The Suffering of the Town of Bitola (1917)
Bitola was the richest town in Macedonia before the European war. Lying at the foot of Pelister, its trade spread through the entire land to Salonica, with which it is tied through a normal gauge railway. Its Macedonian population accepted into itself Greek, Italian and other merchants, who quickly got rich. It was completely natural that since the time of the Turkish occupation this advanced town strongly attracted the neighbours who all claimed the right of ownership over it. Bulgarians, especially, conducted very lively propaganda there, aiming to persuade the public in the West, which is very little or not at all instructed in the Balkan matters, that this town was Bulgarian and it undisputedly belongs to the state of Ferdinand Coburg. Therefore their anger increased when after the Second Balkan War, set alight by their voraciousness and their betrayal, the Congress of Bucharest awarded to Serbia the capital of southern Macedonia.
Since that time Bulgaria only waited for a suitable moment to take away from Serbia this beautiful town, completely whitewashed in the middle of green orchards, with a population of 50.000 souls, wanting only to enjoy its happiness and peace. The opportunity showed itself during the the great war, which is now bloodying Europe. In the autumn of 1915. Serbs were attacked by a huge Austro-German force. Despite this, King Petar’s brave warriors could resist them if the attacker came only from the north and the west. But, having another completely fresh enemy in the east, their position became untenable. However, despite their good position the cautious Bulgarians would not have advanced, if the old Serbian ally, Greece, had not imitated the example emanating from Berlin and torn up a piece of paper, on which the text of its alliance and the signature of its King. To make the misfortune complete, the Allies from the Entente did not arrive in time to help their small, but heroic friend. In Niš, for the solemn greeting of the soldiers of the Grande Republique and England, the arranged flowers wilted, the flags grew colourless and every morning took away from Serbs increasingly more hope that they will hear the joyous trumpet of allied troops, coming to help their brothers who are in trials.
The Serbian Army, having been left alone, had to withdraw. Little by little, it evacuated the entire territory of its ancestors. Another people, in this painful position, would probably seek to save its goods by a complete submission to the victor. But the Serbian parliament, the Skupština, in a moment of danger disbanded with the cry: “Rather unto death, than disgrace!” and the army and the people held to this oath. Brutal, but stoic they withdrew through the Albanian snow-covered mountains. Thousands of corpses of women, children and soldiers marked their path. The old King himself was in the midst of his people, sharing with them their suffering, which can not be named. “The withdrawal through Albania” will remain in history a symbol of incredible suffering, but also the symbol of the greatest glory!
At the end of 1915. the King of Serbia and His son were without a state and Serbs without a motherland, but both the King and the soldiers and peasants gave the Serbian name such a glow, that no country had before. Fortune instantly appeared to reward the Bulgarian betrayal. The subjects of Coburg became the masters of the whole of Macedonia, with Bitola, to the Greek border.
What the conquerors did in the town, for which they said was their by rights? Did they treat the inhabitants as their own brothers by race, as one would with lost sons, who again found their homeland? I could find that out with a thorough survey, which I carried out immediately after the allied forces took the town on the 6th/19th of November 1916. Here are my first impressions, as I published them in the great Dutch newspaper the Amsterdam De Telegraaf:
“Bitola fell into the hands of the Allies on 6. (19.) November. This is the first Serbian town liberated from under the conqueror’s yoke. The irresistible onslaught of the Serbian army on the ridges of Čuka, which protects the left bank of Crna Reka from the flank, prepared and enabled this fall. Serbian troops, tied up with fighting the enemy on the mountain, could not send bigger sections to participate in the formal entry into the capital of southern Macedonia; however there were Serbian units, which successfully collaborated with their allies and the first two men to enter the town were Serbs. One of them is the son of the brave commander, who organised the beautiful maneouvre whose happy outcome we now celebrate. The Bulgaro-German resistance was persistent. The Central Powers and their vassals did not easily let go of their booty, which they considered as already confidently won, making the positive outcome of the action even more to the honour of the eastern, allied army and their commanders, especially the brave Serbs who took upon themselves the hardest task.
