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 41st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
October 22-25, 1912: Turks Defeated at Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo
Bulgarian gives water to dying Turk at Adrianople.
After Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire on October 8, 1912, the situation began to unravel rapidly for the beleaguered Turks.
On October 11 and 16 the Montenegrins occupied the towns of Bijele Polje and Berane, respectively (both located in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the narrow strip of territory separating Montenegro from Serbia). On October 18 the other members of the Balkan League – Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece – declared war on the Turks and mounted simultaneous invasions on multiple fronts. On October 20-21 the Montenegrins occupied the towns of Plav and Gusinje, also in the Sanjak, and the Greeks landed on the islands of Tenedos and Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, giving them a strategic position which threatened the Turkish Straits. Meanwhile Bulgarian armies poured over the border into Thrace and Serbian armies overran Macedonia, where they seized Priština, the capital of Kosovo, on October 22.
Faced with enemy forces advancing on all sides, the Turkish commander-in-chief, Nazim Pasha, rushed to destroy the main Bulgarian and Serbian forces with two simultaneous attacks in Thrace and Macedonia. These offensives pitted Turkish armies which were only partially mobilized against stronger enemy forces, resulting in two catastrophic defeats for the Turks at the battles of Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo.
In Thrace the local Ottoman commander, Ferik Abdullah Pasha, confronted Bulgarian armies attempting to bypass the fortified city of Adrianople (Edirne). The Bulgarians planned to leave enough forces to besiege Adrianople and keep moving southeast towards the big prize, the Turkish capital at Constantinople. To do this, the Bulgarians first had to pass between Adrianople and another Turkish strong point located 36 miles to the east, the fortified town of Kirk Kilisse (Bulgarian Lozengrad, today known as K?rklareli in Turkish). Abdullah Pasha planned to envelop and destroy the advancing Bulgarian armies with a pincer movement as they passed through the gap, with a small left wing coming from Adrianople and a large right wing coming from near Kirk Kilisse.
However, Abdullah Pasha underestimated the strength of the Bulgarian forces facing him. Like other Ottoman commanders, he assumed that the main Bulgarian attack would fall against Macedonia, not Thrace – a reasonable guess, since Macedonia was supposedly the main object of the war. But the Bulgarians were actually going all in on Thrace, hoping to deliver a knockout blow by defeating the Turks close to their heartland. Thus instead of three Bulgarian infantry divisions, Abdullah Pasha’s incomplete Turkish armies near Adrianople were actually facing six divisions, with two more on the way, pitting around 110,000 Turkish troops against roughly 176,000 Bulgarians (although not all these forces were engaged). The Turks were soon apprised of the enemy’s actual strength.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 22, the Turkish right wing got off to an unpromising start as it marched north from near Kirk Kilisse, with some units receiving their orders late, others departing without their artillery, and everything slowed even further by mist and rain, which turned primitive Balkan roads to mud (rain would be a recurring theme in the First Balkan War). After making contact with Bulgarian formations around 11:30 a.m., the Turkish advance units soon found themselves subjected to withering rifle fire and artillery bombardments, and by mid-afternoon most were either pinned down by Bulgarian fire or in retreat. By nightfall the commander of the Turkish right wing, Muhtar Pasha, realizing that the enemy forces were much larger than expected, ordered his army to fall back to defensive positions. Meanwhile the smaller left wing made more forward progress, but was ultimately forced to retreat by a Bulgarian night attack (one half of a pincer can’t achieve much on its own anyway).
In other words, Abdullah Pasha’s plan didn’t survive the first day; now the final outcome was just a matter of time. Early on the second day, October 23, the superior Bulgarian forces took the offensive, trickily including Turkish-speaking troops with their advance units to deceive the Turks into allowing them to approach within a few hundred meters. The Bulgarians quickly overwhelmed the hastily-constructed Turkish trenches, and Muhtar Pasha’s right wing was forced to fall back, giving up Kirk Kilisse. Meanwhile the Turkish left wing mounted another attack but was again forced back by massed Bulgarian artillery and rifle fire, and ended the day withdrawing into the Adrianople fortifications. The next day, Thursday, October 24, Abdullah Pasha, recognizing defeat, ordered a general retreat to the southeast, towards Constantinople. Luckily for the Turks, after three days of hard fighting the Bulgarians were too tired to pursue them right away; on the other hand, Adrianople was now cut off and besieged by the Bulgarians.
