Bulgaria in the First World War

For Bulgaria, like the other states in Southeastern Europe, the First World War began in October 1912, when a loose coalition consisting of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia fought against the Ottoman Empire over the remaining Ottoman European territories in the First Balkan War. The Bulgarians wanted Ottoman Macedonia and Thrace. After quickly inflicting a devastating defeat on the Ottomans, the members of the Balkan coalition disputed the distribution of the spoils. These disputes escalated to intra-allied armed conflict. In the ensuing Second Balkan War in July 1913, Bulgaria suffered catastrophic defeat at the hands of her erstwhile allies Greece and Serbia. The Ottomans and Romanians also took advantage of the situation to invade Bulgaria and realize their own territorial ambitions. The treaties of Bucharest (10 August 1913) and Constantinople (30 September 1913) ended the Second Balkan War and deprived Bulgaria of its national goals in Macedonia. Over 56,000 Bulgarian soldiers died in the Balkan Wars and over 110,000 were wounded. In addition refugees inundated the country epidemic disease swept through it.

When the general European war erupted in August 1914, the Bulgarian government proclaimed neutrality. The country was exhausted from the losses and consequences of the previous two years. While Tsar Ferdinand and Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov undoubtedly favored the Central Powers, many Bulgarians demonstrated traditional pro- Russian sentiments. The popular Balkan War hero Radko Dimitriev resigned his post as Bulgarian Minister in St. Petersburg and accepted a commission as a general officer in the Russian army. Other Bulgarians also volunteered for service with the Russians.

Most Bulgarians, however, perceived the new war as an opportunity to reverse the disastrous Treaty of Bucharest of 1913. When the Ottoman Empire entered the war in October 1914, both the Central Powers and the Entente recognized the strategic importance of Bulgaria. The price of Bulgaria’s participation on either side was Macedonia. Because Serbia had secured most of Macedonia as a result of the Balkan Wars, the Central Powers held a distinct advantage. They could promise Bulgaria the immediate acquisition of the region. The best the Entente could offer, however, was eastern Thrace, then in Ottoman hands, and a portion of Macedonia at the end of the war provided that Serbia received compensation in Austria-Hungary. Serbian reluctance to surrender any of Macedonia stymied Entente efforts to attract Bulgaria. The Bulgarians negotiated with both sides until the summer of 1915. Entente defeats in Galicia and Gallipoli persuaded Ferdinand and Radoslavov that the time was propitious for Bulgaria to join the Central Powers. On 6 September 1915, at German military headquarters at Pless, the Bulgarian representatives signed an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This agreement provided for a German-Austrian-Bulgarian attack on Serbia. In concurrent negotiations with the Ottoman Empire the Bulgarians obtained the lower Maritsa river valley in eastern Thrace.

On 14 October 1915, Bulgaria declared war on Serbia. Two days later Bulgaria troops joined the ongoing Austro-Hungarian and German invasion of that country. This invasion soon overwhelmed the Serbs, who retreated across the Albanian mountains to the Adriatic Sea. The Bulgarians overran Macedonia. In December, Bulgarian forces repulsed an Entente attempt launched from Salonika to assist the Serbs. Despite strong Bulgarian objections, the German high command would not permit the Bulgarian army to cross the Greek frontier in pursuit of the defeated British and French troops. At this point the Germans did not want to involve Greece in the war. The failure to expel the British and French allowed the Entente forces to regroup and maintain themselves along a front north of Salonika, where they posed a threat to the Central Powers’ southeastern flank. This Macedonian Front endured until almost the end of the war.

In spring of 1916, the Germans withdrew their objections to a Bulgarian advance into Greece. Some German troops arrived to bolster the ensuing Bulgarian offensive. Greek forces surrendered Fort Rupel on the Struma River northeast of Salonika without fighting on 26 May 1916. Later that summer, Bulgarian troops occupied portions of northern Greece, including Seres on 19 August and Drama and the port of Kavala on 12 September. The Bulgarians also assumed occupation duties in Serbia to free Germans soldiers for the Western Front.

In August 1916, following the Romanian declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria joined the other Central Powers in an attack on Romania. Bulgarian troops advanced into the Dobrudzha against Romanian and Russian opposition, and seized the Black Sea port of Constanţa on 21 October. Together with German and Ottoman units, Bulgarian forces also crossed the Danube and overran Wallachia. These attacks effectively knocked Romania out of the war and restored to Bulgaria southern Dobrudzha, which had been taken by Romania during the Second Balkan War.

With the occupation of Macedonia and southern Dobrudzha, Bulgaria had accomplished its major war aims. Thereafter, Bulgarian strategy became largely defensive. Dwindling resources in manpower and material also necessitated this strategy. Bulgarian administrative authorities in occupied Macedonia and Thrace did little to endear themselves to the populations in the new territories. The Bulgarian regime was often harsh, corrupt and inefficient.

