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  • James Houser

July 31, 1913 - The First and Second Balkan Wars, Priming Charge for World War I

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 31, 1913. After negotiations in Bucharest, the shooting stops in Southeast Europe as the Second Balkan War comes to a close. The little-known Balkan Wars, from October 1912 to July 1913, involve almost two million men in enormous battles that shaped Europe and served as the final priming charge for the First World War.

The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and everyone knew it. The Ottoman dynasty had produced a series of mediocre tyrants, and the Empire had less and less control over its far-flung possessions in Arabia, Iraq, and Libya. They couldn’t even keep control close to home. The Ottoman Empire still controlled a big chunk of southeast Europe stretching from Albania to northern Greece, but this land – known to the Ottomans as “Rumelia” – was home to a bunch of competing nationalities that smelled blood in the water.

For the last several decades, the decaying Ottoman state had been wracked by misfired attempts at reform, economic decline, and social turmoil. The Sultan Abdulhamid II had finally proved so tyrannical and autocratic, scuppering any attempts to fix the old broken systems and save his realm, that army officers and intelligentsia put their heads together to launch a coup. In July 1908, the Young Turk Revolution removed Abdulhamid and placed his brother, Mehmed V, in his place. Mehmed was a puppet, though; the real power lay with the Young Turks’ Committee of Union and Progress.

The Young Turk Revolution did initiate a large number of reforms to try and inject some life into the “Sick Man of Europe,” but most of these were too little, too late. Even worse, the Revolution had opened the door for widespread turmoil across the Empire’s lands. A revolt in Yemen caused many troops to be diverted to the extremities of the Empire, and soon angry groups of nationalists within the Empire’s European territories began to clamor for increased autonomy or even independence.

Multiple countries were watching the Empire like a hawk, waiting for the opportunity to strike. Chief among these were the small Balkan states that had only gained their independence from Ottoman rule in the last century – Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Each of these Orthodox nations coveted Ottoman territory, where many of their own Christian countrymen were still under the yoke of the Muslim Turk. Trouble was, a lot of that territory held intermingled groups of different nationalities. The great Macedonian city of Salonika, for instance, was claimed by Greece, Bulgaria AND Serbia. So even if it did stop being Ottoman, who WOULD it belong to? Congratulations, now you know why the Balkans is such a damn mess.

Of course, you don’t count your chickens before they hatch; before anyone started arguing over territory, they first had to conquer it. Greece had made their own attempt in 1897 but gotten hammered by the Ottomans. The Serbs and Bulgarians had both gained their independence thanks to Russian intervention in the 1870s, but they couldn’t count on Russian help this time since Russia was much more concerned with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and its own revolutionary movements. So all three nations signed a series of interlocking treaties that left the question of Macedonia vague – whoever ended up occupying Salonika during the war itself would stand the best chance of keeping it but would also become the target of the other two. This would have grave consequences for everyone involved, eventually, with knock-on effects well into the future. Either way, though, the Balkan League had formed.

There was a question of timing, too. In 1911, Italy launched an invasion of Ottoman-owned Libya to try and expand its colonial empire. The Young Turks sent many of their best officers and units to resist the Italians, but Italian victories gave the Balkan League some hope for their own alliance. Any one of them alone against the Ottomans would be a disaster, but together they could win. The urgency of the matter was increased when the Albanians, still under Ottoman occupation, launched a major uprising in 1912. Albania was coveted by Serbia, who – then and now – had a prejudice against and feeling of superiority over the Albanian people. When the Ottomans weren’t able to crush the Albanians immediately, the Balkan League decided that the time had come.

