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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.


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.


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.

Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain
WWI Centennial: The British Capture Jerusalem
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 296th installment in the series.

December 11, 1917: The British Capture Jerusalem

Located in the western Judean hills, Jerusalem’s strategic importance was exceeded only by its symbolic value as the ancient capital of the Holy Land, revered by three faiths and home to religious shrines including the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possession of the city would open the way to northern Palestine and Syria for the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force—but its loss would be an even bigger blow to Ottoman prestige.

Indian artillery in World War I
Library of Congress // Public Domain

After conquering Gaza in early November 1917, General Edmund Allenby decided to move on Jerusalem at once. The EEF pushed the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies back at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on November 3, followed by the Battle of Nebi Samwil from November 17-24. The initial British efforts to capture Jerusalem failed, however, primarily due to a lack of heavy artillery as well as inclement weather. Oskar Teichman, a British medical officer, noted the challenging conditions when crossing a seasonal stream, or wadi, around this time:

On reconnoitering, we found the Warwicks crossing a swollen wadi, which had washed away the railway, and whose presence could not be discovered, as it was part of a great lake, until a horseman, who was riding through 2 or 3 feet of water, became suddenly submerged. It was an extraordinary sight: Several horses were swimming, and also men, some of the former disappearing altogether and being drowned in the swift current … On consulting my map, it was discovered that that the wadi in question was described as dry!

The British laboriously brought up artillery over muddy roads while holding off continuous Turkish counterattacks that attempted to recapture the village. On December 7, 1917, the British returned to the attack, prompting the Turks to withdraw from Jerusalem—forever, as it turned out—on the night of December 8. The Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar, described the sad scenes as the beaten Turkish army evacuated the city:

The poor Turkish soldiers! The injured men that were passing by in front of my house were on foot, holding their wounds with their hands, full of blood, haggard. An officer came by on horseback with his arm bandaged and his body sustained by three soldiers on foot. The officer’s face expressed the most horrible suffering. He, just as the soldiers and wounded, went with his head down and looking sad, very sad.

Later the withdrawal turned into a chaotic race to leave the city, according to Ballobar. "I went back to the consulate, witnessing scenes of panic that cannot be described: Officers were running their horses at a gallop, soldiers as fast as their legs would carry them, women and children crying out loud,” he wrote. The inhabitants of the holy city didn’t comport themselves particularly well during the period of nonexistent government that followed, he noted:

The instincts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were palpably shown. Everything that was capable of being stolen was disappearing into the hands of thieves of every caste, religion, and nationality that was swarming around there. Telegraph wire, half-destroyed cars, wood, old cans, etc. The scene was not very uplifting. From one of the balconies of the Hotel Kaminitz I saw an armoire being lowered down by ropes. And the Turkish police were watching all this without turning a hair.

On December 9, the city’s civilian mayor, hoping to prevent damage to its holy places and artifacts, visited Allenby under a white flag of truce and officially invited the British to enter. On December 11, Allenby, a savvy politician and diplomat as well as a skillful general, humbly entered Jerusalem on foot, instead of on horseback, to show respect as well as to convey the fact that the British didn’t view the inhabitants as conquered enemies, but rather victims of Turkish oppression. He immediately moved to reassure Jerusalemites that their lives, and the city’s treasures, would be protected:

Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption. Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

View of Jerusalem, 1917
The New York Times photo archive, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The people of Jerusalem, having endured Turkish misrule as well as hunger and disease over the last three years, naturally greeted the British as liberators, Ballobar wrote in his diary:

And here one can apply all the wildly enthusiastic phrases that the newspapers utilize on grand occasions. Really, I have never seen a popular enthusiasm so spontaneous and great. Every British soldier that passed by was followed and escorted by a throng of admirers that touched his uniform, caressed his horse, talked to him in all the languages of the Orient and admired him like a hero … The balconies were full of people. Many people were hugging each other in the street, others were mutually congratulating each other and all were walking around in their best clothes.

The fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda win for the British and their allies, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George memorably describing it as a “Christmas present for the British people.” Meanwhile T.E. Lawrence, who happened to be visiting Allenby’s headquarters when Jerusalem was captured, was embarrassed that the Arab Army hadn’t participated in the battles or liberation of the holy city, and vowed that the next time, at Damascus, the Arabs wouldn’t be bystanders, noting: “The ceremony of the Jaffa Gate gave me a new determination.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.


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