Death Knell for the Central Powers – The Battle of Dobro Pole

Serbia was at the heart of the troubled Balkan region during the 20th century. Its influence in political and military affairs was pervasive in the area and ended up having an effect far beyond its own borders. It is hardly surprising to find Serbian involvement in two of the most important events of World War One. The one at the beginning is famously well-known, while the other which helped lead to the war’s conclusion is almost entirely forgotten today. The first event which sparked the war is world famous. A Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.

This set off what has become known as the July Crisis, where diplomatic efforts failed and the Great Powers ended up on opposing sides based largely on treaty commitments. By the end of that month, artillery shells were falling on Belgrade, as Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. What flowed from there was a war that expanded across much of Europe, the Middle East, Asia Minor and the High Seas. The blood of millions was spilled on fields of battle that are still recalled with horror today. Such battles as Tannenburg, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and Paschendaele evoke memories of massive clashes over weeks or months. All of these were indecisive in either a tactical or strategic sense. Yet they have helped define the war, though none of them decided it.

The Way To Skopje & Victory

The Way To Skopje & Victory

Lost to Memory – The Defining Moment of Victory & Defeat
It is difficult to recall one battle that brought the war to an end or even the beginning of the end. Battles were subsumed within campaigns. The Allied offensive that finally was able to roll the Germans inexorably backward during the late summer of 1918 seems to be more a prolonged push rather than a rout. The Allied blockade that slowly squeezed the life out of Imperial Germany is symptomatic of the lack of a singular, triumphant event. Neither quick nor tidy, its success was based upon duration. As for the armistice of November 11, 1918, this final defeat of the Central Powers was more an agreement, than an infliction.

It as though World War I lacks that one defining moment where triumph is finally crystallized. Perhaps that is a proper coda to a war which caused such widespread destruction of men and material. Because such a moment is so hard to define, it also means looking in less obvious places.  Searching beyond the Western Front also means looking at other theaters of the war. Was there a forgotten battle of historical significance that has been overlooked?

The name Dobro Pole scarcely comes to mind when memorable battles of World War I are discussed.  The name sounds cryptic. It could be almost anywhere or anything. Actually it means “Good Field”  just the opposite of what it actually was for the Bulgars defending it. Conversely, it was a very good field for the Allied “Army of the Orient.” An unforgettable scene would unfold high up in the Moglenitsa Mountains stretching across central Macedonia. A scene which no one could have predicted based upon what had occurred on this part of the Balkan Front over the eighteen months prior to the battle.

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Southeastern Approaches – Appearances of Deadly Deception
The much maligned Army of the Orient consisted of a polyglot force of Serbs, French, British, Greeks and Italians. Their most notable hallmarks were complacency and mismanagement. Only through slow and haphazard efforts had they gained a bit of ground from their original base at the Aegean coastal port of Salonika. Attempts to dislodge the Bulgarians from the position in foothills and mountains had made only tepid progress. Four attacks by the Allies over the past eighteen months had been miserable failures. The rest of the time, the Army of the Orient tried with little success to fend off the dual scourges of malaria and boredom. Meanwhile, the Bulgars were also plagued with morale issues and limited food rations. Their front line was stout, but beyond these troops was an armed rabble of starving reservists. Nonetheless, the high ground was well fortified and the Bulgarians were still the one major European Army that had avoided defeat in the war. It record was unblemished and looked as though it would stay that way.

Appearances in this case were not just deceiving, but in the Bulgarian case turned out to be deadly. During the summer of 1918 the Allies began to prepare for what would become a remarkable offensive. Specifically, Serbian and French forces worked under the cover of night for two weeks to push, pull and lift artillery into positions up to heights of 7,700 feet in the Moglenitsa Mountains. From here they would be able to unload devastating barrages on the Bulgarians. The Bulgars unwittingly believed that their fortifications were impregnable. Even the German officers and troops sprinkled in to stiffen the Bulgarians spine did not believe the Allied forces would attack the rocky slopes, precipices and peaks covering the area. Yet that was exactly what they intended to do.

