Balkan Front

The Balkan peninsula, is an area in south-east Europe that includes Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and European Turkey. Tension in the area had been heightened by a series of local and international conflicts that culminated in the Balkan War.

In 1912 Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro won a series of comprehensive military victories over Turkish forces. The following year, Bulgaria, disappointed by the terms of the Treaty of London, attacked Greek and Serbian forces, but was quickly defeated when invaded by Romania. The subsequent peace treaty doubled the size of Serbia and gave Greece control over most of the Aegean coast.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo resulted in both Austria-Hungary and Germany declaring war on Serbia. On 25th August, Radomir Putnik and the Serbian Army defeated the Austro-Hungarian forces at the Battle of Jadar. With the support of its ally, Montenegro, Serbia managed to halt the advance of the Austro-Hungarian forces throughout 1914 including its important victory at the Kolubara River in December. However, these efforts virtually exhausted the Serbian Army's manpower and it was forced to recruit men over sixty. The army also accepted women, including the British nurse, Flora Sandes.

Serbia pleaded for help and eventually in September 1915, Britain and France accepted the invitation from the Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, to land Allied troops at Salonika, a strategically important Greek port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia. As there was a direct railway link between Salonika and Belgrade, this became the best route to send Allied aid to Serbia.

The first Anglo-French troops arrived at Salonika on 5th October, 1915. With Bulgarian and German troops on the frontier, the French commander, General Maurice Sarrail and General George Milne, the leader of the British troops, turned Salonika and its surrounds into an entrenched zone. This included a trench-system similar to the one on the Western Front.

The arrival of Allied troops in Macedonia failed to stop the advance of the Central Powers in Serbia. Overwhelmed by the joint Austro-German and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915, the Serbian Army was forced to retreat to the Albanian mountains. By January 1916, over 155,000 Serbian soldiers and civilians had been evacuated to Corfu.

After recuperation, over 80,000 Serbian troops were sent to Salonika. Considered to be the most aggressive of all the allied troops, the Serbian Army took part in the victory over the Bulgarian Army at the Vardar Offensive in September 1918.

Primary Sources

(1) Ishobel Ross, diary entry (7th September, 1916)

What a night we had, we all shivered with cold and had to get up and pace up and down to get warm. We shook hands with a woman soldier in the Serbian Army who came up to the camp to see us. Her name is Milian and she has such a nice face, so sturdy too. She had been fighting for three years and was so pleased to have her photo taken.

(2) In November, 1915, Sergeant Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army reached the Albanian mountains.

The Fourth Company were holding some natural trenches a short way further on, and we were not allowed to go any further. The Bulgarians seemed to have got their artillery fairly close, and the shrapnel was bursting pretty thickly all around. We sat under the shelter of the wall and watched it, though, as it was the only building standing up all by itself. it seemed to make a pretty good mark, supposing they discovered we were there, which they did very shortly.

The shells were beginning to fall pretty thickly in our neighbourhood, and our Battalion Commander finally said it was time to move on. He proved to be right, as three minutes after we left it the wall under which we were sitting was blown to atoms by a shell.

Later on the next day the sun put in an appearance, as did also the Bulgarians. The other side of the mountain was very steep, and our position dominated a flat wooded sort of plateau below, where the enemy were. One of our sentries, who was posted behind a rock, reported the first sight of them, and I went up to see where they were, with two of the officers. I could not see them plainly at first, but they could evidently see our three heads very plainly.

The companies were quickly posted in their various positions, and made my way over to the Fourth which was in the first line; we did not need any trenches as there were heaps of rocks for cover, and we laid behind them firing by volley. I had only a revolver and no rifle of my own at that time, but one of my comrades was quite satisfied to lend me his and curl himself up and smoke.

We all talked in whispers, as if we were stalking rabbits, though I could not see it mattered much if the Bulgarians did hear us, as they knew exactly where we were, as the bullets that came singing round one's head directly one stood up proved, but they did not seem awfully good shots.

(3) Ishobel Ross, diary entry (19th September, 1916)

The wounded have been coming in all day, nearly all frightfully bad cases. We have our kitchen now, it is like an Indian bungalow all made of rushes. From the window we can see the ambulances arriving at the reception tent, and the poor men carried in. All the Serbs working in the camp are so pleased to have the hospital started at last, and indeed we are too. Poor Ethel is in the surgical ward and has had an awful day of it - three of the men, very badly wounded in the head, died tonight. We get the worse cases here and some of the wounded have been lying untended for two days.

(4) Ishobel Ross, diary entry (15th February, 1917)

Mrs Ingles and I went up behind the camp and through the trenches. It was so quiet with just the sound of the wind whistling through the tangles of wire. What a terrible sight it was to see the bodies half buried and all the place strewn with bullets, letter cases, gas masks, empty shells and daggers. We came across a stretch of field telephone too. It took us ages to break up the earth with our spades as the ground was so hard, but we buried as many bodies as we could. We shall have to come back to bury more as it is very tiring work.

(5) Ishobel Ross, diary entry (24th February, 1917)

On Wednesday evening a Serbian, Captain Dimitrivitch took Dr Muncaster and me up to his camp. We went up on a funny kind of waggon as no cars can go on the track. It is only open for the food and ammunition carts going up to the front. It is right along the side of Mount Kajmakchalan, and we saw the trenches and barbed wire entanglements just as they left them. I don't think I realized until then what the Serbs had done. It must be one of the most wonderful things that has happened during the war. Even though they are worn out from years of fighting, tormented by the knowledge that the Bulgars had killed most members of their families, without blankets proper food and clothing, the Serbs will never give up a yard of their country. They must have paid a heavy price for this great bleak mountain.