How the Macedonians were arming themselves before the Ilinden uprising

Modern historyHow the Macedonians were arming themselves before the Ilinden uprising

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The formation and arming of armed forces of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization has been defined as a goal and task since its foundation in 1893, in particular through the Resen Consultation in 1894.

After Goce Delchev joined the organization in 1894, it won a top expert and leader who increased not only the political but also the military importance in the TMORO (Tajna Makedonska Odrinska Revolucionerna Organizacija – Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization). With the adoption of a constitution, they declared a constitution of TMORO and the rules governing the estates clearly that the organization could not achieve its political goals without its own armed forces.

Arming the Macedonian population has a long and rich tradition. This was developed by the Hajduk* societies and rebel groups, especially from the time of the Razlovci and Kresna uprisings in 1876 and 1878. (*Hajduk = organized outlaws, highwaymen, looters, militants).

The basic sources for the supply of weapons were acquisition, confiscation in combat, but also with their own personal weapons. This is how the arms trade began to develop in Macedonia.

Secret workshops for weapons

Due to the difficult economic conditions and the constant surveillance by the Ottoman authorities, the weapons were made in secret workshops that were difficult to detect.

The best working conditions for arms production were found in the village workshops, where the development of the Macedonian arms manufacture began. Over time, various weapons professions developed: blacksmithing, gunsmithing, bomb experts (typical Macedonian bomb makers you can see on the picture below) and later the manufacture of wooden cannons.

The weapons were made secretly and mainly in blacksmiths, woodworks for manufacture and repairing of carriages, leather shops and other workshops.

In particular, the knife forge was developed, which, in addition to the needs of the household, manufactured various stabbing and cutting weapons, Yataygans (Ottoman knife or short sabre) and knives in various shapes.

In addition to the manufacture of knives, there were also workshops, i.e. recognized masters for repairing and sharpening of famous swords, such as the Damascus steel and the sabers of French origin.

Many masters also forged their own swords and sabers. The blacksmiths were most strongly represented in the production of the early Macedonian “weapon industry”.

The gunsmith’s shop is one of the oldest weapons trades and a basic military concept in which explosive substances are used. The first workshop to repair and manufacture firearms in Ottoman Macedonia was located in Prilep in the 18th century.

The production of rifles also involved the manufacture of cartridges (or previously bullets) and gunpowder.

The Macedonian Hajduks (Macedonian: Ajduci), proved to be good specialists for the production of gunpowder and for the transport of gunpowder, known in Macedonian as “Barutnici” (Barut = gunpowder). The Voivode Hristo Makedonski was particularly well known for the manufacture of his own weapon during the time of the Eastern Crisis.

The manufacture of wooden cannons also has a long and rich tradition in Macedonia. In the history of the Macedonian people, wooden cannons represent improvised artillery tools, the barrel of which was made in a hardwood tree (cherry, elm, wild almond, walnut) and was held together by iron rings or striped ribbons.

The material effect was bad, especially because of the instability of the barrel, since it was made of wood. The moral influence, on the other hand, was extremely important: the solo-invasive armament of the Macedonian people was developed especially after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and after the Macedonian uprising of 1878 in Kresna.

Arming with system and in phases

After the suppression of this uprising, several Hajduk troops were formed, most of them armed with Russian weapons. In 1887, after the establishment of the village militia in the Bitola region, an opportunity to arm the population to defend the villages against bandit gangs was created, who then used these weapons later in the uprising.

On the initiative of Goce Delchev in 1897, numerous Hajduk leaders joined the TMORO organization. In this way, the Hajduk fighting experience and the ideological determination of the teachers were cemented, thereby strengthening the political agenda of the organization. Integrated into the TMORO, the military commanders of the Hajduks organized new agitation and organizational units and supplied them with weapons.

The TMORO was arming the units in three phases

The first armament phase was a continuation of the previously self-initiated and idiomatic type of arms delivery and begins with the establishment of the MRO (Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) since 1893, i.e. from the Resen consultation in 1894 to the Vinica affair, or until the creation of the first organizational-agitation departments in 1897/98.

The second phase began in 1898 and lasted until mid-1902, at which point an outstanding atmosphere had already been created.

The third phase, which was the shortest but the most active, lasted from mid-1902 until the start of the Ilinden Uprising in 1903 and during the fighting in the Ilinden uprising, i.e. during the Krushevo Republic, when the cherry wood cannons were made.