On October 17, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece all declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had about 330,000 troops in the Balkans to face almost 400,000 Bulgarians, 230,000 Serbs, and 110,000 Greeks. This was obviously not going to go well for the Ottomans, even if they’d had a good military. They didn’t. Abdulhamid’s long and tyrannical rule had also been notoriously inept, to the point that he prevented his generals from training in the field since he thought they would use the opportunity to launch a coup. The supply and logistics branches were nearly nonexistent, the Army was in the middle of major reorganizations that were nowhere near complete, and its best units were in Libya or Yemen. In contrast, the Balkan troops – especially the Bulgarians and Serbs – were highly motivated and full of nationalistic fervor.

These armies were basically about to fight the dress rehearsal for the Great War, even if they weren’t armed or equipped to the level that the British or Germans would be less than two years later. Throughout the next year, the Balkan League and Ottoman armies would get a wonderful foretaste of all the delights of the near future – the overwhelming firepower of modern artillery, the superiority of the defense, the vast number of casualties, and the need for highly developed logistics and communication systems.

Despite these new realities the Balkan Wars, despite taking place in the 20th Century, would look in many ways like a very 19th-Century conflict. Both sides recognized the power of machine guns, but they were expensive and complex tools for the relatively small, poor nations of the Balkans. The number of airplanes each side had in October 12 were: Serbia, 3; Bulgaria, 5; Greece, 4; the Ottomans, 10. So that didn’t play a huge part at all. The utter nonexistence of motor transport and the poor rail system meant that most supplies and troops were transported by horse and the Mark I foot.

As things turned out, Bulgaria carried the main weight of the First Balkan War since it confronted one of the largest Ottoman armies in Eastern Thrace. They fought a series of battles in the Balkan Mountains that were the largest fought in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The Battle of Lule Burgas from October 28 to November 2 was the bloodiest, with over 100,000 men engaged on either side and thousands of casualties. By the end of this campaign, the Bulgarians had driven the Ottoman armies inside the defenses of Constantinople and seized the key city of Edirne.

On their end, the Serbs and Greeks squeezed the Ottoman forces between them in Albania and Macedonia; the Serbs soon overran Kosovo and Albania, while the Greeks began to approach Salonika – the prize all three countries wanted. Even as the Bulgarian armies raced south to approach the great Mediterranean port from the north, the Ottoman commander in the city began to haggle with both armies to surrender his charge. Finally deciding that the Greeks were offering better terms, he allowed the Greeks to march into Salonika on November 8 and 26,000 Ottoman troops went into captivity.

There was action on the sea too, as the Greek Navy defeated the Ottomans twice in the Aegean and prevented the Young Turks from bringing reinforcements by sea and ensuring that the Balkan League maintained numerical superiority. Even though the Ottomans had many more troops than just the ones they had fighting the war, they could not get them to the European side in time to prevent the catastrophe.

Although campaigning continued well into 1913, the Ottoman defeat was total. For the first time in almost 600 years, the Ottoman Empire no longer had a serious presence on the European continent. Lands consisting of modern-day northern Greece, southern Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and southern Serbia were lost forever. This final collapse of the Ottoman territories in the Balkans came with its own set of consequences, as vast ethnic cleansing campaigns followed the conquest. Serbs and Greeks were brutal to residents of Muslim or Turkish descent, and many fled in despair, abandoning homes and livelihoods out of the well-founded fear they would be attacked or even killed.

The final treaty that settled the First Balkan War was signed in London on May 30, 1913. Thanks to the intervention of the Great Powers, and much to the consternation of Greece and Serbia, a new Albanian nation was formed from those parts of the Adriatic coast. The Treaty explicitly granted all the Ottoman territories in Europe, except for a tiny spit of land containing Constantinople, to the Balkan League – BUT, critically, did not spell out which country got what territories. That was for them to decide, and they were not agreed.

Bulgaria, in particular, was unhappy with its share of the newly conquered territories. They strongly desired the Macedonian lands occupied by Greece and Serbia, especially Salonika, and soon began making life hard for the Greek units occupying the city. When the Bulgarian Army failed to demobilize after the peace treaty, this raised concerns in Greece and Serbia, who kept their own armies ready for whatever might occur.

