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4 Development of the Macedonian Front

Richard C. Hall Indiana University Press ePub

The formation of the Macedonian Front, like that of the Western and Eastern Fronts, during the First World War, was accidental. Neither the Central Powers nor the Entente had anticipated establishing a line of conflict along the Greek frontier with Bulgaria and Serbian Macedonia. Both maintained forces along this front as a means of preventing the other side from employing those troops and military resources elsewhere. The Greeks interposed some military units along their frontier in between the two hostile forces to maintain the illusion of their sovereignty.

At a Central Alliance military conference on 5 January 1916 in Niš, Bulgarian military and government leaders met with von Falkenhayn and the superfluous Kaiser Wilhelm. General Zhekov insisted upon an attack on Salonika to expel the Entente troops. Neither Tsar Ferdinand nor Prime Minister Radoslavov supported him.1 No important decisions ensued from these talks. Afterward Zhekov persisted in raising the issue during the subsequent visit of the German kaiser to Bulgaria, but to no avail. Von Falkenhayn insisted that the upcoming offensive at Verdun precluded an effort in Macedonia. Zhekov later dismissed this as an “excuse” to cover the “family politics” of the Germans toward the Greek king.2 Even so, the Central Powers managed to reach some agreement on the Greek issue. On 6 January 1916, the representatives of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Germany in Athens informed the Greek government that their armies intended to cross the Greek frontier.3 Although initially the Greeks agreed to this demarche, the evacuation of Gallipoli provided the Entente with reinforcements for Salonika, and distractions at Verdun prevented the immediate implementation of this threat. It was not implemented. The Germans did attack Salonika from the air. On the night of 31 January, a German zeppelin bombed the port area of the city, killing one British, one French, and one Greek soldier and eleven civilians, and destroying a bank.4 Within a month, Entente flyers were bombing Bulgarian installations on the other side of the Greek frontier. By April they were even flying over Sofia, dropping leaflets and a few bombs.

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7 Breakthrough

Richard C. Hall Indiana University Press ePub

By the end of the summer of 1918, conditions on the Macedonian Front had worsened considerably for the Central Powers. The great influenza epidemic had caused some physical and morale problems among the Bulgarian soldiers.1 Much to the dismay of the Bulgarian command, the Germans had withdrawn considerable numbers of troops and weapons to use in the great offensives on the Western Front. At the same time, the material condition of the Bulgarians deteriorated to an appalling degree.

The morale problem in the Bulgarian army did not escape the notice of the Entente forces in Macedonia. A French report dated 15 September noted, “the Bulgarian people and army are overcome with a desire for peace, increased by a determined hatred of the Germans and Turks.”2 Deserters reported that many soldiers believed that the Bulgarian government would make peace on 15 September. This was the anniversary of the initial mobilization in 1915. Nor were the Germans oblivious to the morale problems in the Bulgarian army. A German report of 10 August indicated that the influence of Aleksandŭr Stamboliski’s antiwar Agrarian Party had grown very strong at the front. The same report noted, however, that despite the overwhelming war weariness, neither the tsar nor the government intended at that point to seek a separate peace. The reported cautioned, “The picture could change, if the Tsar and government, despite their good intentions, face opposition and lose courage to continue the war. Unfortunately we need to keep such an eventuality in mind, so that we do not have to reorient our affairs at the last possible moment.”3 The war-weary situation on the Macedonian Front and throughout Bulgaria was obvious to the Germans. The report implied that an Entente military effort could knock Bulgaria out of the war. By the end of the summer of 1918 Bulgaria, like all the other Central Powers, was at the end of its ability to wage war.

