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When small Balkan nations took on Ottoman Turkey, they lit the fuze of world war.

On Nov. 17, 1912, a 22-year-old American adventurer and would-be war correspondent named Henry Weston Farnsworth stood atop a low hill some 20 miles west of Istanbul and watched as Ottoman artillery and machine guns destroyed the cream of the Bulgarian army. “We all held our breath,” he later wrote, “while the storm of lead swept away more and more of the advancing lines.”

It was not the way the Battle of Çatalca (Chataldja) was supposed to have gone, of course. The First Balkan War was barely a month old, and with strategic help from their Greek and Serbian allies the Bulgarians had decisively defeated the Turks at the battles of Kirk Kilisse and Lule Burgas in eastern Thrace (presentday Kirklareli Province, Turkey). A Bulgarian victory at Çatalca was to have dramatically shifted the power balance in Europe. Bulgarian confidence was high, and Tsar Ferdinand I, who had long dreamed of capturing Istanbul, envisioned marching triumphantly into the city and restoring to it the Christian-era name of Constantinople.

But instead of driving the final nail into the coffin of Ottoman Turkey—for decades ridiculed as the “Sick Man of Europe”— the Battle of Çatalca claimed some 17,000 casualties, Turk and Bulgar, and helped fan the Balkan flame that within two years would engulf all of Europe.

Istanbul dominates the narrow Bosporus Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (and, ultimately, the Mediterranean), thus control of the city can bestow tremendous power on whoever occupies it. For that reason the two wars that broke out in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913 captured the attention of diplomats and generals across Europe and the Middle East who knew that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and/or Russian control of the waterway would likely usher in a new era of history. The dangerous brew of politics, nationalism, religion and ethnicity made the region unstable, and its geography ensured that events there were of interest to the entire world.

Although still a great power as 1912 began, the Ottoman Empire faced enormous challenges from both within and without. Its military was desperately trying to modernize on German and British models but was distracted by operations in its far-flung dominions as it sought to hold the fractured empire together. In 1911 it had fought large-scale rebellions in its Yemeni, Macedonian, Armenian and Kurdish provinces. The conflict in Yemen alone had been ongoing since 1905 and occupied more than 100,000 Ottoman troops. The empire also had some 50,000 men suppressing an uprising in Albania and thousands more fighting a losing war against Italy for control of Libya. At war almost continuously since 1891, the Ottoman high command had not had the time to study modern methods, train soldiers in their use or fully integrate its ethnic minorities into the system.

The Ottoman Empire was also grappling with the Young Turk Movement. Opposed to the absolute monarchical system favored by Sultan Mehmed V and supported by many senior army leaders, the Young Turks wanted a modern constitution and reform of the military. Many Young Turks also wanted to redefine the empire to privilege ethnic Turkish and Muslim central Asian groups over the empire’s Christians, Jews, Arabs and other ethnic groups.

The Young Turks won sweeping electoral victories in 1908 and began to implement deep and fundamental reforms. Their success, and their nationalist rhetoric, frightened the nonTurkish peoples of the empire, especially Balkan Christians, who looked to the emerging states of that region for support. The Balkans were then, even more than today, a rich mixture of peoples, ethnicities and religions. In the nationalistic days of the early 20th century, this ethnic diversity was becoming unsustainable.

In the face of these challenges, the leaders of the Christian states of the Balkan peninsula—Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro—saw the Ottoman Empire as ripe for the picking. Gripped by nationalist fervor and anxious to profit from Ottoman weakness, they invested heavily in new weapons and large armies. Although they often harbored territorial ambitions against one another, the nations all saw the Ottoman Empire as a common enemy. They sought to chase the Ottomans out of the parts of Europe still under their control, namely Macedonia and Thrace. By 1912 Bulgaria had built an army of 350,000 men; Serbia an army of 230,000 men; Greece an army of 125,000 men and a navy strong enough to threaten Ottoman control of the Aegean Sea. Even tiny Montenegro could field some 40,000 men. All of them except Montenegro had also created modern general staff systems based on the French and German models.

Opposing them the Ottomans had 340,000 soldiers, experienced at fighting insurgencies but—except for the men tied down in Libya—not the standing armies of other states. The Ottomans also had to guard against the possibility of Russia swooping in to seize Istanbul or the Caucasus while the Ottomans were defending their Balkan territories. Russian encouragement of the Balkan states was a dangerous sign, as was the tremendous enthusiasm in the Balkan countries for a war. The Turkish people, by contrast, were tired of conflict and anxious to focus on internal problems.

Knowing they lacked the power individually to defeat the Ottomans, the Balkan nations threw in together despite their clear mistrust of one another. As early as 1910 the states began to work out the details of joint mobilization plans and defensive alliances with obvious anti-Ottoman dimensions. In February 1912 Serbia and Bulgaria agreed to mobilize 150,000 and 200,000 men, respectively, in the event of war. Bulgaria and Greece signed a mutual defensive alliance shortly thereafter. The formation of a loose Balkan League, with the Russians playing the role of offstage impresario, came that summer as Greece concluded unsigned “gentlemen’s agreements” with Serbia and Montenegro.

