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Bulgarian campaigns during World War I, borders in grey.

A postcard commemorating the entry of Bulgaria into the war.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria participated in World War I on the side of the Central Powers from 14 October 1915, when the country declared war on Serbia, until 30 September 1918, when the Armistice of Thessalonica was signed and came into effect.

In the aftermath of the Balkan wars Bulgaria found itself isolated on the international scene, surrounded by hostile neighbors and deprived of the support of the Great Powers. Anti-Bulgarian sentiments were especially strong in France and Russia, whose political circles blamed the country for the dissolution of the Balkan League. This and the failure of Bulgarian foreign policy turned revanchism in a focal point for the country's external relations. When the First World War erupted in August 1914 Bulgaria was still recovering from the negative economic and demographic impact of the recent wars and avoided direct involvement in the new conflict by declaring neutrality.[1] The strategic geographic location and strong military made the country a desired ally by both warring sides but Bulgarian aspirations were difficult to satisfy because they included territorial claims against four Balkan countries. As the war progressed the Central Powers found themselves in a better position to fulfill Bulgarian demands and persuaded the country to join their cause in September 1915.

Despite being the smallest member of the alliance in area and population Bulgaria made vital contributions to the common war effort. Its entry to the war was the death knell to Serbia and Romania,[2] and ensured the continuous Ottoman war effort by opening the way for much needed German material assistance.[3] Despite that initially the war was characterized with highly successful campaigns of rapid movements in 1915 and 1916, once most Bulgarian territorial aspirations had been satisfied it degraded into a state of trench attrition on both the Northern and the Southern Front[4] This prolonged period substantially weakened the economy, created various supply problems and reduced the health and morale of the troops on the front lines. Under these circumstances the Allied armies in Greece, composed of contingents from almost all Entente countries, managed to break the Macedonian Front and cause the rapid collapse of part of the Bulgarian Army, which took the form of an open military rebellion and proclamation of a republic by the rebellious troops at Radomir.[1] Bulgaria was forced to seek and accept an armistice on 30 September 1918. For a second time in half a decade the country had been led to a national catastrophe for which Tsar Ferdinand I assumed responsibility, abdicated and left Bulgaria to his heir on 3 October 1918[5] The formal conclusion of Bulgaria's participation in World War I was marked by the signing of the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919, according to which the country had to return all occupied territories, cede even more of its land and pay heavy reparations.


The Balkan Wars

Territorial changes following the two Balkan Wars.

When Bulgaria proclaimed its independence from the Ottoman Empire on 22 September 1908, its status was promoted to that of a kingdom and Knyaz Ferdinand I assumed the title of tsar. The country was now able to focus on completing its national unification by turning its attention towards the lands populated by Bulgarians that remained under Ottoman control. To achieve its goals, the Bulgarian government, under prime minister Geshov, approached the governments of the other Balkan countries hoping to create an alliance directed against the Ottomans. His efforts culminated in a series of bilateral treaties concluded in 1912 and the formation of the Balkan League. By summer of the same year Ottoman grip on their Balkan provinces had deteriorated rapidly in Albania and Macedonia, where an open rebellion had erupted.[6][7] The Allies decided to use the vulnerable state of the Ottoman Empire and declared war on it in October 1912. The opening stages of the First Balkan War began with decisive Allied victories in both Thrace and Macedonia. Within a month the Ottomans found themselves driven back by the Bulgarians to within 40 kilometers from Constantinople and badly beaten by the Serbians and the Greeks.[8] A relatively short armistice brought no conclusion to the conflict and fighting once again broke out in January 1913. A major Ottoman counter offensive was defeated by the Bulgarians, who also seized the fortress of Adrianople in March and finally forced the Ottoman Empire to admit defeat and return to the peace table. While the Bulgarian Army was still fighting a new challenge arose from the north - Romania demanded territorial compensations from Bulgaria for its neutrality during the war.[9] A conference, which was held in Sankt Peterburg, sought to resolve the dispute by rewarding Romania the Bulgarian town of Silistra but this decision greatly antagonized both countries and sowed the seed of further enmity between them.[10] The formal ending of the war was marked by the signing of the London Peace Treaty which bestowed to the allies all Ottoman territory to the west of the Midia-Enos line with the exception of Albania.[11][12]

The treaty failed to divide the territories between the victors and brought about the dissolution of the Balkan League. Foreseeing the outcome of these events and the collapse of all his efforts Geshov resigned from his post and was replaced by the hard-liner Stoyan Danev.[13] The new government was not willing to compromise with Bulgarian claims in Macedonia, neither were Serbia and Greece whose interest were frustrated by the creation of an Albanian state. Russia, which was viewed as the patron of the Balkan League, was unable to control the situation and settle the disputes between the allies. The failure of Russian diplomacy, and the Entente which stood behind it, was a victory for Austria-Hungary which sought to undermine the unity between the Balkan countries.In June the new Bulgarian government was asked by the Bulgarian General Staff to either take aggressive action or order demobilization within 10 days. The senior Bulgarian commanders were concerned by the new alliance between Serbia and Greece, and the growing restlessness in the army which had been in the field since September 1912. Danev was preparing to leave for Russia where a new attempt to solve the problem was to made Tsar Ferdinand and General Savov decided to make a demonstration to Serbia, Greece and the Entente diplomacy by ordering two of the Bulgarian armies to attack and consolidate their positions in Macedonia on 16 June.[14] Mote than a day later Danev ordered Savov to stop the fighting and the latter obeyed, despite orders for the continuation of the attack given to him by the tsar. The Serbians and Greeks however were not willing to miss this opportunity and declared war on Bulgaria.[14] Perceiving an opportunity to acquire Southern Dobrudja Romania also invaded Bulgaria, meeting virtually no resistance and was soon followed by the Ottoman Empire which restored its control over Eastern Thrace.[15]

A Punch cartoon of the Second Balkan War.

The eruption of the Second Balkan War tore a rift in the relations between Bulgaria and Russia and led to the downfall of the Danev government amids the news of Bulgarian defeats in the field. A new liberal coalition government under Vasil Radoslavov took control and immediately began seeking a diplomatic solution to the developing crisis, looking primarily towards Germany and Austria-Hungary for help.[16] Direct negotiations with Serbia and Greece proved inconclusive but following Bulgaria's offer to cede Southern Dobrudja to Romania both sides agreed to begin peace talks in Bucharest. At the same time the Bulgarian Army managed to stabilize the Serbian and Greek fronts and even go on the offensive, threatening to completely encircle the Greek Army but with the Romanians only a few kilometers from Sofia and the Ottomans in good position to invade the whole of Southeastern Bulgaria the warring countries concluded an armistice on 18/31 July 1913.[17]

Following the cessation of hostilities the peace talks in Bucharest resumed. The Bulgarian delegation found itself in almost complete isolation, with only the partial and faint support of Russia and Austria-Hungary, which forced it to accept the dictate-like conditions of its opponents and sign the Treaty of Bucharest.[18] According to it besides ceding Southern Dobrudja, Bulgaria also had to give up most of Macedonia including the "uncontested zone", that had previously been bestowed to it by the 1912 treaty between Bulgaria and Serbia, and the town of Kavala. Its territory was increased by about 16% and its population by only 8%. The peace treaty with the Ottomans had to be dealt on a bilateral basis. Initially the Bulgarian diplomacy maintained the position that the question about the possession of Adrianople and Eastern Thrace was an international matter resolved with the London Peace Treaty but this line soon had to be abandoned due to the lack of support by the Great Powers and their unwillingness to pressure the Ottoman Empire. The resulting Treaty of Constantinople restored to the Ottomans most of the lands they had reoccupied during the Second Balkan War. During the talks the Radoslavov government for the first time sought to recover and strengthen the relations with the Ottomans by discussing an alliance directed against Serbia and Greece but no concrete results were achieved at that point.[19]

Bulgaria in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars

Vasil Radoslavov(c.1915). Prime minister from 1913 to 1918.

The outcome of the Second Balkan War negated almost all of the gains made by Bulgaria during the First Balkan War and what was left was far outweighed by the losses of the wars. The failed national unification led to a massive influx of over 120,000 Bulgarian refugees from Eastern Thrace and the parts of Macedonia that remained under Serbian and Greek rule.[20] The Radoslavov government faced the uneasy task of integrating the new population and the acquired territories, as well as rebuilding the economy and the military potential of the country.