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5 The Lull

Richard C. Hall Indiana University Press ePub

For the Bulgarians, the results of the 1916 campaign in Macedonia were decidedly mixed. They had advanced in eastern Macedonia, and they had, despite considerable losses in territory and manpower, managed to hold on against a strong Entente offensive in central Macedonia. Their position north of Bitola was less than ideal. The Entente forces were well established across the Cherna Bend. The Bulgarians had noted, however, rumors that the British wanted to withdraw from Salonika.1 The prospect of a British withdrawal and the ending of the Salonika operation was more than merely rumor. The British were pressing their French allies to abandon the Bitola salient, and even to end the Salonika operation.2 Yet the Central Powers had no plans to take advantage of the Entente discord. Because manpower and material resources were limited, they adopted a defensive stance along the Macedonian Front in 1917.

Adding to the Bulgarian material burden were significant numbers of prisoners of war. By the summer of 1917 the Bulgarians had at least 12,000 Serbs and 2,000–3,000 pro-Venizelos Greeks.3 There were also British, French, Romanians, and Russians among these prisoners. The Bulgarians employed many of them in agricultural and mining activities throughout Bulgaria. Their exact number remains obscure. Another distraction during in February and March was an uprising in the Morava region of Serbia, occupied by Bulgarian soldiers. This Serbian revolt forced the Bulgarians to transfer temporarily some units from the Macedonian and Romanian Fronts.4 By the end of March, the Bulgarians, together with some Austro-Hungarian and German troops, had suppressed the Morava revolt.

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8 Collapse

Richard C. Hall Indiana University Press ePub

While the fighting raged at Doiran, to the west French and Serbian forces continued to advance through the gap in the Bulgarian lines opened at Dobro Pole. The Serbian First Army captured bridges over the Cherna at Rasim Bey and established positions on the other side of the river on 18 September. This placed the Serbian First Army in position to threaten the eastern flank of German Eleventh Army and its headquarters in Prilep. In the east, a French and Greek force captured the Dzena ridge, which dominated the eastern side of the bulge the Entente breakthrough had forced in the Bulgarian lines.1 The efforts of General von Reuter’s replacement division to plug the gap created by the collapse of the 2nd Thracian Division and to hold the line failed. On 18 September, General Todorov ordered the 3rd Balkan Division to new positions southwest of the Vardar River.2 This retreat severed the 3rd Balkan Division from its direct connection with the 2nd Thracian Division and from the rest of the Eleventh Army. Meanwhile the Serbian Second Army raced for Gradsko, on the Salonika-Skopie railroad and just above where the Cherna flows into the Vardar. Because of its location astride the lines of communication, the control of Gradsko was critical for both sides. For the Bulgarians and Germans, Gradsko was vital for continued connection between the First and Eleventh Armies. For the Entente, control of Gradsko would provide their forces with access to the Vardar Valley and the railroad that could accelerate their progress toward Skopie and points further north.

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6 The Erosion of the Bulgarian Army

Richard C. Hall Indiana University Press ePub

At the beginning of the war Bulgarian morale was largely positive. While the Bulgarians were not enthusiastic to be at war again so soon after the Balkan Wars, they were grimly determined to rectify the injustices they perceived to be the consequence of the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest. Nevertheless, after a year of military success the mood in Bulgaria remained fairly good. A German report from June 1916 noted:

Undoubtedly public opinion in Bulgaria, which at the beginning of the war was for the most part pro-Russian, has changed. It has become clear to countless observers, who over the past two years here from informal conversations with all strata of people, from soldiers’ letters, from political literature indicate that the majority of the people are convinced of the correctness of the policies of the Central Powers.1

Even so there was dissension in the Bulgarian ranks from the start. At the beginning of the war several instances of antiwar activity had occurred within the army, and a military court sentenced at least seventeen soldiers to death.2 From the beginning of 1916 to 1 July 1917 the Entente command in Salonika counted 11,370 deserters from all the Central Powers forces on the Macedonian Front, including Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, Germans, and Turks.3 Bulgarians undoubtedly were the majority of these soldiers. Probably many of these Bulgarians were from the mixed ethnic areas overrun the during the autumn 1915 campaign. This meant they were from Macedonia, but had been drafted into the Bulgarian Army after 1915. For many of these soldiers national identity had little to do with their efforts to escape the fighting.

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