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Macedonia and the First Balkan War (Part 3)

April 17, 2004


The antipenultimate installment of historian Carl Savich’s special series on Macedonian and the First Balkan War treats the famous Macedonian revolutionary group, the IMRO, and the “Macedonian Legion” that fought within the Bulgarian army.

The IMRO and the First Balkan War

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) was established in Salonika on October 23, 1893 by Ivan Nikolov, Anton Dimitrov, Hristo Tatarchev, Petar Arsov, Hristo Batandziev, and Damian Gruev with the motto “Macedonia for the Macedonians”.

Initially, IMRO was known as the Secret Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (TMORO). Their goal was autonomy for Macedonia. They sought to force the Ottoman regime to implement Article 23 of the Treaty of Berlin which mandated a series of administrative and electoral reforms as well as self-government in Macedonia. Their fear was that Macedonia would join Bulgaria as Eastern Rumelia had done in 1885. The Serbs opposed autonomy in the March 1912 Serbian-Bulgarian alliance treaty, but left the final resolution of the issue open-ended and contingent.

In 1903, the IMRO launched the Ilinden Uprising, a failed attempt to achieve autonomy for Macedonia. The Muerzsteg Programme reforms resulted, imposed by Russia and Austria-Hungary. The IMRO had been conducting guerrilla warfare in Macedonia since its founding in 1893, with the goal being to force anti-Turkish intervention by the Great Powers. Armed groups known as chetas were created which consisted of fifteen to fifty men. These groups were known as chetniks, komitas, and komitadjis (men of the committee), who were commanded by a voivoda. Schools were established to train guerrillas by Georgi Ivanov, under the pseudonym Marko Lerinski, a veteran of the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. Goce Delchev, a member of the central committee of IMRO, was the military inspector. In 1894, the rival Bulgarian Supreme Committee was established by Macedonian expatriates in Sofia which sought to incorporate Macedonia in Bulgaria.

Widespread guerrilla activity in Macedonia continued into the twentieth century. One result was the “Miss Stone Affair”, a kidnapping of a US citizen that created an international crisis. On September 3, 1901, Ellen M. Stone, an American evangelical missionary from Chelsea, Massachusetts, was abducted by Macedonian guerrillas, along with her chaperone, Katarina Stefanova Tsilka, who was pregnant at the time.

Tsilka gave birth while held by the guerrillas. They were kidnapped by 20 fighters affiliated with the IMRO led by Jane Sandanski and Hristo Chernopeev. The guerrillas requested a ransom of 25,000 Turkish lira, or $110,000. However, the hostages were released in March 1902 after a smaller ransom was paid. They had been abducted to gain wider attention for the Macedonian cause, to gain funds to purchase weapons, and to put pressure on the Turkish regime to grant Macedonia autonomy. Former captive Tsilka later raised funds for the Macedonian guerrillas in the US.

Turkish reprisals for guerrilla attacks in Macedonia helped galvanize public support for the First Balkan War. On December 11, 1911, a bomb exploded in a mosque in Shtip in the Sandzak/Sanjak of Uskub/Skopje, wounding several Muslims. The Turks retaliated by attacking Macedonians, killing 25 and wounding 169.

On August 1, 1912, bombs were set off in the bazaar of Kotchana, where two Macedonians and two Turks were killed. A “general massacre” followed in which 150 were reported killed and 250 were wounded. Subsequently, 80 Macedonians “in the interval” were killed at Krushevo in the Sandzak/Sanjak of Monastir/Bitola. Macedonians fled as refugees to Bulgaria where they would have political clout and impact.

Ernst Helmreich in The Diplomacy of the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 argued that the IMRO “…contributed substantially to the sequence of events which brought about the Balkan War.” And, according to him, the IMRO “…was instrumental in bringing about the Balkan League.”

