Russo-Turkish War as World War Zero

Nice to have John Steinberg as one of our frontoviki.  Welcome aboard, John.

On the issue Steinberg raises of World War Zero–it seems to me it happens quite often in history that  one historian argues “We think of X as the first example of category X; in actuality, earlier event Y is the first example of category X.”  The historian’s natural instinct in response to this (or at least MY natural instinct) is to go back to a still earlier event Z.

Let me throw out one of my favorites: the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.

How does it measure up against Steinberg’s ten criteria?

1.  Imperialist competition.  Check.
2.  Began in a neutral country .  Check–here I have in mind the war’s origins in the Orthodox states of the Balkans, slowly moving towards autonomy / full independence from the Ottoman Empire.
3. Breakdown of government and humanitarian crisis.  Check–especially the latter.  Atrocities in the Balkans are one of the things that kept British public opinion somewhat more sympathetic to Russia.
4. Lethality of industrial warfare.  Check.  Bruce Menning’s Bayonets before Bullets is particularly good on the impact of breech-loading rifles and improved artillery on the battlefield.
5.  Mass casualties.  Check.
6.  Long battles.  Half-check–field engagements are relatively quick and localized, but sieges draw out at Plevna because of the lethality of modern firepower.
7.  Cost and financial difficulty.  Check, I think.  I don’t happen to know a great deal on the financial side of the war, but the Russian Ministry of Finance was always upset about the state of the ruble.
8. Widespread reporting.  Check.  The Pan-Slavs stir up Russian opinion and get Russian volunteers to the Balkans well before official Russian entry, and reporting of Ottoman atrocities in Western Europe gives Russia useful diplomatic cover.
9.  Peace of exhaustion and seeds of future conflict and 10. Future destabliization.  Emphatically check and check.

AND you can throw in as well that the Russo-Turkish War and World War I started over, to use Bismarck’s phrase, “some damn fool thing in the Balkans,” and even more specifically Serbian nationalism.

To be sure, my argument for the Russo-Japanese War as World War Zero, making the Russo-Japanese War World War Point Five, could easily be overturned by precisely the same method.   I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to make a case for the Crimean War as the REAL World War Zero.

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4 Responses to “Russo-Turkish War as World War Zero”

  1. T. Kunikov says:

    According to Richard W. Harrison in ‘The Russian Way of War’, another reason why the Russo-Japanese war could be considered a prelude to WWI, at least in military terms, would be the first appearance of a ‘front’ or ‘army group.’ Which he dates to the first appearance of ‘operational art’ in warfare/military history.

  2. Dave Stone says:

    You’re certainly correct–Steinberg’s point 6 about the larger battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War in terms of space and time is matched by a similar broadening of organization, requiring a new level of coordination above army.

  3. [...] Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 should be thought of as a World War Zero, or alternatively that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 should be. It’s often useful to play around with the names we give to historical events and [...]

  4. [...] list, as a bi-oceanic, imperial conflict); one of Steinberg’s co-bloggers notes that the Russo-Turkish war fits all those criteria, but that still doesn’t qualify it as a “World War,” just [...]

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