Кюстендил - военната столица на България през Първата световна война. Кюстендилци и Кюстендилският край във въоръжения конфликт (1915-1918)

Ангел Джонев





Angel Dzhonev





One of the main objectives of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom is to achieve national unification. In order to accomplish this goal, Bulgaria takes active part in 5 wars. The result of these wars, in sports terms, is 2 to 3 in favour of the lost wars, which also happen to be the last 3 wars the country participates in. Bulgaria exits the three armed conflicts in defeat, and thus the national ideal is not accomplished. This sad realisation resonates onto the future of the Bulgarian nation.


The conception of the newly formed Principality of Bulgaria is done in sin. Three territorial projects draw the borders of the sovereign state so as they are the closest they have ever been to the national ideal. But during the birth of Bulgaria in Berlin, its shape is trimmed considerably. The new borders now separate brothers. “An enslaved nation can be liberated, but a separated nation is hard to unify“ - says the admired Dr Stoyan Chomakov. The heavy task of unifying the nation falls upon the shoulders of the newly formed Principality of Bulgaria, which later becomes the Third Bulgarian Kingdom. And thus three important factors - the state, the church, and the revolutionary movement - become partners in this great endeavour.


On the south-west border of the newly-liberated Motherland is situated Kyustendil. This region assumes a great amount of the heavy burden that is the fight for liberation. “The door to Macedonia has to be open for our own and closed for outsiders“. Behind this door gather those, who are ready to give their lives for the national ideal. And in front of this door await in suffering those blood brothers, still enslaved by Ottoman tyranny. Thus, Kyustendil is transformed into a base for the organised efforts of the aforementioned three factors. Military and para-military formations begin their marches off to the front lines from Kyustendil. This is the case during the prolonged fight of the Bulgarians in Macedonia. This is also the case during the Serbian-Bulgarian war and the two Balkan wars. The sons of the Motherland, called upon under the Bulgarian flag, execute their national duty. The trimmed Bulgarian borders, however, remain unchanged and,





unfortunately, the injustice from Berlin is worsened by those of Bucharest and Tsargrad. Thus, the peripheral city of Kyustendil becomes central in the solving of the issue of national unification. There is an enormous amount of evidence in support of the essential role Kyustendil plays in this endeavour.


Moreover, Kyustendil also plays as much of an important role during the short period of peace that follows Bulgaria’s first national catastrophe. Yet another waving of the national colours drags Bulgaria into the First World War - the Nation’s most noble, prolonged, and bloody endeavour towards achieving its national ideal. Bulgaria chooses its allies accordingly, joining the forces that promise a revision of the wrongdoings from Berlin, Bucharest, and Tsargrad. Thus, the Kingdom of Bulgaria joins the Central Powers, consisting of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires. However, alliances often have their disadvantages and Bulgaria remembers the consequences of the disadvantageous alliances of the Balkan conflicts. So, on the fateful day of 24 August 1915 Bulgaria not only completes the legal arrangements for its involvement in the World War, but also bets the future of the Nation on the war’s successful outcomes. The Treaty from Tsargrad is revised in peace, but the Treatises from Berlin and Bucharest are revised by war. The sons of the Motherland are once again gathering at the base in Kyustendil. There march not only the local soldiers, but also one half of the compounds that participate in the war against Serbia. The forces of the Second Army - the 7th Rila division, the 3rd Balkan division, and the 5th Danube infantry division - all march through the region of Kyustendil. There, the ground thuds with the sound of hoof-beats clatter from the Cavalry division and the region also welcomes the cheerful roar of the 11th Macedonian infantry division. Their mission of liberation is successful. The forces of the Triple Entente, however, remain in Macedonia. The South front materialises. Furthermore, the enemy forces consisting of the great powers - Britain, the Third French Republic, and the Russian Empire - are joined by Serbia and Montenegro, followed by Romania, Greece and many other countries including the USA. The Central Powers remain only four.


