Category Archives: Balkans

10 SEPTEMBER, 1916: Fights Of Fancy

Broadly speaking, the historical impact of the First World War didn’t have much to with armies and battles.  For all that fighting killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of terrain and occasionally captured swathes of territory for one side or the other, its principal effect between 1914 and 1920 (and I’m being conservative about the dates) was to prolong and expand the conflict. That meant the extension and spread of ‘total war’, a new and terrible phenomenon that transformed and tested Europe’s biggest economies and societies – and only a fool, a liar or a media professional would even try to deny that total war was the prime catalyst for the profound changes wrought upon the planet by the First World War.

The economic, political and social stresses of total war would defeat Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany before their failures were confirmed on the battlefield. Ability to survive the same stresses (and the radical, permanent changes they provoked) would enable Britain and France to end the War with battlefield victories, while the USA’s grand success would have little to do with military prowess and everything to do with industrial, socioeconomic and political adaptability, along with a transformed take on the world. Italy achieved almost nothing on the battlefields, was lucky to survive three years of total war as a functioning state, and fell apart almost as soon as the conflict was over.

But that’s the big picture of the big hitters. The First World War also wrapped its wider identity around plenty of smaller affairs, local conflicts that were continued or begun under the umbrella of the great alliances, and some of them were all about the fighting. Various colonial struggles involving the British Empire spring to mind, as does the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in late 1915, and today marks the centenary of a pivotal moment in another. The moment in question was the fall of Silistra, a port city on the Danube, to German and Bulgarian forces on 10 September 1916, a blow that shaped the brief but lively war between Romania and the Central Powers.

I talked about Romania’s decision to go to war against the Central Powers a couple of weeks back (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…). It was a calculated, greedy choice, and it quickly translated into military action because some strategists on all sides saw it as a potential turning point in the War on the Eastern Front.

On the Allied side, most (though not all) analysts expected Romania’s army to make a major regional contribution, distracting the Bulgarian and German forces deployed in front of Salonika, and posing a direct threat through Transylvania to Austria-Hungary (at the time still defending its heartlands against the last efforts of the Brusilov Offensive further north). This rosy viewpoint ignored several important factors. First, Romania was difficult to defend, menaced as it was by Bulgarian or Austro-Hungarian enemies on two sides. Secondly, the summer of 1916 had seen Germany assume effective strategic control over its enfeebled allies, increasing the likelihood of a coordinated attack on Romania from both sides; and thirdly the Romanian Army, its reputation sky high after a successful Second Balkan War, was in fact rubbish.

Limited peacetime conscription meant Romania’s army was big by regional standards, 860,000-strong after mobilisation in 1916, but rapid expansion had left it pitifully short of modern weapons. Half its 1,300 artillery pieces were obsolete, most were housed in fortresses, hardly any machine guns were available and some units were 40% short of rifles that were anyway of nineteenth-century vintage, as were the brightly-coloured uniforms worn by troops. Decked out as targets and ill-equipped, the same troops went into action with little training or competent leadership, thanks to an officer corps that was good at dressing up, getting wasted and duelling, but a hopeless shambles in military terms.

Military reality made little difference to an atmosphere of one-eyed, expansionist ambition in Bucharest. Dividing its forces into four armies – and ignoring British advice to attack south through Bulgaria, towards Salonika – the royal high command left one army to defend the Bulgarian frontier and sent the other three north, through difficult Carpathian Mountain passes, to invade Hungarian Transylvania. Some 400,000 Romanian troops crossed the Hungarian border along a 300km front on 28 August, a day after the declaration of war, and advanced into southeast Transylvania unopposed by 35,000 Austro-Hungarian defenders, but crippling supply problems and command ineptitude had halted progress by 10 September.

Meanwhile, as might have been expected by any Allied strategist not high on optimism, Germany had organised and launched an invasion of Romania by the Central Powers. One of the Eastern Front’s most experienced and successful commanders, General Mackensen, was put in charge of a Danube Army, made up of German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Ottoman units, to attack north into the Dobrudja, an ethnically Bulgarian region seized by Romania during the Balkan Wars and including all the country’s coastline. A diversionary attack struck the fortress of Tatrakan on 2 September, and took it four days later, while the main force advanced further east towards Silistra, only about 150km from Bucharest. When Silistra fell on 10 September, the entire Dobrudja region was opened up to Mackensen’s army.

