The First Balkan War, which lasted from October 1912 to May 1913, pitted the Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria) against the Ottoman Empire. The combined armies of the Balkan states overcame the numerically inferior and strategically disadvantaged Ottoman armies, and achieved rapid success.
As a result of the war, almost all remaining European territories of the Ottoman Empire were captured and partitioned among the allies. Ensuing events also led to the creation of an independent Albanian state. Despite its success, Bulgaria was dissatisfied with the peace settlement and with the Ottoman threat gone, soon started a Second Balkan War against its former allies.
Tensions among the Balkan states over their rival aspirations to the provinces of Ottoman-controlled Roumelia, namely Eastern Roumelia, Thrace and Macedonia, subsided somewhat following intervention by the Great Powers in the mid-19th century, aimed at securing both more complete protection for the provinces' Christian majority and protection of the status quo.
By 1867, Serbia and Montenegro had all secured their independence, which was confirmed by the Treaty of Berlin a decade later. But the question of the viability of Ottoman rule was revived after the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908 compelled the Sultan to restore the suspended Ottoman constitution, and the significant developments in the years 1909-1911.
Serbia's aspirations towards Bosnia and Herzegovina were thwarted by the Austrian annexation of the province in October 1908. The Serbs then focused their attention to the south for expansion.
After the annexation the Young Turks tried to induce the Muslim population of Bosnia to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. These immigrants were settled by the Ottoman authorities in those districts of north Macedonia where the Muslim population was weak.
The experiment proved disastrous. Those elements of the population which could be induced to emigrate were largely considered to be ignorant, unruly, fanatical, and economically worthless. Their presence in Kosovo and north Macedonia proved to be a catastrophe for the Empire since they readily united with the existing population of Albanian Muslims in the series of Albanian uprisings before and during the spring of 1912.
These Muslim revolutionaries were joined by some of the Ottoman troops, who had been operating against them, mostly of Albanian origin. In May 1912 the Albanian revolutionaries after driving out the Ottomans from Skopje continued towards Bitola forcing the Ottomans to recognize extented regions in western Balkans as Albanian, in June 1912. For Serbia this was also considered problematic.
After its hopes of northern expansion were closed due to Austria's annexation of Bosnia it now found the last direction of possible expansion also closing due to the creation of Albania as a state. For Serbia it meant a struggle against time to avoid the creation of the Albanian state.
The timetable of the creation of the Balkan League indicates that the increasing prewar understanding between Serbia and Bulgaria went on parallel to the success of the Albanian Uprising, making the uprising the triggering issue behind the Serbo-Bulgarian agreement and therefore the Balkan Wars.
On the other hand, Bulgaria used the favorable timing in forcing Serbia to come to painful compromises regarding its aspirations toward Vardar Macedonia, since the party under time-pressure was Serbia.
The agreement provided that in the event of a victorious war against the Ottomans, Bulgaria would receive all of Macedonia south of the Kriva Palanka-Ohrid line. Serbia's expansion was to be to the north of this line, including Kosovo, and out to the coast of the Adriatic sea to the west.
This includes the northern half of modern Albania, giving Serbia access to the sea. If Serbia intended to honour the treaty, then it had sold Macedonia to buy Albania. Bulgaria had held a long-term policy regarding the Ottomans since restoring its independence during the Russo-Turkish War.
After the successful coup d'état for the unification with Eastern Rumelia, it had orchestrated a methodical scenario of indirect expansion through the creation, in the multi-ethnic Ottoman-held Macedonia, of a revolutionary organization, the IMRO, allegedly without national colour. IMRO's rhetoric claimed to be speaking generally for liberation on behalf of the “Macedonian People”, declaring its anti-chauvinism.
In fact it was a Bulgarian backed organization created with a secret agenda to facilitate the incorporation of Thrace (Eastern and Western) and Macedonia (Aegean and Vardar) into a new autonomous state, as an intermediate step before the unification with Bulgaria could take place in the same way as with Eastern Rumelia.
