The Battle of Dobro Polje is largely forgotten in the great context of World War I, but it is a very defining moment for the Southern Front. The battle was a small one comparatively, but it was monumental in being the very first in a series of events that led to the end of World War I. Dobro Polje is located in modern day Macedonia, and the battle there broke the long-standing deadlock in the Balkans. The battle was won on September 17, 1918 by a tiny Franco-Serbian army, and just two months later on November 11, 1918, Germany became the last of the Central Powers to sign an Armistice.
The Macedonian Front Remained Stable Until the Battle of Dobro Polje
Serbia was invaded by Austria-Hungary in July 1914. The Allied Powers came to the aid of Serbia to try and protect the country, but unfortunately the Allied assistance was too little, too late. Serbia fell to the Central Powers. After the fall of Serbia a front line was established that ran from the Albanian Adriatic Coast to the Struma River.
The Macedonian Front on one side consisted of a number of Allied troops from different countries facing off against the Bulgarians on the other side. There were times when the Bulgarians got help from other members of the Central Powers. Both sides used massive amounts of barbed wire to create their front line. The Allies established what became known as the “birdcage” due the large amount of barbed wire used to halt the advance of the Bulgarians and the German 11th.
The focus of the Allies throughout the beginning of 1916 was just to keep the front where it was. More Allied troops arrived in 1916 and were able to stop the Bulgarians from taking Greece, and therefore kept the front from changing.
In 1917, there was some back and forth of the front line at Lake Doiran, where the Allied troops moved forward in April 1917 and gained ground, only to be pushed back in May. It was not until 1918 and the Battle of Dobra Polje that the Allied forces were finally willing to send the manpower that was needed to move the front line and try to liberate Serbia. By 1918 the Greek Army joined the Allies and helped boost the numbers on the Macedonian front. After nearly three years of a stable front line, a major offensive began in July of 1918 with the Battle of Dobro Polje being the final assault that pushed the front line back and allowed the Allies to move into Serbia.
The Allied Forces planned their offensive on the Macedonian Front with 619,000 men, versus the 600,000 men of the Central Powers. They had the advantage of numbers, but they were on the offensive and they needed all the men that they could get. They had the advantage of artillery but in some ways the artillery was a burden as well. But even with the advantage of men, the Allied forces still faced a very big problem in the form of large mountains.
The front at the Battle of Dobra Polje was 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) long, between the Sušnica and Lešnica rivers. The mountains between the rivers were between 1,400 and 1,800 meters (4,500 to 6,000 feet). The mountains themselves were not easy climbs, and there were numerous steep slopes that ended at ridges that were fortified by the Bulgarians.
The addition of trenches meant that there was no way for wheeled vehicles to make it up the mountain. There were some areas that had previously only been accessible by mules and not made to transport vehicles or heavy artillery. Even today, the areas pushed forward by the Allies are only reached with four-wheel drive and a guide that knows the correct paths. While not the most ideal place for a battle, it was the best option open to the Allies because the rest of the Macedonian front was even more mountainous.
If the mountain itself was not enough, there was the problem of the Bulgarians and the German 11th Army. They had had years to prepare with deep trenches and fortifications that allowed them to not only have the advantage of high ground but make it hard for the Allies to break down their fortifications. The Serbians refused to let anything stop them from liberating their home, and they pushed forward eventually managing to get their artillery up the mountain with them.
The Macedonian Front had one of the most diverse forces in the war. The Serbians were desperate for Allied help at the start of the war but the Allied forces had been consumed with fighting on the Western Front. Eventually the French and British sent two small forces to help the Serbians, but by then it was too late and they had already lost their country.
When the Allies decided to finally make a strong push on the Macedonian Front in 1918 more troops were dispatched from the Allies. The Italians, French, British, and Albanians sent forces. By the Battle of Dobre Polja, the Greeks had figured out which side of the war they wanted to be on. Therefore, Greece also sent troops to the Macedonian Front in order to defeat the Bulgarians and the Germans.
In total the breakdown of forces on the Allied side were 180,000 French troops, 140,000 Serbian, 135,000 Greek, 120,000 British, 42,000 Italian, and 2,000 Albanian. It was an incredibly diverse force that added up to 619,000 men ready to take on the brutal task of pushing back the Central Powers. Another aspect of the Allied forces that added to their diversity was that many of the troops sent by Britain and France were partially made up of their colonial forces.
