To mark the centenary of the end of World War 1, the Bulgarian National Archives has published a selection of soldiers’ diaries, giving a glimpse of the fear and deprivation they endured.
By Martin Dimitrov
“We all feel tired, exhausted, and nervous. Any minute could bring death to each of us. The bullets of the foes scream above our heads all the time. My situation is even worse – as I hold an officer’s responsibility.
“If our guards fall asleep and let the Serbs surprise us, they will take us into captivity or slaughter us, then take on all forces up Timov peak and cut off all the escape routes. This does not allow me to have even a minute of sleep.”
So wrote Bulgarian teacher and non-commissioned officer Mihail Kermenliyski from the 45th Infantry regiment on August 21, 1916, as Bulgaria’s offensives during World War I ground to a halt and a war of attrition began.
Little did he know that the “Great War” was to drag on for more than two years and cost his country, and those who fought against it, dearly.
Yet, he kept documenting his and his platoon’s ordeals on the front, the curious places he visited in the territories the Bulgarian army occupied and the dire suffering of civilians in the rear.
Kermenliyski’s memories of the war – alongside those of eight other soldiers – have now been published by the Bulgarian National Archives as part of its commemoration of the passage of a century since the end of World War I, known as the Great War.
The National Archives have already digitalized thousands of pictures, documents and the names and places of death of all soldiers who lost their lives during the war.
“I believed that the centenary from the Great War should be the occasion to launch a wider public discussion about the role of Bulgarian state and society in this war, and its consequences,” Professor Veselin Yanchev, head of the Bulgarian History department of Sofia University, said.
“Unfortunately, the celebrations have remained in the circles of the historians, the military and those who are interested in history,” he added.
A forgotten war
Bulgaria entered the conflagration in 1915 on the side of the Central Powers – Germany, Austria and Turkey. Like them, it went down to defeat towards the end of 1918, losing much territory in the process.
“Maybe it is because this war gives us no reason for pride as a nation, so we don’t want to delve into it,” Professor Yanchev suggested.
There is much to learn, however, especially from the perspectives of soldiers themselves.
“This is the story of daily life on the frontline, where death and life meeting each other is commonplace. It contrasts with the big story – let’s call it the generals’ tale – of victories and heroism,” Mihail Gruev, director of the National Archives, says.
Gruev believes the diaries are important because they present the trauma of the soldierly experience in the trenches and in the rear-guard, which is an entirely new “truth” about the war by itself.
He says the selection of diaries aims to showcase a wider palette of memories, ranging from those of professionals soldiers through to frontline doctors and villagers – people from varying social backgrounds but who shared a sense of historicism.
The war was not the same for all of them, and the selection reveals a plethora of different feelings at its different stages.
“The enthusiasm felt at the start of the Balkan wars [of 1912-13] is missing, but there is no problem with mobilization and, from the autumn of 1915 till January 1917, the Bulgarian army is undertaking successful offensive operations,” Professor Yanchev noted.
Disillusion with and suspicion of politicians
Yanchev added that there was a shared understanding between the Bulgarian elites and common people that Bulgaria had failed to achieve its goals in the Balkan wars, and needed to make a final push. Initially, World War I led to this.
His words resonate with those of Mihail Kermenliyski, written from the days before Bulgaria joined the conflict.
“We all await with fear the news of mobilization, especially the poorest, who will leave their families in the current situation of unemployment and high prices. And why do we mobilize at a time when Bulgarian positions are not threatened?” he wondered in early September 1915.
Like many of the other diarists, he suspects the motives of the country’s leaders.
To him, the claim that Bulgaria needs to mobilize to maintain its position of “armed neutrality” is dubious.
“This masks the government’s drive for conquest. The hope of expanding the markets through the capture of new territories makes all the bourgeois parties that divided themselves into Russophiles and Russophobes until yesterday, come together,” he wrote.
Dr Petar Nedevski, who also fought on the Macedonian front, shared his feelings.
“I felt once more the well-known truth of history – that it knows no feelings and knows one motto and one motto only – the material interest,” he recorded, mulling the shifting geopolitical alliances.
Their comrade, Iliya Lambov, a teacher from Shumen who participated in the recapture of the Tutrakan fortress from Romania in the autumn of 1916, laments: “Imperialism, hegemony, how wide is your mouth and how narrow is your throat!”
But, despite his passionate anti-war outbursts, he keeps on fighting – even against Bulgaria’s former liberator from the Ottoman yoke, Russia, which sends Cossack detachments in support of its then Romanian ally.
“Curiosity! During a fight between us and the Cossacks, an under-officer died on our side. During his burial, the Cossacks cried over his grave like if it was their brother’s. Oh, you stupid Sergey Sazonov [Russian diplomat], if you, demon, did not exist, our knives wouldn’t be pointed at our Russian brotherly nation now,” Lambov wrote, shifting the blame for the conflict to the politicians.
“It is obvious that those poor and tired souls are not victims of official propaganda,” Gruev concludes.
Despite their very different political convictions – some of the authors would later become ardent communists while others would join pro-fascist officers’ groups – they all share a sense of patriotism, and a conviction that the political elite has brought the war upon them.
