Balkan Front

Balkan Front

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The Balkan peninsula, is an area in south-east Europe that includes Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and European Turkey. Tension in the area had been heightened by a series of local and international conflicts that culminated in the Balkan War.

In 1912 Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro won a series of comprehensive military victories over Turkish forces. The following year, Bulgaria, disappointed by the terms of the Treaty of London, attacked Greek and Serbian forces, but was quickly defeated when invaded by Romania. The subsequent peace treaty doubled the size of Serbia and gave Greece control over most of the Aegean coast.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo resulted in both Austria-Hungary and Germany declaring war on Serbia. On 25th August, Radomir Putnik and the Serbian Army defeated the Austro-Hungarian forces at the Battle of Jadar. With the support of its ally, Montenegro, Serbia managed to halt the advance of the Austro-Hungarian forces throughout 1914 including its important victory at the Kolubara River in December. However, these efforts virtually exhausted the Serbian Army's manpower and it was forced to recruit men over sixty. The army also accepted women, including the British nurse, Flora Sandes.

Serbia pleaded for help and eventually in September 1915, Britain and France accepted the invitation from the Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, to land Allied troops at Salonika, a strategically important Greek port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia. As there was a direct railway link between Salonika and Belgrade, this became the best route to send Allied aid to Serbia.

The first Anglo-French troops arrived at Salonika on 5th October, 1915. With Bulgarian and German troops on the frontier, the French commander, General Maurice Sarrail and General George Milne, the leader of the British troops, turned Salonika and its surrounds into an entrenched zone. This included a trench-system similar to the one on the Western Front.

The arrival of Allied troops in Macedonia failed to stop the advance of the Central Powers in Serbia. Overwhelmed by the joint Austro-German and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915, the Serbian Army was forced to retreat to the Albanian mountains. By January 1916, over 155,000 Serbian soldiers and civilians had been evacuated to Corfu.

After recuperation, over 80,000 Serbian troops were sent to Salonika. Considered to be the most aggressive of all the allied troops, the Serbian Army took part in the victory over the Bulgarian Army at the Vardar Offensive in September 1918.

What a night we had, we all shivered with cold and had to get up and pace up and down to get warm. We shook hands with a woman soldier in the Serbian Army who came up to the camp to see us. Her name is Milian and she has such a nice face, so sturdy too. She had been fighting for three years and was so pleased to have her photo taken.

The Fourth Company were holding some natural trenches a short way further on, and we were not allowed to go any further. The Bulgarians seemed to have got their artillery fairly close, and the shrapnel was bursting pretty thickly all around. We sat under the shelter of the wall and watched it, though, as it was the only building standing up all by itself. it seemed to make a pretty good mark, supposing they discovered we were there, which they did very shortly.

The shells were beginning to fall pretty thickly in our neighbourhood, and our Battalion Commander finally said it was time to move on. He proved to be right, as three minutes after we left it the wall under which we were sitting was blown to atoms by a shell.

Later on the next day the sun put in an appearance, as did also the Bulgarians. The other side of the mountain was very steep, and our position dominated a flat wooded sort of plateau below, where the enemy were. One of our sentries, who was posted behind a rock, reported the first sight of them, and I went up to see where they were, with two of the officers. I could not see them plainly at first, but they could evidently see our three heads very plainly.

The companies were quickly posted in their various positions, and made my way over to the Fourth which was in the first line; we did not need any trenches as there were heaps of rocks for cover, and we laid behind them firing by volley. I had only a revolver and no rifle of my own at that time, but one of my comrades was quite satisfied to lend me his and curl himself up and smoke.

We all talked in whispers, as if we were stalking rabbits, though I could not see it mattered much if the Bulgarians did hear us, as they knew exactly where we were, as the bullets that came singing round one's head directly one stood up proved, but they did not seem awfully good shots.

The wounded have been coming in all day, nearly all frightfully bad cases. We have our kitchen now, it is like an Indian bungalow all made of rushes. From the window we can see the ambulances arriving at the reception tent, and the poor men carried in. All the Serbs working in the camp are so pleased to have the hospital started at last, and indeed we are too. Poor Ethel is in the surgical ward and has had an awful day of it - three of the men, very badly wounded in the head, died tonight. We get the worse cases here and some of the wounded have been lying untended for two days.

Mrs Ingles and I went up behind the camp and through the trenches. It was so quiet with just the sound of the wind whistling through the tangles of wire. What a terrible sight it was to see the bodies half buried and all the place strewn with bullets, letter cases, gas masks, empty shells and daggers. We came across a stretch of field telephone too. It took us ages to break up the earth with our spades as the ground was so hard, but we buried as many bodies as we could. We shall have to come back to bury more as it is very tiring work.

On Wednesday evening a Serbian, Captain Dimitrivitch took Dr Muncaster and me up to his camp. We went up on a funny kind of waggon as no cars can go on the track. It is only open for the food and ammunition carts going up to the front. It is right along the side of Mount Kajmakchalan, and we saw the trenches and barbed wire entanglements just as they left them. I don't think I realized until then what the Serbs had done. It must be one of the most wonderful things that has happened during the war. Even though they are worn out from years of fighting, tormented by the knowledge that the Bulgars had killed most members of their families, without blankets proper food and clothing, the Serbs will never give up a yard of their country. They must have paid a heavy price for this great bleak mountain.

The Balkan front

Post by history_is_great » 17 Nov 2005, 11:21

It seems that most people are interested in the russian and in the french front history, and they ignore the great battles which happened on the Balkans.
In the battle for Doiran the small bulgarian army commanded by general Vazov totaly destryed the british who were more in numbers, better equiped and on better possition. This was the battle with most death soldiers per kilometer battlefront untill WW2.
I think that small nations must be taken seriously and to be respected, because many of them deserve it.

Re: The Balkan front

Post by fredleander » 17 Nov 2005, 12:44

history_is_great wrote: It seems that most people are interested in the russian and in the french front history, and they ignore the great battles which happened on the Balkans.
In the battle for Doiran the small bulgarian army commanded by general Vazov totaly destryed the british who were more in numbers, better equiped and on better possition. This was the battle with most death soldiers per kilometer battlefront untill WW2.
I think that small nations must be taken seriously and to be respected, because many of them deserve it.

Post by Smileshire » 17 Nov 2005, 12:45

I hate sensationalism. Try the main body of this link. Also find poster Redcoats link on the Salonika casualties inside. More accurate than Bulgarian sources

Post by Tosun Saral » 17 Nov 2005, 14:54

Post by history_is_great » 18 Nov 2005, 21:18

Dear Tosun, I'm so glad to see another balkan citizen in this forum.
We were enemies in many wars during the history, but it is all natural.
Of course there were turkish people in 9th Pleven division as in every bulgarian division. And they were very brave and helpful.
About the battle. Someone said something about the truth in my post. It is 100% true.

Best regards to all people here

Post by history_is_great » 18 Nov 2005, 21:23

Leandros, if you must know, during WW1 Bulgaria was against the alies and on the side if the axis.
It is a great shame for the english army to loose from us, so that's why the west doesn't talk about this battle very much.
Try to check for information on this topic in internet.

Post by fredleander » 18 Nov 2005, 22:28

history_is_great wrote: Leandros, if you must know, during WW1 Bulgaria was against the alies and on the side if the axis.
It is a great shame for the english army to loose from us, so that's why the west doesn't talk about this battle very much.
Try to check for information on this topic in internet.