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

In & Above the Clouds – The Battle of Dobro Pole
The Allies had set their sights on Dobro Pole, a broken ridge six miles in length that ran between the Sokol and Ventrenik, names which respectively meant hawk and wind swept one. These were apt pseudonyms for land forms that were in and above the clouds. The common belief up to this point on the Macedonian Front was that an attack on this area would be suicidal. It was steep, heavily fortified and offered the enemy open fields of fire. Conversely, if the Allies did somehow manage to take Dobro Pole, the entire Bulgarian defenses might entirely collapse. It offered an opportunity to unhinge the entire Bulgarian defended part of the front. The risk was worth taking.

At 5:30 a.m. on September 15th, just as dawn was breaking over the high peaks of the Moglentisa, the French and Serbian artillery began to rain shells onto the exposed Bulgarian positions. The barrage was part of an eighteen hundred gun, storm of shot and shell stretching for over a hundred miles across the entire front. It was the greatest assemblage of artillery on the entire Balkan Front during the war. The thunderous roar shook the mountain sides softening the Bulgarian defenses The Bulgars were able to withstand the initial barrage. Dobro Pole would have to be conquered by foot soldiers. Serbian forces slowly fought their way up the steep slopes. The closer they got the more ferocious and frequent the Bulgarian counterattacks, five were launched in a matter of hours. The inhospitable landscape had once only been the haunt of goats and shepherds, now the Serbs and French followed in their footsteps. The machine gun nests of the enemy unleashed a deadly torrent. The Serbs had to use flamethrowers to finally root out the defenders. In the early afternoon, eight hours after they had begun, Dobro Pole was surprisingly conquered. The Bulgarian front line had been breached.

The Way To Skopje – The Way To Victory
The same process was repeated in other areas all along the front. What lay beyond the first formidable defenses was the fragile Bulgarian second line, filled with those starving reservists. They offered scant resistance. Two days after Dobro Pole fell, the Allies had managed to carve a salient six miles deep and twenty miles wide into the enemy lines and this was just the start. Ten days after the offensive had begun the Serbs took Gradsko, the main communications center for the Central Powers along the front. Now the German commanders were unable to coordinate a defense with their Bulgarian counterparts. The breakthrough continued at an incredible pace for what had been heretofore one of the most static fronts of the entire war. On September 29th, the city of Skopje and its important rail yard fell to French and Serbian forces. Meanwhile on the eastern end of the front, British forces had managed to break out as well. The Bulgarians were in full retreat. The Germans had no other recourse, but to abandon this ill-fated area of the Balkans.

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 - his look only got worse

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 – his look only got worse

Beyond All Repair – The Ramifications of Dobro Pole
For the once mocked Army of the Orient, the road to Budapest and Vienna lay open. In just two weeks the entire course of the war had changed. Bulgaria sued for peace. An armistice was granted on September 30th.  The Bulgars, once a bulwark of the Central Powers, had been decisively defeated. It would not be long until the others surrendered as well. The Battle of Dobro Pole was a tipping point. What had been thought all but impossible, the conquest of this high mountain area had been brought about by planning, surprise and innovative tactics. With its fall the Bulgars were suddenly exposed. Their rugged façade had finally cracked and what lay beyond offered little to no resistance.

Unlike other World War I battles, there were no tens of thousands of casualties to count and victory was no longer measured by a few hundred meters. It was a resounding and resonant triumph, the ramifications widespread. No less a historic personage than Erich Ludendorff, the overall commander of German forces at the time, said that the collapse of the Macedonian Front spurred by the loss at Dobro Pole was the worst day of the war for him. On September 28th just as Skopje was on the verge of being captured, Ludendorff collapsed to the ground, began foaming at the mouth and suffered a nervous breakdown. He must have known that Bulgaria would soon surrender and worse was yet to come. The battle of Dobro Pole and its resulting effects damaged the Central Powers beyond all repair.

