World War I Centennial: The Second 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 75th installment in the series.

June 29, 1913: Second Balkan War Begins

The Second Balkan War, June-August 1913, is synonymous with total military debacle. Feeling shortchanged by the Balkan League’s division of former Ottoman territory in Macedonia following the First Balkan War, Bulgaria lashed out against its former allies, Serbia and Greece, with exhausted troops and a ludicrously optimistic strategy – and swiftly reaped the whirlwind, as Turkey and Romania piled on from the rear. In fact, the Second Balkan War marks one of the few occasions in modern history when a country has been literally attacked from all sides… or rather, counter-attacked: incredible though it seems in retrospect, Bulgaria’s impulsive Tsar Ferdinand actually started this disastrous war.

Tsar Ferdinand had right on his side, but that was about it: the 1912 treaty between Bulgaria and Serbia had granted most of Ottoman Macedonia to Bulgaria, while Serbia was supposed to gain access to the sea by conquering Ottoman Albania. But when Austria-Hungary and Europe’s other Great Powers deprived Serbia of its gains by creating the new, independent state of Albania, the Serbians were left looking elsewhere for compensation, which could only mean Macedonia. Meanwhile, during the First Balkan War the Bulgarians had concentrated their forces in the east in a failed effort to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople – so there were no Bulgarian “boots on the ground” to enforce Bulgaria’s claims in the west.

Indeed, the balance of power in the Balkans was now slanted sharply against Bulgaria. After sustaining heavy losses in the First Balkan War, Bulgaria could deploy around 360,000 troops (many of them new and untrained) against its former allies, while Serbia could field 300,000 troops, along with 13,000 troops from its sidekick Montenegro, and Greece could field 121,000. Thus the Bulgarians were outnumbered 434,000 to 360,000 – and that’s not counting Romania, with 418,000 troops, and the Ottoman Empire, with 250,000, both of which had scores to settle with Bulgaria.

Nonetheless on June 29, 1913, Tsar Ferdinand, confident in the martial spirit of his tired soldiers, ordered Bulgarian armies to attack the Serbians and Greeks across the eastern and southern borders of the disputed area in Macedonia. Failure was immediate and complete, as Bulgarian forces were roundly defeated by the Serbians at Bregalnica (Breg-AL-neet-sa) and the Greeks at Kilkis.

Bregalnica

The main attack was launched without warning on the night of June 29-30 by the Bulgarian 4th Army against the Serbian 1st and 3rd Armies south of the town of Štip. The Bulgarians managed to advance as far the town of Udovo, about 25 miles west of the current border between Bulgaria and the Macedonian Republic, when internal conflicts in the Bulgarian command derailed the campaign.

Amazingly, Tsar Ferdinand had started the Second Balkan War without consulting or informing Bulgaria’s civilian government; in fact the Bulgarian prime minister, Stoyan Danev, was just about to leave for St. Petersburg to participate in Russia’s planned mediation of the dispute with Serbia when the war broke out. On July 1, Danev, understandably annoyed at being excluded from key affairs of state, frantically ordered the Bulgarian chief of staff, Mikhail Savov, to halt the attack.  Savov obeyed and was duly rewarded by being fired by Tsar Ferdinand for disobedience on July 3 (on July 3 parliament also fired Savov for launching the initial attack, giving him the distinction of being fired twice on the same day, albeit for different reasons). Ferdinand ordered his new commander, Radko Dimitriev, to resume the attack – but by now it was too late.

The Bulgarians had stopped fighting for two days, but their enemy hadn’t: the Serbians took advantage of the pause to bring up reinforcements, reposition their armies, and launch a devastating counterattack which pushed the Bulgarians all the way back to the Bregalnica River by July 8. The Bulgarian 5th Army hurried to help, but by now the front was collapsing and the 4th Army was in headlong retreat. By the time they assumed defensive positions behind the Bregalnica, the Bulgarians had suffered 20,000 casualties, compared to around 17,000 for the Serbs, while managing to lose most of the territory they’d conquered in the First Balkan War.

Kilkis

The Bulgarians suffered an even bigger defeat at the hands of the Greeks, whose combined forces outnumbered the Bulgarian 2nd Army’s 36,000 troops by almost four to one, and also benefited from the tragicomic confusion reigning in Bulgarian headquarters. With the newly-crowned King Constantine in command, the Greeks mounted strong attacks on the flanks of the Bulgarian army, including punishing naval bombardment of the eastern flank by Greek warships in the Aegean Sea.

The Bulgarian 2nd Army began retreating north on July 1, hoping to fall back on the Bulgarian 4th Army for support, only to find the 4th Army was also retreating. As a last resort, the Bulgarians assumed defensive positions near the village of Kilkis, about 25 miles south of the current Greek-Bulgarian border, but were forced to continue retreating north after a ferocious battle from July 1-4. Thus the Bulgarians also lost most of their previous conquests in southern Macedonia.

Romania Jumps In

Bulgaria’s doom was sealed by the entry of Romania into the Second Balkan War. The Romanians had previously demanded part of the northern Bulgarian territory of Dobruja in return for recognizing Bulgaria’s conquests to the south in the First Balkan War, but the Bulgarians refused and ignored the decision of the Great Powers, who granted the territory to Romania in arbitration. The Bulgarians then foolishly left their rear exposed in the Second Balkan War – naively expecting Russia, the traditional patron of the Balkan Slavic kingdoms, to protect them against non-Slavic Romania.

Unfortunately for the Bulgarians, the Russians were trying to curry favor with Romania in an effort to tempt it to leave the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and maybe even join the Triple Entente (France, Russia, Britain). Thus the expected Russian aid to Bulgaria was not forthcoming, and on July 7 the Romanians sent 80,000 troops marching into Dobruja, while another 250,000 headed for the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. There was no way Bulgaria could fight Serbia, Greece, and Romania at the same time – and the list of enemies was about to grow even longer, when the Ottoman Empire took advantage of Bulgaria’s woes to reclaim Adrianople.

Following his earlier inability to mediate the Bulgarian-Serbian dispute, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov’s failure to come to Bulgaria’s aid in the Second Balkan War had grave consequences far beyond Bulgaria’s territorial losses. Having alienated Bulgaria, Russia was left with Serbia as its only client state in the Balkans – and that meant Russia would have to take Serbia’s side in any future disputes, or risk losing its influence in the Balkans altogether. One year later this would drag Russia, and the rest of Europe, into an unfathomable disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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June 29, 2013 - 8:46am
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