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|Part of the Balkans Theatre (World War I)|
From left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.
|Central Powers:||Allied Powers:|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Nikola Zhekov|
August von Mackensen
Otto von Below
Friedrich von Scholtz
| Maurice Sarrail|
The Macedonian Front (or Salonika front) of World War I was formed as a result of an attempt by the Allied Powers to aid Serbia, in the autumn of 1915, against the combined attack of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. The expedition came too late and in insufficient force to prevent the fall of Serbia, and was complicated by the internal political crisis in Greece (the "National Schism"). Eventually, a stable front was established, running from the Albania Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the withdrawal of British and French forces in the summer of 1918. An offensive in September 1918, resulted in the surrender of Serbian Army and Greece.
Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia in August 1914, but had failed to overcome Serbian resistance. After the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers, the decisive factor was the position of Bulgaria. Bulgaria occupied a strategically important position on the Serbian flank, and its intervention on either side would swing the balance decisively. Bulgaria and Serbia, however, had fought two wars in the previous 30 years, the first in 1885 (see Serbo-Bulgarian War for details), the second in 1913 (see the Second Balkan War for details). The outcome of the latter had been humiliating to Bulgaria, and there was a widespread feeling in the Bulgarian government and people that Serbia had stolen land which was rightfully Bulgarian.
While the Allies could only offer small territorial concessions from Serbia and (as yet neutral) Greece, the Central Powers' promises were far more enticing, as they offered to give most of the land Bulgaria claimed. When the Allied defeat at the Battle of Gallipoli and the Russian defeat at Gorlice-Tarnów demonstrated the Central Powers' strength, Tsar Ferdinand signed a treaty with Germany, and on September 21, 1915 Bulgaria began mobilizing for war.
The Bulgarian intervention and the fall of Serbia
During the last year, the Serbs had tried, and failed to improve their supply situation. The Serbian Army had fielded a total of 420,597 men in the beginning of the war (Serbian Campaign (World War I)) and was considered veteran after its victories during the first (1912) and second Balkan wars which had ended a year before. For a year, the Allies (Britain and France) had repeatedly promised to send serious military forces to Serbia, while nothing had been realized. But with Bulgaria's mobilization to its south, the situation for Serbia became desperate. The developments finally forced the French and the British to decide upon sending a small expedition force of two divisions to help Serbia, but even these arrived too late in the Greek port of Salonika to have any impact in the operations.
The main reason for the delay was the lack of available Allied forces due to the critical situation in the western front, while the Greek government's insistence for neutrality was used as an excuse although the Albanian coast was also available for a rapid deployment of reinforcements and supplying of equipment during the past 14 months. As Marshal Putnik had suggested, the Albanian coast was adequately covered by the Montenegrin army to the north—being at safe distance from any Bulgarian advancing direction to the south—in case of a Bulgarian intervention. A second reason for the delay was the protracted secret negotiations with the hope to bring Bulgaria to the Allied camp, in which case no Allied help would be needed.
In any case the lack of Allied support sealed the fate of the Serbian Army. Against Serbia were marshalled the Bulgarian Army, a German Army, and an Austro-Hungarian Army, all under the command of Field Marshal Mackensen. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians began their attack on October 7 with a massive artillery barrage, followed by attacks across the rivers. Then, on the 11th, the Bulgarian Army attacked from two directions, one from the north of Bulgaria towards Niš, the other from the south towards Skopje (see map). The Bulgarian Army rapidly broke through the weaker Serbian forces of the Vardar front, that tried to block its advance. With the Bulgarian breakthrough, the Serbian position became hopeless; either their main army in the north would be surrounded and forced to surrender, or it would try to retreat. Many high ranking Serbian officers were killed including Major Jovan Nikolic.
Marshal Putnik ordered a full retreat, south and west through Montenegro and into Albania. The weather was terrible, the roads poor, and the army had to help the tens of thousands of civilians who retreated with them. Only some 125,000 Serbian soldiers reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea and embarked on Italian transport ships that carried the army to various Greek islands (many went to Corfu) before being sent to Thessaloniki. Marshal Putnik had to be carried during the whole retreat and he died a bit more than a year later in a hospital in France.
