Monday, May 17, 2010

Balkan Wars

The term Balkan Wars refers to the two wars that took place in South-eastern Europe in 1912 and 1913. The First Balkan War broke out on 8 October 1912 when Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia (see Balkan League), having large parts of their ethnic populations under Ottoman sovereignty, attacked the Ottoman Empire, terminating its five-century rule in the Balkans in a seven-month campaign resulting in the Treaty of London.

The Second Balkan War broke out on 16 June 1913 when Bulgaria, dissatisfied with its gains, attacked its former allies, Serbia and Greece. Their armies repulsed the Bulgarian offensive and counter-attacked penetrating into Bulgaria, while Romania and the Ottomans used the favourable time to intervene against Bulgaria to win territorial gains. In the resulting Treaty of Bucharest, Bulgaria lost most of the territories gained in the First Balkan War.


The background to the wars lies in the incomplete emergence of nation-states on the European territory of the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th century. The Serbs had gained substantial territory during the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–1878, while Greece acquired Thessaly in 1881 (although it lost a small area back to the Ottoman Empire in 1897) and Bulgaria (an autonomous principality since 1878) incorporated the formerly distinct province of Eastern Rumelia (1885). All three as well as Montenegro sought additional territories within the large Ottoman-ruled region known as Rumelia, comprising Eastern Rumelia, Albania, Macedonia, and Thrace.

Policies of the Great Powers

Throughout the 19th Century, the Great Powers shared different aims over the "Eastern Question" and the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Russia wished for access to the "warm waters" of the Mediterranean; it pursued a pan-Slavic foreign policy and thereby supported Bulgaria and Serbia. Britain wished to deny Russia access to the "warm waters" and supported the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, although it also supported a limited expansion of Greece as a backup plan in case integrity of the empire was no longer possible. France wished to strengthen its position in the region, especially in the Levant (today's Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Israel).

The Habsburg-ruled Austria-Hungary wished for a continuation of the existence of the Ottoman Empire, since both were troubled multinational entities and thus the collapse of the one might weaken the other. The Habsburgs also saw a strong Ottoman presence in area as a counterweight to the Serbian nationalistic call to their own Serbs subjects in Bosnia. Regarding Italy, it has been argued that from that time it wished to recreate the Roman empire; its main aim at the time seems to have been primarily the denial of access to the Adriatic Sea of another major sea power. Germany in turn, under the "Drang nach Osten" policy, aspired to turn the Ottoman Empire into its own de-facto colony, and thus supported its integrity.

Bulgaria and Greece sent armed bandits inside the Empire (in Macedonia and Thrace) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to protect their own nationals from the forced "Bulgarization" of Greeks by Bulgarians or "Hellinization" of Bulgars by Greeks. Low intensity warfare had broken out inside Macedonia between the Greek and Bulgarian bands and the Ottoman army after 1904 in the Struggle for Macedonia. After the Young Turk revolution of July 1908, the situation changed somewhat drastically.

The Young Turk revolution

It is no surprise that the "Young Turk" revolution occurred in the troubled European provinces of the Empire. There the threat to its integrity was the most pronounced, and the need for reforms was most evident. When the revolt broke out, it was supported by intellectuals, the army, and almost all the ethnic minorities of the Empire, and forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to re-adopt the long defunct Ottoman constitution of 1877, ushering the Second Constitutional Era. Hopes were raised among the Balkan ethnicities of reforms and autonomy, and elections were held to form a representative, multi-ethnic, Ottoman parliament. However, following the Sultan's attempted counter-coup, the liberal element of the Young Turks was sidelined and the nationalist element became dominant.

At the same time, in October 1908, Austria-Hungary seized the opportunity of the Ottoman political upheaval to annex the de jure Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878 (see Bosnian Crisis), and Bulgaria declared itself a fully independent kingdom. The Greeks of the autonomous Cretan State proclaimed unification with Greece, though the opposition of the Great Powers prevented the latter action from taking practical effect.

