The contribution of the allies

 

 

The German General staff regarded the Balkan as an important, but secondary theatre of war. From a German point of view, the decisive fronts were in France, and Russia. However, the Balkans were not completely neglected. The neutral Balkan states were considered very important for the outcome of the war, and the German diplomacy made every effort to bring them on their side into the war. Bulgaria and Romania were considered so important, that the German Chief of Staff Erich v. Falkenhayn in 1915-16 regarded the Balkan neutrals as militarily more crucial than the United States of America.

In 1915, when the English and French fleets attacked the Dardanelles, the German diplomacy feared that all the neutral Balkan states would join the Entente. On 16 April 1915 (o.s.) the Chief of the Imperial Military Cabinet, general Moritz v. Lyncker, wrote in his diary : “If the Dardanelles fall, we cannot stop Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria. This means that the entire Balkan region is against us and the whole Mediterranean Sea too”.

Therefore Germany did everything to strengthen the Turkish resistance, and in order to open supply lines to Turkey the Imperial Chancellor Theobald v. Bethmann Hollweg and his Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Gottlieb v. Jagow, repeatedly stressed the Chief of the General Staff to conquer at least the so called “Serbian north-east corner”. But it was only after the great victories against the Russian Army in summer 1915, that the German Army was able to strike on the Balkans and to attack Serbia.

 

By the beginning of September the Central Powers units began massing. Heeresgruppe Mackensen was formed by transformation of A.O.K. 11 on 5 September 1915 in Temesvar, Hungary. It had the task to lead all the allied forces during the offensive against Serbia. The 3rd Austro-Hungarian Army, under gen. Herman Kövess von Kövessháza, deployed the XIX at Kupinovo on the Sava, the German XXII Reserve Corps on its left, and the VIII Corps opposite Belgrad. A new German 11th Army, under gen. Max v. Gallwitz, was raised and received a new High Command in the previous A.O.K. 12. It occupied the area from Semedria to Ram, with the III Corps opposite Semedria, the IV Reserve Corps cantered on Temes Island, and the X Reserve Corps directly across Ram. The Bulgarian 1st Army was massed between the Danube and Sofia, to operate against Nish. The 2nd Bulgarian Army, put under the direct command of the Bulgarian General Staff, was placed in the area Kyustendil-Gorna Dzhumaya, to operate in Macedonia and cut the vital railroad to Salonika at Skopje.

The ranging fire began on 20 September, and three days later, the attack was launched. Like the bombardment at Gorlice-Tarnow, the artillery preparation was brief, but intense, and in the evening of 24 September and in the following morning, the infantry began the crossing of the Danube. Belgrad was abandoned by the Serbian Army on 25 September, Nish was taken by the 1st Bulgarian Army on 24 October after a fierce combat, and on 29 October the linking between the Austro-German and the Bulgarian forces were established. On 21 November, when Bitolja fell in the hands of the Bulgarian troops, the campaign was effectively over. The 11th German Army reached the Greek border in December.

This was a nearly complete victory for the Central Powers. The Serbian Army was defeated, losing almost all its weapons, the Anglo-French attack was repelled, and the railroad from Berlin to Istanbul was finally opened. The Entente lost the last hope to force the Straits, and the last British troops left the Dardanelles on 27 December 1915. The only flaw in the victory was the retreat of the Serbian Army, although almost completely disorganized. It had to be rebuilt almost from scratch, but, thanks to the help of the French and the British, it could take part in the fighting throughout the rest of the war.

 

After the defeat of Serbia, the German Army Commander in Macedonia, Field Marshal August v. Mackensen wanted to attack the Allied forces in Salonika and throw them into the Mediterranean Sea. He was supported by the Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian High Commands, but gen. Falkenhayn denied the request. In a telegram addressed in December to the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, gen. Franz Conrad v. Hötzendorf, he admitted that “it would have been of great morale value to have driven the Entente out of the Balkans entirely, and that would have been easier through continuation of our operations than later on, when the enemy had been able to concentrate its forces”, but, on the basis of a report of the Chief of Staff of Mackensen, gen. Hans v. Seeckt, he thought that the railway connections were not sufficient to carry the necessary troops and ammunition to the Salonika front. The poor supply situation, the severe shortage of heavy artillery and the strength of the enemy defences persuaded him that any advance against Salonika would be enormously risky, leaving not “great illusions about the eventual outcome of the operation.” Moreover he feared that an advance into the Greek territory would drive the country into the arms of the Entente : the Greek neutrality, despite the Greek-Serbian alliance, was regarded as a great advantage for the Central Powers. Therefore he stopped the victorious troops at the frontier and respected the Greek neutrality, despite the open violation of it by the Anglo-French Army.