Internal bickering within the People's Liberal Party (one of the three governing coalition parties) and the lack of a majority in parliament forced the dissolution of the legislative body. General election were called for the prewar borders of Bulgaria in November 1913 and held for the first time under nationwide proportional representation. The government parties gained only 97 seats as compared to the 107 seats of their opponents which prompted a new resignation of the government in December.[21] Tsar Ferdinand held consultations with several important politicians but once again preferred to appoint a government with Radoslavov as prime minister and dissolve the newly elected parliament. When the next elections were held in March 1914 the population of the new territories was allowed to participate despite that many people hadn't received Bulgarian citizenship yet. During the campaign the spokesmen of opposition parties were practically prevented from campaigning in these lands on the grounds of the alleged threat to their safety. Ottoman officials however were allowed to visit the local Muslim population and urge it to vote for the government. Despite these and other extreme measures the liberal parties gained 116 seats, as many as their opponents, which were increased with another 16 following the completion of the verification process.[21] The government was finally able to focus its attention to more pressing internal and external matters. Radoslavov however remained handicapped by this fragile majority and was often forced to compromise with his coalition partners, falsify election results or simply neglect parliament.

Economic situation

Bulgarian participation in the Balkan Wars disrupted the upward trend in the Bulgarian economy and proved crippling for public finances, with the financial cost of the war against the Ottoman Empire alone at over 1,3 billion francs.[22] Agriculture, which was the leading sector of the economy, was badly affected and overall production was reduced by about 9% compared to 1911 but still the country avoided a large food crisis.[23] Thousands of peasant workers engaged in agricultural activities became casualties during the wars. The number of available horses, sheep, cattle and livestock in general was between 20% and 40% lower. The single most damaging event however was the loss of Southern Dobrudja which had accounted for 20% of Bulgarian grain production prior the wars and had the largest and most developed Bulgarian farming communities.[24] This combined with the bad weather held the harvest of all crops to 79% of the prewar level in 1914.[24]

Unlike the agriculture, Bulgarian industry was less affected, even though problems occurred due to its complete dependence on foreign imports of machinery and spare parts, production registered a modest decline and was able to maintain constant level of capital investment which led to recovery of the sector as early as 1914.[23] External trade fell drastically in 1913 with exports reduced by 40% and imports by 11% which led to a soaring trade deficit of over 87 million levs by 1914.[25][26] Prior the war grain had been a leading Bulgarian export commodity with the most productive area being Dobrudja. The state took special care for the development of the region - it build railways to carry grain and other exports to the port of Varna, whose facilities had been developed at great cost so that in 1912 it handled more goods than Salonika.[27] Following the Second Balkan War these advantages were lost because the port was deprived of its hinterland and the Romanian border now ran only 15 kilometers away. The new lands gained in the south were of mountainous character, much poorer and despite they provided an outlet to the Aegean Sea at the port of Dedeagach the railway to it passed through Ottoman territory. Still Western Thrace in particular was famed with the production of high quality tobacco that proved to be a valuable asset.[23]

Foreign policy

Dealing with the international isolation that had befallen Bulgaria was a major priority of the Radoslavov government. This included the reestablishing of diplomatic relations with Bulgaria's neighbors which was soon achieved, first with the Ottoman Empire in September 1913, then with Serbia in December of the same year and finally with Greece in March 1914. Nevertheless relations with the Balkan states remained strained due to their fear of Bulgarian revisionism and the Bulgarian public's negative opinion of the country's former allies. A friendly gesture was also made when Mihail Madzharov, Dimitar Stanchov and Radko Dimitriev (who were well known for their pro-Entente attitude) were appointed ambassadors to London, Paris and Saint Petersburg.[28] This showed that the liberal government was not ready to burn its bridges to the Entente powers. The Central Powers on the other hand were not yet willing to step in an open alliance with Bulgaria as this would have alienated the other Balkan countries that Germany and Austria Hungary had interest in, particularly Romania and Greece.[28] The most active Entente power in the Balkans was Russia, which sought to limit Austro-Hungarian influence in the area by creating a new Balkan League that was to include Serbia, Montenegro and possibly Romania and Bulgaria. The latter was not in the center of these plans and though its participation was viewed as attractive enough, Russian diplomacy spent much more time and effort courting Romania, which achieved little practical results but stirred negative emotions and alienated Bulgaria even further.[29] Hints towards Serbia that it should make at least minor concessions to Bulgaria but only met its stubborn resistance, which was also supported by Greece. In the Foreign Minister Sazonov decided that the only way to influence Bulgaria without harming Russian relations with its neighbors was through financial pressure on the Radoslavov government and its deposition by a pro-Entente government.[30] For the moment France and the United Kingdom were willing to let Russia deal with Bulgaria and preferred not to intervene directly. Prime Minister Radoslavov on the other hand partially sought the support of the UK through the Bulgarian representative in Saint Petersburg General Dimitriev, who asked the British ambassador to the empire to mediate the relationship between Bulgaria and Russia. George Buchanan politely refused any involvement but hinted to Sazonov that he should not risk curtailing Entente influence in Sofia by assuming a hard line towards Bulgaria.[31]

The most important task that faced the Radoslavov government in its foreign policy following the Treaty of Bucharest was to secure a loan that could provide the funds needed to pay the financial coast of the Balkan Wars, develop the new territories and continue paying a government debt of over 700 million golden leva.[32][33] The difficult task was entrusted to the Foreign Minister Nikola Genadiev and the Finance Minister Dimitar Tonchev who were first dispatched to France, which held a considerable chunk of the Bulgarian public debt and from which Bulgaria had usually obtained loans prior the Balkan Wars. The French refused due to Russian pressure, despite that the Bulgarian representatives were ready to accept certain unfavorable conditions and that French banks were simultaneously granting loans to Serbia, Greece, Romania and the Ottoman Empire.[32][33] In October Tonchev managed to secure a short-term loan of 30 million leva from Austrian banks but the sum was far from sufficient. In February the Bulgarians again turned to France but were met with unacceptable conditions. In early 1914 Tonchev, assisted by the German and Austro-Hungarian representatives in Sofia Gustav Michahelles and Count Adam Tarnowski von Tarnow, opened negotiations with the German Disconto-Gesellschaft bank. Both Russia and France were aware of the talks but initially dismissed the possibility of their successful conclusion. It was only in April, when the Bulgarian and German representatives had reached an understanding on the basic points of the loan, that the Entente realized that through its hard line it had pushed Bulgaria towards a serious commitment to the Central Powers. The Russian ambassador to Sofia, Savinsky, urged the Bulgarian parliamentary opposition to resist the Radoslavov government's intention and personally met with Tsar Ferdinand, whom he promised a French loan in exchange for the removal of Radoslavov.[34] An offer for a 500 million from the French Banque Perier was also made. Entente efforts, however, came too late and failed to change Bulgarian intentions. In July 1914 a consortium of German banks led by the Disconto-Gesellschaft granted the 500 million golden leva loan to Bulgaria under harsh conditions. The sum would be received in two installments of 250 million each and had to be repaid within 50 years with an annual interest of 5%. The Bulgarians were obliged to grant the German consortium the contract for the construction of a new port in Porto Lagos and a railway leading to it; the Germans were also to take over the running of the state mines in Pernik and Bobov Dol.[32] The government managed to pass the loan through a vote in parliament despite furious opposition. The debate took place among numerous fist fights, the prime minister was seen to wave a revolver above his head but in the government claimed the loan had been approved by show of hands.[35] The loan agreement was a heavy defeat for Russian and French diplomacy, whose attention was also diverted by the July Crisis, at this point however it did not yield a firm commitment by Tsar Ferdinand and Bulgaria to the cause of the Central Powers.[32]

Bulgaria at the beginning of the First World War

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-Serb student and member of Young Bosnia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia.[36] This began a period of diplomatic manoeuvring between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain called the July Crisis. Wanting to end Serbian interference in Bosnia conclusively, Austria-Hungary delivered the July Ultimatum to Serbia, a series of ten demands which were intentionally unacceptable, made with the intention of deliberately initiating a war with Serbia.[37] When Serbia acceded to only eight of the ten demands levied against it in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Within days the conflict spread to most of Europe and encompassed all of the major Great Powers. Many other European countries however, including the likes of Italy and Romania who had previously been affiliated with one of the major war alliances, preferred to stay neutral. The exports of important agricultural products like wheat, barley, wool and others was forbidden.