As soon as the capture of Bitola was known, I decided to immediately go to the town, to evaluate the state of affairs in it. I therefore traveled on the 7. (20.) November very early and headed through the swampy flats to my destination. When I arrived on the great road from Vrben to Bitola I met cars and lorries of all stripes. They carried ammunition and provisions. I met Serbian officers on horseback, who could not resist the temptation to step on the cobblestones of a Serbian town and were on their way back to their camps. One, very young Russian captain joined us and lively explained to us that he is a machine gun captain and that he has fought for three days without rest and that he is going to Bitola “to sleep”. What great, beautiful children are these Russian soldiers! We were overtaken by a very powerful automobile; in it were higher-ranking French officers; they greeted us joyously. Further on, the long column of Russian field kitchens was moving, which are carrying food for the brave troops, which aided in the expulsion of Bulgarians and Germans. Finally, we get to the entry to the town. A big barracks, with its untouched pink facade, is burned down. The railway station is damaged and a few locomotives are standing sadly, without a fire in them on bent tracks. Italian infantry are getting ready to pass through the town. In their grey uniforms with gear of same colour they are brilliant and they will strongly support the defence of Serbian Bitola, a labour which is earnestly looked forward to by all the friends of the kingdoms of Emanuel of Savoy and Petar Karađorđević.
The night is falling and the town streets fall into an almost complete dark. However thousands of allied soldiers go through them on foot and horse and communicate in all the languages of allied countries. From time to time an explosion of a projectile is heard; that is Bulgarians taking vengeance on their loss and firing heavy shells towards Bitola; they had sworn they would not give up. They made their calculations without the allied artillery and the heroic Serbian troops, who are in a rush to get back to their own land. They, perhaps, feel that the trumpets, which are now ringing in the town are announcing the start of the death knell of Greater Bulgaria! Justice is still not gone from this world.
Serbian civilian authorities are already settled in. The county chief is already on duty, as is the president of the municipality. I am going to greet them in a house which temporarily serves as the seat of the government, as the previous and beautiful building was destroyed by a fire almost a month ago. The chief is blessed. He found again his old rubber stamps among those left behind by the sudden rout of the Bulgarians. He is fully engaged with work. The president of the municipality is in talks with the foremost citizens, which tell him of their troubles and discuss the most successful way to help the starved population. Because the population is truly hungry. The Bulgarians took everything and they took little care about the survival of the people they wanted to Bulgarise. A bread was sold for exactly 5 levs [Bulgarian currency, translator’s note], that is 5 francs. The tots, with sunken cheeks, are holding me up on the street and asking for bread. The first care of the Serbs will be the food supply of this unfortunate population. Telegrams are sent, asking for rapid deliveries of bread and flour.
But despite the hunger, the population is happy, as it as escaped the Bulgarian yoke. Serbian tricoloured flags are coming out of their hiding places and are flapping in the wind on the balconies of houses, which are semi-oriental and semi-European. In those few taverns which are open, frames with pictures of the Serbian royal family are hastily being nailed to the walls. With what miracle did these photographs escape the untrusting inquisition of Bulgarian komitadjis?
The foremost citizens tell me their suffering. The town, once prosperous, has become miserable. The conquerors took everything. They arrested and exiled all the citizens who they doubted to be friends of Serbia. Komitadjis, under the command of the son of General Boyadziev, a beardless lad, a son of a man of influence, but still accepted into the Macedonian komitadji organisation, performed terrible police service. Lately people did not dare to leave their homes for fear of being taken to labour on the roads and in the trenches. Young men and even the men of some age were recruited into the military. In all, it was a terror regime. Today these citizens are breathing freely again. They know that the Serbs are not oppressors but democrats who aim to sincerely please everyone. And Macedonians ask only one thing: to be left in peace, so they could work and live from their labours in absolute security.
But it is already late and we have not eaten the whole day. We looked for where to refresh ourselves, which was not easy to find. However, with the goodwill of Serbs we managed this and found accommodations, which the county chief was supposed to have. And besides the beating of the artillery fire, which did not stop through the night, I slept with the peace of the righteous and I was only woken up the next morning with by a bomb exploding close by, thrown from an enemy airplane. The whole day the Bulgarians and Germans send us such bonbons. When I went out into the streets I established that the facades of almost all the warehouses were demolished, with the warehouses themselves looted. Faithful to their habits and similar to their Austro-Hungarian allies in Serbia, Bulgarians stole everything that could be carried, destroying the rest.
