Buried in the Negligence of Descendants
During the Great War, tens of thousands of Serbian interned civilians and prisoners of war were in Bulgaria, however Serbian historiography has never studied it seriously up to now. Despite geographic vicinity and linguistic similarity, despite archive material being available for almost half a century. No one cared for or researched Serbian military memorials in Bulgaria. Thus irreplaceable losses. Numerous Serbian cemeteries throughout Bulgaria have grown into weeds, wooden crosses on tombs rotted, and those who knew their locations have passed away a long time ago. The responsibility for this sorrowful outcome is certainly on the Serbian state. Today, the only thing that remained was the military cemetery in Sofia and seven tombs of Serbian volunteers on the International Military Cemetery in Dobrich, as well as the prisoner of war bridge in Komarevo. Even that, shame on us, is insufficiently known

By: Miloje Ž. Nikolić
Photo: Milan Marković

Defeated in Cer and the Kolubara, the Central Powers reorganized and were additionally armed in 1915. Besides Austro-Hungarian, the troops of the German empire were also sent to the Serbian front. Weakened, exhausted, technically weaker and smaller, at the time without the support of allies, the Serbian army was confronting armies of two powerful empires. The Central Powers pulled Bulgaria to their side by promising it large territorial concessions at the expense of Serbia.
On October 5, 1915, Serbia was attacked from the north and west by Austro-Hungary and Germany. The same day, Bulgaria declared war to Serbia and began warfare from the east. Strongly resisting, the Serbian army retreated towards the south, to Greece, although Greece was also not on the Serbian side at the time. The Bulgarian army succeeded in cutting their way and the Skopje-Thessalonica railway, forcing the Government, National Assembly and Serbian army to move towards the Albanian coast over snowbound mountains. Part of the people also set off together with the army.
The Kingdom of Serbia was occupied in late November 1915.
During the battles and later, thousands of Serbian warriors became prisoners of war. Besides Austro-Hungary and Germany, there were also taken to Bulgaria, where they were distributed in camps, which the Coburg empire was full of. Soon afterwards, they were joined by tens of thousands of civilians of both sex and all ages, taken to forced labor.