In the autumn of 1916 Entente forces, augmented by rested and refurbished Serbian troops, undertook an offensive from the Salonika positions. They succeeded in taking a portion of southwestern Macedonia, including the city of Bitola (Monastir) on 19 November. Entente attempts to advance further into Macedonia, however, met strong Bulgarian resistance and failed to break through the Bulgarian positions.

By 1918 the Bulgarian situation had deteriorated to a serious extent. The country had still not recovered to a great degree from the human and material loses of the Balkan Wars. A food crisis affected the cities and the military. A number of issues increasingly alienated the Bulgarians from the Germans. The quality and quantity of war material deteriorated as the Germans began to withdraw their forces from Macedonia to prepare for the great spring 1918 offensive on the Western Front. Much of the food and raw materials produced in Bulgaria left the country, legally and illegally, going to Germany to sustain the German war effort. Bulgarians also resented their allies because of German control of Bulgarian transportation and communication facilities. In addition disputes with Austria-Hungary and Germany arose over the disposition of northern (Romanian) Doburdzha. Finally, relations between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire had become openly hostile because of an Ottoman demand that Thracian territory ceded in 1915 to Bulgaria be returned. All of these issues contributed to Bulgaria’s disaffection with the war. Having been at war off and on since 1912, the Bulgarian population began to suffer from a profound sense of war weariness. On 20 June 1918, Prime Minister Radoslavov resigned, ostensibly over his failure to obtain a clear title to all of Dobrudzha in the Treaty of Bucharest signed the previous month. A government led by Alexandŭr Malinov replaced him. Malinov was more conciliatory to a negotiated settlement with the Entente.

An Entente offensive on the Macedonian front launched by French and Serbian troops on 14 September 1918 quickly overwhelmed Bulgarian forces at Dobro Pole and broke through Bulgarian lines into Macedonia. Although some units continued to resist fiercely, much of the Bulgarian military effort collapsed. By 25 September, British and French troops crossed into Bulgaria proper. That same day the Bulgarian government decided to seek an armistice. On 29 September, the Bulgarians signed the armistice at Salonika. According to its terms, the Bulgarians were required to demobilized their army and turn all their equipment over to Entente forces. Furthermore, Bulgarian troops had to evacuate all occupied Greek and Serbian territories, including Macedonia. Also Bulgarian communication and transportation systems were made available for Entente operations.

Meanwhile, many of the disaffected soldiers streamed back towards Sofia. They wanted to inflict retribution on those responsible for Bulgaria’s catastrophe. The disorganized rebels proclaimed a republic in Radomir, a small town southwest of the capital. Ragtag formations of soldiers reached the outskirts of Sofia, where on 30 September a hastily collected force including military cadets and German troops, defeated and dispersed them. With the signing of the armistice and the abdication of Tsar Ferdinand on 4 October, the major goals of the soldiers were accomplished. The war was over, and the main culprit responsible for it in their view, Tsar Ferdinand, had fled to Germany. The supporters of the so called Radomir Rebellion dispersed. Ferdinand’s elder son succeeded him as Tsar Boris III.

With the defeat of Bulgaria, the Germans realized that the war was lost. On 3 October 1918 German Chief of Staff General Paul von Hindenburg recognized that because of the collapse of the Macedonian front, “there was no longer a prospect of forcing peace on the enemy.” Forty-eight hours later the Germans contacted President Woodrow Wilson to seek his mediation to end the war. Within a month of the Bulgarian armistice, the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires also gave up the fight. The Bulgarians were the last to join the Central Powers and the first to leave.

The First World War devastated Bulgaria demographically, materially, and psychologically. Dobrudzha and Macedonia were lost again. The army suffered 101,224 dead and 144,026 wounded. However, the full extent of the Bulgarian catastrophe is only grasped when the losses of the preceding Balkan War are taken into account. The country endured a total of 157,000 dead and 154,000 wounded in six years of fighting from 1912 to 1918. In addition, some 100,000 refugees flooded the country from Dobrudzha and Macedonia. The Treaty of Neuilly of 1919 imposed upon Bulgaria reparation payments of 1.5 million gold francs to the Entente powers as well as the transfer of specified quantities of livestock and railroad equipment to Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Bulgaria also had to deliver 50,000 tons of coal annually to Yugoslavia. Defeat in the Balkan Wars and the First World War shattered the dream of a greater Bulgaria that included Macedonia. Defeat in the Second World War effectively ended that dream.

References

  • Crampton, R. J. Bulgaria 1878-1918. New York: East European Monographs, 1983.
  • Hall, Richard C. Balkan Breakthrough, the Battle of Dobro Pole 1918. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  • Markov, Georg. Golyamata voina i Bŭlgarskiyat klyuch az Evropeiskiya progreb 1914-1916 g. Sofia: Prof. Marin Drinov, 1995.
  • ----- . Golyamata voina i Bŭlgariya strazha mezhdu Sredna Evropa i Orienta 1916-1919 g. Sofia: Prof. Marin Drinov, 2006.

Richard C. Hall, Georgia Southwestern State University (USA)

Copyright 2010-14. Last updated May 22, 2014. Contact Us.