Reaction in the Balkan States

Frustrated in the north by Austria-Hungary's incorporation of Bosnia with its 975,000 Orthodox Serbs (and many more Serbs and Serb-sympathizers of other faiths), and forced (March 1909) to accept the annexation and restrain anti-Habsburg agitation among Serbian nationalist groups, the Serbian government looked to formerly Serb territories in the south, notably "Old Serbia" (the Sanjak of Novi Pazar and the province of Kosovo).

On 15 August 1909, the Military League a group of Greek officers took action against the government to reform their country's national government and reorganize the army. The league found itself unable to create a new political system, till the league summoned the Cretan politician Eleutherios Venizelos to Athens as its political adviser. Venizelos persuaded the king to revise the constitution and asked the league to disband in favor of a National Assembly. In March 1910 the Military League dissolved itself.

Bulgaria, which had secured Ottoman recognition of her independence in April 1909 and enjoyed the friendship of Russia,also looked to districts of Ottoman Thrace and Macedonia. In March 1910, an Albanian insurrection broke out in Kosovo which was covertly supported by the young Turks. In August 1910 Montenegro followed Bulgaria's precedent by becoming a kingdom.

The Balkan League

Following Italy's victory in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912 the Young Turks fell from power after a coup. The Balkan countries saw this as an opportunity to attack and fulfill their desires of expansion.

With the initial encouragement of Russian agents, a series of agreements was concluded between Serbia and Bulgaria in March 1912. Military victory against the Ottoman empire would not be possible while it could bring reinforcements from Asia. The condition of the Ottoman railways of the time was primitive, so most reinforcement would have to come by sea through the Aegean. Greece was the only Balkan country with a navy powerful enough to deny use of the Aegean to the Ottomans, thus a treaty became necessary between Greece and Bulgaria which signed in May 1912.

Montenegro concluded agreements between Serbia and Bulgaria later that year. Bulgaria signed treaties with Serbia to divide between them the territory of northern Macedonia, but such an agreement was clearly denied to Greece. Bulgaria's policy then was to use the agreement to limit Serbia's access to Macedonia, while at the same time denying any such agreement with Greece, believing that its army would be able to occupy the larger part of Aegean Macedonia and the important port city of Thessaloniki before the Greeks.

The resulting alliance between Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro became known as the Balkan League; its existence was undesirable for all the Great Powers. The league was loose at best, though a secret liaison officer was exchanged between the Greek and the Serbian army after the war began. Greece delayed the start of the war several times in the summer of 1912, in order to better prepare her navy, but Montenegro declared war on October 8 (September 25 O.S.). Following an ultimatum to the Ottomans, the remaining members of the alliance entered the conflict on October 17.

First Balkan War

With the exception of Greece, and in continuation of their secret prewar settlements of expansion between them and under close Russian supervision, the three Slavic allies (Bulgarian, Serbs and Montenegrins) had led out extensive plans to coordinate their war efforts: the Serbs and Montenegrins in the theatre of Sandjak, the Bulgarians and Serbs in the Macedonian and Thracian theatres. The Ottoman Empire had a massive pool of manpower of about 26 million people, but it was handicapped by plans called for an army heavily depended from reinforcements that had to come mainly from the Asian part of the Empire where the 3/4 of the population and the majority of the Muslims lived.

These had to be transferred to the Balkans mostly by ships, but this depended on the result of battles between the Turkish and Greek Navies on the Aegean. With the outbreak of the war the Turks activated three Army HQ allocating there most of their available forces per front: The Thracian with its HQ in Constantinople, the Western with its HQ in Salonika and the Vardar with its HQ in Skopje, against the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Serbians respectively. Smaller independent units had been allocated elsewhere mostly around heavily fortified cities.

Montenegro was the first that declared war on October 8.Its main thrust was towards Shkodra, with secondary operations in the Novi Pazar area. The rest of the Allies after giving a common ultimatum, declared war a week later. Bulgaria attacked towards Eastern Thrace, being stopped only at the outskirts of Constantinople at the Çatalca line and the isthmus of the Gallipoli peninsula, while secondary forces captured Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia.