The Central Powers were not as diverse as it was believed, and the Bulgarian forces were strong enough to hold the line. The 600,000 troops on the other side consisted mainly of Bulgarians, but there was the German 11th Army and some troops from Austria-Hungary. The fact that the bulk of the forces were from Bulgaria would be the deciding factor in how the Battle of Dobro Polje ended and how it affected the ending of World War I.
With an uphill battle ahead of them and the Bulgarians in trenches hidden behind defenses and with the benefit of height, the Allies knew that artillery was going to be their only chance of success. There was no way to plan a surprise attack because there was no approach that would not be easily spotted by the Bulgarians. So the Allies planned to weaken the defenses and the morale of the defenders with an artillery barrage.
For four months before the offensive was set to begin, the Allies began planning for the massive artillery attack. They gathered together all the artillery that they could in order to have 553 guns ready all along the 15 kilometer stretch of the Macedonian Front that was the plan of attack for the Battle of Dobro Polje.
For every battery, they had four days worth of constant ammunition ready and waiting. More ammunition was waiting in nearby storage depots to be sent to the front at first notice. Two days before the infantry planned to move on the offensive, the artillery began firing. They had the goal to target the artillery of the other side and break down any fortifications and get into the trenches.
The hope was that days of raining artillery would give the infantry the advantage they needed to make it up the hill. The artillery did succeed in damaging the barbed wire that ran between the trenches of the Bulgarians. It was only one day of artillery barrage before the infantry felt that the wire and defenses were damaged enough to make a move.
The Allies Gained So Much Ground the Artillery Couldn’t Keep Up
One of the most amazing things about the Battle of Dobrao Polje was that some Allied generals feared that an attack at Dobro Polje would be suicide. It was a large open area that left the troops as sitting ducks for the Bulgarian forces. While this was true, it was also the best location that was available to break through the front and once the Allied forces broke through the front lines at Dobro Polje, not even a loss at the Battle of Doiran could keep them from retaking Serbia.
On the morning of September 14, 1918, the artillery began hammering the trenches and defenses with shells. By that night significant damage was reported to the barbed wire which led the Allies to decide to move in earlier with the infantry. On the morning of September 15, 1918, the infantry moved on the mountain.
By the end of the night the Serbians broke through the lines. In the two days of fighting, the Bulgarians lost 50% of the troops that had been engaged in the battle either due to desertion, capture, or as casualties. There was no way for them to keep the Allies back, so they continued to be pushed by the Serbians and other Allied forces.
By September 29, the Allies had pushed the Bulgarians all the way back over their own border. They were able to capture ground to liberate Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro. In two weeks, they had retaken land that had been held by the Central powers for years and were now knocking on the door of Bulgaria. Since the terrain was so rough and mountainous and the Bulgarians were on the run, the troops were able to move much faster than their artillery or their vehicles. Few offenses in history have been as successful as to take so much ground in so little time.
The French Were Against an Offensive on the Macedonian Front
From the moment that they lost their homeland, the Serbians were ready to launch an offensive to get it back. The French were less than eager to start a huge offensive on the Macedonian Front because they believed that victory on the Western Front was more important and they wanted to protect their own homeland. The Serbian Army had been forced to evacuate by sea and then come back on land to form a front line in Allied territory.
From the moment they had been chased from their homeland, they wanted to go back and reclaim it. The problem was that since they were kept from their own home they had no way to supply their army and completely depended on the French for supplies and to keep up their artillery.
The French, however, where unwilling to expend their resources on the Balkans because they saw it as far less important than what was at stake on the Western Front. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wanted to keep the resources and the men he had for the fighting in Western Europe. The French decided to let the Serbian artillery fall into disrepair over the two years on the same front line. They insisted on the French manning the heavy weapons and leaving the Serbians to handle the light artillery and trench mortars.
Finally, in 1918, the Serbians got their wish as the Allies decided that it was time for a massive offensive on the Macedonian Front. The French finally took the time to repair and supply the Serbian artillery and to properly outfit the troops. There is no way of knowing how the battle and the war might have turned out if the French and the rest of the Allies had been willing to plan an offensive earlier, but it was a huge turning point by the end of 1918.
The Battle of Dobro Polje came at a very tenuous time for the Bulgarian army. They had spent years living in trenches in enemy territory. Morale was already low before the battle began and the soldiers were losing faith in the war and in their own country. Once the artillery shells starting falling and the infantry started advancing upon them, soldiers in the Bulgarian army started to desert en masse. They had poor supplies and were tired of fighting and instead of giving their lives for a cause they did not support and a country that was no supporting them, they chose to leave.