Without History or Memory – The Battle of Lake Naroch

To both western and eastern Europeans, the Battle of Lake Naroch does not exist. Knowledge at best is limited to a few obsessive World War I aficionados squirreled away in a campus basement of the Russian studies department. At best, they might mention the battle as one of many examples for the gross mismanagement of the war by the Russian Empire.

For those unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Naroch, it occurred in late March of 1916. The Russian Empire had been asked by their allies, specifically the French, to relieve the massive pressure being placed upon it by the German attack on Verdun. The Russians were not exactly in the best shape to mount an offensive at this time.  They were suffering from an acute shell shortage while in the process of recovering from the defeat inflicted upon them in the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign the previous year. Nevertheless, they agreed to an operation which would draw German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Front.

Lake Naroch

Lake Naroch

The Worst Time of the Year
Too say that early spring was not the best time of the year for the Russians to stage an offensive would be an understatement. Actually, it is hard to imagine a worse time in western Russia to mount an offensive than the late winter/early spring. This is when the annual thaw takes place. After long, bitter months of cold, the first hints of spring arrive in fits and starts. The frozen ground begins to slowly dissolve into a watery muck. Lake Naroch is located in what is today western Belarus, an area known for its swampy, marsh laden ground. The slush filled muck which materializes each spring brings impassable conditions. Add to this, the fact that Russian roads were notoriously awful, little more than vague tracks in many places. Even good metaled roads would disappear beneath an icy syrup of muddy water. Offensive operations in this environment were nearly impossible.

The Germans opposing the Russians on the Eastern Front understood this. The common Russian soldier who experienced this wasteland first hand must have realized this as well. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not. Tsar Nicholas II felt that it was important to support his allies no matter what the cost (this was part of the reason he would lose his throne). The Russian commanders at the front were neither resourceful nor logical. They treated the brave, peasant soldiery with contempt and felt no compassion for these men. This led to one of the worst disasters in a Russian war effort that was filled with them.

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

Five Times the Casualties
The strategy and tactics of the Battle of Lake Naroch need not detain us for long. A few telling details and anecdotes will suffice. Consider that Russian forces outnumbered their German counterparts by three and a half to one, but sustained five times the casualties. Five times! On the very first day of the battle, the Russians lost 4,000 men compared to 200 for the Germans. How did this happen? During the day, Russian soldiers assaulted German positions defended with heavy artillery and machine guns that were calibrated with deadly accuracy. The Russian soldiers did not so much assault as wade into battle. At times, they were up to their wastes in frigid water. Then at night, temperatures would plunge below freezing, cementing the troops to the ground. Companies froze in place and had to be cut out of the ice. They were riven with frostbite. The official figure of 100,000 wounded for the Russians is only a rough approximation. There was no accounting for those who due to hypothermia, frostbite or sickness were rendered useless.

Swallowed by Space and Time
The Battle of Lake Naroch was a disaster, but a relatively unknown one. It could be called “missing history,” as it falls into an abyss of space and time unique to Russia. It was swallowed in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front, where large battles with untold casualties took place. Much of this has been lost to history, as historical consciousness has never really grasped the sheer breadth and brutality of this front. Lost in that space as well, a vast sea of humanity that drowned or froze in the marshes, swamps and slate gray waters of Lake Naroch.

The battle was also lost in time, as it was swept away by the whirlwind of the Bolshevik Revolution. The valor and tragedy so indicative of the Russian soldiers experience in the First World War at battles such as Lake Naroch was eventually written out of the history books. According to the Bolsheviks, these imperialist forces were fighting for the wrong cause, not one worth dying for. Yet the Bolsheviks failed to mention that without the folly of this war, without those men wading into those icy waters, there would have been no revolution.

Missing History
Perhaps the Battle of Lake Naroch is most notable today for what it represents, as opposed to what actually occurred. It represents the folly of war, good men dying for a lost cause. The battle also represents a Russia today – the largest nation in the world – that can be searched across all eight of its times zones, but does not have one official monument to the eight million men who died fighting in the First World War. Now that is truly “missing history.” What a shame that the Battle of Lake Naroch is unknown to the west, what an even greater tragedy that it is unknown to Russia.