At 10 o’clock Heir Apparent Aleksandar and General Sarrail entered the town. I had the honour of greeting them with the chief and the president of the municipality. Prince Aleksandar, natural as always, shook our hands like friends, but his hand was slightly trembling. The prince was excited, but did not want that to be noticed. He cast a glance to two Serbian tricolours, which we had put up above the entry door and this look told a careful observer all the longing of this hero to soon see the white Belgrade and all his joy for being at the gates of his much-beloved country, a country of peasants who are proud but good, ruled over by a dynasty from their own ranks.
General Sarrail was satisfied as well. His fine warrior’s figure expressed joy and he strongly clasped our hands. This great success does him honour, but I believe that at that moment he thought less of the strategic success of his plan, than the joy for cooperating for the heroic Serbian people to be able to step into their own land again. Instinctively I saw the image of another man, who must be as pleased. I saw the president of the French government, Briand, the motive force behind the Salonica expedition, and therefore one of the main liberators of Serbia, who was slightly tarnished by the conqueror. History will say everything needed about this man, who despite all obstacles, understood and wanted a Balkan front. Serbia will raise to these men a monument, at whose foot its children will lay flowers of true gratitude.
During the occupation of Bitola, Bulgarians did not act at all like “good brothers” of the inhabitants of the unfortunate town. In this matter I have gathered hard evidence, of which I will give a short summary, emphasising explicitly that I am not using anything which was not proven through the statements of witnesses, completely reliable ones, who signed the transcriptions of their oral debriefing.
The first care of the Bulgarians, entering the town was to establish in it the administrative committee, comprised of 3 member of he revolutionary Macedonian committee from Sofia (Macedonia-Edirne) [IMRO/VMRO, translator’s note] and 4 members from the surrounding area, accepted into the central organisation. Dr Penchev, the director of the gymnasium in Sofia and a member of influence in the central committee, came often to Bitola to cooperate with the committee. This committee had an almost unlimited authority and before them even the county chief Boyadziev, the son of the general of the same name. Boyadziev, a young, beardless officer, was brutal, cruel and a womaniser. This ill-reputed committee also directed the police service, whose large numbers were comprised of members of komitadji companies. The most influential elders of these people were: Rizov, Popov, Dorev, Boris, Grapchev, Altiparmakov and the komitadji priest Pavle Kristov, who always had a uniform of a Bulgarian komitadji under his cassock.
The president of the town’s municipality was Naum Vladov, born in Resen, but living for in Bulgaria for a long time, as a minor manufacturer of soda water; he was an adherent of Radoslavov; an unrighteous and dishonourable man. As the president of municipality he was also the president of the board for the feeding of Bitola and kept for himself a great amount of foodstuffs which were supposed to be sold to the unfortunate populace at low prices. Thus once of a shipment of salt of 30.000 kg he took 20.000 kg, which his men would sell for his profit.
These clerks, both civilian and military, accepted into the komitadji organisation, abused their authority, extorting money from the unfortunate Bitolans. They would call them into the police commissariat and imprison them under the excuse that they spoke ill of the Bulgarian government. A little later the prisoners would be asked for by another clerks and suggest to them immediate release with the aid of some amount of money. The usual price for this kind of “liberation” was 15-20 Turkish gold liras. at times, and often, the sums demanded were much higher. Thus Nikola Plašić from Debar, aged 48, paid the warden of the county jail in Bitola 2000 dinars and this man, when letting him go, gave him an act, which I have copied here verbatim: “The Empire of Bulgaria, county jail in Bitola, No 898. 17-XI-1916. Bitola. For the commander of the Bitola garrison. At the location. Sir Major. According to telegram No 3378. 16-XI-1916. from the president of the military court in Prespa, I am releasing to freedom the named Nikola Plašić from Debar. Jail warden Ivan (an illegible name follows, probably Kristov).”
In general, the Bitola jails were always full under the Bulgarians. Every person, suspected of leaning towards the Serbs, was imprisoned and mostly at that time was exiled into Bulgaria. At the moment of withdrawal of the Bulgarian troops there were 300 prisoners in the county jail itself and they were all taken in chains to Prilep, except those who paid the warden. He had a profitable day then: Iraklije Saršević a merchant from Bitola, paid him 3000 dinars; Naum Kočas, a rentier from Bitola, about 60 years old, 400 dinars; Demir Husein, the previous controller of the Serbian tobacco monopoly, 2000 dinars; Petar Nikolić, an executor in Bitola, 300 dinars, and so on. Among the prisoners there were many boys aged 10 to 16. Thus a boy of 10 years, Sarče from Prilep, was convicted of 10 years of hard labour.