Thank you - my question was seriously meant. In my opinion, many of the "unknown" wars/battles are often the most interesting. That said, I wouldn't put too mich into the fact "the west doesn't talk about this battle". Military history is often rather generalized in medias - people are simply not very interested. I often experience a reaction like your own when I see the Norwegian Campaign '40 described in international forums/medias.

Post by Smileshire » 18 Nov 2005, 22:33

Post by history_is_great » 19 Nov 2005, 13:44

Smile, with all my respect,
I can't understand why you are so negative against me.
I'm not lying, or changing the history.
I talk with facts. And the fact is that bulgarian army really did much in WW1.
Please tell me what you disagree and we shall talk about it like normal people.

Post by Benoit Douville » 01 Dec 2005, 05:42

I am really fascinated by the contribution of Bulgaria during World War I and I really appreciated your post about the Battle of Doiran, a fascinating Battle to study.

Post by Renner aus Schlesien » 05 Dec 2005, 17:03

Post by fredleander » 05 Dec 2005, 17:54

Post by Kosmo » 06 Dec 2005, 13:33

Post by fredleander » 06 Dec 2005, 13:44

Post by Smileshire » 06 Dec 2005, 23:20

Late 1915 - Two Franco-British brigades was landed at Salonika. (A Brigade usually of 4,000 men)

1916 - Reinforced by larger units 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th Divisions. (22nd, 26th originally of Kitchener's volunteers - A Division is usually of 18,000 men)

The link says This page presently includes some information from various sources which give some idea of what was involved in the Salonika campaign, where for every (single) casualty of battle three died of malaria, influenza or other diseases.

And Western Front association confirms:

Whilst the Allied casualties in action were relatively light, that due to illness was extremely high with over a million cases of hospitalisation due to disease, mainly malaria, and many cases required repatriation.

Battlefield Maps - Balkan Front

This section of the website reproduces large-scale maps categorised by battlefront covering the key battles and offensives fought from 1914-18.

Specifically, this page contains maps illustrating the course of the war fought on the Balkan Front.

The sidebar to the right lists each map category available within the section. Click here to view an introduction to the map series.

Three versions of each map are available - standard, large and very large. Generally standard files possess a resolution of 800x600 (approx. 70KB) large files 1600x1200 (approx. 140KB) and very large files 4000x3000 (approx. 550KB).

Map Name Description Standard Large Very Large
1st Invasion of Serbia Operations in August 1914
2nd & 3rd Invasions of Serbia Operations from Sep-Dec 1914
Final Invasion of Serbia Situation on 7 October 1915
Operations in Salonika 1916 Situation at end of 1916
Operations in Salonika 1918 Operations from Sep-Nov 1918

Click here to view a collection of maps produced within various publications while the war was still underway.

Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy

A Daisy Cutter was a shell with an impact fuse to explode immediately upon touching the ground.

- Did you know?

Churchill plan for Balkan Allied invasion.

Post by Molobo » 16 Aug 2005, 17:28

Post by Steve » 17 Aug 2005, 12:20

The British wanted to do something in the Mediterranean theatre in the spring of 1944 before Overlord which had been given a date of May 1st 1944. The British proposals had been aired prior to the Tehran conference of November 1943 and Churchill and Roosevlt discussed them at Cairo before going to Tehran and then Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin discussed them at Tehran.

The British proposed that the withdrawl of landing craft from the Med. would stop for the time being. The allies would press on to Rome. Increase supplies to the Balkan guerillas (in practice this would mean Tito). Sieze a bridgehead on the Dalmation coast. Bring Turkey into the war (this could mean re-equiping the Turkish armed forces).

The Americans had wanted a cross channel invasion in 1943 but had agreed to the British Italian strategy instead. By this time the Americans were becoming very suspicious that the British did not believe in Overlord and were trying another diversion for 1944. The Americans were determined to pin the British down to the invasion of France and the US Chiefs of Staff told Roosevelt to make it crystal clear to the British that they would have nothing to do with any Balkan operations.

Though the Americans at the discussions in Cairo had no interest in the British proposals Churchill still pressed for them at Tehran. Roosevelt put them to Stalin at one of the meetings between the three of them. Stalin was dismissive of them saying among other things (versions of what he said differ on a few important words) that France was a lot nearer Germany than Italy or the Balkans. Though Churchill did not give up the British proposals were dead.

Re: Churchill plan for Balkan Allied invasion.

Post by Bronsky » 21 Aug 2005, 23:20

The British and the Americans both wanted to do Overlord. On the other hand, the Americans wanted to make it the #1 priority so as to get it done on schedule, figuring that since they were Americans it would work. By contrast, the British who had a lot of painful experiences of deploying forces before they were ready (BEF, Greece, Crete, North Africa, Dieppe) wanted to wait until they were ready before doing Overlord. Meanwhile, they wanted to pursue opportunities when they occured.

So this meant that when an opportunity beckoned in the Mediterranean, the British thought that it was foolish to let a perfectly good occasion to score a strategic success go to waste just for the sake of following a stupid schedule for an operation (Overlord) which might well have to be postponed anyway. Whereas the Americans believed that if the Allies didn't draw the line somewhere, then Overlord would never happen because there would always be "great opportunities" to syphon off the resources necessary.

In addition to these divergences, Churchill throughout the war toyed with the idea of resurecting a Balkan front like the Armée d'Orient which had collapsed Bulgaria and then threatened Germany from the south in 1918. Ever since he became PM, he tried to build such a Balkan front, at first hoping to get Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey together, and then tirelessly trying to persuade the Turks to join.

Until 1943, the British generally had their way and they were generally right: the Americans were not ready, so it was better to do something useful in the Mediterranean than get a bloody nose on schedule in France. However, the Americans drew the line in mid-1943, essentially something like: "we'll do Italy and that's it". So when Italy surrendered and Churchill saw an "opportunity" in the Balkans (Italian garrisons were surrendering, there was a power vacuum before the Germans took over) he tried to get his Balkan front again. At more or less the same time, the Allies were scheduled to meet Stalin in Tehran. Roosevelt put the matter to him, and obviously Stalin wasn't interested in Balkanese sideshows, he wanted THE Second Front, i.e. a major operation that would engage a significant portion of the Wehrmacht. In other words, Overlord. So he said that he was willing to sacrifice a Balkan operation now for the sake of a guaranteed Overlord within 6 months. And since the British didn't have the shipping to do the thing on their own, that was that.

Post by Andy H » 21 Aug 2005, 23:58

I would agree with that and add also that Stalin had a weather eye on the western Allies interferring in his zone of influence come the post WW2 era.

Post by Michael Emrys » 22 Aug 2005, 06:11

Post by Bronsky » 22 Aug 2005, 12:22

This is very much the product of Cold War memoir-writting, by Churchill and many British generals along the lines of "see how wrong you were not to listen to us ?".

On the other hand, while Churchill didn't want to see the Soviets in control of Greece or the straits, there is no doubt that at the time he advocated his Balkan, and later his "let's scratch Dragoon and land in Trieste instead", strategies as a WWII-winning move, not as a Cold War-winning one. Just because the British in general and Churchill in particular were more aware of the postwar implications of Soviet advances than the Americans in general and Roosevelt in particular doesn't mean that "more aware" should translate into "had a pretty good idea of what the Cold War would be like and tailored their strategy accordingly".

