World War I Centennial: Ceasefire in the Balkans, French War Council Approves Plan XVII

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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 64th installment in the series.

April 13-19, 1913: Ceasefire in the Balkans, French War Council Approves Plan XVII

With the fall of Janina (Ioannina) to the Greeks and Adrianople (Edirne) to the Bulgarians in March 1913, the last two reasons for the Ottoman Turks to continue holding out against the Balkan League were removed, and from April 13 to 19, 1913, Turkish representatives agreed to a ceasefire with Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece as a preamble to negotiations for a lasting peace. For all intents and purposes, the First Balkan War was over.

It was pretty clear what shape the peace treaty (to be negotiated at the Conference of London over the following weeks) would assume: The Turks would have to give up virtually all of their European territories except for a small strip of territory to the west of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, left at the suggestion of British foreign minister Edward Grey as a buffer for the strategic Turkish straits.

However the diplomatic crisis resulting from the First Balkan War was far from over, as the smallest member of the Balkan League, Montenegro, continued to lay siege to the important city of Scutari (Shkodër) in the western Balkans. This threatened to provoke military action by Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, insisted that Scutari should belong to the new, independent state of Albania.

As part of the deal which defused the military standoff between Austria-Hungary and Russia in March, the Russians agreed that Scutari would go to Albania as long as their client, Serbia, was compensated with territory in the interior. By mid-April 1913, the Serbians took the hint from their Russian patrons and withdrew from Scutari—but the Montenegrins were hanging on with grim determination (pointless obstinacy might be more accurate, considering Montenegro was now defying a consensus among all of Europe’s Great Powers, who made their displeasure known by dispatching a multinational fleet to the Adriatic Sea to blockade the tiny kingdom). Although the Montenegrin forces laying siege to Scutari appeared incapable of capturing the well-defended city, in the Balkans when military might failed there was always recourse to treachery.

Meanwhile, tensions were already brewing between the other members of the Balkan League, as Bulgaria fell to squabbling with Serbia and Greece over Ottoman territory conquered in the First Balkan War. To the south, the Bulgarians still claimed Salonika, occupied by the Greeks. In the west the Serbians, forced by the Great Powers to give up their conquests in Albania, had sent at least two diplomatic notes asking the Bulgarians for a larger share of neighboring Macedonia—but the Bulgarians ignored both requests. By mid-April, the Serbs were organizing paramilitary groups in Bulgarian-occupied territory, with plans to incite rebellion against their erstwhile ally, and Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (above) was privately warning the Great Powers that Serbia would go to war with Bulgaria if its demands weren’t met.


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The Bulgarians had some idea what was coming: As early as mid-March, 1913, Tsar Ferdinand warned his son that the Greeks and Serbians were forming an alliance against Bulgaria. Meanwhile Romania—hitherto a neutral power—was now demanding a chunk of Bulgaria’s northern territory, Silistra, in return for recognizing Bulgarian conquests to the south. The victor of the First Balkan War was rapidly running out of friends.

French Supreme War Council Approves Plan XVII

Appointed chief of staff of the French army during the war scare accompanying the Second Moroccan Crisis, Joseph Joffre’s top priority was drawing up a new strategic plan for war with Germany, which was increasingly viewed as inevitable. The plan formulated by his predecessors, Plan XVI, was considered dangerously passive and obsolete: It called for French armies to assume a defensive stance southeast of Paris, thus giving up the initiative to the Germans and contravening military doctrine of the day, which called for offensive outrance (all-out attack) relying on the élan (spirit) of French soldiers.

The obvious goal was to regain the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871, but the issue was complicated by the possibility of a German attack through Belgium, as it was widely recognized that the Germans would probably violate Belgian neutrality in an attempt to circumvent French fortresses and envelop French armies from the north. Still, there was a range of opinion among French officers about how large this Belgian incursion would be, and where it would be directed. Joffre and most of his colleagues assumed the Germans would limit their maneuvers to the closest corner of Belgium, east of the River Meuse, in order to minimize the violation of Belgian territory and (hopefully) keep Britain out of the war. A more alarming scenario—the one actually envisioned by the German Schlieffen Plan—had German armies crossing west of the Meuse to strike deep to the rear of the French armies.

In fact Joffre’s predecessor, Supreme War Council vice-president General Victor Michel, foresaw just such a scenario, and drew up his own radical plan to replace Plan XVI, calling for a French deployment far west along the Belgian border, followed by an advance into Belgium to defensive positions connecting the three key fortress cities of Antwerp, Namur, and Verdun. But the British general Sir Henry Wilson warned that a French violation of Belgian neutrality would alienate public opinion in Britain, making it more difficult to persuade the proud island nation to join the war against Germany. Michel’s plan was doubly unacceptable because it gave up the cherished offensive to the Germans. France’s civilian leadership instructed Michel’s successor Joffre that the Republic’s war plan should be offensive in nature—but avoid Belgium.

On April 18, 1913, Joffre presented his proposal for a new strategy, Plan XVII, to the Supreme War Council, including President Raymond Poincaré and war minister Adolphe Marie Messimy. Plan XVII divided 62 divisions, containing roughly 1.7 million troops, in five armies along the French frontier with Germany and Belgium. In line with the civilian leadership’s instructions, French strength was concentrated near the German border for a direct attack aiming to liberate Alsace-Lorraine. The French First Army would form south of Epinal and strike east into Alsace, towards the Rhine; the Second Army would form south of Nancy and strike northeast into Lorraine; the Third Army would form north of Verdun and strike east and northeast, near Metz. The Fourth Army would be held in reserve, while the Fifth Army stood alone on the French left (northwestern) flank to check a German advance through Luxembourg and Belgium.


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In retrospect it is easy to criticize Joffre’s plan for failing to anticipate the German threat to the French left flank, but the fact is he was placed in a difficult situation by France’s civilian leadership, who foreclosed serious consideration of any strategy involving Belgian territory in order to placate their cagy British allies. Unable to devote serious planning resources to Belgian scenarios, Joffre naturally concentrated on plans for a direct attack on Germany, as instructed by the civilian leadership—while still leaving himself some flexibility in the form of the Fifth Army, near the Belgian border, and the Fourth Army, in reserve.

Indeed, a number of historians have pointed out that Plan XVII was a general plan of concentration, rather than a specific plan of attack, which left Joffre a great deal of leeway to react to German moves (including an invasion of Belgium) by making big strategic decisions on the fly. But at the end of the day his plan still failed to provide sufficient forces to counter an “all out” German thrust through Belgium; in 1914 this would bring France to the brink of disaster.

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April 19, 2013 - 10:52pm
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