each Turkish battery was equipped with a few Krupp 4- and 6-pounder steel, rifled breechloaders. The Russians outnumbered the Turks in guns by three to one, but the more modern Krupp rifles outranged the Russians’ best cannon by more than 2,000 yards.