BULGARIA AND THE ENTENTE DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Ivan Ilchev
 
S u m m a r y

The years 19131918 were crucial ones in modern Bulgarian history. At the beginning of the period, the Bulgarian society was trying to adjust itself to the thought that all its endeavours in the field of foreign policy after the Berlin Congress of 1878, directed at the unification of as much as possible of the ethnic territory of the Bulgarians, proved fruitless. The Second Balkan War of July August 1913 not only robbed Bulgaria of the results of the victories of the Bulgarian over Turkish armies, but burdened additionally the country with tens of thousands of immigrants coming from all Bulgarian lands. Bulgarians remained 'brooding' over their grievances.

Still, the pessimism of Bulgarian society as a whole was astonishingly short-lived. The mere size of Bulgaria's losses it seemed, gave birth to the notion, that a situation like this cannot endure for long.

But because of its defeat Bulgaria remained without friends in the Peninsula and without patrons among the Great Powers. So the task of the Government of the Liberal party, headed by the well-known for his political pragmaticism doctor Vassil Radoslavov who came to power in the midst of the Inter-allied war, and king Ferdinand who aptly pulled the strings from behind the scene, was to find a place for the country in a changing world.

The Balkan alliance of 19111912 was forged under the indirect tutelage of Russia and the Powers of the Triple Entente. When the Alliance began to disintegrate, Russia was put to the blame. The Entente powers laid their policy in the Balkans on other countries and did not pay serious attention to the careful advances of Bulgarian diplomats.

The diplomatic struggle in the Balkans for allies in the conflict that was awaited by many for long years, but nevertheless astonished everybody with its dimensions when finally came in the summer of 1914 constitutes the main topic of the book.

One cannot say that this is a neglected problem in Bulgarian or European historiography, but nevertheless a comprehensive study of the relations of Bulgaria with the Entente lacks. In the book an extensive use is made of Bulgarian, French, British and American diplomatic and private archival collections and documents published in different countries. A serious effort was made to absorb as much as possible of the virtually unembraceable literature on the subject.

The First Chapter of the book deals with the attempts of the Liberal government to re-establish its relations with the neighbouring countries in late 1913 beginning of 1914 and to check the ground for future relations with the Entente.

The successes in both directions were meagre. The diplomatic relations with Roumania, Serbia, Turkey, Greece and Montenegro were re-established but the mutual distrust remained.
The Entente Powers led by Russia only grudgingly accepted the Government of Radoslavov, considered pro-German and mere toy in the hands of the monarch. Russian diplomats strove to combine economic with political pressure and persuaded the French to decline a Bulgarian loan in Paris, thus paving the ground for a loan in Germany and committing a serious blunder with severe repercussions in the First World War that broke out only a week, after the loan was emitted.

From the beginning of hostilities in August 1914, up to the beginning of October 1915 Bulgaria stayed neutral. The Bulgarian Government awaited the turn of events at the fronts before throwing its lot with any of the warring groups. One of the main reasons for the defeat of Bulgaria in the Inter-Allied War was its utter diplomatic unpreparedness. Radoslavov and Ferdinand did not have any intention of repeating this error. The sympathies of the Liberals and the Monarch lay with the Austro-Germans but the events in the Balkans in the last decades showed clearly that sympathies played a minor role in political calculations.
The situation of the diplomats of the countries of the Entente was not an easy one. They would have liked to have the half million experienced Bulgarian Army on their side, but were not sure that the price asked for in Sofia would be reasonable and would compensate the inevitable loss of influence among Bulgarian neighbours. From the very beginning it was clear that the Bulgarian Government will try to make the most of the situation, Russia, Great Britain and France (in diminishing order of influence in Sofia) which is more, each had designs of their own for the post-war world and were reluctant to pledge firmly themselves to the cause of Bulgaria.

From the very beginning of the war a specific pattern of behaviour developed.

In times of crisis and defeats the diplomats of the Entente were generous and proposed territories which more or less embraced the lands that Bulgaria coveted.

In times of victories they preferred to stay aloof and skillfully and altogether annoyingly rejected Bulgarian advances.

The vacillation of attitudes left in Sofia the impression that the country should not move a finger before definite guarantees could be undertaken by Petrograd, Paris and London. When this did not happen, the glances of the decision-makers in Sofia turned more and more to Vienna and Berlin. They in their turn promised to Bulgaria all territories that the Bulgarian army would conquer in the course of war. Neutrality was useless for the Alliance and it did not want to pay for it. This was not that generous but at least the supposed occupation of Macedonia by Bulgarian troops would serve as a sufficient guarantee.

Faced by the firm intention of the Bulgarian Government not to move without guarantees, the powers of the Entente tried a military coercion. In the spring of 1915 the so-called Dardanelles operation was conceived aiming at opening the Straits, facilitating the access to Southern Russia and attracting the neutral Balkan countries.

By the summer of 1915 the whole policy of the Entente in the Balkan Peninsula was in shambles. The Russian armies were retreating fast on the Eastern Front; the Western was a stalemate; on the Gallipoli Peninsula the Turkish Army held fast the attempts of ANZAC to advance a few hundred yards. Faced with military defeat on May 29th, 1915 the Entente diplomats in Sofia made a joint declaration, promising most of Bulgarian desiderata, again without steady guarantees. What is more, the neighbouring Balkan countries declared that do not feel bound by Entente's promises, concerning their territories.

This proposition marked the determination of Radoslavov and Ferdinand that Bulgaria's fate is irrevocably tied to that of Germany and Austria. A month later the Entente diplomats proposed to Bulgaria that it occupies part of the territories it coveted, the day Bulgarian Army attacked the Ottoman empire. This first real guarantee came too late. Two weeks before it, Bulgaria had already signed a military convention with Germany. In the beginning of October 1915 the Bulgarian army crossed the Serbian frontier.

After Bulgaria's entry in the war the diplomatic chancellaries of the Entente, continued to produce a number of projects and proposals for separate peace talks with Sofia. The ideas were born not out of any particular sympathy to the Bulgarian cause, but rather by the understanding that Bulgaria is fighting for pure local aims, without the global ambitions of the Great Powers. It turned out that French, British and Russian men were dying by the thousands at the Salonika front to uphold the ambitions of the smaller allies of the Entente.

The understanding did not bore any fruits. The anger at the treason of the 'little Bodies' as the Bulgarians were denigrated by the press was too great to allow the diplomats a free hand.

The few attempts at negotiation made by both sides were half-hearted and easily ended in disaster once rumours about them spread.

Thus in September 1918, after the defeat of the Bulgarian Army at Dobro Pole, the Bulgarians were to suffer a second national debacle that was to predetermine much of the country's policy in the inter-war years and its subsequent orientation to Germany.


[Previous]
[Back to Index]