War correspondents in the First Balkan War

There has been much discussion here recently about the (sometimes good, sometimes awful) paintings of C. R. W. Nevinson. By chance, the book I’m currently reading has a photograph of his father, Henry Nevinson, the distinguished war correspondent.

nevinson and gibbs

Here he is with Horace Grant and Philip Gibbs and two unknown Serbians, getting ready to report on the Balkan War of 1912.

The book is Adventures of War: With Cross and Crescent, by Philip Gibbs and Bernard Grant. Gibbs was reporting the war for the Daily Graphic, and Bernard Grant was a photographer for the Daily Mirror. Gibbs was with the Serbians and Bulgarians, and Grant was with the Turks, so the book reports both sides of the struggle, and is something of a marvel of instant history; its publication date is proudly stated as December 19th, 1912, just a month after the last calamities recorded in the book. The war itself did not actually end until well into 1913.

The Balkan Wars are now rarely remembered outside the territories affected, but they were of immense historical importance, since they meant the ejection of Turkey from eastern Europe, and the end of the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire.

I’ll write a fuller report of the book later, and describe some of the horrors that Grant saw among the defeated Turks. For now I shall just quote some of Gibbs’s reflections after Turks had fled a battle in panic:

[A]s I write I have before me one little object picked up on the battlefield which seems to reveal one reason for that orgy of fear. It is one of the wooden bullets found in thousands at Kumanova, as they were flung away by Turkish soldiers. This story has been denied by those who have a powerful interest in denying it. But the evidence is too strong for denial, and my wooden bullet bears silent and terrible witness of the guilt by which fraudulent contractors and bribed officials betrayed the lives of man and the fate of an Empire. Eye witnesses report also that the bayonets and swords which lay strewn in thousands on the way from Kumanova to Uskub were all blunt, so that they were useless in the hands of men faced by Servians with weapons sharp to kill. perhaps the wild retreat of those Turks was not due to mere cowardice, but to the knowledge that they were betrayed by their own government, incorrigible in corruption.

A thought strikes me: Did this sort of report from the earlier war lead to an underestimation of the Turks in the Great War, and maybe to an overestimation of the chances of success at Gallipoli?



