Balkans campaign (World War I)

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Balkans theatre
Part of World War I
Death in the snow.jpg
A dead Serbian soldier in the snow, Albania 1915
Date28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918
Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Montenegro

1914–1917: Central Powers victory

1918: Allied victory

Central Powers:
 Bulgaria (1915–18)
 Ottoman Empire
 German Empire (1915–18)
Allied Powers:
 France (1915–18)
British Empire British Empire (1915–18)
 Italy (1915–18)
 Russia (1916-1917)
 Romania (1916)
Greece (1916–18)
Commanders and leaders
Austria-Hungary Conrad von Hötzendorf
Austria-Hungary Oskar Potiorek
Kingdom of Bulgaria Nikola Zhekov
Kingdom of Bulgaria Georgi Todorov
Kingdom of Bulgaria Vladimir Vazov
Kingdom of Bulgaria Stefan Toshev
Ottoman Empire Enver Pasha
Ottoman Empire Abdul Kerim Pasha
German Empire Paul von Hindenburg
German Empire Erich von Falkenhayn
German Empire August von Mackensen
Kingdom of Serbia Radomir Putnik
Kingdom of Serbia Živojin Mišić
Kingdom of Serbia Stepa Stepanović
Kingdom of Serbia Petar Bojović
Kingdom of Montenegro Janko Vukotić
French Third Republic Louis Franchet d'Esperey
French Third Republic Maurice Sarrail
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland George Milne
Kingdom of Italy Luigi Cadorna
Kingdom of Italy Armando Diaz
Russian Empire Aleksei Brusilov
Russian Empire Mikhail Diterikhs
Kingdom of Romania Mihail Aslan
Kingdom of Greece Panagiotis Danglis
Kingdom of Bulgaria 1,200,000[1] Kingdom of Serbia 707,343[1]
Kingdom of Montenegro 50,000[1]
French Third Republic 300,000[2]
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 404,207[3]
Kingdom of Romania 72,000[4]
Casualties and losses
Austria-Hungary 360,000+[5]
Kingdom of Bulgaria 267,000[6]
87,500 killed
152,930 wounded
27,029 missing/captured
German Empire 203,000+[7][8][9]
Ottoman Empire 25,000[10]
Kingdom of Serbia 481,000
278,000 killed[11]
133,000 wounded
70,000 captured[12]
Kingdom of Romania 535,700[13]
335,706 dead
120,000 wounded
80,000 captured
Russian Empire ?
French Third Republic ?
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 30,000[14]
9,668 killed
16,637 wounded
2,778 missing/captured
Kingdom of Greece 27,000[15]
5,000 killed
21,000 wounded
1,000 captured
Kingdom of Montenegro 23,000
13,325 killed/missing
~10,000 wounded[16]
Kingdom of Italy 10,538[17]
Albania: 298 KIA 1,069 wounded 847 MIA
Macedonia: 2,971 KIA/MIA 5,353 wounded

The Balkans campaign, or Balkan theatre of World War I was fought between the Central Powers, represented by Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and the Ottoman Empire on one side and the Allies, represented by France, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, and the United Kingdom (and later Romania and Greece, who sided with the Allied Powers) on the other side.


The prime cause of World War I was the hostility between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Consequently, some of the earliest fighting took place between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Serbia held out against Austria-Hungary for more than a year before it was conquered in late 1915.

Dalmatia was a strategic region during World War I that both Italy and Serbia intended to seize from Austria-Hungary. Italy entered the war in 1915 upon agreeing to the Treaty of London that guaranteed Italy a substantial portion of Dalmatia.

Allied diplomacy was able to bring Romania into the war in 1916 but this proved disastrous for the Romanians. Shortly after they joined the war, a combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian offensive conquered two-thirds of their country in a rapid campaign which ended in December 1916. However, the Romanian and Russian armies managed to stabilize the front and hold on to Moldavia.

In 1917, Greece entered the war on the Allied side, and in 1918, the multi-national Allied Army of the Orient, based in northern Greece, finally launched an offensive which drove Bulgaria to seek peace, recaptured Serbia and finally halted only at the border of Hungary in November 1918.

Serbian–Montenegrin campaign[edit]

The Serbian Army was successfully able to rebuff the larger Austro-Hungarian Army due to Russia's assisting invasion from the north. In 1915 the Austro-Hungarian Empire placed additional soldiers in the south front while succeeding to engage Bulgaria as an ally.

Shortly after the Serbian forces were attacked from both the north and east, forcing a retreat to Greece. Despite the loss, the retreat was successful and the Serbian Army remained operational in Greece with a newly established base.