Kyustendil is faced with a great task - to accommodate the topmost military institution of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. On 14 October 1915 the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army are moved to Kyustendil. The city becomes the military capital of Bulgaria. Thus, Kyustendil’s function and importance shift in their nature. The city’s central role in resolving the issue of national unification grows in its significance. With the arrival of Bulgaria’s military elite in Kuystendil, it gains an essential position not only in the country, but also in the Balkan Peninsula, as well as in the entire continent of Europe. The discussions that take place and the decisions that are made within its borders resonate upon the course of the global conflict.


Undoubtedly, a key factor in this is the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army. The unity at the top of the army is, however, under question. There are many factors, which hurt this unity, some of which include the views and capabilities of the officers, who differ in their temperament and training. However, these are





human flaws, which are always to be dealt with when working towards a common goal. After all, the firm hierarchical structure of the army always puts people in their places. Still, there are many conflicts brought in from the outside. The domestic disputes are a product of the monarchy and the executive government. The conflicts from the outside, however, are a product of the Allies and, especially, of the most fearsome among them. The Commander-in-Chief of the Bulgarian army - Major General, later Lieutenant General Nikola Zhekov is under scrutiny, however, he is still considered to be a man of compromise. Despite the sometimes incredibly tense relationship between the many high-ranking figures and institutions, he is never relieved of his duties. Therefore, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bulgarian army operates in Kyustendil for about three years. In fact, he leaves the city not because of his enemies, but due to the frailty of his body, caused by a serious illness, during the most decisive time of the World War. The question remains of what could have happened had General Zhekov remained in charge of the Bulgarian army during the last offense of the enemy.


As is typical, the Firstand the Second-in-Command of the army are rarely without their disagreements. And according to some sources this is exactly why the some internal executive factors support Major General Konstantin Zhostov as the head of the General staff of the army. He is widely known to be an excellent professional, but, unfortunately, shows a lack of political flexibility. As an ardent patriot, the courageous military man cannot accept the misconducts done by factors in the army, the country, and the Allies. Thus, he is not only considered their enemy, but their main enemy. So, the conflicts between him and these factors make Major General Zhostov face the biggest dilemma of his professional career. After all, among his enemies are the Bulgarian monarch, the Prime Minister, and some high-ranking German generals. When coupled with their supporters, his battle with them becomes relentlessly severe. Despite this General Konstantin Zhostov remains at his position, only surrendering to an insidious illness. On 30 August 1916 he forever leaves Kyustendil and this world. So, in this case, too, the question remains of what could have happened had the capable General remained alive and in his place as the head of the General staff of the army.


The faith of his successor - Colonel, later Major General Ivan Lukov - is no more favourable. He is a pre-war favourite of the Commander-in-Chief Gen. Zhekov, with no major disagreements between the two. In fact, together with the head of the Polish bureau Colonel Mihail Sapunarov, they form Kyustendil’s monolithic triad. Their dominance is, however, discovered and crushed in a timely manner. The other triad - the Bulgarian monarch, the government, and the Allies - fight against them. The political might prevails and the leaders in Kyustendil are replaced. Sapunarov is replaced first, followed by Lukanov. From the short-lived triad in the Headquarters remains only Gen. Zhekov. He, however, attempts to preserve his relative independence and for about seven months occupies both the position of Commander-in-Chief and head of the General staff of the army. Around the same time comes the day of reckoning with one of the aforementioned political factors - the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Under the





pressure of the high-ranking military man both are removed and replaced with a Cabinet of his liking.


The remaining two factors, however, don’t wait around. The Bulgarian monarch and the senior Allies appoint a new head of the General staff of the army - Major General Hristo Burmov. In addition to this, they also appoint an assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army - General of the Infantry Georgi Todorov. For General Zhekov the new appointments are hard to accept. Nonetheless, they come at a time of great physical hardships for him. A few days before the offense of the Triple Entente he is transported for treatment in Vienna. Thus, the following question also remains unanswered - what could have happened if Zhekov and Lukov had remained in Kuystendil and Brumov in Dobro pole? Would the end of the World War have been different?