<img class="wp-image-1050 size-medium" src="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg" alt="I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you'll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest. " width="300" height="244" srcset="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg 300w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-768×624.jpg 768w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-1024×832.jpg 1024w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949 have a peek at this website.jpg 1099w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />

I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you’ll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest.

Romania suddenly needed help, but its new allies were better at making promises than keeping them.

Any hope of direct Anglo-French support had evaporated with the failure of General Sarrail’s earlier attempt to move north from Salonika (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), and though Sarrail’s multinational force did launch an even less ambitious attack into southern Serbia on 13 September, German and Bulgarian delaying tactics were enough to prevent any significant progress before November and it had no impact on events in the Dobrudja. Meanwhile the Russian high command, still busy pouring resources into breakthrough attempts in Galicia (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), would only spare a token 50,000 men to provide limited support for the 70,000 or so Romanian troops facing Mackensen’s advance.

Having learned the true value of its alliances, the Romanian high command dithered for a few days before abandoning the invasion of Transylvania and, from 15 September, transferring more than half its northern force to the Bulgarian front, as the Army Group South, for an attack across the Danube.  The Romanian pause for thought in Transylvania had meanwhile given enemy reinforcements time to reach the sector, in the form of the German Ninth Army and its new commander, none other than former Chief of Staff, General Falkenhayn.  His combined German and Austrian force of around 200,000 men now outnumbered remaining Romanian units strung out along the Carpathians, and he launched a counteroffensive on 18 September.

So three weeks into a war that the Romanian government and most Allied strategists believed would break the deadlock on the Eastern Front, scattered Romanian armies had failed in one offensive and were in the process of regrouping for an attack into Bulgaria – but faced powerful invasions on two fronts with dangerously inferior numbers.  Not stalemate, then, or attrition, but a war of rapid movement, pitting 20th-century German equipment, tactical nous and organisational skill against strictly19th-century Romanian forces led by a naive, effete elite.

Old-school stuff, all dash, derring-do and dunces – and worth a mention, partly as a reminder that not all First World War fighting conformed to the trench-bound heritage stereotype, and partly as a commemorative nod to a historically important campaign that is largely forgotten where I live.  Oh, and as a set-up for another instalment in a few weeks, when Romania’s hubris really hits the fan.

27 AUGUST, 1916: Growing, Growing, Gone…

It had been coming for some time, but a hundred years ago today the Kingdom of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, triggering a counter declaration from Germany.  Going to war would turn out to be very bad idea for Romania in the short term, and was arguably a mistake that has shaped the country’s subsequent history, so this seems a good moment to loose off a preliminary briefing about Romania’s First World War.

Formed from the former Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, Romania had existed as an independent nation since 1878.  In 1914, it was a constitutional monarchy along German (rather than British) lines, with an indirectly elected National Assembly that exerted little actual control over a Crown Council appointed by King Carol I, who was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The country’s participation in the Second Balkan War (6 September 1915: Caveat Emptor) had increased its size to almost 140,000 square kilometres, including the Dobrudja region taken from Bulgaria, and swollen its population to more than 7.5 million.

The Romanian economy was predominantly agricultural – though the Ploesti oilfields to the north of the country were becoming increasingly important – and largely dependent on commerce and capital investment from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Tied to both empires by a secret treaty of 1883, Romania enjoyed excellent relations with Germany, which had financed construction of some 5,000km of state railways by 1914, but Vienna was viewed as a hated enemy, accused of maltreating 3 million Romanians in Habsburg Transylvania.

Romania in 1914
Romania in 1914

The Transylvanian issue was King Carol’s excuse for ignoring the treaty and declaring Romania’s neutrality in August 1914. The country’s geographically pivotal position (in Eastern Front terms), and its inflated military reputation since the victory of 1913, meant it was considered a prize potential ally, but though both belligerent power blocs made offers of military and economic aid, only the Allies could offer Transylvania.  Popular pressure to join the Allies weakened the position of King Carol, whose personal preference for the Central Powers was never in doubt, and by the time he died in October he was losing influence to the prime minister, liberal Francophile Ion Bratianu.

The new king, Ferdinand I, took a more balanced view – as befitted a Germanic monarch with a British wife – and allowed Bratianu to pursue a deniable pro-Allied policy, aimed at extracting maximum territorial gain from prolonged negotiations.  By the summer of 1916, both Ferdinand and Bratianu were sufficiently impressed by the nearby successes of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive to agree that an Allied victory was just around the corner, and Romania duly declared war against the Central Powers on 27 August.

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The International Herald Tribune’s take… nothing to do with reality, and normal service for the press in 1916.