The wives of Serbian soldiers and clerks were exiled to Bulgaria. Boyadziev even wanted to force them to marry Bulgarians. Donka, the wife of the Serbian gendarme Svetozar Stoiljković, escaped her forced double marriage only by the entry of the Allies into the town and Bulgarians wanted to murder her out of anger before leaving. Officers and clerks tried to cruelly misuse the women, who were left without their husbands. For example the wife of a Serbian lieutenant was raped by a Bulgarian officer and she was forcefully taken to Prilep while ill.
The clerks, moreover did not restrain themselves form using corporal punishment on people, whom they did not like. Thus a popular leader Petar Bojadžić, a 64 year old man, was beaten mightily by two representatives of the komitadjis: Nikola Dimev Smoladzenov and Take Ilov Janakioski.
The Bulgarians also performed a violent propaganda in favour of the schismatic Bulgarian church. The Greek archimandrite in Bitola assured me that around 60 villages which followed the Patriarchate were forced to accept the schismatic church.
Then last autumn the battles turned to favour the prince of Coburg’s army, all citizens, without distinction of their social status, who happened to be out in the town’s streets, were grabbed and forced to labour on the roads. In the month of September 1916. Bulgarians took to Bulgaria all the doctors without making any national distinction. Dr Ashtari, a Greek and a doctor in the Greek hospital in Bitola was so taken on the 7. (20.) of September with another 4 doctors. They were snatched under the excuse that doctors were needed in Bulgaria and they gave them only 2 hours to put their affairs in order. They were first sent to Sofia, then Ahstari was finally taken to Razgrad. The Bulgarians at first left only 2 Bulgarian doctors, who left with the army.
Bitola was once a rich and prosperous town. The Bulgarians had in less than a year of occupation, made of it a city of famine. Having taken everything that belonged to the population, they did almost nothing to feed them. The government in Sofia sent sometimes aid in salt, flour, etc, but in such an insufficient amount that the aid was completely pointless and inasmuch more because, as I mentioned above, dishonourable clerks would take the majority of the goods for themselves. The foodstuffs, much cheaper before the war, reached fantastical prices. Bread was 4 to 5 dinars, with the quality being very poor. Meat was 4 to 6 dinars per oka [Ottoman weight measurement, 1 oka = 1.2829 kg, translator’s note], milk 1 to 1.5 dinars per litre. An egg was 1.5 dinars. When there was sugar, which happened rarely, an oka (1.280 kg) was sold for 18 dinars. Petroleum was not available. What the unfortunate population suffered in this regime in incredible. The poor died due to exhaustion. One of the city leaders, Sotir Sekulović, who was a known Bulgarophile before the occupation, assured me that the Allies would have found hundreds of corpses, dead of famine, if they had been only 15 days late in arrival.
Finally, in the hour their departure, Bulgarian soldiers looted almost all the warehouses. Whatever could not be taken was destroyed.
This way the Bitolans, during an almost entire year suffered from hunger and tolerated the terror regime of Boyadziev’s and Vladov’s komitadjis and the notorious administrative committee. These however did not dare murder the citizens. This is easily explained by the fact that Bulgarians, who always claimed that Macedonians from the Bitola region are purely Bulgarians did not want to formally denounce this, shooting en masse “their own subjects”. Reliable reports, which I received and my own observations on the spot show however, that they were caught in other areas, for example in Debar, where they murdered 1400 Serbian prisoners and in Gradešnica, where I established there are graves of 21 Serbian soldiers who had their throats slit.
In Bitola only one man was shot: Vanko Grigorović. This Vanko, a Serbian patriot, was sending reports to the allies. The word spread, his wife does not hide it. From their point of view, the Bulgarians had an easy time getting rid of him. But the manner which they used to get rid of him is a typical showcase of their barbarism. To witness the Vanko’s execution, they gathered in the yard of the administrative building all the prisoners with manacles on their hands. Finally they brought in the wife and both daughters of the convicted man. Little Hrisula fell before the feet of chief Boyadziev and begged him to spare them the sight. He struck her with his riding whip and ordered the soldiers to hold the mother and children so that they were forced to see the hanging of their husband and father. In the meantime, Buglarian and German officers, who came in large numbers, as if to a theatre play, laughed to tears and mocked the poor man and his family. Death, even of the worst enemy, was always respected by enlightened peoples, even the wild tribes. Bulgarians and Germans who witnessed the execution of this Serbian patriot forgot this.
