09 October 1916 – Diversity
Former Greek Prime Minister Elefthérios Venizélos (above, right, beard and top hat) arrives in the city of Salonika today amid great fanfare. Just over a year has passed since he was dismissed by King Constantine I. Venizélos is accompanied by admirals, generals, and politicians who have formed a Provisional Government of National Defense that is opposed to the regime in Athens, where Constantine has kept his country in a state of political crisis rather than see the Greek Army fight the Central Powers.
London and Paris are keen to recognize the new government, but this is harder than it might seem. A relative of the Russian Tsar as well as the German Kaiser’s brother-in-law, Constantine cannot simply be deposed by the allies as they might wish to do. Yet Constantine’s decision to do nothing in the face of Bulgarian advances, including their seizure of lands won through blood and toil in the Balkan Wars, has infuriated many officers in his military since August, precipitating this government-in exile.
Constantine has also just chosen a new prime minister in Professor Spyridon P. Lambros, a former Secretary General of the still-new Olympic Games Committee. Today in Athens, Lambros announces the formation of yet another cabinet that will fail to resolve the constitutional crisis that their king has created. Greek democracy is now being eroded from both sides; the country will pay a price in blood.
Over the hills, just past the prewar border with Serbia, the sound of machine guns and high explosive shells punctuates the silence. Salonika is an allied fortress in a country that is still formally neutral; the allies are unwelcome guests, but that isn’t stopping French General Maurice Sarrail from undertaking offensive operations in the same are where his command vainly fought to keep overland communication links with Serbia open a year ago. Forced to undertake a disastrous retreat to the sea, the Serbian Army has recovered at Corfu and reconstituted at Salonika. Sarrail also has British, French, Italian, and Russian brigades under his command now — somewhere between 370,000 and 400,000 men — along with 1,300 machine guns and over 1,000 artillery tubes. Altogether, it is a large, but diverse force that fights in five languages.
When the Bulgarians attacked the Greek frontier during July in an effort to come to grips with Sarrail’s force, their offensive was at the far end of their Army’s logistical reach. Seeing the opportunity to strike back, Sarrail put his own countrymen beside the Serbs, Russians, and Italians against Bulgaria’s overextended First Army. His British units made demonstration attacks in the Vardar valley and the Struma to keep the Bulgarians and Germans pinned down. As a result, September saw the initiative pass to Sarrail, and a week ago the French and Russian contingents began attacking towards the Macedonian city of Monastir that he was forced to abandon eleven months before.
Having survived the epic retreat from their homeland, the Serbs seem to relish throwing themselves at the enemy occupiers. As the allies advance on both left and right of their line, the Serbs attack the Third Balkan Division with deathless courage on the great curve of the Crna river, overwhelming the enemy’s third line of defense and forcing them to retreat to higher ground north of Brod, which is left to burn. In an operation similar to those seen on the Western Front, the Serbs advance uphill behind a creeping barrage with white cloth markers on their backs so that French gunners can avoid hitting them. Soon the Bulgarians are seen leaving the little town of Veliselo above Brod in disorder, and Serb cavalry charges ahead in pursuit, capturing prisoners and even an entire enemy artillery battery. The British troops also cross the Struma river and occupy the town of Prosenik.
The decisive allied advantage is weight of fire, as Bulgarian troops have limited ammunition for field and mountain guns. There are also far fewer Germans in the Balkans than a few months ago thanks to allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia which have drawn Berlin’s strength away. But advances here are slow. Attacks on the 14th and 15th incur tens of thousands of casualties for little gain — again, in a scene not unlike the Western Front.
The Battle of the Crna River is also notable because it involves one of several fighting women of the Great War. Milunka Savić is 28 years old and was already a veteran of both Balkan Wars when this conflict began. Having marched to battle with her gender hidden, Savić’s secret was discovered by the surgeon during her treatment for shrapnel wounds fighting the Bulgarians three years ago. A decorated hero with a fearless reputation, she refused to be mustered out or to take up ‘women’s work’ in a field hospital, stubbornly standing at attention until her commander capitulated — and promoted her to sergeant.
Against great odds, Savić survived the Serbian Army’s woeful retreat to the sea, suffering no less than seven wounds while she led rear-guard attacks to check the pursuing Central Powers. Wearing Serbia’s highest military honor, the Karađorđe Star with Swords medal, during the Battle of the Crna River she wins the same laurels a second time by charging solo into a Bulgarian trench with her rifle and grenades, capturing 23 men and cementing her legend forever.
The Balkans are rough country, synonymous with blood and fire and ethnic hatred. The Serbs, who have done their share of what we will come to call ‘ethnic cleansing,’ are anxious to reclaim their homeland. But it will take time, and the most diverse military coalition ever seen, to defeat the armies occupying Serbia.