The relations in the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army are not always up to the mark. Machinations and suspicions undermine the unity of the high-ranking officers of this institution. A great amount of machinations also come from the outside, especially from the Bulgarian monarch and the Prime Minister. The long arm of the senior Ally reaches all the way to Kyustendil. All of this results in arguments and selections of military personnel at the expense of the topmost officials of the Bulgarian military leadership.


And if most of these actions happen behind the curtains, then the people of Kyustendil see all of the aforementioned factors act separately, and sometimes in combination with each other. With the establishment of the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army in Kyustendil, an abundance of officials and delegations walk the city grounds. What is more, the place is visited by representatives of the monarchy many a time, including Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, Tsaritsa Eleonore, Knyaz Boris, and Knyaz Kiril. The heir to the crown, as a liaison officer, visits Kyustendil on a regular basis, and as a result of this special accommodation is always prepared for him in the city. Additionally, among the high-ranking domestic personnel, who visit Kyustendil, are the two individuals who serve as Prime Ministers of the country during the World War - Vasil Radoslavov and Aleksandar Malinov, as well as some Ministers from their Cabinets. Delegations from and representatives of the Opposition also arrive in the city, often looking for assistance from the military and especially from the Commander-in-Chief.


Some liaison officers from the Allies reside in Kyustendil permanently. First arrive the German representatives, followed by those from Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. High-ranking officials, delegations, and political and military figures oftentimes stay in the city. Other visitors include Duke Karl of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the forth son of the German Keizer Augustus William, the German Commander-in-Chief on the Balkans Field Marshal August Mackensen and the Chief of his Staff General Seeckt, a group of members of parliament from the Reichstag, Enver Pasha - the assistant to the Commander-in-Chief and Minister of war of Turkey, the Honvetska kapela of Hungary, the Hungarian Earls Pal Teleki and Vilnius Alfoni, the Vice-President of the Reichstag Dr Hermann Paasche, and the Austian-Hungarian Foreign Minister Earl Ottokar Czernin. In





addition to the forces of the Allies, in Kyustendil arrive the neutral Swedish military mission and the delegation of the newly-independent Finland. Undoubtedly, however, the most high-ranking visitors of the city are Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary and King Ludwig III of Bavaria. Individuals with blue blood of the most dignified stature walk the grounds of the city. A one-of-a-kind monarchist route is established in Kyustendil. Now it is reasonable to pose yet another question - when have so many high-ranking domestic and international figures visited the city? Today, we are able to give an answer to this question: in Bulgaria’s modern history - never.


The war creates complications for the naturally undisturbed existence of every institution. The ones in Kyustendil are no exception. With the establishment of the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army in Kyustendil, the climate in the city changes. Before that, the most important factors that the city accommodates are the depots of the 5th, the United, and the 2nd army, each staying for a period of a few days to a few months at the most. The three-year long stay of the topmost institution during the World War, however, has its effects on the local public establishments. The local administration functions under the constant pressure of high-ranking military officials. Very many buildings are transformed to serve the Headquarters. These circumstances complicate the routine functioning of the public structures in the city. Disagreements begin to cause friction. Balance is often hard to maintain, but the military always prevails. The essential role it plays becomes apparent especially during celebrations of public and religious nature. However, the military acts in unity with some local governing officials and the people of Kyustendil. Unfortunately, the wanted outcomes are not always accomplished and the dissatisfaction with this sometimes causes the people of Kyustendil to distance themselves certain displays. In fact, their enthusiasm begins to dissolve with the dragging out of the war, but this is characteristic of not only them.


