World War I Centennial: Carving up the Ottoman Empire

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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 24th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 2, 1912: Carving up the Ottoman Empire

[Note: Pretend we posted this on Monday.]

In the first half of 1912, the small Christian kingdoms of the Balkan Peninsula began plotting an attack on their former oppressor, the weak, declining Ottoman Empire. In March the main conspirators, Bulgaria and Serbia, signed a treaty of alliance in which they agreed to divide up the Ottoman territory of Macedonia, followed in May by a military convention where both countries promised to provide 200,000 soldiers for the joint attack on the Turks; the Albanian rebellion which also began in May 1912 prompted them to hurry their preparations. On July 2, 1912, they agreed on a plan of attack.

The plan had been worked out by the general staffs (high commands) of the Bulgarian and Serbian armies over the previous two months, in consultation with the respective monarchs and prime ministers of the two kingdoms. It was finalized at a meeting in the Bulgarian port of Varna, where Serbian minister of war and chief of the general staff Radomir Putnik signed an agreement with his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Fichev, while the Serbian King Petar I Kara?or?evi? and the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand I also made a verbal agreement.

The plan agreed to on July 2 divided up the Balkan theatre into different areas of responsibility for the Bulgarian and Serbian armies. Originally Putnik had called for a combined Serbian-Bulgarian attack on Macedonia, committing the majority of the alliance’s troops to securing the main prize. But Fichev argued that the decisive actions would probably take place in Thrace, south of Bulgaria along the Aegean Sea: by occupying Thrace the Bulgarians could cut Macedonia off from the rest of the Ottoman Empire, preventing the Turks from sending reinforcements, and it would also allow them to put pressure on the Turkish capital at Constantinople.

Instead of a combined attack on Macedonia, Fichev proposed sending most of the Bulgarian army into the Maritsa River valley, slicing the Ottoman Empire in Europe in two. This would include an audacious attack on Edirne (the ancient Roman city of Adrianople), which would open the way to Constantinople itself. Meanwhile the Serbs under Putnik would attack and occupy Macedonia, advancing first to Skopje and then, if possible all the way to Durazzo (Durrës) on the Adriatic Sea.

The plan agreed on July 2, 1912, made sense from a strictly military perspective, but it also set the stage for conflict between the Balkan allies. If all went according to plan, Serbia would end up occupying most of Macedonia, while the Bulgarian army would be tied down in Thrace – meaning Bulgaria wouldn’t have “boots on the ground” to enforce its claims in Macedonia. To make matters worse, the allies never agreed on the precise borders of their spheres of interest in Macedonia. No surprise, when it came time to divide the spoils, the Serbs were reluctant to part with territory they felt belonged to them by right of conquest, leading to even more fighting – this time between Bulgaria and Serbia.

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July 5, 2012 - 5:03am
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