Anyone who has spent time in the Balkans has almost certainly been confronted by the problem of stray dogs. In Sofia, Bulgaria a group of stray dogs became my running companions for half an hour. In Sarajevo, I came across another pack wandering around a yard just before dawn. That was ten years ago. During my last trip to the Balkans I noticed the problem continues to persist. I never made it to the waterfront in Bar, Montenegro because I came across a pack of dogs whose barks were so ferocious that I did not dare tempt fate and did a quick U-turn within 100 yards of them. Such experiences have led me to think of the Balkans as the land of the stray dog. What I could never have imagined was that the Balkans was also where the War of the Stray Dog took place. This war proved that the truth is not only stranger, but also more sublime than fiction.
Ready for war – Armed forces supporting Bulgaria (Credit: Неизвестен)
Violent Absurdities – Perpetual Contentions
Many years ago while visiting a fort on the coast of Florida, I first learned about the War of Jenkins Ear. The conflict partly resulted from a violent absurdity that occurred when Spanish sailors boarded the merchant ship of Robert Jenkins of Britain and severed his ear. The war took place during the mid-18th century and lasted nine years. At the time, I thought there could not possibly be a more absurd way to start a war. That was until I discovered the War of the Stray Dog fought between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925. It was the culmination of strained relations between the two nations. The postwar World War I Treaty of Neuilly-sure-Seine, which had awarded western Thrace to the Greeks who just happened to end up on the winning side of the war. This became a point of perpetual contention between the two sides.
This did not sit well with the Bulgarians who coveted the region. After the treaty went into effect there were intermittent, cross border incursions by fearsome groups, particularly the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and another offshoot, the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization. Both groups would use whatever means necessary to try and wrest the region away from Greece. The IMRO was notorious for violence, including between its own leader and operatives. IMRO most famously captured, tortured, and murdered the Bulgarian Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski. He had made the mistake of working with Greece and Yugoslavia to improve relations. Tensions between Bulgaria and Greece continued to fester after Stamboliski was out of the way. It would not take much of an incident to bring the two sides to blows, but no one could have imagined that incident would revolve around a stray dog.
Worth fighting for – Stray dog in Bulgaria (Credit: Melody Gilbert)
Running Wild – Going Beyond The Border
Even by the standards of the Balkans, the border region between southwestern Bulgaria and northern Greece is exceedingly remote. Strikingly beautiful, the area is covered by mountains with few good roads. To an outsider, the region seems like an improbable place for a war to start, but many parts of the Balkans continued to be contested ground, no matter how obscure, long after World War I ended. This was the case with the Demir Kapou pass in the Belasica Mountain range, which straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Border sentries of both nations stared across an invisible boundary at each other. The enmity between the Greeks and Bulgars was pervasive, putting the sentries on hair trigger alert. That is probably the best explanation for what occurred on October 19, 1925 when a Greek border guard’s dog got loose and proceeded to run into Bulgarian territory. A Bulgarian soldier shot the border sentry dead. A little bit later, a Greek officer displaying a white flag went into the no man’s land between the two sides. This only made the officer and a private who had accompanied him easy targets. They were also shot dead.
Word of what happened on the border got back to Theodoros Pangolos, who had gained control of Greece through a military coup. This was just the kind of incident Pangolos could use to bolster his strongman credentials. He sent an entire corps of the Greek Army to the border where they were ordered to march into Bulgaria. They met tepid resistance. Along the way, they pillaged and burned villages. In addition, they killed approximately 50 people with this incursion. On the Bulgarian side, cooler heads prevailed. The Bulgarians appealed to the League of Nations to resolve the dispute. Panglos had demanded the Bulgarians pay a huge sum of money – six million Greek Drachmas – for restitution.
Ironically, Panglos had defeated his own cause by ordering the incursion into Bulgaria. The Greeks had gone from victim to perpetrator. They had also committed atrocities in Bulgaria. The upshot was that the Greeks were ordered to pay restitution for the damage they had caused. While the Greeks protested the League’s decision, they had little choice but to comply, since Britain, France, and Italy were in favor of this decision. The Greeks claimed they were not being treated fairly. That the League decided in favor of what the most powerful countries wanted. Of course, the Greeks were ignoring the fact that Bulgaria was a similar sized country.
A show of force – Тheodoros Pangalos
Barking Up The Wrong Tree – A Dog’s Life
The Bulgars may not have won The War of the Stray Dog on the battlefield, but they did win their case before the League of Nations. This infuriated Panglos. It also shamed him. Less than a year later, he would be ousted from his position as de facto dictator of Greece. The humiliating loss in The War of the Stray Dog did irreparable damage to his reputation. Panglos’ political career would never recover. Lost amid the diplomacy and mediation which resolved the dispute, was the fact that a stray dog had started the whole mess. Nothing is known about what happened to the dog. The incident stands as an instructive example of how misunderstandings can lead to war. This was especially true with the Bulgars and Greeks who assumed the worst about each other. A seemingly innocence action by a dog and its owner turned into an international incident. While the situation was resolved at the League of Nations, no one thought to enact another sensible option to make sure the same thing would never happen again, a leash law.