During the next two years Romania would become a battleground. Two-thirds of the country would be stripped of resources and infrastructure under enemy occupation, more than 200,000 Romanian soldiers would die, and an estimated 500,000 civilians would be killed by invasion, occupation or starvation.  In short, the First World War wrecked Romania,  and it made little difference that the country emerged from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with its size almost doubled since 1914.  The calculated gamble on war that sprang from the bad seed of aggressive nationalism, and its obsession with territorial gain, had blasted a young nation from the path to sustained socioeconomic development, and it would be a very long time before Romania got back on the road.

I realise this has been so brief it’s almost terse, but I can’t spare the time for anything more detailed just now, because over in Germany there’s a totalitarian dictatorship brewing and it’s going to take some explaining. I will come back to the sad story of the Romanian campaign as it unfolds, but in the meantime log Romania as yet another victim of belief in war as a legitimate act of statecraft, a faith that had sustained empires for a century or more, but that has led nation after nation down the path to self-destruction in the mechanised age.

27, FEBRUARY, 1916: Small, Fried…

Nationalism can be very bad for the hindsight. In Britain, for instance, there are individuals, national newspapers and political organisations inclined to the view that no people suffered the burdens of twentieth-century global madness more completely than the British. In fact, despite the heavy casualties, bombing raids and social disruptions of two world wars, the British had a relatively easy twentieth century by European standards.

Before you get outraged on behalf of your ancestors and report me to the Heritage Denial authorities, think about where in Europe you’d rather have been. Once you eliminate all those countries invaded, occupied, blighted by dictatorship, scarred by revolution, slaughtered, wiped out or all of the above, you’re left with Sweden, Switzerland and maybe Iceland – and if that’s not enough to convince you, try taking a look at those European countries dealt really bad hands.

Poland springs instantly to mind – invaded, ravaged, partitioned and oppressed over and over again – but the same could be said of many other nations, especially those on the frontiers of ambitious empires or would-be empires. Albania is one of those nations, and the context surrounding events on 27 February 1916, when Austro-Hungarian forces captured the Adriatic port of Durazzo (now called Durrës), gives me an excuse to sketch out the early years of one European country’s rotten twentieth century.

Part of the southern Balkans, nestling between mountains and the Adriatic coast, Albania reached the twentieth century as an ethnically mixed, essentially tribal society, governed as a province of the Ottoman Empire. Like many of the more far-flung territories nominally ruled by the Sultan in Constantinople, it was basically autonomous, and in July 1913, after Turkey’s defeat in the Second Balkan War, it was given formal status as an autonomous principality. Sounds good, but removal of the theoretical protection offered by Ottoman ownership left Albania’s expansionist neighbours free to include it in the territorial carve-up surrounding the Balkan Wars.

I put together some background to the mysteries of the Balkan Wars in a previous post (6 September, 1915: Caveat Emptor), but from an Albanian perspective they left Greece, Serbia and Italy ready and anxious to control some or all of the country.  While Italian influence dominated the ‘independent’ centre of the country, Greek incursions to the south and Serbian to the north meant that three separate Albanian governments were claiming international recognition by early 1914.  Europe’s great powers, united in exasperation at the dangerous chaos of Balkan politics, responded with the old-school expedient of appointing a monarch to sort out the mess.

Prince Wilhelm of Wied, a German princeling with strong links to Vienna, took the throne in March 1914.  He sought a semblance of legitimacy by appointing Essad Pasha, the region’s last Ottoman governor and its only internationally recognised authority, as his war minister – but Essad made his own bid for power almost immediately, and was gaining some measure of control over Albania’s largely lawless central region when the outbreak of general war in Europe moved the goalposts in his favour.  Prince Wilhelm’s brief flirtation with international significance ended when he fled the country in September, and for the next year Albania remained divided, with Serbian and Greek armies of occupation remaining static in the regions to the north and south of Essad’s central fiefdom.

This unhealthy balance was upset by the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in the autumn of 1915, which ended Serbian occupation of the north but also put Austro-Hungarian forces in what passed for control of central Albania by the end of the year, forcing Essad’s flight to Salonika. The Italian Navy had meanwhile captured the Albanian port of Valona (Vlorë) as part of the operation to evacuate the retreating remnant of Serbia’s army to Corfu, but though Italian warships bombarded Durazzo and set parts of the town ablaze, no serious attempt was made to prevent the port’s capture. Remaining in Austro-Hungarian hands , it formed part of the Adriatic naval front line until late 1918.