Since Serbia was occupied, in order to ease the pressure of the Central Powers, Russia pulled Romania to its side, which entered the war on the side of the Entente Powers by signing the Bucharest Treaty on August 17, 1916. With that agreement, Romania was promised to expand its territory to the expense of Austro-Hungary, to Erdel (Transylvania) and entire Banat to the Tisa and the Danube. Fertile Southern Dobruja was promised to the expense of Bulgaria. According to the Treaty, Romania had to open and hold the front towards Erdel, as well as to open a battlefield on the Danube, in Dobruja. The Serbian Volunteer Division, consisting of mainly Serbs from the Habsburg Monarchy, taken as prisoners of war by Russia, joined the Romanian-Russian troops. There were some Croatians among them as well.
Colonel Stevan Hadžić’s Serbian Volunteer Division was part of the Russian 47th mixed corpus, under the command of General Zayanchkovsky. The warfare between Romania and Bulgaria began in the night between August 31 and September 1, 1916. The Serbian Volunteer Division clashed on September 7 with the units of the Bulgarian 6th Bdin (Vidin) Division in the vicinity of the city of Dobrich. Although they had to endure the attacks of the Bulgarian cavalry, Serbian volunteers almost entirely destroyed the enemy division. Difficult battles were led the following day, September 8, around the city, but this was not worth much. Due to the bad warfare of Romanians, the Bulgarian Third Army moved the front towards the north by a day of walking. On September 13 and 14, the Serbian division again had difficult battles on that line. The volunteers clashed several enemy units in those battles, but in vain. A new retreat was commanded due to defeats in other parts of the battlefield.
It was disappointing for Serbian volunteers, because they were constantly retreating, despite brilliant victories and great losses. During the 34 war days in Dobruja, in September and October 1916, the ally units were constantly retreating. After the first two battles, the Serbian Volunteer Division had 2.600 soldiers out of action. In those battles, they managed to defeat the 35th, 36th, 16th and parts of the 8th Bulgarian regiment, inflicting casualties of 5.000 soldiers.
The Volunteer Division had their third large battle near Kokardza and Sosusi Bay from September 18 to 20. The volunteers inflicted serious losses to the enemy, at the same time suffering from great casualties themselves. The commander of the division, Colonel Hadžić, informed the supreme command that the volunteers stood up excellently and that they have to take better care of themselves in the future, because this way, they will soon disappear. Thus they were pulled to reserve, to get some rest.
After a short break (September 22 to 30), the division became part of the Dobruja army, which consisted of five allied divisions. The volunteers then participated in battles from October 2 to 6, 1916 near Amzacea and Edilkyoy. In the battle of Amzacea, the 2nd brigade of the Serbian division conquered a village and forced the Turkish 25th Nizam division to retreat. The volunteers suffered serious casualties: 1.020 soldiers were put out of action (115 died, 727 wounded, 178 missing).
The Volunteer Division entered the last battle on Dobruja front, near Endzi Mahala and Edilkyoy, between October 19 and 21, very weakened, tired and thinned out. After three days of fighting, the Division retreated on October 21. Then it also suffered serious losses: 128 dead, 835 wounded and 472 missing, in total 1.435 soldiers and officers.
From October 22 to 27, the entire Dobruja army retreated towards the Danube, including the Serbian Volunteer Division. The Serbian Division crossed the Danube near Iksacha in November 1916 and came to Ismail.
In 34 war days in Dobruja, the Serbian Volunteer Division suffered 53 percent casualties. They had 9.349 soldiers put out of action (722 dead, 6.147 injured, 2.480 missing). Later, 657 volunteers from the missing ones showed up in the Auxiliary Battalion. The Volunteer Division put 14.800 Bulgarian soldiers out of action, confiscated four gun batteries, eight machineguns and 1.450 rifles. The Division was awarded for its heroism with 2.408 highest decorations, Serbian, Russian and Romanian.
Thanks to the help of their allies Germany and Turkey, Bulgarians succeeded in defending South Dobruja from joint Russian and Romanian attacks, but they paid a high price for it, which additionally increased Bulgarian pressure on the Thessalonica Front.


Interstate negotiations about Serbian tombs and cemeteries in Bulgaria were led between world wars. The result was the founding of a Serbian military and internee cemetery in Sofia, at the Orlandovce city cemetery. The plans for constructing military cemeteries in Chairli (present Rechice near Sliven), Haskov and other places started realizing, however, unfortunately, it was not completed as planned. The negotiators who represented the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians, later renamed into Kingdom of Yugoslavia, were not up to the task. Bulgarians managed to convince them that it was more meaningful to exhume deceased Serbs throughout Bulgaria and move them to the Serbian military cemetery in Sofia. The agreement was made in 1936, but there was no time for its implementation. World War II broke out a few years later, and the national polity in both countries changed. Yugoslavia got its communist authorities, which were anti-Serbian, so even the survived warriors were frowned upon, while researching and arranging Serbian military cemeteries in Bulgaria was the last thing on its mind. On the other hand, Bulgarian communists were serious nationalists, and it suited them not to speak about dead Serbian prisoners of war and interned civilians. Thus Serbian tombs and cemeteries throughout Bulgaria were left to decay and oblivion.
Imprisoned Serbian warriors and deported civilians were used for all kinds of work, especially the hardest ones: construction of roads, bridges, railways… They also worked in mines, stone pits, factories, farms, cutting woods… They most often slept in badly built wooden barracks, often without beds. They were dressed in tatters and ripped shoes.
Each prisoner and internee was recorded in books upon their arrival to Bulgaria and received a prisoner ID card. According to Serbian archives, there were more than 80.000 people of both sexes and all ages imprisoned in Bulgaria and 15.000 of them died. They are still resting there, so Bulgaria is full of Serbian tombs and cemeteries.
Warriors who died in Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and those who died or were killed in imprisonment from 1915–1918, were buried at the Serbian Military Cemetery in Sofia, in Orlandovci. The cemetery is a small memorial complex, covering 1.200 square meters. It is fenced with a low concrete wall, padded with stone plates. Small concrete pillars with spread chains are placed on it. Two plates with inscriptions in Serbian and Bulgarian, informing that the Serbian military cemetery is located there, are at the entrance. The entrance path leads to the central part of the cemetery, with the crypt and monument.


