Part 7 1885 – Bulgaria

The work for the small command was hard and tiring but they were far from the main theatre of military action so did not see any fighting. Though there were occasions when things could have been different.

On one occasion Esper had just finished loading a battalion of soldiers on to the yacht and three towed barges when he was urgently called to a meeting. There he found the head of the arsenal and a few senior officers discussing a telegram they had just received from the capital, Sofia. It seems that Austria had become increasingly angered by the activities of Esper’s little fleet in transporting war material and men to the front. Austria was putting pressure on Romania to enforce neutrality on the Danube and stop any military transport.

The Romanian government which had been sympathetic to the actions of the Bulgarian government had taken no action previously and the Bulgarians took advantage of the opportunity. But the Austrians had become increasingly angry by the failure of Romania to take action and threatened to send their fleet to enforce the blockade. The Romanian government advised the Bulgarians that they were sending four gunboats in compliance with the Austrians wishes, to arrest any vessels using the Danube in breach of the neutrality rules.

When Esper arrived there was a vigorous discussion about what to do. On the one side the troops at the front had to be supplied, on the other it was important not to offend against Romania, one of the few friendly countries to Bulgaria. The Romanians had 4 gunboats on patrol in the river, Esper was not overly concerned by the gunboats. The yacht was fast and the initiative in any conflict would be with him and as he was carrying troops he could board and seize the gunboats. However that action would cause problems for Bulgaria in their relations with Romania. Alternatively he could use the speed of the yacht and leave the barges by the Bulgarian coast, then outrun the gunboats, taking the troops that remained on the yacht to their destination. Esper told the group that as a foreigner it was not for him to decide which course of action to take, they must decide and he would do as directed.

After a long debate they resolved that the troops must be delivered because the successful outcome of the war depended on it, and they depended on the honour and bravery of Esper and his men to carry out that instruction. But of course they could not approve of any action that would bring Bulgarian forces into conflict with Romanian forces. Esper considered that this response resembled the response of the Delphic oracle, they wanted the troops to get through, but if it came to a conflict with the Romanians then they would deny Esper and say that he was acting without orders.

Esper well understood the situation, if things went wrong the Bulgarians would blame it on a foreign officer disobeying orders. He was very apprehensive as he departed. As they sailed through the night he stood on deck looking into the misty distance for any signs of the Romanian gunboats. In his mind he developed a plan, first seeking diplomatic negotiations, then if necessary threatening to board the gunboats then if it became absolutely necessary, executing that threat. He realised that whatever he did he would be a loser either captured or disavowed, he was not expecting a happy outcome.

Just as dawn was breaking his little convoy rounded a sharp bend in the river he suddenly saw the 4 gunboats standing at anchor. He examined them closely through his binoculars, and could see no one on deck. He continued to sail past the boats and all remained quiet with no movements at all on the Romanian boats.

It seems that the Romanians had obeyed the Austrians to the extent of putting their boats on the Danube with full authority to intercept and seize any military cargo. However it might be expected that officers and men of those boats might become tired and go to sleep, and if that coincided with the time that a Bulgarian transport passed, why that was very unfortunate! It seems that Romania wanted to maintain good relations with their neighbour Bulgaria. Without that accommodation from Romania it is most likely that the Bulgarian fortress of Vidin would not have received reinforcements and would have been defenceless.

On another occasion the fortress of Vidin had been cut off and surrounded by Serbian forces under the command of General Leshanin. Vidin was running out of artillery shells and needed resupply. But with the Serbian forces having positioned an artillery battery on the banks of the Danube to cut off resupply by that route, resupply would be difficult.

Esper did not want to risk the yacht on such a task, so it fell to his friend Lutsk in command to the steamer “My Dear”. The steamer was loaded with boxes of shells to the extent that the whole deck was several layers deep in boxes. To speed up the delivery Esper in the yacht towed the steamer for half the journey, the waved off his good friend, supposing that he might not see him again. It did seem to be a foolhardy mission, if only one shell from the shore batteries struck the steamer it would set off their cargo of shells. But they trusted to the good luck and audacity of Lutsk to be able to carry out the task.

Two days after Esper had returned to Ruse, the steamer “My Dear” returned as if nothing had happened, whole and untouched. As Esper welcomed back his friend he showered him with questions, what happened? How did you manage it? How did you survive? Did you slip past the batteries at night while they were sleeping?

