The Revolt in the Trenches

One year after the Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in World War I, revolutionary soldiers in Bulgaria forced their government to do the same.

1st Sofia Infantry Regiment in the Serbian campaign, World War I, 1915. Bulgarian State Agency Archives / Wikimedia

World War I was the first modern, industrialized slaughter and the first “total war” in which combatants and civilians alike were regarded as legitimate targets. An imperialist war that exploded the contradictions between the global empires, it had a profound effect in reshaping European politics. It brought both deep traumas, but also new openings.

This was true even within the socialist movement. The outbreak of war in 1914 blew open the mounting tensions within European Social Democracy, as some went along with the nationalist fervor while others vehemently opposed it. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, urged socialists to seize the political opportunity and turn the imperialist conflict into a revolutionary civil war.

In Russia, this did indeed play out, with the February and October revolutions of 1917. Yet rather less well-known are the events in the tsardom of Bulgaria. A peripheral, overwhelmingly agrarian state, Bulgaria’s rulers had sought to use the war to fulfill their own territorial aspirations by joining in the larger conflict between the great powers. The result, however, was an explosion of social tensions.

Revolt on the Front

Having just suffered two exhausting Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, the prospect of a third conflict had been deeply unpopular among the Bulgarian population upon the outbreak of the war in 1914. The government, led by a coalition of three liberal parties, assured Bulgarians that plans for war mobilization merely sought to prepare for the unlikely event of an outside attack. Meanwhile, both the Allied and Central Powers enticed Bulgaria to fight on their side with promises of territorial gains in Macedonia, Romania and northern Greece. Bulgaria signed a treaty to join the Central Powers on August 24, 1915 and began mass mobilization, before declaring war against Serbia two months later. 600,000 men were drafted, but at the peak of the fighting almost 900,000 — one-fifth of the total population — were enlisted.

Riots and more tacit forms of insubordination accompanied the war from the outset. In fall 1918, antiwar agitation and sporadic mutinies in the trenches culminated in a full-blown uprising. The decisive moment came with the so-called “Battle of Dobro Pole” on September 14–15, when the Bulgarian army was crushed by English, French, and Serbian forces and forced to beat a chaotic retreat. Many soldiers — the vast majority of whom were peasants — returned to their villages. Nearly 15,000, however, embarked on a perilous journey to the capital city Sofia, energized by revolutionary calls to overthrow the monarchy and punish those responsible for Bulgaria’s catastrophic wartime adventures. “Our enemy is not across the trenches,” they murmured, “the real enemy is in Sofia. Go back!”

Their first stop was the town of Kyustendil, occupying army headquarters before continuing onward. By the time they reached their next destination, the town of Radomir, the panicked tsar freed the leaders of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, Aleksandar Stamboliyski and Rayko Daskalov, who were imprisoned for their opposition to the war. Stamboliyski and Daskalov commanded respect among the peasant soldiers and the tsar hoped they would calm down the troops. But they instead joined the uprising and became its leaders.

A Narrow Approach

At first the Bulgarian Workers’ Social Democratic Party’s so-called “Narrow Socialist” faction, a left-wing Marxist current that broke with the party in 1903 and later became the Communist Party of Bulgaria, refused to support or provide leadership to the uprising. Its official position was one of neutrality. Stamboliyski went to party leader and founder of Bulgarian socialism Dimitar Blagoev the day he was released from prison and urged him to “raise the urban army, the proletariat. We control the peasant army and together we can take down the regime.” Blagoev refused, citing the incompatibility of the Agrarian Union’s politics with his party’s own. The Narrow Socialists had traditionally derided the Agrarians as a party of “peasant socialism,” who mistrusted their own demand for collectivizing land. Stamboliyski promised Blagoev that the Agrarian Union would accept the entire Narrow Socialist program except for the nationalization of small-scale farms, yet Blagoev refused. He viewed the uprising as a spontaneous eruption of an “elemental peasant mass,” unworthy of support from a tightly organized and ideologically hardened proletarian party.

This was a rather puzzling decision. With its own army turned against it, there could hardly have been a more opportune time to take down the regime. Moreover, the Narrows’ newspaper Rabotnicheski Vestnik (“Workers’ Daily”) was the most widely read paper in the trenches. Army command did what it could to censor and limit its influence among the rank and file but failed. At its peak around the time of Russia’s October Revolution the paper’s circulation topped 25,000, more than half of which went to the front. The Narrows had thus helped to radicalize the soldiers but refused to assume political responsibility and join them.

Lenin was a keen observer of events in Bulgaria. He supported the uprising and celebrated “this little peasants’ republic” in a major speech to the Sixth All-Russia Congress of Soviets. He cited the uprising as one of the earliest examples of October’s internationalization, and now “most countries within the sphere of German-Austrian imperialism are aflame (Bulgaria, Austria, and Hungary). We know that from Bulgaria the revolution has spread to Serbia. We know how these worker-peasant revolutions passed through Austria and reached Germany. Several countries are enveloped in the flames of workers’ revolution. In this respect our efforts and sacrifices have been justified.” Unsurprisingly, Bulgarian army command agreed with Lenin’s characterization of the uprising as an instance of “Bolshevism.”

Daskalov proclaimed a Bulgarian republic in Radomir on September 27, 1918. The next day the republican army, enraged by government forces massacring a train full of maimed and wounded soldiers returning to Sofia, entered the village of Vladaya only a couple of kilometers from the capital. There, the insurgent army prevailed over government troops and entered Sofia. Unfortunately, despite vastly outnumbering government forces (which consisted of a few hundred Bulgarians and a German division that rushed to the embattled monarchy’s defense), the soldiers were defeated and pushed back all the way to Radomir, where they were crushed again and eventually dispersed. The military defeat occurred in a matter of days, but the government still needed over a month to “pacify” the country.

Blagoev would admit his mistake years later, a change in party line that is reflected in official histories of the uprising produced during the state-socialist system. Historians “adopted” the uprising but took a simplistic view, depicting it as a mere internationalization of the ideas of October. Though the Bolshevik uprising in Russia certainly did inspire many Bulgarian revolutionaries, a look at the writings and recollections of the participants themselves reveals an uprising rooted in soldiers’ deprivation and exploitation on the front, occurring independently of any “Bolshevist” agitation.

Class War in the Trenches

This uprising had, in fact, also owed to internal, Bulgarian causes, if ones linked to the war. As the conflict intensified, so too did the already explosive situation and unbearable conditions facing regular people both on the front lines and at home. In early August 1918 Prime Minister Aleksandar Malinov informed the tsar that the Bulgarian army only had 50–60,000 uniforms and 20,000 pairs of shoes to supply its 877,392 soldiers. A cable from the commander-in-chief mentions cases of soldiers leaving the front line having to lend their boots to incoming troops. Many soldiers fought in the trenches barefoot.

Food supplies were no better. Though the state’s requisition committees bled the countryside dry, army food rations were regularly slashed as most foodstuffs were either exported to Germany or circulated on the black market. One soldier recalls how their standard-issue white bread gradually switched over to bread made of corncobs. Hunger strikes broke out in protest, while one division took a different approach: they slaughtered the milk cows and shared the meat equally.

In addition to public agitation during meetings, the soldiers documented their degradation and propagated the revolutionary mood with letters, leaflets, and even a handwritten newspaper called Pravda, suggesting the existence of something like a “public sphere” of the trenches through which revolutionary propaganda percolated. These documents are available to us today because the army command actively censored them, confiscating and archiving the most “incendiary” ones.

We normally associate the word “strike” with workplace situations, but this is the exactly how the soldiers understood their place in the war. Soldier-produced agitational materials from the time often include calls to “strike” and “refuse to work.” One army company did so by lying down and smoking idly while their superiors walked by, expecting a greeting that never materialized. A cable reporting the incident states that the same soldiers took a provocative picture of themselves holding copies of the Workers’ Daily. There were also less peaceful kinds of insubordination: shooting officers during riots was also common.

The soldiers rebelled not only against the quality and quantity of their rations, but also for more pay and vacation. As the war ground on, vacation and recuperation time was cut short to make up for the loss of life, desertions, and the army’s collapsing ability to fight. War literally became interlinked with struggles over working time. A note from the time illustrates the soldiers’ grievances: “Look at the salaries the officers and sergeants receive. The division boss earns 200 lev, the sergeants — 400 lev, only to watch us sit here.” Meanwhile, soldiers eked out a meager 16 lev a month, which forced many to ask their families to take out loans and send them the cash.

