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World War I Centennial: The Balkans Spin Out of Control

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 33rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 23-26, 1912: The Balkans Spin Out of Control

By the end of August 1912 the situation in the Ottoman Empire was catastrophic, as ethnic conflict in the Balkans spiraled out of control, giving the Balkan League – a loose alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece – the pretext it needed for invading and grabbing the empire’s remaining European territories.

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As always in the Balkans, things were complicated. Religious and sectarian divides were layered on top of ethnic animosities dating back to the great population movements of the medieval period.

While it would be impossible to catalogue all the divisions, a few examples give some idea of the Balkans’ incredible – and frequently violent – diversity.

First of all, there was the longstanding tension between Slavs (including Bulgarians, Serbs and Montenegrins) and Turks, stemming from the history of Turkish rule and religious animosity between Muslim Turks and Christian Slavs. In the western Balkans, the Albanians were descended from native tribes who converted to Islam and intermarried (to some extent) with their Turkish rulers in the medieval period. Some Albanian tribes served as local enforcers for Turkish rule, and the Albanians were often reviled as “Turks” by their Slavic neighbors (meanwhile a minority of Albanians were Catholics, pitting them not only against the Muslim Turks, but Orthodox Christian Slavs as well).

The Balkans’ Slavic populations also had complicated lineages. The inhabitants of Montenegro (the “Black Mountain,” named for its dominant geographic feature) were basically Serbs, although they maintained a distinct identity following the conquest of Serbia by the Ottomans in the 14th century. To the east, Slavs in the Ottoman provinces of Macedonia and Thrace were often called “Bulgarians” because they spoke Bulgarian – but they also identified themselves as “Greeks” because they shared the Eastern Orthodox faith, and some just called themselves “Christians” to distinguish themselves from the Muslim Turks.

Submerged within the mixed population of Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks there was also a gradually emerging ethnic identity, the Macedonians – a Slavic, Christian people living in the central Balkan highlands, who distinguished themselves from ethnically similar peoples living in the coastal lowlands around them. For a little added confusion, Greeks living in the Ottoman Balkan territories and Asia Minor called themselves “Romanoi,” or “Romans,” in reference to their Byzantine heritage; the Romanians, despite interbreeding with Slavs, considered themselves Latinate because of their language; and Bosnians, Pomaks, and Gorani are all Slavic groups who converted to Islam, which often set them against their (otherwise very similar) Christian neighbors.

In 1912 this simmering cauldron of ethnic and religious animosities boiled over yet again. In May the Albanians rebelled against the Turks, provoking their Slavic neighbors to rise up as well. In early August the Albanian rebels seized Skopje, the capital of Turkish Kosovo, while the Turks massacred Bulgarians at Kochana, Macedonia, and on August 14, 1912, allegedly committed atrocities against Montenegrins in the town of Berane (now in eastern Montenegro, then Ottoman territory). Unsurprisingly these massacres of Christians by Turkish Muslims inflamed public opinion in the neighboring Slavic kingdoms. Bulgarian newspapers called on the Bulgarian government to declare war on the Ottoman Empire to protect their countrymen, and Montenegro moved troops to the Turkish frontier, where they soon clashed with local Albanian tribesmen and Turkish troops.

On August 13, Austrian foreign minister Count Berchtold proposed that Europe’s Great Powers force the Ottoman government to implement reforms granting ethnic minorities, including the Slavs, more autonomy – maybe even self-rule within the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the month the Turks, seeing the Slavic Christians and European powers lining up against them, were ready to make terms with the Albanian rebels, who at least didn’t want to separate from the empire (yet). The rebels had some significant demands, as recorded by Aubrey Herbert, a British diplomat who braved the Balkan chaos and left behind valuable eyewitness reports: along with schools and officials who spoke Albanian, the Albanians wanted “guns for all” – an all-too-Balkan request. Swallowing their pride, on August 23, 1912 the Turks offered amnesty to Albanian rebels, suggesting that most of these demands would probably be met.

But the wider situation had already slipped beyond the control of the Ottoman government. On August 23, 1912, a Serbian Christian and local Ottoman government official was murdered in Sjenica by an angry crowd of Muslim Albanians, inflamed by reports that Albanians were being attacked by Montenegrin troops at the town of Mojkovac, in what is now northern Montenegro, as well as Berane (in response to alleged Turkish atrocities earlier in the month). Before long, the Balkan rumor mill – and Serbian-Montenegrin propaganda – had inflated the murder at Sjenica into the “massacre” of a “thousand” Serbs by Turkish soldiers. On August 26, Herbert reported skirmishes along the frontier between Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire, followed by a rash of murders, targeting various ethnicities, in the city of Pe? in northwest Kosovo.

