The Battle of Doiran and Bulgaria’s Greatest Military Strategist
28.05.2012 § 1 Comment
In 1914 Bulgaria was a young state, recently gained its independence and continuing to look for the means to realize the vision of unifying all Bulgarian lands within its borders. After the humiliating Treaty of Bucharest at the end of the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria was exhausted from two wars and in an economic crisis due to the loss of wheat-producing Dobrudza.
In the meantime, in 1914 a huge conflict was ripening in Europe. Since the beginning of the 20th century, two international alliances had formed: the Entente, including Britain, France, Russia and Serbia and the Central Powers: Germany Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The member states of these alliances were bound by treaties of mutual aid and the smallest instability in Europe could ignite the long-built tension.
On June 28, 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. This was the spark that ignited the First World War. Bulgaria suddenly found itself a state of strategic significance. Its joining the Entente would pose a huge obstacle to the Central Powers having a continuous front since it would protect Serbia from Turkey. At the same time, the weaker Central Powers alliance desperately needed an ally to support the Ottoman empire on the Balkans. The government of Dr. K. Radoslavov declared neutrality and for all of 1914 Bulgaria refused to take sides in the war. Unbound by alliances, it could clearly state the price of its involvement: Macedonia.
The Entente could not promise Macedonia to Bulgaria since that would run counter to allied Serbia’s interests. It offered Bulgaria support and cooperation if it remained neutral. In contrast, the Central Powers had no trouble promising Bulgaria the lands that it would have to fight for anyway. So, on October 14, 1915, Bulgaria joined the war on the side of two crumbling empires and a nation without colonial resources against a colonial empire and the most powerful Slavic state in the world. Broadly speaking, despite its resounding military successes, among which the reclamation of Dobrudza and the occupation of Bucharest, Bulgaria’s defeat and that of its allies was certain.
But the military genius of one man saved it from annexation, while contributing to one of the brightest moments in Bulgaria’s military history. That man was Major General Vladimir Vazov, brother of writer Ivan Vazov and commander of the Ninth Pleven Infantry Division.
By its allies’ orders, Bulgaria’s advance along the Macedonian front stopped and the Bulgarian army dug in. In the spring of 1917 colonel Vladimir Vazov assumed command of the Doiran position and began a well thought-out series of fortifying projects. The terrain was mountainous and he brilliantly used that fact to his advantage. In his journal he wrote:
In any military engagement, and especially in a defensive positional war, preparation is the most important factor for success... It must encompass everything: strengthening the position and its optimal occupation, keen observation of the field of battle and communication between te different regiments (infantry, artillery, etc.), preparing the infantry for rapid counterattacks, preparing the artillery to support the infantry in any scenario, maintaining the troops’ morale and instilling faith in the strength of the position and in our certain victory…
In fact, the measures undertaken on his orders to create a unified, coordinated defence ensured that the Doiran position would withstand two massive campaigns of British and Greek troops.
The first campaign occurred in the spring of 1917. Hoping that a breach in the Macedonian front would necessitate the diversion of German forces from the Western front, the British Worcester regiment tried four times to force the Doiran position, but grossly underestimated its strength and was repelled.
From the annals of 11th Worcester batallion:
“[The British attack] had barely begun when three floodlights blazed from the hills opposite and scanned the slopes of the valley with their cold rays. Then the enemy barrage began in full force. The strength of Bulgaria’s artillery had not been suspected, their cannons were easily hidden among the mountainous terrain and the anti-battery work of our artillery had proven inefficient. A tornado of shells rained upon the stumbling soldiers. The enemy fire was so relentless that the supporting companies of Royal Berkshire were separated from those ahead and never caught up to them.”
The Entente suffered over 12 000 casualties, and the Bulgarians – 2000. Major Vazov was promoted to Major General. A stalemate settled over the Macedonian front, lasting until the fall of 1918. Then events on the Western front necessitated a new advance, this time part of the final victorious push of the Entente, which was dominating the Central Powers on all fronts.
On September 16, 1918 75 000 troops under Gen. George Milne advanced against the Doiran position. After a long engagement the position was breached and several outposts were taken. General Vazov responded immediately, sending reserve troops into the fray to regain communication with his outposts. In his journal he noted:
“After continuous and bloody skirmishes with bombs and bayonets the defenders are beginning to recapture the lost positions. Parts of the main position are changing hands multiple times. Better news is starting to come in. The strong, brave and determined opponent is exhausted. He is discouraged by the steadfastness and valor of the defenders.”
On September 19 the decisive, final battle for the Doiran position was held. Reinforced with reserve troops, the British spent five hours defending the newly conquered outposts, but with epic efforts the Bulgarians prevailed and finally pushed them back. The tally of casualties is grim on both sides – the Entente loses 11 670 dead and wounded against 2736 Bulgarians.
A British officer wrote about this battle:
“When they mobilised us and sent us to the Balkans, we all left happy that we would complete a pleasant military excursion and will return covered in glory. We thought we would gain an easy victory over the Bulgarians, but we were sorely mistaken. At Doiran we encountered an opponent who fought with exceptional heroism and devotion.”
Exactly this devotion of the Ninth Pleven Infantry Division, combined with the military genius of Gen. Vazov prevented the annexation of Bulgaria by British forces. World War I concluded for Bulgaria with the armistice at Thessaloniki on September 29, 1918. The Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine was signed on November 27, leading to the second National Catastrophe and shattering the hopes of national unification.
Any military victory is bittersweet. The reckoning in numbers cannot express the horrors experienced by the combatants on both sides. The Great War cost the world over 19 million lives. However, in 1936, at the anniversary of the end of the war, General Vazov was invited to London as a guest of the British Legion. At Victoria Station Gen. Vazov and Gen. Milne shook hands as worthy adversaries, and the flags of all the British regiments involved in the battle were lowered in his honour. His defensive strategy entered the strategy textbooks, and General Milne said of him:
“I came to greet him gladly and I feel a great respect for Bulgaria’s warriors, since they, like the Englishmen, were not only brave, but also gentlemen.”
If it wasn’t for the US joining in WWI Entente had no chance in hell to win this war.
I don’t know what the tally of the dead included in the Doiran battle was, but on the September 19 attack the Entente lost 47,000 Englishmen, 20,000 Greeks, unknown but significant French losses. The Bulgarians lost less than 500 fighters. The numerical advantage of the Entente was 7:1. After the defeat General Vazov asks central command to allow him to advance and take Salonika. That was going to cutoff the Entente Army that penetrated the Bulgarian positions at the curve of the Cherna River. Instead Bulgaria used the victory to negotiate a better peace deal.