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Bulgaria in the Wars of National Unification

Convinced that the issue of its territories and population which had remained under Turkey on the strength of the Berlin treaty could not be settled either through diplomatic channels or through a liberation uprising by the population itself, at the beginning of the 20th century the Bulgarian ruling circles resolutely took up a military settlement-oriented course. At that time Bulgaria already had one of the best armies in Europe. It was well equipped with modern weapons, its troops well-disciplined and brought up for centuries to be prepared to fight for the liberation of their brethren still living in the Ottoman empire. There was one thing though, that made the Bulgarian politicians refrain from declaring war on Turkey and that was the incommensurably smaller recruitment and economic potentialities of Bulgaria at that time. In 1910, for example, its population of only 4,5 million was indeed beyond comparison with that of Turkey which was 25 million or nearly six times greater.

Bulgarian diplomacy had been trying very hard to find military and political allies for its country's inevitable affair of honor with the Ottoman empire. An internal crisis in Turkey in 1908 which resulted in the Young Turks' coming to the power, made the Bulgarians hurry. Taking advantage of the sultan's dethronement in that same year, Bulgaria declared its legal independence and became a kingdom. Up to that point, it had formally existed as an independent principality under the Ottoman empire's suzerainty.

At the turn of the twenties Bulgaria availed itself of Russia's intention to form a coalition with the Balkan states and had its policy focused on the establishment of a military and politician alliance of the Balkan Christian states. Bulgaria was evidently well aware that it would not be able to wage a single fight against Turkey.

There were a good many wearisome difficulties ahead. The first one boiled down to the designation of the alliance. There was Russia which did not want a war with Turkey and insisted that the alliance be directed against Austria-Hungary. There was Bulgaria which demanded immediate hostilities against Turkey. Besides, Bulgaria had disagreements with two of its possible allies - Greece and Serbia, as to the division of Macedonia and Thrace. All three states claimed almost the same vast areas of the two territories in question. In that mad time-beating race, Bulgarian diplomacy made an unforgivable mistake by agreeing to come into alliance with Serbia and Greece without prior and clear accords on the controversial territorial question. It grossly blundered again by assenting to have all Bulgarian army forces engaged in combat in the immediate hinterland of the Turkish capital (it could be expected that all Turkish striking forces would be concentrated there). At the same time, the mutually-contended lands in Macedonia were left to the Serbian and the Greek armies to handle, and eventually to occupy.

War was declared in October 1912. The Bulgarian army launched extended frontal assaults against the Turkish capital. In only a few weeks the Bulgarian soldiers, inspired by and imbued with the sense of doing their duty for the liberation of their captive brethren, succeeded in defeating the Turkish army half a million-strong in epical battles at Lozengrad, Luleburgaz, Petra and Seliolu. The fortress of Edirne was besieged. The frontline Bulgarian army contingents reached as far as Chataldja - the last of the fortified defenses to the Turkish capital. At this juncture scanty Bulgarian troops defeated the Turkish detachments in the Rhodopes and Aegian Thrace while others entered and freed Eastern Macedonia.

The Serbian and the Greek armies had to fight only part of the Turkish army 130,000-strong which was obviously easy to defeat. Then they went on to besiege the two major fortifications - at Yanina and at Skodra.

By the middle of December the Turks opted for armistice. Peace negotiations with the participation of all Great Powers were conducted in London under the British foreign minister as a moderator. The allies insisted that Turkey withdraw from all lands in Europe except the immediate hinterland of the Straits delimited by the Midye-Enez boundary-line.

Truce was short-lived due to Turkey's relentlessness. Hostilities were resumed and, after a perfect operation, the Bulgarian army seized the fortress of Edirne, despite its defence of garrison troops 60,000-strong. The Turks tried to go into a counter-offensive at Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsula but the attempt was abortive. The Turkish government wanted peace and agreed to cede the lands along the Midye-Enez border-line lest the Bulgarian troops capture the capital city of Istanbul.

This was the end of the First Balkan War. Its historic significance, viewed without bias, lies in the abolition of the last remnants of feudal oppression on the European continent. As for the Bulgarian people, it will be recorded in its history as a national unification war, or else as the end of its national liberation and bourgeois democratic revolution.

As soon as the war was over, the allies had to get on with the division of spoils, i.e. to divide among themselves the newly liberated territories either in virtue of their ethnic appurtenance, or on other preliminarily agreed principle. Having occupied contested and not so contested zones, neither Serbia nor Greece had any intentions to that end. The two governments used the press, parliament and diplomatic circles as their mouthpiece to announce the principle they had opted for: each of the allies shall possess the territories its army occupied during the war. The Bulgarian army though, had carried the heaviest burden of the war by having fought almost against the whole of the Turkish army concentrated in narrow operational fields, while the other allies had been able to occupy, almost without any fighting, Macedonia - a Bulgarian-inhabited territory.

