Greatest Battles: First Battle of Doiran – World War I

War of Doiran
It's February, 1917, a dire time for the world. All across Europe the armies of the Central powers and the Entente, or Allied powers, have ground to a halt, neither side able to break through the other's formidable defenses.

What Happened at the Battle of Doiran?

It’s February, 1917, a dire time for the world. All across Europe the armies of the Central powers and the Entente, or Allied powers, have ground to a halt, neither side able to break through the other’s formidable defenses. Thousands of miles of mud-filled trenches, reeking of disease, blood, and other pestilences, criss-cross through the heart of Europe. Artillery barrages have brought storm fronts of high velocity explosive shells across the land, leaving nothing in their wake but barren wastelands. Where just a few years ago vibrant forests and meadows spanned through the beautiful interior of Europe, now only barren wastelands remain, cemeteries for the millions of dead- most of which lie strewn about no-man’s land unburied.

A stalemate in the history of war

Human industry has churned out ever greater weapons of war, but none seem to be able to break the deadlock that the Central powers and Allies find themselves in. Howitzers and gas both can’t kill enough men to make any military breakthrough possible, and victories are measured in inches of barren land taken from the enemy- or simply hanging on to the ones you already have. The Allies are desperate for a breakthrough, without one they fear that the war will only escalate and lock the world in a bloody stalemate for years yet to come, perhaps even decades. Across the Macedonian front Serbia is threatening to collapse under pressure from Bulgaria, Germany and other Central powers, and the Allies see both a chance to aid a friendly nation and perhaps achieve the breakthrough they are so desperate for.

The plan is simple: British troops will mass across a few hundred meters from the Bulgarian army, which they believed to be weaker than Central Forces across the French front. Under the cover of heavy artillery bombardments they’ll charge the Bulgarian positions and break through the trench defenses in the center, splitting Bulgarian forces in half and flanking them. In order to achieve a major breakthrough into the Balkans though, the British would have to crush the Bulgarian defenders quickly before they could be reinforced from the north, and before new defensive positions could be built to once more cage the British in.

battles of dojran

As the British began to mass for battle though, it was discovered that the Bulgarian positions were better fortified than they had been a year ago, and in order to soften those defenses up in anticipation of the main battle to come, the British ordered a massive artillery barrage that lasted for two days. Then on the 9thand 10thof February the allies launched probing attacks against the Bulgarian front, but these were easily repulsed by the defenders. On the 21stof February, a major advance was attempted in order to better shore up the British position before its main assault. The British managed to make major gains over the course of two days, but then a major Bulgarian artillery barrage forced their retreat at the end of the second day. After trading thousands of lives, both sides still stood in a deadlock- the battle to come would be bloody indeed. 

The British plan to break the war stalemate

In order to try and break through the Bulgarian defenders, the British massed three divisions of infantry and their attached artillery, creating a force of 43,000 men, 160 guns, 110 mortars, and 440 machine-guns. The plan would be to concentrate all this power along a very small section of the front in order to put maximum pressure on the Bulgarians, and the main assault would be across a 5-6 kilometer section of the front near the town of Kalatepe. Meanwhile the Bulgarian intelligence services confirmed that the British were massing for a major attack, and immediately the single division holding that section of the front was reinforced with a total of 30,000 men, 147 guns, 35 mortars, and 130 machine -guns. The British may have outnumbered the Bulgarians, but as the defenders the advantage was firmly on the Bulgarian side- and any military commander knows that when facing a heavily fortified enemy you should never attack without at least a 3-1 advantage. That would mean the British would have to bring up forces from further north. However, intense fighting against the Germans prevented such a reshuffling of manpower- reinforcing the Bulgarian assault would mean possibly allowing the Germans a breakthrough elsewhere. Where 90,000 men should be heading into battle against 30,000 defenders, only 45,000 would try to get the job done.

Bulgaria braces for attack

The Bulgarians meanwhile were ever improving their defenses, and splitting the defenses along the front into three zones of responsibility: the right zone of responsibility would run from the river vardar to the Varovita heights and spanned 13 kilometers, and would be defended by a brigade consisting of 6 battalions of infantry backed up with 48 artillery pieces, 12 mortars, and 56 machine guns. The central zone of responsibility would run from the Varovita heights to the Karakondzho heights, was 4 kilometers wide, and was defended by one regiment made up of 3 battalions of infantry only. The left zone of responsibility would run from the Karakondzho heights to Lake Doiran, was 9 kilometers wide, and was defended by one brigade made up of 6 battalions, 76 artillery pieces, 19 mortars and 52 machine guns. With the main attack expected across the left zone of responsibility, most of the fire support was located with the Bulgarian 2ndBrigade located there, although artillery from the right zone of responsibility could easily aid if called upon. 

