Part 6 1885 – Serbo-Bulgarian War

Background political situation in the Balkans 1885.

The war between Bulgaria and Serbia was about a strip of land called Rumelia that lay between the southern border of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. There had been a coup in Eastern Rumelia early in September of 1885 and the leaders of the coup wanted the country to join with Bulgaria.

Serbia and Bulgaria had both been unhappy with the resolution of the war of 1877 formalised in the congress of Berlin in 1878. They both felt they should have been awarded more territory from The Ottoman Empire.

When Bulgarian nationalists in Rumelia mounted a coup in September of 1885 and sought unification with Bulgaria, Serbia was unhappy. The king of Serbia, Milan Oberenović IV, pursued an aggressive policy hoping to distract attention from growing internal problems. His objective was to get Bulgaria to cede some territory to Serbia. Though there was diplomatic pressure on Serbia to avoid war, they declared war on Bulgaria on the 14th November.  It was expected that Serbia would secure a quick victory.

Russia and Austria did not want anything to upset the balance in the region and they both put pressure on both sides to avoid war. Russia’s pressure on Bulgaria amounted to withdrawing all the officers they had provided to run the Bulgarian army and navy. It was against this background that Vladimir Lutsk had written to Esper.

When the letter arrived with the advice from the revolutionary executive committee in Paris Esper decided to take up the offer. He made preparations over the next few days.  He describes this in his book, “One Year in Bulgaria. 1885 – 1886” published in 1913 in St Petersburg magazine “Covenants”, translated and published in Bulgaria[1]. (It is the Bulgarian version that I have been able to access). In the book he says that he set out one day and as he came to a particular junction he noticed that he was being followed. He had been warned to expect that possibility. So on that day he returned home.

He made another attempt a few days later and was successful. He says in his book that he later bumped into the man that had followed him who admitted that he had indeed been following and that the letter he received had been opened in Paris by the police who had informed the Russian secret police, the Okhrana. We now know that the Okhrana were working very closely with the French police who were still suspicious of socialist and left wing activity after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871.

It is only the first part of his journey that he makes any mention of, the rest of the journey from Switzerland to Bulgaria is not described.  It was most likely by railway at least as far as Rumania.

In his book Esper describe the Bulgaria he found, a very poor and backward state only 6 years since achieving independence. There were very few educated people, he says only about a hundred, and with many traces of the slavery, as he puts it, of their former condition.

He describes how the young country was trying to acquire the trappings of a fully-fledged state. This involved doing business with money lenders and traders. But this close involvement led to corruption. He describes rudeness, waste of public resources bribery and petty intrigue as people sought advantage. There was a small group of people who put public interest above their personal advancement, but they were so small in number as to have minimal effect.

In the army things were a little better, it had a fairly good organisation. But all the senior posts were, or had been, occupied by Russian officers. Though a small group of Bulgarian officers had just been formed, though none were above the rank of Captain.

He does not go into detail of the Roumeilian coup but he does say that it was undertaken in the expectation of support from Russia.  When the Bulgarians received a telegram from Russia declining support, they were very shocked, even the Russian ambassador was surprised as the decision went against the Russian policy of many years. At first they took the Russian position as diplomatic ploy, to deflect attention of European countries. When the orders came to the Russian officers to return to Russia they understood that the intention was serious, but they could not understand the policy.

The crisis accelerated the promotion of many in the army, captains were promoted to generals and ensigns promoted to captains. But in the lower Danube fleet of the navy there were no officers at all. This posed a serious question for the Bulgarian government how to command the fleet which was essential to supply troops and material to the front.

Esper’s friend Vladimir Lutsk, who had sent the invitation to Esper to come to Bulgaria was at the naval base at Ruse, on the Danube.

Esper briefly sets out Lutsk’s story. Lutsk had been in the Naval Academy at the same time as Esper, but by 1878 he had left and had been arrested and was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment. This imprisonment was due to his involvement in political affairs. After his release from prison he travelled to Paris and in 1882 he was encouraged by friends to travel to Bulgaria. He made that journey without much money and he seems to have walked through large parts of Austria and Serbia. Without resources he had to take manual labour to survive.

But he eventually got a good position. Esper describes one such job, Lutsk had been recommend to apply for a job as an engineer. He was warned that the boss, a recent graduate from the polytechnic was difficult and a bully. On their first meeting Lutsk entered the boss’s office. He did not look up from his desk. After five minutes he eventually looked at Lutsk and said “You are assigned to me as an engineer?”, “Yes” replied Lutsk. “You were previously a naval officer?”, “Yes”, “Why did you resign?” Lutsk though that he was being played as a drunk or fool, so he said, “In my office there was a little trouble”. “What?” Said the boss, “My boss had been rude to me and I broke his face”.