The monument has a rectangular shape, with a pillar in the center and cross on its top, as well as benches cast on the eastern side. There is an inscription on the monument: ”Here rest Serbian heroes died in battle in 1912 and 1913 and died in imprisonment from 1915 to 1919.” Marble plates are placed on the eastern side, left and right from the central pillar, with names of Serbian warriors who died in battle and Bulgarian imprisonment. There are four women among them. In front of the monument is a rectangular crypt, covered with an armored concrete plate. Remains of 456 deceased Serbian warriors buried in this cemetery in 1918 are in the crypt. Besides them, another 182 warriors died in this city. Their graves are unknown; we assume they are in the same cemetery. So, 638 Serbian prisoners of war and internees who died from 1912 to 1919 were buried in the capital city of Bulgaria.
The Serbian Military Cemetery in Sofia exists since 1918. It had a barb wire fence and a big gate. There were 480 tombs marked with wooden crosses. There were no guards, so already in 1923 it was entirely dilapidated. This is how the secretary of the Yugoslav embassy in Sofia described the situation on the cemetery: ”Poor Bulgarian people took crosses from tombs in winter, the gate was destroyed, wire torn, and paths made over the graves – it was very sad to see the state of tombs of those deceased as prisoners of war or internees.” The situation requested emergency renovation of the cemetery.
The Yugoslav embassy in Sofia held correspondence with the Ministry of Religion of the Kingdom of SCS in Belgrade in 1925, to provide money for the renovation. Thanks to the great efforts of poet and academician Milan Rakić, then ambassador in Sofia (1921–1927), information was collected about warriors buried at the cemetery. In July 1926, the Ministry of Religion approved the embassy in Sofia 100.000 dinars for ”arranging and maintenance of our military cemeteries in Bulgaria”. Upon the new request to the embassy dated February 24, 1927, ”for raising a monument and ossuary” in Sofia, the Ministry of Religion approved an additional amount of 45.000 dinars. A new plan for the cemetery and monument was made and the construction works performed during 1927. The cemetery then got its present appearance. It was ceremonially opened on St. Vid’s Day (June 28), 1928. The monument was designed by Dušan Mirosavljević, architect from Belgrade.


Arranging other Serbian cemeteries in Bulgaria requested great financial means. Since it was impossible to provide them, there was an attempt to transfer the remains of Serbian warriors to the military cemetery in Sofia. The process was very slow, so everything stayed on correspondence. Still, the embassy in Sofia organized collecting data about tombs of Serbian warriors, based on which a decision had to be made on raising new memorials. In a letter dated July 4, 1928, the secretary of the embassy in Sofia reported to Belgrade: ”…We must have in mind that in Bulgaria, here and there, many of our bones lay scattered. According to some information, there are more than 15.000 graves, somewhere fenced and clustered and somewhere mixed. When the Ministry approves necessary loans and when political circumstances allow it, all our tombs will be dug and bones transferred to the cemetery in Sofia and its ossuary big enough for them.”
An attempt to build an ossuary in Sliven and Gornje Pancharevo was not realized. Finally, the idea to build new cemeteries and ossuaries in Bulgaria was given up on and in 1936 a decision was brought to transfer remains of Serbian warriors from all places throughout the country to the military cemetery in Sofia. A decision was also brought to have it appropriately arranged. Due to the slowness of both sides, as well as the quickly approaching new world war, the mentioned decision was not implemented. By the way, most Serbian military cemeteries are located in the following cities in Bulgaria: Gornje Pančarevo, Plovdiv, Sliven, Shumen, Ruse, Pleven, Stara Zagora…