Turkish casualties at Kirk Kilisse came to 1,500 killed and 3,000 taken prisoner, versus a mere 887 killed and around 5,000 wounded and missing for the Bulgarians. These losses were light by the standards of the coming Great War, thanks to the Turks’ decision to withdraw in the face superior enemy forces – but it counts as a major defeat because they were forced to give up the best defensive position in Thrace outside Constantinople, and also lost contact with Adrianople, a key city of the Ottoman Empire.
Some 250 miles to the west, the Turks suffered another decisive defeat at the hands of the Serbians in the battle of Kumanovo in northern Macedonia. Here the 65,000-strong Turkish Vardar Army (named for the Vardar River valley where it was stationed) faced Three Serbian armies numbering 132,000 troops. Once again, Nazim Pasha’s intention to bring the fight to the invaders resulted in Turkish forces attacking before they were fully mobilized – although at least in this case the local commander, Zeki Pasha, had better intelligence about the enemy’s strength, which was also dispersed at first, as Serbian troops arrived in waves.
On October 23, amid heavy fog and rain (again), Zeki Pasha took advantage of a temporary numerical advantage and launched an attack on the Serbian right flank along a ten-mile front to the northwest of the town of Kumanovo, which initially succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on the Serbs. However, in the afternoon newly-arrived Serbian reinforcements rushed into battle with fierce, human wave-style attacks, eventually stabilizing the situation by evening.
On the morning of October 24 the Serbs, who now enjoyed numerical superiority, continued their attacks with crucial artillery support which helped break Turkish resistance. Now outnumbered by two to one, Zeki Pasha was forced to retreat southwards, effectively ceding northern Macedonia to Serbian control. Turkish casualties in the battle of Kumanovo included 12,000 dead and wounded and 300 POWs, compared to Serbian casualties of 687 dead and roughly 4,000 wounded and missing.
Less than two weeks into the First Balkan War, the Turks had suffered two major defeats which essentially spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Needless to say, this momentous change provoked immediate reactions from all the European Great Powers.
The strongest reaction came in Vienna, the capital of Austria-Hungary, where diplomats and military men alike were seriously alarmed by the rise of Serbian power. With a good deal of justification, they feared that the Serbs aimed to unite the Slavic populations of the Balkan Peninsula under Serbian rule in a pan-Slav (“Yugoslav”) state. After liberating their ethnic kinsmen in Macedonia from Ottoman rule, the next logical step was freeing the millions of Slavs living in Austria-Hungary – dismembering the Dual Monarchy in the process.
These fears were expressed in criticism of Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold, who was reviled by other officials in Vienna for failing to nip Serbian aggression in the bud – for example, by preemptively occupying the Sanjak of Novi Bazar to prevent Serbia from joining forces with Montenegro. To rescue Austro-Hungarian prestige, not to mention his own reputation, Berchtold was now forced to take a more assertive approach.
On October 25, 1912, Berchtold told a meeting of top officials that Austria-Hungary was drawing a new line in the sand: although it was too late to prevent Serbia from conquering the Sanjak and Macedonia, he would enforce some limits on Serbian power by denying the Serbs their coveted outlet to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo. This would prevent Serbia (or its patron, Russia) from threatening Austria-Hungary’s own access to the Mediterranean. Berchtold also intended to prevent Montenegro from taking the ancient city of Scutari, which lay near the Adriatic.
But if Serbia didn’t get Durazzo, and Montenegro couldn’t have Scutari, who would? Berchtold proposed that both cities would be part of a new, independent Albania, which would include the Muslim-majority population of this region. Of course, denying the Serbs one of their main national aspirations would only worsen the antagonism between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. In 1914 this would result in disaster.