Wars had started over land, resources, religion, and politics. When people say that “wars have been fought over less,” however, they’re usually right; in 1925, a military conflict actually broke out over a stray dog.
It all began with the Ottomans who ruled an empire that included many diverse religions, cultures, and ethnolinguistic groups. Among these were the Greeks and the Bulgarians. Greece gained its independence in 1832, while Bulgaria did the same in 1908.
The Ottoman Empire was Islamic, while the Greeks and the Bulgarians were Christians who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Greece and Bulgaria had also been members of the Balkan League which had fought for their independence. And though they got it, they faced the threat of a still formidable Ottoman Empire.
The two nations had every reason to pull together and get along, but it didn’t happen. After the Balkan League had carved up the European side of the Ottoman Empire among themselves, Albania was formed, leaving Macedonia and Western Thrace, which Bulgaria and Greece wanted. Old friends become new enemies.
The result was a number of border skirmishes between the two sides, leading to the Second Balkan War of 1913. Then WWI broke out. Bulgaria sided with Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and launched an attack against Serbia. When the war ended with an Allied victory, Greece was rewarded for siding with the winning team at the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Because Bulgaria cast its lot with the losing side, it was forced to give up Western Thrace, ending its direct access to the Aegean Sea. They also had to give up land to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (which later became Yugoslavia). As a result, tensions between Greece and Bulgaria didn’t improve with the end of WWI.
The more hot-headed on the Bulgarian side did not recognize the terms of the treaty, however. Nor did they believe that the conflict had to end. Punitive raids into Greece and Yugoslavia were launched, but the most devastating of these were made by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization (ITRO).
Petrich, a town in southwestern Bulgaria bordering Greece, was run by the IMRO as a virtually independent state. In 1923, Bulgarian Prime Minister Aleksandar Stamboliyski tried to mitigate tensions with Greece and improve relations with the rest of the continent. For this outrage, he was ousted by a coup, then captured by the IMRO who tortured and killed him.
And now – to the dog. There was a Greek soldier stationed at the Greco-Bulgarian border at the Kemir Kapou Pass on Belatsitsa, who had a dog. On 18 October 1925, for reasons that are still unclear, that dog began running toward the Bulgarian side.
It can be assumed that the soldier loved that dog very much because, despite the frequent skirmishes that had left hundreds dead on both sides, the soldier ran after it – probably forgetting what he was heading towards. He was running straight into Bulgarian territory where he was promptly shot dead by a Bulgarian border guard.
The Greek border guards fired volleys into the Bulgarian side, so the Bulgarians retaliated. During a lull, a Greek captain and his aide grabbed a white sheet, ran into no man’s land, and appealed for calm. The opportunity was too good to resist – the Bulgarians fired, killing the captain and wounding the aide who made it back to the Greek side. So Bulgaria scored three to Greece’s zero.
The official version that made it to the Greek newspapers at the time omitted the dog, however. According to the press, some Bulgarian border guards stormed the Greek outpost at Belasitsa for no reason. It was during this raid that the Greek captain and one guard were apparently killed.
As for the dog, its fate remains unknown, but Bulgaria and Greece were now on the brink of war. Bulgaria expressed regret for the incident and said it was all a terrible misunderstanding. They proposed a Greco-Bulgarian commission to investigate the matter.
It could have ended there, were it not for Lieutenant General Theodoros Pangalos. Pangalos had deposed King Constantine I of Greece, established the Second Hellenic Republic and led the coup which installed him as the country’s prime minister, and later, its president.
In that latter position, he suspended freedom of the press, devalued Greek currency by cutting paper notes in half, and even dictated how long women’s skirts should be (no higher than 30 cm above the ground… or else).
Pangalos gave the Bulgarians an ultimatum. They had to punish those who are responsible and make an official apology, as well as paying 2 million French francs in compensation to the victims’ families. They had only 48 hours to do it, or there would be consequences.
Bulgaria refused, so on October 22, Pangalos ordered his troops into Bulgaria where they occupied the town of Petrich and nearby villages. The Bulgarians fought back, but the Greeks maintained their grip over the town and surrounding region. Desperate, Bulgaria appealed to the League of Nations (precursor of the UN).
The League ordered a ceasefire, demanded that Greece withdraws immediately and that they compensate Bulgaria for their invasion. Greece accused the League of hypocrisy, citing the Corfu Incident of 1923 when Italy attacked the Greek island of Corfu and the League sided with the attackers.
Pangalos argued that the League had two rules: one for powerful nations like Italy, and another for weaker ones like Greece. Nevertheless, he had no choice. The League sent in military attaches from France, Italy, and Britain to oversee the Greek withdrawal. Around fifty Bulgarians had died during the brief occupation, so Greece was ordered to pay £45,000 in compensation.
The War of the Stray Dog and the Incident at Petrich are both names for the same conflict. As for Pangalos – Greece had been humiliated under his rule, so the military staged another coup and replaced him with the president he had originally deposed.