Chapter 10 The Sick Man and Serbia – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 10 The Sick Man and Serbia


In This Chapter
  • Why Turkey entered the war
  • Turkey’s ill-fated Caucasus campaign
  • Austro-German victory against Serbia
  • The fall of Serbia
  • The Greek role in the war

In 1914, Turkey was still called the Ottoman Empire and its government was the Sublime Porte, grandiose names that dated from the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century heyday of the empire. In those days, it had encompassed most of southeastern Europe to the very gates of Vienna and included the region of present-day Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Greece, and Ukraine. In the Middle East, the Ottoman realm included Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Egypt; in North Africa, it reached as far west as Algeria. In addition, it took in most of the Arabian Peninsula.

The empire began its long decline by the end of the sixteenth century. Under a succession of despotic, corrupt, and incompetent sultans, many infamous for a degenerate sadism that was eclipsed only by their naked greed, the Ottoman Empire existed in a state of perpetual disintegration. By the nineteenth century, it was routinely referred to as the “Sick Man of Europe,” and what was left of its imperial holdings tended to fall into the hands of whatever major European power was nimble enough to catch it.

This chapter tells the story of Turkey’s entry into the war and how it affected the war’s Balkan Front.

The Turkish Connection

Throughout its long history, the Ottoman Empire had been periodically swept by reform movements, most of which quickly failed until the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. This reform effort installed progressive-minded young men, most of whom were military officers, into influential positions within the government. They increasingly sought connections with the great powers of Europe and, being military men, eagerly gravitated into the German orbit.

Young Turks

Within a year of the 1908 revolution, the Turkish government was chiefly under the control of the Young Turks. Germany seized this opportunity to gain an increasingly powerful influence over Turkey. The Turkish army employed a large number of German military instructors, and Enver Pasha, the Turkish officer who emerged as the leader of the Young Turks, became avid in his belief that an alliance with Germany would serve Turkey well. He especially sought the protection that it would provide against the continual threat posed by Turkey’s ancient enemy, Russia, which now menaced the Dardanelles.

The Dardanelles, a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey linking the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, has always been of tremendous strategic and economic importance, not only as the portal to Istanbul, but also as a means of passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. For Russia, it was the only warm-water outlet to the rest of the world.


 Words of War In northern countries subject to frozen winters, a warm-water outlet or warm-water port is one open year round.


It was Enver Pasha who persuaded the grand vizier, Said Halim Pasha, nominal head of the Ottoman government, to make a secret treaty with Germany. It bound Turkey to a military alliance if Germany had to take Austria-Hungary’s side against Russia. This represented a great diplomatic achievement for Germany because both Austria-Hungary and Russia had frequently warred with Turkey, and both coveted Turkish possessions. The idea of Turks and Austro-Hungarians fighting as allies was novel, to say the least.

The Flight of the Goeben and the Breslau

During that fateful August of 1914, when England suddenly and unexpectedly seemed about to enter the war, the Turks briefly questioned the wisdom of the secret alliance they had just concluded. England had long served as a kind of unofficial protector of Turkish interests on the sea, especially where routes to India, Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Suez Canal were concerned. However, a British action erased any lingering Turkish doubts about the alliance.

Before the war, Turkey had contracted with British shipyards to build two dreadnought-class battleships. Financed through voluntary donations by the Turkish people, the ships were powerful symbols of a new Turkish pride. On August 3, 1914, just as the vessels were nearing completion, the British government commandeered them. To compound the diplomatic damage caused by this action, Britain declined to offer any apology or definitive payment—save for a vague promise to provide compensation at some later date.

The very next day, August 4, brought the British ultimatum to Germany concerning the neutrality of Belgium. With Germany’s defiance of the ultimatum, Britain was propelled into the war. On that day, the German battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau were cruising in the Mediterranean, closely followed by a British battle cruiser squadron. At nightfall, the two German vessels managed to steal away from the British. However, the commanding officer of the Goeben, Vice Admiral Wilhelm A.T. Souchon, realized that ultimate escape from the Mediterranean was impossible. Accordingly, he decided to seek refuge with Germany’s Turkish ally—and, on the way to the Dardanelles straits, he took the opportunity to shell the French North African ports of Bone and Philipville, from which French colonial soldiers were embarking for transfer to the Western Front in Europe.

The ships reached the Dardanelles on August 10, in direct violation of international treaties forbidding warships from transiting the straits. The German government then ceremoniously presented the Goeben and the Breslau to the Turkish navy—and not just the ships. Admiral Souchon and the crews formally joined the navy of Germany’s ally and thus continued to man the vessels.


