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.