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The Balkan Wars were two wars in South-eastern Europe in 1912–1913. The First Balkan War broke out on 8 October 1912 when Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbiamarker (see Balkan League), having large parts of their ethnic populations under Ottoman sovereignty, attacked the Ottoman Empire, terminating its five-century rule in the Balkans in a seven-month campaign resulting in the Treaty of London. The Second Balkan War broke out on 16 June 1913 when Bulgaria, dissatisfied with its gains, attacked its former allies, Serbia and Greece. Their armies repulsed the Bulgarian offensive and counter-attacked penetrating into Bulgaria, while Romaniamarker and the Ottomans used the favourable time to intervene against Bulgaria to win territorial gains. In the resulting Treaty of Bucharest, Bulgaria lost most of the territories gained in the First Balkan War.


The background to the wars lies in the incomplete emergence of nation-states on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. The Serbs had gained substantial territory during the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–1878, while Greece acquired Thessaly in 1881 (although it lost a small area back to the Ottoman Empire in 1897) and Bulgaria (an autonomous principality since 1878) incorporated the formerly distinct province of Eastern Rumelia (1885). All three as well as Montenegro sought additional territories within the large Ottoman-ruled region known as Rumelia, comprising Eastern Rumelia, Albania, Macedonia, and Thrace (see map).

Policies of the Great Powers

Throughout the 19th Century, the Great Powers had different aims over the "Eastern Question", the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Russia wished for access to the "warm waters" of the Mediterraneanmarker and followed a pan-Slavic foreign policy, supporting Bulgariamarker and Serbiamarker. Britain wished to deny Russia access to the "warm waters" and supported the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, although it also supported a limited expansion of Greece as a backup plan in case integrity of the empire was no longer possible. France wished to strengthen its position in the region, especially in the Levant (today's Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine). The Hapsburg-ruled Austria-Hungary wished for a continuation of the existence of the Ottoman Empire, since both were multinational entities ruled by a small elite and thus the collapse of the one might weaken the other. The Habsburgs also saw a strong Ottoman presence in area as a counterweight to the Serbian nationalistic call to their own Serbs subjects in Bosniamarker. While it has been argued that Italy from that time already wished to recreate the Roman empire, its main aim at the time seems to have been primarily the denial of access to the Adriatic Seamarker of another major sea power. Germany in turn, under the "Drang nach Osten" policy, aspired to turn the Ottoman Empire into its own de-facto colony, and thus supported its integrity.

Bulgaria and Greece sent armed bands inside the Empire (in Macedonia and Thrace) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to protect their own nationals from the forced "Bulgarization" of Greeks by Bulgarians or "Hellinization" of Bulgars by Greeks. Low intensity warfare had broken out inside Macedonia between the Greek and Bulgarian bands and the Ottoman army after 1904 in the Struggle for Macedonia. After the Young Turk revolution of July 1908, the situation changed somewhat drastically.

The Young Turk revolution

It is no surprise that the "Young Turk" revolution occurred in the troubled European provinces of the Empire. There the threat to its integrity was the most pronounced, and the need for reforms was most evident. When the revolt broke out, it was supported by intellectuals, the army, and almost all the ethnic minorities of the Empire, and forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to re-adopt the long defunct Ottoman constitution of 1877, ushering the Second Constitutional Era. Hopes were raised among the Balkan ethnicities of reforms and autonomy, and elections were held to form a representative, multi-ethnic, Ottoman parliament. However, following the Sultan's attempted counter-coup, the liberal element of the Young Turks was sidelined and the nationalist element became dominant.

At the same time, in October 1908, Austria-Hungary seized the opportunity of the Ottoman political upheaval to annex the de jure Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovinamarker, which it had occupied since 1878 (see Bosnian Crisis), and Bulgaria declared itself a fully independent kingdom. The Greeks of the autonomous Cretan Statemarker proclaimed unification with Greece, though the opposition of the Great Powers prevented the latter action from taking practical effect.

Reaction in the Balkan States

Frustrated in the north by Austria-Hungary's incorporation of Bosnia with its 975,000 Orthodox Serbs (and many more Serbs and Serb-sympathizers of other faiths), and forced (March 1909) to accept the annexation and restrain anti-Habsburg agitation among Serbian nationalist groups, the Serbian government looked to formerly Serb territories in the south, notably "Old Serbia" (the Sanjak of Novi Pazar and the province of Kosovomarker).

