October 8, 1912: First Balkan War begins as Greece and allies decolonise most of Ottoman Europe

First Balkan War

The Balkan League, comprising of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro, declared war against the Ottoman Empire on October 8, 1912, beginning their successful campaign to drive the Ottoman Turks out of the majority of Europe.

The First Balkan War would be a major triumph for Greece, as after several failed attempts, it succeeded in finally liberating Macedonia, Epirus and various Aegean Islands from the Turks.

This was achieved 80 years after the establishment of the small Kingdom of Greece, which was formed without the inclusion of many historical Greek lands and without millions of Greeks, who remained under Ottoman occupation.

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The war was a comprehensive and unmitigated disaster for the Ottomans, who lost 83% of their European territories and 69% of their European population.

As a result of the war, the League captured and partitioned almost all of the Ottoman Empire's remaining territories in Europe.

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Ensuing events after the First Balkan War also led to the creation of an independent Albania, which angered the Serbs.

Bulgaria, meanwhile, was dissatisfied over the division of the spoils in Macedonia, and attacked its former allies, Serbia and Greece, on 16 June 1913 which provoked the start of the Second Balkan War.

Greece, whose population was then 2,666,000, was considered the weakest of the three main allies since it fielded the smallest army and had suffered a defeat against the Ottomans 16 years earlier in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897.

A British consular dispatch from 1910 expressed the common perception of the Greek army's abilities: "if there is war we shall probably see that the only thing Greek officers can do besides talking is to run away". However, Greece was the only Balkan country to possess a substantial navy, which was vital to the League to prevent Ottoman reinforcements from being rapidly transferred by ship from Asia to Europe.

That was readily appreciated by the Serbs and the Bulgarians and was the chief factor in initiating the process of Greece's inclusion in the League. As the Greek ambassador to Sofia put it during the negotiations that led to Greece's entry into the League, "Greece can provide 600,000 men for the war effort. 200,000 men in the field, and the fleet will be able to stop 400,000 men being landed by Turkey between Salonica and Gallipoli."

The Greek army was still undergoing reorganisation by a French military mission, which arrived in early 1911. Under French supervision, the Greeks had adopted the triangular infantry division as their main formation, but more importantly, the overhaul of the mobilisation system allowed the country to field and equip a far greater number of troops than had been the case in 1897.

Foreign observers estimated Greece would mobilise a force of approximately 50,000 men, but the Greek army fielded 125,000, with another 140,000 in the National Guard and reserves.

Upon mobilisation, as in 1897, the force was grouped in two field armies, reflecting the geographic division between the two operational theatres that were open to the Greeks: Thessaly and Epirus. The Army of Thessaly (Στρατιά Θεσσαλίας) was placed under Crown Prince Constantine, with Lieutenant-General Panagiotis Danglis as his chief of staff.

It fielded the bulk of the Greek forces: seven infantry divisions, a cavalry regiment and four independent Evzones light mountain infantry battalions, roughly 100,000 men. It was expected to overcome the fortified Ottoman border positions and advance towards southern and central Macedonia, aiming to take Thessaloniki and Bitola.

The remaining 10,000 to 13,000 men in eight battalions were assigned to the Army of Epirus (Στρατιά Ηπείρου) under Lieutenant-General Konstantinos Sapountzakis. As it had no hope of capturing Ioannina, the heavily fortified capital of Epirus, the initial mission was to pin down the Ottoman forces there until sufficient reinforcements could be sent from the Army of Thessaly after the successful conclusion of operations.

The armored cruiser Georgios Averof, flagship of the Greek fleet. She was the most modern warship involved in the conflict and played a crucial role in operations in the Aegean.

The Greek navy was relatively modern, strengthened by the recent purchase of numerous new units and undergoing reforms under the supervision of a British mission. Invited by Greek Prime Minister Venizelos in 1910, the mission began its work upon its arrival in May 1911.

Granted extraordinary powers and led by Vice Admiral Lionel Grant Tufnell, it thoroughly reorganised the Navy Ministry and dramatically improved the number and the quality of exercises in gunnery and fleet maneuvers.

In 1912, the core unit of the fleet was the fast armoured cruiser Georgios Averof, which had been completed in 1910 and then was the fastest and the most modern warship in the combatant navies.

It was complemented by three rather-antiquated battleships of the Hydra class. There were also eight destroyers, built in 1906–1907, and six new destroyers, hastily bought in summer 1912 as the imminence of war became apparent.

Nevertheless, at the outbreak of the war, the Greek fleet was far from ready. The Ottoman battlefleet retained a clear advantage in number of ships, speed of the main surface units and, most importantly, number and caliber of the ships' guns.

