By the tens of thousands, they marched through snow-capped mountains on the Serbian/Albanian border. Most of them injured or riddled with disease, the survivors of Serbia’s resistance in the Great War, military or civilian, shuffled towards the faint hope of Entente salvation on October 7th, 1915.
The last chapter from the first act of World War I was in the process of being written. That same day, the crushing weight of four armies – two Bulgarian, one German and one Austro-Hungarian – had broken the beleaguered lines of the Serbian defense. The nation that had started the war had already seen tremendous hardship, enduring repeated assaults by the Dual Monarchy. Now, the full weight of the Central Powers was being turned against them. It would cost Serbia 27% of its entire population.
The evacuation of what remained of the Serbian nation would finally prompt the Entente to act, thus starting one of the longest, and strangest campaigns in the Great War – the Salonika Front.
Despite its primary role in the conflict, neither the Central Powers nor the Entente seemed to give Serbia much of a priority.
The initial planning among the General Staffs of Germany and Austria-Hungry had assumed that the Dual Monarchy could quickly eliminate Serbia from the battlefield, perhaps even forestalling the expansion of the conflict which would surely bring in the Russian Empire to defend its fellow Slavs. Instead, the Austro-Hungarian military proved itself to be a dysfunctional tortoise, slowly bringing 462,000 soldiers comprised largely of the nation’s ethnic sub-populations over a period of weeks. Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians and Serbs made up most of the invading army – understanding neither the language spoken by their German or Hungarian commanders, nor supporting the goal of eliminating an ethnic-based state (a hope many of Austria-Hungry’s minorities had for their own populations).
For the next year that followed, the Serbs delivered embarrassing blow after embarrassing blow against the Austro-Hungarians. By December of 1914, the boundaries of the two nations had barely moved and the 215,000 casualties among the Dual Monarchy’s army had lead to a strategic standstill. With battles on other fronts demanding men and materials from the Central Powers, Serbia, despite the odds, was surviving. The costs had already been high – 170,000 men, not easily replaced, had been killed, wounded or captured.
The interlude that followed was not kind to Serbia’s fortunes.
Between the end of significant fighting in December 1914 and the resumption of the war in the fall of 1915, Serbia tried in vain to re-equip herself. The Entente had made empty promises for over a year, but only Russia had given the Serbs weaponry (only adding to Russia’s 2 million rifle shortage). For most Serbian troops, uniforms and cold-weather gear were luxuries. The average Serbian soldier donned nothing more than his civilian clothes, complete with his shoes made of pig skin, called opanak.
The Austro-Hungarian troops opposing them were better armed and fed – and they weren’t alone. An entire German army now joined them, and after considerably diplomatic pressure, Ferdinand I of Bulgaria had thrown in his lot with the Central Powers as well (this despite Ferdinand’s extremely low opinion of Franz Joseph as an “idiot” and “old dotard”). In return for assurances of territorial expansion, 550,000 Bulgarian troops were now crashing against the thin Serbian line.
Unwilling to help when assistance might have produced a Serbian victory, the Entente now agreed to enter the fight as Serbia prepared for defeat. Despite having barely enough troops for the fronts that currently existed, the Entente committed themselves to yet another. But from where was the Entente to attack? Serbia herself was landlocked, and Albania’s infrastructure was deemed inefficient for the task of transporting thousands of soldiers and heavy equipment. More importantly, Albania’s entry into the war gained the Entente nothing as the Italians already controlled most of the country. But to the south, a Greek declaration of war against the Central Powers might break the front wide open.
On paper, Greece had every reason to join the Entente. Surrounded by hostile Central Powers-aligned nations (including the Ottomans, from whom the Greeks had won their independence less than 100 years earlier), the Greeks had a defense treaty with Serbia to come to their aid if attacked by Bulgaria. With Serbia subdued, the victorious Central Powers could easily chose to absorb Greece if they wished.
Such a fate was clearly on the mind of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos as he invited the Entente to land 150,000 troops at Salonika, a port city on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. The move contradicted the preferred policy of Greece’s King Constantine I, who as the brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm II, desired to support the Central Powers, or at least keep Greece out of the war. British and French troops were already landing at Salonika as Constantine removed Venizelos, revoking permission for the Allies to use the country as a forward base.
Constantine’s wishes were brushed aside – the Entente marched into Bulgaria. A joint French-British command was hastily set up with the objectives of forcing the Bulgarians back into their country and saving the Serbian front. On both counts, the mission failed miserably. After two minor battles against the Bulgarians, Entente forces were defeated and forced to return back into Greece. By December of 1915, the Entente was holed up at Salonika and Serbia was no more.
By the start of 1916, political forces, not military ones, were dictating a stalemate at Salonika.
The Greeks remained officially neutral in the conflict, but heavily divided in practice. The nation’s pro-German government refused to allow the Entente to attack the Central Powers, but remained too weak to forcibly remove the Allied troops who continued to resupply and wait. The Bulgarians were eager to strike against the growing Entente army in Salonika, but were expressly forbidden by a German General Staff that feared a Greek entry into the war would weaken their Ottoman ally or perhaps even allowing the British to accomplish what Gallipoli had not – the capture of Constantinople.