Now if we must absolutely do some Monday morning quarterbacking from the point of view of the Cold War, I feel bound to point out that the American strategy was far more effective than the British one. Firstly, the West retained control of the straits and got Greece without investing the significant resources in the Balkans called for by the British. Secondly, and more importantly, from a Cold War perspective which would you rather have: France, the Low Countries and West Germany, or Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Yugoslavia ? The West was sitting on the richest, most populated and most industrialized parts of Europe in 1945, let's not forget that before we start blaming the Allies for losing the peace somehow.

Post by Michael Emrys » 22 Aug 2005, 21:22

Post by Bronsky » 23 Aug 2005, 11:09

Sorry, I should have made it clear that the Cold War thing was a digression, i.e. an argument that usually crept up in these kinds of discussions, but not something that you had actually written.

In other words, I was more ranting than answering you, sorry about that.

That being said, as I wrote my understanding is that Churchill's strategy did not primarily emanate from his distrust of communism but from his opinion that it was the right way to go. In other words, he would probably have advocated the same strategy even if Stalin had been removed by a Czarist coup which had turned the Soviet Union back into Imperial Russia.

Re: Churchill plan for Balkan Allied invasion.

Post by gjampol » 19 Feb 2009, 09:15

According to John T. Flynn's "The Roosevelt Myth," Roosevelt opposed Churchill's proposal. Speaking of the Tehtan conference, he writes:

". Stalin got everything he wanted--everything without any exceptions. Churchill did not, because Roosevelt, in pursuit of his vain policy, sided with Stalin against Churchill. Roosevelt got nothing, as we shall see. He got, of course, the United Nations. But this had already been settled on before he went to Teheran. And what is more this was no victory because Stalin got the United Nations precisely on his own term and in a form that has enabled him to put his finger into every problem in the world and to completely frustrate the British and Americans in every effort to introduce order, peace and security. Roosevelt did not get what he believed to be his objective because he made it clear he had to have Stalin's free and wholehearted support in the United Nations or it would be a failure from the start. Forrest Davis commented that Stalin acted with dash, Roosevelt with tardy improvisation. Stalin layed his "great design" to control those sectors of eastern Europe which he wanted in his orbit. Roosevelt put all his eggs in one basket--his world organization scheme for which apparently he was prepared to sacrifice everything else, including the very things a world organization was expected to ensure. Meantime Stalin and Molotov did not shrink from lying or indulging in double talk and Roosevelt was foolish enough to believe them. At home Roosevelt's Red and pink collaborators and his closest consultants were busy pouring out Soviet propaganda. Harry Hopkins never tired of plugging for his friend Stalin. Henry Wallace, then Vice-President, was talking about encouraging a people's revolution in Europe to advance the cause of the common man. Tito was being glorified in American magazines by Red and pink writers and others who were just plain dupes. Stalin himself and the Soviet government were offered to the American people in new and happy colors until, as James F. Byrnes conceded, as the war neared its end Russia occupied a place in the good will of the American people exceeding that of any other ally. All this had been instigated and urged by Roosevelt himself. And no one knew it better than Stalin." (P. 354-5)

"Once again Churchill brought up the question of shifting the invasion effort from the west coast of France to the Balkans. He wanted to hurry the Italian invasion by amphibious landings in the North and on the Northeast Adriatic aimed at the Danube Valley, an operation in the Aegean aimed at Rhodes or the Dodecanese and operations in and from Turkey if she would come into the war. General Deane says that Churchill wanted the Anglo-American forces in the Balkans as well as the Russians and he suggests that Churchill's foresight was later approved by our hindsight. There can be no doubt that the Invasion of the French coast was a less formidable undertaking then an invasion of the Balkans when the subject was first considered. Our opportunity to get into France in 1943 had been thrown away by Roosevelt's agreement to yield to Churchill against all his military advisers. But the African invasion had gone more swiftly than was hoped for when launched, though the Italian operation had been troublesome. Now, however, that Italy was successfully invaded and the guerilla forces in Yugoslavia were so strong the question of the Balkan invasion took on added significance. Churchill urged it now with fresh vigor. But Stalin was adamant against it and this was enough reason for Roosevelt to object. Moreover, time was now running heavily against Roosevelt and Churchill Stalin's armies were winging their way toward his territorial objectives." (P. 355-6)

"There was still something more to be settled. Stalin had engineered Roosevelt into living in the Soviet embassy although the American embassy was available. He had done this by exploiting the danger to the President from German spies. Roosevelt was, of course, in no greater danger than the British Prime Minister. The success of Stalin's maneuver in this matter was soon to become clear. Later Roosevelt told his son Elliot that "in between times Uncle Joe and I had a few words, too--just the two of us." As Stalin's guest in the Russian embassy, Roosevelt was accessible for a secret talk or two without Churchill's knowledge. One of these dealt with the Chinese Communist issue. Roosevelt told Elliott we couldn't do much about that "while Winnie was around." He brought up the question of a common front against the British on the matter of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Canton. Chaing, Roosevelt told Stalin, was worried about what Russia would do in Manchuria. Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that Manchuria would remain with China and that Stalin and he would back Chiang against the British. Referring to this, Roosevelt confided to Elliott that "the biggest thing was in making clear to Stalin that the United States and Great Britain were not in one common block against the Soviet Union" After that the way must have seemed wide open to Stalin for all his plans. Here was Roosevelt suggesting a secret deal between himself and Stalin against Churchill, just as he had suggested a secret deal between himself and Chiang against Churchill and as he was later to make another secret deal between himself and Stalin against Chiang. (P. 358-9)

Bloomsbury History

Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 is the first history of the Great War to address in-depth the crucial events of 1914 as they played out on the Balkan Front.  James Lyon demonstrates how blame for the war’s outbreak can be placed on different historical aspects. In doing so, he portrays the background and events of the Sarajevo Assassination and the subsequent military campaigns and diplomacy on the Balkan Front during 1914. Lyon challenges existing historiography that contends the Habsburg Army was ill-prepared for war and shows that the Dual Monarchy was in fact superior in manpower and technology to the Serbian Army. Here is what Sir Ivor Roberts, the former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy and current President of Trinity College, Oxford thinks of the book:

It might have been thought that there was very little left to say about the events of 1914 after the distinguished crop of books which have emerged in the last year. Yet James Lyon’s book covers genuine new ground focussing as it does on the events of 1914 in the Balkans seen from the Serbian end of the telescope and basing himself  on many Serbian, Austrian, and Bosnian archival sources which have not been accessed by writers in English previously, including new material on Serbia’s relations with Turkey.

He provides compelling evidence to reject the claims that the Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum was so full of ambiguities and evasions as to make it unsurprising that it was rejected. Lyon paints a vivid picture of the Habsburg ambassador in Belgrade, von Giesl,  preparing his departure, even so far as to receive Serb ministers on the evening of the expiry of the ultimatum in plus-fours and travelling clothes,  before he had even read the reply. This was perhaps to be expected as Count Berchtold’s ultimatum to Serbia was deliberately drafted to be rejected. And yet the Kaiser, no less, concluded that the Serbian reply was “a great moral victory for Vienna: but it removes every reason for war” And  Sir Edward Grey told the Austrian ambassador that “ It seemed to me that the Serbian reply already involved the greatest humiliation to Serbia that I had ever seen a country undergo, and it was very disappointing to me that the reply was treated by the Austrian Government as if it were as unsatisfactory as a blank negative.”

