In late September 1918, two young British officers, for three years POWs in Bulgaria and twice before failed escapees, walked out of their prison camp deep behind enemy lines. Having heard rumours that the Macedonian front had collapsed, on this occasion they simply announced to their resigned captors that they were leaving. No one stopped them. The pair then spent several days travelling a hundred miles over chaotic roads and rail lines jammed with an enemy army in rebellious retreat. Largely ignored on their way, they headed not toward the advancing Allied forces to the south, but instead west toward Sofia, the enemy’s capital, and a city now engulfed in political turmoil. The Bulgarian Contract.
Arriving at a frenzied rail station, they caught a horse-drawn cab to the nearly deserted Ministry of War building. There, despite their less than orderly attire, they brazenly announced to its staff that they were British officers and were taking control of the city in the name of His Majesty the King. No one raised an objection. With their authority established, a ministry car and driver were summoned to take the pair to the city’s Grand Hotel, where they demanded and were provided with the best rooms the establishment possessed.
An hour later, having washed and shaved, they entered the hotel restaurant, only to find it full of senior German officers gloomily eating their dinner. The hotel, it transpired, happened to serve as the German regional headquarters. Undeterred, the pair informed the maître d’ that they required the head table and would the two gentlemen seated there kindly vacate it, at which the German officers concerned rose wordlessly from their seats. Rubbing salt into the remaining diners’ wounds, one of the chums then raised a toast to the victorious Allies.
“It was a great moment,” remembered 2nd Lt. Robert Howe. “One of the greatest moments of my life – perhaps never again one like it. One of those moments when you know there is nothing you cannot do, when no obstacles exist, when no one can touch you.”
A great moment, indeed. And yet, though did not yet realise it, the two men had so much more to relate. They had experienced a very peculiar captivity in Bulgaria, one of extremes, ranging from internment in the worst of punishment death-camps to that of living in virtual freedom among its peasant folk. But their survival tale is only the backdrop to their unique eye-witness accounts of a secret act of Balkan propaganda, known as The Contract, one that triggered not only rebellion in Bulgaria and the collapse of the Macedonian front, but also acted as the catalyst for German defeat and the road to the armistice of November 11.
The Bulgarian Contract provides readers with two new strands of evidence that together change our understanding of how and why the Great War reached its conclusion. Firstly, newly discovered evidence of a clandestine deception that was crucial in bringing about the dramatic collapse of the Macedonian front. Secondly, the direct influence it had on Germany’s High Command, Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL), in occupied Belgium, and on de facto dictator, Erich Ludendorff, and his crucial meeting with the Kaiser of 29 September, resulting in the road to German surrender six weeks later. Describing politics, revolution, treason, assassination, and deceit, the book explains how without the hitherto unknown Contract, the Great War was destined to continue through the coming winter and into 1919, resulting in many thousands of further deaths.
Graeme Sheppard is the author of The Bulgarian Contract: The Secret Lie that Ended the Great War is available to buy now.