Between Turkish atrocities at Berane, the “massacre” at Sjenica, and growing anarchy within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, Serbia and Montenegro now had all the pretexts they needed to declare war on the hated Turks; the First Balkan War was a little over a month away.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
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WWI Centennial: The Spanish Flu Emerges
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 308th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

May 22, 1918: THE FIRST PHASE OF THE SPANISH FLU EPIDEMIC

Although doctors, epidemiologists, and medical historians still debate where the infamous 1918 flu pandemic originated, the most recent evidence seems to support the theory that it started in the United States—first emerging in rural Haskell County, Kansas before spreading to Camp Funston, now Fort Riley, a U.S. Army training camp in the northeastern part of the state that was home to more than 50,000 enlisted men.

Like other flu epidemics, the 1918 H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, was a zoonosis—a disease that spreads from animals to humans. Researchers studying the natural history of the 1918 flu believe it may have first spread from wildfowl, domestic poultry, or livestock to farmers in Haskell County, many of whom lived in sod houses in proximity to their animals. After a local epidemic there in January and February 1918, the flu appears to have traveled with conscripted men to Camp Funston, about 300 miles to the east.

On March 4, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at one of the Camp Funston kitchens, reported sick with a high fever, becoming the first documented case of this flu. The virus spread quickly over the next few weeks, surely facilitated by conditions including cold, drafty barracks, communal showers, latrines and canteens, and physically taxing training regimens. Additionally, in an age before widespread car and air travel, many new recruits had never traveled far from their homes in Kansas or elsewhere in the rural Midwest, meaning their immune systems were vulnerable to new diseases.

By the end of the month, the hospital at Camp Funston was overwhelmed with more than 1100 cases of the flu (below, the emergency ward at the camp). But the virus mutated over time and became stronger. Thus, this first phase of the pandemic, which spread around the world in spring and summer of 1918, was much milder than the second phase, which began in the fall of that year and killed far more people.

U.S. Army recruits at Camp Funston, 1918
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Wartime conditions provided ideal vectors for contagion, as hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved between army bases and then to port cities on America’s eastern and gulf coasts, where they awaited transport to Europe. In mid-March outbreaks were under way in Camp Forrest and Camp Greenleaf, both in Georgia; a month later the epidemic had spread to two dozen army bases and training camps, and also surfaced in the civilian populations of 30 of the country’s biggest cities.

U.S. Army training camps, 1918
Erik Sass

The virus made its first appearance on European soil in April 1918 at Brest and Bordeaux, two of the main ports of disembarkation for American troops arriving in France. Once again conditions on the continent helped speed the spread of the virus, including shortages of food and fuel, which left millions of soldiers and civilians cold and malnourished. Men in the trenches were jammed together in squalid conditions, and soldiers on leave as well as those working in supply and transport units could spread the disease to civilians or carry it with them back to the trenches. Meanwhile, many doctors had been conscripted into military service, leaving civilians with few options for medical care.

Also commonly known as the three-day fever or the grippe, the virus got the misleading nickname Spanish flu because it was first reported in the Spanish press on May 22, 1918 (as a neutral country, Spain hadn’t imposed wartime censorship like the combatant nations). Madrid’s ABC newspaper announced the arrival of the epidemic in Spain, probably carried by migrant laborers returning from France, with a headline noting the virulence but otherwise not expressing much alarm. Shortly afterwards King Alfonso XIII briefly fell ill, and the Spanish newswire service Agencia Fabra reported to its partner Reuters, “A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported.”

The mild form of the flu would continue spreading around the world through the later summer of 1918, when the far deadlier second phase took over beginning in September. It swept over both sides of the war with hardly a delay, skipping over No Man’s Land with captured prisoners as well as through people traveling to neutral countries. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, recalled that in July 1918 the relatively mild version of the flu was largely dismissed by German military authorities, who had much bigger problems on their hands:

"Some soldiers had started to feel unwell for several days without anyone knowing what was wrong with them. Then we read in the newspapers about a new illness called the Spanish flu, because it had started in Spain. Now we knew. More and more soldiers were infected and shuffled around looking half-dead. Although they reported sick, hardly any of them went to hospital, as it had been declared that no more people should be classified as having minor illnesses or being lightly wounded—there were only the seriously wounded and the dead."

Later Richert fell ill himself, and experienced firsthand the brusque and unsympathetic medical treatment that tended to prevail on both sides during the war:

"I went to report sick immediately as the flu had now got worse and I had become quite hoarse. There were about a hundred men standing outside the house where the doctor examined people. NCOs were examined first. You could hardly call it an examination. You were asked what was wrong. When I had answered, the medical NCO gave me a peppermint tablet about the size of a penny and the doctor said: ‘Make some tea for yourself. Next please!’"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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