After the allied troops took Bitola, it could have been believed that its population will be able to breathe freely and put efforts towards fixing, as much as possible, the damages which the enemy soldiers did during the occupation. Was not Bitola, an open city, protected through the Hague Convention from enemy shelling? But no, the poor inhabitants of this unfortunate town were only to enter a new phase of their suffering. Starting on 6. (19.) November Bulgaro-German forces did not cease bombing Bitola and killing in it old men, women and children. I went there on several occasions and in order to give a sketch of this bombing, I wrote a report which I sent to the Gazette De Lausanne on 13. December 1916.: “I am in Bitola, which the allied forces took from Bulgaro-German forces on 6. (19.) November. This is an open town, completely unfortified, with army positions outside of its boundaries. However, since they lost it, the enemies of the Entente have not stopped bombing it with artillery and airplanes. In truth, they aimed explicitly the suburbs and the entry to the town, where they could assume that the camps of the troops were or artillery positions. A few days ago they changed their tactics and sent shrapnel shells to the town itself and since yesterday they are bombing its centre with heavy shells from 210. However there is an article of the Hague Convention of 1907., which was signed by the Central Empires, which formally bans the shelling of open towns. However, this Hague Convention is a paper rag which they have torn, as all similar to it.
This morning in my private apartment, in the middle of Bitola and far away from every military instance, I was woken up by a terrible crash. A giant enemy projectile collapsed a house quite close to my own. Another dozen came in after this projectile, which fell around my house, creating a hail of stones and broken metal hitting our walls and roof. Finally the projectiles fall increasingly further away, and finally after a shelling of an hour, a relative peace came about, interrupted from time to time with dry explosions, similar to “whip cracks”, of shrapnel, which are exploding in the streets and public spaces.
French Postcard, "Monastir [Bitola] - Street of King Petar after the bombing of 17 August 1917". Added by Books of Jeremiah
The inhabitants had hidden underground in their basements or better said, what they call basements, that is into simple dugouts, without a ceiling, but only covered with some wood. A big 210 shell like these used by Bulgarians and Germans to fire on Bitola, enters these basements as if penetrating cheese, after it had penetrated the light building, which in the east is called a stone house. But these basements give at least something like safety to the maddened population of old men, women and children and that is already much. A great number of Bitolans seeks shelter in churches, for which they believe are secured from enemy projectiles and day and night the temples are full of people, who imagine that they can avoid death, making themselves as small as possible.
Unknown date. Added by Books of Jeremiah
I use the first lull to go out and establish the damage. Only soldiers, used to the big shells, go peacefully along the streets. From time to time I meet stretchers, carried by two men, on which the body of a woman or a child lies, covered in blood and followed by the sad parents. They are carrying the victims of the Germano-Bulgarian insubordination to the war conventions and laws to the Greek hospital. Here is a beautiful building, penetrated from top to bottom by a projectile and whose windows are all blown out. I enter inside and in the basement I find a big pool of blood. A mother had escaped there with her three children. She had a baby on her knees and the two bigger children had hidden under her skirts out of fear. She was calming them down, telling them they are well protected in the basement, when a big 210 projectile came to extinguish these four innocent lives.
I am now in front of the French hospital; they are hurriedly moving out of it. The explosions of projectiles are disturbing the chirurgeons, whose hands are full in the surgical hall. They will settle in the basements of the Greek hospital, which have a proper ceiling.
The entry to this hospital is crowded with people who are desperately crying. These are the parents of the wounded who have been brought here. A thinner young man, gymnasium pupil, asks fearfully a French orderly in passing: “Are those two young girls seriously wounded?” Very confused the honest orderly replies: “I am afraid that they will not survive”, but his voice betrayed him that they had already died. “Those are my sisters”, said the gymnasium pupil and stepped away weeping.