After an initial success Serbia and especially Greece realized the true purpose of IMRO and consequently a vicious guerilla war (see Macedonian Struggle) broke out between Bulgarian and Greek backed groups within Macedonia, ending when the Young Turks movement came into power in the Ottoman Empire with its initially democratic and modernization agenda.
Bulgaria then turned to the more orthodox method of expansion through winning a war, building a large army for that purpose and started to see itself as the "Prussia of the Balkans". But even so, it was clear that Bulgaria could not win a war against the Ottomans alone.
In Greece, Army officers had revolted in August 1909 and secured the appointment of a progressive government under Eleftherios Venizelos, which they hoped would resolve the Cretan issue in Greece's favour and reverse their defeat of 1897 at the hands of the Ottomans.
An emergency military reorganization had begun for that purpose led by a French military mission, but its work interrupted at the outbreak of war. In the discussions that led Greece to join the League Bulgaria refused to commit to any agreement on the distribution of territorial gains, unlike the deal with Serbia over Macedonia.
Bulgaria's diplomatic policy was to push Serbia into an agreement limiting its access to Macedonia, while at the same time refusing 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 Salonica (Thessaloniki) before the Greeks.
In 1911, Italy had launched an invasion of Tripolitania, which was quickly followed by the occupation of the Dodecanese Islands. The Italians' decisive military victories over the Ottoman Empire greatly influenced the Balkan states towards the possibility of winning a war against the Ottomans.
Thus in the spring and summer of 1912 these consultations between the various Christian Balkan nations had resulted in a network of military alliances which became known as the Balkan League. The Great Powers, most notably France and Austria-Hungary, reacted to this diplomatic grouping by trying to dissuade the League from going to war, but failed.
In late September, both the League and the Ottoman Empire mobilized their armies. Montenegro was the first to declare war, on September 25 (O.S.)October 8. The other three states, after issuing an impossible ultimatum to the Porte on October 13, declared war on the Empire on October 17.
Order of battle and plans
The Ottoman order of battle when the war broke out constituted from a total of 12,024 officers 324,718 men, 47,960 animals, 2,318 artillery pieces and 388 machine guns. From these a total 920 officers and 42,607 men had been assigned in non-divisional units and services, the remained 293,206 officers and men being assigned into four Armies .
Opposing them and in continuation of their secret prewar settlements of expansion between them, the three Slavic allies (Bulgarian, Serbs and Montenegrins) had led out extensive plans to coordinate their war efforts: the Serbs and Montenegrins in the theater of Sandžak, the Bulgarians and Serbs in the Macedonian and Thracian theaters.
The bulk of the Bulgarian forces (346,182 men) was targeting Thrace, pitted against the Thracian Ottoman Army of 96,273 men and about 26,000 garrison troops or about 115,000 in total, according to both Hall's, Erickson's and the Turkish Gen. Staff's study of 1993, books.
The remaining Ottoman army of about 200,000 was located in Macedonia, pitted against the Serbian (234,000 Serbs and 48,000 Bulgarians under the Serbians orders) and Greek (115,000 men) armies, and divided into the Vardar and Macedonian Ottoman armies with independent static guards around the fortress cities of Ioannina (against the Greeks in Epirus) and Shkodër (against the Montenegrins in north Albania).
Bulgaria was militarily the most powerful of the four states, with a large, well-trained and well-equipped army.Bulgaria mobilized a total of 599,878 men out of a population of 4,300,000.The Bulgarian field army counted for 9 infantry divisions, 1 cavalry division and 1116 artillery units.
Commander-in-Chief was Tsar Ferdinand, while the actual command was in the hands of his deputy, General Michail Savov. The Bulgarians also possessed a small navy of six torpedo boats, which were restricted to operations along the country's Black Sea coast.
Bulgaria's war aims were focused on Thrace and Macedonia. It deployed its main force in Thrace, forming three armies. The First Army (79,370 men), under general Vasil Kutinchev with 3 infantry divisions, was deployed to the south of Yambol, with direction of operations along the Tundzha river.
