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Lion reborn

Lion reborn

The modern Bulgarian state was established after five centuries of Ottoman control after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. The day the peace of San Stefano was signed, 3 III 1878, is celebrated in Bulgaria as a national holiday.
Initially composed of Bulgaria and Macedonia, with a wide access to the Aegean Sea, the new state was later reformed during the Congress of Berlin. Not only the new state was deprived of Macedonia, it was also forced to give up territory South of the Stara Planina mountain range, where a semi-autonomus state of Eastern Rumelia was created under the sultan’s supervision.

This division lasted until 1885, when a coup at Plovdiv overthrew the governor. The new government asked the Bulgarian prince Alexander I to annex the territory. At a subsequent conference in Constantinople, the Great Powers reluctantly accepted the unification. The only country to openly oppose the unification, Serbia, was quickly defeated by the Bulgarians in a brief war and forced to accept the emergance of a unified state.

Bulgaria was strong enough to openly proclaim its independence in 1908. Prince Ferdinand, who replaced Alexander after a military coup in 1886, adopted the title of the tsar, thus resurrecting the long gone dream of the Imperial Bulgaria.
At the break of ages, Bulgarian economy developed rapidly, fueled mostly by Russian and German investments. Railroads connected major cities, factories and other commercial enterprises opened throughout the country. This in turn allowed the country to field the greatest army of the Balkans, which would soon prove to be a formidable – although not invincible – force.
In 1912, tensions between the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan Christian states resulted in a full-scale war breaking out. The coalition of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania swiftly and decisively defeated the Turkish armies. The resulting peace of London saw the Balkan states dividing the European part of the Ottoman Empire.
Tensions quickly rose again – this time between former allies – and before a month has passed, the Bulgarian forces struck the Greeks and Serbians, initiating a second war. This time it was Bulgaria who turned out to be hopelessly outnumbered. The brief conflict ended with a treaty of Bucharest, which left Bulgaria stripped of almost all it former gains.

As of June 1914, with war looming in Western Europe, Bulgaria is waiting for a chance to take revenge for her defeat against the other Balkan states. But tsar Ferdinand and his prime minister Radoslavov have to choose their allies wisely. The battered country may not survive yet another humiliating defeat…

Last edited by Jedrek; 25-11-2011 at 23:43.

The war erupts

The assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo shocked the Bulgarian nation. Spontanious manifestations of sympathy and support took place in front of the Austro-Hungarian embassy in Sofia, as well as in cities throughout Bulgaria. The only political force openly supporting the assassin – the socialists – remained almost unheard. Tsar Ferdinand issued a telegram to emperor Franz Joseph, expressing deepest regrets and promising support in „hunting down the terrorists, should their influence ever spread into Bulgaria“.
Crown prince Boris attended the funeral, along with the prime minister Vasil Radoslavov. In a private correspondence with his father, Boris mentioned the „uneasy atmosphere“ in Vienna; according to his words, the Habsburgs’ grief and personal tragedy were almost „eclipsed“ by the tensions building up around the Russian ambassador. This feeling was later confirmed and elaborated by Radoslavov, who clearly stated that „The Serbians are openly blamed – no-one even tried to conceal this. The problem is that the French and the Russians don’t really try to hide their true sympathies either. I do believe war is inevitable“.

Franz Ferdinand’s funeral on the 2nd of July

This prophecy started fulfilling very soon. Presented on the 23rd of July, the famous ultimatum to Serbia was only partly accepted by the Slavic state, which has by no means satisfied the bloodthirsty Austrians. The subsequent declaration of war triggered a network of alliances – Russia started mobilisation and declared war upon Austro-Hungary, which in turn resulted in Germany sending an ultimatum to St. Petersburg. Finally, this forced the French to honour their obligations and declare war upon Germany. In less than forty eight hours between the 30th of July and 1st of August, the whole continent became engulfed in a war no-one has ever seen before.
It should be noted, that despite treaties signed between France and Great Britain in the pre-war period, the United Kingdom decided to maintain neutrality in the conflict. The official explanation presented by sir Edward Grey, His Majesty’s Foreign Secretary, was simple; the „limited scope of the conflict“ made a direct British involvement unnecessary. The truth, of course, was more complex; the British society was by no means eager to bear the war effort, and since the Germans decided to respect Belgian neutrality, there was no sense of imminent danger looming above the United Kingdom. Entering the war in such situation would surely cause unrest among the population. This did not mean that the British stayed out of war completely – volunteers and supplies flew freely between French and British ports – but the seed of distrust has been sewn; the Entente cordiale was no longer a cordial one.

A German caricature from August 1914; as Europe gets engulfed in war, both France and Germany watch the seemingly cowering John Bull

The Great Powers’ struggle was far from ordinary Bulgarian’s life. The press focused mostly on the Serbian front, where initial Austrian strikes quickly lost their momentum in rough terrain and sunk into a bloody trench war. To satisfy the people’s lust for sensation, the press resorted to exaggeration and outright fantasy; every day newspapers informed about a „decisive breakthrough“ or „fighting in Belgrade itself“. The spirits in the nation were in correspondence; numerous demonstrations and donations have been organised throughout Bulgaria, raising over ten thousands of levs to be send to Austro-Hungary as a sign of support. A group of journalists and publicists even organised an independent printing company, which produced countless brochures in Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian, hoping to distribute them across the border as soon as hostilities between Bulgaria and Serbia commence.
It should be noticed however, that the Bulgarian government did not follow the hurraoptimistic spirits of the nation. Although prime minister Radoslavov was widely recognised as a staunch opponent of Russian policy and influence in Bulgaria, he wisely instructed ambassadors in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and St. Petersburg to contact the Great Powers’ foreign ministers about terms on which Bulgaria could join the war. Taking Radoslavov’s anti-Russian sentiment into account, as well as the overall sympathies of the nation, the result of such talks was easy to predict. Still, it bought the Bulgarians time to prepare for intervention.

Vasil Radoslavov, prime minister during the opening stages of the World War

The question however remained; when would be the best time to take action?

Military preparations & war aims

Shortly after the Second Balkan War, the Bulgarian High Command accepted a plan of reformation of the Royal Army. General Pravoslav Tenev, chief of the Bulgarian General Staff who drew up the very basics of the plan, believed that in order to prevent another catastrophy like the Second Balkan War, the army has to be as swift and aggressive as possible, taking into account the harsh Balkan terrain.
26 divisions of the Bulgarian army have been divided as follows:

Dislocation of Bulgarian units in 1914:
Sofia: 1st Army (1st, 6th, 8th, 9th Infantry Divisions), 2nd Cavalry Division, 20th Reserve Infantry Division, Lom & Orahovo Fortress Divisions
Gorna Dzhmuaya: 3rd Army (2nd, 4th and 11th Infantry Divisions), 3rd Cavalry Division, 22nd Reserve Infantry Division
Haskovo: 23rd Reserve Infantry Division
Xanthi: 10th Infantry Division, 24th Reserve Infantry Division
Dedegach: Dedegach Fortress Division
Plovdiv: Shumen & Razgrad Fortress Divisions
Burgas, Varna, Ruse: Respective Fortress Divisions
Vidin: 2nd Army (3rd & 7th Infantry Divisions), 21st Reserve Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division

This setup was designed to exploit the greates advantage of the cavalry; its speed. Massed along the Serbian border, the three cavalry divisions were to move across mountain passes, flank the border posts and cut them off from supplies as the bulk of the army would crush them, opening the way deeper into enemy territory. Tenev’s concept was to overwhelm the enemy as quick as possible, before an anti-Bulgarian coalition is mounted, as it had happened in 1913.
Following the German example of 1870, top-secret mobilisation plans have been drawn up as well, allowing the Bulgarian Army to activate its reserves and achieve complete battle readiness as soon as hostilities commence. A rushed army modernisation programme was also initiated; in less than a year, loads of foreign weaponary have been purchased, with funds mostly provided as German credits. This gave the seasoned veterans of both Balkan Wars a technological superiority over their future foes.

General Pravoslav Tenev, Bulgarian Chief of Staff prior to the First World War

War comes to Bulgaria

Early months of the war quickly showed that initial plans to end the conflict „before the leaves fall“ were less than probable to fulfill; the Western Front quickly turned into a stalemate. The Germans advanced as far as Nancy before losing the momentum. Furious Franch counterattacks in September failed, and both armies dug into endless trenches, spanning from Belgian border to Switzerland.
In the East however, the Germans struck the largely unprepared Russians with great success. One by one, Polish cities fell to the advancing armies and in November the Kaiser’s troops were poised to strike Warsaw itself. In the South, the Austro-Hungarian army fought a less successful battle, losing to initial Russian attack and retreating from Lwow and Przemysl. Serbian mountains proved to be a difficult adversary as well; the Austrian march on Belgrade collapsed quickly, and a stable frontline was established, although fighting in Montenegro continued. Back in Poland, the German assault on Warsaw began on the 21st of November. After a week of intensive fighting, the inner defensive circle was broken and the triumphant Germans entered the city itself on the 1st of December.