At that moment neither the monarch whom the National Assembly had empowered as a commander-in-chief, nor the general staff demonstrated any sagacity or prudence. Rather than resorting to possible diplomatic combinations (Greece and Serbia were also entangled in bilateral territorial argument), or seeking the Great Powers' moderatorship, they chose the course of no-compromise, i.e. of confrontation and military threat. This was more than welcome for Serbia and Greece which instantly entered into a military alliance against Bulgaria. As a matter of fact, their forces were less efficient than the Bulgarians', but they had good hopes that Turkey and Romania would also get involved in a possible military conflict, the former for reasons of seeking a partial revenge, and the latter for reasons of getting 'compensations' for previously upset balance of forces.

The Second Balkan War broke out on June 16, 1913. This time, the casus belli was an armed incident instigated by a personal order of the Bulgarian monarch. The Serbian and the Greek troops attacked the Bulgarian armies. After a few days of disarray and partial retreat, the Bulgarian troops defeated the Serbians at Bregalnitsa and besieged the Greeks in Kresna gorge.

It was exactly at that point that Romania and Turkey entered the war. Without encountering any resistance as there were no Bulgarian troops against them, the Romanian divisions occupied northern Bulgaria while the Turks were seeing to the occupation of eastern Thrace. Bulgaria was bayonetted into asking for peace.

A peace treaty was signed in August 1913. It was nothing but an unjust dictate. The country which had born the brunt of the war with Turkey received only territorial leavings: it gained small sections of Thrace and Macedonia but lost part of Dobrudja, the once detached Bulgarian territory now given to Romania. Two million Bulgarians which was one third of the total Bulgarian people, were to remain again under foreign rule.

The results of the Second Balkan (Interally) War predetermined Bulgaria's participation in the First World War which broke out in 1914. During the first year of the war, Bulgaria maintained neutrality trying to find out which of the two opposing sides could offer a Bulgarian interest-friendly settlement of the problem of its territories lost to the other Balkan states. Serbia, Romania and Greece, swinging towards the Entente and their governments showing relenlessness, significantly impeded British, French and Russian diplomacy propose a solution acceptable to the Bulgarians.

In the last reckoning, they were awake to the serious danger of the Bulgarian huge and efficient army's involvement on the side of the Central Powers, i.e. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (at that time it was indeed capable of defeating the Entente's southern flank, and what is more important, of allowing the establishment of the unavailable until then territorial link between the Central Powers). The Entente offered Bulgaria nothing more than leavings of territories in Turkish Thrace and their deigning to assist in its settling territorial problems with the other Christian Balkan states as soon as the war ended. However, the Bulgarian politicians' recent past bitter experiences of promises for 'benevolent assistance' made them react with skepticism and reticence to the proposals of the Entente.

At the same time the Central Powers were too profuse of promises: if Bulgaria chose to participate on their side, it would receive all territories aspired for by the Bulgarians, even bonus lands, which they had never claimed.

Under these circumstances, the Bulgarian political minds would be expected to make sober analyses of the two sides' chances of winning the war. Even a passing glance at the geopolitical situation, the raw material resources, the economic and human potentialities clearly showed that Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey had no strategically-justified vistas of being on the eve of victory over the bloc of the Great western democracies plus Russia and Japan, which actually had at that time all the resources of the world at their back and call. Having succumbed to emotions and having forgotten about their making a cool judgement, the monarch and the ruling circles joined the Central Powers and, in the autumn of 1915 attacked Serbia, an ally of the Entente. The Serbian army was literally mown down just in a few days. The Bulgarians were on the march to Thessaloniki, sweeping away on passing, the French and British divisions which had come to Serbia's aid. The fate of Thesaloniki - the Entente base on the Balkans - seemed to have been decided. However, the Supreme German command had not been very keen on closing the Balkan front as it diverted a million of Entente soldiers from possible engagement in fighting against the Germans on the Western front. The advance of the Bulgarian army was then stopped by the Germans under the pretext of keeping the neutrality of Greece, which, by the way, was broken by the Entente long before that. A front line stretching from Albania to Aegian Thrace was set up. There, in the course of three years the Bulgarians were forced into waging wearisome positional warfare against the better armed and better equipped British and French troops, aided by the Greek army which joined them in 1917.