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan E. Gueshov, using the example of the Italian Risorgimento, sought to resolve the crisis through state action, by Bulgarian intervention: “Deeply convinced that the Macedonian question ought to be taken out of the hands of the Macedonian Revolutionary Committee as Cavour took the question of Italian unity out of the hands of the Italian revolutionists, I hastened to open negotiations.”

It was the policy of the IMRO to force the Bulgarian government to make an agreement with Serbia, according to K. Stanishev. Serbia, however, was against autonomy for Macedonia. In the 1912 agreement, Belgrade and Sofia secretly divided the territory of Macedonia without consulting the Macedonians.

Dimitar Rizov was willing to shoulder “the entire responsibility before the Macedonian public opinion for the territorial concessions… made to Serbia.” But he insisted on a clause covering autonomy as he told Milovan Milovanovic, the Serbian foreign minister on October, 1912: “I need hardly tell you that no Bulgarian government will venture, even if it felt so disposed, to conclude with Serbia an understanding which does not provide for Macedonian autonomy.” Serbs and Greeks did not favor autonomy but Gueshov got clauses inserted which vaguely covered the principle of autonomy because the Macedonians demanded it.

The IMRO secondly brought about the First Balkan War by arousing public opinion and bringing pressure on the Bulgarian government to sponsor an “active solution” of the Macedonian problem. Terroristic activity in Macedonia provoked a Turkish response but also brought attention to the plight of Macedonians. Protest meetings were organized after such events.

The Kotchana bombing in 1912 and the subsequent reprisals by Turkish forces resulted in meetings in Bulgaria, calling upon the country to declare war against Turkey. “The Revolutionary Organization was the backbone of the war party in Bulgaria and did everything in its power to force the opening of hostilities.” There were “many recent Macedonian immigrants” in Bulgaria. Only after the signing of the decree of mobilization on October 30, 1912 did a meeting between the Bulgarian government and the IMRO take place. Macedonians volunteered to fight in the First Balkan War as part of the Bulgarian armed forces, but were organized within the Macedonian Legion.

The Macedonian Legion

For the Macedonian population, the First Balkan War was fought to obtain autonomy for Macedonia, even though both Serbia and Bulgaria sought to advance their own national agendas in Macedonia at the expense of the Macedonian population. The Macedonian people too understood that before they could resolve the issue of autonomy, the Ottoman Turkish forces would have to be defeated militarily. Pursuant to this goal, the Macedonians volunteered to fight on the side of the Balkan League states against Turkey. Macedonians formed two divisions in the Macedonia-Thracian Volunteer Corps, known as the Macedonian Legion.

The IMRO had requested money and supplies, and also offered volunteers to the Bulgarian government. Colonels Protoguerov and Durvingov, Bulgarian officers born in Macedonia, were given funds and arms to organize small groups. New bands were formed, joining the 35 bands already operating in Macedonia, hindering Turkish troop concentrations and mobilization and spying for the Bulgarian forces: “In fact, a whole volunteer corps, a veritable legion, was formed.”

There were 30,000 Macedonians incorporated directly into the Bulgarian army. The Macedonian Legion, or also known as the Macedonian-Thracian Volunteer Corps, was formed, made up of 14,670 men divided in 12 battalions. It operated in the Rhodope Mountains and the western Thrace region, and was to maintain contact with the Serbian forces in Macedonia. The Macedonian Legion was to operate with the 7th Rila Infantry Division and the Second Thracian Infantry Division.

Three Bulgarian armies invaded Thrace on October 18, 1912. The engagements between Turkey and Bulgaria during the First Balkan War involved the most men and resources/materiel and were the most intense. The Bulgarian Second Army surrounded Adrianople which had a Turkish garrison of 45,000 troops. The First and Third Armies captured Kirk Kilissa on October 24. The Battle of Lule Burgas was the largest military engagement of the First Balkan War. For four days the Bulgarian forces launched an attack to outflank the left wing of the Turkish forces. On October 31, Abdullah Pasha, the commander of the Eastern Army, ordered a retreat to the Chatalja lines, the outer defenses of Constantinople.