Romanian campaign[edit]

The Romanian Campaign of World War I had a Balkan component, in the form of the Dobruja Campaign. Dobruja was the only one of Romania's regions to be located south of the Danube, and thus within the Balkan Peninsula. At the start of hostilities, Allied forces in Dobruja amounted to 72,000 Romanians (part of the 3rd Army under General Mihail Aslan), 40,000 Russians and 10,000 Serbs (under Russian General Andrei Zayonchkovski). The Central Powers forces in the region comprised Army Group Mackensen, under the command of August von Mackensen. Although led by a German, only a single battalion of this force (5% of the total) was German, with the rest being represented by Bulgarians under General Stefan Toshev, Mackensen's subordinate.[18] Notable battles in Dobruja include Turtucaia and Dobrich. A single action, a Romanian attempt to invade Bulgaria, was an operation carried out South of the Danube involving a Romanian force which did not take place in Dobruja. The Dobruja Campaign ended in a Central Powers victory on 2 December, when the city of Tulcea, on the Southern bank of the Danube, was taken by the Bulgarians.[19]

Albanian campaign[edit]

Italian soldiers in Vlorë, Albania during World War I. The tricolour flag of Italy bearing the Savoy royal shield is shown hanging alongside an Albanian flag from the balcony of the Italian prefecture headquarters.

Prior to direct intervention in World War I, Italy occupied the port of Vlorë in Albania in December 1914.[20] Upon entering the war, Italy spread its occupation to region of southern Albania beginning in the autumn 1916.[20] Italian forces in 1916 recruited Albanian irregulars to serve alongside them.[20] Italy, with permission of the Allied command, occupied Northern Epirus on 23 August 1916, forcing the neutralist Greek Army to withdraw its occupation forces from there.[20]

In June 1917, Italy proclaimed central and southern Albania as a protectorate of Italy while Northern Albania was allocated to the states of Serbia and Montenegro.[20] By 31 October 1918, French and Italian forces expelled the Austro-Hungarian Army from Albania.[20]

Dalmatia was a strategic region during World War I that both Italy and Serbia intended to seize from Austria-Hungary. Italy joined the Triple Entente Allies in 1915 upon agreeing to the London Pact that guaranteed Italy the right to annex a large portion of Dalmatia in exchange for Italy's participation on the Allied side. From 5–6 November 1918, Italian forces were reported to have reached Lissa, Lagosta, Sebenico, and other localities on the Dalmatian coast.[21]

By the end of hostilities in November 1918, the Italian military had seized control of the entire portion of Dalmatia that had been guaranteed to Italy by the London Pact and by 17 November had seized Fiume as well.[22] In 1918, Admiral Enrico Millo declared himself Italy's Governor of Dalmatia.[22] Famous Italian nationalist Gabriele d'Annunzio supported the seizure of Dalmatia, and proceeded to Zadar in an Italian warship in December 1918.[23]

Bulgarian campaign[edit]

Bulgaria during World War I.

In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars Bulgarian opinion turned against Russia and the western powers, whom the Bulgarians felt had done nothing to help them. The government aligned Bulgaria with Germany and Austria-Hungary, even though this meant also becoming an ally of the Ottomans, Bulgaria's traditional enemy. But Bulgaria now had no claims against the Ottomans, whereas Serbia, Greece and Romania (allies of Britain and France) were all in possession of lands heavily populated by Bulgarians and thus perceived as Bulgarian.

Bulgaria, recuperating from the Balkan Wars, sat out the first year of World War I. When Germany promised to restore the boundaries of the Treaty of San Stefano, Bulgaria, which had the largest army in the Balkans, declared war on Serbia in October 1915. Britain, France and Italy then declared war on Bulgaria.

Although Bulgaria, in alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, won military victories against Serbia and Romania, occupying much of Southern Serbia (taking Nish, Serbia's war capital in November 5), advancing into Greek Macedonia, and taking Dobruja from the Romanians in September 1916, the war soon became unpopular with the majority of Bulgarian people, who suffered enormous economic hardship. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 had a significant effect in Bulgaria, spreading antiwar and anti-monarchist sentiment among the troops and in the cities.

In September 1918 the Serbs, British, French, Italians and Greeks broke through on the Macedonian front in the Vardar Offensive. While Bulgarian forces stopped them in Dojran and they didn't proceed to occupy Bulgarian lands, Tsar Ferdinand was forced to sue for peace.

In order to head off the revolutionaries, Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his son Boris III. The revolutionaries were suppressed and the army disbanded. Under the Treaty of Neuilly (November 1919), Bulgaria lost its Aegean coastline in favour of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers (transferred later by them to Greece) and nearly all of its Macedonian territory to the new state of Yugoslavia, and had to give Dobruja back to the Romanians (see also Dobruja, Western Outlands, Western Thrace).

Macedonian front[edit]

In 1915 the Austrians gained military support from Germany and, with diplomacy, brought in Bulgaria as an ally. Serbian forces were attacked from both north and south and were forced to retreat through Montenegro and Albania, with only 155,000 Serbs, mostly soldiers, reaching the coast of the Adriatic Sea and evacuated to Greece by Allied ships.

The front stabilized roughly around the Greek border, through the intervention of a Franco-British-Italian force which had landed in Salonica. The German generals had not let the Bulgarian army advance towards Salonika, because they hoped they could persuade the Greeks to join the Central powers.

