Category Archives: Bulgaria

25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.

map_Serbia-falls_1915

The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

6 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Caveat Emptor

A big war can absorb smaller conflicts.  The Balkan Wars were barely over, and almost certain to break out again, when the First World War swamped the geopolitical landscape and froze the Balkan situation for a time.  Serbia and Montenegro fought for their lives, and everyone else involved – Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria et al – suspended Balkan arguments on a wait-and-see basis.  It was a hundred years ago, on 6 September 1915, that the kingdom of Bulgaria signed the Pless Convention with Germany, tossing the Balkan cats back in the bag for the next round, and turning the Balkan Wars into a subdivision of the First World War.

Lots to explain here, so we’ll start with a quick resumé of the Balkan Wars. Historically the great overland trading route between Europe and Asia, the multi-ethnic Balkans were a chronically unstable mix of regional antagonisms and Great Power politics in the early twentieth century. The independent nations of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia contested turbulent and fluctuating frontier zones with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and with each other.

Areas of conflict included independent Albania (which was also being eyed by Italy) and Montenegro, the Austrian imperial provinces of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and western Croatia, and the parts of Thrace and Macedonia recently vacated by the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Romania was looking to expand in Greece and Bulgaria, Russia supported Slav independence because it prevented Austria-Hungary getting anywhere near the Dardanelles, and France was nurturing political ambitions in the Aegean.

This powder keg was eventually ignited by Ottoman political and military feebleness, which encouraged Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro to attack and defeat Turkish forces during the First Balkan War of 1912, pushing the Ottoman border east to the outskirts of Constantinople. The Second Balkan War followed next year when Bulgaria, unhappy with its share of the spoils from 1912, attacked Greek and Serbian forces, only to lose badly and suffer an immediate invasion by Romania. The peace that ended the conflict cost Bulgaria much of its northeastern territory, gave Greece control of almost all the Aegean coast and left Serbia almost double its pre-war size.

With me so far? If you are, you’ll probably have worked out that, while it licked its wounds and listened to the siren songs of Great Power diplomats during the War’s first year, Bulgaria wanted payback.

Bulgaria had taken its first big step away from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, becoming an autonomous principality. In 1908 the Young Turk revolution in Turkey gave Prince Ferdinand the chance to establish an independent kingdom, and re-style himself Tsar Ferdinand.  Russian support, always available for enemies of Constantinople, sustained Bulgaria through this period, but even stronger Russian support for Serbia had chilled relations with Sofia by 1914.  By the time war broke out the Bulgarian regime was well on the way to exchanging St. Petersburg for Vienna and Berlin.

The Tsar was subject to a parliamentary veto but the largely rural nation’s parliament was dominated by conservative landowners, and generally at one with the monarchy’s expansionist policies. The pro-Austrian Radoslavov became prime minister in 1913, and elections in March 1914 increased parliamentary support for the Central Powers. Parliament did object to the terms of large-scale reconstruction loans from Austria-Hungary and Germany in June 1914 – which put railways and coal mines in foreign hands – but not for long. The Bulgarian economy was dependent on imported manufactured goods, metals and industrial raw materials, and more than half the country’s imports came from Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Bulgaria’s links to the Central Powers meant little in the frenzied diplomatic atmosphere of the War’s first year, and Ferdinand earned the nickname ‘fox of the Balkans’ while he juggled offers of Turkish territory from the Entente and of Serbian territory from the Central Powers. By the late summer of 1915, Russian defeats on the Eastern Front and Anglo-French failure at the Dardanelles had made up Ferdinand’s mind, and the Pless Convention followed right here.

The Convention – along with a mutual defence treaty signed with the Central Powers in Sofia on the same day – committed Bulgaria to joining an invasion of Serbia within thirty-five days (of which more another day), and to fighting Greece or Romania should either join the War on the Entente side. From a Bulgarian point of view these were not difficult commitments to make, especially when sweetened with promises of post-war control over parts of Macedonia, Greece and Romania – but there was a catch.

Germany spent the entire First World War struggling to maintain vital import supplies in the face of the Royal Navy’s blockade operation, and needed to strip every possible source of food and raw materials it could get its hands on. So the financial and military aid that was part of the Pless package came in return for priority claims on, among other things, Bulgarian exports of mineral ores and food, marking the beginning of a cycle of ruthless economic exploitation that worked out badly for both sides. Bulgarian entrepreneurs rushed to fulfil lucrative German orders, condemning Bulgarian civilians to a dour wartime struggle against starvation and deprivation, but the primitive nature of Bulgarian infrastructure and agriculture meant that export surpluses never came close to matching German expectations. By late 1917, when Bulgaria’s military contribution had dwindled to irrelevance, the alliance had become deeply unpopular in both countries, and by early the following year it had ceased to function in any meaningful way.

By mid-1918, popular socialism and republicanism had become a clear threat  to the Tsar’s regime.  As the Central Powers’ war effort fell apart in the autumn, Ferdinand’s abdication in favour of his son was followed by a period of revolutionary unrest and the establishment of a peasant-based republican government.  The republic was then forced to accept a punitive peace treaty that left the country smaller and poorer than it had been before Pless, and remained unstable either side of a coup that restored the monarchy in 1923.

Bulgaria’s participation in the First World War brought nothing but danger, doubt and discomfort to its people while destabilising its political system and draining its economy.   Though Bulgaria chose what was in the end the losing side, and so faced the additional burden of diplomatic isolation in the aftermath, its story is broadly typical of those smaller countries seduced into the wider conflict by the promise of local gains.   In the process of absorbing  smaller, pre-existing conflicts, the War tended to bleed their participants dry, wreck their internal stability and leave them for dead in the post-war era.  Why bother telling you this?  Because a continent full of small, essentially broken states, riddled with social, economic and political problems, was an ideal breeding ground for future wars.