Lutsk explained that no, he though going past at night would be more dangerous. A vessel passing at night would be suspicious, and if it did not stop when commanded would immediately be fired on. Instead he went past in full daylight and calmly watched as the battery and the soldiers took aim at his ship. He was confident that they would not shoot as he had disguised the ship. Just after he had parted from Esper, he anchored the ship then set about repainting it, painting a new name “Nana” and covering the boxes of shells, making the boat look like a Greek merchant vessel.

He then set off, sending most of the crew below decks, leaving just himself, the helmsman and two others in civilian clothes on deck, and then calmly sailed past the batteries. It seems that the Serbian General Leshanin well knew the situation regarding ammunition at Vidin and had been informed of the attempt to resupply by means of the steamer “My Dear”, but they expected the attempt to be at night. Lutsk was able to observe Lashanin observing the steamer and exchanging views with aids about the “Greek” steamer sailing past.

The decisive battle of the short war was at Slivnista which took place between the 17 and 19 of November 1885. This battle is referred to as the “battle between the captains vs the generals” referring to the removal of commanding officers by Russia from the Bulgarian armed forces. In addition Bulgaria’s young army was only able to field some 32,000 men compared to 40,000 men in the Serbian forces. But the battle was a victory for Bulgaria.

After the battle, Bulgaria’s forces advanced into Serbia pushing their forces further and further back. Then Austria intervened, giving an ultimatum that if a ceasefire did not come into place then Austria would join the fight. The Bulgarians were surprised that Russia remained silent. There was nothing for the Bulgarians to do but accept a ceasefire. However that did not stop the Serbs from continuing their siege on Vidin, hoping to capture it and use it as a bargaining point. The cease fire was finally signed on the 28th November 1885.

Esper writes that the silence from Russia on Austria’s ultimatum was a great shock to the Bulgarian people, possibly greater that the shock when Russia withdrew its officers. It seriously undermined the respect for Russia held by the people.

As the peace was concluded everything started to return to normal. The troops returned home to celebrations and parties. At one formal reception to which Esper and Lutsk were invited. The Russian consul was present and approached them. He was a young man, about 27 years old, he politely greeted them both and they exchanged remarks about the war. The consul said that he knew the services that the two of them had provided to the Bulgarian war effort and that such work celebrates the good name of Russian. When he said that he specifically addressed Lutsk, as it was known the Esper was officially a Swiss citizen. Esper and Lutsk thanked him though Esper knew that in fact the consul was reporting back to Russia the actions of both of them and not in an attractive light. Espers cousin was also in the consul and was informing Esper’s brother, Anatol who was writing to Esper.

This was the second time that Esper had talked to the Russian consul. On the first occasion Esper was on the yacht when a sailor told him of the arrival of the Russian consul. Esper went onto the upper deck to greet him. He took the Russian back to his cabin and after a moment the Russian asked him to read some lines marked in a paper called “Moscow Sheets”. The text said something to the effect that the criminals Serebriakoff and Lutsk, Serebriakoff using the name Blank, had taken service as the Bulgarian fleet commander and Lutsk as commander of the steamer “My Dear” and that this action by the Bulgarian government shows contempt for the Russian government.

When Esper had finished the consul asked him his thoughts and did he think it true or not. Esper replied, “Why are you so interested?” The consul made a long speech saying how he always wrote the most favourable reports to Russia about his activities, and that Esper’s behaviour in Bulgaria had always been exemplary and extremely useful. But he as representative of the Russian government must be aware of this matter if Russian citizens were working for the Bulgarians. Esper was well aware that the consul knew perfectly well who Esper really was, but he lacked the facts to prove it. Thus he could not approach the Bulgarian government to seek his arrest. Esper would have liked to tell him when to go, but he realised that the man could make serious trouble for him.  He gave an evasive answer, avoiding going into details of his origin and saying that the Bulgarian government had taken him into office as a Swiss national, Edward Nikolayevich Blanc.

When the war finished, Esper first thought that he would leave Bulgaria, but he was asked to stay on and build up the fleet and establish a base for the navy. The war had impressed on the government the importance of the navy and they wanted to establish a stronger flotilla and more bases on the Danube and build ships for the Black Sea where they had two ports Varna and Burgas.

Next section Part 8 1885 – 1886