On 15 August 1909, the Military League a group of Greek officers took action against the government to reform their country's national government and reorganize the army. The league found itself unable to create a new political system, till the league summoned the Cretan politician Eleutherios Venizelos to Athens as its political adviser. Venizelos persuaded the king to revise the constitution and asked the league to disband in favor of a National Assembly. In March 1910 the Military League dissolved itself.

Bulgaria, which had secured Ottoman recognition of her independence in April 1909 and enjoyed the friendship of Russia, also looked to districts of Ottoman Thrace and Macedonia. In March 1910, an Albanian insurrection broke out in Kosovo which was covertly supported by the young Turks. In August 1910 Montenegro followed Bulgaria's precedent by becoming a kingdom.

The Balkan League

Bulgarian forces waiting to commence their assault on Adrianople

Following Italy's victory in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912 the Young Turks fell from power after a coup. The Balkan countries saw this as an opportunity to attack and fulfill their desires of expansion.

With the initial encouragement of Russian agents, a series of agreements was concluded between Serbia and Bulgaria in March 1912. Military victory against the Ottoman empire would not be possible while it could bring reinforcements from Asia. The condition of the Ottoman railways of the time was primitive, so most reinforcement would have to come by sea through the Aegean. Greece was the only Balkan country with a navy powerful enough to deny use of the Aegean to the Ottomans, thus a treaty became necessary between Greece and Bulgaria which signed in May 1912. Montenegro concluded agreements between Serbia and Bulgaria later that year. Bulgaria signed treaties with Serbia to divide between them the territory of northern Macedonia, but such an agreement was clearly denied to Greece. Bulgaria's policy then was to use the agreement to limit Serbia's access to Macedonia, while at the same time denying any such agreement with Greece, believing that its army would be able to occupy the larger part of Aegean Macedonia and the important port city of Thessaloniki before the Greeks.

The resulting alliance between Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro became known as the Balkan League; its existence was undesirable for all the Great Powers. The league was loose at best, though a secret liaison officer was exchanged between the Greek and the Serbian army after the war began. Greece delayed the start of the war several times in the summer of 1912, in order to better prepare her navy, but Montenegro declared war on October 8 (September 25 O.S.). Following an ultimatum to the Ottomans, the remaining members of the alliance entered the conflict on October 17.

The First Balkan War

Territorial changes as a result of the First Balkan war, as of April 1913 showing the prewar agreed line of expansion between Serbia and Bulgaria
No formal plan existed between the Balkan allies on how to wage the war, except for some cooperation between Serbia and Montenegro over Novi Pazarmarker. The war was practically four different wars fought against the same enemy, at the same time, and in the same region. The Ottoman plans called for the use of an army from Syria to be transferred in the Balkans as part of the defence. But this was depended over the result of the naval fighting with the Greek Navy. The Turks raised their normal forces and in order to make up for the shortfall they raised the Army of Axiosmarker, which proved to be of low quality.

Before the ultimatum Montenegro first declared war on October 5. The main thrust was towards Shkodramarker, with secondary operations in the Novi Pazar area. Bulgaria attacked towards Eastern Thrace, being stopped only at the outskirts of Constantinoplemarker at the Çatalcamarker line. Serbia attacked south towards Skopjemarker and Monastir. Meeting the Greek army later, they turned west towards the Adriatic. Greece landed forces in the Halkidikimarker peninsula while the main force of the army attacked from Thessaly into Macedonia through the Sarantaporomarker strait. After the invasion of Thessalonikimarker on 12 November (on 26 October 1912, O.S.) the Greek army linked up with the Serb army to the north, and turned west. Another Greek army had attacked into Epirus, and forces were deployed to that front.

The Turkish fleet twice exited the Dardanellesmarker but was twice defeated by the Greek Navy in the battles of Elli and Lemnos. These naval battles assured the importance of the presence of the Greek Navy in the Allied Forces because with the Greek domination in Aegean Seamarker became impossible for the Ottomans to fulfill their plans in transferring troops in the Macedonian and Thracian fronts from the Middle East. After that the Greek Navy was also free to liberate the islands of the Aegean. In January after a coup, Turkey decided to continue the war. Bulgarian forces with the help of the Serbian Army managed to conquer Adrianople while Greek forces managed to take Ioanninamarker after defeating the Ottomans in the battle of Bizani. The war was ended with the Treaty of London on May 17, 1913.