German soldiers in Warsaw

Peter Markov, the Bulgarian ambassador to Berlin, observed those developments closely. His detailed reports about German advances were carefully analysed by Radoslavov, who wanted Bulgaria to enter the war at the very best moment possible. Once word of Warsaw’s fall reached Sofia, he acted quickly; a special congratulations telegram, signed by both the tsar and the prime minister, was sent to the Kaiser himself. On the next day the Austrians announced that Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro, was captured. The miniature kingdom ceased to exist, and Austrians quickly proceeded to redeploy their forces, hoping to flank Belgrade from the South.

A Bulgarian officer and his family celebrate the fall of Montenegro

Those two victories convinced the tsar that the moment to enter the war has come. Although Radoslavov insisted on waiting until rest of Poland falls into German hands, the perspective of Austrians finishing Serbia on their own was enough to make the tsar lose his patience. He demanded an immediate mobilisation of the army and the declaration of war on Serbia. Radoslavov however opted for at least a two months’ delay, wanting to ensure that Bulgaria joins the Central Powers as a cleary wining side. It was general Tenev who found the solution; he pointed out to the tsar that the Austrians would need at least two weeks to redeploy their forces for a new offensive and that a simultaneous attack by Austria and Bulgaria is far more likely to defeat Serbia within the time assumed by the war plan.
Mobilisation was officialy declared on the 19th of January 1915 and official declaration of war on Serbia was announced on the 21st. The alliance with Serbia compelled Russia and France to declare war upon Bulgaria on the 22nd, and on the same day the official alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary was signed in Berlin. The Lion has finally joined the battle.

Bulgaria with us! – a commemorative postcard released in Germany in January 1915

March on Skopje

According to general Tenev’s plan, the Bulgarian offensive began with an attack along the whole border with Serbia. Being tied up in the North, the Serbians could have only spared a token defence force in the South – peace-time border guards have been reinforced with single battalions, sometimes just companies. As a result, the Bulgarians outnumbered the defenders 7:1, reaching 10:1 along the main line of advance.
It is quite a paradox that the first city to fall was the one of secondary importance to the Bulgarians; Nish, guarded by few militia units, surrendered to general Hristov’s 2nd Army on the 2nd of February. Battles of Kumanovo and Pirot were far more bloody. In spite of being hopelessly outnumbered, the Serbians managed to delay the Bulgarians long enough for reinforcements to be brought up. By the end of the first week of the offensive, Bulgarian advantage fell to 4:1, which combined with rugged, mountainous terrain resulted in the offensive gradually losing momentum.

General Nikola Zhekov (2nd from right) and metropolit Iosif, chaplain general of the Bulgarian army, inspect the frontline East of Rsovci (central Serbia)

This, however, meant that Serbians’ northern flank had to be weakened. Taking advantage of this situation, the Austrians launched a long-awaited offensive. After a month of bloody struggle, the Central Powers managed to break through, securing the cities of Sabac and Uzice. Belgrade’s western flank has been exposeed, but the assault on the city itself has not been attempted yet; instead, the Austrians focused on the Serbian forces in northern Montenegro, hoping to push them out of the fortified city of Prijepolje.
Those two defeats undermined the Serbians’ morale. Kumanovo surrendered to general Boyadzhiev’s 3rd Army on the 25th of February, and Pirot fell to general Zhekov’s 1st Army on the 2nd of March. This allowed to launch an attack on Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The week-long battle ended on the 9th of March, when the city was occupied by general Geshov’s advancing cavalrymen. Infantry followed soon after, securing the city and eliminating isolated pockets of resistance.

Bulgarian soldiers posing for a photo in Skopje

The last objective before the Albanian border, Tetovo, fell on the 10th of April, after a prolonged battle with freshly deploed Serbian reinforcements. This engagement was also the place of the war’s greatest manouver operation so far; 4 infantry divisions of the 1st Army attempted a fake an advance on Pristina, while 3 divisions of the 3rd Army pushed towards Tetovo. The plan worked splendidly; fearing being cut off from supplies, the Serbians retreated, hoping to recreate their defense lines in the narrow belt between rivers Morava and Sava. However, with almost 40% of their industrial areas occupied by the Bulgarians and the Austrians, as well as the numerical superiority being clearly in favour of the Central Powers, the small, reckless kingdom clearly seemed to be bound to fall.