In the autumn of 1916 Romania entered the war on the side of the Entente. The Bulgarian military command could afford throwing against the Romanians only one of its armies - the famous Third army. The soldiers and the officers, however, clearly saw this battle as fighting for the liberation of their compatriots in Dobrudja, the section of Bulgaria taken only three years before. They made wonders in a series of military exploits. Both the Romanian army and the several Russian divisions which came to its assistance took only two months to be defeated. In the beginning of December, divisions of the Third Bulgarian army invaded Bucharest, the Romanian capital, in the company of several German units. Having advanced to the northeast, Third army divisions opened a positional front against the Russian army along the Seret River.

Germany and Austria-Hungary, however, had their resources gradually drained. The industrial enterprises in Bulgaria had almost stopped work due to raw materials and energy shortages. Agriculture had lost its draught animals which had been requisitioned for the needs of the army. Farming had no male work force as it had all been mobilized in the army. In that war Bulgaria, with a population of about five million, mobilized 900,000 men - the highest percentage of the available male population, compared with the other countries in the hostilities. Food production dropped down and days of famine set in. The intolerable scarcity and the corrupt easy profiteering ruling circles were the cause of mass popular discontent both in the back areas and on the frontline. Social stress was perilously building up.

The outbreak of the socialist revolution in Russia and the Bolshevik ideas for peace and social change were gaining certain popularity among the Bulgarian workers and farmers. The crisis-ridden society was threatening to rise in a powerful revolution.

The explosion took place in September 1918. The forces of the Entente launched two assaults against the Thessaloniki front, at Doiran and Dobro Pole. Their intention was to have the two advancing armies first break through the Bulgarian defence lines and then, once in the rear, join together to encircle the whole Bulgarian army. The forces of the Entente succeeded in breaking through the Bulgarian front at Dobro Pole and in slowly taking the offensive. At Doiran, however, the Bulgarian army defeated completely oncoming British and Greek troops. The commander of the Bulgarian troops at that section of the front even demanded that he be given orders for a counter-offensive and a line of its advance - Thessaloniki.

At this juncture, however, the troops in Macedonia refused to obey the orders of the command. A spontaneous mutiny burst forth. Without surrendering or permitting to be encircled by the Entente army, the Bulgarian divisions headed for Sofia to square accounts with the monarch and the ruling government, who were thought to be at the bottom of the war. On September 25, 1918 uncontrollable soldiers' masses seized the headquarters in Radomir and began preparing for the main blow at Sofia.

The frightened monarch and the panic-stricken government released the Agrarian party leaders Alexander Stamboliski and Raiko Daskalov from prison and sent them to the mutineers' camp, counting on their popularity and reposing hopes in their appeasing the mutinous soldiers' masses. Stamboliski and Daskalov, however, had something else on their mind. They intended to canalize the energies of the mutiny and to add to it clear political zest and ultimate goal - the overthrow of monarchy. They addressed the party of the 'narrow' socialists with concrete proposals for joint actions to that end. The socialists, though, turned the Agrarian party proposals down.

The Agrarian leaders displayed greater determination. On September 27, 1918 they stood at the head of the mutiny, proclaimed Bulgaria a republic and declared the monarchy overthrow. On September 29, 1918 the mutineers' masses advanced towards Sofia. Feeling fatigued and being poorly organized, the soldiers failed to break through the defenses of Sofia, composed of units obsequious to the government, and of German divisions. The mutiny was suppressed on October 2.

In the meantime, the government sought truce with the Entente. An armistice was concluded in Thessaloniki on September 29, 1918. Its terms dictated withdrawal of the Bulgarian army to its prewar positions and occupation of strategically important zones.

This was the second national catastrophe since 1913, during the reign of the absolute monarch Ferdinand (1912-1918). That was clearly more than enough to force the culprit to abdicate and leave the country for good on October 3, 1918. His son, Boris, ascended the Bulgarian throne. Bulgaria saw the disastrous outcome of the war in black and white when a treaty of peace was signed in the Paris suburb of Neuille in November 1919. The country suffered further territorial amputations in favorer of its neighbors: the loss of fertile Aegean Thrace and of access to the Aegean Sea to Greece was the heaviest of all. Besides this Bulgaria was liable to payment of enormous reparations that would be back-breaking even for any big and economically advanced European country. On the basis of the Treaty of Neuille, Bulgaria was to abolish its military service and to maintain only voluntary units not exceeding 30,000 men. It also had to submit the better part of its draught animals and its energy sources to the hands of the Entente. Defeated, humiliated and burdened with heavy bonded debt, Bulgaria was brought down to the lowest point in its post-Liberation development.

- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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