by Graeme Sheppard
Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books, 2021. Pp. viii, 300.
Illus., maps, notes, index. £16.65 paper. ISBN: 9888552864
How did the Great War End?
Did a rumor spread by a Bulgarian opposition politician that the Germans had made a contract with the Bulgarian government that they would no longer have to fight the Allied Powers after September 25th, 1918, begin the chain of events that led to the end of World War I? That is the interesting thesis of Graeme Sheppard in The Bulgarian Contract.
Sheppard’s theory relies on the accounts of two British soldiers David J. Cowan and Robert Howe, who escaped from a Bulgarian prisoner-of-war camp and traveled to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia where they saw the collapse and surrender of Bulgaria to the Allies in the waning days of WWI. With Bulgaria out of the war, the Allied armies advanced toward Istanbul and Belgrade, leading Turkey to agree to an armistice with the Allies on October 30th, soon followed by Austria-Hungary on November 4th. Germany began negotiations for an armistice on November 8th, followed by the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm on the 10th, and the armistice itself on the 11th.
In the years after the First World War, Howe joined the British Foreign Service, serving in different posts, including Brazil, China, and Romania. He wrote an unpublished memoir in 1971, that Sheppard discovered in the course of his research for another book on an infamous murder in Peking.
It is this memoir and a letter that Cowan wrote to the British historian Cyril Falls (official historian of the Macedonian Campaign in WWI) regarding the Bulgarian Contract on which Sheppard relies to prove that the alleged document, was created by Bulgarian opposition politician Alexander Stamboliski in 1918, and spread by Stamboliski’s confederates to undermine the morale of the Bulgarian Army, whose soldiers genuinely came to believe that the Germans had promised that Bulgaria would no longer have to fight after September 25th. Sheppard argues that by undermining the morale of the Bulgarian forces in Macedonia, the Contract was directly responsible for the breakthrough of the Allied Army of Macedonia at the Battle of Dobro Pole on September 15. Therefore, he alleges, the Contract sparked the chain of events that ended the Great War.
In November 1922, Howe was sent to Belgrade, Yugoslavia as head of the Chancery of the British Delegation. There he ran into Stamboliski, who allegedly confirmed the story of the Bulgarian Contract and that he, Stamboliski, had invented the Contract. Cowan’s letter to Falls apparently prompted the historian to research the Contract, but Falls did not find the available evidence convincing enough to include the story in the British Official History he wrote. Sheppard points to vague intelligence reports from the French about rumors that the Bulgarians would cease to fight after September 15 as additional proof, as well as a handful of allusions to the Contract in contemporary Bulgarian sources.
While the “Bulgarian Contract” story could plausibly have sparked the end of the Great War, I do not find the evidence presented by Sheppard sufficient to establish the existence of such a Contract. Additional research into Bulgarian, French, and British archives is needed. In particular, I would think that if the Contract was real, one should be able to find Bulgarian POWs from the period of September-October 1918 who would have mentioned the Contract when interrogated by Allied intelligence officers following the Battle of Dobro Pole. Otherwise this is just an interesting story. Still, I enjoyed Sheppard’s weaving together of events in the crucial last months of the war, making this a worthy read for aficionados of WWI and diplomatic history.
Our Reviewer: Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies, In the Name of Lykourgos, and The Other Face of Battle.
Note: The Bulgarian Contract is also available in e-editions.
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