Immediately following the outbreak of hostilities the Bulgarian tsar and prime minister decided to declare a policy of "strict and loyal" neutrality, a stance which was popular with both ruling and opposition parties.[38] Radoslavov also realized that the lack of proper diplomatic preparation and support from some of the Great Powers had been a major cause for the Bulgarian defeat in 1913 and he intended not to repeat the same mistakes. In order to adjust to the new reality of war the government managed to pass, in parliament, a bill for the declaration of martial law and a bill for an internal loan of 50 million leva for the needs of the army. The news of Bulgarian neutrality was received well in Entente capitals, even if their approach towards the country differed. Initially these powers thought the war would be short and Bulgaria was not given an important role in their plans as its diplomatic isolation and hostile neighbors was viewed as weakness. Romania with its large population and strategic position, on the flank of Austria-Hungary, was reckoned a more attractive ally.[39] This was especially the case in France whose ambassador in Bucharest was heavily engaged in fighting German and Austrian influence in the country. The UK also hoped that a Romanian entry into the war on its side would force Bulgaria and even the Ottoman Empire to at least remain neutral while Greece might brave itself to openly support Serbia. The mood in Sankt Peterburg however was far less optimistic as the Russians were aware that the price tag of Romania's entry into the war would include Bessarabia and also feared that its intervention would only extend the already huge Eastern Front.[39] The Central Powers's initial reaction to the declaration of neutrality was similar to that of the Entente. However Berlin and Vienna in particular, were weighing immediate Bulgarian intervention against Serbia because the neutrality of Italy and Romania, countries that had been their allies prior the outbreak of the war, was a major defeat for German and Austrian diplomacy. Radoslavov, who was generally pro-German, engaged in talks with the German and Austro-Hungarian ambassador as early as July 1914 but in the end he preferred to reaffirm Bulgaria's neutrality. On other diplomatic fronts however the prime minister achieved greater results with the signing of a secret treaty between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on 6 August 1914.[40] This was a mutual defense pact which came into effect if either party was attacked by another Balkan power. Both countries pledged not to attack other Balkan countries without consultation with each other. In the absence of such consultation, the parties pledged benevolent neutrality in such a conflict. Bulgaria additionally agreed to notify the Ottoman Empire of any impending military mobilization. The treaty was kept in deep secret and it remained unknown to most other powers, Germany itself was made aware of its existence only in December 1914.[40] Thus when the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914 Bulgaria reaffirmed its neutrality.

Foreign diplomatic activity in Bulgaria

The Contested and Uncontested Zone in Vardar Macedonia.

German and Austro-Hungarian diplomacy began probing the Bulgarian government's intention immediately following the initial declaration of neutrality. Both presented Tsar Ferdinand with a draft of a military agreement between the Central Powers and Bulgaria.[41] The German ambassador Michahelles also initiated negotiations for a military agreement with prime minister Radoslavov in August 1914. These steps did not lead to any concrete commitments by the Bulgarian government which realized the country was not yet ready for a war. The Austrian defeat in the Battle of Cer also undermined the Dual Monarchy's attempts to secure Bulgaria openly on its side. In early September Bulgaria was visited by Duke John Albert of Mecklenburg, as personal representative of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but he too failed to sway the firm position of the Bulgarian government.

The Entente diplomacy did not sit idly by either. The Russian government was still trying to build a new Balkan League that would include Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria.[39] On 31 of July Sazonov asked the Serbian government to determine what territory it would be willing to give to Bulgaria in exchange for its neutrality or military cooperation but instead received no reaction from the Serbian prime minister.[39] A few days later he suggested that Serbia should cede parts of the uncontested zone to gain Bulgaria for the war with Austria Hungary and eventually cede the entire zone if the war ended in Entente favor.[42] Though the Serbians were not willing to antagonize their Russian patrons they decided not to yield and make any concessions. Serbian policy on this matter was not led by ethnographic motives but by a geopolitical theory awarding the dominant position in the Balkan Peninsula to the country that controlled the valleys of the rivers Morava and Vardar.[39] Thus the Serbians preferred to face the Austro-Hungarians on their own in exchange for a benevolent Bulgarian neutrality for which they offered to cede about a quarter of the uncontested zone but keep total control of the Vardar. This however did not deter Sazonov from ordering Savinsky to offer vague territorial acquisitions to Ferdinand and Radoslavov in exchange for their cooperation. The Russians were also restrained in their activity due to their allies, especially France which preferred the cooperation of Romania rather than Bulgaria. The appointment of Théophile Delcassé, a diplomat with extensive experience regarding the Balkan matters, for French foreign minister and the behavior of the still-neutral Ottoman Empire was expected to breathe new life into French diplomatic activities in Sofia. French diplomacy also toyed with the idea of a new Balkan League directed against the Ottoman and believed that Bulgaria could be offered Eastern Thrace up to the Midia-Enos line.[43] Still its prestige and influence were greatly reduced in Bulgaria, due to France's behavior during the Balkan Wars. This forced the French to admit the leading role of Russia in all attempts of gaining Bulgarian support and limit themselves with cautious support of Russian proposals. The British government thought it best to avoid any complications in the Balkans. It thought that a Balkan alliance of neutral countries was better suited to its interest which conflicted with Russian ideas of Bulgarian military support in exchange for territorial concessions by it neighbors.[44] Thus the UK was also unwilling to pressure these countries to satisfy Bulgarian territorial demands. In order to further Entente ideas of a Balkan League in Sofia the British government dispatched the Liberal MPs Noel and Charles Buxton to meet unofficially with leading Bulgarian statesmen.[45] When they arrived in Bulgaria the brothers were greeted warmly and first met in September with Tsar Ferdinand, Prime Minister Radoslavov and minister Tonchev from whom they received firm assurances of Bulgaria's strict neutrality. After that they turned their attention to the Bulgarian opposition leaders and met with Stamboliyski, Geshov, Sakazov and others. During their stay in the country the Buxtons found out the Bulgarians, even the pro-Entente ones, to be very cautious when it came to aligning the country to Britain. The unofficial character of the visit also made it look like it was a private enterprise rather than one backed by serious British intentions. The brothers however continued their work in Bulgaria and advocated a declaration by the Entente powers promising support for Bulgaria’s claim to the uncontested zone in return for its benevolent neutrality towards Romania and Serbia. Despite having the support of all Allied representatives in Sofia the Buxtons were unable to impress the British Prime Minister Asquith, who considered forcing Serbia to cede land out of the question. Shortly after Noel Buxton was shot and seriously wounded by a Turkish assassin while visiting Bucharest which forced him and his brother to temporarily cease their diplomatic activities.[46] In October 1914 the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers considerably altered the political and military situation in the Balkans. Radoslavov realized that the Bulgaria's value as a potential ally of either of the warring sides had now increased substantially due to its strategic geographic position and considerable military potential. The new status quo also increased the bargaining power of Berlin and Vienna in the remaining neutral Balkan |capitals]] but it did not enhance the Entente's cause in its negotiations with Bulgaria.[47] All the Allies could do was hand a note to Radoslavov promising territorial gains in exchange of strict neutrality and further gains if Bulgaria joined the war against the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire.[48] The Bulgarian prime minister could not accept such a vague offer in the face of continuous determination by Serbia not to cede lands to Bulgaria. On 9 December the Allies,who realized their previous mistake, handed a new declaration promising Bulgaria Ottoman Eastern Thrace up to the Midia-Enos line and "fair" territorial gains in Macedonia in exchange for its neutrality.[49][50] Radoslavov again refused to make any commitments and confirmed his intention to keep Bulgaria on the already established course.

The end of neutrality

As 1914 came to an end Bulgaria remained on the sidelines of the Great European War. The popular opinion lacked enthusiasm for entering the conflict and supported the country's stance of neutrality. At this point the government couldn't afford to take needless risks so the Prime Minister Radoslavov adopted a "wait and see policy" while at the same time he successful probed the abilities of the warring alliances to satisfy Bulgarian territorial ambitions. A final commitment could be made only when one of the sides had gained a decisive military advantage and had firmly guaranteed the fulfillment of Bulgarian national ideals.

The situation in early 1915

On the battlefields the war had entered a long period of stalemate with no side appearing to gain the upper hand. On the Western Front in February the French failed to break the German lines in Champagne, further attempts in Artois during May also came to an unsuccessful conclusion.[51] The Germans had decided to focus their efforts on the Eastern Front where they had considerable success against the Russians in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes but there gains were largely negated by the fall of Przemyśl in March.[51] The Germans and Austrians then undertook new counterattacks to restore their positions and finally in May Italy entered the war on the Entente side. Under these circumstances the military and political value of the neutral Balkan countries increased significantly.

