|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:|
Ottoman Empire (1916–1918)
| Allied Powers:|
Russia (until 1917)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Nikola Zhekov|
August von Mackensen
Otto von Below
Friedrich von Scholtz
| Maurice Sarrail|
The Macedonian Front, also known as the 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 Albanian Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Bulgarian Army, which was at various times bolstered with smaller units from the remaining Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until mutenies in Allied units in September 1918, which resulted in the capitulation of the Serbian Army and Greek request for an armistice.
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 (November 1914), the decisive factor in the Balkans became the attitude of Bulgaria. Bulgaria occupied a strategically important position on the Serbian flank and its intervention on either side of the belligerents would be decisive. Bulgaria and Serbia had fought each other twice in the previous thirty years: in the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 and in the Second Balkan War of 1913. Bulgaria had suffered defeat in 1913 and the Bulgarian government and people generally felt that Serbia had stolen land which rightfully belonged to Bulgaria. While the Allies could only offer Bulgaria small territorial concessions from Serbia and neutral Greece, the Central Powers' promises appeared far more enticing, as they offered to cede most of the land which Bulgaria claimed. With the Allied defeats at the Battle of Gallipoli (April 1915 to January 1916) and the Russian defeat at Gorlice-Tarnów (May to September 1915) demonstrating the Central Powers' strength, Tsar Ferdinand signed a treaty with Germany and on 21 September 1915 Bulgaria began mobilizing for war.
Triple invasion and the fall of SerbiaEdit
After the victory of the Serbian army in the Battle of Kolubara in December 1914, the Serbian front saw a lull until the early autumn of 1915. Under the command of Field Marshal August von Mackensen, the Austro-Hungarian Balkan Army, the German 11th Army and river flotillas on the Danube and the Sava began an offensive on 6 October 1915, the largest offensive against Serbia. By September 1915, despite the extreme sacrifice of the Serbian army, the Austro-Hungarian Balkan Army, having crossed the rivers Sava and Drina and the German 11th Army after crossing the Danube, occupied Belgrade, Smederevo, Požarevac and Golubac, creating a wide bridgehead south of the Sava and Danube rivers, and forcing Serbian forces to withdraw to southern Serbia.
On 15 October 1915, two Bulgarian armies attacked, overrunning Serbian units, penetrating into the valley of the South Morava river near Vranje up to 22 October 1915. The Bulgarian forces occupied Kumanovo, Štip, and Skopje, and prevented the withdrawal of the Serbian army to the Greek border and Thessaloniki (Salonika).
For a year, the Allies (Britain and France) had repeatedly promised to send serious military forces to Serbia, while nothing had materialized. 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 Thessaloniki 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. The Entente used Greek neutrality as an excuse, although they could have used the Albanian coast for a rapid deployment of reinforcements and equipment during the first 14 months of the war. (As the Serbian Marshal Putnik had suggested, the Montenegrin army gave adequate cover to the Albanian coast from the north — at a safe distance from any Bulgarian advance in the south in the event of a Bulgarian intervention.) The Entente also delayed due to protracted secret negotiations aiming at bringing Bulgaria into the Allied camp, which event would have alleviated Serbia's need for Franco-British help.
In the event the lack of Allied support sealed the fate of the Serbian Army. Against Serbia the Central Powers 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 7 October 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 which tried to block its advance. With the Bulgarian breakthrough, the Serbian position became hopeless; their main army in the north faced either encirclement and enforced surrender, or retreat.
Marshal Putnik ordered a full Serbian retreat, southwards and westwards through Montenegro and into Albania. The Serbs faced great difficulties: terrible weather, poor roads and the need for the army to help the tens of thousands of civilians who retreated with them. Only c. 125,000 Serbian soldiers reached the Adriatic coast and embarked on Italian transport ships that carried the army to Corfu and other Greek islands before it travelled on to Thessaloniki. Marshal Putnik had to be carried during the whole retreat; he died just over a year later in a French hospital.
The French and British divisions marched north from Thessaloniki in October 1915 under the command of French General Maurice Sarrail. However, the War Office in London was reluctant to advance too deep into Serbia. So the French divisions advanced on their own up the Vardar River. This advance gave some limited help to the retreating Serbian Army, as the Bulgarians had to concentrate larger forces on their southern flank to deal with the threat, which led to the Battle of Krivolak (October–November 1915). By the end of November, General Sarrail had to retreat in the face of massive Bulgarian assaults on his positions. During his retreat, the British at Kosturino were also forced to retreat. By 12 December, all allied forces were back in Greece. The Germans ordered the Bulgarians not to cross the Greek borders, reluctant to risk a Greek entry into the war in response to a Bulgarian invasion in Macedonia. The Allies for their part took advantage of that, reinforcing and consolidating their positions behind the borders.
