01 September 1915 – Balkan Kings

Above: King Peter I of Serbia at his coronation in 1903 

During August, Britain put together a final incentive package to woo Bulgaria to the Entente Powers. Leaning on embattled Greek Prime Minister Elefthérios Venizélos to obtain a concession of the Adriatic port of Kevala, Sir Edward Grey added most of Macedonia and Eastern Thrace, adding generous financial considerations to sweeten the offer. Riven by competing agendas and barriers to cooperation, the Entente alliance is weaker than it appears, and Britain’s bargaining position is worse than than Grey realizes.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the allied offensive on the Dardanelles has gone disastrously wrong, and Russia falls back on a defensive line within its own imperial dominions, Tsar Ferdinand begins the month less motivated than ever to join the alliance against the Central Powers. Pro-German by inclination despite a personal dislike for his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ferdinand has unexpectedly maintained his rule by understanding the complex intrigues of the Balkan region, and fears secret societies and assassins more than any foreign state threat.

Indeed, today Bulgarian military attaché Lieutenant Colonel Peter Ganchev is at Pless, Germany to discuss a secret alliance with German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn and Austrian supreme commander Generalfeldmarschall Conrad von Hötzendorf. Inking their private agreement on the 6th, Bulgaria commits herself to providing four divisions against Serbia and another against Macedonia — eminently feasible, given that out of a national population of just six million people, Ferdinand has an army of more than a half-million men and can mobilize another 300,000. Still licking their wounds from the Balkan Wars, Bulgaria is nevertheless strong enough to be regarded as ‘the Prussia of Europe.’


Tsar Ferdinand walking a red carpet exactly one pomp-and-ceremonial step behind his Prime Minister Radoslavov

In return for his participation in a joint attack against the Serbs, Bulgaria is to receive all of Serbian Macedonia, an Adriatic port, and a strip of Turkish territory. Altogether, it is a smaller offer than the Entente Powers made, perhaps, but one made far more attractive by the current strategic situation, and the larger Macedonian concession is the clincher. Having already fought two wars to win that prize, Ferdinand is only too happy to wage a third. Insisting that Bulgaria “cannot and will not be denied its historical and ethnographic rights. It cannot be without Macedonia, for which it has shed so much blood,” Ferdinand’s Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov set out the terms of Ganchev’s negotiations with the Dreibund (‘triple alliance’) in an August 2nd memorandum:

First: the Dreibund guarantees Bulgaria’s present territory from any attack, from whatever side it may come.

Second: the Dreibund promises its support for its [Bulgaria’s] ambitions for future territorial acquisitions on its borders, on which it has historic and ethnographic rights, and which are under the control of nations, which do not belong to the Dreibund.

[Third:] If Romania should join with the Dreibund, it will have nothing to fear from Bulgaria, as in later territorial changes Bulgaria will only seek acquisitions in the west. Should Romania join with Russia [however], Bulgaria would have a free hand to assert its claims on the Dobrudja again, and would be permitted to march against Romania eventually.

The last point highlights the role of Bucharest in Sofia’s calculations, for the Romanians are also strong, while the loss of the Dobrudja in the Second Balkan War still smarts. Indeed, disappointing three-way prewar negotiations with Romania and Russia led Radoslavov to despair that “Russia has turned away from us…therefore we find ourselves in our present melancholy position.” With their Russian relationship frozen in such distrust, the dream of a Greater Bulgaria is about to inspire its third war in just four years, greatly complicating and prolonging the Great War itself in the process.

As with Greece, Britain has also strained its relationship with Serbia in a bid to win over the Bulgarians, pressing for such concessions during August that Prime Minister Nikola Pašić declared that London was “treating Serbia like an African tribe” — a perfectly appropriate metaphor, given the competing imperial ambitions at play in the Balkans.

Also today, the Serbian government grudgingly accepts the loss of uncontested territories in Macedonia, failing the demands of the Entente powers, and ensuring the Central Powers will win Bulgaria over to their side. Grey is also unwilling to give the Serbs Croatia and other Hapsburg Balkan territories as spoils of war, saying that the affected peoples must approve their union with a Greater Serbia. The Italians, now bleeding in the Alps and the Adriatic themselves, do not want to share that sea with a Slavic empire. As the partners of one alliance quarrel among themselves, they remain quite unaware of just how pointless all their bickering will be soon enough.