Serbian guerrilla and paramilitary groups were also active in anti-Turkish activities in Macedonia.

Macedonian revolutionaries such as Misel Gerdzhikov and Georgy Petrov were active participants in the First Balkan War. Correspondent Leon Trotsky wrote for the Kiev newspaper, Kievskaya Mysl, No. 293 for October 22, 1912, noting the participation of Macedonian revolutionaries in the First Balkan War: “The war has absorbed the Macedonian revolutionary into itself. It has dispatched the ‘anarchist’ Gerdzhikov to cut telegraph lines, and entrusted the old plotter Georgy Petrov with running the supply services of the Macedonian Legion.” Trotsky interviewed Khristo Matov who stated that “the massacres at Stip and Kocani, which were, indeed, what gave the final push to starting the present war.”

The Serbs and Greeks did not have a counterpart to the Macedonian Legion. The Serbian Narodna Odbrana (Serbian National Defense) did, however, have branches in Macedonia.

The Macedonian Legion fought at Malko Trnovo and at Kirjali. It was accused of committing atrocities during the war. There were Armenian troops in the Macedonian Legion who sought revenge for Turkish and Kurdish Muslim massacres against Christian Armenians.

Leon Trotsky described the Macedonian Legion at the outbreak of the First Balkan War: “At the start of the war the weather was splendid and hopes were high, the streets were still filled with marching units of reservists, Macedonians, and volunteers, with martial music, singing and thunderous shouts of ‘Hurrah!’…The last vestiges of the army reserve went off to the front, together with the Macedonian Legion and its Armenian unit; there passed through on their way to Adrianople the divisions sent by Serbia—volunteers without floral decorations, wearing caps with red tops… In the streets we saw fewer and fewer correspondents and more and more wounded men discharged from the hospitals.”

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Report contained eyewitness accounts and interviews from the conflict. Lieutenant R. Wadham Fisher was an English volunteer with the Fifth Battalion of the Macedonian Legion. He explained the circumstances of an alleged massacre which occurred at Dede-Agatch:

“…a sharp fight took place outside the town between the legion and the army of Javer Pacha, wherever the Turkish villages showed the white flag, our troops were forbidden to march through them. Our men had been much inflamed by reports of outrages committed by Turks on Bulgarians near Gumurjina. We entered Dede-Agatch under fire towards 9 p.m. after marching and fighting all day. Javer Pacha insisted on withdrawing into the town and we were obliged to pursue him. Bullets were still whistling through the streets, but the local Greeks came out to show us where the Turkish soldiers were posted. The Greeks feared a massacre and regarded our coming as their salvation.

I saw something of the search for arms; no one was harmed. At 11 p.m. we received an order to withdraw from the town, and to march to a village twenty-five kilometers away. Some 150 men were left in the town, either because the order did not reach them or because they were too exhausted to obey it. No officer was among them, and they were organized by a private soldier, Stefan Boichev, a contractor of Widin. The Greek bishop afterwards stated that Stefan Boichev had done good service in reestablishing order. On November 19 the lower class Greeks and the soldiers began to pillage the town together. A certain number of the local Turks were undoubtedly killed. These excesses must be explained by the absence of any officers.”

The Bulgarian mayor of Deda-Agatch, Boris Monchev, confirmed Fisher’s account. Monchev believed not more than 20 Turks were killed and he insisted that the local Armenian porters (hamels) played the chief role in the disturbances. There were 8,000 Turkish refugees in the town, of whom all the men were armed and had taken part in the fight outside the town from 7-9 p.m. The mayor and the Greek bishop sought to maintain order in the town by setting up a commission. Monchev described the role of the Macedonian Legion: “The 142 Macedonian volunteers obeyed their orders. The Bulgarian army returned to the town six days later, November 25, and order was fully restored.”

