The Eastern crisis(1875-1878)


Uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, war between Turkey and Russia; first use of the red crescent emblem; Serbia and Montenegro ratify the Geneva Convention; ICRC active in the field.

Uprisings against a dying empire  

The decline of the Ottoman empire led to the emergence of nationalist movements in the Christian provinces of the Balkans.

In August 1875, a rebellion broke out in Herzegovina, and then in Bosnia and Bulgaria. Its bloody suppression led to an exodus of the Christian populations to Montenegro and Serbia. In June 1876, these two principalities declared war on the Ott oman empire. By the autumn, their armies had been defeated.

However, Russia, which was an ally of Montenegro and Serbia, sent its troops to the Balkans on 13 April 1877, after first making sure that Austria-Hungary was neutral. Clashes occurred in the Caucasus and the Balkans; the Ottoman troops were defeated on both fronts and the Ottoman empire requested an armistice on 31 January 1878.

Russia, Romania, Greece and the Ottoman empire had ratified the 1864 Geneva Convention. Montenegro and Serbia, being regarded as principalities dependent on the empire, had not been invited to do so. From the outbreak of the rebellion in Herzegovina, the ICRC took steps to obtain the ratification of the Convention by the two principalities. It was ratified by Montenegro on 29 November 1875 and by Serbia on 24 March 1876.

The red crescent appears  

When the Russo-Turkish conflict began, the two adversaries were bound by the 1864 Geneva Convention. On 16 November 1876, however, the Ottoman empire informed Switzerland, the depositary country of the Convention, that although it would respect the sign of the red cross protecting enemy field hospitals (or " ambulances " , as they were then called), it would in future adopt the sign of the red crescent on a white background for its own field hospitals.

This was a momentous move, since it brought into question the unity of the protective emblem. The International Committee reacted in an article published in the January 1877 issue of the Bulletin international des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge , in which it stated that if signatory States to the 1864 Geneva Convention wished "...that the humanitarian principles they profess gradually infiltrate all peoples, whatever their religion, a question of external form should not be an insurmountable obstacle to spreading these principles to non-Christian peoples. The adoption of an international sign is indispensable, but agreement on this point would not perhaps be incompatible with tolerance regarding a few variations of detail..." .

The International Committee's main aim in adopting this stance was to defend the wounded in the conflict between Russia and the Ottoman empire. It asked the Russian Red Cross to obtain the Russian government's consent to the Turkish proposal for the duration of the war. On 24 May 1877 the Tsar declared that he was ready to recognize the inviolability of Turkish field hospitals; the Ottoman empire agreed to reciprocate in June 1877, after difficult negotiations.

The conflict ended with the 1878 Treaty of Berlin: Bosnia and Herzegovina were occupied by Austria-Hungary; Bulgaria lost Macedonia, which remained a part of the Ottoman empire, and the rest of the country was made an autonomous principality; Montenegro and Serbia gained their independence.

 The role of the ICRC  

On 29 November 1875, the day of its accession to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the government of Montenegro asked the International Committee to send a team to the principality. Three delegates left Geneva on 28 December 1875 with the following instructions:

  • to organize aid for the wounded and help set up a Red Cross Society;
  • to assist wounded and sick soldiers and, to a lesser extent, refugees;
  • to help promote the principles of the Geneva Convention during the hostilities in Herzegovina.

Upon their arrival in Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro, on 9 January 1876, the delegates were received by Prince Nicholas I. A Montenegrin Red Cross Society was set up, and t he delegates took charge of a hospital that had been improvised near the border. They were unable, however, to establish contact with the Turkish authorities in Herzegovina and returned to Geneva in March 1876.

On 14 July 1877 the International Committee established an Agency in Trieste to provide information on prisoners of war. Little information, however, was sent to it by the belligerents, mainly because its offices were too far from the battlefields.



Russian-Turkish War, 1877-1878. Evacuating the wounded.  

Russian-Turkish War, 1877-1878. Evacuating the wounded.
© ICRC / hist-00142