The Bulgarians also took the time to improve their defensive fortifications, establishing two rows of continuous trenches that were up to 2 meters deep and ran between 200 and 1000 meters apart from each other. If one trench was overwhelmed, the men could fall back and retreat to the second defensive line, rebuff the British advance, and retake the first trench in a counter-attack. To make this tactical retreat possible, the trenches were connected by long passages that were too narrow for more than one man to move through at a time, thus making them useless for the advancing British if they took the first line of trenches, but perfect for a hasty retreat of the 1st line’s defenders if need be. Telephone wires stretched out across the trenches through these linking tunnels also allowed commanders to keep in contact with each other and better organize the flow of supplies or reinforcements, or a retreat if need be. In front of both trenches the Bulgarians also stretched out a two line system of wire entanglements. These were rows of barbed and concertina wire laid out in the path of advancing soldiers and meant to slow them down. Featuring sharp pointed tips and bladed edges, the wires were difficult to cross without injury and would slow down attackers long enough for the defenders to pepper them with machine gun and rifle fire. Ahead of the first line of trenches, there were also additional smaller fortifications, mostly established as observation posts but featuring machine guns meant to mow down the first wave of attackers before retreating to the trenches. In between the two trenches the Bulgarians had also prepared machine gun nests and artillery positions sunk down into the earth in order to protect the guns from counter-artillery fire, as well as concrete galleries that would allow defenders falling back to fire upon the British as they entered the first trenches, and caches of ammunition for retreating defenders to reload on their way to the second trenches. Just in case the worst came to pass and the British managed to make a breakthrough, yet another line of defensive fortifications was being constructed two to five kilometers to the rear of the second trenches, but ultimately they would prove needless and were never completed. 

Battle

The start of the battle of Doiran

On April 22ndthe British finally made their first attempt to break through the Bulgarian front. For four days the British guns laid down a non-stop artillery barrage that expended over 100,000 shells, all crashing down on the first line of Bulgarian defenses. The blistering barrage destroyed parts of the first line of trenches, but did little to compromise their effectiveness. For their part, the Bulgarians returned fire with their own artillery and fired a counter-barrage of over 10,000 shells on the British troops. 

On the night of April 24th, thousands of British soldiers roared out of their trenches and ran straight into the teeth of heavy Bulgarian defensive fire across the left front, exactly as predicted by the Bulgarians. Machine gun positions raked across the charging British, and German ships located on the coast just a few kilometers away lent their fire to the battles of Doiran . Yet the 12 companies of British soldiers managed to break through the first line of Bulgarian defenses along several strategic points- only for a brutal counter-attack by Bulgarian defenders forced the British army to withdraw at 8 pm. 

Meanwhile British infantry attacked across the right and central fronts as well, initially to great success until the Bulgarian infantry called for massive fire support from their big guns. The artillery pieces of the defenders leveled hundreds of high explosive rounds at the charging waves of British soldiers, often raining fire down just meters away from the first defensive line. What seemed to be a British victory was quickly turned into a defeat by the sheer amount of firepower leveled against them by the Bulgarian guns, and the British infantry was forced to retreat back to their own trenches. A furious vengeful barrage from the British tried to destroy the Bulgarian artillery, but with most of their pieces lying safely in sunken defensive positions, the fire missions did little to diminish the power of the Bulgarian artillery. Over the next two days, the British would try again and again to break through, but would face defeat each time- finally falling back to lick their wounds. Despite heavy casualties, the Bulgarian defenders immediately began to reconstruct their destroyed fortifications, managing to make the first line of trenches defensible again in a matter of days should another attack be forthcoming.

The unrelenting British army

British high command meanwhile was less than pleased with the results of the Doiran breakthrough, and insisted that one final push be made by the weary and badly wounded troops. This time German naval power would be chased away by British ships, so at least the attackers would only have to contend with the Bulgarian guns. On the 8th of May, the British began an eight hour artillery barrage against the Bulgarians, expending thousands of rounds of ammunition. At 9 pm, British infantry once more leapt out of their trenches and ran across the thousand meters or so of no-man’s-land separating the two sides. Five waves of British infantry were met with the withering machine gun and artillery fire of the Bulgarian defenders, and though the attackers managed to achieve significant breakthroughs across parts of the front, they were repulsed each time by vicious counter-attacks. At last the British were forced to retreat once more to their trenches, hounded the entire way by Bulgarian artillery, which would continue to fire in a bitter exchange between themselves and the British guns for hours more during the night. 

In the end, the British were forced to abandon their attempt to rout the Bulgarian defenders and would suffer 12,000 dead, wounded, or captured- 2,250 of which would be buried by the Bulgarian defenders who showed that even in the midst of war, there is always room for some basic humanity. For their part, the Bulgarians suffered 2,000 casualties, of which 900 would die from disease or wounds- a staggering disparity between theirs and British figures. This would only be the first in a series of battles across this same line of fortifications though, with each seeing the British assaults defeated time and time again by the Bulgarians. It would only be towards the end of the war that the British would steel themselves for yet another assault and find the Bulgarian defensive positions unmanned, the Bulgarian soldiers having pulled out due to the Serb and French advance further north.

Honoring the Bulgarian war hero

From out of the fire of the battle of Doiran one man in particular, Vladimir Vazov, would rise to prominence amongst the Bulgarians. His brilliant tactical sense would lead to the Bulgarian victories in this and the next two conflicts against the British across this same front, and for his efforts he was promoted to Major General. In 1936 he was invited on an official state visit to England as the British legion celebrated the British victory in World War I, and he was named as one of Britain’s most worthy opponents. Being personally greeted by Lord Milne, former Chief of the Imperial Staff, Vazov was told, “It is a pleasure to meet the Bulgarian delegation, as even though we were enemies, you- like us- fought not only like brave men, but also like gentlemen. The British would go on to lower their flags in his honor, celebrating not just the man’s military genius, but his honor shown on the battlefield with the treatment of captured POWs and the burial of dead British soldiers.