The military successes of each warring side were often a major asset in the diplomatic struggle for Bulgaria. Thus when Przemyśl fell and the Anglo-French landed in the Dardanelles Radoslavov expressed greater interest in negotiations with the Entente.[52] The leading role of Britain in the Gallipoli Campaign made it a natural driving force behind the revival of Entente attempts to acquire Bulgaria as an ally.[53] The British realized that the key to winning Bulgaria was in Vardar Macedonia and suggested to Sazonov that Serbia should be prepared to cede the uncontested zone in exchange for Austrian territory. The Russian foreign minister decided to stand behind this proposition, despite that he found it rather vague, as long as it could turn Bulgaria against the Ottoman Empire. Serbia however remained adamant and its crown prince even declared that it would rather give up Bosnia, than hand Macedonia to Bulgaria.[54]

At the same time Germany hoped in vain to use the payment of a 150 million installment of the 1914 loan as means of exerting influence on the Bulgarian government. Radoslavov meanwhile had turned his attention to an unexpected direction by sending Genadiev to Rome. The purpose of this move was unclear to foreign observers and soon speculations arose that Radoslavov was only trying to remove a potent contender for his post.[55] Whatever the reason during his two-month stay in the Italian capital Genadiev became convinced that Italy was preparing to throw in its lot with the Entente.[55] Radoslavov was not pleased by this news and thought that his coalition partner might undermine the ruling government coalition had he read the report on his foreign visit to the Council of Ministers.[56] To prevent this the prime minister made sure Genadiev wouldn't be able to share his impressions with his colleagues and most minister were left completely unaware of his report. The foreign minister's prediction became reality in May 1915 but it also presented an unforeseen complication for the Allied diplomacy as Italy and Serbia both had claims in Dalmatia, which made the later even more uncompromising when asked to make concession to Bulgaria.

On 29 May, not long after Italy's entry into the war, the Allied representatives in Sofia presented independently an identical note proposing an alliance in exchange for Bulgaria's immediate attack on the Ottoman Empire. In return Bulgaria would receive Eastern Thrace to the Enos-Midia line and the uncontested zone in Macedonia. Bulgaria could occupy Thrace at its earliest convenience and the gains in Macedonia were contingent upon Serbia receiving land in Bosnia and an outlet on the Adriatic coast. The Allies also promised substantial financial assistance and full support in pressuring Greece to cede Kavalla, and Romania to return the Southern Dobrudja.[57] In many respects this proposal represented a turning point in the relationship between the Entente and Bulgaria as it offered for the first time a reward close to satisfying all Bulgarian demands. The Allied proposals however had not been coordinated with neither Serbia nor Greece and provoked fierce protests from those countries which naturally left the Bulgarians with serious doubts about Allied intentions. Radoslavov's reply was received only on 15 of June and although friendly it asked for further clarifications and no commitments at all.[57] In addition the changing military situation also affected Bulgarian opinions as Italy's entry into the war failed to break Austria-Hungary, the Russians suffered reverses in Galicia and the Allied landings in the Dardanelles proved less successful than expected. The Central Powers were aware of the Allied overtures to Bulgaria and only a few days before the Allied proposal of 29 May came up with an offer of their own. The Austrian and Germans could guarantee both the contested and uncontested zones of Macedonia in exchange for Bulgarian neutrality and if latter war with Greece and Romania resulted, then Bulgaria could expect the lands that it had lost in 1913.[57] Tsar Ferdinand issued a speedy reply but at this point he too preferred not to commit the country to the war.

The Allies struggled to give a unified reply to Radoslavov's questions as their positions began to diverge. Britain's foreign minister Edward Grey had doubts about the true Bulgarian intentions and minister wished to scale down the promises made to Bulgaria. His view however were met with disapproval even in his own cabinet, Lloyd George and Churchill thought that a high price, mostly at Greek expense, was worth paying.[58] Paris and Sankt Peterburg, where it was feared that Grey's ideas might push further away Ferdinand and Radoslavov, also disagreed.[59] Unlike their British colleague both Sazanov and Delcassé were also willing to exert greater pressure on Greece to make appropriate concessions in exchange for future compensations in Asia Minor. The Russians wanted to put a time-limit for Bulgarian acceptance because its military intervention would be most useful before the autumn mud put an end to the heavy fighting on the Eastern Front. As the spring of 1915 passed the Allies missed the most promising opportunity of winning Bulgaria for their cause.

"The Bulgarian Summer" of 1915

Tsar Ferdinand in a general's uniform.

The summer months of 1915 saw the decisive clash between the diplomacy of the Entente and the Central Powers take place. A young French historian, a reporter for the French press and witness of the critical events named Marcel Dunan summarized the importance of this period for the entire course of the war by simply naming it the "Bulgarian Summer" of 1915.[60] Bulgaria's strategic geographic position and strong army now more than ever could provide a decisive advantage to the side that managed to win its support. For the Allies, Bulgaria could provide needed support to Serbia, shore up Russia’s defenses, and effectively neutralize the Ottoman Empire while for the Central Powers it could ensure the defeat of Serbia, cut off Russia from its allies and open the way to Constantinople, thus securing the continuous Ottoman war effort.[61] Both sides had promised more or less the fulfillment of Bulgaria's national aspirations and the only problem facing the Bulgarian prime minister was how to secure maximum gains in exchange for minimum commitments. During this time many Entente and Central Powers dignitaries were sent to Sofia in an effort to secure Bulgaria's friendship and support. Allied representatives met with the leaders of the Bulgarian opposition parties, they also provided generous financial support for opposition news papers and even attempted to bribe high ranking government officials.[62] Berlin and Vienna were not willing to remain on the sidelines and dispatched to Bulgaria the Duke of Mecklenburg, the former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim and the Prince Hohenlohe, who openly declared that after the defeat of Serbia Bulgaria would assume hegemony of the Balkans.[63] What kept the Bulgarian interest the most was indeed the balance of military power. The situation on the major European fronts was at that time developing markedly in favor of the Central Powers and while the Allied operation in Gallipoli turned into a costly stalemate the Russians were being driven out of Galicia and Poland. Under these circumstances the Allies were hoping to finally secure Bulgaria. Still it took Entente diplomacy more than a month to give an answer to Radoslavov's questions and the reply proved far from satisfying. In reality it hardly differed from the offer the Allies presented in May. Once again the promises lacked a clear guarantee that Serbia would cede the desired lands and there was not even a mention of Southern Dobrudja. In the eyes of the Bulgarians this was a manifestation of the Entente helplessness in the face of the conflicting ambitions of it smaller Balkan allies. The diplomatic positions of the Central Powers in Sofia were strengthened immensely forcing the Bulgarian tsar and prime minister to assume a course towards a final alignment of the country to the side of the Central Powers. In August a Bulgarian military mission led by Colonel Petar Ganchev, a former military attaché in Berlin, was dispatched to Germany to work out the details for a military convention.[64][65] Almost at the same time the Minister of War Lieutenant General Ivan Fichev resigned and was replaced as minister by the pro-German Major General Nikola Zhekov.[63][64] Radoslavov had also entered talks with the Ottoman Empire, trying to gain concessions in exchange for Bulgarian benevolent neutrality. In this situation Germany,unlike the Allies, was able to persuade its ally to at least seriously consider ceding some land to gain Bulgarian support. Still the Ottomans were willing to conclude the deal only after Bulgaria entered into an agreement with the Central Powers.[65]

Throughout the month of August the Allied diplomatic activity was growing more incoherent. British and French diplomats began to realize that in the face of the stubborn Serbian and Greek refusals of any immediate concessions the best they could hope for was to keep Bulgaria neutral. In the face of its diplomatic failure the Entente even resorted to more unusual means of keeping Bulgaria on the side lines. The Allies and their Bulgarian political sympathizers attempted to buy out the country's grain harvest and create a food crisis. This affair however was revealed to the Bulgarian government and the perpetrators were arrested. Entente diplomats continued to pressure the Serbian government, finally forcing it to assume a more yielding attitude. On 1 of September the Serbian prime minister agreed to cede about half of the uncontested zone but he demanded that Serbia should keep most of the land to the west of the Vardar including the towns of Prilep, Ohrid and Veles.[66] In return for these territorial concessions, the Allied Powers had to allow Serbia to absorb Croatia and Slovenia and demand Bulgaria to attack the Ottoman Empire.[66][67] The Serbian offer was unacceptable and most of its demands were rejected. At the same time the Entente was unaware that the negotiations between Bulgaria and the Central Powers had reached a critical phase.