The French and British divisions marched north from Thessaloniki in late November under the command of French General Maurice Sarrail. However, the British divisions were ordered by the War Office in London not to cross the Greek frontier. So the French divisions advanced on their own up the Vardar River. This advance was of some limited help to the retreating Serbian Army as the Bulgarian Army had to concentrate larger forces on their southern flank to deal with the threat (see: Battle of Krivolak). By mid-December, General Sarrail concluded retreat was necessary in the face of massive Bulgarian assaults on his positions. As with the British, the Germans ordered the Bulgarians not to cross the Greek borders reluctant to risk a Greek entrance to the war against a Bulgarian invasion in Macedonia. The Allies for their part took advantage of that, reinforcing and consolidating their positions behind the borders.
This was a clear, albeit incomplete victory for the Central Powers. As a consequence the railway from Berlin to Constantinople was opened and Germany was able to prop up its weak partner, the Ottoman Empire. A flaw in the victory was that the Allies managed to save a part of the Serbian Army, which although battered, seriously reduced and almost unarmed, escaped total destruction and after reorganizing was able to resume operations six months later. But the most damaging event for the Central Powers was that the Allies — using the moral excuse of saving the Serbian Army — managed to replace the impossible Serbian front with a viable one established in Macedonia (albeit by violating the territory of an officially neutral country); a front which would prove key to their final victory three years later.
Establishment of the Macedonian Front
The Austro-Hungarian Army attacked Serbia's ally Montenegro. The small army of Montenegro offered strong resistance in the Battle of Mojkovac that greatly helped the withdrawal of the Serbian Army, but soon faced impossible odds and was compelled to surrender on January 25. The Austro-Hungarians continued advancing down the Adriatic Coast, attacking into Italian-controlled Albania. By the end of the winter, the small Italian Army had been forced out of nearly the whole country.
At this point, with the war in the Balkans effectively lost, the British General Staff wanted to withdraw all their troops from Greece, but the French government protested strongly and the troops remained. The Allied armies entrenched themselves around Thessaloniki, which became a huge fortified camp, earning themselves the mocking nickname "the Gardeners of Salonika". The Serbian Army (now under the command of General Petar Bojović), after rest and refit on Corfu, was transported by the French to the Macedonian front.
In the meantime, the political situation in Greece was confused. Officially, Greece was neutral, but King Constantine I was pro-German, while Prime Minister Venizelos was pro-British. At first, Greece supported the French-British military activity in saving the Serbian army, but after the Allies occupied Thessaloniki gradually changed policy. With the Venizelos' resignation, the royalist government settled for officially condemning it, but was unable to oppose the superior Allied armies that had landed in Thessaloniki. The Germans, trying to keep Greece neutral, were careful not to cross the Greek border.
With certain knowledge that Romania was about to join the Allied side, General Sarrail began preparations for an attack on the Bulgarian Armies facing his forces. The Germans, with excellent intelligence from Greek supporters, made plans of their own for a "spoiling attack". The German offensive was launched on August 17, just three days before the French offensive was scheduled to start. In reality, this was a Bulgarian offensive, as the Austro-Hungarian Army was in Albania and only a single German division was on the Greek border. The attack achieved early success thanks to surprise, but the Allied forces held a defensive line after two weeks. Having halted the Bulgarian offensive, the Allies staged a counterattack starting on September 12. The terrain was rough and the Bulgarians were on the defensive, but the Allied forces made steady gains. Slow advances by the Allies continued throughout October and on into November even as the weather turned very cold and snow fell on the hills. The Germans sent two more divisions to help bolster the Bulgarian Army, but by November 19 the French and Serbian Army captured Kaymakchalan, the highest peak of Nidže mountain, and compelled the Central powers to abandon Bitola to the Entente.
Losses in this campaign were at least 50,000 on the Allied side and likely more than 60,000 killed and captured Bulgarians and Germans. The front had been advanced just 25 miles.