An important event for Kyustendil’s history is the announcement, on 16 May 1917, that Lieutenant General Nikola Zhekov is being made an honorary citizen of Kyustendil - a distinction only two people have been previously been honoured with. Yet another testament for the military’s and the civil administration’s respect towards the General is the building of a villa at the park Hisarlaka specifically for him, followed by his subsequent move there. This estate is also included in the route that every high-ranking official is taken onto upon their arrival in Kyustendil. Vital discussions about the World War take place in this villa. However, it also becomes associated with speculations and hearsay. The villa is often affiliated with the moral decline of the Commander-in-Chief and his officers. The rumours about this travel beyond the borders of the city and are brought to the knowledge of the Nation. This leads to doubt and distrust. Despite the many painful and unproven accusations, General Zhekov remains deeply fond of and attached to Kyustendil. According to his will he wishes to be buried to the East of his villa. However, his will is still not executed with regards to the matter to this daymore than half a century after his death. The question why cannot be





provided with a simple answer. The political climate is obviously a major obstacle. The lack of knowledge and lack of interest, however, also contribute to the situation considerably.


The Headquarters of the Active army draws very many intellectuals to Kyustendil. A fraction of them find permanent work in the military institution and remain in the city for a long time. The literary critics Vladimir Vasilev and Konstantin Gulubov are among these individuals. What is more, the former experiences a blossoming romance with the local maiden Tsveta Lenkova during his stay. The poet Kiril Hristov also spends a lot of time in Kyustendil, visiting his wife’s sister Elena Palasheva, who cares for his two children. In fact, the renowned author works on several of his literary creations during his stays in Kyustendil. Another great artist - the deeply perceptive Anton Strashimirov also enriches his creative work during his short stay in the city. The often grumpy Georgy Porfirievich Stamatov - also visits Kyustendil, but he does that due to issues at work. Yet another author - the fussy Stoyan Zagorchinov - stays in Kyustendil; more specifically in the city’s barracks, where he counts the days of his military service and training. As a licensor of the press in Kyustendil acts the lyrical Emanuil Popdimitrov. The (then) beginner fiction writer Dimitar Shishmanov also travels to Kyustendil from time to time. In addition, the (then) amateur poet Elisaveta Belcheva (later known as Elisaveta Bagriana) has a prolonged teaching experience at a school in the city. The amalgamation of talent leads to the assembly of some of the artists into elite circles. They seem to be attracted to the park Hisarlaka, which they wander and exploit for inspiration. The aesthetes of the written word are not alone. Among the many painters in the city is the great Boris Delchev. Kyustendil is the arena of their expression and their artistry. Their presence in the city transforms it. However, Kyustendil leaves a mark on their art and their souls, too. This is a symbiosis that lasts forever. An important question begs to be posed here - when do so many renowned intellectuals and artists ever reside in the city for such a long period of time? The answer is - very rarely.


The World War is long, which drains the resources of both the Triple Entente and the Central Powers. The state of the Central Powers, however, is worse. The region of Kyustendil, which is not a major producing region, endures many problems. Moreover, many sources state that the region does not benefit from preferential treatment, even though it is home to the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army. At the start of the World War food is sometimes scarce. However, as the war continues, the shortage of food becomes a permanent issue. Product prices increase time after time. The price of whole-grain bread and cereal products skyrockets and they are steadily replaced by corn products. The last year to year and a half of the World War is the harshest. The daily ration of cereal-based bread is less than 300 grams per person. Households also cut down on purchasing meat, milk, and dairy products and derivatives considerably. Their shortage is strongly felt by the citizens. The people in the villages are in a more favourable situation, as they are producers themselves. They, however, have to fight against attempts to confiscate their excess produce. Their opposition to the requisitions





is expressed by sabotaging the allotment of products, especially of milk (which is used for production of cheese, yellow cheese, and butter). Several villages strongly demonstrate their unwillingness to support the open dairy farms. Crowds of women attack the owners and their employees and send them away by throwing rocks and other materials at them. The local administrative forces support them, instead of executing their duties. As a result of the sabotages many of the sites never open doors, and some of the ones that do are closed in a timely manner.


Several commodities are of incredibly limited supply or lack altogether. A black market is set up and profiteering flourishes. The stable prices of ordinary products are hard to preserve. Many producers do not want to supply the city market with their products. Hunger becomes a daily struggle for both citizens and villagers. Moreover, there is a shortage of dry firewood and other solid fuels and lighting materials. There is almost no coal whatsoever. The cold goes handin-hand with disease. The exhausted and starved bodies are an easy target for Typhoid fever, Scarlet fever, and the Spanish Influenza. Spanish Influenza epidemics in particular kill both civilians in their homes and soldiers fighting on the front lines. Organised actions in the city and its surroundings begin to escalate in May 1918. During the month of May a female riot takes place under the command of female activists from the Narrow Socialist Party in Kyustendil. Rioting is not uncommon at the time, but this particular riot takes place in the immediate vicinity of the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army. The dissatisfaction of the current state reaches its peak when Luba Turkovska offers a piece of bread of poor quality to Emperor Karl and Tsar Ferdinand upon their arrival in Kyustendil on 18 May 1918. Thus, the question of whether the region is supplied with more goods and products, because the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army is situated in Kyustendil, can be answered with reasonable certainty - no, it is not.


The security of the region also suffers. The people in and around Bosilegrad feel this very strongly. On 15 and 16 May 1917 the Serbian para-military formation, led by Kosta Pechanac, infiltrates the region. This leads to arsons and pillages and many peaceful civilians die. Thirty-five people are killed and 317 households are completely destroyed. This is the third time during this and the last 2 wars that the region of Bosilegrad experiences Serbian wrath. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that this recurrence will cease in the near future. Bulgaria compensates the victims by providing them with financial aid. Importantly, the audacious attack takes place about 40 km away from the Headquarters, while many soldiers are on the frontlines still fighting. To answer the question of whether this happens anywhere else in the Kingdom during the War - no, it does not. This unique crime has been covered up by history for a very long time.


It is a certain fact that another precedent also takes place, however, this time it happens in Kyustendil. On 24 and 27 September 1918 the Headquarters of the Bulgarian army are occupied by Bulgarian troops. This is a unique case for Bulgaria. However, the consequences of such an event are something other countries are familiar with. Still, the Kingdom has never faced this before. Bulgarians are fighting Bulgarians, but this time not in altercations of criminal or domestic nature.





Violence is used to enquire about political responsibility. Shots are fired and wounds bleed with brotherly blood. The initial sparks characteristic of a civil war flash in Kyustendil. They are part of the fire that is the attempted coup (known as the Vladiiski metej or the Uprising of the soldiers). The cracks in Bulgaria’s national unity become apparent. These cracks open up gradually allowing many Bulgarians, who are standing on either side of the barricade, to fall through them. This open wound is the terrifying beginning of the separation of the Bulgarian nation. The ending, after all, is still unknown.


During the First World War two regiments are mobilised from Kyustendil. They are the 3rd infantry Rila regiment and the 53rd infantry regiment. These regiments recruit soldiers from other parts of the region as well as other regions in Bulgaria. The two regiments have different fates. The Rila regiment takes part in the offence against Serbia through Morava Valley, Kosovo, and Vardar Macedonia. It liberates many settlements, including Gevgelija, through long and bloody battles. After that it settles near Vardar for the winter, following which it is moved to the border near the river Struma. There it takes part in the occupation of the Rupel Pass and in the advance towards the Western Thrace. The regiment displays heroism and decisiveness in the fight near Yenikoy. After all, the name Yenikoy is engraved high on the monument of the fallen Rila soldiers, following only two other names. The regiment defends its positions on the shore of “waveless Struma“ until the very end of the armed conflict.


The 53rd regiment has a longer and much more exciting battle course. It takes part in the war against Serbia only in Vardar Macedonia. It liberates Tsarevo selo and Veles and it defeats Serbian regiments in several battles. It clashes with an Anglo-French corpus in Klepa mountain and pushes it back to the outskirts of Gevgelija. It endures the winter near Vardar, following which it is moved to Belasica. The regiment advances through the Rupel Pass and in the Western Thrace. Thus, its early fate mirrors that of the Rila regiment. However, the war with Romania changes its fate completely. The 53rd regiment is moved to the Northern front quickly. There, it fights the forces of the Triple Entente (primarily Romanian and Russian forces). It participates in the defence of Dobrich and the breakthrough of Kubadin and it liberates Babdag and Tulcea. The next year it defends its positions in bloody battles near Seret River. The war against Romania and Russia is won and Kyustendil’s regiment contributes to this. During the last year of the World War the 53rd regiment is moved back to the Southern front. It is delegated to the key sectors Elevation 1050 and Dobro pole. The break-through of the enemy’s forces at the latter sector cannot take away the unfading battle glory of the 53rd regiment. Countless nameless heroes, led by the legendary commander Major General Konstantin Lambrinov, will forever remain there. There is no need to pose a question here. The heroes from the two regiments execute their duty. Not for nothing are they called heroes made of iron.