Serbia attacked south towards Skopje and Monastir and then turned west to the present day Albania reaching Adriatica while a second Army captured Kosovo and linked with the Montenegrin forces. Greece's main forces attacked from Thessaly into Macedonia through the Sarantaporo strait and after capturing Thessaloniki on 12 November (on 26 October 1912, O.S.) expanded its occupied area linked up with the Serbian army to the north-western, while its main forces turned east towards Kavala reaching the Bulgarians. Another Greek army attacked into Epirus towards Ioannina.

In the naval front the Turkish fleet twice exited the Dardanelles and was twice defeated by the Greek Navy, in the battles of Elli and Lemnos. Its dominance on the Aegean Sea made it impossible for the Ottomans to transfer the planned troops from the Middle East to the Thracian (against the Bulgarian) and to the Macedonian (against the Greeks and Serbians) fronts.

According to the E.J.Erickson the Greek Navy played also a crucial, albeit indirect role, in the Thracian campaign by neutralizing no less than three Thracian Corps (see First Balkan War, The Bulgarian theatre of operations), a significant portion of the Ottoman Army there, in the all-important opening round of the war.

After the defeating of the Ottoman fleet the Greek Navy was also free to liberate the islands of the Aegean.General Nikola Ivanov identified the activity of the Greek Navy as the chief factor in the general success of the allies.

In January, after a successful coup by young army officers, Turkey decided to continue the war. After a failed Ottoman counter-attack in the Western-Thracian front, Bulgarian forces with the help of the Serbian Army managed to conquer Adrianople while Greek forces managed to take Ioannina after defeating the Ottomans in the battle of Bizani. In the joint Serbian-Montenegrin theatre of operation the Montenegrin army captured after siege the Shkodra, ending the Ottoman presence west of the Çatalca line in Europe after nearly 500 years. The war ended with the Treaty of London on May 17, 1913.

The Second Balkan War

Though the Balkan allies had fought together against the common enemy, that was not enough to overcome their mutual rivalries. The Second Balkan War broke out on 16 June 1913 when Bulgaria attacked its erstwhile allies in the First Balkan War, Serbia and Greece, while Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire intervened later against Bulgaria. When the Greek army entered Thessaloniki in the First Balkan War ahead of the Bulgarian 7th division by only a day, they were asked to allow a Bulgarian battalion to enter the city. Greece accepted in exchange for allowing a Greek unit to enter the city of Serres.

The Bulgarian unit that entered Thessaloniki turned out to be a 48,000-strong division instead of the battalion, something which caused concern among the Greeks, who viewed it as a Bulgarian attempt to establish a condominium over the city. In the event, due to the urgently needed reinforcements in the Thracian front, the Bulgarian Headquarters were soon forced by necessity to remove its troops from the city (while the Greeks agreed by mutual treaty to remove their units based in Serres) and transport them to Dedeağaç (modern Alexandroupolis), but besides the agreement it left behind a battalion that started fortifying its positions.
Greece had also allowed the Bulgarians to control the stretch of the Thessaloniki-Constantinople railroad that lay in Greek-occupied territory, since Bulgaria controlled the largest part of this railroad towards Thrace.

After the end of the operations in Thrace and in confirmation to the Greek concerns, Bulgaria not satisfied with the territory it controlled in Macedonia, immediately asked Greece to relinquish its control over Thessaloniki and the land north of Pieria, effectively to hand over all Aegean Macedonia. These unacceptable demands together with the Bulgarian refusal to demobilize its army after the Treaty of London had ended the common war against the Ottomans, alarmed Greece, which decided also to maintain its army's mobilization.

Similarly, in northern Macedonia, the tension between Serbia and Bulgaria due to later aspirations over Vardar Macedonia generated many incidents between the nearby Armies, prompting Serbia to maintain its army's mobilization. Serbia and Greece proposed that each of the three countries reduce its army by one fourth, as a first step to facilitate a peaceful solution but Bulgaria rejected it. Seeing the omens Greece and Serbia started a series of negotiations and signed a treaty on May 19/June 1, 1913.