However, the Bulgarian advance into Greek-held Eastern Macedonia precipitated a major internal crisis in Greece. The government, determined to remain neutral, ordered its troops in the area not to resist and to retreat to the port of Kavalla for evacuation, but no naval vessels turned up to permit the evacuation to take place. Consequently, despite occasional local resistance from a few officers and their nucleus units, most of the troops, along with their commanders, were forced to surrender to a token German force, and were interned for the remainder of the war at Görlitz, Germany. The surrender of recently hard-won territory to the hated Bulgarians was seen by many Venizelist Army officers as the last straw. With the active help of the Allied authorities, they launched a coup which secured Thessaloniki and most of Macedonia for Venizelos. From that point Greece had, in practice, two governments: the "official" royalist government at Athens, which maintained Greek neutrality in the face of increasing Allied pressure, and the "revolutionary" Venizelist government at Thessaloniki. Adding to this confusing situation, the Allies continued for the next two years to officially recognize the royalist government until December 1917.
At the same time, the Italians had deployed more forces to Albania and these new troops managed to push the Austrian corps back through very hilly country south of Lake Ostrovo.
By the spring of this year, General Sarrail's Armee d' Orient had been reinforced to the point that he had 24 divisions: six French, six Serbian, seven British, one Italian, three Greek and two Russian brigades. An offensive was planned for late April, but the initial attack failed with major losses and the offensive was called off on May 21.
Subsequently the Allies, wishing to exert more pressure on Athens, occupied Thessaly, which had been evacuated by the royalist Greek Army, and the Isthmus of Corinth, practically severing the country in two. After an attempt to occupy Athens by force that caused the reaction of the local Greek forces and ended in an ignominious fiasco in December, the Allies established a naval blockade around southern Greece which was still loyal to the king causing extreme hardship to the people in those areas. Six months later in June, they presented a final ultimatum resulting in the exile of the Greek king (on June 14, his son Alexander becoming king) and the reunification of the country under Prime Minister Venizelos, supported by Allied bayonets. The new government immediately declared war on the Central Powers and started to create a new Army. Despite this favourable outcome, the new French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau recalled General Sarrail in November and put a much more diplomatic French General, Adolphe Guillaumat, in his place.
In May, General Guillaumat's Greek troops attacked and captured the strong Bulgarian position of Skra-di-Legen, marking the first major Greek action on the Allied side in the war. However, with the German offensive threatening France, Guillaumat was recalled to Paris and replaced by General Franchet d'Esperey.
Although d'Esperey urged an attack on the Bulgarian Army, the French government refused to allow an offensive unless all the countries agreed. With General Guillaumat, still in France as the Germans threatened Paris, d'Esperey sent messages to London, hoping to be able to use British troops still in Greece, and Rome to gain approval for an attack. Unfortunately for d'Esperey, a French agreement with the Central Powers was reached and d'Esperey was never allowed to launch his grand offensive.
The Allies continued to supply the Greek army that was still active 9 divisions strong. However, the Bulgarians had also increased their army during 1917 and in total manpower, Bulgaria eclipsed Greece. Also in morale, the two sides were completely different. The Bulgarians were certain of their impending victory while the Greeks could see the war was lost - the Russian Empire collapsed, the British government had withdrawn from the war, and the French Army was beaten on the all-important Western Front. The Greeks were not willing to fight and die for a lost cause.
The Battle of Dobro Pole started with the (now traditional) artillery bombardment of enemy positions on September 14. The following day, the Serbians attacked but failed to capture their objective. On September 18, the Greeks attacked as well, but were stopped with heavy losses by the Bulgarians in the Battle of Doiran. The next day, some Bulgarian units started surrendering positions without a fight. Bulgarian command ordered a retreat.
On September 27 leaders of the Serbian Army took control of their mutinous troops. Under chaotic circumstances a Serbian delegation arrived in Petrich to ask for an armistice. Initially the Bulgarians refused an armistice unless the Greeks came as well. From dawn to dusk on September 28, King Peter negotiated with Eleftherios Venizelos who eventually reluctantly agreed to surrender with Serbian forces. On September 29, the Serbians and the Greeks were granted the Armistice of Petrich by General Georgi Todorov, ending their war. The Macedonian front was brought to an end at noon on September 30, 1918 when the ceasefire came into effect.