Bulgaria enters the war

The Serbian territories guaranteed to Bulgaria with the Treaty of Amity and Alliance.

On 6 September 1915, Bulgaria formalized its affiliation with the Central Powers by concluding three separate documents of political and military character. The first document was signed by the prime minister Radoslavov and the German ambassador Michaheles in Sofia and constituted the Treaty of Amity and Alliance between the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the German Empire. It consisted of five articles that were to remain in force for five years. According to the treaty each of the contracting sides agreed not to enter an alliance or agreement directed against the other. Germany was obliged to protect Bulgarian political independence and territorial integrity against all attack which could result without provocation on the side of the Bulgarian government. In exchange Bulgaria was obligated to take action against any of its neighboring states had they attacked Germany.[68] The second important document the two men signed was a secret annex to the Treaty of Alliance. It specified the territorial acquisitions that Germany guaranteed to Bulgaria and included the whole of Vardar Macedonia, including the so-called contested and uncontested zones, plus the part of Old Serbia to the east of the Morava river.[68] In case Romania or Greece attacked Bulgaria or its allies without provocation, Germany would agree to Bulgarian annexation of the lands lost to these countries by the Treaty of Bucharest, and to a rectification of the Bulgarian-Romanian border as delimited by the Treaty of Berlin. In addition, Germany and Austria-Hungary guaranteed the Bulgarian government a war loan of 200,000,000 francs and in case the war lasted longer than four months, they guaranteed an additional supplementary loan.[68]

The third documented was concluded at the German Eastern military headquarters in Pless by the Chief of the German General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf and the delegate of the Bulgarian government Colonel Peter Ganchev.[69] It was a military convention detailing the plan for the final defeat and conquest of Serbia. Germany and Austria-Hungary were obliged to act against Serbia within 30 days of the signing of the convention, while Bulgaria had to do the same within 35 days of that date. Germany and Austria-Hungary were to field at least 6 infantry divisions for the attack, and Bulgaria at least 4 infantry divisions according to their established tables and organization.[70] All these forces were to be placed under the command of Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen, whose task wad defined as "to fight the Serbian Army wherever he finds it and to open and insure as soon as possible a land connection betweent Hungary and Bulgaria".[69] Germany also pledged to assist with what ever war material Bulgaria needed unless it harmed Germany's own needs. Bulgaria was to mobilize the 4 divisions within 15 days of the signing of the convention and furnish at least one more division(outside of Mackensen's command and forces) that was to occupy Vardar Macedonia.[69] Bulgaria also pledged to keep strict neutrality against Greece and Romania for the duration of the war operations against Serbia, as long as the two countries remained neutral themselves. The Ottoman Empire was given the right to adhere to all points of the military convention and von Falkenhayn was to open immediate negotiations with its representatives. On its part Bulgaria agreed to give full passage to all materials and soldiers sent from Germany and Austria-Hungary to the Ottoman Empire, as soon as a connection through Serbia, the Danube or Romania had been opened.[69]

On the same day Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire concluded a separate agreement that granted Bulgaria the possession of the remaining Ottoman lands west of the river Maritsa including a 2-kilometer stretch on its eastern bank that ran along the entire length of the river. This placed the railway to the Aegean port of Dedeagach and some 2,587 square kilometers (999 square miles) under Bulgarian control.[71]

The Allies were unaware of the treaty between Bulgaria and Germany and on September 13 made a new attempt to gain Bulgarian support by offering the occupation of the uncontested zone by Allied troops as a guarantee hat Bulgaria would receive it after it had attacked the Ottoman Empire.[72] This offer however was a sign of desperation and even the British foreign minister considered it inadequate.[72] Radoslavov decided to play along and asked for further clarification. On September 22, Bulgaria declared general mobilization and Radoslavov stated that country would assume a state of "armed neutrality" which its neighbors should not perceive as a threat.[72] This event was indicative of Bulgarian intentions and prompted the Serbians to ask the Entente to support them in a preemptive strike on Bulgaria. The Allies were not yet ready to help Serbia in a military way and refused, focusing their efforts instead on finding ways to delay as much as possible the seemingly imminent Bulgarian attack. Sazonov, angered by this "Bulgarian betrayal", insisted that a clear ultimatum should be issued to the Balkan country. The French and the British resisted at first but eventually fell in line with the Russians and on October 4, the Entente presented an ultimatum demanding all German officers attached to the Bulgarian army be sent back to home within 24 hours.[73] On the previous day a small Allied force had landed in Salonika. Radoslavov did not reply and on 5 October the Allied representatives asked for their passports and left Sofia. On 14 October, Bulgaria declared war on Serbia and the Bulgarian Army invaded Serbian territory. British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith concluded that "one of the most important chapters in the history of diplomacy" had ended.[74] He blamed this heavy Allied diplomatic defeat on Russia and most of all on Serbia and its "obstinacy and cupidity". In military terms Bulgaria's involvement also made the position of the Allies in Gallipoli untenable.

The Bulgarian Army

Organization and state of the army

The demobilization of the Bulgarian Army following the formal end of the Second Balkan War took place under difficult conditions created by the Ottoman military threat hanging over Southern Bulgaria and the Romanian occupation of Northern Bulgaria. Many of the divisions had to be brought down to their usual peace strength and redeployed to cover the Ottoman border. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Constantinople that the army was ably to complete the process of its demobilization and assume its peace time organization. The old nine regular infantry divisions were returned to their garrison areas; the 10th Aegean Division, that had been formed in the First Balkan War, was settled in the newly acquired territories in the Rhodope mountains and Western Thrace; the 11th Infantry Division was reduced to minimal size and reformed into a cadre division, used for the training of new recruits.[75] On 8 December the demobilization was completed and the peace time army now comprised 66,887 men, out of whom 36,976 were in the interior of Bulgaria and 27,813 in the new territories.[75]

In peace time the Bulgarian Land Forces consisted of three armies, ten infantry divisions, forty infantry regiments, nineteen artillery regiments, eleven cavalry regiments, five battalions of engineers, one railway battalion, one telegraph battalion and one technical battalion.[76] These forces retained the territorial organization established prior the First Balkan War. According to it the country was divided in three Army inspectorates, ten Division districts and forty Regiment districts. During wartime the staff of each of these administrative units formed the headquarters and staff of a separate army, division and regiment. All male Bulgarian subjects were eligible to serve in the army when they reached the age of 20. Upon reaching the said age a person was conscripted for a period of two years in the infantry and three years in other branches of the Active(Standing) Army. Following this period the person was enrolled for another 18 years in the infantry or 16 years in the other branches of the Active Army's Reserve. This Reserve was the heart of the army as it encompassed the bulk of the available manpower and reached a size of 374,613 men by the end of 1914.[77] Finally the men between 40 and 48 years served in the National Militia(Narodno Opalchenie) which was divided in two Bans. Initially the First Ban was composed of men 41 to 44 years old and the Second Ban was composed of men 45 to 48 old. Around 1914, due to the experience of the Balkan Wars, however the men between 45 and 46 years old, that belonged to the Second Ban, were formed into separate Etappe Troops. By early 1915 the Bulgarian Army could altogether rely on some 577,625 trained men aged 20 to 48.[77] A special inquiry also determined that another 231,572 men were eligible for military service but had not received their training. Many of those were called up and received training in 1915.

A Mannlicher M95 magazine rifle.

The principal firearm used by the Bulgarian infantry since the end of the 19th century was the Mannlicher magazine rifle, notably the M95 model but also the 1888 and 1890 models. Other rifles in use by the army include the Mosin–Nagant 1891 model, the Berdan II and a number of Mauser rifles captured from the Ottomans during the First Balkan War. Officers were armed with a variety of pistols and revolvers including the Parabellum 1908 and Smith & Wesson. Since 1908 the infantry was also armed with the heavy Maxim machine gun.