 Voices of Battle “I can recall no great sphere of policy about which the British Government was less completely informed than the Turkish.”

—Winston Churchill, on the situation in the Middle East, 1914, quoted in Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962


Turkey’s “Declaration”

At this point, Turkey had not yet entered the war. A majority of the cabinet wanted Turkey to remain neutral—at least until it became clear which side looked like the winner. Enver Pasha, now Turkey’s minister of war, saw opportunity for himself and his country in taking an active part in the conflict. In October, he authorized the Goeben and the Breslau to lead the Turkish fleet across the Black Sea to bombard the Russian ports of Odessa, Sevastopol, and Theodosia without warning. The attacks during October 29–30 also sank several Russian ships.

This assault constituted Turkey’s declaration of war. Enver Pasha had maneuvered his nation into a position from which there was no escape. On November 1, Russia responded with a formal declaration of war against Turkey. The western Allies briefly and ineffectually bombarded the outer forts of the Dardanelles on November 3 and then formally declared war against Turkey on November 5.

Strictly as a military force, Turkey did not seem to present a great threat to the Allies. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Turkey had fought three wars—and had won none of them. The troops, poorly fed and erratically paid (the paymaster was at least six months in arrears), were, many of them, physically unfit and showed low morale. German military instructors had done much to train junior officers, but the instructors did not reach the upper ranks, and these officers were almost universally incompetent. Nevertheless, the loss of the Dardanelles was a serious blow to the Allied cause. Without it, Russia was isolated, cut off from badly needed western sources of supply.


 Combatants Enver Pasha (1881–1922) was an organizer of the Young Turk Revolution and played an instrumental role in deposing Sultan Abdülhamid II. In 1911, when Turkey went to war with Italy, Enver organized the Ottoman resistance in Libya. He led a coup in Constantinople in January 1913 and became chief of the General Staff of the Ottoman army, leading it to defeat in the Second Balkan War.

In 1914, now minister of war, Enver Pasha engineered the alliance that brought Turkey into World War I on the side of Germany. His ultimate objective was to unite the Turkic peoples of Russian Central Asia with the Ottoman Turks. This ambition prompted Enver’s disastrous Caucasus campaign, in which he lost most of the Third Army, a defeat from which Turkey never fully recovered. Nevertheless, Enver himself regained a large measure of prestige after the Allied forces withdrew from the Dardanelles in 1916 (see Chapter 14, “The Gallipoli Disaster”).

With the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, Enver fled to Germany, where he met the Bolshevik leader Karl Radek and subsequently traveled to Moscow, where he sought aid in overthrowing Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), known as the father of modern Turkey. The Soviets turned down this plan, but they did endorse an expedition to Turkistan, where Enver was to help organize the Central Asian republics. In 1921, Enver Pasha turned about face and joined a rebellion against the Soviets. He was killed in action against the Red Army.


Action in the Caucasus

Enver Pasha saw the war as a golden opportunity for dealing with Turkey’s traditional foe, Russia, once and for all. Enver had figured prominently in Turkey’s three twentieth-century wars, and the fact that none of these had resulted in victory did not discourage him now. He planned a campaign against Russia in the Caucasus Mountains, the natural border between Turkey and Russia. Although Turkey’s long-time German military adviser, General Otto Liman von Sanders, counseled against the Caucasian invasion, Germany raised no official objection to it. From the German point of view, anything—no matter how ill-conceived—that would occupy Russian troops and draw them away from the Eastern Front was welcome.

Enver assumed personal command of 95,000 poorly equipped and poorly trained troops during November and December. His objective was to destroy the Russian Caucasian army and to expose south Georgia to invasion. Enver believed that Turkish victory here would trigger a widespread Muslim uprising throughout Russia’s southern provinces.

The campaign had little going for it and much going against it. The Caucasian terrain was most forbidding, with an average elevation of 6,500 feet and many peaks reaching 16,000 feet. Six months out of the year, the Caucasus were totally snowbound. Supply was impractical, and living off the rugged, often frozen landscape impossible. Although it was true that the Russian soldier was generally as ill-prepared as the Turkish, the Russian leadership in the Caucasian theater was uncharacteristically adept. Enver Pasha was outgeneraled.

On December 29, the Battle of Sarikamish resulted in the arrest of the Turkish advance over the mountains. The defeat came with severe losses. Of the 95,000 men who had marched with Enver Pasha, only 18,000 returned to Erzurum. Most of the Turkish casualties had been incurred during the disastrous retreat back through the icy mountain passes.