In 1918, after a prolonged build-up, the Allies, under the energetic French General Franchet d'Esperey leading a combined French, Serbian, Greek and British army, attacked out of Greece. His initial victories convinced the Bulgarian government to sue for peace. He then attacked north and defeated the German and Austrian forces that tried to halt his offensive.

By October 1918 his army had recaptured all of Serbia and was preparing to invade Hungary proper. The offensive halted only because the Hungarian leadership offered to surrender in November 1918.


The Russians had to pour extra divisions and supplies to keep the Romanian army from being utterly destroyed again by the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian army.[citation needed] According to John Keegan, the Russian Chief of Staff, General Alekseev, was very dismissive of the Romanian army and argued that they would drain, rather than add to the Russian reserves.[24]

The French and British kept six divisions each on the Greek frontier from 1916 till the end of 1918. Originally, the French and British went to Greece to help Serbia, but with Serbia's conquest in the fall of 1915, their continued presence was pointless. For nearly three years, these divisions accomplished essentially nothing and only tied down half of the Bulgarian army, which wasn't going to go far from Bulgaria in any event.[citation needed]

In fact, Keegan argues that "the installation of a violently nationalist and anti-Turkish government in Athens, led to Greek mobilization in the cause of the "Great Idea" - the recovery of the Greek empire in the east - which would complicate the Allied effort to resettle the peace of Europe for years after the war ended."[24]


  1. ^ a b c Spencer Tucker. The European powers in the First World War: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, 1996, pg. 173. Retrieved 30 November 2014.
  2. ^ http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/page/affichepage.php?idLang=en&idPage=12546
  3. ^ "British Army statistics of the Great War". Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 30 November 2014.
  4. ^ Michael B. Barrett, Indiana University Press, 2013, Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania, p. 71 (Romanian forces in the Dobruja, not including the invasion force at Flamanda)
  5. ^ See Serbian campaign (World War I) and Romania during World War I. Note that this does not count casualties suffered on the Macedonian Front or in the later stages of the Romanian Campaign.
  6. ^ Military Casualties-World War-Estimated," Statistics Branch, GS, War Department, 25 February 1924; cited in World War I: People, Politics, and Power, published by Britannica Educational Publishing (2010) Page 219.
  7. ^ Michael B. Barrett, Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania, p. 295
  8. ^ Unde nu se trece (Romanian)
  9. ^ Георги Бакалов, "История на Българите: Военна история на българите от древността до наши дни", p.463
  10. ^ Erickson, Edward J. Ordered to die : a history of the Ottoman army in the first World War, pg. 147: 20,000 casualties in Romania, a few thousand in Macedonia/Salonika.
  11. ^ Urlanis, Boris (1971). Wars and Population. Moscow Pages 66,79,83, 85,160,171 and 268.
  12. ^ Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920, The War Office, P.353.
  13. ^ Military Casualties-World War-Estimated," Statistics Branch, GS, War Department, 25 February 1924; cited in World War I: People, Politics, and Power, published by Britannica Educational Publishing (2010) Page 219
  14. ^ The Army Council. General Annual Report of the British Army 1912–1919. Parliamentary Paper 1921, XX, Cmd.1193.,PartIV p. 62–72. Casualties for the Salonika Front are given as 9,668 "killed in action, died from wounds and died of other causes", 16,637 wounded and 2,778 missing (including prisoners). Given the drastically understated casualties for other fronts in the same document based on later data, such as Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles, this is likely to be an underestimation.
  15. ^ Military Casualties-World War-Estimated," Statistics Branch, GS, War Department, 25 February 1924; cited in World War I: People, Politics, and Power, published by Britannica Educational Publishing (2010) Page 219. Total casualties for Greece were 27,000 (killed and died 5,000; wounded 21,000; prisoners and missing 1,000)
  16. ^ International Labour Office,Enquête sur la production. Rapport général. Paris [etc.] Berger-Levrault, 1923–25. Tom 4 , II Les tués et les disparus p.29
  17. ^ https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_losses_italy
  18. ^ Michael B. Barrett, Indiana University Press, 2013, Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania, pp. 60-61 and 68-71
  19. ^ Michael B. Barrett, Indiana University Press, 2013, Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania, p. 287
  20. ^ a b c d e f Nigel Thomas. Armies in the Balkans 1914-18. Osprey Publishing, 2001. Pp. 17.
  21. ^ Giuseppe Praga, Franco Luxardo. History of Dalmatia. Giardini, 1993. Pp. 281.
  22. ^ a b Paul O'Brien. Mussolini in the First World War: the Journalist, the Soldier, the Fascist. Oxford, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Berg, 2005. Pp. 17.
  23. ^ A. Rossi. The Rise of Italian Fascism: 1918-1922. New York, New York, USA: Routledge, 2010. Pp. 47.
  24. ^ a b Keegan, John (2000). World War I. Vintage. p. 307. ISBN 0375700455.


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