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World War I Centennial: First Balkan War Begins

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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 39th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

October 8, 1912: First Balkan War Begins

Serbian Generals/

On this date in 1912, Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire, opening the First Balkan War and moving Europe one step closer to the conflagration looming in 1914. Immediately after the declaration, Montenegrin armies crossed into the Sanjak of Novibazar – the narrow strip of Turkish territory separating Montenegro from Serbia – and advanced on Scutari (Shkodra), an important port city lying on the Adriatic Sea just south of Montenegro.

Montenegro only put about 45,000 troops in the field, but the little kingdom was merely the standard-bearer for the Balkan League, whose other members would join the war against the Ottoman Empire on October 18. Bulgaria would contribute over 350,000 troops, Serbia 230,000 troops, and Greece 125,000 troops to their combined military operation against the Turks. These forces, totaling around 750,000, faced Turkish forces totaling around 335,000 in Europe. The Turks could draw additional troops from their Asian possessions, but the Balkan League hoped to achieve victory before reinforcements arrived (the Greek navy would also help slow Turkish reinforcements by running interference against the Turkish navy in the Aegean Sea).

The Victorious Montenegrin Army in 1913/Getty Images

Although the Balkan League ultimately won a huge victory over the Turks in the First Balkan War, they soon fell to fighting each other over the spoils in the Second Balkan War in 1913. The main dispute was between Bulgaria and Serbia, which both claimed former Ottoman territories in Macedonia; while they’d previously agreed to submit any disagreements to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia for arbitration, the mild-mannered autocrat and his indecisive foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, were unable to come up with a compromise satisfactory to both parties, spelling even more trouble down the road.

Indeed, while the First and Second Balkan Wars were confined to the Balkan Peninsula, they would have continent-wide ramifications foreshadowing the Great War to come. All four members of the Balkan League came out of the conflicts with increased territories and populations, which meant they could field bigger armies in future, making them more threatening to their neighbors. Serbia, in particular, emerged from the Second Balkan War with greatly enhanced power, prestige, and self-confidence.

Serbian Army Oxen/Getty Images

Following the Balkan Wars the neighboring Great Powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary, also adopted more assertive foreign policies, increasing the risk of a much wider European war. By failing to mediate effectively between Serbia and Bulgaria over their competing claims to Macedonia, Tsar Nicholas II ended up alienating Bulgaria, leaving Serbia as Russia’s only ally in the Balkans; from now on, to retain its regional influence Russia would have to back Serbia no matter what, even if this brought it into conflict with Austria-Hungary.

For its part Austria-Hungary, vigilant against Slavic nationalism, was determined not to allow Serbia to score any more military or diplomatic victories. The hawks in Vienna, led by army chief of staff Count Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, bitterly criticized foreign minister Count Leopold von Berchtold for bungling Austria-Hungary’s response to the Balkan Wars, beginning with his failure to preemptively occupy the Sanjak of Novibazar; the next time an opportunity presented itself, the Viennese war party vowed that Austria-Hungary wouldn’t miss its chance to settle accounts with Serbia.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 303rd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.


After seizing power in November 1917, Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev made it a top priority to end the war with the Central Powers, fulfilling one of the party’s key political promises (especially for millions of Russian soldiers, their most important constituency). But even these cynical apparatchiks, who claimed to harbor no illusionary nationalist sentiments, found that making peace was easier said than done.

Bolshevik negotiators first sat down with their opposite numbers at Brest-Litovsk during an armistice declared in December 1917, but were just as reluctant as the previous, short-lived republic to give up the huge chunks of territory demanded by Germany and its allies as the price of peace. Instead lead negotiator Trotsky, who opposed major territorial concessions, proclaimed his slogan “no war, no peace,” signaling his plan to use equivocation and delay to drag out negotiations until the Central Powers either agreed to compromise or, hopefully, succumbed to the worldwide communist revolution the Bolsheviks were sure was imminent.

However, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff was in no position to dally, as he urgently needed to free up around a million troops for his planned spring offensive on the Western Front, aiming to defeat Britain and France before American troops began to arrive in substantial numbers. After signing separate peace treaties with Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Finland, in February 1918 the impatient Germans reopened the offensive against the dissolving Russian Army, brushing aside what few pockets of resistance remained and threatening to take even more territory than they had demanded in peace negotiations—and quite possibly toppling the Soviet regime while they were at it.

Realizing they now faced an existential threat, Lenin dismissed the objections of Bolshevik colleagues including Trotsky and Bukharin and their allies in the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), arguing that their main goal had to be consolidating power in Russia, even if it meant giving up huge amounts of territory to the Central Powers. With Petrograd itself now under threat, in late February Lenin finally carried the day with a majority vote in the Bolshevik central committee (albeit by the thinnest of margins).

The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918 in the city of the same name—one of the most punitive peace agreements in history, in which the Russians gave up Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the latter divided into Courland and Livonia (top, the treaty translated into five different languages). Supposedly independent, all these new nations actually became German satellite states, as reflected in the fact that several “invited” Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to assume the throne in a “personal union.”

Europe on March 1, 1918
Erik Sass

Brest-Litovsk also rewarded Germany’s allies, though more modestly: Austria-Hungary received part of Ukraine and a guarantee of Ukrainian food supplies, staving off starvation in the Dual Monarchy at least temporarily, while in the Caucasus the Ottoman Empire won back the lost province of Kars, Batum and Ardahan. The Turks also helped themselves to Azerbaijan, giving the Ottoman Empire access via the Caspian Sea to the Turkic homeland in Russia’s former Central Asian provinces, another step toward fulfilling Enver Pasha’s dream of “Pan-Turanism,” or reuniting the Turkic peoples under Ottoman leadership. The Turks immediately set about occupying the ceded areas and other territory as well, soon spelling the end of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation, which had refused to recognize the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, the Turks and Germans couldn’t agree who would get Georgia (so it went to the stronger Germans, who took Crimea and sent troops to occupy Georgia via the Black Sea in May-June 1918).

The treaty was a body blow for Russia, as the Central Powers intended, marginalizing and isolating the vast eastern realm from the rest of Europe and forcing it back on its sparsely populated Siberian hinterland. Among other losses, the ceded territories included over a quarter of the Russian Empire’s prewar population, half of its industrial production, and almost 90 percent of its active coalmines, as well as vital rail hubs and the Ukrainian breadbasket, one of the most fertile agricultural areas on Earth. In fact, the economic clauses of the treaty allowed German business interests to take over much of the Russian economy’s private sector and exempted them from the Bolsheviks’ sweeping
“nationalization” of Russian industry and commerce.

Unsurprisingly, the humiliating treaty was deeply unpopular in Russia, as attested by the fact that none of the Bolshevik leadership wanted to accept responsibility for it—Trotsky gave up his position as foreign minister to avoid signing it—as well as the decision by the Bolsheviks’ Left SR allies to resign from the Sovnarkom, the Soviet governing body, in protest. However, the Russian Army had basically ceased to exist while Allied offers to help the Bolsheviks resurrect the Eastern Front, perhaps with the help of freed Czech POWs in the Czech Legion, were too little, too late, so there was no one to resist the steady advance of the Central Powers’ forces into the ceded areas.

The treaty, which made Russia into a German client state and freed the Germans to focus on the Western Front, marked the final rupture between the Allies and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who had already alienated France and Britain by repudiating around $6.5 billion of foreign debt accumulated by the former Tsarist regime as well as the Provisional Government and the Republic. The Bolsheviks, who renamed themselves the Communist Party on March 8, deepened the rift with propaganda and financial support for revolutionary subversion around the world, inciting soldiers to mutiny and encouraging local communist movements to overthrow the governments of the Allies and Central Powers alike (the Germans were particularly incensed that Bolshevik agitation continued uninterrupted despite the peace treaty).