The bombing begins. Some, who accidentally were in the streets, hurried to get to their “basements”. I want to continue my “shelling observations” from my window, from which one can see a large part of the town. It seems that our house is again attracting projectiles. Everywhere around shells are falling on the houses. One shell fell 10 meters away and I used the opportunity to photograph it exploding.
It is noon; one should go get lunch in the cantina of the Serbian officers. I am walking down a deserted street, on which I only meet one boy, who in the middle of the explosions is offering passers-by Serbian newspapers. “Pravda”, “Velika Srbija” the kid is shouting and defies the projectiles, to be able to take a few coins to his mother, suffering from the heavy scarcity.
The new phase of bombing is ending. A priest, followed by a man carrying a white casket is in a hurry to bury an old woman, who was killed right by our house. He too is risking his life in order to be able to earn a living, as a ball from a shrapnel which exploded above him went through the empty coffin, intended for the late woman.
And so for entire days and nights the enemies of Serbs extend their acts of destruction of an open town, once very rich, today ruined by Bulgarian occupation and bombing. Today’s tally: one dead Italian soldier, one wounded Serbian soldier, about a dozen women and children killed. No matter how much one is neutral, one can not refrain from noticing this beastliness. War is not led to exterminate the innocents but for armies to fight. Neutral countries should finally leave their restraint and protest this murder, because the judgement of History will be strict not only for those who does them, but also for those who allowed them to be committed, not saying a word.”
Through the official acts I was able to establish the following result of the bombing of the town of Bitola.
From 21. November to 31. December (old calender) there were dead and wounded from the bombing (only inhabitants): killed 79, wounded 119. There are killed 31 and wounded 31 whose sex was not established. Among the dead whose sex was established: 21 men, 11 women, 16 children; among the wounded: 27 men, 31 women, 30 children.
From 1. January to 27 January 1917. (old calender), there were dead and wounded citizens from the bombing: 17 killed, of which 4 men, 9 women and 4 children; 28 wounded of which 7 men, 11 women, 10 children.
From 1. February to 28. February (old calender): 17 killed, of which 3 men, 7 women, 7 children; 46 wounded of which 4 men, 16 women, 26 children.
From 1. March to 18. March (old calender): 286 killed, of which, as far as I could determine, 53 men, 65 women, 88 children, 88 undetermined sex; wounded 172, of which 37 men, 30 women, 44 children, 61 undetermined sex.
According to this the total number of victims is 764, of which 399 dead and 365 wounded; these are the officially established numbers of dead and wounded victims, citizens, due to the Bulgaro-German bombing. Among the dead are 81 men, 92 women, 115 children, 111 of undetermined sex, among the wounded there are 75 men, 88 women, 110 children, 82 of undetermined sex.
The numbers which I stated, do not represent all the losses in human lives which were the result of the bombing of the capital of southern Macedonia. I am convinced, even certain, that the authorities are not aware of many victims and therefore were not able to register them in the official tallies. Imagine a town, which still today has around 25.000 inhabitants, specifically old men, women and children, and which is being shelled day and night with heavy calibre projectiles. More than 2.000 of its houses have been damaged or destroyed. Despite their bravery, shown by the chief, the president of the municipality, police commissars and gendarmes, it is still impossible to arrive everywhere and establish with undeniable evidence all the damages brought by the enemy. The number of shells, only of the heavy calibres officially listed which were fired on Bitola is 5285!
It seems that the enemies of the Entente’s only goal is to destroy this town, which the brave allied troops took away from them. They will excuse themselves that the shelling was directed against enemy soldiers which are passing through Bitola. It is certain that troops passed through Bitola, which lies at the bottom of a plain and there is no road which would go past it. But it is the same as with a great number of open settlements, which are however protected by the Hague Convention.That the law-makers in the Hague made it illegal to shell an even open towns, which are in the path of an army, is because they knew that to blockade passage through a town like that it is necessary only to use projectiles to close up the town’s streets and exits and that there is no necessity to touch the core of the town. Bulgaro-German forces could have stuck to this tactic that much more easily because they knew, after an eleven month occupation, all the details of every corner of Bitola and its surroundings. Bulgaro-German projectiles fell on all of the town’s quarters. Not even alleys, removed from certain streets, which could have been used for the passage of troops or the food trains. This goes to prove that the enemies of the Entente sought something else and not to prevent the passage of the army of its enemies. They could object that they assumed the Allies had artillery emplacements in the town. The answer to that is easy. If this were true, that at the given moments the defensive troops had a few artillery pieces at the edge of Bitola, this was for them to defend the town from the constant Bulgaro-German shelling, which started immediately after its fall, even though no protective artillery emplacements were set up in the town. Moreover, the Supreme Command of the enemies of Serbs does not have the excuse that it was searching for the position of the artillery across the town itself. Its airplanes flew over the town quite frequently above Bitola to find out what was happening in detail. Its spies were no less active, therefore it was completely familiar with the goings on in the bombarded town.