Second Balkan War

Cholera was common among the soldiers
Though the Balkan allies had fought together against the common enemy, that was not enough to overcome their mutual rivalries. The Second Balkan War broke out on 16 June 1913 when Bulgaria attacked its erstwhile allies in the First Balkan War, Serbia and Greece, while Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire intervened later against Bulgaria. When the Greek army entered Thessalonikimarker in the First Balkan War ahead of the Bulgarian 7th division by only a day, they were asked to allow a Bulgarian battalion to enter the city. Greece accepted in exchange for allowing a Greek unit to enter the city of Serresmarker. The Bulgarian unit that entered Thessaloniki turned out to be a brigade instead of a battalion and caused concern among the Greeks, who viewed it as an attempt to establish a condominium over the city. Due to the urgently needed reinforcements in the Thracian front, Bulgarian Headquarter agreed to remove it (along with the Greek unit from Serres) by mutual treaty and was transported to Dedeağaç (modern Alexandroupolismarker), but it left behind a battalion which soon became a regiment starting fortifying its positions. Greece had also allowed the Bulgarians to control the stretch of the Thessaloniki-Constantinople railroad that lay in Greek-occupied territory, since Bulgaria controlled the largest part of this railroad towards Thrace. In confirmation to the Greek concerns, Bulgaria not satisfied with the territory it controlled in Macedonia, asked Greece to relinquish its control over Thessaloniki and the land north of Pieriamarker, effectively to hand over all Aegean Macedonia. These unacceptable demands together with the Bulgarian, refusal to demobilize its army after the Treaty of London had ended the common war against the Ottomans, alarmed Greece, which decided also to maintain its army's mobilization. Similarly, in northern Macedonia, the tension between Serbia and Bulgaria due to later aspirations over Vardar Macedonia generated many incidents between the nearby Armies, prompting Serbia to maintain its army's mobilization. Serbia and Greece proposed that each of the three countries reduce its army by one fourth, as a first step to facilitate a peaceful solution but Bulgaria rejected it.Seeing the omens Greece and Serbia started a series of negotiations and signed a treaty of mutual defense against an attack from Bulgaria and Austro-Hungaria on May 19/June 1, 1913. With this treaty, a mutual border was created between the two, together with an agreement for mutual diplomatic support. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, being well informed, tried to stop the upcoming conflict on June 8, by sending an identical personal message to the Kings of Bulgaria and Serbia, offering to act as arbitrator according to the provisions of the 1912 Serbo-Bulgarian treaty. But Bulgaria by making the acceptance of Russian arbitration conditional, in effect denied any discussion, caused Russia to repudiate its alliance with Bulgaria (see Russo-Bulgarian military convention signed 31 May 1902). On 16 June 1913 General Savov under the direct orders of the tsar Ferdinand I, issued attacking orders against both Greece and Serbia without consulting the Bulgarian government and without any official declaration of war. That day is to be called in Bulgarian history "the day of criminal madness". During the night of June 17, 1913 they attacked the Serbian army at Bregalnica river and then the Greek army in Nigritamarker.

The Serbian army resisted the sudden night attack, while most of soldiers did not even know who they are fighting with, as Bulgarian camps were located next to Serbs and were considered allies. Montenegro forces were just a few kilometers away rushed to the battle. The Bulgarian attack was halted. The Greek army was also successful. Retreating according to the plan for two days while Thessalonikimarker was cleared of the remaining Bulgarian regiment. Then the Greek army counterattacked and defeated the Bulgarians at Kilkis-Lahanas. However, the Greek army did not enter the city of Serresmarker in time to prevent it being razed by irregular Bulgarian units. The Greek army then divided their forces and advanced in two directions. Part proceeded east and occupied Western Thrace. The rest of the Greek army advanced up the Struma Rivermarker valley, defeating the Bulgarian army in the battles of Doiranmarker and Mt. Beles and continued its advance to the north towards Sofiamarker. In the Kresna straits the Greeks were ambushed by the Bulgarian 2nd and 1st Army newly arrived from the Serbian front that had already taken defensive positions there. By 30 July the Greek army outnumbering by the now counterattacking Bulgarian Armies was facing a defeat in a Cannae-type battle. The battle was continued for eleven days, between July 29 and August 9 over 20 km of a maze of forests and mountains with no conclusion. The Greek King, realizing that the units he fought were from the Serbian front, tried to convince the Serbs to renew their attack, as the front ahead them was now thinner, but the Serbs, already under Russian pressure rejected it. After that, King Constantine listened to Eleftherios Venizelos' proposal and accepted the Bulgarian request for armistice as this was communicated through Romania.