In addition, as the war caught the fleet in the middle of its expansion and reorganisation, a full third of the fleet (the six new destroyers and the submarine Delfin) reached Greece only after hostilities had started, forcing the navy to reshuffle crews, who consequently suffered from lacking familiarity and training.

Coal stockpiles and other war stores were also in short supply, and the Georgios Averof had arrived with barely any ammunition and remained so until late November.

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Greek operations during the First Balkan War (borders depicted are from after the Second Balkan War)

Ottoman intelligence had disastrously misread Greek military intentions. In retrospect, the Ottoman staffs seemingly believed that the Greek attack would be shared equally between both major avenues of approach: Macedonia and Epirus.

That made the Second Army staff evenly balance the combat strength of the seven Ottoman divisions between the Yanya Corps and VIII Corps, in Epirus and southern Macedonia, respectively. The Greek army also fielded seven divisions, but it had the initiative and so concentrated all seven against VIII Corps, leaving only a number of independent battalions of scarcely divisional strength on the Epirus front.

That had fatal consequences for the Western Group by leading to the early loss of the city at the strategic centre of all three Macedonian fronts, Thessaloniki, which sealed their fate. In an unexpectedly brilliant and rapid campaign, the Army of Thessaly seized the city.

In the absence of secure sea lines of communications, the retention of the Thessaloniki-Constantinople corridor was essential to the overall strategic posture of the Ottomans in the Balkans. Once that was gone, the defeat of the Ottoman army became inevitable.

The Bulgarians and the Serbs also played an important role in the defeat of the main Ottoman armies. Their great victories at Kirkkilise, Lüleburgaz, Kumanovo, and Monastir (Bitola) shattered the Eastern and Vardar Armies. However, the victories were not decisive by ending the war.

The Ottoman field armies survived, and in Thrace, they actually grew stronger every day. Strategically, those victories were enabled partially by the weakened condition of the Ottoman armies, which had occurred by the active presence of the Greek army and navy.

With the declaration of war, the Greek Army of Thessaly, under Crown Prince Constantine, advanced to the north and overcame Ottoman opposition in the fortified mountain passes of Sarantaporo. After another victory at Giannitsa (Yenidje), on 2 November [O.S. 20 October] 1912, the Ottoman commander, Hasan Tahsin Pasha, surrendered Thessaloniki and its garrison of 26,000 men to the Greeks on 9 November [O.S. 27 October] 1912.

Two Corps headquarters (Ustruma and VIII), two Nizamiye divisions (14th and 22nd) and four Redif divisions (Salonika, Drama, Naslic and Serez) were thus lost to the Ottoman order of battle. Also, the Ottoman forces lost 70 artillery pieces, 30 machine guns and 70,000 rifles (Thessaloniki was the central arms depot for the Western Armies).

The Ottoman forces estimated that 15,000 officers and men had been killed during the campaign in southern Macedonia, bringing their total losses to 41,000 soldiers. Another consequence was that the destruction of the Macedonian army sealed the fate of the Ottoman Vardar Army, which was fighting the Serbs to the north.

The fall of Thessaloniki left it strategically isolated, without logistical supply and depth to maneuver, and ensured its destruction.

Upon learning of the outcome of the Battle of Giannitsa (Yenidje), the Bulgarian High Command urgently dispatched the 7th Rila Division from the north towards the city. The division arrived there a day later, the day after its surrender to the Greeks, who were further away from the city than the Bulgarians.

Until 10 November, the Greek-occupied zone had been expanded to the line from Lake Dojran to the Pangaion hills west to Kavala.

In western Macedonia, however, the lack of co-ordination between the Greek and the Serbian headquarters cost the Greeks a setback in the Battle of Vevi, on 15 November [O.S. 2 November] 1912, when the Greek 5th Infantry Division crossed its way with the VI Ottoman Corps (part of the Vardar Army with the 16th, 17th and 18th Nizamiye Divisions), retreating to Albania after the Battle of Prilep against the Serbs.

The Greek division, surprised by the presence of the Ottoman Corps, isolated from the rest of Greek army and outnumbered by the now-counterattacking Ottomans centred on Monastir (Bitola), was forced to retreat. As a result, the Serbs beat the Greeks to Bitola.

Epirus front

In the Epirus front, the Greek army was initially heavily outnumbered, but the passive attitude of the Ottomans let the Greeks conquer Preveza on 21 October 1912 and push north towards Ioannina. On 5 November, Major Spyros Spyromilios led a revolt in the coastal area of Himarë and expelled the Ottoman garrison without any significant resistance, and on 20 November, Greek troops from western Macedonia entered Korçë.