For their part the Bolsheviks still distrusted German intentions, fearing the erstwhile foe might yet decide to topple the Soviet regime, which was, after all, openly plotting revolution in Germany. Thus on March 9, 1918 the Bolsheviks relocated the Soviet capital from vulnerable Petrograd to more distant Moscow, the medieval seat of Russian power, symbolically undoing Peter the Great’s mission to make Russia part of Europe along the way.

Like the rest of Russia Moscow was in the grips of chaos, but the Bolsheviks, safe behind the massive stone walls of the Kremlin, didn’t seem to mind, according to Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist politician who described conditions in the new (old) capital:

"Throngs of refugees pouring into the town, Bolshevist officials trying to force communist doctrines on people who abhor them, peasants illegally bringing in and selling food and bread, and thereby saving the population from starvation, wrangling politicians and intellectuals, all these, together with the excited masses, give the impression of a furiously boiling pot. Many houses have been burned, many more damaged, many walls marked with bullets and bombs … Something had to be done to stay the hand of destruction, and quickly, for the morale of the populace was beginning to break down. Crazed with hunger, peasants and workers had already begun to strike, riot, and plunder. The Bolsheviki did nothing to restore peace."

In March, Sorokin and his wife tried to leave Moscow for a quieter town on the Volga, but met a typical scene that has come to symbolize the chaos of the Russian Civil War:

"At the station nobody could tell us when the train would start, but a huge crowd was waiting to rush it as soon as it arrived. After seven hours it rolled into the station, and then ensued a spectacle quite indescribable. The whole enormous crowd rushed madly forward, jamming, pressing, fighting, shrieking, climbing one man on top of another, and finally seizing places, in the train, on top of the wagons, on the platforms between wagons, and even on the brake beams underneath. As for my wife and me, we got no places at all, but were obliged to go back to our lodgings."

Conditions elsewhere were little better and often much worse, as the Bolsheviks and their White foes together unleashed a reign of terror against enemies real and imagined across Russia. The Bolshevik regime’s campaign of mass murder was excused by emergency decrees originally issued during the renewed German offensive, ordering Red Guards and the new cheka secret police to execute suspected enemy agents on the spot without trial, let alone a right of appeal.

Although the Red Terror didn’t officially begin until September 1918, mass executions were already commonplace by the spring of that year; ultimately the communist regime would execute around 200,000 alleged traitors, former Tsarist officials, and “class enemies” before the terror ended in 1920. The female soldier Maria Bochkareva, better known as Yashka, who narrowly escaped execution in early 1918, described one killing field where the Bolsheviks had murdered scores of political opponents and other undesirables:

"We were led out from the car, all of us in our undergarments. A few hundred feet away was the field of slaughter. There were hundreds upon hundreds of human bodies heaped there … We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and place in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. We were suffocated by the poisonous stench. The executioners did not seem to mind so much. They were used to it."

On this occasion Bochkareva was saved by a mid-ranking communist official who pulled her out of the lineup at the last minute; she would later be executed by the Bolsheviks in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on May 16, 1920.

The anti-Bolshevik Whites committed very similar atrocities in areas they controlled. Forcing prisoners to disrobe before they were shot seems to have been a favored tactic to humiliate and dehumanize them on both sides, although the executioners may also simply have wanted warm coats and boots for themselves. Eduard Dune, a Latvian volunteer in the Red Guard, remembered coming across a mass grave where White partisans had murdered scores of prisoners:

"They pointed to a little hillock in the distance, saying that it was the mass grave of our men. None of the wounded had been taken prisoner; there were only dead men … Somehow I couldn’t believe a man could kill an unarmed prisoner, still less one who was wounded … On one occasion the special train did stop between two stations after we noticed three corpses tied to a pillar with telephone wire. Their bodies were covered with blood, and they were dressed in their underpants and sailors’ striped undershirts."