The Second Army (122,748 men), under general Nikola Ivanov, with 2 infantry divisions and 1 infantry brigade, was deployed west of the First and was assigned to capture the strong fortress of Adrianople (Edirne).
According to the plans, the Third Army (94,884 men), under general Radko Dimitriev, was deployed east of and behind the First, and was covered by the cavalry division hiding it from the Turkish view. The Third Army had 3 infantry divisions and was assigned to cross the Stranja mountain and to take the fortress of Kirk Kilisse. The 2nd (49,180) and 7th (48,523 men) divisions were assigned independent roles, operating in Western Thrace and eastern Macedonia respectively.
Serbia called upon about 255,000 men (out of a population of 2,912,000 people) with about 228 guns, grouped in 10 infantry divisions, two independent brigades and a cavalry division, under the effective command of former War Minister Radomir Putnik.
The Serbian High Command, in its pre-war wargames, had concluded that the likeliest site of the decisive battle against the Turkish Vardar Army would be on the Ovče Pole plateau, before Skopje.
Hence, the main forces were formed in three armies for the advance towards Skopje, while a division and an independent brigade were to cooperate with the Montenegrins in the Sanjak of Novi Pazar.
The First Army (132,000 men) was commanded by General Petar Bojović, and was the strongest in number and force, forming the center of the drive towards Skopje. The Second Army (74,000 men) was commanded by General Stepa Stepanović, and consisted of one Serbian and one Bulgarian (7th Rila) division.
It formed the left wing of the Army and advanced towards Stracin. The inclusion of a Bulgarian division was according to a pre-war arrangement between Serbian and Bulgarian armies, but that division ceased to obey orders of Gen. Stepanović as soon as the war began, followed only the orders of the Bulgarian High Command.
The Third Army (76,000 men) was commanded by General Božidar Janković and, being the right-wing army, had the task to liberate Kosovo and then join the other armies in the expected battle at the Ovče Polje.
There were also two other concentrations in northwestern Serbia across the Serbo-Austrohungarian borders, the Ibar Army (25,000 men) under General Mihail Zhivkovich and the Javor brigade (12,000 men) under Lt Colonel Milovoje Anđelković.
Greek artillerymen with 75 mm field gun. Greece, a state of 2,666,000 people,was considered the weakest of the three main allies, since it fielded the smallest army and had suffered an easy defeat against the Ottomans 16 years before in the Greco-Turkish War.
In the words of a British consular dispatch from 1910, "if there is war we shall probably see that the only thing Greek officers can do besides talking is to run away".
However Greece had a strong navy, which was vital to the League, as it could prevent Turkish reinforcements from being rapidly transferred by ship from Asia to Europe. This fact was readily appreciated by the Serbs and Bulgarians, and was the chief factor in initiating the process of Greece's inclusion in their alliance.
As the Greek ambassador to Sofia put it during the subsequent negotiations that led to Greece's entry in the League: "Greece can provide 600,000 men for the war effort. 200,000 men in the field, and the fleet will be able to stop 400,000 men being landed by Turkey between Salonica and Gallipoli."
The army was still undergoing reorganization by a French military mission when the war began. Under its supervision, the Greeks had adopted the triangular infantry division as their main formation, but more importantly, the reorganization allowed the country to field and equip a far greater number of troops than it had in 1897: while foreign observers estimated a mobilized force of ca. 50,000 men, the Greek Army fielded 125,000 with another 140,000 in the National Guard and reserves.
Upon mobilization, it was grouped in two Armies. The Army of Thessaly, under Crown Prince Constantine, with Lt Gen Panagiotis Danglis as his chief of staff, but the real organizational and strategic mind behind the scene was major (later General) Ioannis Metaxas. It fielded 7 infantry divisions, a cavalry regiment and 4 independent Evzones battalions, equaling roughly 100,000 men.
It was expected to overcome the fortified Turkish border positions and advance towards south and central Macedonia, aiming to take Thessaloniki and Bitola. Further 10,000 to 13,000 men in eight battalions were assigned to the Army of Epirus under Lt Gen Konstantinos Sapountzakis, which was intended to advance into Epirus.