Thus there resulted a clear, albeit incomplete victory for the Central Powers. As a consequence they opened the railway line from Berlin to Constantinople, allowing Germany to prop up its weaker partner, the Ottoman Empire. Despite the Central Powers' victory, 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 resumed operations six months later. And most damagingly for the Central Powers, 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).
Establishment of the Macedonian FrontEdit
On 5 January 1916, 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 25 January. 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 almost 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 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 Eleftherios Venizelos was pro-Allied, inviting the Entente into Thessaloniki.
With 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, made plans of their own for a "spoiling attack". The German offensive was launched on 17 August, 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 one German division was on the Greek border. The Bulgarians attacked on 2 fronts. In the east, they easily conquered all Greek territory east of the river Struma (see Struma Offensive), since the Greek Army was ordered not to resist by the pro-German King Constantine. In the west, 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 counter-attack starting on 12 September. 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 19 November 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 c. 50,000 on the Allied side and c. 60,000 killed and captured Bulgarians and Germans, the front had advanced 25 miles (40 km).
The unopposed Bulgarian advance into Greek-held eastern Macedonia precipitated a crisis in Greece. The royalist government ordered its troops in the area (the demobilized IV Corps) not to resist and to retreat to the port of Kavala for evacuation, but no naval vessels turned up to permit the evacuation to take place. Despite occasional local resistance from a few officers and their nucleus units, most of the troops, along with their commander, 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 (in the Second Balkan War of 1913) hard-won territory was seen by many Venizelist Army officers as the last straw. With the assistance of the Allied authorities, they launched a coup which secured Thessaloniki and most of Greek Macedonia for Venizelos. From that point Greece had two governments, the "official" royal government at Athens, which maintained Greek neutrality and the "revolutionary" Venizelist "Provisional Government of National Defence" at Thessaloniki. 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 spring 1917, General Sarrail's Allied Army of the Orient had been reinforced to 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 21 May. The Venizelists and the Entente, wishing to exert more pressure on Athens, occupied Thessaly, which had been evacuated by the royalists and the Isthmus of Corinth, dividing the country. After an attempt to occupy Athens by force, that caused the reaction of the local royalist forces and ended in an fiasco in December (see Noemvriana), the Allies established a naval blockade around southern Greece which was still loyal to king Constantine, causing extreme hardship to the people in those areas. Six months later in June, the Venizelists presented an ultimatum, resulting in the exile of the Greek king (on June 14, his son Alexander became king) and the reunification of the country under Venizelos. The new government immediately declared war on the Central Powers and created a new Army, winning the battle of Skra-di-Legen against the Bulgarians.
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. With the German spring 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. However in August, an agreement was reached with the Germans and d'Esperey was never able to launch his grand offensive.
The Allied forces were now very large, despite the Russians being obliged to cease their participation due to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Not only did the Entente have the Greek army fully on their side (9 divisions strong), but they also had some 6,000 men from the Czechoslovak Legion, who had been evacuated from Russia and sailed around the world, ready to fight the Austro-Hungarians. The Bulgarians had also increased their army during 1917 and in total manpower, the two sides were roughly equal (291 Allied battalions vs. 300 Bulgarian battalions, plus ten German battalions). The Bulgarians were certain of their impending victory, while the Greeks could see the war was lost. The Russian Empire had collapsed, the French government was in chaos and the British Army was beaten on the decisive Western Front. The Greeks were not willing to fight and die for a lost cause.
Another major factor contributed to the Allied request for an armistice. A mass of retreating and deserted Serbian soldiers had mutinied and converged on the railway center of Aridaia in Greece, just miles from the front. On 14 September Serbian leaders took control of the mutinous troops and proclaimed its intention to capitulate. About 4,000–5,000 rebellious troops threatened Thessaloniki the next day. Under those chaotic circumstances a Greek delegation arrived in Petrich to ask for an armistice. On 16 September, the Greeks were granted the Armistice of Petrich by General Todorov, ending their war. The Macedonian front was brought to an end at noon on 17 September 1918 when the ceasefire came into effect. The Soldiers Uprising was finally put down by 20 September. King Peter I of Serbia abdicated and went into exile on 21 September.