The Turkish army would never fully recover from the doomed Caucasian campaign, and its effectiveness as an offensive force was compromised for the remainder of the war.


 From the Front At the Battle of Sarikamish, the Turks suffered an 81 percent casualty rate. Conventionally, a 10 percent casualty rate is considered tantamount to disaster.


Serbia Resists

Of course, World War I was triggered by the action of Serbian nationalists—the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia—but Serbia itself went to great lengths to avoid war. To Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum following the assassination, Serbian officials made a downright servile response (see Chapter 4, “The Black Hand”), but to no avail. As the Dual Monarchy saw it, Serbia was neither more nor less than a fitting object for punishment, which would discourage the nationalist movements that were tearing apart the ethnically varied Austro-Hungarian Empire.

If Austro-Hungarian politicians failed to see Serbia as a fiercely proud and determined little nation, the Austro-Hungarian military was even more dismissive. General Oskar Potiorek, commander of the Austro-Hungarian troops slated to invade Serbia, declared that the conquest of Serbian “pig farmers” would be a quick and simple matter. As we saw in Chapter 7, “The Sun Sets in the East,” however, the initial Austrian invasion was repulsed.

In early September 1914, a second offensive was mounted; by December 2, Austrians occupied Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Despite chronic shortages of ammunition, the Serbs fiercely counterattacked on December 3, driving the Austrians out of Belgrade and, by December 15, out of Serbia altogether.

It was a most ignominious defeat for the Austro-Hungarian army, and Oskar Potiorek was relieved of command.

Bulgaria Joins Austria and Germany

The respite for Serbia would be brief. After Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers, the Allies recognized that Serbia was not just a pawn in a deadly game of international chess, but occupied what was now a highly strategic location astride the land route to Turkey. With the British navy largely in control of the Mediterranean supply routes, the Central Powers were determined to seize Serbia to open an overland supply artery to its ally.


 From the Front Bulgaria mobilized a total force of 650,000 troops when it entered World War I. This was 12 percent of the nation’s total population—almost a quarter of the male population.


The Central Powers’ plan to subjugate Serbia was greatly aided on September 6, 1915, when Bulgaria threw in its lot with Germany and its allies. Bulgaria had been holding itself neutral in the war, nervously waiting to see which side would offer it the greater advantage. The victories of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Poland were highly persuasive, as was, conversely, the Allied failure to open the Dardanelles (see Chapter 14). Bulgaria, which felt cheated of territorial gain in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, eyed Serbia as a potential acquisition. After joining the Central Powers, then, Bulgaria contributed four divisions to a tripartite force of 330,000 Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Bulgarians poised to invade Serbia.

Serbia’s western allies, France and England, urgently advised Serbia to offer Bulgaria territorial concessions in Macedonia, an appeasement that would likely stave off the attack. By this point, however, Serbia had invested too much blood in defending itself to yield now. The country was determined to fight it out as best it could.


 Words of WarScorched earth policy describes the practice of deliberately destroying crops, food supplies, and other facilities to prevent an invading enemy from using them.


The invasion was put under the overall command of German General August von Mackensen. In its broad strokes, it was a simple plan. Two armies, the Austrian Third and German Eleventh, would attack Serbia across the Save and Danube Rivers. Shortly after this, another two armies would attack from Bulgaria.

The Austro-German contingent crossed the rivers on October 7, 1915, and marched into Belgrade just two days later. In the face of this advance, the Serbian army made an orderly retreat into the interior, pursuing a scorched earth policy as it went, destroying depots, roads, and bridges to deprive the enemy of their use.


 Combatants August von Mackensen (1849–1945) was one of Germany’s very best field commanders. Although not of a military family (he was the son of a land agent, whose ancestors were Scots), Mackensen joined the elite Death’s Head Hussar regiment in 1869 and served with distinction during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. He was appointed to the General Staff in 1882 and fought in all the major engagements on the Eastern Front in World War I. His final campaign of the war was the consolidation of German control over Romania during December 1916–January 1917.

Mackensen retired from the army in 1920 and became involved in the Nazi Party and government in 1933. He was not active in the German government during World War II, which he lived through in retirement.


The Bulgarian First Army was to squeeze the Serbian forces between itself and the Austro-German armies, while the Bulgarian Second Army swung round from the south to block any reinforcement that might be forthcoming from Greece—which, however, had thus far proved reluctant to help. The Second Army was also supposed to prevent French and British contingents, which landed at Solonika on October 5, from coming to the aid of Serbia.


