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 36th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
September 16, 1912: Montenegro Pledges War
In 1912, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece conspired to attack the Ottoman Empire and divide its European territories; the Balkan League, as their loose alliance was known, came together through a series of secret meetings between the ambassadors, foreign ministers, prime ministers and monarchs of all four countries continuing into the late summer of 1912.
Bulgaria and Serbia signed a military convention on June 19, 1912, where both countries promised to provide at least 200,000 soldiers to attack the Ottoman Empire, and on July 2, 1912, they agreed on a plan of attack. Meanwhile Bulgaria and Greece had signed a treaty of alliance on May 16, 1912. And on September 16, 1912, one of the last pieces fell into place when the general staffs of Bulgaria and Montenegro agreed on the terms of a military convention.
Although Bulgaria was the ringleader of the Balkan League, their military convention gave Montenegro – a small, warlike kingdom – the opening role in the attack on the Ottoman Empire, for reasons of prestige as well as practical purposes. In the warrior tradition (the Balkan monarchs liked to imagine themselves as the heirs of medieval chivalry), it was considered an honor for King Nikola of Montenegro (pictured) to lead the attack against the hated Turks. Of course, the Bulgarians realized this might also help deflect any international disapproval on to Montenegro; while sympathetic to the Slavic kingdoms, Europe’s Great Powers weren’t keen to upset the regional balance of power, and volatile Montenegro (only a kingdom since 1910) could catch the blame for starting the war.
The military convention pledged Montenegro to immediate action: Montenegrin forces would attack the Ottoman Empire no later than September 28, and Bulgaria promised to join the attack within a month. Of course, in a manner of speaking, war had already broken out, as the Albanian rebellion which began in May 1912 triggered wider ethnic unrest in the Ottoman Empire’s European territories, with militias representing the various Balkan nationalities battling each other in Macedonia and Albania. But intervention by the Balkan League would constitute a huge escalation.
The Turks couldn’t fail to notice the Balkan League’s preparations for war, and on September 24, 1912, they put their beleaguered European forces, fresh from trying to suppress the Albanian rebellion, on alert against yet another impending attack. In the end the Montenegrins, eager for glory, beat the deadline by two days: on September 26, 1912, Montenegrin forces skirmished with Turkish troops in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the narrow strip of Ottoman territory separating Montenegro from Serbia (even managing to attack before the military convention with Bulgaria was formally signed on September 27, 1912 – but by this time events were moving so quickly no one cared much about formalities).
The Russian Response
One crucial source of support for the Balkan adventure was lacking, however: as rumors of the impending attack spread, Russia, the main backer of the Slavic kingdoms among the European Great Powers, came under pressure from the other Great Powers to use its influence to avert war in the Balkans, by warning the members of the Balkan League that they would be on their own in a war with the Ottoman Empire. On September 16, 1912, foreign minister Sergei Sazonov also warned the Bulgarian General Stephen Paprikov that Russia would not back the Balkan League if the war with Turkey went badly. This was the first sign of growing Russian skepticism about the war, which could only grow when Bulgarian troops came close to seizing Constantinople – a prize Russia wanted for itself.