With this treaty, a mutual border was agreed between the two countries, together with an agreement for mutual military and diplomatic support in case of a Bulgarian or/and Austrohugarian attack. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, being well informed, tried to stop the upcoming conflict on June 8, by sending an identical personal message to the Kings of Bulgaria and Serbia, offering to act as arbitrator according to the provisions of the 1912 Serbo-Bulgarian treaty. But Bulgaria by making the acceptance of Russian arbitration conditional, in effect denied any discussion, caused Russia to repudiate its alliance with Bulgaria (see Russo-Bulgarian military convention signed 31 May 1902).

The Serbs and the Greeks had a military advantage in the eve of the war because their armies confronted comparatively weak Ottoman forces in the First Balkan War and suffered relatively light casualties[7] while the Bulgarians were involved in heavy fighting in Thrace. The Serbs and the Greeks had time to fortify their positions in Macedonia. The Bulgarians also held some advantages controlling internal communication and supply lines.

On 16 June 1913 General Savov under the direct orders of the tsar Ferdinand I, issued attacking orders against both Greece and Serbia without consulting the Bulgarian government and without any official declaration of war.During the night of June 17, 1913 they attacked the Serbian army at Bregalnica river and then the Greek army in Nigrita.

The Serbian army resisted the sudden night attack, while most of soldiers did not even know who they are fighting with, as Bulgarian camps were located next to Serbs and were considered allies. Montenegro's forces were just a few kilometres away and rushed also to the battle. The Bulgarian attack was halted.The Greek army was also successful.

Retreating according to the plan for two days while Thessaloniki was cleared of the remaining Bulgarian regiment. Then the Greek army counter-attacked and defeated the Bulgarians at Kilkis-Lahanas, after which the mostly Bulgarian town was destroyed.

However, the Greek army's pace was not quick enough as to prevent the massacre of Greek peaceable inhabitants at Nigrita, Serres, Drama and Doxato. The Greek army then divided their forces and advanced in two directions. Part proceeded east and occupied Western Thrace. The rest of the Greek army advanced up to the Struma River valley, defeating the Bulgarian army in the battles of Doiran and Mt. Beles and continued its advance to the north towards Sofia. In the Kresna straits the Greeks were ambushed by the Bulgarian 2nd and 1st Army newly arrived from the Serbian front that had already taken defensive positions there following the Bulgarian victory at Kalimanci.

By 30 July the Greek army outnumbering by the now counter-attacking Bulgarian Armies attempting to encircle the Greeks in a Cannae-type battle applying pressure on their flanks. The Greek army resisted successfully however, launching local counter-attacks. The battle was continued for eleven days, between July 29 and August 9 over 20 km of a maze of forests and mountains with no conclusion.

The Greek King, seeing that the units he fought were from the Serbian front, tried to convince the Serbs to renew their attack, as the front ahead them was now thinner, but the Serbs, rejected it. By then, news came for the Romanian success towards Sofia and its imminent fall. After that, Constantine realizing the aimless of the continuation of the counterattack agreed to Eleftherios Venizelos' proposal and accepted the Bulgarian request for armistice as this had been communicated through Romania.

Romania had raised an army and declared war on Bulgaria on June 27 as it had from June 15 officially warned Bulgaria that it will not remain neutral in a new Balkan war, due to the Bulgaria's refusal to cede the fortress of Silistra as promised before the First Balkan war in exchange for the Romanian neutrality. They encountered little resistance and by the time the Greeks accepted the Bulgarian request for armistice they had reached Vrazhdebna, 7 miles from the center of Sofia.

Seeing the military position of the Bulgarian army the Ottomans decided to intervene. They attacked and finding no opposition, managed to recover the eastern Thrace with its fortified city of Adrianople, regaining a land mass in Europe which was only slightly larger than the present-day European territory of the Republic of Turkey.

