What was the Serbo-Bulgarian War (1885)?


The Serbo-Bulgarian War or Serbian–Bulgarian War (Bulgarian: Сръбско-българска война, Srăbsko-bulgarska voyna, Serbian: Српско-бугарски рат, Srpsko-bugarski rat) was a war between the Kingdom of Serbia and Principality of Bulgaria that erupted on 14 November 1885 and lasted until 28 November 1885.

Despite Bulgaria being a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks did not intervene in the war. Serbia took the initiative in starting the war but was decisively defeated. Austria demanded Bulgaria stop its invasion, and a truce resulted.

Final peace was signed on 03 March 1886 in Bucharest. The old boundaries were not changed. As a result of the war, European powers acknowledged the act of Unification of Bulgaria which happened on 18 September 1885.


On 18 September 1885, Bulgaria and the semi-autonomous Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia declared their unification in the city of Plovdiv. Eastern Rumelia, whose population was predominantly ethnic Bulgarian, had been an artificial creation of the Berlin Congress seven years earlier. The unification took place against the will of the Great Powers, including Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been expanding its influence in the Balkans and was particularly opposed. Bulgaria’s western neighbor Serbia also feared this would diminish its position in the Balkans. In addition, Serbia’s ruler Milan I (1868-1889) was annoyed that Serbian pro-Russian opposition leaders like Nikola Pašić, who had stirred up the Timok Rebellion, had found asylum in Bulgaria after the suppression of the rebellion by the Serbian Army.

After the declaration of unification massive protests broke out in Greece, in fear of the creation of a greater Bulgarian state in the Balkans, calling upon the Greek government to declare war on Bulgaria. Serbia proposed to Greece a joint military action against Bulgaria but Greece rejected the proposal.

Lured by Austria-Hungary’s promises of support and territorial gains from Bulgaria (in return for concessions in the Western Balkans), Milan I declared war on Bulgaria on 14 November 1885. The military strategy relied largely on surprise, as Bulgaria expected an attack from the Ottoman Empire and had moved its troops to the area near the Turkish border, to the southeast.

The pretext was a minor border dispute, known as the Bregovo Dispute. The river Timok, which formed part of the border between the two countries, had slightly changed its course over the years. As a result, a Serbian border guardhouse near the village of Bregovo had found itself on the Bulgarian bank of the river. After some denied requests from Bulgaria to evacuate the guardhouse, Bulgaria expelled the Serbian troops by force.

As it happened, the Ottomans did not intervene and the Serbian army’s advance was stopped after the Battle of Slivnitsa. The main body of the Bulgarian army travelled from the Ottoman border in the southeast to the Serbian border in the northwest to defend the capital Sofia. After the defensive battles at Slivnitsa and Vidin (the latter’s defence was organised by Atanas Uzunov), Bulgaria began an offensive which took the city of Pirot. At this point, the Austro-Hungarian Empire stepped in, threatening to join the war on Serbia’s side if the Bulgarian troops did not pull back. No territorial changes were made to either country, but the Bulgarian unification was recognized by the Great Powers. However, the relationship of trust and friendship between Serbia and Bulgaria, built during their long common fight against Ottoman rule, suffered irreparable damage.

The Serbian Army

The Serbian army’s infantry weaponry stood up to the most modern standards of the time (Mauser-Milovanović single fire rifles with excellent ballistic characteristics). However, the artillery was ill-equipped, still using muzzle-loading cannons of the La Hitte system. Breech-loading cannons of the De Bange system had been ordered and paid for, but did not arrive in Serbia until 1886. The total number of Serbian armed forces expected to take part in the military operation was about 60,000. King Milan I divided his force into two armies, the Nishava and Timok armies. The first undertook the main objective, i.e. to overcome the Bulgarian defences along the west border, to conquer Sofia and advance towards the Ihtiman heights. It was there that the army was supposed to encounter and crush the Bulgarian forces coming from the southeast. Serbia’s main advantages on paper were the better small arms and the highly educated commanders and soldiers, who had gained a great deal of experience from the last two wars against the Ottoman Empire.

However, internal Serbian problems supplemented by king Milan’s conduct of the war, nullified most of these advantages:

In order to claim all the glory for the victory he considered imminent, King Milan did not call the most famous commanders of the previous wars (Gen. Jovan Belimarković, Gen. Đura Horvatović and Gen. Milojko Lešjanin) to command the army. Instead, he took the position of army commander himself and gave most of the divisional commands to officers chosen primarily for their loyalty and not war records like Petar Topalović of the Morava division who had previously commanded the troops suppressing the militarily poorly organised Timok Rebellion.

Furthermore, underestimating the Bulgarian military strength and fearing mutinies for conducting such an unpopular war (and having indeed experienced the Timok Rebellion two years before), he ordered the mobilisation of only the first class of infantry (recruits younger than 30 years), which meant mobilising only about half of the available Serbian manpower. In doing so, he deprived the Serbian army of its veterans of the previous wars against the Ottoman Empire.

The modern rifles, despite being among the best in Europe at the time, still had issues of their own: they were introduced only two years before the outbreak of the war, and as such many of the soldiers were not well-trained in their use. More importantly, the theoretical capabilities of the rifle often misled the Serbian officers, who still lacked experience with it, into ordering volleys from distances of half a mile or more, wasting precious ammunition for negligible results. Furthermore, the quantity of ammunition purchased was based on the consumption of bullets by the previous, much older and slower-firing rifles. The situation was made worse still by the contemporary Serbian tactics, which emphasized firepower and downplayed hand-to-hand fighting, which contributed to heavy casualties in the fight for Neškov Vis in defence of Pirot.

