World War I Centennial: Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece Declare War


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 40th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

World War I Centennial: Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece Declare War

Turkish cavalry detailed to defend Constantinople.

Ten days after Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the rest of the Balkan League piled on, with simultaneous declarations of war by Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, which ultimately sent some 750,000 troops across the borders to seize Turkish territory in Europe.

The war on land was divided into three main theatres. To the northwest, the Serbs and Montenegrins both invaded the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the narrow strip of Turkish territory separating their two kingdoms, while a separate Montenegrin force marched south towards the important city of Scutari near the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Albania. In the central theatre, Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian troops converged on Macedonia, the main object of the war. Further east, Bulgarian troops headed south into the Ottoman territory of Thrace, hoping to capture the ancient city of Adrianople (Edirne) and maybe even Constantinople itself. Meanwhile at sea, the Greek navy closed in on Turkish-controlled islands in the Aegean Sea and attempted to blockade the Ottoman Empire’s European and Asiatic coastlines.

While the Turkish armies only numbered around 335,000, or less than half the forces of the Balkan League arrayed against them, contemporary observers thought the Turks’ chances were pretty good, as they enjoyed several advantages: Geographically, they held a central position and could choose their battlefields, and the Ottoman administration had also instituted military reforms intended to bring the Turkish armies up to European standards.

But in the end these advantages were either squandered or canceled out by other factors. The Turks had only embarked on their far-sighted reforms in 1911, meaning they were nowhere near complete—in fact, the Turkish armies may have been more disorganized as a result. They also failed to take advantage of their central position by concentrating their forces; instead, they spread their armies out, allowing the forces of the Balkan League to defeat them one at a time. Worst of all, by deciding to boldly take the offensive in Macedonia, the Turkish commander-in-chief, Nazim Pasha, gave up the defensive advantage including choice of battlefields.

To be fair, the Turks faced additional challenges. The Slavic inhabitants of the contested regions tended to be sympathetic to the invaders and hostile to their Turkish rulers, meaning the Turks had to contend with guerrilla warfare by their own subject populations in addition to the forces of the Balkan League. (Of course, the Turks’ earlier atrocities against Slavic Christians were at least partly to blame for the animosity.)

But the first and biggest mistake, as noted, was Nazim Pasha’s decision to immediately bring the fight to the invading armies, which resulted in disaster when ill-prepared and only partially mobilized Turkish forces confronted the Serbs at Kumanovo on October 23 and 24, and the Bulgarians in the simultaneous battle of Kirk Kilisse, October 22-24.

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