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
WWI Centennial: Germans Reopen Eastern Offensive, Americans Support Unified Command
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 302nd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After three disastrous years, the 1000-mile muddy morass that was the Eastern Front enjoyed a brief respite from fighting from December 1917 to February 1918, as both sides agreed to an armistice while representatives of the Central Powers and the Soviets (dominated by Lenin’s Bolsheviks) began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Along with the Central Powers’ stunning victory over Italy at Caporetto in the fall of 1917, the armistice allowed the Germans to begin transferring around a million men to the Western Front, in preparation for one final knockout blow against the Allies in the spring of 1918, before American troops began to arrive in large numbers.

Europe, February 1918
Erik Sass

The situation on the Eastern Front, however, was far from settled. Although eager for peace, the Soviet representatives believed that the war should be ended without annexations or reparations, and were scarcely more willing than the previous short-lived Republic to give up Russian territory and population to foreign reactionary imperialists. Angry, chaotic peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk repeatedly broke up due to intractable disagreements (and produced an icy social atmosphere, as the Soviet representatives ceased to dine with their fellow negotiators in protest over their aggressive demands).

Seeing the Central Powers set on dismembering and dominating Russia’s former territories in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic, Lenin aimed to drag out negotiations in the hope that the communist revolution would spread to Germany and its allies (no longer a far-fetched notion). To gain time he dispatched Trotsky, a master prevaricator, to hold up the talks, while Bolshevik commissars encouraged Russian troops to fraternize with their foes across no man’s land, with an eye to spreading revolutionary incitement as well as undermining their morale and will to fight.

But the Germans soon lost patience with Trotsky’s delaying tactics, and on January 18, 1918, they presented an ultimatum with sweeping territorial demands, prompting Trotsky to walk out in a rage. To symbolize Russia’s determination to resist the unreasonable peace terms, he issued a new slogan, “no war, no peace,” meaning that Russia would continue passively resisting the Central Powers, in effect doubling down on the strategy of delay and exhaustion.

But Germany's next moves showed just how little leverage the Russian negotiators really had. Rather than reaching a compromise peace with the Soviet regime, the Central Powers simply recognized Russia’s former subject states as independent nations and signed peace treaties with them—converting them to client states along the way. In fact, Germany’s plan to reorganize Eastern Europe as “mitteleuropa,” an economic bloc under its hegemony, had been in the works for several years, and the opening moves came even before formal peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk began on December 20, 1917.

On December 8, under German and Austro-Hungarian prompting, Polish nationalists led by Jan Kucharzewski formed a regency council to rule the country until a suitable monarch could be found. On December 11 the Lithuanian “national council” declared its independence from Russia, and the following day German nobles in Estonia officially requested German “assistance” in the form of an army of occupation. On December 12-13 the German-backed Ukrainian Rada, or national council, rejected the Soviet seizure of power in Russia and headed off a planned Bolshevik coup in Kiev, prompting the Ukrainian Bolsheviks to establish a rival national government in Kharkiv, setting the stage for civil war in Ukraine. On December 27 the municipal council of Riga, Latvia declared independence and sought German “protection.” And on January 1, 1918, the Bolsheviks reluctantly recognized Finnish independence, although fighting raged between Finnish communist Red Guards and anti-communist White Guards in a civil war lasting from January to May 1918.

Diagram of the Russian Civil War, February 1918
Erik Sass

Peace negotiations with the new puppet states followed immediately, and on February 9, 1918 the Central Powers struck a separate peace deal with the embattled Ukrainian Rada, which desperately needed German help against the Ukrainian Bolsheviks. They signed the treaty over the bitter protests of Trotsky, who was completely powerless to stop them. The old Russian Army was no longer capable of offering resistance and the new Red Army, organized in February 1918, also faced spreading civil war behind the lines as new anti-communist White movements coalesced across Russia.