The Bulgarian cavalry was armed with sabers for close combat and with the Mannlicher M.1890 carbine. The Balkan Wars had revealed that horse-breeding in Bulgaria was not developed enough to satisfy the wartime requirements of the army and in order to compensate for the deficiency of strong cavalry and artillery horses by October 1915 the authorities imported about 300 animals.[77]

Available infantry weaponry in September 1915[77]
Weapon system Quantity Ammunition stock Ammunition per single weapon
Mannlicher rifles 251,713 150,810,600 600
Mannlicher carbines 9,513 1,781,800 187
Mosin–Nagant rifles 46,056 42,750,000 928
Berdan rifles 54,912 27,757,340 500
Mauser rifles 12,918 11,188,000 860
Martini-Mauser rifles 3,614 900,000 250
Captured Serbian rifles 995 86,000 86
Krnka rifles 12,800 1,224,000 95
Parabellum 1908 pistols 3,957 273,000 69
Smith & Wesson revolvers 1,112 105,320 94
Maxim machine guns 248 10,667,763 43,000
Sabres 19,000 - -

A horse drawn Schneider 75mm cannon. In 1915 the Bulgarian Army had 428 quick-firing 75 mm field guns.[78]

The artillery consisted of various field, mountain and fortress guns, most of it produced by the two world leading manufacturers Schneider and Krupp. During the Second Balkan War the Bulgarian Army had lost a sizable quantity of its artillery but by 1915 the country managed to recover its loses and even increase the number of available guns so that by October 1915 the artillery park consisted of 1,211 pieces, of which 418 were not quick-firing guns.[77] The ammunition for the artillery was however in short supply and the lack of any large home based manufacturing capability left the army with only about 500 shells per gun, enough to satisfy the artillery's needs for about two months.

Bulgaria possessed a small naval force of torpedo gunboats and patrol boats that were restricted to operating only in the coastal areas of the Black Sea and along the river Danube. Following the Second Balkan War the country acquired an outlet on the Aegean Sea and in January 1915 the "Aegean" Section of the Bulgarian Navy was created by a royal decree. Initially only 78 soldiers were assigned to the small force and were given a task to observe and defend the coastline by laying naval mines.[79] These activities were centered on the ports of Porto Lagos and Dedeagach but the true development of the facilities there was hampered by financial difficulties.[79] The Bulgarian air force had gained some experience during the First Balkan War but its development was halted followng the defeat in the Second Balkan War. The airplane and balloon sections were reduced to two companies and made part of a technical battalion that was attached to the Army's engineers. The airplane section, which included 5 functional aircraft and 124 men (including 8 pilots), was stationed on an airfield outside of Sofia. Despite the difficult conditions the command took measures to improve the material and personnel situation of the air troops by building a special repair workshop and opening a specialized school for the training of pilot, observers and technicians.[80] Bulgaria's hostile neighbors practically isolated it from the big airplane manufacturers and prevented it from receiving new aircraft. Under these circumstances an alternative had to be provided by few Bulgarian air enthusiast who attempted to build a fully functional Bulgarian airplane. In the summer of 1915 Assen Jordanoff was the first to succeed in this task by designing and building the first Bulgarian-made airplane, which was latter named Diplane Yordanov-1.[80] Still in September 1915 the airplane section had only two German made Albatros B.I, two French made Blériot IX-2 and one Blériot IX-bis. They were however joined by three German Fokker-Е80Е-III and their German crew whose task was to defend Sofia from any attacks. It was only after Bulgaria entered the war that the air force was able to receive new aircraft.[81] 1915 also saw the birth of the anti-aircraft component of the Bulgarian armed forces. The first such specialized formation was a mixed battery of six guns (2 quick-firing 75 mm Krupp guns and 4 not quick-firing 87 mm Krupp guns) and seven machine guns (five Madsen and two Hotchkiss), which was deployed around Sofia.[81]


Departure of mobilized Bulgarian soldiers.

The decree for general mobilization of the Bulgarian Army was issued by the Bulgarian government on 22 of September 1915 but as this happened late in the evening the orders reached the local authorities only on the next day. Around this time the total surface area of the kingdom was 114,424 square kilometers and its population stood at 4,930,151 people, out of whom 2,484,122 were males.[82] The mobilization however was declared and carried out behind the established schedule because the nature of Colonel Ganchev's mission to Germany was held in great secrecy to the last moment, even from the Bulgarian General Staff which was left out of the negotiations completely. The whole mobilization period, which lasted for 17 or 18 days, was accompanied with some difficulties of material character due to the insufficient quantities of uniforms, horses and carts and even though there was no serious manpower shortage the absence of the enthusiasm demonstrated during the mobilization prior the First Balkan War was visible. By the beginning of October the total number of mobilized personnel reached 616,680 men[83] which represented over 12 percent of the population and almost a quarter of the male inhabitants of the country. Instead of the five divisions required by the military convention Bulgaria mobilized 11 infantry and one cavalry division as well as numerous auxiliary and militia units most of these forces were deployed in three field armies, two of which concentrated on the Serbian border and one on the Romanian border.[84][85]

The Bulgarian constitution designated the monarch as commander in chief of the Bulgarian armed forces in time of peace and in time war. In practice however the tsar could delegate this function in wartime by granting all the powers of the commander in chief to a different person.[86] During the First Balkan War Ferdinand had remained acting supreme commander but the lack of military education or experience forced him to rely heavily on his assistant commander-in-chief Lieutenant General Mihail Savov.

The commander in chief of the Bulgarian Army Nikola Zhekov.

The experience from the Balkan Wars convinced the tsar in 1915 to delegate the title and its powers entirely to a different person. Out of the few appropriate candidates that were available Ferdinand chose the pro-German Minister of War Major General Nikola Zhekov. The powers of the commander in chief were not regulated by law and even from the beginning this caused some friction with the government. In his new role General Zhekov exercised direct control over all forces except those that remained in the interior of the country, which were placed under the command of the new Minister of War Major General Kalin Naydenov.[71] At the same time Major General Konstantin Zhostov succeed Lieutenant General Kliment Boyadzhiev, who was appointed commander of the 1st Army, as Chief of the Bulgarian General Staff. The military convention between Bulgaria and the Central Powers laid down the general plan for the offensive against the Kingdom of Serbia. It severely limited the control of the Bulgarian High Command over the Bulgarian 1st Army which was designated part of a combined German, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian force commanded by Field Marshal August von Mackensen. He had recently led the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in the highly successful and victorious Summer campaign of the Central Powers against the Imperial Russian Army on the Eastern Front. His army group was created specifically to wage war against the Serbian Army in the pre-1913 borders of the country(Old Serbia), to beat it wherever it found it and to open the land route between Hungary and Bulgaria. As commander Field Marshal Mackensen acted independently and received his directives only from the German High Command. However the field marshal's orders to his Bulgarian forces had to be relayed to the commander of the 1st Army by the Bulgarian General Staff, which left room for the latter to intervene when needed. According to the convention the Bulgarian commander in chief retained full and direct control over the Bulgarian 2nd Army and its operations in Vardar Macedonia.

Bulgaria at war

Military operations

Manifesto of the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand I, declaring war against Serbia

The conquest of Serbia

The general mobilization of the Bulgarian Army caused great concern in Serbia but its military leaders were quick to respond by drafting a plan to deter Bulgaria from entering into the war. The build up of Serbian forces along the Bulgarian border peaked by the first week of October when 145 battalions, 25 squadrons and 316 guns were concentrated and prepared for operations against Bulgaria.[87] These forces represented half the entire Serbian Army of 288 battalions, 40 squadrons and 678 guns.[88] The plan however relied heavily on the support of the Allies, from whom the Serbians expected to draw another 150,000 men for the defense of Vardar Macedonia. The Serbian government pressed this issue before the governments of the major Entente powers but was not able to negotiate any commitment on their part. France, Britain and Russia were unable and unwilling to dispatch large numbers of troops and instead thought that Greece, which had a defensive treaty with Serbia, would act in case of a Bulgarian attack. Allied inactivity allowed the Central Powers to continue, unmolested, their preparations for the offensive. By early October however the Austro-Hungarians were not able to furnish the required minimum of 6 division for the attack so the Germans had to step in with additional forces. The forces, under the overall command of Field Marshal Mackensen, were deployed in the German 11th Army (7 German divisions) led by General Gallwitz and Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army (4 Austro-Hungarian and 3 German divisions) led by General Kövess. On 6 October 1915 Mackensen opened the offensive, as scheduled, with a powerful artillery barrage along the Sava-Danube front and on the next day the main body of his forces crossed the rivers. According to the convention Bulgaria was obliged to move against Serbia within 5 days of the German and Austo-Hungarian attack but owing to a delay in the concentration of some of the forces the schedule could not be kept. The Serbians were surprised by Bulgarian inactivity and were forced to begin shifting part of their forces from the Bulgarian border to face the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to the north, which eventually allowed their eastern neighbors to finish their preparations undisturbed. The Bulgarians deployed two field armies with a combined strength of almost 300,000 men.[89][90] The 1st Army together with its four infantry divisions was placed under the command of Lieutenant General Kliment Boyadzhiev and was part of Army Group Mackensen.[91] The 2nd Army, which remained under the direct control of the Bulgarian commander in chief, consisted of two infantry and one cavalry division and was under the command of Lieutenant General Georgi Todorov.[91] The two armies were to operate against Old Serbia and Vardar Macedonia on a front stretching over 300 kilometers.[92]

