Military Wiki
Serbo-Bulgarian War 1885
Part of Serbo-Bulgarian Wars
S-b war panting by Antoni Piotrowski.jpg
The Bulgarians cross the border, by Antoni Piotrowski
Date14–28 November 1885 (N. S.)
LocationSerbia, Bulgaria
Result Decisive Bulgarian victory;
Recognition of Unification of Bulgaria
Bulgaria Principality of Bulgaria  Kingdom of Serbia
Unknown 60,000[citation needed]
Casualties and losses
771 killed and 4,232 wounded 746 killed and 4,570 wounded

Manifesto of Knyaz Alexander of Bulgaria declaring the Serbo-Bulgarian War on 2nd November 1885 (O. S.)

The Serbo-Bulgarian War (Bulgarian language: Сръбско-българска война , translit. Srabsko-balgarska voyna; Serbian language: Српско-бугарски рат/ Srpsko-bugarski rat) was a war between Serbia and Bulgaria that erupted on 14 November [O.S. 2 November] 1885 and lasted until 28 November [O.S. 16 November] 1885. Final peace was signed on 3 March [O.S. 19 February] 1886 in Bucharest. As a result of the war, European powers acknowledged the act of Unification of Bulgaria which happened on 18 September [O.S. 6 September] 1885.[1][2]


Bulgarian unification and Serbo-Bulgarian War

On 18 September [O.S. 6 September] 1885, Bulgaria and the semi-autonomous Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia declared their unification in the city of Plovdiv. Eastern Rumelia, whose population was predominantly ethnic Bulgarian, had been an artificial creation of the Berlin Congress seven years earlier. The unification took place against the will of the Great Powers, including Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been expanding its influence in the Balkans and was particularly opposed. Bulgaria's western neighbor Serbia also feared this would diminish its position in the Balkans. In addition, Serbia's ruler Milan I was annoyed that Serbian opposition leaders like Nikola Pašić, who had escaped persecution after the Timok Rebellion, had found asylum in Bulgaria.

After the declaration of the unification massive protests broke out in Greece, who feared of the creation of a greater Bulgarian state on the Balkans, calling the government to declare war on Bulgaria. Serbia offered Greece a joint military action against Bulgaria but Greece rejected.

Lured by Austria-Hungary's promises for territorial gains from Bulgaria (in return for concessions in the Western Balkans), Milan I declared war on Bulgaria on 14 November [O.S. 2 November] 1885.[3][4] The military strategy relied largely on surprise, as Bulgaria expected an attack from the Ottoman Empire it moved its troops near the borderline, in the southeast.

The pretext became a minor border dispute, known as the Bregovo Dispute. The river Timok, which formed part of the border between the two countries, had slightly changed its course over the years. As a result, a Serbian border guardhouse near the village of Bregovo had found itself on the Bulgarian bank of the river. After some denied requests from Bulgaria to evacuate the guardhouse, Bulgaria expelled the Serbian troops by force.

As it happened, the Ottomans did not intervene and the Serbian army's advance was stopped after the Battle of Slivnitsa. The main body of the Bulgarian army traveled from the Ottoman border in the southeast to the Serbian border in the northwest to defend the capital Sofia. After the defensive battles at Slivnitsa and Vidin (the latter's defence was organized by Atanas Uzunov), Bulgaria began an offensive which took the city of Pirot. At this point, the Austro-Hungarian Empire stepped in, threatening to join the war on Serbia's side if the Bulgarian troops did not retreat. No territorial changes were made to either country, but the Bulgarian unification was recognized by the Great Powers. However, the relationship of trust and friendship between Serbia and Bulgaria, built during their long common fight against Ottoman rule, suffered irreparable damage.

Serbian army

The Serbian army's infantry weaponry stood up to the most modern standards of the time (Mauser-Milovanović single-shot rifles with excellent ballistic characteristics). However, the artillery was ill-equipped, still using muzzle-loading cannons of the La Hitte system. Breech-loading cannons of the De Bange system had been ordered and paid for, but did not arrive in Serbia until 1886.

The total number of Serbian armed forces expected to take part in the military operation was about 60,000. King Milan IV divided his force into two armies, the Nishava and Timok armies. The first took the main objective, i.e. to overcome the Bulgarian defences along the west border, to conquer Sofia and advance towards the Ihtiman heights. It was there that the army was supposed to encounter and crush the Bulgarian forces coming from the southeast. Serbia's main advantages on paper were the better small arms and the highly educated commanders and soldiers, who had gained a serious amount of experience from the last two wars against the Ottoman Empire.