The boss’s attitude suddenly changed and he became very friendly. In the end the boss came to rely on Lutsk and would often consult with him on matters.

When Esper arrived in Ruse on the Danube all the Russian officers had already departed and the fleet was under the command of the chief of artillery a person he names as captain C and Lutsk’s boss who he names as N. Lutsk had assumed command of a paddle steamer “My Darling” and had been making voyages between Ruse and L’OM Palanka and Vidin.

Esper was advised that to avoid upsetting the Russians he should perform his duties under the name on his forged Swiss passport, Edward Nikoliavitch Blanc. A few days later Lieutenant Commander Blanc was appointed to command the Prince’s Yacht as head of the fleet.

Some sources indicate that Esper took charge of the navy after the war, but the translator of his book, Mariana Barchevo, unearthed a secret message sent to the Russian consul on the 27th October 1885, in Ruse to the effect that;

That the appointments to senior military posts of Russian revolutionaries and anarchists be considered an outrageous and unprecedented act of black ingratitude of the Bulgarians towards their liberator, Russia. In Ruse the appointment by Prince Alexander of Bulgaria of a Lieutenant of the Russian navy, who was an accomplice in the assassination of the sacred majesty of the Lord – Liberator of Bulgaria (the Tsar), the lieutenant traveling under British patronage using the name Blank.

However it happened Esper describes what he had to do. Work had to start immediately, Esper dates his first journey on the night of the 18th September 1885. There were almost no Bulgarian troops on the Bulgarian Serbian border. The only troops that were there were Turkish. They had to be taken away and replaced with Bulgarian troops. At that time there was only two railway lines in Bulgaria. One of which went from Varna on the Black Sea coast to Ruse on the Danube, where Esper had his base.

Figure 3, Bulgaria – Google Map

It was decided to move the troops to Ruse, some by land and some by sea to Varna then by rail to Ruse. Then Esper and his small fleet would ferry the whole army and artillery along the Danube to Vidin and Lom Palanka. Bulgaria had no private ships and they were unable to hire ships because of the embargo imposed by Russia and Austria, so the burden of transporting everything fell to Esper and the few ships under his command.

Esper and his small navy were kept busy for three months from September 1885 to the start of the war in November. His book contains a detailed list of the vessels and the cargo and troops that they were transporting.  He was working by day and night with hardly any sleep.  The ships had to travel by night to avoid Rumanian gunboats. They had been pressured by Austria to ensure that no military transport should use the Danube. Not only had the small fleet to move and supply the army, but the Bulgarian government had authorised grain traders to continue to export their grain for the foreign trade that would bring to aid the war effort. The traders were taking every advantage of this and food in the area was becoming scarce. The population of the small villages moved to the garrison towns for the shelter and food that they offered. So it was necessary to supply food for the civilian population as well.

They were working continuously during this period, no sooner had they arrived back at Ruse, than a cargo was ready to be loaded and then they were off again. They sailed by day and night, even though as Esper says there were no beacons set on the river which necessitated that a watch to be set all the time.

At this time Esper had under his command, the royal yacht, captained by himself, the steamer “My Dear” captained by Lutsk, and two other steamers that he does not name, one of which was captained by a Bulgarian Ensign Kisimov. The last ship was captained by another Russian Ensign, but he could not remember his name.

He describe the atmosphere in Ruse and in the ports that he visited, Svishtov, Nikopol, Lom Palanka and Vidin, as being full of joyful excitement and enthusiasm. If it were not for the soldiers with weapons and squads of soldiers training it would have been thought that Bulgaria was celebrating some happy event. The soldiers were going off to war as if it was a holiday, the returning injured were talking excitedly about the exploits and victories of the army. The children and elderly people from the villages worked willingly to move ammunition and stores both by day and night under some dreadful conditions. All united in a common national effort.

Esper notes the attitude of the Bulgarians toward prisoners brought back from the front. No anger was displayed to the Serbs, they were treated more as guests than prisoners. As the prisoners were moved the locals would offer them food and talk with them about the connection between two brotherly people saying that they were not at war with the people but against their leader Milan Oberenović IV.

[1] Experiences of a Russian in Bulgaria 1885-1886″ By Esper Serebriakoff, Translated by Mariana Barchevo of the Ruse Regional Museum of History. ISBN 978-954-337-006-1

Next section Part 7 1885 Bulgaria