On 14 of October, with most of the preparations completed, Bulgaria finally declared war on Serbia and officially entered the First World War. Around this time the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had penetrated into Serbia on front that was 140 kilometer in length and 15 kilometers in depth. In order to close the 90 kilometer gap between the flanks of the German 11th Army and the Bulgarian 1st Army the Field Marshal Mackensen ordered the latter to invade the valley of the river Morava and take Niš and Aleksinac. In accordance with this order the Bulgarians attacked along the entire front of their 1st Army, quickly driving out the Serbian units and taking control of the border area.

A World War I postcard depicting the meeting of Bulgarian and Hungarian troops at Kladovo.

Following this easy success however the speed of the advance was reduced significantly due to the bad weather, which turned roads into mud, and a dense fog that sometimes limited visibility to 50 meters. In addition the stiffening Serbian resistance and the mountainous character of the area caused the flanks of the 1st Army to halt before the fortresses of Pirot and Zaječar that were only 15 kilometers from the border. A breakthrough in the center of the front forced the Serbians to retreat and the two towns were occupied on 26 October.[93]

Despite its smaller size the Bulgarian 2nd Army achieved much greater success and completed its first objective as early as 16 October by taking the town of Vranje and severing all railway communications between Serbia and Vardar Macedonia. A small part of the army was then directed in the direction of Niš with the idea of assisting the 1st Army and cutting off the Serbian retreat routes. The remaining units advanced further west reaching Veles and Kumanovo on 20 October. During the fighting around Veles other Bulgarian troops located around Krivolak and Strumitsa for the first time met in battle French forces that were finally advancing north in an attempt to aid the Serbians (See: Battle of Krivolak). The appearance of this new threat to the south forced the Bulgarian High Command to prepare the transportation of two more infantry divisions to Macedonia and divide the 2nd Army in two groups - a Northern Group operating against the Serbians and a Southern Group operating against the Allies.[94] On 22 of October following a brief confrontation between Serbian and Bulgarian forces the town of Skopje was taken and a detachment was sent to occupy the Kacanik pass and block the Serbian retreat. The rapid advance of the Bulgarian 2nd Army created favorable conditions for the encirclement of the entire Serbian Army fighting in Old Serbia. The Bulgarian High Command decided to focus this objective and ordered the forces operating against the Allies to the south to assume defensive positions.[95]

Bulgarian military operations during the Serbian Campaign.

The exploits of the Bulgarian 2nd Army in Macedonia convinced the Serbians that the danger of complete encirclement is high and forced them to begin withdrawing their forces to Kosovo while offering stiff but not desperate resistance to Army Group Mackensen. On 1 of November Kragujevac fell to the Germans who began pursuing their opponents down the river Great Morava. Mackensen ordered his forces to "push the main body of the Serbian Army back and decisively beat it in the interior of Serbia".[96] In accordance the Bulgarian 1st Army continued its advance and captured the war time capital of the Serbia Niš taking around 5,000 prisoners on 5 November. On the same day the flanks of the German 11th Army and the Bulgarian 1st Army joined in a single line, closing the gap between them. Thus the main objectives of the Bulgarian Morava Offensive were completed but more importantly the main objective of the entire campaign was also completed and the land route from Austria-Hungary to Bulgaria was opened permanently.

The Serbian Army was now retreating and concentrating on the Kosovo plain where they hoped to make a stand and buy time to either breakthrough and join the Allies in Macedonia or escape an encirclement. Under these circumstances the Bulgarian High Command and the headquarters of Army Group "Mackensen" agreed to pursue relentlessly the retreating Serbians, to cut their possible retreat routes and to undertake a decisive advance towards Pristina.[97] The plan required the Bulgarian 1st Army to attack from the east, the reinforced Northern Operations Group of the Bulgarian 2nd Army from the south, parts of the German 11th army from the north and finally the main forces of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army from the northwest. The plan however didn't take into account the swollen waters of the river Morava which slowed down its crossing. As a result of this delay the Serbians concentrated greater forces against the Bulgarian 2nd Army, which was the main obstacle sitting between them and the Allies but also the greatest threat to their retreat routes leading in Albania. Thus when the operation started the Serbians were not only able to resist heavily the 2nd Army but also to launch a desperate attempt to break through it at Kacanik and reach the Allies. They were allowed to do so because of the slow advance of the Austro-German and Bulgarian forces from the North and East due to the bad weather, bad roads and overextended supply lines. Field Marshal Mackensen had even pulled back most of the 11th Army, leaving only two divisions in the first line which greatly reduced the already lacking will of the German forces to advance rapidly. Despite this the exhausted Serbians were not able to break through the Northern Group of the 2nd Army and retreated. Bulgarian attempts to cut their retreat from the South were thwarted and when the Bulgarian 1st Army and the German 11th Army took Pristina on 23 of November the Serbian High Command was able to order a general retreat of the entire army to Albania and avoid its the complete destruction. The pursuit of the retreating opponent was left mostly to Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian forces and on 29 November the 3rd "Balkan" division took Prizren, within days the towns of Debar, Struga, Ohrid were also occupied and finally on 4 of December the Bulgarians entered Bitola.[98] This marked the end of the operations against the Serbian Army which continued its retreat through the Albanian mountains, losing around 55,000 men in the process.[99]

Pobedata nad syrbia.JPG

Around 150,000 Serbian troops gathered in different Albanian ports and were evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Korfu. This beaten and demoralized force had lost practically all its equipment and had to be rebuild from scratch.

In November, while the decisive Serbian defeat unfolded, the French attempted to exert pressure on the Bulgarian 2nd Army but were soon forced to halt their attempts to drive North. The forces of General Maurice Sarrail that consisted of three French and one British division dug in along a 80 kilometer front from the river Cherna to Lake Doiran.[100] With the fall of Pristina Generail Sarrail realized that the Allies could no longer help the Serbians and decided to begin pulling back his forces to Salonika. The Bulgarian High Command shifted its focus to the Allies in Macedonia and decided that the time was right to go on the offensive. Several days however were lost in scouting and it was only on 3 of December that the 2nd army commenced a general advance but the French were able to retreat in good order towards Salonika. They were soon followed by the British who were defeated at Kosturino. On 11 of December the Bulgarian divisions reached the Greek border where they were ordered to halt and warned repeatedly not to cross the line.[101]

By the middle of December the entire Kingdom of Serbia was occupied by the armies of the Central Powers and the Allies were pushed back to Salonika by the Bulgarians. Within two months of its entry into the war Bulgaria achieved its main war goal - the conquest of Vardar Macedonia. For the duration of military operations against Serbia and the Entente in 1915 the Bulgarian Army committed a total of around 424,375 men[102] while its casualties were around 37,000 men.[103]

By the end of 1915 the Central Powers established firm and unbroken control over a vast territory that stretched from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf. They also drew great political and military dividends from the defeat and occupation of Serbia. Bulgaria conquered almost all the territory it desired, Germany gained unrestricted access to the natural resources of Ottoman Asia, the Ottomans received much needed German matériel assistance, Austria-Hungary secured its southern flank and could completely focus its attention on the Russian and Italian fronts.[99]

Establishment and development of the Macedonian Front during 1916

The Romanian campaign

1917 - Stalemate on the Macedonian Front

1918 - End of the War


In September 1918 the Serbs, British, French and Greeks broke through on the Macedonian front and Tsar Ferdinand was forced to sue for peace. Under the terms of the armistice, Bulgarian troops had to evacuate all occupied Greek and Serbian territory; agree to surrender of all arms and weapons of war; The evacuation of all German and Austrian troops and Allied occupation of strategic points inside Bulgaria. With revolts arising around the country, the BZNS leader Alexander Stamboliyski was released from prison in hopes of quelling the discontent. In order to head off the revolutionaries, he persuaded Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of his son Boris III. The revolutionaries were suppressed and the army disbanded. Under the Treaty of Neuilly (November 1919), Bulgaria lost its Aegean coastline to Greece and nearly all of its Macedonian territory to the new state of Yugoslavia, and had to give Dobruja back to the Romanians (see also Dobruja, Western Outlands, Western Thrace). Elections in March 1920 gave the Agrarians a large majority, and Stamboliyski formed Bulgaria's next government.

