Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Balkans 1917

Macedonia - coveted by the Ottomans, Serbia, Bulgaria
and Greece. Still an unresolved bone of contention in 2017.
Compared to the stalemate of the western Front, the unstable patchwork of nations contained within the Balkan Peninsula had seen tremendous movements across frontiers and reversals of fortune. In 1914 the Serbians humiliatingly repulsed Austria’s punitive invasion, and held their own until late 1915 when German intervention crushed their resistance and overwhelmed their country (see Post 29/9/2015). Vengeful Austria, alongside a Bulgarian intervention to the east pushed the remains of the Serbian army and much of the population over the mountains to the Albanian coast. Surviving soldiers were evacuated to Greek islands, to re-appear alongside Allied forces later in the war. Bulgaria’s opportunist entry to the war aimed to regain land she had lost during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. By joining with the Central Powers, Bulgaria had to put aside her claims to Western Turkey, but did take advantage of the pursuit of retreating Serbs to occupy northern Albania in December 1915.
The unfortunate Albania - only recognised as an independent state in 1912 – suffered more than any from the complexity of Balkan politics. Despite neutrality in the main conflict, it was steadily dismantled. Occupied in the north by Bulgarian and Austrian forces, it was invaded from the east by Greece as early as 1914, to support a Greek minority controlled region of Epirus. This, in turn was overtaken by an extension of the French front in Salonika, and an invasion of Italian troops in the south to create an ‘autonomous’ Albanian republic of Korce, which both parties squabbled over. By mid-1916 the small remaining independent central Albania was obliged to declare war on Austria-Hungary and await the outcome.
To the south east, the Greek tragedy continued gradually to unfold.

Like her neighbour Albania, Greece encountered more problems from a bogus neutrality than declaring for one side or the other. We have seen (Post 27/10/2015) how two strong individuals effectively split the country in two. Eleftherios Venizelos had continuously struggled against the Constitutional Monarch to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.
A portrait of Constantine I
of Greece in 1914
King Constantine’s avowed neutral stance belied his Germanophile tendencies and his covert actions in favour of his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ironically, his friendship with another cousin -  Tsar Nicholas - afforded him a degree of protection against overthrow. By the end of 1916 (see Post 23/12/2016) Greece was, effectively, partitioned, with Venizelos leading a pro-Allied government of national defence in the north, based in Salonika (Thessaloniki today), and the King and anti-Venizelists governing in Athens and the south. The Allied navies were blockading Athens to enforce the King’s promises re neutrality. This situation was not sustainable.
Sarrail’s garrison in Salonika, established in late 1915 as a vague strategic alternative to the failure at Gallipoli, had expanded over time. With Venizelos in close proximity, it was becoming active again in Macedonia - volatile but vitally important for communications in all directions. Unsuccessful initial moves in 1916 to the north east to support Rumania against the Bulgarians (see Post 2/10/2016) culminated in the capture of Monastir (today Bitola) in southern Macedonia in November. In early 1917 an expanded front was held by Sarrail’s forces from Monastir in the south, to the Struma Valley, leading up to Lake Doira, 90 miles north east of Salonika. The right (western) flank of this front was held by British forces, led by General Milne. In April Sarrail announced to his forces that they were going on to the offensive. There seemed no great strategic purpose, other than to join the Allied efforts on the Western Front and the presumed Russian offensive on the Eastern Front (although no-one knew what was really going on there). The French and Italians were to strengthen their positions in Albania and Milne’s forces were to move into Macedonia, pushing the Bulgarians back past the fortress at Doira, near the lake. An all too familiar pattern followed. The initial bombardment on 24th April enabled the Allied forces to gain their first objective almost everywhere. This was followed by slower progress against well prepared mountain defences, and accompanying heavy casualties. Anticipating summer heat, and the high risk of outbreaks of dysentery and malaria, Sarrail soon called off the offensive and consolidated his defences along the paltry new ground he had captured. Before long, large numbers of troops were recalled to northern Greece to monitor the rapidly changing political situation there.

Eleftherios Venizelos 1864-1936
A giant of modern Greek history
From the crisis at the end of 1916, Constantine’s Government in Athens was led by Lambros - under pressure from the allied shipping blockade to act with strict neutrality, and faced by a strengthening Venizelos government and army in the north. Still civil unrest continued, and the King encouraged pro-German propaganda. Lambros resigned, to be replaced by the equally ineffective Zaimis. As Venizelos grew stronger it appeared by the end of May that the King’s days were numbered. He was isolated, and could no longer rely on supportive moves from his cousins. By June the Italians occupied enough of Albania to block his only remaining direct communication route with the Central Powers. On 6th June, Jonnart, a high ranking French diplomat, was landed on the southern Greek coast as the presumptive High Commissioner for an Allied protectorate. He advanced to Athens where, on the 11th, he summoned Prime Minister Zaimis, issuing an ultimatum for a constitutional government that would guarantee the safety of the Allied forces in Salonika. Zaimis resigned in favour of Venizelos, who hurried south to Athens to assume his new role. Constantine was left with no choice but to abdicate, in favour of his son Prince Alexander. Constantine was expelled from Greece, joining a number of exiled monarchs in truly neutral Switzerland.
Venizelos set about uniting his country behind the Allies, and behind the new King. It was a remarkable achievement, and he would become Prime Minister several more times during Greece’s turbulent post-war times. Buchan, in his partial way, waxes lyrical about him: “His work lay in a narrow area, and his problems were on a small scale compared with those that faced his colleagues in Western Europe; but in the mental and moral endowments of the statesman he had no superior, and perhaps no equal, among living men”*


* Buchan: A History of the Great War. Vol 3 p505

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