The First Balkan War: Phase one

From the beginning of his premiership, Venizelos noted that over the Balkan Peninsula were beginning to gather ominously war clouds. The once mighty Ottoman Empire had begun to lose its former glory. A series of critical events during 1908 such as the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria and the declaration of independence of Bulgaria, confirmed that it would be difficult to survive in the coming years as a dominant force in the Balkans. After the prevalence of the revolution of the Young Turks (1908), the violation of the rights of Christian communities within the empire began to take dangerous dimensions. The protection of these populations was the appropriate occasion for the Great Powers and the Balkan countries to promote their diplomatic and economic interests in the region, which were anchored to the weakening of the empire and to the general rearranging of the map of the Balkan peninsula with the dismemberment of European Turkey and thus the strengthen of national states.

Moreover, the outbreak of the Italian – Turkish war in northern Africa in September 1911 caused an upset in the Balkans. The losses of the empire economically and in military were serious. At the same time, its weakening treated from the Balkan countries as a first class opportunity to a draw in a new confrontation. A single Balkan front with the participation of the four Balkan states (Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) was the decisive step. Greece's participation in the front was undoubtedly a major success of Venizelos. The intent of Bulgaria and Serbia was clear. Both countries felt that the alliance between them would be enough to effectively battle in the field the declining empire, as they didn’t regarded Greece a reliable ally underestimating the strength of the Greek armed forces. The Greek government implemented, alongside the promotion of domestic reforms, a wide program of military preparedness which aimed at enhancing the combat effectiveness of the Greek armed forces.

As long as Greece was not able to participate with claims in a war confrontation, Venizelos worked for the rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, since the two countries' relations were exacerbated dangerously. He was particularly attentive. He knew that the slightest misplaced energy would cause war. So he did not hesitate to be confronted with his fellow Cretans representatives and prevented their entry into the Greek parliament in May 1912. The Cretans thought that they would impose the de facto union; however, Venizelos took account of the clear warning of Turkey that after such an action its army would be directed against Greece. A Greek-Turkish military confrontation at this time would be inappropriate and destructive for the Greek side and should be avoided at all costs.

Meanwhile, Venizelos scheduled the consultations with Bulgaria and Serbia, seeking to enforce the participation of Greece in the Balkan alliance. Finally, after long efforts, since Bulgaria had already an alliance with Serbia, in May 1912 a Greek-Bulgarian treaty of defensive alliance was signed. The two countries prefixed the safeguard of the rights of the Christian populations and for one, both were bound to take joint action and, secondly, if Turkey attacked against one of the two countries, the other would support the first militarily. But if the cause of a Greek-Turkish war was on the Cretan question, Bulgaria would not be required to concurrently the Greek forces.

Moreover, the treaty brought to the surface the conflicting interests of the two countries since their territorial claims in the geographic region of Macedonia were identical. So, they left open the question of distribution of land after the war ended, adopting the vague wording that the distribution would result based on the contribution of each party to the joint effort.

Then Sofia proceeded to sign a military agreement with Serbia and was in consultation with Montenegro. It was obvious that the outbreak of the war was very close, especially after the expansion of the Albanian uprising in significant part of Epirus and Macedonia.

Venizelos agreed to the immediate commencement of the war although initially he had reservations. He believed that the Greek military and naval forces were not yet ready to participate into the confrontations with claims. But he could not ignore that the overall situation was particularly favorable to the Greek interests, especially for the liberation of Macedonia and Epirus. The other Balkan forces still underestimated both the combat effectiveness and the possible territorial claims of Greece - believed that those were related only on the Aegean islands and Crete focused their interest on other fronts (Bulgaria in Thrace, and Serbia in the region of Skopje).

Finally, on September 25 Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The rejection of the Gate of the claims contained in a joint note by Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, gave rise to the three countries to also declare, on October 4th, war.

The Greek forces were divided into two cohorts at the head of which were the Crown Prince Constantine, who was in central Macedonia and a smaller cohort was in Epirus. Within one week, the Greek army liberated successively important cities in Macedonia. The first major battle occurred in Sarantaporo.

Shortly afterwards the successor and the Prime Minister had a divergence about the direction that should be followed by the Greek forces. Eventually the view of Venizelos prevailed, who regarded as a top priority the liberation of Thessaloniki towards which the Bulgarians moved from the east. Time was extremely limited. The army that would enter the city first would guarantee its control and that would be very critical for the next day, since, according to all estimates, for the distribution of land after the war the military occupation would be decisive. Constantine retreated from his view that the appropriate choice for the Greek forces was to turn north towards Monastir.

The Greek prevalence in the Battle of Yanitsa (October 19-20) had a strategic importance for the entry in Thessaloniki, as it was the last line of Turkish defense.

The Greek army entered Thessaloniki in the early hours of October 27. It was preceded, upon consultation with the consuls of the Powers, the unconditional surrender of the city from the Turkish commander Tahsin Pasha. The Bulgarians were within walking distance and the Greek side agreed to enter the city for billeting a small force of their army. The next few days King George settled in Thessaloniki.

Then, until November 11, the liberation of Macedonia gradually completed. To the other Greek-Turkish front, a big part of Epirus had already been liberated. After the critical battle of Pente Pigadia (Five Wells) (October 24-28), the Ottoman army was repulsed to Bizani, which was the last stronghold of Ioannina. The Greek forces had come into contact with the respective Serbian and Bulgarian forces that had moved in the same period towards the Adriatic Sea and the northwestern Macedonia and in Thrace and Eastern Macedonia.

In parallel, the Greek navy under the leadership of Paul Kountouriotis had succeeded to dominate the Aegean. The naval forces of the Ottomans were trapped in the Straits and the ability to supply and switch their military forces in different fronts (especially in Thrace) by sea was excluded. From the first days of the war, Greeks created a naval base at Mudros in Lemnos. From there the Greek navy was able to control the region of the Straits of the Dardanelles. By October 24 the Greek sovereignty in the North Aegean islands was completed. In the naval battles of Elli on December 3 and Limnos on January 6, 1913 the Greek forces achieved overwhelming victories, which were crucial for the consolidation of the Greek sovereignty in the Aegean. Influential role throughout the war played the Greek fleet flagship, the battleship "Averof", which quickly became a legend. It was the vindication of the strategy choice of Venizelos to reorganize and equip the navy, who had early realized the great importance of the Navy in this war.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman side, recognizing the extremely unfavorable position in which they were, requested the intervention of the Powers for the armistice. Indeed, at the initiative of Powers, the belligerents except Greece signed an armistice in Tsataltza on November 20. Because of the unresolved differences between the two sides (the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire) and the persistence of the Gate in maximalist demands, the truce was not meant to lead to the conclusion of peace. It just ended the first phase of the Balkan war on all fronts except the one of Epirus. Greece continued the war effort alone, as they had not met the conditions put in order to consent to the signing of the armistice with the main condition the surrender of Ioannina to the Greek army.