Lyon also deals comprehensively and in painstaking detail with the old canard that the Habsburg armies were less prepared for war than Serbia’s. In fact, it emerges clearly from Lyon’s lucid account that not only was the Pašić government desperate to avoid war but the debilitating effect of the two Balkan Wars and the consequent parlous insufficiency of arms and ammunition meant that at least in the early stages any war with an army of Vienna’s strength would be a disaster. The problems of lack of arms were compounded by lack of manpower: disease, wounds and desertions (60,000 in the first five months of the war) and basic equipment, (they were often dressed entirely in peasant clothes) which reduced the Serbian army in the last months of 1914 to a rag tag ‘peasant mob’. Yet the US Ambassador to Serbia perceptively noted that while the Serb army “looked like bands of tramps… [they] made excellent soldiers.” A result of the hardening experience of the two Balkan wars. Moreover while the Austrians thought little of the senior Serbian generals and officers, this proved, as Lyon illustrates, a very flawed judgment.

The later parts of the book provide an impressive and exhaustive account of the early battles of the war as seen from the Balkan perspective. It touches on the dramatic moments when Belgrade was close to surrendering to the Dual Monarchy in November 1914, the impact of the Balkan theatre on other fighting fronts and the behind-the- scenes deals which aimed at bringing Italy into the war at the expense of Serbian territorial ambitions. I can think of no other English language work which  addresses Serbia’s military effort in such a coherent and meticulous fashion nor which paints such a vibrant and dramatic picture of political life in Serbia in the days of the July crisis and immediately after the declaration of war.

Based on archival sources from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Vienna and using never-before-seen material to discuss secret negotiations between Turkey and Belgrade, Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 enriches our understanding of the outbreak of the war and Serbia’s role in modern Europe. The book publishes later this year and is available to buy on our website. 

Allied Aid

WWI: Frenchman instructiong Serbian in Use of Trench Mortar. The shell weighs about 100 pounds.

After a prolonged buildup, a combined Allied Army of French, British, Greek units and the Serbian Army transported from Corfu to Salonika, attacked north from Greece in September. The Bulgarians were thrown back and sued for peace and the Allies continued north, pushing back the the Germans and Austro-Hungarians until Serbia was liberated in October. The Allies were preparing to invade Hungary when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

Macedonian front

In 1915 the Austrians gained military support from Germany and, with diplomacy, brought in Bulgaria as an ally. Serbian forces were attacked from both north and south and were forced to retreat. The retreat was skillfully carried out and the Serbian army remained operational, even though it was now based in Greece. The front stabilised roughly around the Greek border, through the intervention of a Franco-British-Italian force which had landed in Salonica. The German generals had not let the Bulgarian army advance towards Salonika, because they hoped they could persuade the Greeks to join the Central powers. Three years later (1918) this mistake was already irreparable.

In May 1918, General Guillaumat's Greek troops attacked and captured the strong Bulgarian position of Skra-di-Legen, marking the only major Greek action on the Allied side in the war. However, with the German offensive threatening France, Guillaumat was recalled to Paris and replaced by General Franchet d'Esperey. Although d'Esperey urged an attack on the Bulgarian Army, the French government refused to allow an offensive unless all the countries agreed. By September, both France and Britain had offered to surrender to the Central Powers.

How the Balkan Peninsula Came to Be

Geographers and politicians divide the Balkan peninsula in a variety of ways due to a complicated history. The root cause of this is that a number of Balkan countries were once part of the former country of Yugoslavia, which formed at the end of World War II and separated into distinct countries in 1992.

Some Balkan states are also considered "Slavic states" as they are typically defined as Slavic-speaking communities. These include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

Maps of the Balkans often define the countries listed above as Balkan using a combination of geographic, political, social, and cultural factors. Other maps that use a strictly geographical approach include the entire Balkan Peninsula as Balkan. These maps add the mainland of Greece as well as a small portion of Turkey that lies northwest of the Sea of Marmara as Balkan states.

Overview of the war on the Western Front

World War I lasted for fifty-one months, from 1 August 1914 to 11 November 1918, and was fought on four fronts in Europe:
- the Western Front, considered from the outset to be the decisive front
- the Eastern Front, with Russia
- the Italian Front, in the Alps and
- the Balkan Front, against the Ottoman Empire.

Only the Western Front saw action throughout the length of the war and it was there that the conflict was finally decided. Except for a brief foray by the French into the region of Alsace, a German possession in 1914, the remainder of the fighting was conducted on French and Belgian soil (Belgium was wholly occupied apart from an enclave situated between Ypres and the French border) indeed, no Allied soldier set foot on German soil except for those taken prisoner.

On the Western Front, in an attempt to drive the German Army from the occupied territories, the Allies succeeded in mobilizing a coalition force comprising more than twenty nations with the French and British Armies providing by far the most soldiers and equipment however the United States, which entered the war in the spring of 1917, played a considerable role in the final days of the conflict, in the summer of 1918, which saw the Allies victorious.

The militarized zone of the front, which separated the zone occupied by the Germans from the rest of France, stretched 700 kilometres from the shores of the North Sea to the Swiss border and varied in breadth from a few hundred metres to several dozen kilometres. It was essentially a line of defensive works comprising trenches, barbed wire entanglements, blockhouses and underground shelters. Millions of soldiers saw service on the front, where the incessant shelling of both sides transformed the area into a landscape of craters and desolation, and several million of them perished there after enduring the cold, unhealthy and parasite-ridden conditions of the trenches. Throughout the conflict the various sectors of the front experienced periods of calm punctuated by heavy shelling and bloody offensives.

The Western Front of the Great War went through three main phases:

- a war of movement from August to October 1914

- a war of position from November 1914 to March 1918 and

- a return to a war of movement for the final confrontation between March and November 1918.

1. The invasion and a war of movement (August to October 1914)

In the final days of July 1914 the belligerents were able to mobilize their armies at great speed thanks to the efficient railway network then covering mainland Europe.

The principal objective of the Schlieffen Plan, the document which guided German military strategy in the summer of 1914, was to take Paris and thus force a rapid victory on the Western Front. The plan prescribed a surprise attack through neutral Belgium and the plains of Northern France, executed by a considerable force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, while at the same time neutralizing the French initiatives on the Franco-German border.

On 4 August 1914, forty-four German divisions streamed through Belgium in an attempt to attack the rear of the French Army massed in the north-east of the country, mostly in Lorraine. However despite the surprise, and at great human cost, the French Army was able to withstand the assault and retreat, without dislocating, to the great plains situated to the north of Paris. The French were supported in this by the first wave of troops of the British Expeditionary Force which had arrived on 14 August. In early September 1914 the French, in a final spurt, halted the German thrust just forty kilometres from the capital at the First Battle of the Marne. On 9 September, the German Army withdrew sixty kilometres to the north, to a defensive line along the Aisne River. This decision was in effect an acknowledgement that the Schlieffen Plan to capture Paris and destroy the French Army had failed. The withdrawal was also the first indication that the war was not going to be over quickly, as many had thought, and that a long confrontation of considerable forces was to be expected.

At the end of September, starting in the Aisne Valley, the two sides embarked upon what would be subsequently known as the Race to the Sea where each army attempted to pass round the flank of the other before it was able to shore up its defence. For several weeks the two armies were constantly on the move, fighting disorganized battles and suffering huge losses. This phase of movement came to a halt in October on the shores of the North Sea near the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort. A final attempt by the Germans to break through was thwarted by French and British forces in late October near the city of Ypres. Exhausted, the two sides proceeded to take up position behind a continuous line of trenches and defensive works.

The huge numbers of casualties suffered in the movements of the summer and autumn of 1914 were a direct result of the industrialization of the war. By the end of November 1914 the French Army alone had lost nearly a million men, of which 300,000 had been killed, and ten per cent of its officers had been put out of action. With Germans losses as high as those of the Allies, the offensive could only be considered a major strategic failure.