But even after stripping Russia of Poland, the Baltic states, Finland, and Ukraine, the German delegation led by Eastern Front chief of staff Max Hoffmann wanted more, including vast swaths of Russian territory in what is now Belarus and the Caucasus. For his part, in February 1918 Trotsky clung hopefully to his slogan of “no war, no peace,” still believing it might be possible to wear the Germans down and foment international revolution.

But German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s plans for a massive spring offensive on the Western Front sometime in March would require a total of a million troops, meaning Germany had to bring matters to a conclusion on the Eastern Front immediately to free up the necessary numbers. On February 18, the Germans resumed the offensive on the Eastern Front, effectively “pushing at an open door,” as there was no longer much in the way of defenders in most of the trenches, while local nationalist movements more or less welcomed the Germans.

On February 21, slowly advancing Central Powers forces captured Minsk and Rovno, followed by Pskov, Reval (Tallin), and Dorpat on February 25. The Germans correctly calculated that eventually the Bolsheviks would cede significant territory rather than face the loss of core Russian lands: on February 26, with imperialist troops menacing the capital Petrograd, Lenin decided to capitulate to the German peace terms (top, Germans occupy Kiev in March 1918).


America’s vast new influence over European affairs made itself felt in military matters early on, as the top U.S. commander demanded a big shake-up of the joint arrangements previously made by Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy for the prosecution of the war—and the European allies hurried to comply.

After arriving in France in June 1917 and setting up the American Expeditionary Force headquarters at Chaumont, U.S. General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing clearly indicated his determination to preserve American control of its own soldiers in the European conflict, as demanded by the United States of America’s absolute sovereignty and total freedom from all entangling alliance obligations. But he was willing to allow American divisions and regiments to fight alongside British and French troops, provided they remained under their own officers.

The Americans also recognized that the sheer size and complexity of the war on the Western Front required a high degree of coordination between Allied forces if they were to obtain victory, and also had soldiers’ traditional fear of “divided councils” resulting in confusion, wasted effort, and needless loss. To lead this vast effort, President Wilson and General Pershing supported the creation of a Supreme War Council, followed not long after by the appointment a Supreme Allied Commander (the post went to the aggressive but pragmatic Ferdinand Foch, one of the heroes of the Miracle on the Marne).

America’s growing control over Allied policy was reflected in the fact that, after the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in November 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George first went to Wilson to drum up support for the creation of the new Supreme War Council. At a subsequent meeting in Versailles from January 30-February 2, 1918, Pershing and American representatives then supported the granting of executive powers to the Supreme War Council.

In a speech on February 19, 1918, Lloyd George confirmed that the new concentration of power in the Supreme War Council came at the Americans’ behest, while reassuring his fellow Parliamentarians that the Allies were broadly in agreement on the prosecution of the war:

"There is absolutely no difference between our policy and the policy of France, Italy, and America in this respect. In fact, some of the conclusions to which we came at Versailles were the result of very powerful representations made by the representatives of other governments, notably the American government. That policy is a policy which is based on the assumption that the Allies hitherto have suffered through lack of concerted and coordinated effort … That is the reason why, after the Italian defeat, the Allied governments, after a good deal of correspondence and of conference, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to set up some central authority, for the purpose of coordinating the strategy of the Allies. At the last conference at Versailles it was decided, after days of conference, to extend the powers of that body."

Later, in Parliament's House of Commons, Lloyd George returned to the American role in empowering the Supreme War Council, though in necessarily opaque terms:

"I hesitated for some time as to whether I should not read to the House the very cogent document submitted by the American delegation, which put the case for the present proposal. It is one of the most powerful documents—I think my right honorable friends who have had the advantage of reading it will agree with me—one of the ablest documents ever submitted to a military conference, in which they urged the present course, and gave grounds for it. I think it is absolutely irresistible, and the only reason I do not read it to the House is because it is so mixed up with the actual plan of operations that it will be quite impossible for me to read it without giving away what is the plan of operations."

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


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