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Campaigns of World War One:
The Balkan Front  1914-1919


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The Great War began as a small affair with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. They thought their alliance with Germany would prevent Russia from supporting their fellow Slavs in Serbia, and that the larger Austrian army could then easily overwhelm this smaller nation. Victory in this short war would then allow Austria-Hungary to finally seize long coveted lands in the Balkans. Russia however did not stop mobilizing and some of the troops that were to take part in the war against Serbia had to be diverted toward Galicia. Though small in size, Serbia had mobilized quite a large army by mid-July that had been battle tested in the Balkan Wars. They would prove a more formidable foe than expected but their limited supplies had a telling effect in the end. The landing of Allied armies in Salonika would keep this front active after the Serb collapse until the very end of the War. Though not the largest battlefront, it would produce the highest casualties in proportion to its population.



1914


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On July 29th The Austrian Danube River flotilla sailed down to Belgrade and began to shell the city’s fortifications. This was followed by a limited incursion from Bosnia into western Serbia as most Austro-Hungarian troops were diverted to the Galician front facing the Russians. Not nearly large enough to accomplish its goals, the overconfident attack was thrown back allowing Serbian forces to invade Syrmia. Serbian attempts to stem the flow of troops to Russia failed.

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Austria-Hungary quickly reacted to the Serbian invasion with another offensive of their own. The creation of bridgeheads across the Save and Drina Rivers allowed the Austro-Hungarian army to invade Serbia on two separate fronts. Montenegro then declared war on Austria-Hungry on August 7th and Germany on August 9th. Serbian forces then withdrew from Syrmia, meeting up with the Austro-Hungarians in the mountainous region surrounding Cer. After heavy fighting at the Battle of Jadar, the Austro-Hungarian army was forced to pull back. With the Serbs lacking the resources for a more intense counterattack, the front stalemated into trench warfare.

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In November Austria-Hungry launched a larger invasion of Serbia, and while the Serbs counterattacked once more, they failed to capture the new Austrian bridgehead across the Drina. Though the Serbs took up strong defensive positions behind rivers, the larger Austro-Hungarian army continually outflanked these lines forcing them back. As their ammunition ran low, the Serbs began having problems maintaining an adequate defense and began retreating at a faster rate. While this allowed the Austro-Hungarians to capture Belgrade, they had overextended themselves in doing so.

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Though Greece began mobilizing its army to support Serbia, it felt it was not strong enough on its own to risk intervention. Prime Minister Venizelos then requested additional troops be sent to Greece from Britain and France. Both dispatched expeditionary forces that began landing at Salonika in October under the command of General Maurice Sarrail.

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For a front that was largely inactive, a tremendous amount of cards were published, mostly by the French, depicting the Allied forces based at Salonika. These are not battle scenes but images of troops in various stages of inactivity. While Italian publishers also produced many cards of the British and French at Salonika, possibly to satisfy the desire for local war news back in Italy, most cards are titled in French indicating that Italian publishers saw a business opportunity in selling cards to the idle homesick soldiers stationed in Greece.

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Once the Serbian army was resupplied by Russia and the French in Salonika, it began counterattacking the occupying forces in December. Believing the War nearly won, the Austro-Hungarian army failed to consolidate their gains with proper defenses, and the lost ground. After the Serbs recapturing Belgrade in mid-December, the Austro-Hungarian defense collapsed allowing the Serbs to reoccupy most of their country. If not for the support of armored gunboats, the retreating Austro-Hungarian army may not have been able to escape across the Danube. Serbia was free of the enemy once more but the north of the kingdom was devastated and the fighting had severely strained its army.



1915


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With the Serbian army still in the field, Germany was unable to supply the Ottoman Empire and this was hampering its operations in the field. While Austria-Hungary had lost its appetite to fight the Serbs while occupied with the Russians, Germany pressed the issue offering reinforcements to a fourth offensive. They also enlisted the help Bulgaria who was finally persuaded to join the Central Powers after long negotiations with both sides since the beginning of the War. Promises of regaining territory lost to Serbia in the Second Balkan War played a major role in their decision. This new alliance led by General Mackensen not only added weight to the offensive, it forced Serbia to defend a much longer front when attacked for which she had scant resources to accomplish. At the beginning of October German and Austro-Hungarian armies made their way across Drina and Sava Rivers quickly advancing southward. They captured Belgrade after heavy street fighting but then their advance slowed.

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By mid-month the Bulgarians attacked defeating the Serbs at the Battles of Morava and Ovche Pole. This threatened the Serbian defenses still facing the Germans on the outskirts of Belgrade and they were forced to retreat. There now was a race as the Serbs tried to link up with the Allies in Salonika but after their defeat at the Battle of Kosovo this proved impossible to accomplish. By December there was no other course but retreat. Many postcards capture the Serbian campaign but they almost all come from German or Austro-Hungarian publishers.