  1. Rod Beecham
    Posted January 30, 2015 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating post, George. The British war correspondents of the time – inspired, no doubt, by William Howard Russell at the Crimea – were very good when covering other people’s wars. So too were British volunteer nurses (no doubt inspired by Florence Nightingale): I have read with great interest and admiration Mabel Annie Stobart’s account of her exploits in the Balkan Wars. A pity that the adventures and reflections of both British correspondents and British nurses could not emerged unpolluted by censorship and the crippling vice of patriotism in a subsequent, larger conflict. There are books to be written about both (Martin J. Farrar’s ‘News from the Front’ is quite spectacularly bad). Could not agree with you more about the significance of the Balkan Wars, but I would suggest the Second was the really significant one. Excuse the long lecture following, but I think the subject-matter is immensely important. The city of Scutari lies on the south-eastern shore of Lake Scutari, near the confluence of the Drin and Boyana rivers, a little over twenty kilometres inland from the Adriatic Sea. In March 1913 it was a Turkish possession under siege from Montenegrin and Serbian troops. The Turkish commander, Hussein Riza Bey, had surprised everyone with his able defence of the city since its investment at the end of October 1912. Notwithstanding the shooting of Hussein Riza Bey on 30 January at the instigation of his ambitious subordinate, Essad Pasha Toptani, the Turks continued to resist stoutly. In response to a formal request from King Nikita of Montenegro, the Serbs sent an additional 30,000 troops to Scutari. These men and their equipment were transported from Salonica by the Greek navy and began to disembark on 18 March. However, by 20 March Russia and Austria-Hungary had agreed that Scutari would be part of the new Albanian state, and towards the end of the month the great powers were making formal demands in Cetinje and Belgrade for an end to the siege. The Montenegrin response was another full-scale assault on the city.
    Sir Edward Grey thereupon proposed and his great power colleagues agreed to stage a ‘naval demonstration’. Ships from Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (not Russia, in deference to Slavic sensibilities) were dispatched to the Adriatic and sailed up and down the Montenegrin coast. King Nikita was not exactly overawed by this weird display, but Serbian Prime Minister Pašić, far too shrewd to defy the great powers when they presented a united front, recognized that Scutari was lost and withdrew the Serbian troops – although the Serbs thoughtfully left their artillery behind for the Montenegrins to use. In return for Montenegrin support and financial assistance for his campaign to become King of Albania, Essad Pasha Toptani surrendered Scutari on 22 April, and King Nikita’s soldiers entered the city two days later. This action aroused fierce anger in Vienna. The German ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Heinrich Leopold von Tschirschky und Bögendorff, indicated the strength of feeling in a letter of 24 April. “You can hardly imagine the mood here. There is a feeling of shame, of smothered rage, the feeling of having been led by the nose by Russia and her friends. Poor Berchtold is execrated in the sharpest terms. . . . the feeling is expressed that the Monarchy would completely abdicate as a Great Power, unless it pulls itself together and shows that it is determined to defend its life.” Berchtold was under intense pressure. Even the Emperor himself and the usually pacific Franz Ferdinand were in a warlike mood. Sazonov, to his credit, was doing his best to bring King Nikita into line, telegraphing to Cetinje of “a complete lack of understanding of the seriousness of the situation and of elementary good manners.” The Austro-Hungarian foreign minister had to get the Montenegrins out of Scutari: peacefully, if possible, but by any means, and the Russian foreign minister knew it. As much to shore up his political position within the Dual Monarchy as for any other reason, Berchtold spoke of unilateral action by Austria-Hungary if the great powers could not achieve a diplomatic solution. His exasperation is understandable, but unilateral action by Austria-Hungary was what everyone feared above all else, for, whatever his private feelings, Sazonov would be hard-pressed to prevent a military response from Russia should the Dual Monarchy attack Montenegro, and Germany was making it clear that she would not stand by if that happened – which meant a general European war. Mercifully, King Nikita backed down on 4 May. “I place the fate of the city of Scutari in the hands of the Powers,” he advised Sir Edward Grey. Detachments from the international fleet occupied the city on 14 May. As a portent of what was to come the crisis over Scutari could hardly be bettered: Balkan unrest, Russian sponsorship, Austro-Hungarian reaction, German support for the Dual Monarchy, British desire to mediate without abandoning the Entente, French desire to keep the Entente strong by supporting Russia. It did not come to war in 1913 because Berchtold did not equate a solution to the problem with war. He was to take a different view the following year. When the Second Balkan War was concluded formally three months later by the Treaty of Bucharest it left a deadly legacy. Bulgaria, humiliated and intensely bitter, would side now with any power that could restore her lost territories and prestige. The Ottoman Empire re-established its position in south-eastern Europe, ensuring that the “Eastern Question” would persist. Macedonian nationalism was trampled underfoot, which meant continuing agitation and unrest in the region. The Serbian state had grown to the extent that, far from Serbia’s existence depending on Russian support, Russia’s position in the Balkans depended now on Serbian good-will, while Austria-Hungary’s South Slav problem could no longer be solved without a showdown with Serbia. No one realized this more clearly than Count Berchtold. The Austro-Hungarian foreign minister drafted and sent a long, thoughtful and strongly-argued memorandum to his ambassadors in Germany and Italy on 1 August 1913 in which he indicated that:
    1. It was not in Austria-Hungary’s interests to annex Serbia (no more Slav subjects, please!);
    2. Serbian nationalist intrigues meant that a conflict between Austria-Hungary, with her significant Serbian minority, and the independent Serbian state was inevitable;
    3. The conflict was likely to occur sooner rather than later;
    4. Austria-Hungary and her allies should consult, therefore, as to how to manage this inevitable conflict.
    Berchtold indicated that he wished, as far as possible, to confine the Serbian state within its ethnological frontiers and to restore equilibrium in the Balkans through alliance with Bulgaria.
    Germany’s rulers evinced little sympathy for such realism. Kiderlen had died in December 1912 and the new German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, chose to remind Berchtold that Germany supported the Greek claim to Kavala and to chastise him for unilateral decision-making. Germany, as has often been noted, had no understanding of Austria-Hungary’s problems and never sought to understand them. Bethmann and Jagow looked on Austria-Hungary solely as Germany’s ally in Europe, sometimes to be bullied, always to be patronized, important only as an instrument to further German designs. Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia deliberately in 1914, but had no desire to start a general European war and had done her best to make arrogant and unsympathetic allies understand and co-operate with her policy.

    • Posted February 1, 2015 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Rod. Too often Eastern Europe is sidelined in British accounts of the Great War.
      I think your final sentences are perceptive:
      ‘Bethmann and Jagow looked on Austria-Hungary solely as Germany’s ally in Europe, sometimes to be bullied, always to be patronized, important only as an instrument to further German designs. Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia deliberately in 1914, but had no desire to start a general European war and had done her best to make arrogant and unsympathetic allies understand and co-operate with her policy.’
      Throughout the first years of the century, all the great powers watched the Balkans closely, wanting to use the situation there to their own advantage, but in all the crises between 1900 and 1913 had made sure that the volatile region did not cause a major European conflict. In 1914, it was Kaiser Wilhelm who made the crucial decisions that made the War spread catastrophically.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: