Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity'
The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations
during World War I, 1914-1923.
by Kenneth Steuer

Prison Camps


Bulgarian Prison Camps

Bulgaria Prison Camps The Kingdom of Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in October 1915 after the British failed to seize control of the Dardanelles and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians forced the Russians to retreat from Poland. Bulgaria was a war-weary nation when it entered the Great War. The Bulgarians had fought in the First Balkan War of 1912-1913 and lost the Second Balkan War of 1913. Wartime conditions in the kingdom were grim during the First World War, which undermined the Bulgarian government's ability to care for Allied prisoners of war. The Bulgarians captured their first large group of prisoners in October 1915, when the Bulgarians invaded Serbia and seized Serbian Macedonia. The Bulgarians took thousands of Serbian prisoners, as well as small numbers of British, French, Italian, and Greek POW's when Bulgarian forces seized part of Greek Eastern Macedonia during the campaign. The Saloniki Front stabilized and the Bulgarians instituted a military government in the Serbian-occupied territory. The Bulgarian Army took the offensive again in September 1916, after Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and launched a failed offensive in Transylvania. The Bulgarians seized southern Dobrudja and captured a large number of Romanian and some Russian prisoners of war.

In response to the large numbers of Allied prisoners that fell into Bulgarian hands, the Ministry of War established a POW system with limited resources. The Bulgarians established their largest prison camps in Sofia, Sliven, Philippopolis, and Haskovo, as well as smaller working camps across the kingdom. They also set up civilian internment camps in Sofia and Rakhovo and military prison camps in occupied Serbia, including Nish and Struga. When the World's Alliance of YMCA's and the International Committee of the American YMCA offered to establish War Prisoners' Aid programs in Bulgaria for Allied prisoners, the Bulgarian government readily accepted the offer. The American YMCA paid for the construction of Association huts and rooms in the principle prison camps and sent a few secretaries while the World's Alliance set up the WPA headquarters in Sofia and provided the bulk of the secretarial manpower for the operation.

In September 1918, the Allied forces in Saloniki launched a major offensive into southern Bulgaria and overwhelmed the Bulgarian Army. The Allies quickly occupied most of the kingdom and advanced into Serbia. With the collapse of the army, the Bulgarian government signed an armistice on September 29, 1918, which liberated Allied prisoners in Bulgarian POW camps.