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The French and British armies stationed in Solonika tried to reinforce the Serbs by moving up the Vardar Valley but their advance was turned back by a stiff Bulgarian defense. Further attempts to help were compromised by Greece when King Constantine removed the pro-Ally Prime Minister Venizelos from office and declared Greece neutral. At this point the British wanted to abandon this theater of operation but the French insisted they stay. They then began to construct fortified lines just inside the Greek border with Bulgaria. The Bulgarians at this time wanted to press forward against the Allies but Germany disapproved fearing that this would bring Greece directly into the War. As it stood Greece considered the presence of the Allied armies in Salonika a violation of their neutrality, but they did not interfere with them. An uneasy peace would take hold.

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By Early December the Serbian defenses completely collapsed and both the army and refugees began a long retreated toward the coast through Montenegro and Albania. An especially hard winter hampered their retreat and greatly added to their suffering and casualties. The bad weather also slowed the armies of the Central Powers, which were unable to surround them. Once on the Albanian coast the Serbs were picked up by Allied ships that transported most of the survivors to the island of Corfu that was already held by the French. Others were landed in Sardinia and southern Italy. The pursuing Austro-Hungarians then concentrated their efforts on finishing off Montenegro.

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The bulk of postcards depicting the Balkan Front were published in Austria-Hungry, so it should come as no surprise that high proportion of these cards depict both the disintegration and the arduous retreat of what remained of Serbian army. To counter this propaganda the French produced postcards that depicted the Serb army being safely transported to Corfu so they could regroup and fight another day.



1916


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Montenegrin troops fighting alongside Serbians did not retreat with their army but returned to their native land to put up a defense. This was concentrated near the fortress on top of Mount Lovcen; though considered to be impregnable, it fell to the ongoing Austro-Hungarian offensive in January. With their main line of defense breached, Montenegro was soon knocked out of the War. The Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians then continue their advance into Albania seizing about two-thirds of the region, which caused the provisional government under Essad Pasha to take refuge in southern Italy. Although this marked the end of Austrian offensive operations on the Balkan Front, they had to continued battling an insurgency in the mountains of norther Albania for the remainder of their occupation.

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In July the Italians dispatched troops to Albania and began engaging the Austro-Hungarians occupying the region. Fighting continued into November when the Austro-Hungarians were finally pushed out of Albania, and the Italians linked up with the French at Lake Ochrida who had pushed up from Salonika. Italy would retain an occupying army in Albania for the remainder of the War.

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With the Brusilov offensive going well on the Eastern Front, the Allies decided that the added weight of Romania might tip the balance against Austria-Hungary. Romania had longed to unite its kingdom with its fellow ethnic Romanians living in Hungarian held Transylvania (Ardeal), so Allied promises of returning this region to Romanian control was enough to entice her into the conflict. Believing the Central Powers too preoccupied to worry about his actions, King Carol declared war on Austria-Hungary in August. While the Allies expected Romania to act in concert with their forces in Salonika against Bulgaria, Carol began to worry that the Russians might seize Transylvania for themselves in their ongoing offensive. Instead of moving against Bulgaria in concert with Allied forces in Salonika, his antiquated army quickly invaded Transylvania. While this campaign was executed with some skill, it only satisfied political ambitions as it made little military sense in terms of national defense. The Kaiser, who had King Carol’s promise to remain neutral, felt betrayed and declared war the day after the invasion began.

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The Allies in Salonika had been less than aggressive in fear of clashing with the Greek army. This began to change in July when reinforcements started pouring in from the failed Gallipoli campaign. With the arrival of Serbian troops swelling their ranks further, they began preparing for a new offensive up the Vardar Valley. At first this was to be a coordinated attack against Bulgaria with Romanian help, but when Romania itself was invaded, this became a relief mission. Before these plans could be carried out the Bulgarians launched the Struma offensive against Salonika in August isolating Romania. Their front was then reinforced by Turkish troops, though most would leave by spring. The French still manage to launch a successful attack on the Albanian front by the end of the year capturing Korce.

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A month after Romania entered the War, the Ottomans and Bulgaria joined Germany and declared war on her. Armies made up of Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, Germans, and Turks, all under the command of General Erich von Falkenhayn attacked in September. Romania expected her fortresses at Turtukai would hold the Bulgarians moving in from the south from invading the Dobrudzha, but it quickly fell. With their main defense breached, the port of Costanta fell soon afterwards. When more Germans arrived in the north, they broke through the Romanian defenses in Transylvania and quickly pushed them toward the central plains. As the crumbling Romanian army withdrew it was caught between two advancing armies and decisively defeated at the Battle of the Arges River. In early December the Germans crossed the Danube and took Bucharest. Expected help from the Allies never arrived, and the remains of the Romanian army retreated to Moldavia.

