World War I Centennial: The Greeks Capture Salonika

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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 43rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 9, 1912: The Greeks Capture Salonika

After simultaneous defeats at Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo, October 22-24, 1912, the Ottoman Empire’s plan for defending its European territories collapsed. In the first half of November the armies of the Balkan League advanced on all sides, with the Serbs seizing northern Macedonia, the Greeks taking southern Macedonia, and the Bulgarians occupying Thrace. But these victories planted the seeds of discord within the Balkan League, whose members would soon fall to fighting over the spoils.

Turks Surrender Salonika

On November 9, 1912, Greek forces led by Prince Constantine, the heir to the Greek throne, captured the ancient city of Salonika without firing a shot after the outnumbered Turkish garrison surrendered. This gave Greece control of one of the oldest and most important ports in the Near East: originally called Thessalonica when it was founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonians in 315 BCE, Salonika (today Thessaloniki) occupied a strategic position as the main southern entrance to the Balkan Peninsula, where it served as a center of trade. Its cosmopolitan flavor attracted peoples from around the Mediterranean, including a community of Sephardic Jews numbering 60,000-70,000 – around half the total population of 130,000 – many of whom were merchants and shopkeepers.

Because the city had been the second capital of the Byzantine Empire in the medieval period, in the minds of the leaders of the Balkan League, possession of Salonika was important not only for strategic and economic reasons, but above all for reasons of prestige. Indeed, conflict was already brewing between Greece and Bulgaria: the same day the Greeks under Constantine took possession of the city, the Bulgarian General Georgi Todorov, furious at having the prize snatched from under his nose, claimed Salonika for Bulgaria anyway. To enforce his claim, he stationed Bulgarian troops in the city alongside the Greek garrison, which was basically begging for trouble.

Bulgarians Besiege Adrianople and Constantinople

[Click to enlarge]

Salonika wasn’t the only ancient city the prestige-hungry Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand coveted. As the Turks retreated southeast after Kirk Kilisse, on October 29, 1912 the Bulgarians decided to lay siege to the fortified city of Adrianople (Edirne), where over 60,000 Turkish soldiers were dug in behind a ring of fortresses and trenches. To do this the Bulgarians asked for help from their Serbian allies, who were already triumphant in Macedonia; a besieging force of about 106,000 Bulgarians and 47,000 Serbs armed with heavy artillery (which the Bulgarians lacked) encircled Adrianople and began bombarding the city on October 30. But the city’s fortifications, designed by German experts, held out far longer than expected, and the siege would drag on into 1913.

Meanwhile another Bulgarian force pursued the retreating Turkish army to the western outskirts of Constantinople, where the Turks established a strong defensive line at Chataldzha (Çatalca). Here, where the European land mass narrows towards the Bosporus, a line of hills cuts north-to-south across the peninsula from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and room for maneuver is limited even more by coastal lakes on both sides – a perfect spot for defensive fortifications. With their capital now in jeopardy, the Turks wasted no time in creating formidable defenses which brought the Bulgarian offensive to a grinding halt. The prominent role of trenches and fortified machine gun emplacements in Turkish defensive tactics at Chataldzha foreshadowed combat in the coming Great War (although most military observers failed to take note).

Austria-Hungary Confronts Serbia and Russia

There was more foreshadowing to the west, where a diplomatic crisis was brewing between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (and their respective allies, Germany and Russia) which helped draw the battle lines for the final confrontation in July 1914.

Austro-Hungarian officials considered Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War to be a complete, unmitigated disaster. Serbia was a magnet for Austria-Hungary’s large population of Southern Slavs, who looked to the neighboring Slavic kingdom as an eventual liberator, and the triumph over the Turks could only enhance Serbian prestige in their eyes. This was especially true because after defeating the Turks, Serbia and Montenegro – previously separated by Turkish territory – could now merge into a single nation, apparently the beginning of the long-hoped-for “Yugoslav” unification.

In Vienna, top officials bitterly criticized the Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, for letting Serbia pull off such a huge victory. Serbia’s conquest of Macedonia and long-awaited union with Montenegro were bad enough: Austria-Hungary had to draw the line somewhere, or risk looking totally impotent in the eyes of its Slavic neighbors (not to mention Europe’s other Great Powers). To rescue Austro-Hungarian prestige – and his own reputation – Berchtold decided to take a stand on another important issue: Serbian access to the Adriatic Sea, or lack thereof.

As a landlocked nation, the Serbs had always aspired to have their own port, which would allow them to engage in maritime commerce independently of more powerful neighbors – meaning Austria-Hungary. Top Austro-Hungarian officials also feared that if Serbia got a port on the Adriatic, it might allow its Russian patron to use it as a naval base, cutting Austria-Hungary off from the Mediterranean. While that idea was probably a bit far-fetched, as Serbia’s protector, Russia was expected to back the small kingdom up against Austria-Hungary, setting the stage for a much larger confrontation.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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November 9, 2012 - 6:03pm
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