Bulgaria in the First World War

By Hall, Richard C. | The Historian, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Bulgaria in the First World War


Hall, Richard C., The Historian


THE IMPORTANCE OF Southeastern Europe in the events leading up to and during the First World War is often limited in contemporary historiography to the question of the degree of culpability of Serbia in the Sarajevo assassination. Southeastern Europe was, however, an arena for intense military activity beginning as early as 1912, which lasted through 1918. All of the countries there became involved in the fighting. All the Balkan states achieved victories and suffered defeats. During the First World War, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia supported the Entente. Only Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. Naturally, the subject of Bulgarian participation in the First World War has always been of great interest in that country. Memoirs, official publications, and philippics appeared in the country soon after the war ended. (1) Even during the Communist regime, the topic received some attention. (2) Recently, the well-known Bulgarian historian Georgi Markov produced a thoughtful two-volume study of Bulgaria's participation in the First World War. (3)

Very few publications concerning Bulgaria's role in the First World War have appeared in Western languages. In 1941, Bulgaria compounded its "error" of joining the Central Powers by an alliance with Nazi Germany, and subsequently Bulgaria became became the most subservient Soviet client state during the Cold War. These issues obscured interest in Bulgarian history outside the country. The best English-language book published in the second half of the twentieth century dealing with the role of Bulgaria in the First World War was Alan Palmer's The Gardeners of Salonika. (4) It drew from English and French sources as well as some German materials, and was written mainly from an "Entente perspective." The only other post-Second-World-War book depicting Bulgaria in the First World War in English is Alan Wakefield's Under the Devil's Eye: Britain's Forgotten Army at Salonika 1915-1918. (5) While it provides the most recent account of the war in this part of Europe, it is largely limited to the British perspective. Of further note is Nigel Thomas and Dusan Babac, Armies in the Balkans 1914-1918, which presents Balkans issues in the First World War succinctly but superficially. (6) The details of Bulgaria's role in the First World War thus remain largely unknown outside of the Balkans.

Bulgaria's alliance with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and especially the ancient Bulgarian foe, the Ottoman Empire, is in itself remarkable. The explanation lies in the problem of Macedonia. Nineteenth-century Bulgarians, Greeks, and Serbians all regarded Macedonia as integral to the establishment of their national states. This region, which corresponded roughly to the Ottoman province (vilayet) of Salonika (Bulgarian: Solun; Greek: Thessaloniki; Turkish: Selanik), had a mixed population and a productive economy. The Treaty of San Stefano of 3 March 1878 that concluded the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 established at the behest of the victorious Russians a large Bulgaria that included Macedonia. Bulgarian nationalists regarded Macedonia as a region vital to the unity and development of their people. The objections of other Great Powers and other Balkan states forced a revision of this treaty at the Congress of Berlin. The Treaty of Berlin of 13 July 1878 returned Macedonia to Ottoman rule. During the final years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Macedonia (albeit nominally ruled by the Turks) became the arena of intense nationalist rivalries pitting Bulgarian armed bands against those of the Greeks and Serbians.

The First Balkan War of 1912-13 broke out in October 1912 between a coalition of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia and their former ruler, the Ottoman Empire. (7) Not surprisingly Bulgaria's main objective in the Balkan Wars was Macedonia. Victorious Bulgarian troops advanced to the final Ottoman defensive positions outside Constantinople at Chataldzha (Turkish: Catalca) in November 1912 and took the important Ottoman fortress town of Adrianople (Turkish: Edirne, Bulgarian: Odrin) on 26 March 1913, after a four-month siege. …

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