The cherry tree cannon Macedonians build and used, showcase at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle

First phase

The first phase of the armament had multiple sources of arms procurement. The main sources were in Macedonia (a) itself, then weapons were imported from Serbia (b) and were also supplied from Bulgaria (c).

a) Arming within Macedonia was the most consistent and reliable way of supplying arms and ammunition. The existing Hajduk communities and commanders had passed such experiences on to the organization. They introduced the organizational nature of the weapons, rather than the type of armament, how much records should be kept of all weapons.

In addition to cold weapons (the traditional Macedonian “Kama“, daggers, knives,…), in the first phase mostly revolvers were procured, whereby both the couriers and the terrorist groups were armed. Carrying a revolver and a Kama were considered to be the hallmarks of the Macedonian revolution (see main picture above).

The incitement of the organized arms initiative began with Gjorche Petrov, who proposed the purchase of revolvers, and then together with Gligor Popov and Gjorgji Peshkov in the local Bitola organization, which also published the newspaper “To Arms”. With this initiative, Dame Gruev in Salonica, Goce Delchev in Shtip, who arrived in Novo Selo as a teacher in 1894, founded a local organization of 30 men, in front of whom the problem of obtaining weapons came up directly.

READ ALSO: Fire your pistols in ‘Macedonian style’!

Most of the time they bought revolvers of Montenegrin origin, the so-called “Montenegrin Kardel“, which were supplied indirectly via Albania. Revolvers were mostly carried by revolutionaries in the cities, while rifles were mainly bought and carried in the villages.

The villagers could easier obtain (and hide) rifles, especially after the establishment of the above-mentioned village militias. In the Bitola Vilayet, for example, the militia was founded in 1887, which in a way was a justification for the peasants to buy a rifle to protect themselves from robbers. The Turks soon abolished the militias and began to collect their weapons, but many rifles remained hidden in the hands of the rural population.

In addition, copies of French “Martini-Henry” rifles were made in Tetovo and Debar so that TMORO members and local organizations in Prilep, Shtip and others could illegally arm themselves. In Shtip, however, Goce Delchev found that the Tetovo-Martini was of poor construction quality and unreliable in accuracy.

b) Weapons from Serbia were originally procured on own initiative, through trade and in various other ways. Nikola Peshkov from Prilep, sales representatives in Bujanovac and Nikola Karanchulov, initially organized the connection for the procurement of weapons from Serbia.

They had set up a whole arsenal of rifles and revolvers from Serbia in Prilep. In the autumn of 1894 Goce Delchev founded the local organization in Veles. In the same year this organization established connections with the Serbian city of Vranje via Ordan Malezankov and Tode Boshkov, who smuggled 21 rifles (Turkish Martini) and Montenegrin Gasser revolvers to Veles. Goce Delchev and Gjorche Petrov tried to organize arms deliveries through Serbia already in 1897.

c) The organization’s supply of arms from Bulgaria was a constant source, but also a constant conflict issue with the Bulgarian government. The size of the Macedonian emigration in Bulgaria, the length of the Macedonian border with neighboring Bulgaria and the number of points along the border made it possible to obtain and smuggle weapons and equipment more frequently and more easily.

On the other hand, the interests of the Bulgarian government and the pro-Bulgarian elements in the organization hindered the relations and supplies of the TMORO with weapons to a certain extent. Nevertheless, Goce Delchev was involved in the “foreign committee of the organization” in Bulgaria and was the main organizer for the transfer of arms to Macedonia. As a teacher in Shtip, he established a smuggling canal across Bulgaria in 1895 and ordered 500 rifles to be delivered to the border point at Kyustendil.

After leaving the country in 1896, he moved to Bulgaria and worked on creating channels for the transfer of arms to Macedonia. In this activity Goce Delchev was consulted with Dimitar Pop Georgiev Berovski.

In spring 1896, Dame Gruev established a connection with the Bulgarian government. With the help of Boris Sarafov and Anton Bozukov, he met in Sofia with General Racho Petrov, a military minister of Bulgaria. After hearing Gruev’s testimony, General Petrov promised that he would hand over 2,000 rifles with the Henry Martini system to TMORO on his “personal responsibility”.

Collections of arms used by Macedonian freedom fighters, showcase in the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle

On June 22nd, 1896, Gjorche Petrov met with Prime Minister Konstantin Stoilov in Sofia and officially presented TMORO’s applications on two points:

The government of Bulgaria should send five to ten thousand rifles, including 300 “Mannlicher” and 300 “Mauser”, and demanded 100,000 Bulgarian leva for the TMORO to prepare the uprising.