Albania spent the rest of the War in a state of chaos.  While Austro-Hungarian authorities struggled in vain the control the northern, central and coastal regions, the Bulgarian Army took over part of eastern Albania until 1917. The Greeks, chronically unable to decide which side of the War they were on, withdrew from southern Albania in the autumn of 1916, but were replaced by Italian and a few French troops. Though a major burden on Albania’s primitive economy, these occupying forces were little more than targets for the local warlords who actually controlled most of the country, and who were generally happy to take money from one side to undertake guerilla activities against another.  Here a map, stolen of course and removable on demand, of Albania’s theoretical divisions in late 1916.

 

320px-1914_albania_en.svg

Green for Italian, pink for French, muddy green for Austria-Hungary… and this map ignores the Bulgarians to the northeast.

 

No credible political authority had emerged in Albania by the time a collapsing Austria-Hungary withdrew from the Balkans in September 1918, and Italian forces remained to occupy the country after the Armistice.  Now the sole targets for guerilla attacks (by warlords, independence fighters or bandits, depending on your viewpoint), the Italians quit the country in 1920, and later that year local warlords fought off an attack through the northern mountains by forces from the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia).  Albania’s existence as an independent nation was finally settled in 1921, with Italian, Greek and Yugoslav agreement to appoint a ‘regency council’ as its governing body, but a century of troubles had barely begun.

Factional struggles amounting to clan warfare prevented even a modicum of political stability during the 1920s, and to cut a long story short Albania went through serial regime changes before becoming a republic, a monarchy under King Zog, a possession of Mussolini’s Italy, a Nazi-occupied state and, for almost fifty years from 1944, a Communist state under the truly bizarre dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.  These days Albania is trying to join the EU, and anyone who thinks the country doesn’t deserve peaceful integration with the rest of Europe has been reading the wrong newspapers, but internal factionalism, widespread corruption and communal division remain serious obstacles to progress, and the Balkans are still a very volatile place oxycontin 10mg.

So the First World War was tough on every European participant, Britain included, but for Albanians it was terrible every day, a story of danger and deprivation for all, and a mere chapter in the chronicle of more or less violent oppression that was to be their lot for the rest of the century.  Just thought you should know…

25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.

map_Serbia-falls_1915

The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

balkans

So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

6 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Caveat Emptor

A big war can absorb smaller conflicts.  The Balkan Wars were barely over, and almost certain to break out again, when the First World War swamped the geopolitical landscape and froze the Balkan situation for a time.  Serbia and Montenegro fought for their lives, and everyone else involved – Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria et al – suspended Balkan arguments on a wait-and-see basis.  It was a hundred years ago, on 6 September 1915, that the kingdom of Bulgaria signed the Pless Convention with Germany, tossing the Balkan cats back in the bag for the next round, and turning the Balkan Wars into a subdivision of the First World War.

Lots to explain here, so we’ll start with a quick resumé of the Balkan Wars. Historically the great overland trading route between Europe and Asia, the multi-ethnic Balkans were a chronically unstable mix of regional antagonisms and Great Power politics in the early twentieth century. The independent nations of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia contested turbulent and fluctuating frontier zones with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and with each other.

Areas of conflict included independent Albania (which was also being eyed by Italy) and Montenegro, the Austrian imperial provinces of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and western Croatia, and the parts of Thrace and Macedonia recently vacated by the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Romania was looking to expand in Greece and Bulgaria, Russia supported Slav independence because it prevented Austria-Hungary getting anywhere near the Dardanelles, and France was nurturing political ambitions in the Aegean.

This powder keg was eventually ignited by Ottoman political and military feebleness, which encouraged Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro to attack and defeat Turkish forces during the First Balkan War of 1912, pushing the Ottoman border east to the outskirts of Constantinople. The Second Balkan War followed next year when Bulgaria, unhappy with its share of the spoils from 1912, attacked Greek and Serbian forces, only to lose badly and suffer an immediate invasion by Romania. The peace that ended the conflict cost Bulgaria much of its northeastern territory, gave Greece control of almost all the Aegean coast and left Serbia almost double its pre-war size.

With me so far? If you are, you’ll probably have worked out that, while it licked its wounds and listened to the siren songs of Great Power diplomats during the War’s first year, Bulgaria wanted payback.