[Timeline: the main phases and offensives of the Great War the participation of French (F), British (GB), Belgian (B) and American (USA) armies is indicated in brackets the offensives launched by the Germans are indicated by the letter D. The offensives which took place in Northern France are indicated in bold type.]

- Battle of the Frontiers (14-25 August 1914)
- First Battle of the Marne (5-10 September 1914) (F and GB)
- First Battle of Artois (1-26 October 1914) (F)
- First Battle of Ypres (11 October to 30 November 1914) (D)
- First Battle of Champagne (10 December 1914 to 17 March 1915) (F and GB)

2. Trench warfare (November 1914 to March 1918)

In the autumn of 1914, despite their huge losses, neither of the great armies massed on the Western Front was in a state of dislocation although measures would have to be taken, and on a large scale, if they were to adapt to the huge war looming on the horizon.

The Germans occupied large portions of France and Belgium, controlling major economic resources such as the Belgium coal basins and the largest coal field in France, the Pas-de-Calais coal basin which alone supplied half of the "black gold" required by French industry. In tactical terms, the German Army took great care to install its defensive line on high ground, however slight, notably in Flanders.

For the French the objective was to reclaim, at any human cost, the territory occupied by the Germans and this they had to do alone up to the end of 1915 and the arrival of the "new" British Army of volunteers.

Throughout most of the war of position, from the end of 1914 to late 1917, the commanders in chief of the Allied armies on the Western Front, Marshal Joffre for the French and Field Marshal French (and later his successor General Haig) for the British, were convinced that a war of attrition was the only way to drive the Germans out of France and Belgium. The result was a series of attacks, ranging from localized actions to massive assaults, in various sectors along the front. The quantity of human and material resources committed to these attacks was of a size never before seen in the history of war. And yet, until the spring of 1918, all these attempts on the German lines resulted in tragic failure, the decisive breakthrough sought by the Allies never materializing. At best, the Allies made some mediocre territorial gains in Somme and at Ypres but the cost to human life was horrific. At the end of 1917, despite the failure in its attempt to weaken the French Army at Verdun, the German Army remained powerful and undefeated on the Western Front and continued to improve its strategy for defence. Earlier in the year, in February and March, it executed a strategic withdrawal to a heavily-fortified and seemingly invulnerable line of defence that stretched from the North Sea to Verdun: the Hindenburg Line.

Morale among German troops was high but, after the terrible reverse suffered by General Robert Nivelle on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge in April 1917, the French Army descended into crisis with large-scale mutinies breaking out in the spring of 1917.

The British Army, after a complete reorganization in early 1915 with the creation of a "new" army of volunteers placed under the command of Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener, suffered horrendous losses in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 however the lessons learned from this blood-soaked failure were slow to filter through to operations on the ground.

As for American support, considered by the French and the British to be a decisive factor which would tip the balance in favour of the Allies, it was slow to materialize. The Americans were methodical in their approach to establishing their troops on the Western Front, choosing to observe and learn the rules of trench warfare before bringing a major force to the battlefield.

- Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (10-13 March 1915) (GB)
- Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915) (D)
- Second Battle of Artois (16 May to 30 June 1915) (F and GB)
- Argonne Forest Offensive (20 June to 4 July 1915) (F)
- Second Battle of Champagne (25 September to 6 November 1915) (F)
- Battle of Loos (25 September to 8 October 1915) (GB)
- First Battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916) (F and GB)
- Battle of Verdun, the German offensive (21 February to 18 December 1916) (D)
- Battle of Verdun, the French counter-offensive (24 October to 18 December 1916) (F)
- Battle of Arras (9 April to 15 May 1917) (GB)
- Second Battle of the Aisne (16-20 April 1917) (F)
- Battle of Messines (7-14 June 1917) (GB)
- Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 10 November 1917) (F and GB)
- Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 10 December 1917) (GB)

3. A return to a war of movement and victory for the Allies (March-November 1918)

At the end of 1917 the Russian Army collapsed amid the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and thus relieved of pressure on its Eastern Front, the German Army, under the command of General Erich von Ludendorff, turned its attention to forcing a decision in France. The German High Command began to amass and train a considerable fighting force in preparation for a massive offensive on the Western Front which would rely on a new tactic using shock troops supported by very mobile groups of light artillery.

A formidable army of seventy-four divisions (approximately 900,000 men) gradually took up position along the eighty kilometre front defended by thirty British divisions, from Bapaume to Saint-Quentin. Ludendorff aimed to break through the Allied lines and advance to the Channel in order to seize the ports used by the British before American reinforcements arrived in any great number. This would have put Germany in a strong position to negotiate favourable conditions for the termination of the war.

Ludendorff called his offensive Kaiserschlacht , the "Emperor's Battle", although it was code-named "Michael", and he intended it to be a flexible operation with a series of successive impact points. The plan called for the German Air Force to play an important role in the offensive, which excluded a winter start, and on the first day of the attack 700 aeroplanes took to the sky in support of the German soldiers on the ground.

The Allies were in an awkward position in the spring of 1918. The French Army had been severely weakened by the fighting at Verdun and the tragic reverse on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge, and its morale had been sapped by the mutinies of 1917 and the social issues agitating the rear. Similarly, the British Army had fewer men at its disposal than the previous year, before the disastrous offensives of 1917, but a greater portion of the front to defend with an infantry made up of very young and inexperienced men. As for the American forces, they had yet to prove their worth in the field.

The major German offensive began at dawn on 21 March 1918. It was devastating: the British front was penetrated and losses were high (38,000 casualties and 20,000 prisoners in one day), forcing the British into a hurried retreat. After a month of fighting Ludendorff decided to interrupt the attack the Germans had progressed more than sixty kilometres into the Allied lines in some areas but their troops were exhausted and their supply lines could not keep pace.

After a pause lasting several days, and a return to trench warfare along makeshift lines, Ludendorff decided to restart the offensive in the form of limited, tactical attacks on certain sectors of the front. One of these was Operation Georgette: the German Army fought its way along the Lys Valley to Béthune between 9 and 19 April, sweeping aside the Portuguese Expeditionary Force and flattening the town's centre with heavy shelling. French and American forces finally brought the German thrust to a halt in May 1918.

By the end of July the front was moving in the opposite direction, propelled by a powerful and coordinated counter-attack by the three Allied armies. On 8 August 1918 the Allies began an offensive along the length of the front, Ludendorff describing it as the German Army's "black day". This offensive, after 100 days of fighting, ended in victory for the Allies and the Armistice was signed on 11 November, bringing a welcome end to the slaughter.

- Operation Michael (21 March to 5 April 1918) (D)
- Operation Georgette (Lys Valley) (9-29 April 1918) (D)
- Blücher-Yorck Offensive (27 May to 17 June 1918) (D)
- Operation Gneisenau (9-13 June 1918) (D)
- Second Battle of the Marne (15-19 July 1918) (D)
- Battle of Amiens (8 August to 4 September 1918) (GB)
- Battle of Cambrai-Saint-Quentin (26 August to 12 October) (F, GB and B)
- Battle of Saint-Mihiel (12-16 September1917) (US)
- Meuse-Argonne Offensive (26 September to 11 November 1918) (F and USA)
- Flanders Offensive (28 September to 11 November 1918) (F and GB)
- Picardy Offensive (17 October to 11 November 1918) (GB)

Thus after four years of unprecedented fighting, both in terms of its extent and the slaughter, the Allies claimed victory on the Western Front over the most powerful and most professional army in the world.

