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Colonel Cerchez's Campaign Trunk / The History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: Colonel Cerchez's campaign trunk

The Romanian principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia), located at the mouth of the Danube, united in 1859 forming a new state called "Romania" under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. After the unification the next goal of the young state was to gain its independence, which was accomplished at the end of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. One of the heroes of this momentous event was Colonel Cerchez who defeated the feared and famous Osman Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman army fighting in the Balkans.

Photo 2: An allegorical map of 1877 by Fred W. Rose

The 19th century, also known as "the century of the nations", led to a revival of the peoples of the Balkans living under Ottoman rule. Confronted with a deep financial crisis, the Sultan's Empire was in decline. The introduction of new taxes lead to revolts in the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1875 and one year later, in Serbia and Bulgaria. The context was ripe for Russia, defeated in the Crimean War of 1856, to return to the Balkans as the champion of the Slavic cause. Following the failure of the Constantinople Conference, the path to military conflict was opened. The war would be fought on both sides of the Black Sea, both in the Balkans and the Caucasus Mountains.

On April 12, 1877, Romania allowed a Russian army of 180,000 soldiers marching towards the Danube to cross its territory. On April 24, 1877, the Tsarist Empire officially declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russia's goal was to reach Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Sultans’ capital. In this context, as the canons were starting to hit Turkish targets on the other shore of the Danube, Romania seized the opportunity and declared its Independence on May 10, 1877.

Photo 3: King Carol I inspecting Romanian troops during the War of Independence (1877-1878)

Initially, the Russian Army did not want to involve the Romanians in the military operations. The Russian advance, however, was halted in front of Plevna, a fortified area located at the intersection of several important strategic roads. The Turkish army there was led by a great general, Osman Nuri Pasha. After nine failed attempts to conquer Plevna, Grand Duke Nicholas telegraphed Prince Carol of Romania, requesting the intervention of the Romanian Army. 60,000 Romanians crossed the Danube and before long they achieved their first success: the conquest of the Grivița redoubt, part of the fortified system of Plevna. Carol was appointed the nominal commander of the Russian-Romanian troops in front of Plevna. The third attack, on August 30, an order Carol refused to endorse, ended in failure. As a result, on September 14, 1877 the strategy was changed: instead of another bloody and possibly useless attack, the decision was made to encircle Plevna and put it under siege.

Photo 4: The Plevna system of fortifications

Photo 5: Romanian artillery troops in the War of Independence (1877-1878)

The siege of Plevna was the most important and complex operation of the entire Russian-Romanian-Turkish war of 1877-78. Carried out right in the heart of Bulgaria, the battle for Plevna was the baptism of fire for the young Romanian army, which participated in operations with 43,000 soldiers and 110 cannons. The Russian troops numbered 50,000 soldiers with 320 cannons and were commanded by Grand Duke Nicholas. The Ottoman garrison had 40,000 soldiers and enjoyed the advantage of strong fortifications and superior armament. By the last days of October 1877, Plevna was surrounded completely.

Photo 6: Romanian colonel Mihail Cristodulo Cerchez

Photo 7: Ottoman general Osman Pasha

On December 10, facing a desperate situation due to shortages in food and ammunition, General Osman Pasha at the head of 30,000 soldiers attempted to break the encirclement. The Russian-Romanian troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Turkish troops while one of the Romanian commanders, Colonel Mihail Cristodulo Cerchez, even managed to occupy the Grivița 2 redoubt, an important strategic point. Osman Pasha was wounded in his left leg by a shrapnel and his horse was killed under him. Overwhelmed, stuck in the middle of enemy troops, the daring Turkish general had to admit defeat and surrendered to Colonel Cerchez. He handed him his sword with the words: "Together with my army I surrender myself into the hands of the young and brave Romanian army." This capitulation did not immediately bring about the end of the clashes, but it nonetheless constituted the decisive moment of the war. The hostilities concluded on January 31, 1878 with the victory of the Russian and Romanian armies.

Photo 6 and 7: The surrender of Osman Pasha

Colonel Cerchez started the war as commander of the 2nd and 1st Infantry Divisions of the Danube defense, which protected the rear of the Army fighting on the front. Later, as head of the Reserve Division, he was instrumental in surrounding the Ottomans at Plevna. From September 6, 1877, he was put in charge of the Operative Army. On November 28, 1877, when Osman Pasha tried to break the siege his men thwarted the attempt. Throughout his military career, Colonel, later General, Cerchez was awarded no less than 14 military decorations.

The campaign trunk of Colonel Cerchez is a special piece in the collections of Moldavia’s History Museum in Iași. In comparison with other old wooden trunks, which were dependable yet heavy, this is an exceptionally light box for its dimensions. The walls are made of plywood covered with waterproof cloth, reinforced with sleepers. The lid has an arched shape on which a metal plate with the monogram M.C. divulge the name of the owner; two handles made of durable leather are attached on both ends of the trunk. Inside, there are three mobile compartments, which can host four readily ironed military outfits in perfect condition. Thanks to them, despite the difficult front conditions, the colonel could display a perfect attire every day. The chest accompanied the great soldier during the entire campaign, and it is a palpable testimony of the atmosphere of the war of independence, echoing the bravery of one of its most celebrated heroes.

Text by historian and curator SORIN IFTIMI. Video presentation by historian and curator IOAN IAȚCU. A film by Mihai Neagu. A team of Moldavia's History Museum in Iași.

The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iașiand The National Museum of Transylvanian Historyin Cluj-Napoca.

#TheHistoryofRomaniainOneObject #ColonelCerchez'sCampaignTrunk

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