Bulgaria’s defeat from 29 September 1918 pulls the country out of the First World War. The surviving soldiers return home to Kyustendil or the surrounding areas. The dead soldiers, however, are forever lost on the battlefields. Whether or





not their invisible graves remain within the borders of the Motherland is undetermined and likely up to chance. Sadly, the champions on the Balkans retaliate even with the dead. However, the living also await their abysmal fate. They are forced to familiarise themselves with the bitter taste of national occupation, which is, fortunately, not of an incredible magnitude. What tastes worse is the peace treaty (equated to a policy of dictation) that Bulgaria has to sign. This treaty deepens the wound the country is suffering. The events of 27 November 1919 strike a serious blow to Bulgaria’s national ideal. On that day the unfair Treaties of Berlin and Bucharest are joined by yet another one - the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine. In accordance with it Bulgaria loses major territories including the Bosilegrad region, Western Thrace, the Struma region, and the Western Outlands. This is the worst outcome of any of the wars the country has participated in. This is also the answer to many pending questions about the Nation.


The local military divisions return to Kyustendil. The city also offers shelter to the experienced figures of the revolutionary movement. A stream of refugees is directed towards Kyustendil and they are coming not only from Macedonia, but also from the Western Outlands. These brave Bulgarians never give up the fight. In fact, secret revolutionary movements are once again in full swing in and around the city. Even some events which are legal in nature contribute to the fight. A new door materialises next to “the door to Macedonia” - this is “the door to the Western Outlands”. Kyustendil executes its function as the guardian of these doors until the coup of 19 May 1934. On that day the keys to both doors are given to the state.


Bulgaria attempts to achieve its national unification once again during the Second World War. This endeavour is successful to a certain extend and the favourable outcomes last only for the short period of around three years. Compact masses of people - brothers and sisters - remain outside Bulgaria’s borders. They are once again faced with attempts of foreign assimilation. The struggles to change the political state of affairs in the country are fruitless. Bulgaria is once again in debt to the traditional Bulgarian minorities on the Balkans.


The battles and wars waged by the Bulgarian people during the country’s modern history leave the question of national unification unresolved. The national ideal, recognised as the enlarged Bulgaria envisioned by the preliminary treaty of San Stefano, is not achieved. This ideal is celebrated with demonstrations of patriotism and positive energy on 3 March every year. Realistically, the Greater Bulgaria established in the treaty never materialises. It remains only on paper. The case during the First World War, however, is completely different. Bulgaria achieves its main goal and for a very short snipped of time during the war it manages to gather most of its people and territories under its wing. What is more, the country controls territories that are not even included in the treaty of San Stefano. These accomplishments, however, never replace the national ideal, nor do they become a new pursuit. In fact they both become a reality for a very short period of time, but the national ideal remains alive to this day. Bulgaria’s war-time achievements during the armed conflict are undoubtedly a triumph,





however, one that has been forgotten in time. This triumph is accomplished with incredible difficulty and at the price of hundreds of thousands Bulgarians killed, wounded, and crippled. Bulgaria’s defeat in the World War, however, reduces this triumph to ashes.


The instilled trauma of the defeated replaces the joy from Bulgaria’s accomplishments. The map of the enlarged Bulgaria from the First World War is buried underneath many other real and ephemeral goals. This map, however, is not drawn with ink, but with the blood of Bulgarians. It instills the sense of national unification. And the military capital of this Bulgaria is undoubtedly Kyustendil.



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