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Macedonia and the First Balkan War (Part 4)

April 18, 2004


The fourth and final installment of Carl Savich’s series on Macedonia and the First Balkan Wars covers the war strategy of the opposing parties in Macedonia, the outcome of the fighting, and the implications this had on the region’s future.

There were two major fronts or theaters of military operations in the First Balkan War- Macedonia and Thrace. The largest army was engaged in Thrace and consisted of Bulgarian forces. Macedonia was attacked by Serbian forces based in Nis while Greece invaded from the south. Greek forces attacked into Southern Macedonia while Serbian forces advanced through “Old Servia” into northern and central Macedonia.

After over 500 years of Turkish occupation, Serbia recovered Kosovo-Metohija: “In their great victory over the Turkish forces at Kumanovo they avenged the defeat of their ancestors at Kossovo five hundred years before.” Serbian forces continued to advance south, defeating the Ottoman Turks at Prilep and Monastir.

Bulgaria mustered 350,000 troops for the First Balkan War; Serbia had 230,000 troops; Greece had 110,000 troops; and Montenegro had 35,600 troops. According to Herbert Gibbons, Serbia and Greece could put 150,000 troops each into the field “to keep in check the Turkish army in Macedonia, and to prevent Albanian reinforcements from reaching the Turkish army in Thrace.”

The First Balkan War was portrayed as one between Christianity and Islam, as a conflict to achieve autonomy for a subjugated and repressed nationality. Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria issued a proclamation to his troops: “In this struggle of the Cross against the Crescent, of liberty against tyranny, we shall have the sympathy of all those who love justice and progress.”

There were two fronts in the war, Thrace and Macedonia. The Turks had 115,000 men in Thrace and 175,000 troops in Macedonia. Ottoman troops were deployed in the 1st Thracian or Eastern Army led by Abdullah Pasha and the 2nd Macedonian or Western Army led by Ali Risa Pasha. The nizams were the actives while the redifs were the reserves.

The Turks had two military advantages: they usually held the center of the region of conflict, and they controlled a transportation network that gave their forces good interior lines of communication. There were rail lines from Salonika/Thessaloniki to Bitola/Monastir along the Axios-Vardar valley. A military road connected Monastir, Prilep, Veles, and Shtip.

A rapid concentration of forces was thus possible. In Thrace, the Turks faced 200,000 Bulgarian troops, who were later reinforced. In Macedonia, the Turks faced 273,000 Balkan League troops. The Greek Navy controlled the Aegean Sea, however, thus depriving the Ottoman forces of reinforcements and re-supply by sea.

Why did the Ottoman Turkish army collapse and disintegrate? Why were the Turkish forces routed and utterly and completely defeated militarily?

The Ottoman armed forces had long been able to defeat the Balkan states and keep them under occupation because they could concentrate their forces in overwhelming numbers against isolated combatants. The Balkan states had also lacked organized armies. Thus the Ottoman Turkish troops could easily defeat unorganized rebel contingents. Yet during the 19th century, the Balkan states achieved independence and autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. This allowed them to form and organize armies. They developed disciplined and trained armies, while the Ottoman Turkish armies stagnated and deteriorated due to obsolete tactics and training.

In recognizance of this situation, the Turks brought in German generals and officers to train and to lead and reform their forces. German officers such as Colmar von der Goltz and Otto Liman von Sanders in 1913 were prominent commanders of the Turkish army. From 1883 to 1896, von der Goltz reorganized the Ottoman Turkish army based on German military doctrines and guidelines. Yet bringing in German military commanders also betrayed the bankruptcy of the Turkish armed forces.

In the meantime, Serbia and Bulgaria were able to acquire heavy weapons such as field artillery which gave them parity in terms of arms. The Turkish troops also suffered from low morale because Turkey was the “sick man of Europe” then, moribund militarily and politically and culturally. The only advantage Turkey had was numbers, in its larger population base. But the Balkan League negated this advantage too. Because the Turkish forces lacked overwhelming numbers against the four united states, the outcome of the First Balkan War was never seriously in doubt. The Ottoman Turkish army could not prevail over an even-strengthening army.

The Bulgarian General Staff recognized Macedonia would have to be attacked from Thrace. In the west, a detached division would thrust into Macedonia. General Mikhail Savov was the chief of the Bulgarian general staff. The Bulgarians had the 1st Army under General Vasil Kutinchev, which was made up of 79,370 men. The 2nd Army was under the command of General Nikola Ivanov and consisted of 122,748 men. The 3rd Army was commanded by General Radko Dimitriev and was made up of 94,884 men. There were 48,523 soldiers in the west facing Macedonia, while an additional 33,180 men were in the Rhodope Mountains. There were 16,000 irregulars of the Macedonian Thracian Volunteers in Rhodope. All in all, the total of men in the Bulgarian army was 599,878.