However, Greek forces in the Epirote front lacked the numbers to initiate an offensive against the German-designed defensive positions of Bizani, which protected Ioannina, and so had to wait for reinforcements from the Macedonian front.

After the campaign in Macedonia was over, a large part of the Army was redeployed to Epirus, where Constantine himself assumed command. In the Battle of Bizani, the Ottoman positions were breached and Ioannina was taken on 6 March [O.S. 22 February] 1913.

During the siege, on 8 February 1913, the Russian pilot N. de Sackoff, flying for the Greeks, became the first pilot ever shot down in combat when his biplane was hit by ground fire after a bomb run on the walls of Fort Bizani.

He came down near the small town of Preveza, on the coast north of the Ionian island of Lefkas, secured local Greek assistance, repaired his plane and resumed flying back to base. The fall of Ioannina allowed the Greek army to continue its advance into northern Epirus, now the south of Albania, which it occupied. There, its advance stopped, but the Serbian line of control was very close to the north.

Naval operations in Aegean and Ionian Seas

The Greek fleet assembled at Phaleron Bay on 5/18 October 1912 before it sailed for Lemnos.

On the outbreak of hostilities on 18 October, the Greek fleet, placed under the newly promoted Rear Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis, sailed for the island of Lemnos, occupying it three days later (although fighting continued on the island until 27 October) and establishing an anchorage at Moudros Bay.

That move had major strategic importance by providing the Greeks with a forward base near the Dardanelles Straits, the Ottoman fleet's main anchorage and refuge.

The Ottoman fleet's superiority in speed and broadside weight made Greek plans expect it to sortie from the straits early in the war. The Greek fleet's unpreparedness because of the premature outbreak of the war might well have let such an early Ottoman attack achieve a crucial victory.

Instead, the Ottoman navy spent the first two months of the war in operations against the Bulgarians in the Black Sea, which gave the Greeks valuable time to complete their preparations and allowed them to consolidate their control of the Aegean Sea.

By mid-November, Greek naval detachments had seized the islands of Imbros, Thasos, Agios Efstratios, Samothrace, Psara and Ikaria, and landings were undertaken on the larger islands of Lesbos and Chios only on 21 and 27 November, respectively.

Substantial Ottoman garrisons were present on the latter, and their resistance was fierce. They withdrew into the mountainous interior and were not subdued until 22 December and 3 January, respectively.

Samos, officially an autonomous principality, was not attacked until 13 March 1913, out of a desire not to upset the Italians in the nearby Dodecanese. The clashes there were short-lived, as the Ottoman forces withdrew to the Anatolian mainland, and the island was securely in Greek hands by 16 March.

At the same time, with the aid of numerous merchant ships converted to auxiliary cruisers, a loose naval blockade on the Ottoman coasts from the Dardanelles to Suez was instituted, which disrupted the Ottomans' flow of supplies (only the Black Sea routes to Romania remained open) and left some 250,000 Ottoman troops immobilised in Asia.

In the Ionian Sea, the Greek fleet operated without opposition, ferrying supplies for the army units in the Epirus front. Furthermore, the Greeks bombarded and then blockaded the port of Vlorë in Albania on 3 December and Durrës on 27 February.

A naval blockade, extending from the prewar Greek border to Vlorë, was also instituted on 3 December, isolating the newly established Provisional Government of Albania that was based there from any outside support.

Lieutenant Nikolaos Votsis scored a major success for Greek morale on 21 October by sailing his torpedo boat No. 11, under the cover of night, into the harbour of Thessaloniki, sinking the old Ottoman ironclad battleship Feth-i Bülend and escaping unharmed.

On the same day, Greek troops of the Epirus Army seized the Ottoman naval base of Preveza. The Ottomans scuttled the four ships present there, but the Greeks were able to salvage the Italian-built torpedo-boats Antalya and Tokad, which were commissioned into the Greek Navy as Nikopolis and Tatoi, respectively

A few days later, on 9 November, the wooden Ottoman armed steamer Trabzon was intercepted and sunk by the Greek torpedo boat No. 14, under Lieutenant-General Periklis Argyropoulos, off Ayvalık.

The main Ottoman fleet remained inside the Dardanelles for the early part of the war, and the Greek destroyers continuously patrolled the straits' exit to report on a possible sortie. Kountouriotis suggested mining the straits, but that was not taken up out of fear of international opinion

On 7 December, the head of the Ottoman fleet, Tahir Bey, was replaced by Ramiz Naman Bey, the leader of the hawkish faction among the officer corps. A new strategy was agreed with the Ottomans to take advantage of any absence of Georgios Averof to attack the other Greek ships.