Condition of the Bulgarian Army

Bulgaria was forced to meet the Serbian threat with two serious disadvantages. First, when the Unification had been declared, Russia had withdrawn its military officers, who had until that moment commanded all larger units of Bulgaria’s young army. The remaining Bulgarian officers had lower ranks and no experience in commanding units larger than platoons (causing the conflict to be dubbed “The War of the Captains”). Second, since the Bulgarian government had expected an attack from the Ottoman Empire, the main forces of the Bulgarian Army were situated along the southeastern border. In the conditions of 1885 Bulgaria, their redeployment across the country would take at least 5 to 6 days.

Bulgarian Advantages

The main Bulgarian advantage was their strong patriotic spirit and high morale, as well as the feeling among the men that they were fighting for a just cause. The same could not be said about the Serbs. Their king had misled them in his manifesto to the army, telling the Serbian soldiers that they were being sent to help the Bulgarians in their war against Turkey, and the Serbian soldiers were initially surprised to find that they were fighting Bulgarians instead. Presumably, lying to his army was King Milan’s only means to mobilise and command his troops without experiencing disobedience and unrest.

Furthermore, while Bulgarian small arms were inferior to the Serbian, its artillery was greatly superior, featuring modern steel, Krupp-designed breech-loading cannons.

Bulgarian Strategic Plan

There were two views on the Bulgarian strategy: the first, supported by Knyaz Alexander I, saw the general battle on the Ihtiman heights. The drawback of this plan was that in that case, the capital Sofia had to be surrendered without battle. This could very well cause Serbia to stop the war and call in the arbitrage of the Great Powers. For this reason, the strategic plan that was finally selected by the Bulgarian command expected the main clash to be in the area of Slivnitsa. Captain Olimpi Panov had an important role in this final decision.

Military Activities

Refer to the Battle of Slivnitsa (1885).

16 to 19 November

Knyaz Alexander I arrived on the evening of 16 November to find a well prepared defensive position manned by 9 battalions, plus some 2000 volunteers and 32 guns, commanded by Major Guchev. The position consisted of nearly 4 km of trenches and artillery redoubts on either side of the main road on a ridge in front of Slivnitsa city. To the right was steep mountainous terrain whilst the left wing had the easier Visker Hills towards Breznik.

The three Serbian centre divisions also arrived on 16 November and halted to recover after the fierce Bulgarian delaying action in the Dragoman Pass. The Morava division was at some distance from its objective Breznik which lay to the south. The northern advance was bogged down along the Danube.

The morning of 17 November came with rain and mist but not the expected Serbian attack. By 10 in the morning, Alexander ordered three battalions to advance on the right. They surprised the Danube division, who eventually rallied and pushed them back. The main Serbian attack began on the centre largely unsupported by artillery which had insufficient range. The weight of Bulgarian fire forced them back with some 1,200 casualties. A relief column led by Captain Benderev recaptured the heights on the right and forced the Danube division back to the road.

At daybreak on 18 November the Serbians attacked the weaker left flank of the Bulgarian line. Just in time two battalions of the Preslav Regiment arrived to shore up the position. Further attacks in the centre were repulsed with heavy Serbian casualties and Benderev captured two further positions in the mountains.

On 19 November the Serbians concentrated two divisions for an attack on the Bulgarian left near Karnul (today Delyan, Sofia Province) in an attempt to join up with the Morava division. However, three battalions of Bulgarian troops led by Captain Popov from Sofia had held the Morava division in the Visker Hills and the flanking move failed. Alexander now ordered a counterattack which pushed the Serbians back on both flanks although nightfall prevented a complete collapse.

19 to 28 November

Slivnitsa was the decisive battle of the war. The Serbians fought only limited rearguard actions as they retreated and by 24 November they were back in Serbia. The Timok Division in the north continued the siege of Vidin until 29 November.

The main Bulgarian army crossed the border in two strong divisions (Guchev and Nikolaev), supported by flanking columns, and converged on Pirot. The Serbian army dug in on the heights west of the town. On 27 November the Bulgarian Army flanked the right of the Serbian position with Knyaz Alexander personally leading the final attack. The Serbians abandoned Pirot, retreated towards Niš and called a general mobilization of their military reservists, but they did not arrive at the front before the cease-fire.

Aftermath and Legacy

The Serbian defeat made Austria-Hungary take action. On 28 November, the Viennese ambassador in Belgrade, Count Khevenhüller-Metsch, visited the headquarters of the Bulgarian Army and demanded the cessation of military actions, threatening that otherwise the Bulgarian forces would face Austro-Hungarian troops. The ceasefire was signed on 28 November, but that did not stop the Serbians from continuing unsuccessful attempts to conquer Vidin with the idea to use it in negotiations later, even after military activities had stopped on demand of their ally. On 03 March 1886 the peace treaty was signed in Bucharest. According to its terms, no changes were to be made along the Bulgarian-Serbian border.

The war was an important step in the strengthening of Bulgaria’s international position. To a large extent, the victory preserved the Bulgarian unification. The defeat left a lasting scar on the Serbian military, previously considered by the Serbian people to be undefeated. Ambitious reforms of the army were carried out (which later, in part, contributed to the end of the Obrenović dynasty).

In Popular Culture

The Serbo-Bulgarian War forms the setting for George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and the Man.


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