And aren’t we who are stuck in the trenches working? But we toil with the lowest quality food, shoes and clothes. Those who are satiated with first quality food and wages will never know the burden. The war is only for us, the simple soldier-workers.

Another leaflet asks: “Comrades, is it fair that a lousy division officer earns 700 lev, sits warm and hasn’t smelled the trenches, while three servants cater to him?” Another unceremoniously states “let he who gets a good salary defend the state. The people are always slaves.” Yet another leaflet concludes its revolutionary appeal with a symbolic identification with colonized subjects: “Long live the black slaves like us. Hurrah! Turn back!”

The soldiers shifted the direction of the battle (replying to the generals’ “forward” with “go back!”) but also redrew the lines of conflict. The real enemy was not across the trenches but behind them: their own superiors, and the monarchical bourgeois regime in Sofia. In addition to placing the conflict in unapologetic class frames, one soldier’s writing exposed and repudiated the nationalist Greater Bulgaria agenda:

They selected us only from the ranks of the simpletons’ class, as they see us slumber and think we will never wake up. Everyone needs to know that we do not liberate anyone but enslave and cause pogroms wherever we pass. Why must some live off our blood and get rich, while we die? What are we doing [in the occupied territories]?

An anonymous soldier’s leaflet from May 1918 urged soldiers to rise up in the following way:

Our children and women are worked to death and we stay here like idiots and will stay probably for three more years waiting for the war to end in vain. If we slumber on, we will keep fighting on the side of Germany, naked, barefoot and hungry, while the Germans will sell our own food to us dearly.

Nothing angered the soldiers more than news from their families who complained of brutal requisitioning, sexual abuse, and hunger. Women’s bread and anti-requisition riots, which became a daily occurrence throughout the country towards the end of the war, inspired the soldiers to engage in direct action. The rebellions on the front and at home constantly cross-pollinated. For example, a soldier recalls the requisition as the cause of a division riot: “our village mayor … ” at which point the officer interrupts him and asserts: “listen, the war is such a thing … some will get poor and others – rich!” “Yes, sir,” replies the soldier, “we’ve been saying this all along.” The irony here, of course, is that the officer defended this arrangement, while the soldier decried it.

Indeed, the notion that Bulgarian capital was profiting from the war was by no means just the subjective perception of one soldier. Between the founding of the Bulgarian state in 1878 and the outbreak of World War I, 190 joint-stock companies were active in the country. 151 more were registered during the war, and their total capital expanded seven-fold. Meanwhile 182,000 people died of famine and disease in 1918 alone — more than Bulgaria’s entire World War I death toll (115,000).

Broken Army

Rekindling “the spark of hope in the past” should in no way be conflated with condoning the atrocities committed in the name of national unification. Rather, it shows that class antagonisms can rend apart even one of the primary tools and sources of nationalism, the army itself.

The mounting insubordination and open rebellions which upended Bulgaria’s war machine show that the army was not just a tool wielded by the ruling classes to suppress and divert class struggle. Rather, it was itself a site of this same struggle. Thus, while October 1917 in Russia had undeniable influence (the chief conduit of which was the Workers’ Daily), the uprising can be better understood as rooted in the tangible degradation of soldiers’ lives wrought by the war. The Russian Revolution gave the soldiers’ justified anger, coherent ideological frameworks, and even political direction, yet was not itself the cause of the revolt.

The uprising did not manage to get rid of the monarchy. But did achieve its most immediate goal: ending Bulgaria’s participation in the war. Contemporary historical revisionism celebrates only elite peacemaking, but in reality it was the uprising of the soldier masses that forced the government to sign an armistice and seek a separate peace. Letters exchanged between government officials and generals during the battle of Dobro Pole, seeking to escalate repression against the uncontrollable waves of desertion, attest to the fact that the ruling class had little intention of ending the war.

Bulgaria’s sudden exit from the war also had a wider importance: shocking and disorienting Central Powers, it helped precipitate their inevitable defeat. Bulgaria would not have its own October Revolution. But much like the events in Russia, the uprising had hastened the end of the slaughter that so devastated Europe.

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Jana Tsoneva is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the Central European University in Budapest. She works in the fields of political and economic sociology and is a member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia.

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