As it had no hope of capturing its heavily fortified capital, Ioannina, its initial mission was simply to pin down the Turkish forces there until sufficient reinforcements could be sent from the Army of Thessaly after its successful conclusion of operations. The armored cruiser Averof, flagship of the Greek fleet. At the time, she was the most modern warship of all combatant navies, and played a crucial role in the operations in the Aegean Sea.
The Greeks had a relatively modern navy, strengthened by the purchase of numerous new units and undergoing reforms under the supervision of a British mission. The mission, invited by Venizelos in 1910, began its work upon its arrival in May 1911.
Granted extraordinary powers and under the energetic leadership of Vice Admiral Lionel Grand Tufnell, it thoroughly reorganized the Navy Ministry, and dramatically improved the number and quality of exercises in gunnery and fleet maneuvres.
In 1912, the core unit of the fleet was the fast armoured cruiser Averof, completed in 1910 and a that time the most modern and fast of any other battleship in the combatant navies.It served along with the rather antiquated battleships of the Hydra class. There were also eight destroyers built in 1906–1907, and six new destroyers that were hastily bought in summer 1912 as the imminence of war became apparent.
However, at the outbreak of the war, the Greek fleet was still not ready. In terms of number of ships, speed of the main surface units and, more importantly, in the number and caliber of the ship's guns, the Turks had a clear advantage.In addition, the war caught the fleet in the middle of its expansion and reorganization.
As a result, a third of the fleet (the six new destroyers and the submarine Delfin) only reached Greece after hostilities had started, coal and other war stores were in short supply, and the Averof itself had arrived with barely any ammunition.
In 1912, the Ottomans found themselves in a difficult position. They had a large population of 26,000,000, but only 6,130,000 of them lived in the European part of the Empire, and of these only 2,300,000 were Muslims, the rest being Christians, considered unfit for conscription.
The very poor transport network, especially in the Asian part, dictated that the only reliable way for a mass transfer of troops to the European theater was by sea, but that was under question due to the presence of the Greek fleet in the Aegean Sea.
They were also still engaging in a protracted war with the Italians in Libya (and by now in the Dodecanese islands of the Aegean), which had dominated the Ottoman military effort for over a year and would last until 15 October, a few days after the outbreak of hostilities in the Balkans.
They were therefore unable to significantly reinforce their positions in the Balkans as the relations with the Balkan states deteriorated over the course of the year.
State of the Ottoman Navy
The Ottoman flagship (pictured here) and her sister Turgut Reis were more heavily protected and had more and heavier primary armament than Averof, but were five knots slower.
The Ottoman fleet had performed abysmally in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, forcing the Ottoman government to begin a drastic overhaul. Older ships were retired and newer ones acquired, chiefly from France and Germany.
In addition, in 1907 the Ottomans called in a British naval mission to update their training and doctrine.The mission, headed by Admiral Sir Douglas Gamble, would find its task almost impossible however.To a large extent this was due to the political upheaval in the aftermath of the Young Turk Revolution; it is indicative that between 1908 and 1911, the office of Navy Minister changed hands nine times.
Inter-departmental infighting and the entrenched interests of the bloated and over-aged officer corps, many of whom occupied their positions as a quasi-sinecure, further obstructed drastic reform.
In addition, British attempts to control the Navy's construction programme were met with suspicion by the Ottoman ministers, and funds for Gamble's ambitious plans for new ships were not available.
To counter the Greek acquisition of the Averof, the Ottomans tried to buy the new German armoured cruiser SMS Blücher or even the battlecruiser SMS Moltke. When these moves failed due to the ships' exorbitant costs, the Ottomans acquired two old Brandenburg-class pre-dreadnought battleships, which became Barbaros Hayreddin and Turgut Reis.Along with the cruisers Hamidiye and Mecidye, these two ships formed the core of the Ottoman fleet.
By the summer of 1912 however, they were already in a poor state due to chronic neglect: the rangefinders and ammunition hoists had been removed, the telephones were not working, the pumps were corroded, and most of the watertight doors could no longer be closed.
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