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The Greek army put up very little resistance during Bulgaria’s Struma offensive and wound up ceding territory to them. This caused a great deal of political unrest in Athens, which was followed by an uprising by supporters of the former Prime Minister Veniselos. By October they had set up a provisional government in Allied controlled territory. In support of this rival government the French launched an attack on Athens in December, capturing the Greek navy and expelling the King’s supporters. Only the King’s family relationship to the Czar of Russia prevented his overthrow.



1917


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The invasion of Romania by the Central Powers that began in September 1916 continued into January when one last push was made against Romanian defenses in Moldavia but they did not break. Bad winter weather and an overstretched supply line prevented a renewal of the offensive. This respite enabled what was left of the Romanian army to take refuge in neighboring Bessarabia. While the Russians sent in troops to guard their new hostile border with Germans occupying Romania, the Romanian army was resupplied and retrained into a better fighting force.

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Believing the French were advancing northwards, Serbian partisans opened the Toplica Rebellion against the Bulgarians occupying their kingdom. With the help of Austro-Hungarian forces this uprising was brutally suppressed by March when the actual Allied offensive began to take shape. Heavily reinforced by new British divisions and the reconstituted Serbian army, the Allies at Salonika launched a major offensive against the Bulgarians holding Macedonia in April. Unable to break through the Bulgarian defenses despite a strong push at Lake Dojran, the campaign was called off in May. The failure of the Battle of Monastire caused the Allied commander General Sarrail to be replaced by General Louis Franchet d’Esperey.

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In June Allied pressure finally forced King Constantine of Greece to abdicate the Thrown, and King Alexander, who was more sympathetic to the Allied cause took his place. On June 30th Greece declared war on all the Central Powers, allowing the Greek army to add its weight to that of the Allies. Despite the size of this new Allied force, bickering between national contingents combined with outbreaks of malaria kept them inactive for the remainder of the year.

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By the summer the Romanian army was revived and capable of launching offensive operations. At the end of July they engaged the Austro-Hungarians at the Battle of Marasti in coordination with the Kerensky Offensive. Though the Romanians were successful in breaking through the Austro-Hungarian defenses, they were unable to fully exploit this victory due to the failure of the Russian offensive. Germans reinforcements counterattacked through early September but could not retake Romanian gains.

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When Russia left the war after the November Revolution it left Romania surrounded by her enemies unable to receive reinforcements or supplies. Incapable of launching a new offensive on their own they signed an armistice with the Central Powers on December 9th. The campaign had been particularly brutal to punish Romania for its betrayal, and now the country was looted. The supplies Germany was able to pillage from this territory, especially from the Ploesti oil fields, enabled them to prolong their war effort. Military occupation however diverted German troops from being deployed elsewhere.



1918


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After the November 1917 Revolution in Russia, their province of Bessarabia, with its large population of ethnic Romanians, declared its independence and formed the Moldavian Democratic Republic in December. Bolshevik attempts to regain this lost territory was used by the Romanians as an excuse to invade and annex this new nation in April 1918. In May Romania signed the Treaty of Bucharest with the Central Powers in which it officially ceded the territory they already occupied to them.

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The year began quietly in Salonika except for some small inconclusive battles in the Vardar Valley that spring. By summer the multinational Allied army had been further reinforced with Italian, French and Czech Legion troops, now all unified under French command. In early September the Allies launched an offensive against the entire Bulgarian line concentrating against Macedonia. With reinforcements and supplies no longer forthcoming from their allies, many in the Bulgarian ranks thought the War already lost. While some Bulgarian units beat back the Allied attack, other exhausted troops broke and ran. With their defense line penetrated the Bulgarian army was forced to quickly fall back as the Allies continued to press forward. By the end of the month, when the Allies were in a position to capture their last supply rout through Skopje, Bulgaria asked for an armistice.

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While Bulgaria was engaged in abandoning all occupied territory as terms of the armistice required, the Allies continued to press northward toward Austria-Hungry. Even after an armistice was signed with Austria in early November the Allies continued their advance toward Budapest. Germany had only deployed a token force to oppose them since their supply lines were far to extended to open up a major new front. Bulgaria’s collapse however cut German supplies flowing into Turkey, which in turn helped lead to their surrender. After French troops entered Bucharest, Romania violated it armistice agreement and reenter the war on November 10th, 1918. Shortly after the Allies crossed the Danube the armistice with Germany was signed and all further action on this front ceased.

The end of the year saw the Austrian territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina form into the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. Montenegro had also united with Serbia. By December they had all united into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) under Serbian King Peter I.



1919


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After the Treaty of Versailles, Romania made territorial gains receiving Bessarabia from the Russians and Transylvania from Hungary. Bulgaria was forced to cede territory to all its neighbors. A new conflict would arise in May when Greece landed troops at Smyrna marking the beginning of their military campaign against the Turks in Western Anatolia.




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