Bulgaro-German forces know reliably as well, and for a long time, that Bitola never even saw any artillery and that the few defence artillery emplacements were at the edges of its suburbs. Why did not they satisfy to pour their heavy shells on these places? And why did they, precisely from that moment increase, in a terrible way, the shelling of the town’s centre?
Finally, the last and hard confirmation of the fells completely the system of defense of the Central Empires and their vassals. In the night between 16. and 17. March the Bulgaro-German artillery started shelling the middle of the town with asphyxiating gasses. This night 19 persons were killed through explosions and 62 through gassing. Among the latter were 25 women and 32 children: 61 persons were poisoned and most of them died the next day. From this date the projectiles with asphyxiating gasses fall daily on all parts of the unfortunate town. The enemies fire them off in the night especially, so that the poor inhabitants are surprised during rest hours and it is impossible for them to save themselves.
The effect of the gasses is terrifying. The poisoned people show these symptoms: pain in the throat, heavy breathing, swollen stomachs. Their faces are blue. Those who saved themselves assure me that the gasses smell a bit like bitter almonds, which is why the suspicion is that this is Prussian (cyanide) acid. However, if this were truly this acid, death would happen almost instantaneously; in actuality, it happens only after 30-45 minutes. The gasses are very heavy and they build up an lightly powdered cloud. Not having the necessary apparatus, I could not perform an analysis; I still think this would be carbon monoxide or a similar gas. The projectiles are exploding without much of a bang; there is a tube in the middle, wrapped in radiating metal plates. In this tube is the material which turns into gas, probably with the application of heat.
That night when the Bulgaro-German forces used the gas shells for the first time, they lobbed them into the Turkish quarter, directly in the centre of the town, in the Jewish quarter and around the building of the Serbian metropolitanate. In the basement of the latter there were a lot of refugees; 37 were killed by gasses. Since then similar projectiles fall on this building almost every night; but the people are informed and do not hide in basements. As soon as a shell lands nearby, they climb the higher floors, where they are protected from these very heavy gasses. The metropolitanate building is removed from the streets, which could be used as traversing roads. It is impossible therefore for the enemy to have wanted to prevent the nighttime resupply with this shelling. This Bulgarian shelling had to have been aimed at the seat of the head of the Serbian church!
Moreover, the enemy artillery used incendiary shells as well. Only on the day of 8. (21.) March 12 houses were set alight in this manner. These devices were never used against troops or even against artillery emplacements, but only for demolishing buildings. Their use shows the clear aim of those who lobbed them onto Bitola: they want to demolish the town.
Why do Central Powers and their friends use asphyxiating gasses for bombing an open town? Do they think that they could kill allied soldiers in this way who are just passing through the town and in this passage they all carry masks? To this day not one soldier died in Bitola from inhaling the gasses of the Bulgaro-German projectiles. On the other hand, the civilian casualties are numerous. And it is accurate to say that the enemy want to shell the citizens of this unfortunate town with this barbaric manner of destruction. The enemy knows very well where the opposing side’s artillery is and that the old men, women and scared children are hiding in the basements. It is more reliable that they will find them with devious gasses than with ordinary shells. This is the first time that a warring party, renouncing every humane feeling, use such measures to exterminate non-combatants.
This extermination of the population is the true aim of the Bulgaro-German shelling. Seeing that Bitola is completely lost to them, the Bulgarians take their vengeance on the unfortunate citizens. The treatment which they established in the town during their fleeting occupation already showed how little sincerity there was in their “brotherly feelings” towards Bitolans. Their wild shelling will destroy even the last illusions, which some still had, remaining despite everything, secret Bulgarophiles.
April 1917 R. A. Reiss
Translated by Books of Jeremiah