A large group of deserters reached the town of Kyustendil on September 25. They started looting the city and this caused the Bulgarian High Command to flee, fearing an attack by the rampaging soldiers. The rioting soldiers then met up together at the railway center of Radomir which was just 30 miles from the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.
The Bulgarian Agrarian National Union took advantage of the situation, and on September 27 they took over control of the troops that had deserted the army. Now that they suddenly had their own army the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union declared the Bulgarian Republic. The next day between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers moved on to Sofia and threatened the city.
With their own country in chaos and the fear of an Allied invasion, the Bulgarian delegation traveled to Thessaloniki to ask for an armistice. On September 29, just 15 days after the start of artillery shelling on Dobro Polje, General d’Esperey granted the Armistice of Salonica to the Bulgarians.
“Desperate Frankie” Led The Charge to Finally Liberate Serbia
Louis Franchet d’Esperey was a French General who was career military man. He was the son of a cavalry officer and was educated at Saint-Cyr. After graduating he was assigned to a regiment of Algerian Tiralilleurs. He served in French Indochina, China, and Morocco. In 1913 he was made commander of I Corps.
In the first year of the war, Franchet d’Esperey proved himself as corps commander during the Battle of Charleroi. He was also able to rally his I Corps to a successful attack at the Battle of the Guise. His skill as commander of I Corps earned him the position of Commander of the Fifth Army. He found that the best way to rally his men to perform was to act the tyrannical leader, despite the fact that he was actually a rather kind man. He would threaten to shoot any man who did not do his duty.
In March 1916, he as promoted yet again to be in command of the Eastern Army Group. By January 1917, he was put in command of the Northern Army Group. But his luck seemed to have run out as he was soundly defeated by the German at the Battle of Chemin des Dames in Mary 1918.
His defeat had him removed from the Western front and sent to command the Allied Army of the Orient at Salonika. In September 1918, he was in command of a very large army that consisted of allies from Greece, France, Serbia, Britain, and Italy. It was during his time as commander of the Allied Army of the Orient that he was given the name “Desperate Frankie” but British soldiers who were not quite able to say his name properly. Whether or not Franchet d’Esperery really was desperate for a win after his defeat against the Germans, he did succeed in collapsing the Southern Front and making it all the way to Hungary.
When the Bulgarians fell to the Serbian army, Kaiser Wilhelm was furious. He sent a telegram to Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria that said “Disgraceful, 62,000 Serbs decided the war.” It is unclear whether or not Kaiser Wilhelm really knew the likely outcome of a Bulgarian surrender or if he was simply expressing his anger at the Tsar’s failure.
But after the Battle of Dobro Polje, the British Forces headed East toward the Ottoman Empire. They headed toward Constantinople and the Ottoman government had no forces to stop them and decided to surrender on October 26.
The French and Serbian forces continued moving throughout Serbia to free the country. The German 11th Army without the support of the Bulgarian army were completely on their own and had no choice but to surrender to the Allied forces. Austria signed their own armistice on November 3 due to the overthrow of the Hapsburg monarchy. They continued on and the forces under General d’Esperey crossed the Danube river and were ready to enter Hungary. General d’Esperery requested an armistice which the Hungarian government willingly signed.
Germany was now completely alone in the war effort, and with the Allies strong enough to continue fighting, the Kaiser knew that there was no longer any chance for victory. The armistice was signed at 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, but the ceasefire did not come into effect until hours later. So on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” the war officially ended. Up until the last moments, fighting continued as Generals tried to capture more land before the end of the war.
Despite the initial French reluctance to mount an offensive on the Southern Front for most of the war, there is no denying the impact the battle had on the outcome of World War I.
To remember the importance of the battle, not only the French soldiers who fought in the war but the battle that ended the Southern Front of World War I, there is a street named after the battle in Paris. Rue du Dobropol is in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. The street was named and opened in 1928.
Rue du Dobropol is not the only street that takes its name from the outcome of the battle. There are several streets throughout France that are named after Louis Franchet d’Esperey in cities such as Dijon, Reimes, Versailles, Lorient, and Saint-Etienne.
But it is not only France that has chosen to commemorate Louis Franchet d’Esperery and the Battle of Dobro Polje. In Serbia, the city of Belgrade has a boulevard that takes its name from the famous French commander and the role he played in liberating the country during World War I. Greece also has a street that is named after Louis Franchet d’Esperey, in Salonika.