Tensions built inside the empire, as Ottoman subjects began to fear the potential disloyalty of their non-Turkish neighbors. A massacre of 150 Christians in July 1912 at Kochan (in present-day Bulgaria) nearly led to war. The Serbs and Montenegrins responded by smuggling arms to anti-Ottoman rebels in Albania while Bulgaria and Greece dispatched more troops to the border. Bulgarian nationalists began to stage border incidents in the hopes of sparking an Ottoman response that could justify starting a war. As tensions rose, the Ottomans seized Greek ships they claimed had entered their territorial waters and dispatched more troops to Macedonia and Thrace. The great powers, notably France and Britain, sought to reduce the tensions and open negotiations, but the Balkan states, itching for a fight, showed little interest in diplomacy. In late September 1912 Montenegro and Bulgaria signed a mutual-defense pact, uniting the Balkan states through bilateral and multilateral agreements.

The Ottomans then agreed to the demands of the rebels in Albania in order to focus on the growing threat from the Balkan states. The members of the Balkan League saw the Ottoman action as a sign of weakness and issued an ultimatum demanding major reforms to Ottoman governance in Macedonia. Sensing that war was imminent, the great powers tried once more to avert hostilities but were too late. The Russians, too, realized they had overplayed their hand. They had strengthened the Balkan League but did not want those states to attack the Ottomans and upset the balance of power (Russia was still rebuilding from its massive defeat by the Japanese in 1905). They had hoped that a pro-Russian Balkan League would be an effective anti-Ottoman and anti-Austrian instrument, but they did not want to risk war before they had rebuilt their shattered army. With the Balkan League so determined for war, however, the great powers could only declare their neutrality (although most Western Europeans had pro-Balkan and pro-Christian sympathies) and naively ask the warring parties not to seek any territorial changes.

Bulgaria, anxious both to grab Ottoman territory and to keep Greek gains to a minimum, invaded Thrace in October. At the same time Serbia and Montenegro invaded Albania and Novibazar (Novi Pazar), a finger of land along the southern border of Serbia. Greece claimed Crete and sent an army into Macedonia. The Ottomans, still at war in Libya and stretched dangerously thin, decided to make their main defensive effort in eastern Thrace around the city of Adrianople (present-day Edirne), a place that changed hands repeatedly over the next few months. The Ottomans also urged their diplomats to end the war in Libya, even on terms favorable to Italy. The resulting 1912 Treaty of Lausanne meant the end of Ottoman presence in Libya, but it also freed up combat-hardened troops to defend Turkey.

In October and November of 1912 the Balkan states scored a number of swift and punishing victories over beleaguered Ottoman forces. Serbian troops, for example, crushed the Ottomans at the Battle of Monastir, effectively ending the Ottoman presence in Macedonia. But the strategic rivalries within the Balkan League threatened to expose its perilous fault lines. The real possibility that Austria-Hungary might declare war on Serbia in order to limit Serbian gains also raised the danger that a regional war in the Balkans might drag in the great powers. Events were getting out of hand as each of the regional states fought for as big a slice of the Balkan pie as they could get.

Greece had its own goals in Macedonia, most notably the port of Thessaloniki (Salonika), the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region. Thessaloniki held strategic and symbolic value for all sides. The Greeks were as determined to seize it from the Ottomans as they were to deny it to their nominal Bulgarian allies. A race was soon under way to see who would be the first to force the surrender of the city’s demoralized Ottoman garrison. The Greeks won that race in November, capturing 26,000 prisoners by using their navy to deny the Ottomans the ability to resupply or evacuate the garrison. The next day a Bulgarian army of 24,000 men arrived, having missed their goal by just a few hours. The Bulgarians urged the Ottoman commander to sign a mostly symbolic surrender to them as well as the Greeks, but he replied, “I have only one Thessaloniki, which I have surrendered.” The furious Bulgarians nevertheless claimed the city as theirs and told Tsar Ferdinand they had taken it themselves.

The brewing battle at Çatalca not only pitted the Bulgarians against the Ottomans, it also held out the possibility of Bulgaria emerging as the leading power in the Balkans at Greece’s expense. The signs pointed to a Bulgarian victory. Their armies had won victory after victory in Thrace and with Serbian help were besieging the Ottoman garrison in Adrianople. The old fortress complex at Çatalca seemed unlikely to resist modern artillery for very long. Once past the ridge, the Bulgarian First and Third armies would face no serious obstacles on the way to Istanbul. Back in his palace Tsar Ferdinand was already planning his triumphal entry into Istanbul.