Then the President met with Hristo Matov and a little later, on January 2, 1897, with Goce Delchev. The talks were held to upgrade the TMORO units.

At the beginning of 1897 Goce Delchev and Gjorche Petrov established serious relations with the brothers Michail and Nikola Ivanov, from whom they procured weapons, mainly rifles with the “Krnki” system.

After the Vinica affair, the Bulgarian government turned to the VMK (Vrhoven Makedonski Komitet) and the Brotherhood of Officers regarding the Macedonians’ arms deliveries. TMORO was working with the VMK at that time and was supplied with certain quantities of weapons via the VMK’s channels.

In early 1897, on the initiative of the Bulgarian government, TMORO was offered a large number of weapons. The Bulgarian army modernized its weapons. Therefore, merchant Ivanov from Bansko sold the old weapons, 4043 rifles went to TMORO. However, the Bulgarian government cheated on the Macedonians and did not provide the TMORO with ammunition for the rifles. On this occasion, Goce Delchev and Gjorche Petrov spoke to the Bulgarian military minister, and the minister said to Gjorche:

We are not crazy to give you cartridges, we have our strength in our hands, otherwise you will turn away from us completely“.

After the handover of these rifles to Macedonia, the VMK betrayed the canal and they were largely confiscated by the Turks. Only a small part of these rifles were used in the Ilinden uprising.

Second phase

The second armament phase of TMORO lasted from 1898 to 1902. At the suggestion of Goce Delchev with the decision of the Central Committee of TMORO in 1899, the formation of the insurgent institutes began. This is the beginning of the organized arming of the organization’s troops.

According to the provisions of the gun control regulations, the respective committees of the organization were responsible – by region, district, town or village. Weapons were bought or made in secret workshops. Internal sources were the most reliable, but still not enough.

In the time before the Ilinden uprising, gunsmithing was especially developed in the west of Macedonia. There were secret workshops in Tetovo, Gostivar, Debar, but also in Bitola and Skopje.

The “weapon factory” in Tetovo, which produced the famous Martini sets, developed the most. About 100 men worked in Tetovo and their output capacity was about 50 rifles a week.

A Macedonian with a Mannlicher rifle

During the same period, workshops for the repair of weapons also sprang up. There were five in Ohrid, five in Bitola, three in Struga, and two in Krushevo. There were a total of 16 rifle workshops.

During this period, autonomy, systematic armament and organization in hierarchical vertical and organizational levels were introduced. The armament was carried out by the highest organs of TMORO and was characterized by:

  • Organized search for personal resources;
  • Introduction of a systematic, i.e. procurement of a specific system of weapons and ammunition;
  • Better organization
  • Search for new sources to obtain weapons.

The Foreign Committee of the organization in Sofia played a very important role in all of this. The seriousness of the actions increased the authority of the organization and thereby increased the numbers and the need for armaments.

That was the reason for the organization to arm the poorest and to encourage the richer members to take care of their own weapons. The assets held by the organization were collected from membership fees and voluntary contributions. However, these funds did not fulfilled by far the actual financial needs.

It was necessary to kidnap rich people and extort ransom. In order to avoid self-will in connection with such methods, guidelines were laid down in 1900 by Goce Delchev and Gjorce Petrov who decided whether and when such a measure should be taken in order to steal or extort money for political purposes.

In this order, according to the decision of the top leaders, the kidnapping of the US missionary Miss Stone was carried out – probably the most famous kidnapping case in the history of the Macedonian struggle for freedom. For their release, the organization received 14500 Turkish lira from the Great Porte. Most of these funds were used to purchase new weapons.

In the second phase, in addition to independent arms channels, channels from neighboring countries were also founded. The legal authorities collected the funds inside, and sometimes found new sources of weapons, while the local, especially the border detachments, were in charge of storing the weapons, training with them and opening new channels.

In 1901, Nikola P., Rusinski, who was in command of a unit in Kichevo and had joined a unit sent by the Serbian government, developed a cooperation and bought rifles of the “Kokinki” type (rifles with the Mauser system).

The import of arms from Bulgaria continued in this phase, albeit much less than in the first phase. This was mainly organized by the brothers Ivanov and Goce Delchev. Many of the Macedonian units were established in Bulgaria, where they were supplied with weapons. It was at this time that the organized delivery of weapons from the territory of Greece began.

After the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the Turkish army fell into disarray. In Thessaly they left large quantities of weapons, ammunition and military material which the local population looted and were then sold.

