07.09.2014 § 2 Comments
Bulgaria’s national day is deservedly March 3, 1878. After almost 500 years under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and a two-year war of liberation championed by Russia, a treaty signed on that day in the Istanbul suburb of San Stefano restored Bulgaria as a powerful state on the Balkans encompassing all the lands populated by Bulgarians and ruled by the idealistic Alexander I Battenberg, grandson of Queen Victoria and nephew to the Russian emperor. However, San Stefano Bulgaria was hacked up by the delegate nations at the Congress of Berlin only three months later. Ethnically Bulgarian territories (in striped red on the map) were divided into three distinct regions: the Principality of Bulgaria encompassed only Moesia and the Sofia region, Thrace became semi-autonomous under the name Eastern Rumelia and the status of Macedonia and parts of Thrace remained unchanged: they returned to Ottoman rule and their populations were brutally punished for the short gasp of freedom.
In this manner the Great Powers of Europe sowed the seeds for countless conflicts on the Balkans. Because of the Congress of Berlin, Bulgaria would spend decades struggling to once again unify all the lands considered ethnically Bulgarian in its borders. This struggle would cost it two national catastrophes and sour its relationships with Serbia, Greece and Romania, who’d believe (not entirely without cause) Bulgaria to be motivated by hegemony.
Thanks to the efforts of the temporary Russian government, by the 1880’s Eastern Rumelia had developed a solid administrative system, with Bulgarians appointed to most executive positions. Thus Rumelia became a region not only populated by, but also governed largely by Bulgarians, which would predetermine the events to follow.
In 1885, the Bulgarian Secret Central Revolutionary Committee (BSCRC) was founded in the capital of Eastern Rumelia Plovdiv, with the goals of liberating Macedonia from the Ottomans and unifying Bulgaria. In the summer of 1885, the BSCRC planned an uprising against the Governor General and the government of the province. The committee attracted many officers from the Rumelian army into the preparations of the uprising and had the support of Prince Alexander of Bulgaria. On September 4th several hundred rebels under the leadership of Chardafon took over a suburb of Plovdiv. On the night of September 6th they entered Plovdiv in a bloodless coup that ousted the government of Gavril Krustevich (himself a Bulgarian and liberation fighter). A temporary government was formed, supported by Alexander I.
But solidifying Unification would be far from easy. Besides the Ottoman empire, from whose sphere of influence Eastern Rumelia was being torn, Bulgaria would have to defend its interests against the Great powers (including Russia) and its neighbours. Other Balkan states viewed Unification as a disturbance in the status quo to their detriment – the expansion of Bulgaria threatened their interests and ambitions. Romania ordered a mobilization of troops and only the presence of Russian armies at its borders forced it to remain neutral instead of crossing into Bulgaria. Greece threatened to conquer territories from the Ottomans to catch up to Bulgaria’s expansion, while the Serbian king Milan Obrenovic had stated as far back as 1881 that Serbia will attack Bulgaria in the event of a unification.
Financed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, Serbia mobilized by the end of October 1885. On November 2, Serbia declared war on Bulgaria and Alexander I issued a proclamation in which he refused to bargain for peace and implored all Bulgarians to defend “the land, the honour and the freedom of the Bulgarian people”.
The Serbian army had two successful wars, a well-trained core of officers and the experience of its veterans in its favour. It also had a reputation for being unbeatable on the Balkans and had just equipped new fast-reloading rifles made by Mauser which surpassed Bulgaria’s armaments in quality. On September 12, the Bulgarian army was also left without the experience of its senior officers on loan from the Russian army, as all of them were recalled in protest against Unification. One major and a dozen captains, barely out of the military academy in Moscow, assumed command of the Bulgarian armies.
But King Milan I committed several errors, which eliminated Serbia’s advantages. Sure of a swift victory, he decided not to share the glory of victory with his seasoned generals from the Russo-Turkish war and assumed command himself. Furthermore, since public opinion was against a war with Bulgaria (the two nations had been friends and allies until this moment), he mobilized only Serbians under 30 years of age, depriving himself of the experience of his veterans. To them he declared that the mobilization is being carried out so Serbia could aid Bulgaria against the Ottoman empire. Serbian soldiers didn’t realize they’d be fighting Bulgarians until their arrival at the front lines.
In contrast, Bulgarian soldiers were marching into battle to protect their land and country. This, coupled with the fact that their Prince was at the front line himself afforded them a tremendous psychological advantage.
King Milan’s strategy consisted of a rapid march on Vidin and the capital Sofia, where he himself would declare his terms: the occupation of Bulgaria, financial reparations and a Serbian victory parade in Sofia. The Bulgarian army, configured to repel an assault from the Ottomans, was stationed far from its Western border. The bulk of its strength was concentrated in the South and required 3-4 days to arrive on the Western front while the Western corps retreated inch by inch, attempting to slow the advance of the Serbian army.
While the Eastern corps of the Bulgarian army was racing West, soldiers sleeping in shifts on each other’s shoulders, the Western corps retreated to Slivnitza, where on November 5 the decisive battle of the war took place. After two days of heroic resistance and multiple bayonet charges, the Bulgarians prevailed and began to advance. The Serbian army was repelled behind its borders and Bulgarian troops conquered Pirot. Only the timely intervention of the Austro-Hungarian consul general prevented Serbia’s utter defeat. The peace treaty was signed on February 18, 1886 in Romania’s capital Bucharest.
The “walk to Sofia” as Milan I called his campaign, would shake the Serbian throne to its foundations and cost both nations 1500 deaths and almost 10000 injuries. The victory would serve to elevate Bulgaria’s self-esteem, lead to the grudging acknowledgement of Unification and establish unified Bulgaria as a serious force on the Balkans.