The Balkan Front as of 10th of April 1915

Victory in Serbia

When news about the fall of Skopje reached the citizens of Bulgaria, a nation-wide burst of celebration occured. People in Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv and countless other cities went out into streets to cheer, dance and sing. The shame of the Second Balkan War of 1913 has vanished. The tsardom finally began to claim its rightful place under the sun.
The tsar himself took part in the celebrations – he arrived at the former royal palace on the Battenberg Square and from its windows he gave a passionate speech, promising „glory for our people and humiliation to all those who dare to stand in our way“. Congratulation letters from kaisers Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph have also been read aloud to the public. The improvised ceremony ended with the crowd spontaniously singing the national anthem.

The formal royal palace on the Battenberg Square (currently a home to the Royal Art Museum

But on the frontline, the situation was not so optimistic; although the attack on Skopje went better than expected, with Bulgarian casulties not exceeding 3000 people, the quick end of the war seemed out of reach. Originally, the war plan hoped that the war will be concluded within three months, with a simultaneous capture of Skopje and Belgrade. The Austrian failrue to capture Belgrade meant that the Serbians had time to bring up the reserves and set up a formidable defensive line. A new plan had to be devised.
On the 14th of April generals Tenev, Zhekov, Boyadzhiev and Hristov, as well as the crownprince Boris, met in Zhekov’s headquarters in Pirot to devise a new plan. Two variants have been proposed; a modification of the original plan, calling for combined attack of Pristina and Krusevac in order to break through the Serbian lines and then advance on to Belgrade and a completely new one, where the the left wing and the centre of Bulgarian forces would feint a massive assault on Pristina alone, with the weaker right wing attacking the weakest section of Serbian defensive lines – the town of Bor, East of Belgrade.
Initially, it seemed that the first variant will pass, since it gained both Tenev and Zhekov’s acceptance. Boyadzhiev and Boris, however, feared that the Serbian lines may turn out to be too tough to break through directly. They also pointed out that with Bor’s capture, a stable communication line with the Austrian troops will be established. Boris also brought up an economical argument – Bulgarian industry badly needed German coal and steel, and should Serbia keep on fighting, establishing a direct land connection between the Central Powers would be a wise move. The deciding argument came from Sofia; frustrated with the generals’ resistance, Boris telegrammed both plans to his father, who ultimately decided in favour of the second one. Not even the chief of staff dared to openly oppose the ruler.
The new offensive began on the 25th of April with the attack on Bor, with assault on Pristina commencing on the 10th of May. All avalible forces have been mustered, including a single reserve division that performed covering duty along the Romanian border. The Bulgarians once again managed to achieve numerical superiority – outnumbering the Serbians 2:1 on Bor direction and 9:5 on Pristina direction. The attackers were clearly superior in weapons as well – the Bulgarians concentrated all their artillery, hoping to pound Serbian positions to dust before throwing infantry into the fray.

All of Bulgarian artillery – over 500 guns – have been used in offensives on Bor and Pristina

Their hopes were soon proven wrong; the rugged terrain once again prevented the Bulgarians from fully deploying their forces. Instead of a rapid advance, the attackers crawled slowly forward. In the south the battle raged furiously, with loses quickly doubling the war’s overall death toll. Still, the Serbians took greater blows; a single division was decimated while attempting a counterattack towards Tetovo. Three thousand Serbians have been taken into custody, with two thousand left dead on the battlefield. Slowly, yet steadily, the Bulgarians moved towards their objectives.

Serbian PoWs taken during the advance on Pristina

By the end of May, Serbian resistance near Bor began to fade; even reinforcements from Belgrade did not help to sway the result in Serbian favour. The town itself fell on the 30th of May, taken by advancing Bulgarian cavalrymen. Contact with Austrian troops was established on the next day.

Bulgarian soldiers, somewhere near Bor

With Belgrade sandwiched between the Austrians and Bulgarians, the assault on the city itself began very quickly. The Bulgarians, however, did not take a very active part in it; the 2nd Army was exhausted after the battle of Bor and could only perform artillery shelling of Serbian defensive positions on the city’s eastern flank. The final assault began on the 17th of June and was concluded on the 22nd, when the Austro-Hungarian army banner was hang above Petar I’s palace. Still, neither the Serbian monarch nor his prime minister were nowhere to be found; they had fled the city soon after the direct assault began. Remnants of the Serbian army in the north surrendered; the campaign came to a triumphant end.