For their part, the Serbian forces were led by Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic, who commanded the 1st Serbian Army, made up of 132,000 men in the Morava Valley. The 2nd Army was commanded by General Stepa Stepanovic and consisted of 74,000 men, made up of the Serbian Timok Division and the Bulgarian 7th Rila Division. The 3rd Army was commanded by Bozidar Jankovic and consisted of 76,000 men based in Toplica and Medvedje.

The Ibar Army was commanded by General Mikhail Zivkovic and consisted of 25,000 men. The Javor Brigade was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Milovoje Andjelkovic and was made up of 12,000 men. The Chief of the Staff was General Radomir Putnik. The Serbs anticipated that the Turks would concentrate their forces in central Macedonia- the Vardar Valley, or Morava. The Serb plan was to occupy central Macedonia and from there secure the region.

The allied plan of attack counted on the 2nd Army’s advancing into eastern Macedonia from Bulgaria, from there cutting off any escaping Turkish troops in the Vardar Valley, while also preventing Turkish re-enforcements from reaching Macedonia. The 3rd Army would advance south into Kosovo and move to attack the Ottoman left flank in central Macedonia. The three armies were to meet in Ovche Polje east of Skopje.

The Turks concentrated their largest force, the Vardar Army, made up of 65,000 troops, in northern Macedonia. The Turks used Albanian irregulars to defend this area. General Colmar von der Goltz, the German adviser to the Turkish army, had been made a Field Marshal in 1911, in recognition of his service to the army.

On October 8, 1912, invoking a border dispute, Montenegro declared war on Turkey. Ten days later, Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria followed suit, arguing for war on the basis of Turkey’s violation of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin provision by failing to implement reforms in Macedonia as stipulated.

The Battle of Kumanovo

The Battle of Kumanovo was the decisive battle in Macedonia. This battle decided the outcome of the war in that region.

In the western or Macedonian theater of the war, the Ottoman forces faced the Serbian army in the north, the Greek army in the south, and the Montenegrin army in the northwest. The Serbian military strategy consisted of attacking the Turkish forces in the Skopje-Stip-Veles triangle and destroying them in a double envelopment launched south of Nis.

Three Serbian infantry armies were deployed to the Macedonian border. Crown Prince Alexander’s First Army was deployed to the upper Morava Valley area near Vranje. The First Army was to attack the Turkish forces at Ovche Polje. The Second Army under General Bozidar Jankovic was to advance to Pristina and then move along the Mitrovica-Skopje railroad line to envelop the left flank of the Turkish forces.

The Second Army, made up of one Serbian and one Bulgarian division, was to attack from the base at Kustendil, attacking the Turkish right flank. The three armies were to meet at Ovche Polje east of Skopje where they would defeat the main Turkish army, the Western Army of Macedonia. General Mikhail Zivkovic, commander of the Army of the Ibar, was to attack Novi Pazar along with the Javor Brigade. The total strength of Zivkovic’s forces was 37,000 troops and 44 guns.

The Battle of Kumanovo resulted when Zekki Pasha, the commander of the Army of the Vardar, moved out of his defensive and fortified positions in Ovche Polje and redeployed his forces north to Kumanovo. Zekki Pasha planned to defeat the Serbian First Army in a direct, head-on engagement and to thereby prevent its joining up with the Second and Third Armies. Once the First Army was destroyed, he would attack the Second and Third Armies in turn. He would then launch an attack on Sofia forcing the Bulgarian forces to withdraw troops from Thrace to meet the offensive.

Zekki’s move north forced the Serbian forces to engage before they had assembled all their units. The two-day battle of Kumanovo began on October 23 when units of the First Army engaged Zekki’s forces. There was intense fighting but the engagement was indecisive because the Serbian forces were not fully assembled for the attack.

When all the Serbian units arrived, the Turkish Army of the Vardar was unable to withstand the offensive. On the afternoon of October 24, Serbian troops broke through the Turkish left wing and it collapsed and disintegrated.   Newly arriving Serbian units then threatened to break through the center of the Turkish front. The First Army was able to break through the Turkish Vardar Army without any reinforcements from the Second or Third Armies.

Once the Serbian troops advanced, the Turkish front collapsed and the engagement turned into a rout. Zekki retreated rapidly to his base in Skopje. The Turkish right wing, which consisted of Djavid Pasha’s army corps, preserved its cohesion and allowed for an orderly withdrawal to Shtip.

The battle of Kumanovo decided the outcome of the war in Macedonia. The battle was a military disaster for the Ottoman Turkish forces. The Serbian forces, however, did not pursue the retreating Turkish forces which would have led to their total defeat. Instead, the Serbs called a halt to the offensive and occupied the abandoned Turkish fortifications. The Serbian army regrouped its forces before the next advance. The Turkish forces were able to retreat and regroup in southern Macedonia and to engage in a final battle in Monastir, one of the two greatest Turkish fortresses in the western Balkans along with Yannina.

On October 27, the Serbian forces took Skopje. The Serbian military command decided to use the First Army to pursue and engage the Turkish forces in Monastir, The Second Army was deployed to Thrace to assist the Bulgarian forces in the siege of Adrianople. The Third Army was to engage Albanian irregular formations and guerrillas and to occupy the countryside.