Greece and Serbia, seeing that the Bulgarians were not going to back down, signed their own defense treaty on June 1, 1913. With tensions obviously rising, the Russians tried to mediate, but Bulgaria spurned these attempts, ruining previously good Russian-Bulgarian relations. The Bulgarians decided to launch a surprise attack on their former allies, hoping to roll over them like they had the Ottomans in 1912. The problem was that, in contrast to Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia had suffered very light losses in the war and had time to fortify their positions.

On June 29, 1913, without a declaration of war, the Bulgarians launched a night attack against their allies, beginning the Second Balkan War. The Serbs were utterly astounded, since they still had a very secure treaty with the Bulgarians and thought of them as friends. Nevertheless, they were able to throw back the Bulgarians. By mid-July, they were launching their own attacks on Bulgarian territory. The same could not be said of the Greeks, who were straight-up rolled by the Bulgarians for almost the whole month before they were able to start counterattacking.

This is the point where karma came back to bite the Bulgarians. Just as they had taken the opportunity to hit the Ottomans while they were distracted, and had launched a surprise attack against their own allies, they were suddenly hit from behind. Romania, which wanted some Bulgarian border territories along the Danube, suddenly threw itself over Bulgaria’s northern border while the Bulgarians were still fighting the Greeks and Serbs to the west.

The Romanian entry into the war turned the Second Balkan War from a would-be stalemate to a Bulgarian catastrophe. By July 23, the Romanians were only miles from Sofia, and two days later had joined hands with the Serbs. During the attack, Sofia became the first capital city in the world to be overflown by (Romanian) enemy aircraft. Romania suffered not a single combat loss in the whole war; the Bulgarians had no units to fight them.

Even the Ottomans decided to come in for round two while their nemesis was heavily distracted. Their one and only goal was the recovery of Edirne, the large Thracian city that had been the Ottoman capital in 1300s. They also met no resistance, and soon occupied the city, establishing the modern Turkish border in the Balkans that remains today.

On July 31, 1913, Bulgaria officially asked for a ceasefire, and eleven days later a treaty was signed in Bucharest. This treaty finally divided up the Ottomans’ European territories and ended the Second Balkan War. Both Greece and Serbia doubled in size as they absorbed large territories that they considered part of their homelands. Even Bulgaria still came out of the two wars larger than it went in, although Romania did gain its border regions. Separate treaties resolved the outstanding issues with the Ottomans.

The Balkan Wars ended the Ottoman rule of the Balkan Peninsula, which had begun in the 1360s. The Young Turks were unable to halt the decline of the Empire, but the victory by default in the Second Balkan War gave them a shred of hope to cling to. The Ottomans had lost territories containing 2.5 million people, and waves of religious violence and ethnic cleansing displaced many peoples all across the Balkan Peninsula. There was little denying that the Ottoman Empire was clearly on its way out.

In many ways, though, the Balkan Wars set the final domino in place for the outbreak of World War I. , The collapse of the Balkan League caused a loss of Russian influence in the region – influence they were desperate to regain by backing Serbia, their only horse in the game now that relations with Bulgaria had soured. When the time came in 1914, Russia would back Serbia to the hilt. The wars also created lasting bad blood between Bulgaria and Serbia, which would lead it to join the Central Powers in 1915 in order to fulfill its territorial ambitions. The bitterness between Turks and Greeks that had resulted in mass expulsions, pogroms, and near-genocide of their respective Greek and Turkish minorities would finally explode after World War I in the 1919 Greek invasion of Turkey and the subsequent Turkish War of Independence.

Finally, with Serbia’s territorial demands in the south fulfilled, and twice as strong as she had been only two years ago, the situation developing in Bosnia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s hostility was about to come to a head. Even as Serbia celebrated what seemed like her greatest triumph in July 1913, she was only a year away from the greatest conflict she had ever known. Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire would soon have their rematch.

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