Only the British appeared eager to leave the Balkans behind. Salonika held no strategic importance to the larger war effort and was mocked by the Germans as being their “largest POW camp.” For the British troops stationed there, with little to do but dig unused trenches in the mud, Salonika became “Muckydonia.” Worse of all, the lack of action didn’t mean a lack of casualties. Disease would force over 162,000 British troops out of service at Salonika by the end of the war.
But the leadership in London and Paris (especially Paris), wanted the men in Salonika to stay. Romania would soon enter the war on the side of the Entente, and pressure against the Central Powers in the south could aid the struggling Eastern Front. Too important a front to abandon, but too weak to advance, the Salonika front froze in place.
The various impasses would finally break in August of 1916.
Entente troops had poured into Greece over the previous nearly 10 months, as had Central Powers troops across the border. German intelligence had coordinated with King Constantine to force an end to Greece’s semi-neutrality, leading the Germans and Bulgarians to invade Greek-occupied Macedonia. Greek troops laid down their arms, or merely stepped aside for the advancing German army – as they had been ordered to do by Constantine.
The move infuriated the Greek people – Constantine had orchestrated a surrender to a foreign power. In response, troops loyal to ousted PM Eleftherios Venizelos, calling themselves Venizelists, staged a coup and started a new government with Venizelos in power at Salonika. Venizelos had popular support, but little of it came from the royalist trained military. With a rival Greek government now based in an Entente military camp, relationships between the royal government and the Allies quickly turned violent. Armed clashes between French and Greek troops broke out in Athens. It appeared that Greece might descend into civil war.
Instead, Greece would enter a political and military limbo. Greek army units laid down their weapons for Entente opponents as well as the Germans. Despite the potential for an extremely bloody campaign, the royalist Greeks essentially surrendered while the Entente maintained the fiction that Constantine, and not Venizelos, governed Greece. Only once Constantine abdicated the crown in favor of his young son in 1917 did Venizelos obtain full influence over Greece’s affairs, bringing the country into the war on the side of Entente.
Until then, the Entente would have to make due with stabilizing the Salonika front in the form of the Monastir Offensive as nearly 400,000 Entente troops hit 260,000 Bulgarians. The Bulgarians, so successful on the defense against the Entente in late 1915, were repulsed in the late summer/early fall of 1916 while on the attack. At the cost of 61,000 casualties, the Central Powers’ hopes of crushing the Salonika front and bringing the Greeks into the war on their side had both failed.
The front would again fall from the priorities of either side.
By the spring of 1917, the Salonika Army was now the Allied Army of the Orient, comprised of representatives of almost every nation under the Entente banner. 24 divisions, over 700,000 troops, were created out of British, French, Russian, Italian, Serbian and Greek soldiers, with men pulled from the far-reaches of the Entente empires. Opposing them were nearly 600,000 men, almost all of which were Bulgarians. On both sides, the troops largely sat.
The combatants would come and go as fortunes on other fronts changed. Russian troops departed in 1917 as revolution would take the Tsar’s armies out of the war. Turkish troops would leave the front as well that year as the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the Middle East. Unable, or unwilling, to risk casualties, the Entente rarely launched sizable offensives until 1918. At Salonika, the Entente obsession with tertiary fronts might not have been as disastrous to the Allied cause as Gallipoli, but still managed to bleed resources from other fronts at little cost to the Central Powers who relied on the Bulgarians to fight with minimal German support (something the Austro-Hungarians or Ottomans couldn’t possibly state).
For the Bulgarians, the ability to tie down a larger army of Western nations was a point of national pride. But as the war dragged on, the cost of being a member of the Central Powers became harder and harder to bare. The war would devastate Bulgaria demographically, materially, and psychologically. The army suffered 101,224 dead and 144,026 wounded. However, the full extent of the Bulgarian experience is only grasped when the losses of the preceding Balkan War are taken into account. The country endured a total of 157,000 dead and 154,000 wounded in six years of fighting from 1912 to 1918 – this from a nation of 4.2 million.
In the end, the choice to go to war ruined Bulgaria. The Treaty of Neuilly of 1919 imposed reparation payments of 1.5 million gold francs to the Entente powers as well as the transfer of specified quantities of livestock and railroad equipment to Greece, Romania, and the newly formed nation of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria also had to deliver 50,000 tons of coal annually to Yugoslavia.
Ferdinand I of Bulgaria would see his territorial schemes come completely undone within his life. Abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Ferdinand would escape to Germany. From exile, Ferdinand would watch his son, Boris III, die mysteriously at the hands of the Axis in World War II, and his sole-surviving son, Kyril, executed by the People’s Republic of Bulgaria as an enemy of the State. “Everything is collapsing around me,” Ferdinand stated as Kyril’s fate was told to him. It was a fate born, in part, by Ferdinand’s decision in the fall of 1915.