Death seen everywhere as war drags on
Before politics, however, came the question of survival.
“Around us – oh, the horror! From our trenches to the first French foxholes the whole space is covered by the dead bodies of our soldiers. Entire lines of people killed by machinegun fire lie on the ground. Dead in the trenches. Bloody puddles everywhere. In a space that is no bigger than 500 square metres, there are around 300 to 400 dead”, writes Mihail Kermenliyski after a skirmish.
Tragic stories of single deaths sometimes resonate more with them than the plight of hundreds.
Zlati Koychev tells how a young Serbian woman with a blood-stained shirt, who was giving water to the advancing Bulgarian troops, told him that her new-born had been killed by a bullet while she was taking a look through a window.
“She let me in and I saw what she was saying was true – a small body in a tiny pool of blood, and two children crying over it. It was a moving picture. I moved onward.”
Other soldiers, like Mladen Kadzhelyanski writes, in passing, how he found out he had lost two of his children.
While death is literally everywhere, some of the most shaking accounts of it come from Dr Petar Nedevski.
“Every day about five to 10 people die in the field hospital. I do four or five amputations a day. A man’s heart fills with anguish, but he has to go on working, has to keep on sawing hands and feet to keep death at bay,” he writes.
And those are only the combat casualties – thousands more would pass away from malaria, scurvy and influenza, all fuelled by the poor material conditions of the army.
A communist sympathiser and soldier on the Gevgeli front, Lieutenant Varban Angelov, feels open contempt for his superiors.
“The officers and all those in direct communication with the higher ranks acutely and gratuitously engage in flunkey-like acts and cover everything in a gown of servility, especially when it comes to actual work, which they always describe as being perfectly well done,” he writes, acidly.
He is wary of government propaganda about victories on other fronts, as well as about the complicity of the newspapers – even if they come from his ideological spectrum.
Angelov blames his superiors’ incompetence for such unintended consequences as the pillaging of villages by their own army for scarce food and material.
He dismisses officers’ lack of tactical awareness on the battlefield, which might have not amounted to much during the short Balkan wars, but is exemplified now.
“Our [officers] are megalomaniacs and don’t feel the responsibility they have, they carry petty ambitions and are thirsty for fame,” he says.
Things are not much better in the men’s hometowns. Dr Nedevski laments the corruption and nepotism that have taken over war-weary Bulgaria during his absence.
Carnage of war leads to decay in values
This brewing contempt, especially for the political leadership, would later have important consequences for Bulgaria after the war
“What happened on the frontlines left such a lasting trace over the events of the interwar period that their impact can’t be ignored,” says Gruev, adding that the result was an “impressive devaluation of human life and values that fuels an environment ripe with assassinations, coup d’états, murder attempts, bloody civil strife.”
“There is a change of moral and values, violence and death stop being a moral barrier. The search for fast, violent solutions is not a Bulgarian patent, but has its expressions in Bulgaria as well,” Professor Yanchev adds.
Even while on the offensive, soldiers write little about heroic feats and more about the fear and dread they feel.
“With nervous anticipation we expect the order to advance. Nobody is calm, rifles’ gunlocks crack and bayonets are cleansed, shaky hands smoke one cigarette after another and people give each other courage and imitate self-control as we enter a little-known territory where we don’t know what to expect,” Kermenliyski writes on the day the Bulgarian army crosses into Serbian-controlled Macedonia.
Just before the key battle of Krivolak, he notes: “We knew that the attack will be fierce. We knew a lot of casualties would fall. Soldiers are pale from the expected advance and talk of how their children will be left orphaned.”
Even while on the offensive, Dr Nedevski is far from excited about Bulgaria’s victories. He has to endure the sight of dying soldiers in the field hospitals and of the dismembered and mutilated bodies in the trenches that Bulgarian troops take over.
At one point, after the battle of Derven, he tries rescuing two Bulgarian and Serbian officers who were wounded in the battle and shows extreme humility to both. “Both of them died on the same day. Let them rest in peace. They both served their fatherlands and had accomplished their duty impeccably.”
Soldiers struggle to maintain their humanity
The diaries of Nedevski and Kermenliyski also feature accounts of their travels around Kosovo, Macedonia and Western Thrace, which are abundant with anthropological comments and historical references – the Western-educated officers are well-versed and interested in the places they visit.
Both note the state of various cities, including Skopje and Pristina, and comment on their relations with local Albanian hetmans, Gagauz peasants and even describe a Dervish ritual.
They also show sympathy for the civilians and lament their precarious situation, regardless of the side they back.
“These Balkan houses without owners are a pathetic sight, with only cats left to meow and dogs to bark. There is little doubt that such abandoned property will become victims of retreating Serbian soldiers, followed by our own troops and then of marauders who will steal mercilessly the wealth piled up by labour for years,” Dr Nedevski writes about Papratina, a village in occupied Serbia.