However, internal Serbian problems supplemented by king Milan's conduct of the war, nullified most of these advantages: In order to collect all the glory for the victory he considered imminent, King Milan did not call the most famous commanders of the previous wars (Gen. Jovan Belimarković, Gen. Đura Horvatović and Gen. Milojko Lešjanin) to command the army. Instead, he took the position of army commander himself and gave the divisional commands to less experienced officers like Petar Topalović of the Morava division.

Furthermore, underestimating the Bulgarian military strength and fearing mutinies for conducting such an unpopular war (and having indeed experienced the Timok Rebellion two years before), he ordered the mobilisation of only the first class of infantry (recruits younger than 30 years), which meant mobilising only about half of the available Serbian manpower. In doing so, he deprived the Serbian army of its veterans of the previous wars against the Ottoman Empire.

The modern rifles, even though amongst the best in Europe at the time, still had issues of their own: they were introduced a rather short time (two years) before the outbreak of the war, so many of the soldiers were not very well trained to use them. More importantly, the theoretical capabilities of the rifle often mislead the Serbian officers, still lacking experience with it, to order volleys from distances of half a mile or more, wasting the precious ammunition for negligible results. Furthermore, the ammunition was purchased in quantities based on consumption of bullets by the previous, much older and slower firing rifles. The situation was made worse still by the contemporary Serbian tactics emphasizing firepower, and downplaying hand-to-hand fighting, which contributed to heavy casualties in such a fight for Neškov Vis in defence of Pirot.[Clarification needed]

Condition of the Bulgarian Army

Alexander of Battenberg during the Battle of Slivnitsa.

Bulgaria was forced to meet the Serbian threat with two serious disadvantages. First, when the Unification had been declared, Russia had withdrawn its military officers, who had until that moment commanded all larger units of Bulgaria's young army. The remaining Bulgarian officers had lower ranks and no experience in commanding units larger than platoons (causing the conflict to be dubbed "The War of the Captains"). Second, since the Bulgarian government had expected an attack from Turkey, the main forces of the Bulgarian Army were situated along the southeastern border. In the conditions of 1885 Bulgaria, their redeployment across the country would take at least 5–6 days.

Bulgarian advantages

The main Bulgarian advantage was the strong patriotic spirit and morale, as well as the feeling among the men that they were fighting for a just cause. The same could not be said about the Serbs. Their King had misled them in his manifest to the army, telling the Serbian soldiers that they were being sent to help the Bulgarians in their war against Turkey. This was why the Serbian soldiers were initially surprised to find that they were fighting Bulgarians instead, until they understood what was happening. Presumably, lying to his army was King Milan's only means to mobilize and command his troops without experiencing disobedience and unrest.

Furthermore, while Bulgarian small arms were inferior to the Serbian, its artillery was greatly superior, boasting steel, Krupp-designed breech-loading cannons.

Bulgarian strategic plan

There were two views on the Bulgarian strategy: the first, supported by Knyaz Alexander I, saw the general battle on the Ihtiman heights. The drawback of this plan was that in that case, the capital Sofia had to be surrendered without battle. This could very well cause Serbia to stop the war and call in the arbitrage of the Great Powers. For this reason, the strategic plan that was finally selected by the Bulgarian command expected the main clash to be in the area of Slivnitsa. Captain Olimpi Panov had an important role in this final decision.

Military activities

16–19 November

Monument in memory of officers and soldiers fallen in border skirmishes near Tran and Vrabcha, November 3–4 (O. S.), (Tran central square)

Knyaz Alexander I arrived on the evening of November 16 to find a well prepared defensive position manned by 9 battalions, plus some 2000 volunteers and 32 guns, commanded by Major Guchev. The position consisted of nearly 4 km of trenches and artillery redoubts on either side of the main road on a ridge in front of Slivnitsa city. To the right was steep mountainous terrain whilst the left wing had the easier Visker Hills towards Breznik.

