The Balkan Wars
Find out how the First Balkan Wars of the twentieth century unfolded, and how ultimately they acted as a catalyst for World War One.
The Balkan Wars were those that immediately preceded World War One, and in some ways the Great War was a direct consequence of them. It was at a time when the great powers, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain and France, were monitoring developments in the Balkans, traditionally a place of war and unrest, wary of the consequences a change in the status quo might have on them.
In 1911 there was unrest in Macedonia and Albania. These people were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks, and were living under a repressive regime. The people of these countries were the kinsmen of the Balkan people, and so countries such as Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece wished to free them from this repression.
At the beginning of 1912, the great powers were aware of possible trouble in the Balkans. Serbia and Bulgaria had just signed a treaty where Northern Macedonia would be given to the Serbs, and the South to the Bulgarians. At the same time Bulgaria and Greece were agreeing to use their combined military might against the Turks. Russia highlighted these changes to England and France and the three powers discussed the possible consequences of the situation. They sent a note to the Turks demanding that they reform their government, in order to stop the repressive regime. However, at around the same time Bulgaria passed the Turks a note demanding that Macedonia, then under Turkish rule, be subject to autonomy.
Tensions heightened as both sides began military mobilizations. Russia and Austria began talks, and agreed a note should be sent to the Balkan nations. In it they insisted they would not tolerate war, or a shift in the Balkan status quo. They also declared that they would take care of the problems in Macedonia. Before this note was handed to the Balkan alliance, Montenegro (who had sided with Serbia and Bulgaria) declared war on the Turks. The rest of the alliance responded to the note from Austria and Russia ominously, by declaring they would rather deal with the Turks directly. Shortly afterwards in October the First Balkan War had begun.
The Turks were immediately pushed backwards, and focused all their efforts on defending Constantinople. The Balkan alliance had by now taken Albania, Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace. Serbia had also claimed an important seaport on the Adriatic coast. Austria and Italy feared that this port might ultimately fall into Russian hands, threatening the Hapsburg monarchy, and so opposed it vehemently.
The Turks realised they were fighting a losing battle and so asked for a truce to be called. Shortly afterwards an armistice was signed. The great powers of Europe met in London in the winter of 1912, to decide how the land should be divided. Before anything could be put in writing though, a coup d’etat had occurred in Constantinople, putting in power a group of Ottoman Empire extremists, dedicated to the continuation of the war. Inevitably fighting broke out again in 1913, and soon the Turks had lost even more of their land. The Treaty of London was signed in May of the same year, ending the First Balkan war. The Turks had to give up much of what was previously theirs. All territory in Europe west of a line between the Black Sea port of Midye and Enez on the coast of the Aegean Sea was given to the Balkan countries. Crete was given back to the Greeks, and a new Albanian state was drawn up.
It wasn’t long before arguments began about the divisions of land. Serbia was insistent to Bulgaria that a part of Macedonia that was under Bulgarian rule should be handed over to them. Bulgaria declined to enter into discussions. What made the Serbs even more annoyed was that they hadn’t managed to hold onto any coastal land by the Adriatic Sea. This was partly due to the influence of Austria and Italy who, as mentioned before, would have seen Serb rule of that land as a threat to them.
The Serbs began discussing their problems with the Greeks, and together they formed an alliance against Bulgaria. Again tensions were running high in the region, and were made worse when a Bulgarian General, under no orders from his government attacked the Serb defences. The Bulgarian government claimed the attack wasn’t their responsibility. This led, at the beginning of July 1913, to Serbia and Greece declaring war on Bulgaria - the Second Balkan War had begun.
Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire soon joined in the Serb-Greek alliance against Bulgaria, who subsequently faced overwhelming odds. Inevitably they asked for an armistice to be signed. This was done on August 10, with Bulgaria losing much of its territory to Romania, and also most of Macedonia to Serbia and Greece. A little was also given back to the Ottoman Empire.
After the Second Balkan war had ended, Austria-Hungary became afraid of the Serbs. In some ways the Balkan wars can be seen to have been a catalyst for World War One. Serbia had become very ambitious, and had just been part of the victorious side in two wars. Nearly a year later, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, by Serb militants added weight to the apprehensiveness of Austria-Hungary. More importantly, it gave them an excuse to attack and ultimately control Serbia. They did not bank on the Russian backing of the Serbs though, and because of a refusal of either side to back down, the culmination of events resulted in World War One.