An uncontrolled supply could have caused difficulties, so the organization tried to restore order. The tour in the Kostur (Kastoria) region led by Vasil Chakalarov organized border checkpoints where organized arms procurement was organized. In 1901, the Thessaloniki Organization liaised with Athens to buy weapons. Apart from that, weapons were also bought from Albania. This special contribution was made by the local leadership of Ohrid.

Third phase

The third phase, which lasted from 1902 until the start of the Ilinden uprising in 1903, was the most significant. The rearmament was intensified to the maximum, and the main role played local organizations and the troops themselves.

Macedonian revolutionaries collecting explosives, illustration in a French magazine published 1903

After the Saloniki Congress in January 1903, the Smilevo Congress in May 1903 and then in the District and Regional Conventions, the first question and primary task was the arming of the units. All activity on this topic was carried out according to the guidelines for the units. According to these guidelines, the units carried out the delivery of weapons and the local leadership organized cooperation with the weapons workshops.

Immediately after the Smilevo Congress, when it was already certain that the day of the uprising was very close, the Upper Krushevo Command issued an order to Stavre Borjar and his sons Todor and Sotir in their workshop to make large quantities of various parts for several types of rifles (Martinis, Mannlichers etc). In addition to the production of new parts, damaged rifles were repaired. A small cartridge factory was also organized in Krushevo, which produced bullets in various caliber sizes (due to the non-standardized armament of the troops).

At the beginning of May 1903 the foundry was in Gire Pavlev’s house, then in the houses of Dinu Patrachot and Vela Sajjija. The so-called “intellectual group” consisting of five teachers, three high school students and three craftsmen worked in the foundry. The foundry was well camouflaged and the Turks never discovered it, despite an intensive search by the Ottomans.

There were difficulties in obtaining gunpowder. The sale of fine gunpowder was strictly controlled by the Ottoman Empire, as it was intended for military purposes. Even so, the Bitola district was supplied with sufficient quantities of high quality gunpowder.

The main suppliers of gunpowder were the Turks, mainly employees of the “Bitola Barutana” (the gunpowder factory in Bitola). They sold to the organization large quantities of gunpowder that they had not used until the end of the uprising. The sale of gunpowder for hunting purposes, i.e. coarse gunpowder, was not regulated, but due to its poor quality it could only be used for filling the cherry wood cannons and only for the final filling of the cartridge cases.

In addition to the rifle and foundry repair shops, an arsenal in Krushevo also worked, in which bullets were produced and also rifles were repaired. The work of the arsenal was carried out by the gunsmith Stavre Borjar and the “Ironman” Mitke Manaki. The arsenal was in the house of Ilija and Kosta Bojadzija-Lape, and it produced even during the uprising.

“Creshevo Topche” – The wooden cannons

In addition to Krushevo, there was an arsenal for gun repairs and projectiles in the village of Selce north of Krushevo. This arsenal was administered by Cvetko Stojchev, who was the leader of the village militia in Selce during the uprising. In addition to repairing weapons and making bullets, the weapons workshops and arsenals also made wooden cannons.

In some areas, these cannons were commissioned by committees, and some were self-initiated. Their fiery power could not be compared with Turkish cannons, but the psychological effect significantly influenced the fighting spirit.

That is why wooden cannons that were made shortly before and during the Ilinden uprising were called “propaganda cannons”. Their aim was not to inflict heavy losses on the Ottomans, but to show them that the Macedonian people did not recognize the Ottoman rule, did not accept the status of disadvantage, exposed the Macedonian rebellion and showed them the willingness to fight, even with primitive wooden cannons.

The first cherry tree cannon were made by the monk Gregory of the St. John Bigorski monastery. This cannons were then given to the organization.

While testing a wooden cannon in the village of Dushebugica, the cannon tore into small pieces with the first shot. Another cannon was made by the units in Dushebugica, but this one exploded quite soon after the fourth shot.

On the basis of the orders of the revolutionary headquarters in Ohrid, the insurgents Trpe Trenovski, blacksmith Mustafa and two other villagers, all from the village of Laktinje – Ohrid, made four wooden cannons. Two of them collapsed after several successful missions.

Two cannons weighing 70 kg were made in the Kichevo region and were used in the battle of Izdeglavje.

However, most of the wooden cannons were made in the Krushevo region. There were seven cannons in the village of Selce and six cannons in the town of Krushevo itself. Just before and during the Ilinden Uprising in 1903, for a period of two months, a total of 17 cherry cannons were made. All wooden cannons had different dimensions. Their length was between 80-150 cm, their weight varied from 20 to 70 kg; depending on the caliber size.

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