Yet, as the war drags on, the little enthusiasm the soldiers have runs low. Most of the soldiers share similar accounts. Machine gun rattles, the use of dumdum (or expanding) bullets, forbidden by the Geneva Convention, airplanes fly above and bombard trenches, artillery carries on deadly barrages, which forces soldiers to hide in the depths of the tunnels underneath the trenches.
Not everyone’s days on the front are so eventful, though. Most of the days in Yancho Mandradzhiev’s diary end with the note: “Nothing much.”
His tales, like those of Mladen Kadzhelyanski, sprawl with descriptions of mundane daily duties, drills and pretending to be sick, rather than tales of horror or heroic feats.
For days on end, the only sign of enemy activity is a random bombardment by a French airplane. Yet life on the front can shattered on a whim, when the hellfire of enemy artillery wounds both of them.
They are sent to frontline hospitals, where boredom is complemented by the battle for survival – not from the wounds themselves but from the hunger and disease that take over.
Historians say the turning point in the war for Bulgaria came after it captured all the land it had claimed before the war – only to learn that its fate it would not be up to the soldiers, but would be decided by the Great Powers.
Fatigue creeps in as defeat looms
“This is the shadow of doubt creeping in – we’ve achieved our goals, we just want to keep them, but this does not depend on our own efforts,” Professor Yanchev noted.
“So far, Bulgarian soldiers have fought short wars – the Bulgarian-Serbian war was two weeks’ long. The Balkan wars started in October 1912 and ended in April 1913, while the Second Balkan war lasted a month,” he recalled.
“But this is a three-year ordeal during which the major part of the Bulgarian youth is uprooted from their homes and their work and sent to the front. Problems with supplies of both soldiers and the population, the overwhelming requisitions, cause discord in the soul of the Bulgarian soldier,” the historian added.
Signs of attrition were noticeable as early as the autumn of 1916, only a year after Bulgaria entered the war.
“Today it’s a year since we put on the soldier’s coat. A long year, a heavy year, during which we started looking like anything but men. How long will that last, and when will the sun of peace shine rise and spread its light over the tortured humanity? This looks like a dream, a dream that will be hard to attain,” writes Iliya Lambov from the Northern front on September 23, 1916.
The tone of Dr Nedevski’s entries also changes as the tide of war starts changing. Offensives turn into stalemates and then into retreats, orderly at first, but then a full-blown scattering of soldiers, tired of war, by September 1918.
While he sees the coming defeat throughout 1918, the total decay of the army after the Entente powers break through at Dobro pole, a few kilometres from his own position in Macedonia, still catches him by surprise.
“The retreat of our troops is absolutely disorderly. Soldiers leave the front even when there is no pressure from the enemy,” he writes on September 16.
“The retreat of our army is full and the degradation is total. There is no hope,” he writes on September 23, adding that the lack of ammunition, artillery support and food makes further fighting impossible, even for those who would have kept it up.
“My pen can’t describe the disgrace we bear,” Nedevski writes on the last day of his war in the Sofia barracks. “I will leave this to those who brought them upon us.”
A global conflict
Before defeat stared them in the face, Bulgarian soldiers realized they were now fighting almost the entire world. [Unlike the Central Powers, the two Entente Powers, England the France, had immense colonial possessions].
Alongside Serbian, French and Italian soldiers, Nedevski notes French colonial troops from Senegal, Martinique, New Caledonia and Algiers among the prisoners-of-war captured in 1917.
Yet, their attitude towards the enemy is not always to dehumanise them. Vasil Yanchev says it often depended on the nationality of the adversary.
“On the relatively more peaceful Northern front, there are calmer relations with the Russian and Romanian soldiers, there is not so much of a denial of the humanity of the adversary,” he says.
This is not always the case with the Greeks and Serbs, who the Bulgarians despise for their role in the Balkan wars. [Both Greece and Serbia took much of the territory from the defeated Ottomans that Bulgaria had hoped to obtain].
“Allies – Vagabonds” is a common saying at the time, Yanchev adds, referring to the phrase Bulgarians used about their former allies-turned-enemies during the Second Balkan war.
“The Bulgarian soldier is far from all-forgiving or magnanimous but we can say that their accounts are free of extreme expressions of hate and bitterness against the adversaries,” Gruev said.
To the historian, it is clear that the authors of the diaries are aware that on the other side of the battlefield are other humans, most of whom are also not in the trenches by their own will.
One such example comes from the diary of Mihail Kermenliyski, who finds the letters of a fallen French soldier, intended for his fiancée. “She loves a cold, lifeless corpse which will tomorrow start decomposing… crows and dogs will eat the flesh. All that was dear to her is forever lost,” he laments.
His feeling resonates with that of the poet Dimcho Debelyanov, an army lieutenant who dies fighting the British in Macedonia around the same time. Before that, he wrote in his poem, “Dear Soldier”:
He’s a foe of ours no more –
For a wave the storm was driving
Swept all enemy survivors
Over to the other shore.
Who is he? Where did he fight?
Whose call brought him in defiance
On a day of whirlwind triumphs
Without triumph here to die?
Was he coming here to show
Pity when the trumpet sounded?
It was death he sought – he found it.
Now he’s dead he’s not our foe!