The First Army, now split into three groupings, advanced to engage the main Turkish forces in Monastir. The eastern and western wings moved through Tetovo, Stip, Kavdar, and Kercevo, where they met little resistance. The central formation encountered a determined and entrenched Turkish force south of Prilep. The Serbian forces drove the Turks out of the area. The fighting was intense, with the Serbs suffering 3,000 casualties.

During the interval, Djavid Pasha was able to send 11-12,000 Turkish troops using the northwestern section of the Monastir-Thessaloniki railroad to meet an advancing Greek army moving against Florina.

At the battle of Banica, Djavid defeated the Greek Fifth Division on November 2. The Turks captured 12 artillery pieces which they then used against the Serbian forces attacking Monastir. But he still faced a Serbian offensive north of Monastir. In a two-day battle from November 16-18, the Turkish army of the Vardar fought a skillful and determined battle. The superiority of Serbian artillery was the decisive factor. The Turkish Army collapsed and disintegrated and the remaining troops fled to the Turkish base in Albania: 16,000 troops under Djavid Pasha fled to the Berat region of Albania, while 15,000 troops under Zekki Pasha were able to escape and to join the Turkish garrison at Jannina/Ioannina to defend the town from a Greek siege. This final battle resulted in the expulsion of Turkish forces from Macedonia.

By October 22, the Serbian Army of the Ibar had crossed into the district of Novi Pazar or Sandzak, joining up with Montenegrin forces at Plevje on October 24. The Third Army advanced into Kosovo-Metohija where it defeated the Turkish forces and irregular Albanian detachments. By October 31, the Third Army was able to take Prizren, while the Army of the Ibar took Djakovo/Djakovica. The Montenegrin forces occupied Pec

The Serbian goal was to establish a port or outlet to the Adriatic. Jankovic commanded two columns of the Third Army which advanced across northern Albania. Jankovic had a force of 8,700 troops in the Second Drina Division and 7,000 troops in the First Sumadija Division. The Second Drina Division advanced from Djakovica and took Alessio on November 19. The First Sumadija Division advanced from Prizren and took Durazzo on November 9. To prevent Serbia from establishing an outlet to the Adriatic, the Great Powers rushed to recognize Albania as an independent state, although Albania had never before been a nation.

The Greeks advanced north, besieging Jannina and occupying Saloniki after its surrender on November 8 by Hassan Taxim Pasha. The Serbs swept over the whole upper valley of the Vardar, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar and the northern part of Albania, while Montenegro besieged Scutari. The Bulgarian forces drove the main Turkish army out of Thrace to within miles of Constantinople and besieged Adrianople.

On December 3, 1912, an armistice resulted as the Turks asked the Great Powers for mediation. There was a coup d’etat in Constantinople. The peace negotiations subsequently collapsed, however, in February, 1913. The fighting continued.

On March 26, Bulgarian forces, helped by Serbian contingents, took Adrianople. On March 6, the Greek forces took Yannina, which had been defended by Essad Pasha. On April 22, Montenegrin troops took Scutari. A new armistice was subsequently agreed, with the Treaty of London (signed on May 30, 1913). Under the Treaty, Crete and all territory west of Enez-Midye was to go to the allied states of the Balkan League.

Following the First Balkan War, after over 500 years of Turkish Muslim occupation, the Ottoman Turkish forces were expelled from Kosovo-Metohija, Macedonia, the Sandzak of Novi Pazar, Yannina, Salonika, and Thrace. What followed, however, was a dispute over Macedonia by Serbia and Bulgaria that resulted in the Second Balkan War. The status of Macedonia thus remained unresolved.


The First Balkan War would not resolve the Macedonian issue. What would result would be an exacerbation and intensification of the dispute over Macedonia. Serbia and Bulgaria could not reach agreement over the status of Macedonia and the territorial settlement.

The Macedonians sought to obtain autonomy but their goals were thwarted and unfulfilled. What resulted was the Second Balkan War, an alliance of Serbia, Greece, and Romania against Bulgaria. Much of Macedonia became annexed or incorporated into Serbia, becoming known as Southern Serbia (Juzna Srbija). Thus, the First Balkan War did expel Ottoman Turkey from Macedonia but this did not result in the resolution of the Macedonian issue. Macedonia would continue to be unstable and the subject of armed conflict in World War I, the inter-war period, and even after World War II.

Balkanization had left the Balkan states disunited, fragmented, isolated, and weak. This disunity allowed for their occupation, exploitation, and domination by outside interests, especially by the so-called Great Powers.

The First Balkan War showed that through unity the Balkan states could act to determine their own political agendas. But the First Balkan War also showed how tenuous and fragile any Balkan unity is. Rivalries and competing claims to Macedonia quickly shattered and destroyed the short-lived unity of the Balkan League, leading to the Second Balkan War in 1913. The First Balkan War thus did not resolve the issue of Macedonia, but only exacerbated the problem.


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