Stamboliyski faced huge social problems in what was still a poor country inhabited mostly by peasant smallholders. Bulgaria was saddled with huge war reparations to Yugoslavia and Romania, and had to deal with the problem of refugees as many native Bulgarian civilians had to leave Yugoslav Macedonia. Nevertheless Stamboliyski was able to carry through many social reforms, although opposition from the Tsar, the landlords and the officers of the much-reduced but still influential army was powerful. Another bitter enemy was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), which favoured a war to regain Macedonia for Bulgaria. Faced with this array of enemies, Stamboliyski allied himself with the Bulgarian Communist Party and opened relations with the Soviet Union.

The interwar years

In March 1923 Stamboliyski signed an agreement with Yugoslavia recognising the new border and agreeing to suppress VMRO. This triggered a nationalist reaction, and on June 9 there was a coup in which Stamboliykski was assassinated (beheaded). A right wing government under Aleksandar Tsankov took power, backed by the Tsar, the army and the VMRO, who waged a White terror against the Agrarians and the Communists. The Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov fled to the Soviet Union. There was savage repression in 1925 following the second of two failed attempts on the Tsar's life in the bomb attack on Sofia Cathedral (the first attempt took place in the mountain pass of Arabakonak). But in 1926 the Tsar persuaded Tsankov to resign and a more moderate government under Andrey Lyapchev took office. An amnesty was proclaimed, although the Communists remained banned. The Agrarians reorganised and won elections in 1931 under the leadership of Nikola Mushanov.

Just when political stability had been restored, the full effects of the Great Depression hit Bulgaria, and social tensions rose again. In May 1934 there was another coup, the Agrarians were again suppressed, and an authoritarian regime headed by Kimon Georgiev established with the backing of Tsar Boris. In April 1935 Boris took power himself, ruling through puppet Prime Ministers Georgi Kyoseivanov (1935–40) and Bogdan Filov (1940–43). The Tsar's regime banned all opposition parties and took Bulgaria into alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Although the signing of the Balkan Pact of 1938 restored good relations with Yugoslavia and Greece, the territorial issue continued to simmer.


See also

In literature

The story ¨Kradetzat na praskovi¨ (English: "The Thief of Peaches") depicts the love story between a Bulgarian colonel's wife and a Serbian prisoner of war. The First World War is so far best presented in that story by the late Emiliyan Stanev, one of the greatest Bulgarian writers.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tucker (1996), p. 151.
  2. (Erickson 2001, pp. 20)
  3. (Erickson 2001, pp. 91)
  4. Crampton, pg.139
  5. Crampton, pg.143
  6. Crampton, pg.132
  7. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pg.132
  8. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.43,66-67
  9. Crampton, pg.133
  10. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.97
  11. Crampton, pg.134
  12. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.111
  13. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.102
  14. 14.0 14.1 Stavrinos pg.539
  15. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.117-119
  16. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.118-119
  17. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.120-122
  18. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.123-125
  19. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.125-126
  20. Michael Robert Marrus. The unwanted: European refugees from the First World War through the Cold War . Temple University Press, 2002, pg.46.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Crampton. Bulgaria, Oxford history of modern Europe. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg.205.
  22. Hall, The Balkan Wars... pp.138
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Bulgarian Economy during the wars 1912-1918.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Lampre, pp.42-43 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Lampre" defined multiple times with different content
  25. Панайотов, pg.355
  26. Ганчев p. 369
  27. Crampton. Bulgaria, Oxford history of modern Europe. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg.203.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Илчев, pp.37 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Илчев" defined multiple times with different content
  29. Hamilton, pp.401
  30. Илчев, pp.44
  31. Илчев, pp.45
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Crampton, A concise history of Bulgaria pg.137
  33. 33.0 33.1 Илчев, pp.46
  34. Илчев, pp.52
  35. Crampton. Bulgaria, Oxford history of modern Europe. Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.205-206.
  36. Willmott 2003, p. 26
  37. Willmott 2003, p. 27
  38. Crampton. Bulgaria, Oxford history of modern Europe. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg.206.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 39.4 Илчев, pp.64 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Илчев6" defined multiple times with different content
  40. 40.0 40.1 (Erickson 2001, pp. 31)
  41. Lalkov, Балканската политика на Австро-Унгария, 1983. Sofia pp.175
  42. Дерменджиева, pp.235
  43. Илчев, pg,76
  44. Илчев, pg,79
  45. Roberts, pg,222
  46. Roberts, pg,223
  47. Илчев, pg,94
  48. Дерменджиева, pp.237
  49. Roberts, pg,225
  50. Илчев, pg,103
  51. 51.0 51.1 Ганчев, pg,362
  52. Hamilton, pp.398
  53. Илчев, pg,125
  54. Илчев, pg,127
  55. 55.0 55.1 Илчев, pg,146
  56. Илчев, pg,147
  57. 57.0 57.1 57.2 Roberts, pg,230
  58. Roberts, pg,231
  59. Илчев, pp,185-186
  60. Dunan. L'été bulgare, notes d'un témoin- juil-let-Octobre 1915 (1917)
  61. Yokell, pg,61
  62. Илчев, pg.194
  63. 63.0 63.1 Roberts, pg,233
  64. 64.0 64.1 Илчев, pg.210
  65. 65.0 65.1 Yokell, pg,87
  66. 66.0 66.1 Илчев, pg.205
  67. Yokell, pg,82
  68. 68.0 68.1 68.2 Yokell, pp,102-103
  69. 69.0 69.1 69.2 69.3 Lutz, pp,745-746 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Lutz" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Lutz" defined multiple times with different content
  70. Bulgarian infantry divisions were significantly larger that their German and Austrian counterparts.
  71. 71.0 71.1 Ганчев, pг,364 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Ганчев3" defined multiple times with different content
  72. 72.0 72.1 72.2 Илчев, pg.207
  73. Roberts, pg,237
  74. Roberts, pg,238
  75. 75.0 75.1 Крапчански, pp,94-95
  76. Крапчански, pg,104
  77. 77.0 77.1 77.2 77.3 77.4 Крапчански, pg,108 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Крапчански3" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Крапчански3" defined multiple times with different content
  78. History of the Bulgarian artillery between the wars 1913-1915
  79. 79.0 79.1 Prokopiev, pg,109
  80. 80.0 80.1 Nedyalkov, pg,40
  81. 81.0 81.1 Nedyalkov, pg,41
  82. Ганчев, pg,370
  83. Крапчански p. 112
  84. Нойков p. 48
  85. Ганчев, pp,374-375
  86. Нойков p. 31
  87. Българската армия в Световната война, vol. II , pg. 14; Държавна печатница,София 1938
  88. Българската армия в Световната война, vol. II (1936), pg. 14
  89. Българската армия в Световната война, vol. II (1936), pg. 904 - The Bulgarian 1st Army had a ration strength of 195,820 men.
  90. Българската армия в Световната война 1915 - 1918, Vol. III (1938), pg. 1138 - The Bulgarian 2nd Army had a ration strength of 99,494 men.
  91. 91.0 91.1 Hall. Balkan Breakthrough ..., pp,44-45
  92. Ганчев, pg,380
  93. Ганчев, pg,388
  94. Нойков p. 60
  95. Българската армия в Световната война 1915 - 1918, Vol. III (1938), pg. 652
  96. Ганчев, pg,390
  97. Нойков p. 64
  98. Нойков pp. 66-67
  99. 99.0 99.1 История первой мировой войны 1914-1918 гг.
  100. Ганчев, pg,401
  101. Hall. Balkan Breakthrough ..., pg,50
  102. Българската армия в Световната война 1915 - 1918, Vol. III (1938), pg. 1146 - During the campaign the Bulgarians reinforced their forces with three additional infantry divisions, or some 129,061 men.
  103. Георги Бакалов, "История на Българите: Военна история на българите от древността до наши дни", p.463


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