France paid a high price for her place among the victors of the Great War: she had lost a whole generation of young adults and some of her most economically-productive regions, both in terms of industry and agriculture, were devastated.

The price paid by Great Britain and her empire was equally daunting: never before had the British nation suffered so great a loss of human life, and her enormous financial reserves, accumulated over centuries, were severely depleted. The Great War also changed the face of the British Army, which until that time was designed to satisfy the needs of a colonial empire, turning it into a powerful fighting machine capable of undertaking massive operations. The war also contributed to creating a sense of nationhood among the Dominions of the Empire (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and sowed the seeds of independence from the British homeland.

Despite the negative outcome for Germany, with her servicemen decimated and her finances exhausted, her territory remained intact. The defeat was attributed by many Germans to political manoeuvres rather than the failings of the military and this encouraged the emergence of a vengeful nationalism, particularly among former soldiers such as one Adolf Hitler. The entry into the war of the Americans, albeit belated, forced the German Army into an ultimately doomed offensive.

In 1918, with limited losses and a strengthened economy, the United States attained for the first time the enviable status of world power.

director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France

Balkan Front - History

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 15: The Balkan causes of World War I

Few issues in modern history have received as much attention as assigning responsibility for the outbreak of the World War in 1914. The debate began during the war itself as each side tried to lay blame on the other, became part of the "war guilt" question after 1918, went through a phase of revisionism in the 1920s, and was revived in the 1960s thanks to the work of Fritz Fischer.

This lecture also deals with the causes of World War I, but does so from a Balkan perspective. Certainly Great Power tensions were widespread in 1914, and those tensions caused the rapid spread of the war after it broke out, but many previous Great Power crises had been resolved without war. Why did this particular episode, a Balkan crisis that began with a political murder in Bosnia, prove so unmanageable and dangerous?

  • What was the purpose of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?
  • Who was responsible for the killing, besides the assassins themselves?
  • Was a war inevitable after the murder, or did policy-makers let the crisis escape their control?
  • Finally, why did a Balkan crisis lead to a world war in 1914, when other crises had not?

Focusing on the Balkans

From a Balkan perspective, it is crucial to look at the actors and decision-makers who were at work during the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the two states involved in the original Sarajevo crisis. Doing so highlights factors that are somewhat different from those at work among the Great Powers at large, or those cited in general explanations for the war.

General treatments of the European crisis of 1914 often blame Great Power statesmen for their shortsightedness, incompetence, or failure to act in a timely or effective way to keep the peace. A common theme is the passive nature of Great Power policy: leaders reacted to events instead of proactively managing the crisis. With some justification, scholars conclude that French leaders had little choice: France was the object of a German invasion. England in turn entered the war because a successful German attack on France and Belgium would have made Germany too powerful. Both Germany and Russia mobilized their armies in haste, because each one feared defeat by powerful enemies if they delayed. Germany and Russia also rashly committed themselves to support Balkan clients -- Austria-Hungary and Serbia, respectively -- because Berlin and St. Petersburg feared that failure to do so would cost them the trust of important allies and leave them isolated. This interpretation treats Balkan matters largely through their influence on policies elsewhere.

An analysis rooted in a Balkan perspective, on the other hand, can evaluate the proactive steps taken in the region from the start of the crisis. Unfortunately, when Austrians, Hungarians and Serbs made important decisions early in the crisis, they consistently avoided compromise and risked war. Two months passed between the murder of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Bosnian Serb high school student on June 28, and the coming of general war at the end of August. In other words, there was plenty of time for calculation, caution and decision. Who chose to risk war, and why?

The purpose of the murder itself

The murder itself was hardly a mystery. There were scores of witnesses and the killers were immediately arrested: we even have a photograph of Gavrilo Princip being wrestled to the ground by police. The conspirators willingly confessed: transcripts of their trial statements have been published. Nor was the fact of murder per se crucial. It was an age of assassins: Franz Joseph's wife, the Empress Elizabeth, had been murdered in 1898 in Switzerland by an Italian, but Austria did not seek war with Italy or Switzerland. It was the significance of this particular crime for Austro-Serbian relations that mattered.

Serbian blame: the assassins

To assess the degree of Serbian guilt, we should look in three places: the young Bosnian assassins, their backers in Serbia, and the Serbian government.

In an open car, Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie Chotek and Governor Potiorek passed seven assassins as their procession drove through Sarajevo. A look at the actual participants tells us something about South Slav nationalist dissatisfaction in Habsburg-ruled Bosnia.

The first conspirator along the parade route was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, a 27-year old carpenter, son of an impoverished Bosnian Muslim notable: he had a bomb. After planning a plot of his own to kill Governor Potiorek, Mehmedbasic joined the larger plot. When the car passed him, he did nothing: a gendarme stood close by, and Mehmedbasic feared that a botched attempt might spoil the chance for the others. He was the only one of the assassins to escape.

Map: SARAJEVO IN 1905/1914
[Clicking here will display a tourist map of the city of Sarajevo in 1905 in another browser window, while leaving this lecture text in the original browser window.]

Next was Vaso Cubrilovic, a 17-year old student armed with a revolver. Cubrilovic was recruited for the plot during a political discussion: in Bosnia in 1914, virtual strangers could soon be plotting political murders together, if they shared radical interests. Cubrilovic had been expelled from the Tuzla high school for walking out during the Habsburg anthem. Cubrilovic too did nothing, afraid of shooting Duchess Sophie by accident. Under Austrian law, there was no death penalty for juvenile offenders, so Cubrilovic was sentenced to 16 years. In later life he became a history professor.

Nedelko Cabrinovic was the third man, a 20-year old idler who was on bad terms with his family over his politics: he took part in strikes and read anarchist books. His father ran a cafe, did errands for the local police, and beat his family. Nedeljko dropped out of school, and moved from job to job: locksmithing, operating a lathe and setting type. In 1914 Cabrinovic worked for the Serbian state printing house in Belgrade. He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, who recruited him there for the killing, and they travelled together back to Sarajevo. Cabrinovic threw a bomb, but failed to see the car in time to aim well: he missed the heir's car and hit the next one, injuring several people. Cabrinovic swallowed poison and jumped into a canal, but he was saved from suicide and arrested. He died of tuberculosis in prison in 1916.

The fourth and fifth plotters were standing together. One was Cvetko Popovic, an 18-year old student who seems to have lost his nerve, although he claimed not to have seen the car, being nearsighted. Popovic received a 13-year sentence, and later became a school principal.

Nearby was 24-year old Danilo Ilic, the main organizer of the plot he had no weapon. Ilic was raised in Sarajevo by his mother, a laundress. His father was dead, and Ilic worked as a newsboy, a theatre usher, a laborer, a railway porter, a stone-worker and a longshoreman while finishing school later he was a teacher, a bank clerk, and a nurse during the Balkan Wars. His real vocation was political agitation: he had contacts in Bosnia, with the Black Hand in Serbia and in the exile community in Switzerland. He obtained the guns and bombs used in the plot. Ilic was executed for the crime.

The final two of the seven conspirators were farther down the road. Trifko Grabez was a 19-year old Bosnian going to school in Belgrade, where he became friends with Princip. He too did nothing: at his trial he said he was afraid of hurting some nearby women and children, and feared that an innocent friend standing with him would be arrested unjustly. He too died in prison: the Austrians spared few resources for the health of the assassins after conviction.