The Ottoman staff formulated a plan to lure a number of the Greek destroyers on patrol into a trap. The first attempt, on 12 December, failed because of boiler trouble, but a second attempt, two days later, resulted in an indecisive engagement between the Greek destroyers and the cruiser Mecidiye.

The war's first major fleet action, the Battle of Elli, was fought two days later, on 16 December [O.S. 3 December] 1912. The Ottoman fleet, with four battleships, nine destroyers and six torpedo boats, sailed to the entrance of the straits.

The lighter Ottoman vessels remained behind, but the battleship squadron continued north, under the cover of forts at Kumkale, and engaged the Greek fleet coming from Imbros at 9:40. Leaving the older battleships to follow their original course, Kountouriotis led the Averof into independent action: using her superior speed, she cut across the Ottoman fleet's bow.

Under fire from two sides, the Ottomans were quickly forced to withdraw to the Dardanelles. The whole engagement lasted less than an hour in which the Ottomans suffered heavy damage to the Barbaros Hayreddin and 18 dead and 41 wounded (most during their disorderly retreat) and the Greeks had one dead and seven wounded.

In the aftermath of Elli, on 20 December, the energetic Lieutenant Commander Rauf Bey was placed in effective command of the Ottoman fleet. Two days later, he led his forces out in the hope of again trapping the patrolling Greek destroyers between two divisions of the Ottoman fleet, one heading for Imbros and the other waiting at the entrance of the straits.

The plan failed, as the Greek ships quickly broke contact. At the same time, the Mecidiye came under attack by the Greek submarine Delfin, which launched a torpedo against it but missed; it was the first such attack in history.

The Ottoman army continued to press upon a reluctant navy a plan for the reoccupation of Tenedos, which the Greek destroyers used as a base, by an amphibious operation scheduled for 4 January. That day, weather conditions were ideal and the fleet was ready, but the Yenihan regiment earmarked for the operation failed to arrive on time.

The naval staff still ordered the fleet to sortie, and an engagement developed with the Greek fleet, without any significant results on either side.

Similar sorties followed on 10 and 11 January, but the results of the "cat and mouse" operations were always the same: "the Greek destroyers always managed to remain outside the Ottoman warships' range, and each time the cruisers fired a few rounds before breaking off the chase".

In preparation for the next attempt to break the Greek blockade, the Ottoman Admiralty decided to create a diversion by sending the light cruiser Hamidiye, captained by Rauf Bey, to raid Greek merchant shipping in the Aegean. It was hoped that the Georgios Averof, the only major Greek unit fast enough to catch the Hamidiye, would be drawn into pursuit and leave the remainder of the Greek fleet weakened.

In the event, Hamidiye slipped through the Greek patrols on the night of 14–15 January and bombarded the harbor of the Greek island of Syros, sinking the Greek auxiliary cruiser Makedonia, which lay in anchor there (it was later raised and repaired).

The Hamidiye then left the Aegean for the Eastern Mediterranean, making stops at Beirut and Port Said before it entered the Red Sea. Although it provided a major morale boost for the Ottomans, the operation failed to achieve its primary objective since Kountouriotis refused to leave his post and pursue the Hamidiye.

Four days later, on 18 January [O.S. 5 January] 1913, when the Ottoman fleet again sallied from the straits towards Lemnos, it was defeated for a second time in the Battle of Lemnos.

This time, the Ottoman warships concentrated their fire on the Averof, which again made use of its superior speed and tried to "cross the T" of the Ottoman fleet. Barbaros Hayreddin was again heavily damaged, and the Ottoman fleet was forced to return to the shelter of the Dardanelles and their forts with 41 killed and 101 wounded.

It was the last attempt for the Ottoman navy to leave the Dardanelles, which left the Greeks dominant in the Aegean. On 5 February [O.S. 24 January] 1913, a Greek Farman MF.7, piloted by Lieutenant Michael Moutousis and with Ensign Aristeidis Moraitinis as an observer, carried out an aerial reconnaissance of the Ottoman fleet in its anchorage at Nagara and launched four bombs on the anchored ships. Although it scored no hits, the operation is regarded as the first naval-air operation in military history.

General Ivanov, the commander of the Second Bulgarian Army, acknowledged the role of the Greek fleet in the overall Balkan League victory by stating that "the activity of the entire Greek fleet and above all the Averof was the chief factor in the general success of the allies"

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