Reactions among the Great Powers during the wars

The developments that led to the First Balkan War did not go unnoticed by the Great Powers, but although there was an official consensus between the European Powers over the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, which led to a stern warning to the Balkan states, unofficially each of them took a different diplomatic approach due to their conflicting interests in the area. As a result, any possible preventive effect of the common official warning was cancelled by the mixed unofficial signals, and failed to prevent or to stop the war:

• Russia was a prime mover in the establishment of the Balkan League and saw it as an essential tool in case of a future war against its rival, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it was unaware of the Bulgarian plans over Thrace and Constantinople, territories on which it had long-held ambitions, and on which it had just secured a secret agreement of expansion from its allies France and Britain, as a reward in participating in the upcoming Great War against the Central Powers.

• France, not feeling ready for a war against Germany in 1912, took a totally negative position against the war, firmly informing its ally Russia that it would not take part in a potential conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary if it resulted from the actions of the Balkan League. The French however failed to achieve British participation in a common intervention to stop the Balkan conflict.

• The British Empire, although officially a staunch supporter of the Ottoman Empire's integrity, took secret diplomatic steps encouraging the Greek entry into the League in order to counteract Russian influence. At the same time it encouraged the Bulgarian aspirations over Thrace, preferring a Bulgarian Thrace to a Russian one, despite the assurances the British had given to the Russians in regard of their expansion there.

• Austria-Hungary, struggling for an exit from the Adriatic and seeking ways for expansion in the south at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, was totally opposed to any other nation's expansion in the area. At the same time, the Habsburg empire had its own internal problems with the significant Slav populations that campaigned against the German-Hungarian control of the multinational state. Serbia, whose aspirations in the direction of the Austrian-held Bosnia were no secret, was considered an enemy and the main tool of Russian machinations that were behind the agitation of Austria's Slav subjects. But Austria-Hungary failed to achieve German backup for a firm reaction. Initially, Emperor Wilhelm II told the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that Germany was ready to support Austria in all circumstances—even at the risk of a world war, but Austro-Hungarians hesitated. Finally, in the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912 the consensus was that Germany would not be ready for war until at least mid-1914 and notes about that passed to the Habsburgs. Consequently no actions could be taken when the Serbs acceded to the Austria ultimatum of October 18 and withdrawn from Albania.

• Germany, already heavily involved in the internal Ottoman politics, officially opposed a war against the Empire. But in her effort to win Bulgaria for the Central Powers, and seeing the inevitability of Ottoman disintegration, was playing with the idea to replace the Balkan positions of the Ottomans with a friendly Greater Bulgaria in her San Stefano borders—an idea that was based on the German origin of the Bulgarian King and his anti-Russian sentiments.

The Second Balkan war was a catastrophic blow to the Russian policies in the Balkans, in where Russia had focused its interests for exit to the "warm seas" for centuries. First, it marked the end of the Balkan League, a vital arm to the Russian system of defence against Austria-Hungary. Secondly, the clearly pro-Serbian position Russia had forced to take in the conflict, mainly due to the Bulgarian uncompromising aggressiveness, caused a permanent break-up between the two countries.

Accordingly, Bulgaria reverted its policy into a more close to the Central Powers understanding over an anti-Serbian front, due to its new national aspirations, now expressed mainly against Serbia. As a result, Serbia isolated militarily against its rival Austria-Hungary; a development that eventually doomed Serbia in the coming war a year later. But most damaging, the new situation effectively trapped the Russian foreign policy:

After 1913, Russia could not afford losing its last ally in this critical for her interests area and thus had no alternatives but to unconditionally support Serbia when the crisis between Serbia and Austria broke out in 1914. This was a position that inevitably drew her, although unwillingly, in a World War with devastating for her, results, since it was less prepared (both militarily and socially) for that event, than any other Great Power.

Austria-Hungary took alarm at the great increase in Serbia's territory at the expense of its national aspirations in the region, as well as Serbia's rising status, especially to the Austro-Hungarian Slavic populations. This concern was shared by Germany, which saw Serbia as a satellite of Russia. This contributed significantly to the two Central Powers' willingness to go to a war as soon as possible.

Finally, when a Serbian backed organization assassinated the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, causing the 1914 July Crisis, nobody could stop the conflict and the First World War broke out.

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