Gavrilo Princip was last. Also 19-years old, he was a student who had never held a job. His peasant family owned a tiny farm of four acres, the remnant of a communal zadruga broken up in the 1880s for extra cash, his father drove a mail coach. Gavrilo was sickly but smart: at 13 he went off to the Merchants Boarding School in Sarajevo. He soon turned up his nose at commerce in favor of literature, poetry and student politics. For his role in a demonstration, he was expelled and lost his scholarship. In 1912 he went to Belgrade: he never enrolled in school, but dabbled in literature and politics, and somehow made contact with Apis and the Black Hand. During the Balkan Wars he volunteered for the Serbian army, but was rejected as too small and weak.

On the day of the attack, Princip heard Cabrinovic's bomb go off and assumed that the Archduke was dead. By the time he heard what had really happened, the cars had driven past him. By bad luck, a little later the returning procession missed a turn and stopped to back up at a corner just as Princip happened to walk by. Princip fired two shots: one killed the archduke, the other his wife. Princip was arrested before he could swallow his poison capsule or shoot himself. Princip too was a minor under Austrian law, so he could not be executed. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and died of tuberculosis in 1916.

We can make some generalizations about the plotters. All were Bosnian by birth. Most were Serbian, or one might say Orthodox, but one was a Bosnian Muslim: at their trial, the plotters did not speak of Serbian, Croatian or Muslim identity, only their unhappiness with the Habsburgs. None of the plotters was older than 27: so none of them were old enough to remember the Ottoman regime. Their anger over conditions in Bosnia seems directed simply at the visible authorities. The assassins were not advanced political thinkers: most were high school students. From statements at their trial, the killing seems to have been a symbolic act of protest. Certainly they did not expect it to cause a war between Austria and Serbia.

A closer look at the victims also supports this view: that symbolic, not real, power was at stake. Assassination attempts were not unusual in Bosnia. Some of the plotters originally planned to kill Governor Potiorek, and only switched to the royal couple at the last minute. Franz Ferdinand had limited political influence. He was Emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, and became the heir when Franz Joseph's son killed himself in 1889 (his sisters could not take the throne).

This position conferred less power than one might think. Franz Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, was a Bohemian noblewoman, but not noble enough to be royal. She was scorned by many at court, and their children were out of the line of succession (Franz Ferdinand's brother Otto was next). Franz Ferdinand had strong opinions, a sharp tongue and many political enemies. He favored "trialism," adding a third Slavic component to the Dual Monarchy, in part to reduce the influence of the Hungarians. His relations with Budapest were so bad that gossips blamed the killing on Magyar politicians. There have been efforts to say that Serbian politicians had him killed to block his pro-Slav reform plans, but the evidence for this is thin.

Serbian blame: the Black Hand

The assassins did not act alone. Who was involved within Serbia, and why? To understand Serbian actions accurately, we must distinguish between the Radical Party led by Prime Minister Pasic, and the circle of radicals in the army around Apis, the man who led the murders of the Serbian royal couple in 1903.

The role of Apis in 1914 is a matter of guesswork, despite many investigations. The planning was secret, and most of the participants died without making reliable statements . Student groups like Mlada Bosna were capable of hatching murder plots on their own. During 1913 several of the eventual participants talked about murdering General Oskar Potiorek, the provincial Governor or even Emperor Franz Joseph.

Once identified as would-be assassins, however, the Bosnian students seem to have been directed toward Franz Ferdinand by Dimitrijevic-Apis, by now a colonel in charge of Serbian intelligence. Princip returned from a trip to Belgrade early in 1914 with a plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, contacts in the Black Hand who later supplied the guns and bombs, and information about the planned June visit by the heir, which Princip would not have known without a leak or tip from within Serbian intelligence. In 1917, Apis took credit for planning the killing, but his motives can be questioned: at the time, he was being tried for treason against the Serbian king, and mistakenly believed that his role in the plot would lead to leniency. In fact, the Radical Party and the king were afraid of Apis and had him shot.

Those who believe Apis was at work point to "trialism" as his motive. Apis is supposed to have seen the heir as the only man capable of reviving Austria-Hungary. If Franz Ferdinand had reorganized the Habsburg Empire on a trialist basis, satisfying the Habsburg South Slavs, Serbian hopes to expand into Bosnia and Croatia would have been blocked. In early June 1914, Apis is said to have decided to give guns and bombs to Princip and his accomplices, and arranged to get the students back over the border into Bosnia without passing through the border checkpoints. Later in the month, other members of the Black Hand ruling council voted to cancel the plan, but by then it was too late to call back the assassins.

Serbian blame: Pasic and the state

While Apis may or may not have been guilty of planning the murder, the murder did not necessarily mean war. There was no irresistable outburst of popular anger after the assassination: Austria-Hungary did not take revenge in hot blood, but waited almost two months. When the Habsburg state did react against Serbia, it was in a calculated manner as we will see in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the Austrians chose to blame the Pasic government for the crime. How culpable was the Serbian regime?

There is no evidence to suggest that Pasic planned the crime. It is unlikely that the Black Hand officers were acting on behalf of the government, because the military and the Radical Party in fact were engaged in a bitter competition to control the state. After the Balkan Wars, both military and civilian figures claimed the right to administer the newly liberated lands (the so-called Priority Question). After 1903, Pasic knew that Apis' clique would kill to get their way.

Pasic's responsibility revolves around reports that he was warned of the intended crime, and took inadequate steps to warn Austrian authorities. Despite Pasic's denials, there is substantial testimony that someone alerted him to the plot, and that Pasic ordered the Serbian ambassador in Vienna to tell the Austrians that an attempt would be made on the life of the heir during his visit to Bosnia.

However, when the Serbian ambassador passed on the warning, he appears to have been too discreet. Instead of saying that he knew of an actual plot, he spoke in terms of a hypothetical assassination attempt, and suggested that a state visit by Franz Ferdinand on the day of Kosovo (June 28) was too provocative. Austrian diplomats failed to read between the lines of this vague comment. By the time the warning reached the Habsburg joint finance minister (the man in charge of Bosnian affairs) any sense of urgency had been lost, and he did nothing to increase security or cancel the heir's planned visit. After the murders, the Serbian government was even more reluctant to compromise itself by admitting any prior knowledge, hence Pasic's later denials.

If we agree that the Pasic government did not plan the killings, what can we say about their response to the crisis that followed? War in 1914 was not inevitable: did the Serbs work hard enough to avoid it?

Blame in Austria-Hungary

Before we can answer that question, we must look at the official Austrian reaction to the killing. This took two forms. First, the police and the courts undertook a wide-ranging series of arrests and investigations. Hundreds of people were arrested or questioned, sometimes violently. Twenty-five people were finally tried and convicted, though only a few were executed, because so many of the defendants were minors.

Second, the Austrian foreign ministry and the emperor's closest advisors considered what to do about Serbia's role in the plot. Investigators quickly learned that the murder weapons came from Serbian sources, but Austrian intelligence failed to distinguish between the roles of the Pasic administration and the unofficial nationalist groups: for that matter, they blamed Narodna Odbrana for the crime, apparently unaware of the Black Hand.

Austria's blame for the war attaches to its calculated response to the murders. Early councils were divided. The chief of staff, General Franz Baron Conrad von Hoetzendorf, wanted a military response from the beginning. Conrad had previously argued that the Monarchy was surrounded by enemies who needed to be defeated individually, before they could combine. In other words, he wanted a war against the Serbs and Russians, followed later by a confrontation with Italy. Leopold Count von Berchtold, the Habsburg foreign minister, generally agreed with Conrad's analysis. Berchtold took no strong position in the crisis: he was apparently convinced by Conrad, and his only hesitation involved the need to prepare public opinion for war.