Bulgaria had taken its first big step away from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, becoming an autonomous principality. In 1908 the Young Turk revolution in Turkey gave Prince Ferdinand the chance to establish an independent kingdom, and re-style himself Tsar Ferdinand.  Russian support, always available for enemies of Constantinople, sustained Bulgaria through this period, but even stronger Russian support for Serbia had chilled relations with Sofia by 1914.  By the time war broke out the Bulgarian regime was well on the way to exchanging St. Petersburg for Vienna and Berlin.

The Tsar was subject to a parliamentary veto but the largely rural nation’s parliament was dominated by conservative landowners, and generally at one with the monarchy’s expansionist policies. The pro-Austrian Radoslavov became prime minister in 1913, and elections in March 1914 increased parliamentary support for the Central Powers. Parliament did object to the terms of large-scale reconstruction loans from Austria-Hungary and Germany in June 1914 – which put railways and coal mines in foreign hands – but not for long. The Bulgarian economy was dependent on imported manufactured goods, metals and industrial raw materials, and more than half the country’s imports came from Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Bulgaria’s links to the Central Powers meant little in the frenzied diplomatic atmosphere of the War’s first year, and Ferdinand earned the nickname ‘fox of the Balkans’ while he juggled offers of Turkish territory from the Entente and of Serbian territory from the Central Powers. By the late summer of 1915, Russian defeats on the Eastern Front and Anglo-French failure at the Dardanelles had made up Ferdinand’s mind, and the Pless Convention followed right here.

The Convention – along with a mutual defence treaty signed with the Central Powers in Sofia on the same day – committed Bulgaria to joining an invasion of Serbia within thirty-five days (of which more another day), and to fighting Greece or Romania should either join the War on the Entente side. From a Bulgarian point of view these were not difficult commitments to make, especially when sweetened with promises of post-war control over parts of Macedonia, Greece and Romania – but there was a catch.

Germany spent the entire First World War struggling to maintain vital import supplies in the face of the Royal Navy’s blockade operation, and needed to strip every possible source of food and raw materials it could get its hands on. So the financial and military aid that was part of the Pless package came in return for priority claims on, among other things, Bulgarian exports of mineral ores and food, marking the beginning of a cycle of ruthless economic exploitation that worked out badly for both sides. Bulgarian entrepreneurs rushed to fulfil lucrative German orders, condemning Bulgarian civilians to a dour wartime struggle against starvation and deprivation, but the primitive nature of Bulgarian infrastructure and agriculture meant that export surpluses never came close to matching German expectations. By late 1917, when Bulgaria’s military contribution had dwindled to irrelevance, the alliance had become deeply unpopular in both countries, and by early the following year it had ceased to function in any meaningful way.

By mid-1918, popular socialism and republicanism had become a clear threat  to the Tsar’s regime.  As the Central Powers’ war effort fell apart in the autumn, Ferdinand’s abdication in favour of his son was followed by a period of revolutionary unrest and the establishment of a peasant-based republican government.  The republic was then forced to accept a punitive peace treaty that left the country smaller and poorer than it had been before Pless, and remained unstable either side of a coup that restored the monarchy in 1923.

Bulgaria’s participation in the First World War brought nothing but danger, doubt and discomfort to its people while destabilising its political system and draining its economy.   Though Bulgaria chose what was in the end the losing side, and so faced the additional burden of diplomatic isolation in the aftermath, its story is broadly typical of those smaller countries seduced into the wider conflict by the promise of local gains.   In the process of absorbing  smaller, pre-existing conflicts, the War tended to bleed their participants dry, wreck their internal stability and leave them for dead in the post-war era.  Why bother telling you this?  Because a continent full of small, essentially broken states, riddled with social, economic and political problems, was an ideal breeding ground for future wars.

3 DECEMBER, 1914: Disastrous Victories

The Battle of the Kolubara River began a hundred years ago today, a six-day carnage in northern Serbia that ended the third and final Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country in 1914. So let’s talk about Serbia and its war to date.

Serbia was yet another of Europe’s new countries, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its twentieth-century character had been defined by a coup d’état in 1903, when King Alexander was assassinated and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, in the person of King Peter I, was installed in its place. The King ruled through an appointed cabinet that answered to a National Assembly (Skuptshina) directly elected by all male taxpayers and dominated by moderate liberals.

The regime’s home policies broadly reflected this political preference but its foreign policy, heavily influenced by the military, was aggressively expansionist and committed to the establishment of a pan-Slav state. In practical terms this meant seeking access to the Adriatic through Albania, and control over the rest of what would one day be Yugoslavia through absorption or federation. Tiny, independent Montenegro aside, all these places were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in 1914, and this fact alone pretty much guaranteed diplomatic support for Serbia from Russia.

