The battle of Hoo Hah

Then there’s Bulgarian victory in the Battle of Slivnitsa. When, you cry, is there Bulgarian victory in the Battle of Slivnitsa, and against whom? Why, on November 19, 1885, in the Serbo-Bulgarian War, which helped solidify the unity of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia.

OK, you’re thinking. Another Monty Python sketch. But nay. It was in fact a surprising victory for Bulgaria’s young army, dubbed by some the “Battle of the captains vs the generals”. And as for the feeling that even if you knew where Rumelia was you would not care, not even if it was a semi-autonomous region of Ottoman Empire with a Christian governor following the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Congress of Berlin in 1878 (no, I’m not making it up and no, I won’t shut up), remember that the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire helped trigger World War I as the Great Powers scrambled to absorb its Balkan fragments or prevent others from doing so.

The Principality of Bulgaria was itself another bit of the Ottoman Empire, made entirely autonomous in 1878. But there was no taping the crumbling corpse of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, and so something constructive had to be done. Instead the usual squabbling ensued.

For some reason Russia and Bulgaria had a falling out in 1883 and so the Russians didn’t want Bulgaria to absorb Rumelia, which is why they withdrew all their officers leaving the Bulgarians without so much as a major, let alone a general. But the Bulgarians were bent on reunification and their prince had no choice but to go along or be deposed.

So they went to war, and while the Ottomans sat there shedding bits, the Serbians intervened. And while there’s an undeniable comic opera feel to these understrength, underarmed and undercommanded Bulgarian battalions and Eastern Rumelian militia with one bad railway upsetting the confident Serbs, only to be stopped by Austrian intervention after which Bulgaria was unified in 1886 but Prince Alexander was deposed by Russian-sympathizing officers the same year (stop here for deep breath), the complex mix of Catholic versus Orthodox and Slav versus Germans and others, as well as divisions among Slavs, exacerbated by growing nationalism, was a proverbial powder keg to the point that the punchline of a popular 1913 London music hall song was “There’ll be trouble in the Balkans in the spring.” And the next summer trouble in the Balkans plunged Europe and the world into the First World War.

I’m not saying I would have known what to do about the Battle of Slivnitsa even if I could have pronounced it, found it on a map without Google, and intervened from London or Paris in 1885. But it’s yet another warning that comic opera clashes in places with funny names are often harbingers of things that are not remotely funny.

It happened todayJohn Robson