The only real opposition to a policy of confrontation and war came from the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Stephan Tisza. Tisza was personally opposed to militarism and took the risks of war more seriously than Conrad. Also, as a Magyar, Tisza realized that a Habsburg victory would be a domestic defeat for Hungarians: if Austria annexed Serbia, the delicate ethnic balance in the Dual Monarchy would be lost. Either the Slavic population of Hungary would increase, leaving the Magyars as a minority in their own country, or trialism would replace the dualist system, again discounting Magyar influence.

The early Austrian deliberations included another, calculated element that shows their limited interest in peace: in weighing the merits of a military response, Vienna first sought the reaction of her German ally. The Austrian ambassador in Berlin found that the Germans, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, supported a war to punish Serbia and offered their full support. This was in clear contrast to events during the Balkan War of 1912, when Berlin refused to back Vienna in any intervention. Like the Austrians, the Germans feared a future war with Russia, and preferred to fight soon, before their enemies grew stronger.

When the Austrian Council of Ministers met again on July 7, the majority favored war. To satisfy Tisza, the council agreed to present demands to Serbia, rather than declare war at once. In the belief that a diplomatic victory alone would not be enough to destroy Serbia as a threat, the demands were deliberately to be written in such extreme terms that Serbia could not accept them. Serbia's refusal to comply would then become the excuse for war. Within a week, Tisza himself consented to this plan: his only reservation was insistence that no Serbian territory be annexed after the war.

  • Austrian police would help suppress subversives on Serbian territory, and
  • Austrian courts would help prosecute accused conspirators inside Serbia.

The document had a 48-hour deadline. The council finalized the demands on July 19th and sent them to Belgrade on the 23rd. The war party in Vienna hoped that the Serbs would fail to agree, and that this could be an excuse for war. The 48-hour time limit is further evidence that the document was not meant as a negotiating proposal, but as an ultimatum.

  • First, the majority in the Council of Ministers assumed from the first that war was the appropriate response. Only Count Tisza opposed it, and he did so largely for reasons of domestic politics. His objections were overcome by the promise to seek no annexation of Serbia. The negotiations with Serbia were really a sham, to create a good impression: even the 48-hour ultimatum shows that crisis, not compromise, was the intent.
  • A second clue to Austria's intent is Vienna's approach to Berlin for Germany support in case of war. After the Berlin government responded with the so-called "blank check," the war party saw no further reason to seek peace.
  • Third, the terms of the ultimatum show that the Austrians came to a decision even though they were acting on incomplete information. The ultimatum was issued well before the trial of the assassins could establish the facts of the crime. Vienna knew nothing about the Black Hand or its role, but it made no difference: the decision for war was based on expediency, not justice or facts.

The Serb reply

The Serbs in turn failed to do their utmost to defuse the crisis. When Serbia first received the ultimatum, Pasic indicated that he could accept its terms, with a few reservations and requests for clarification. As time passed, however, it became clear that Russia would support Serbia regardless of the situation. After that, Pasic gave up seeking peace. While a long reply was written and sent, Serbia rejected the key points about Austrian interference in domestic judicial and police work. Pasic knew that this meant war, and the Serbian army began to mobilize even before the reply was complete. While mobilization was prudent, it did not imply a strong commitment to peace. Because the Serbian reply did not accept every point, Austria broke off relations on July 25.

The tough positions taken by both Austria and Serbia brought the situation too close to the brink to step back, and in a few days matters were out of control. Again, the specific arguments raised by each side matter less than their mutual willingness to take risks. This policy of brinkmanship made war more likely than negotiation.

Why a Balkan war?

This leads us to the last question: why did the Balkan crisis of 1914 lead to World War I, when many other crises were resolved without a general war in Europe?

  • First, why did the crisis led to a war between Austria and Serbia? and
  • Second, why did that conflict soon involve the rest of the Great Powers?

From what we have seen about risktaking by the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs, we can say something about why those two states went to war in 1914.

In the first place, both governments believed that their prestige and credibility were on the line, not only in the international community, but at home.

For the Austrians, a personal attack on the royal family required a strong response, especially if the assassins were Serbs, who had defied the Dual Monarchy during the Pig War, been labelled as traitors during the Friedjung Trial, and recently destroyed southeastern Europe's other dynastic empire (the Ottomans). Failure to act in the summer of 1914 invited greater turmoil later.

For the Serbian regime, the humiliating Austrian terms would have undone all the progress made since 1903 in achieving independence from Habsburg meddling. The economic Pig War, Austria's annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and now the demand to send police into Serbia, all implied renewed Austrian control. In addition, Pasic and his ministers faced a real risk that right-wing extremists would kill them if they backed down.

On the international stage, both sides were one defeat away from being marginalized: Austria-Hungary had no intention of replacing the Ottoman Empire as the "Sick Man of Europe" and Serbia refused to be treated as a protectorate.

Second, in 1914 both sides believed that they were in a strong position to win if war came. The Austrians had German backing the Serbs had promises from Russia. Neither side considered the chance that the war would spread across Europe.

Third, neither side really believed that their differences could be settled by negotiation. Only one regime could rule the South Slavs in Bosnia.

Fourth, both sides focussed on the fruits of victory and ignored the costs of defeat. We have already discussed the Great Serb ideas that became Belgrade's war aims: annexation of Bosnia, Croatia, Vojvodina and so forth. Despite promises to Tisza that the war would bring no annexation of unwelcome Slavs, by 1916 the Vienna government drew up plans for the annexation of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as border districts in Russia and Italy, and an economic plan to make Albania and Romania into economic dependencies.

Fifth, there was too little fear of war. After the Greco-Turk war of 1897, the ethnic fighting in Macedonia, the two Balkan Wars, and the Italian war with Turkey in 1911, war in the Balkans was not unusual. A little warfare had become commonplace, a normal aspect of foreign relations. No one foresaw what the World War would mean.

In sum, too many leaders on both sides in 1914 deliberately decided to risk crisis and war, and the initial Austro-Serb combat was the result.

Finally, why was the local war between Austria and Serbia so significant that it grew into a World War? Here, we can draw inferences from what we know of the Eastern Question and past Balkan politics. An essential element of Greek, Serb and Bulgarian nationalism had always been the destruction of the Ottoman Empire: the achievement of national unity necessarily meant the achievement of Ottoman collapse.

The same choice pertained to Austria-Hungary. Concessions to Serbian nationalism could only make Vienna's problems worse, not solve them. After the South Slavs would come the Romanians, the Italians, the Czechs and the Slovaks, each with their demands. Once the Habsburg Monarchy started down that road, it would inevitably disappear as a Great Power.

The potential collapse of Austria-Hungary was important not only for the Vienna government, but for Austria's German ally, for the other Great Powers and for the balance of power system. Because the clash with Serbia in 1914 affected an issue of such magnitude, it is not surprising that all the Powers soon became involved: all of them had interests at stake. The specific steps to the World War, and the division into two sides, reflected local considerations from Poland to Belgium: but the risk of world war, and not just war, entered the equation because of the larger ethnic issues behind the Sarajevo crisis of 1914.

This lecture is a portion of a larger Web site, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism) click here to return to the Table of Contents page. This page created on 4 February 1997 last modified 11 June 2009.

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