Russian support had been crucial to Serbian success in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. While St. Petersburg’s guarantees kept other European powers from intervening, Serbia almost doubled it size and raised its population to around 4.5 million. You couldn’t call these secure or stable gains, given that the entire region – including Bulgaria, Greece and Rumania – was soon gearing up for another territorial merry-go-round, but Serbia made an alliance with Greece to counterbalance the threat of Bulgarian dissatisfaction with the 1913 peace, and went right on trying to expand.

A nice, simple regional map of the  Balkan mess in 1914.
A nice, simple regional map of the Balkan mess in 1914.

Belgrade had been encouraging pan-Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia since 1903. Both were semi-autonomous states within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter seized full control of Bosnia in 1908, after which rising tension between Vienna and Belgrade found red hot focus in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. By June 1914 Sarajevo was ready to blow, and the assassination of visiting Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, an act so famous you don’t need me to describe it, lit the touch paper.  Some controversy still hangs around the question of whether or not the Serbian government planned the killing. It didn’t, as evidenced by its desperate attempt to stave off war in answering Vienna’s subsequent ultimatum, but the Black Hand did.

The Black Hand was a hard-line nationalist organisation with strong military links and fingers in every other important Serbian pie, essentially a state within a state. It had engineered a political crisis that forced King Peter to pass executive power to his son, Alexander, on 14 June, and an election to legitimise the change was underway when the Archduke died. The killing was in line with Black Hand ambitions to goad Vienna into an aggressive act that would bring Russia to war, allowing Serbia to profit from a wider conflict’s fallout, and this pragmatic policy reflected the basic fact that Serbia couldn’t hope to win a war against an industrial power.

An overwhelmingly rural society, landlocked and essentially tribal in its outlying regions, Serbia possessed few mineral or other industrial resources.  A mere 10,000 Serbs were engaged in industrial manufacture, almost all of them in Belgrade (itself a primitive backwater compared to major European capitals), and the economy was largely dependent on exports of food and hides to Germany, Austria and Turkey. All Serbia’s fuel, arms and other military necessities were imported overland, using the navigable Danube, poor roads or the country’s only two railway lines, which linked Belgrade with Sofia and Constantinople. Meanwhile its army could muster a maximum of some 350,000 men, most of them ill equipped and overage, and was hardly the instrument to fulfil the leadership’s grandiose ambitions.

So Serbia was relying on outside help, and despite the government’s initial fears the Black Hand felt pretty confident about getting it . Meanwhile the Serbian population, fuelled by years of racially based propaganda (as were Austrians on the other side of the frontier), rushed to battle with the same confident enthusiasm displayed in Berlin, London and Paris when war came at the end of July.  Disaster beckoned.

Help didn’t arrive. As the diplomatic dominoes crumbled and massed armies collided all over Europe, none of Serbia’s allies against the Central Powers could spare the resources to provide significant support, and Serbia (along with Montenegro) was forced to face Austro-Hungarian invasion alone. What followed was a brilliant series of defensive campaigns, under the skilled command of General Putnik and carried out by troops familiar with the mountainous terrain.

By the time he launched a counterattack against Austrian positions at the Kolubara, Putnik had repelled two ineptly executed invasions in August and September, and made a tactical retreat before a third in November, giving up Belgrade to enemy occupation on 2 December.   The counterattack struck at fatigued troops, and after two days of heavy fighting Austrian forces began retreating back towards the frontier. Serbian forces recaptured the nearby town of Valyevo on 6 December, and the invaders re-crossed the frontier at the Drina three days later, at which point Putnik’s exhausted army gave up the pursuit.

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara River. It took a while.

The third invasion had cost the Austrians more than 225,000 troops, but the drain on victorious Serbian forces was more significant. The country had acted as a nation in arms, sparking reprisals by Austrian occupiers no less gruesome than those inflicted on Belgium by occupying German armies, and losses of some 180,000 men during the year could not be replaced. Still denied any material support by the Allies (although Britain did provide money for the purchase of supplies), the battered, exhausted rump of the Serbian Army could only spend the winter huddled in its fastnesses, desperately short of food, medicines and all other military necessities, while typhus spread through the ranks.

Driven by soaring ambition at the heart of its body politic, Serbia had gambled on war and lost, but seemed to have got away with it at the end of 1914. The year to come would bring a terrible reckoning.