 From the Front From the perspective of the Western Allies, the Serbian Front was a kind of military exile. French General Maurice P.E. Sarrail was sent there because of his extreme political views. After Joffre relieved him of command on the Western Front, Sarrail went to Paris, where he spread his radical socialist gospel and fomented something approaching political rebellion. More to get him out of the picture than for any other reason, the French high command dispatched him to the Serbian Front.


The Western Allies Far from Home

Two small Allied contingents had arrived at the Greek-controlled Macedonian port of Salonika but ultimately contributed nothing to the fight. General Maurice P.E. Sarrail’s French force marched up the Vardar Valley but was turned back by superior Bulgarian forces. Bryan T. Mahon, commanding a British contingent, reached the Bulgarian border and was beaten back. These Allied gestures of aid were too little too late. As a result, Allied troops remained bottled up in Salonika for the rest of the war.


 Words of WarTyphus, an infectious, debilitating, and often fatal disease caused by bacteria transmitted primarily by lice, was among the most common afflictions of World War I soldiers. Of the 65 million troops mobilized between 1914 and 1918, about 8 million were killed in battle, and an additional 2 million succumbed to disease.


Doom and Defeat of Serbia

The Serbs were left to fend for themselves, and while Serbian Field Marshal Radomir Putnik managed to keep his army from being enveloped by the massively superior invasion forces, he could do nothing to fend off two even deadlier enemies: exhaustion and typhus—although the Allies did send hospital units to help the Serbs combat the latter.

The ever-dwindling number of survivors sought to evade capture by withdrawing into the mountains of Montenegro and Albania. There, however, in mid-November, they found themselves among ancient tribal enemies who attacked with a ferocity even greater than the political enemies who had invaded the country. Putnik lost 100,000 men killed or wounded. An astounding 160,000 had been captured. The handful who escaped either of these fates and the ravages of disease found their way to Allied ships, which ferried them to the island of Corfu. Here they were interned in squalid refugee camps. They remained there until they were re-formed to join the Allied ranks in Salonika, where they would fight in the Salonika campaign (see Chapter 14).

By the end of 1915, Austria occupied both Serbia and Montenegro.

The Greek Situation

Throughout 1914 and 1915, Greece maintained a murky and tenuous neutrality, which typified the confusion that reigned in this corner of the war. King Constantine was personally in favor of joining the war on the side of the Central Powers, but his prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, was strongly pro-Allied. Venizelos pointed out that Greece was bound by a mutual defense treaty to support Serbia if it was attacked by Bulgaria. The king countered that the treaty required Serbia to provide 150,000 men to fight Bulgaria. Beleaguered by the Austro-German forces, Serbia was hardly in a position to commit that number of troops, so the treaty could not be activated.

It was Prime Minister Venizelos who gave the French and British permission to use Solonika, the Macedonian port controlled by Greece, to move units from Gallipoli (see Chapter 14) to march to the aid of the Serbians. Two days after this was done, however, on October 7, Venizelos was forced to resign for violating the Greek king’s official neutrality policy.

Not to be daunted, Venizelos established a rival government in Thessaloniki in October 1916. In June 1917, the Western Allies then engineered the ouster of King Constantine and installed Venizelos as prime minister of an officially reunited—but still, in fact, bitterly divided—Greece. Acting on the Allies’ promise of territorial gains from Turkey, Venizelos then ended Greek neutrality and brought his nation into the war on the side of the Triple Entente.

For now, however, in 1915, the outlook on the Balkan and Turkish fronts, as on the Eastern Front, was especially grim for the Allies. While the war was bitterly stalemated on the Western Front, the Central Powers were steadily gaining ground in the East.


The Least You Need to Know
  • The new “Young Turk” regime ruling the Ottoman Empire saw an alliance with Germany as a way to revive and strengthen the nation long called the “Sick Man of Europe,” and Germany was eager to use Turkey as a base of naval operations in the Mediterranean.
  • War Minister Enver Pasha led the Turkish army to disaster against the Russians in the Caucasus campaign. The Turks suffered a crushing defeat from which they would never recover.
  • Austria-Hungary suffered a series of humiliating defeats against Serbia; once Austria-Hungary was joined by Germany and Bulgaria, however, Serbia was doomed, and its army was all but destroyed.
  • Greece’s King Constantine tried to keep his nation neutral in the war, but his prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, engineered a coup that sent Greece into the Allied camp.