The Carnegie Report described the role of the Macedonian Legion in the death of the Turkish Commissioner as follows: “The notorious incident of the killing of Riza-bey, the Imperial Turkish Commissioner of the Junction railway line, is to be explained by the fact that as he was being taken under arrest to the school he attempted to snatch a rifle from a Macedonian volunteer, and was killed by the volunteers on the spot.”

The Carnegie Report quoted the account of a member of the Macedonian Legion who explained the attack against Dedeagatch as a reprisal:

“…incidents also occurred while Bulgarian regiments were on the march which led to savage reprisals. A volunteer of the Macedonian legion (Opolchenie), who was previously known to a member of the Commission as an honorable and truthful man, recounted the following incident as the one example of brutality which had come within his own experience.

While marching through Gumurjina, the legion saw the dead bodies of about fifty murdered Bulgarian peasants. The dead body of a woman was hanging from a tree, and mother with a young baby lay dead on the ground with their eyes gouged out. The men of the legion retaliated by shooting all the Turkish villagers or disbanded soldiers whom they met next day on their march, and killed in this way probably some fifty men and two or three women. The officers of the legion endeavored afterwards to discover the culprits, but were baffled by the solidarity of the men, who considered this butchery a legitimate reprisal.

The Turks with whom we talked were on the whole agreed that the period of extreme brutality was confined to the early weeks of the first war. Many of them praised the justice of the regular Bulgarian administration which was afterwards established. From several of the Bulgarian officials who had to govern turbulent districts (e.g., Istip and Drama) infested by bands with an i
nadequate military force to back them, we have heard in detail of the steps which they took to regain the confidence of the Moslems. Many of them were successful.”

The Bulgarian army sought to punish crimes committed against Muslim civilians in Macedonia. Up to February 3 1913, courts-martial in Macedonia had passed sentence on 10 persons for murder, 8 for robbery and pillage, and 2 for rape. Of those accused of crimes, 37 were Macedonian insurgents, including 6 chiefs of bands (”voyevodas”). Cases which were in the stage of inquiry or investigation (”instruction”) were as follows: 78 cases of murder, 69 cases of pillage, 7 of rape, 7 of robbery (in the guise of taxation), 14 of arson, and 81 cases of forms of robbery.

The Carnegie Report referred to the Dede-agatch massacre as “a minor massacre” which had been “much exaggerated in the press.” The Report stated that the massacre carried out at Dede-agatch was committed by Greeks and Armenians “with the aid of some Bulgarian privates of the Macedonian legion, who were accidentally left in the town without an officer.”   Macedonian insurgents (comitadjis) were also reported to be engaged in activity in the region.

Part 4 of this series appears tomorrow.


Bogicevic, Milos, Causes of the War; an examination into the causes of the European war, with special reference to Russia and Serbia(Amsterdam: Langenhuysen, 1919)

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars (Washington, D.C.: The Endowment, 1914)

Erickson, Edward J., Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003)

Gerolymatos, Andre, The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution, and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond (NY: Basic Books, 2002)

Gibbons, Herbert Adams, The New Map of Europe, 1911-1914: The Story of the Recent European Diplomatic Crises and Wars and of Europe’s Present Catastrophe (New York: The Century Co., 1914)

Gibbs, Philip, and Bernard Grant, Adventures of War: With Cross and Crescent (London: Methuen and Co., 1912)

Hall, Richard C., The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 (London: Routledge, 2000)

Helmreich, Ernst C., The Diplomacy of the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938)

Hupchick, Dennis P., The Balkans from Constantinople to Communism (New York: Palgrave, 2002)

Monroe, Will S., Bulgaria and her People with an Account of the Balkan Wars, Macedonia, and the Macedonian Bulgars (Boston: The Page Co., 1914)

Schurman, Jacob Gould, The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914)

Stavrianos, L. S., The Balkans, 1815-1914 (New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1963)

Trotsky, Leon, The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky: The Balkan Wars, 1912-13 (New York: Monad Press, 1980)

Vivian, Herbert, The Servian Tragedy with Some Impressions of Macedonia (London: Grant Richards, 1904)


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