Such a decision caused the irritation of the Bulgarians. In autumn 1915 the German major v. Laffert wrote from the Greek border that Bulgarian Army was waiting impatiently for the order to attack and scolded the politicians : everybody wanted to fight the troops of the Entente. But he concluded that the true reason of this desire was to provoke a war with Greece too. In fact Bulgaria wished to retake the Thracian coastline that was seized by the Greeks in 1913, and directed its aim to town of Salonika itself.

 

At the beginning of 1916 v. Falkenhayn decided to attack Verdun in France and on 22 February 1916 he informed Mackensen that the German High Command had finally given up the idea of renewing the advance towards Salonika. Therefore he drew back most of the German divisions from the Balkans, despite harsh Bulgarian and Austrian protests. Leaving too many German soldiers in Macedonia was regarded as a waste of troops. He thought that the attack against Salonika needed a lot of effort to improve the line of communications across the Balkans, would be very difficult, and, if successful, would not have been decisive.

Falkenhayn considered Salonika as the largest and voluntary German prisoners-of-war camp of the war. If the attack was successful the allied troops would leave Salonika by ship and would be transferred to France, Italy or Turkey, where they would cause more damage than in Macedonia. Moreover the Bulgarian leadership would have stopped any substantial military effort. It was very unlikely that they would have offered their troops to fight on another front : it was better that the Bulgarian Army blocked an increasing number of allied troops. If 400,000 French, Serbian, English, Italian and Russian soldiers were paralyzed by only 60,000 Germans, from a strategic point of view this was a good deal for Germany.

However some German military leaders, among them Mackensen himself, were reluctant to accept this course of action, since they were trained to annihilate the enemy wherever possible, and this prudent attitude was against their own feelings and ideas. They emphasized that a successful attack against the Salonika bridgehead whould secured the whole Balkan region for the Central Powers, removing the danger of an intervention of Greece into the side of the Entente. Furthermore they thought that the partisan warfare in Serbian territory was encouraged by the presence of the Serbian troops fighting in Macedonia. If they withdrew, it should be easier to master the area. Finally a full control of Salonika and of the Thracian coastline would enable the establishment of bases for the German U-boot, making more difficult the enemy communications in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

With the departure of the bulk of the German troops, the 11th Army was composed mainly by Bulgarian divisions, supported by heavy artillery, machine guns and technical troops provided by Germany. The only German main unit left in Macedonia, was the 101st Infantry Division. For operational reasons, on 26 November 1915 the high commands of the 11th German and of the 1st Bulgarian army exchanged with each other. Field Marshal v. Mackensen kept the command of these two Armies, while the Austro-Hungarian forces operating in Albania in December were detached and formed a special Austrian front. The Bulgarian General Staff however, as a result of special agreements with the German Supreme Army Command, received the overall command in Macedonia.

Since on 30 July 1916 Field Marshal v. Mackensen had to take precautions for the threatening war with Romania, so his Army Group was dissolved, and reformed in Dobrudja on 28 August 1916. Therefore all the Armies deployed in Macedonia came under the direct command of the Bulgarian General Staff, after the High Commands of the 11th German and of the 1st Bulgarian Army had exchanged again with each other in view of the war situation. On 10 October 1916, after the victorious attack of the Serbian Army against Bitolja, a new German Army Group was established under the command of general Otto v. Below. This division of the fighting forces remained until the end of the war. When gen. v. Below was called to the Western front to take over the command of the 6th Army, his successor was gen. Friedrich v. Scholtz and his Army Group was renamed accordingly.

In 1916, in order to strengthen the cohesion of the Bulgarian forces after the fall of Bitolja, two “General Commands for special purpose” were formed in Macedonia: Genkdo. z.b.V. 61, under gen. Karl Suren, on 18 November, and Genkdo. z.b.V. 62, under gen. Richard v. Webern, on 15 December.