Immediately before the battles around Dobrich, on September 3, 1916, an international military cemetery was founded, upon the agreement of the Bulgarian army and local municipality authorities. The space where fairs were held was determined the most appropriate. The fairground was near the city, as well as the position of the Bulgarian Varnen army. Only until the evening of September 5, 1916, 600 Bulgarian and enemy soldiers were buried there. In the following two days, Bulgarian soldiers from the Varnen army and several Russian, Romanian and Serbian soldiers were buried at the cemetery. The people of Dobrich organized a procession to the military cemetery on September 8 to honor the deceased. On that day, officers from two Bulgarian infantry regiments (35th Vrachani and 36th Kozlodui) were buried there, while soldiers from the regiments were buried in a mass grave in the villages of Suyuchuk and Karasinan (present Rosenovo).
At the time of moving the front north of the city, and then further to North Dobruja and the Danube, only high-ranked officers were buried in the military cemetery in Dobrich in September and October 1916, for example Colonel Anton Dyakov, commander of the 19th infantry regiment of Shumen. A decision was then made to bury ally soldiers there as well (Turkish and German). Thus, 64 Turkish soldiers of Islamic religion have their graves there. All Bulgarian soldiers who died in hospitals and lazarets in Dobrich were buried there as well. In total, 3.500 soldiers were buried in individual and mass graves, members of ten nations and five religions.
The cemetery was renovated in 1922. It was ceremonially opened on September 30 the same year, in the presence of many people. In early 1940, the authorities tried to Romanize the cemetery. However, soon afterwards, the same year, South Dobruja was returned to Bulgaria, according to the Craiova peace treaty. It was under Romanian rule from 1919 to 1940.
Until 1953, the cemetery was under jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry, but after that year it lost the protection of the state. Since mid-1950s to early 1960s, the northern industrial zone was built in the immediate vicinity of the cemetery. In 1967, the municipality assembly suggested to have some graves exhumed and buried in a mass grave ”somewhere in the city”. However, the military cemetery was preserved thanks to the uncompromising attitude of the army’s political management. Turning the military cemetery into a museum in the early 1970s enabled extended conservatory and restoration works on it.
The memorial chapel with the ossuary was renovated. The first museum setting was opened on December 7, 1974. Two years later, in 1976, the military cemetery was declared cultural monument. The small museum was nicely designed and professionally made. It offers precise basic facts about that small fragment of the horrible Great War.
In the battles around Dobrich from September 6 to 8, 1916, in which Serbian volunteers also participated, eight officers, 176 non-commissioned officers and soldiers were injured, and 122 of them died. Among them were seven Serbian warriors: Mokean or Mikan Plović, Marin Ivanović, Golub Šokur, Simeon Isaković, Aleksandar Ivanović, B. Bjačić and Vasilj Marović. The remaining deceased Serbian volunteers and those who died of injuries were buried in the cemetery of the city of Mejidia in North Dobruja, Romania. Between the two wars, a worthy monument was raised to their honor, in the shape of a monumental marble pyramid.

(The author is the head of researching Serbian military memorials in Bulgaria, performed in 2015 and 2017 by the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Valjevo and the Provincial Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Novi Sad, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy of Serbia)


Bridge in Komarevo
The village of Komarevo, on the banks of the Vit river, north from the city of Pleven, is 137 kilometers from Veliko Trnovo. During the Great War, there was a big prisoners of war camp in Pleven, through which thousands of Serbian prisoners passed. In early 1916, two squads of Serbian prisoners were separated and taken to the village of Komarevo. Their war comrade, engineer Peters, Dutchman, came together with them. They were assigned to build an armored concrete bridge on the Vit river, an important point on the Pleven-Somovit road.
The construction lasted almost two years. Starved and almost naked, worn out and exhausted, they were engaged in the most difficult physical labor, without any mechanization, doing everything by hand. The bridge is 80 meters long, with three 20-meter arches, 12,5 meters high. It is no longer in use and does not lead anywhere. It is impassable for bigger agricultural machines and trucks, which probably preserved it until today.


The Bulgarian Ministry of Defense archive material was preserved and is available for research. It is kept in Veliko Trnovo and could shed light on lives, work and deaths of Serbian prisoners of war and internees in Bulgaria during the Great War. Collecting and studying numerous facts about the graves of those forgotten martyrs is possible. What is keeping us from doing it?


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