The end of Serbia – a German postcard published shortly after the fall of Belgrade

Under the Italian sun

The Bulgarian delegation arrived in Vienna on the 8th of September. The Austrians, represented by Berchtold and Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of staff, as well as the venerable Franz Joseph himself, greeted their allies in the royal palace on the outskirts of Vienna. The German prince Leopold von Bayern, commander of the joint Austro-German forces in the Italian front, was present as well.
The negotiations, in fact, consisted of two largely separate meetings. Franz Joseph, Ferdinand, Radoslavov and Berchtold met in the palace itself, while prince Leopold, Hötzendorf, Zhekov, Boyadzhev and Tenev went out for a joint inspection of a newly formed reserve division, ready to be sent to the Russian front. The generals were accompanied by crown prince Boris, who later noted in his journal:

From what I know, it was Father’s idea to separate the militarymen from politicians. I must admit, it created a very specific atmosphere. I noticed prince Leopold was a complerely different man once Berchtold and Radoslavov were out of sight. He got relaxed, sometimes even jovial – a complete opposite to Hötzendorf’s strict manners. Still, I liked the both of them, especially when compared to Zhekov’s ambitious and overconfident stance. Still, I was surprised to see how smooth their talks went. Either they took Zhekov’s behaviour to be a sign of his internal energy, or just were desperate enough to withstand him if it was to give them the aid the needed.

Prince Leopold von Wittelsbach

Both meetings turned out to be a complete success, resulting in the signing of the so-called Vienna Convention on the 11th of September. The Bulgarians would field an expeditionary corps (BEK in short), consisting of at least five divisions, in exchange for economical aid. The Bulgarians have forced a point regarding possible border revision in Serbia, but formed it in a rather vague and inspecific way, so as not to anger their stronger allies. The commander of the BEK was to be general Zhekov, who in turn would be subordinated to prince Leopold himself. Thus the Bulgarian force was given a status equal to a German army corps.
The plan was put in motion on the next day; four infantry divisions of Zhekov’s 1st Army, as well as the 2nd Cavalry Division, under command of general Ivan Kolev, have been loaded onto trains and dispatched to Udine. Zhekov himself left Vienna with prince Leopold and went directly to the frontline, instead of returning to Bulgaria with the rest of the delegation.

General Zhekov (in the centre of the photograph, with a walking stick) inspects the frontline

The first troops arrived in Udine on the 21st of September. They had little time to accustom to the new land; eager to show his allies the value of the Bulgarian soldier, Zhekov ordered the freshly-deployed troops to support the Austro-German advance on Belluno. Luckily for the Bulgarians, the battle was already in its final stage; only a single skirmish with a marauder Italian company took place, where the Bulgarians managed to disarm the enemy with only two people lost.
As soon as the battle came to an end on the 25th, Zhekov met with prince Leopold in his headquarters on the outskirts of Udine to discuss further battle plans. It was decided that half of BEK’s force is to be relocated north, where it will stage an attack on the city of Trient, taken in spring by the advancing Italians. The city used to be a pre-war fortress – but the Austrian command staff estimated that during the siege most installations have been damaged beyond repair. Nevertheless, Zhekov’s second-in-command, general Vladimir Vazov was ordered to prepare several battle plan variants, taking into account a number of possible fort reconstruction schemes. Transports carrying Bulgarian troops started departing on the 1st of October and all units have been poised to strike within a week. Still, the strike had to be delayed due to weather conditions; strong rains and intense mountain fog prevented the Bulgarians from leaving their trenches for almost two weeks.

General Vladimir Vazov

The long awaited attack finally begun on the 21st of October. With thundering artillery support, the Bulgarians left their trenches and started advancing towards mountain passes leading to Trient. The first line of forts fell quickly – surprisingly quickly. It was on the third day of the attack that the Bulgarians realised the Italian plan; the first line of defences was deliberately left weak to give the attackers a false feeling of advantage, luring them into a much better prepared second line of bunkers, trenches, machine gun emplacements and so on. The assault quickly lose momentum, casulties mounted alarmingly fast.

The rough Italian terrain soon became the attackers’ worst foe

Zhekov and Vazov desperately threw their reserves into the fray, hoping that a breakthrough is still possible. Yet, all this has been made in vain – on the 28th of October prince Leopold ordered Zhekov to terminate the operation. Out of 75 thousands of Bulgarians attacking, over 10 thousands have been left dead in mountain passes – a quarter of all casulties taken in the whole Serbian campaign. What was to planned to be a glorious triumph turned out to be a bloody failrue. And it didn’t take much time before news of Zhekov’s blunder reached Sofia…

Last edited by Jedrek; 01-02-2012 at 02:00.