Still, Bulgarian officers saw serious problems, not least of which was possible Russian intervention to prevent Istanbul’s fall. Having long coveted a warm-water port, the Russians were unlikely to stand by and allow the Bulgarians to take it. The other great powers might also intervene to prevent the Ottoman Empire’s complete collapse. There were military challenges in the Bulgarian campaign against Çatalca as well, including poor roads, mountainous terrain and already-exhausted troops. A cholera outbreak had killed more than 4,000 Bulgarians and sent thousands more into rudimentary field hospitals that only spread the disease more quickly. The stubborn resistance of the Ottoman garrison in Adrianople, moreover, meant the Bulgarians could not use the main rail lines to Çatalca, as they ran within range of Adrianople’s guns. The Bulgarians had not anticipated such rapid early gains and knew little about the strengths and weaknesses of the Çatalca fortresses they would need to attack. Most units even lacked basic maps.

The Ottomans, for their part, had no intention of giving up Çatalca without a serious fight. Operating close to their capital and on short, secure supply lines that led back to the ample resources of Istanbul, Ottoman troops also had the advantages of the fortifications themselves and the high ground on which they were built. They rushed reinforcements to the area until they had 100,000 men and 280 artillery pieces. Still, hoping to avoid such a high-stakes battle, the Ottomans offered a ceasefire that might have ended the war on terms favorable to the Bulgarians. Ferdinand not only rejected the offer, he prevented his diplomats from informing Bulgaria’s allies of its existence. For him there would be no negotiations as long as the prize of Istanbul lay so tantalizingly close to his grasp.

In the first two weeks of November, Bulgarian forces approached Çatalca under observation by Ottoman troops in the fortresses on the ridgelines. The Bulgarians opened up a savage 400-gun artillery bombardment on November 17, although a thick fog prevented accurate observation of its effects. More than 140,000 Bulgarian infantrymen then advanced across the dead space, soon to be known as no-man’s-land, between their lines and those of the Ottomans. The Turks then opened up a furious fire of artillery, machine guns and rifles.

As the fog lifted, Ottoman commanders on the ridgeline were able to direct reinforcements to critical points where the Bulgarians had experienced local success. Ottoman generals could see the carnage below them as thousands of men lay dead and wounded. They could also see they had repulsed the attack and kept Istanbul safely in Ottoman hands. A second Bulgarian attack the next day also failed. After weeks of failure, the Ottoman army had a critical success. It had bent, but it had not broken.

The Bulgarians lost 12,000 men at Çatalca; the Turks some 5,000. As they would three years later at Gallipoli, Turkish soldiers proved that when well led and fighting on the defensive close to home, they could win great victories. Nevertheless, both sides needed to recover from the battles and from cholera. The Bulgarians had fought a successful campaign, but after the setback at Çatalca, Istanbul was out of their reach, leaving their once highly confident troops badly demoralized.

The Battle of Çatalca and the campaign that preceded it exhausted both sides. Out of necessity the Bulgarians and the Ottomans agreed to an armistice and opened a peace conference in London with the full support of the great powers. Montenegro and Serbia were willing to discuss peace as well, but the Greeks, unhappy with the proposed division of Macedonia, were not. They continued to press on in Macedonia, undermining the Balkan League’s unity and laying the seeds for future conflict with their erstwhile allies, the Bulgarians.

Senior leaders of the Young Turks were appalled at the mismanagement and incompetence of the Ottoman armies in the Thracian campaign. They were also furious at Sultan Mehmed V’s willingness to cede Adrianople to Bulgaria and the Aegean islands to Greece as the price of peace. Fearing they would soon lose Istanbul if they did nothing, three Young Turk leaders, led by X Corps chief of staff Colonel Ismail Enver, organized a coup. He and his closest colleagues burst into a cabinet meeting on Jan. 23, 1913, just minutes before the Ottoman government was to sign away Adrianople. At gunpoint they forced the resignation of the grand vizier, and shooting later broke out in the sultan’s palace. The minister of war was one of the casualties; Enver may have been the one who killed him. The Young Turks then forced the sultan to place them in charge of the army and key ministries. The new government rejected the armistice terms and the Young Turks began to plan for a new campaign around Adrianople.

Fighting resumed in February 1913 and continued until the great powers brokered another peace in May. As a result Albania gained its independence, and the Ottoman Empire lost Crete, the Aegean islands and most of its European possessions west of the Çatalca line. The question of control over Macedonia remained, however, with Bulgaria still unwilling to see it fall into Greek hands. The Bulgarians began to move forces out of Thrace toward Macedonia. Greece and Serbia concluded an anti-Bulgarian alliance, thus setting the stage for the Second Balkan War. The Ottomans used the confusion in Macedonia to recover some of the territory they had lost, including Adrianople.

The armistice that ended the Second Balkan War in July 1913 might have brought some peace to the region, but the Balkans—with its inflammatory mixture of political loyalties, religions and ethnicities—returned to the center stage of Europe in the summer of 1914. This time the great powers were unable to stop the Third Balkan War from becoming World War I. Nor were they able to prevent a bloody conflict between Greece and Turkey from 1919 to 1922. The Balkans remained at war for nearly the entire period from 1912 to 1922, fulfilling Otto von Bismarck’s reputed 19th-century prophecy that “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” would one day lead to a global war.


For further reading Michael Neiberg recommends Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912–1913, by Edward J. Erickson, and The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913: Prelude to the First World War, by Richard C. Hall.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.