Romania had raised an army and declared war on Bulgaria on June 27 as it had from June 15 officially warned Bulgaria that it will not remain neutral in a new Balkan war, due to the Bulgaria's refusal to cede the fortress of Silistra as promised before the First Balkan war, in exchange for the Romanian neutrality. They encountered little resistance from the Bulgarians, and by the time of the ceasefire they had reached Vrazhdebnamarker, just 7 miles from Sofiamarker.

Seeing the military position of the Bulgarian army the Ottomans also decided to intervene. They attacked and find no opposition, they managed to retake Adrianoplemarker which had historic significance for the Turks, being a former Ottoman capital city. The Ottomans also managed to recover eastern Thrace, which had largely been lost in the First Balkan War, and thus regained a land mass in Europe which was only slightly larger than the present-day European territory of the Republic of Turkeymarker.

Reactions among the Great Powers

The developments that led to the wars did not go unnoticed by the Great Powers, but although there was an official consensus between the European Powers over the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, which led to a stern warning to the Balkan states, unofficially each of them took a different diplomatic approach due to their conflicting interests in the area. As a result, any possible preventative effect of the common official warning was cancelled by the mixed unofficial signals, and failed to prevent or to stop the war:

  • Russiamarker was a prime mover in the establishment of the Balkan League and saw it as an essential tool in case of a future war against her rival, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But she was unaware of the Bulgarian plans over Thrace and Constantinople, territories on which she had long-held ambitions, and on which she had just secured a secret agreement of expansion from her allies France and Britain, as a reward in participating in the upcoming Great War against the Central Powers.

  • France, not feeling ready for a war against Germany in 1912, took a totally negative position against the war, firmly informing her ally Russia that she would not take part in a potential conflict between Russia and Austro-Hungary if it resulted from the actions of the Balkan League. The French however failed to achieve British participation in a common intervention to stop the Balkan conflict.

  • The British Empire, although officially a staunch supporter of the Ottoman Empire's integrity, took secret diplomatic steps encouraging the Greek entry into the League in order to counteract Russian influence. At the same time she encouraged the Bulgarian aspirations over Thrace, preferring a Bulgarian Thrace to a Russian one, despite the assurances she had given to the Russians in regard of their expansion there.

  • Austria-Hungary, struggling for an exit from the Adriaticmarker and seeking ways for expansion in the south at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, was totally opposed to any other nation's expansion in the area. At the same time, the Habsburg empire had its own internal problems with the significant Slav populations that campaigned against the German-Hungarian control of the multinational state. Serbia, whose aspirations in the direction of the Austrian-held Bosnia were no secret, was considered an enemy and the main tool of Russian machinations that were behind the agitation of Austria's Slav subjects. But failed to achieve German backup for firm reaction. Initially, Emperor Wilhelm II told the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that Germany was ready to support Austria in all circumstances - even at the risk of a world war, but Austro-Hungarians hesitated. Finally, in the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912 the consensus was that Germany would not be ready for war until at least mid-1914 and notes about that passed to the Habsburgs. Consequently no actions could be taken when the Serbs acceded to the Austria ultimatum of October 18 and withdrawn from Albania.

  • Germanymarker, already heavily involved in the internal Ottoman politics, officially opposed a war against the Empire. But in her effort to win Bulgaria for the Central Powers, and seeing the inevitability of Ottoman disintegration, was playing with the idea to replace the Balkan positions of the Ottomans with a friendly Greater Bulgaria in her San Stefano borders. An idea that was based on the German origin of the Bulgarian King and his anti-Russian sentiments.

Finally, when Serb-Austrian tensions again grew hot in July 1914 when a Serbian backed organization assassinated the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, no one had strong reservations about the possible conflict and the First World War broke out.


The wars were an important precursor to World War I, to the extent that Austria-Hungary took alarm at the great increase in Serbia's territory and regional status. This concern was shared by Germanymarker, which saw Serbia as a satellite of Russiamarker. Serbia's rise in power thus contributed to the two Central Powers' willingness to risk war following the assassination in Sarajevomarker of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914.

Urlanis estimated in Voini I Narodo-Nacelenie Europi (1960) that in the first and second Balkan wars there were 122,000 killed in action, 20,000 dead of wounds, and 82,000 dead of disease.

See also

Since the area has been referred to as the Balkans, notable conflicts have included:


  1. "Military League", Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  2. Balkan Wars Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  3. "History of Greece" Encyclopædia Britannica Online

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