The three Serbian centre divisions also arrived on November 16 and halted to recover after the fierce Bulgarian delaying action in the Dragoman Pass. The Morava division was at some distance from its objective Breznik which lay to the south. The northern advance was bogged down along the Danube. The morning of November 17 came with rain and mist but not the expected Serbian attack. By 10 in the morning, Alexander ordered three battalions to advance on the right. They surprised the Danube division, who eventually rallied and pushed them back. The main Serbian attack began on the centre largely unsupported by artillery which had insufficient range. The weight of Bulgarian fire forced them back with some 1,200 casualties. A relief column led by Captain Benderev recaptured the heights on the right and forced the Danube division back to the road. At daybreak on November 18 the Serbians attacked the weaker left flank of the Bulgarian line. Just in time two battalions of the Preslav Regiment arrived to shore up the position. Further attacks in the centre were repulsed with heavy Serbian casualties and Benderev captured two further positions in the mountains. On November 19 the Serbians concentrated two divisions for an attack on the Bulgarian left near Karnul (today Delyan, Sofia Province) in an attempt to join up with the Morava division. However, three battalions of Bulgarian troops led by Captain Popov from Sofia had held the Morava division in the Visker Hills and the flanking move failed. Alexander now ordered a counterattack which pushed the Serbians back on both flanks although nightfall prevented a complete collapse.

19–28 November

Slivnitsa was the decisive battle of the war. The Serbians fought only limited rearguard actions as they retreated and by November 24 they were back in Serbia. The Timok division in the north continued the siege of Vidin until November 29. The main Bulgarian army crossed the border in two strong divisions (Guchev and Nikolaev), supported by flanking columns, and converged on Pirot. The Serbian army dug in on the heights west of the town. On November 27 the Bulgarian Army flanked the right of the Serbian position with Knyaz Alexander personally leading the final attack. The Serbians abandoned Pirot and fled to Niš.

One day break by Serbia to allow Red Cross assistance for Bulgaria

Between 1884 and 1885 Serbia was at war with Bulgaria, which at that time didn't have medical corps so there was no one to take care of or provide medical assistance to the wounded soldiers. The international Red Cross prepared the aid convoys with supplies ready to be transported to Bulgaria, but the only way to transport it was across Serbia and the battle field. Then something occurred that was unprecedented in world history: at the request of the Austrian Red Cross, the Serbian government granted the military command to stop the war for one day and opened the front line for the Red Cross to transport the aid from Vienna to Sofia in Bulgaria. Serbia did more than that: medications, beds and blankets from their own supplies were added to existing aid and Bulgarian forces were given everything they needed to open a hospital.

In memory of this unselfish act the International Red Cross awarded Serbia with recognition for humanity. In memory of this unselfish act, a board with the inscription "Be as humane as Serbia was in 1885" is set in the building of the International Red Cross in Geneva.

End of war and peace treaty

The Serbian defeat made Austria-Hungary take action. On 28 November, the Viennese ambassador in Belgrade, Count Khevenhüller-Metsch, visited the headquarters of the Bulgarian Army and demanded the ceasing of military actions, threatening that otherwise the Bulgarian forces would meet Austro-Hungarian troops. The ceasefire was signed on 28 November,[5] but that did not stop the Serbians from continuous unsuccessful attempts to conquer Vidin with the idea to use it in negotiations later, even after military activities had stopped on demand of their ally. On 3 March 1886 the peace treaty was signed in Bucharest. According its terms, no changes were to be made along the Bulgarian-Serbian border.[6]

The war was an important step in the strengthening of Bulgaria's international position. To a large extent, the victory preserved the Unification of Bulgaria. The defeat left a lasting scar on the Serbian military, previously considered undefeated by the Serbs. Ambitious reforms of the army were carried out (which later, in part, contributed to the end of the House of Obrenović).

In popular culture

The Serbo-Bulgarian War forms the setting for George Bernard Shaw's 1894 play Arms and the Man.


  1.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) "Bulgaria/History" Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press 
  2. Anderson, Frank Marby; Amos Shartle Hershey (1918). "The Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885-86". Handbook for the Diplomatic History of Europe, Asia, and Africa 1870-1914. Washington, DC: National Board for Historical Service, Government Printing Office. pp. 124–126. Retrieved 2 February 2013. 
  3. Hertslet, Edward (1891). "The Map of Europe by Treaty; which have taken place since the general peace of 1814. With numerous maps and notes". Her Majesty's Stationery Office. pp. 3141–3142. Retrieved 2013-01-31. 
  4. Hertslet, Edward (1891). "The Map of Europe by Treaty; which have taken place since the general peace of 1814. With numerous maps and notes". Her Majesty's Stationery Office. pp. 3143. Retrieved 2013-01-31. 
  5. Hertslet, Edward (1891). "The Map of Europe by Treaty; which have taken place since the general peace of 1814. With numerous maps and notes". Her Majesty's Stationery Office. pp. 3149–3150. Retrieved 2013-01-31. 
  6. Hertslet, Edward (1891). "The Map of Europe by Treaty; which have taken place since the general peace of 1814. With numerous maps and notes". Her Majesty's Stationery Office. pp. 3151. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).