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Historical Fiction: Eric Sommers Part 5: The Balkan Wars 1912-13

The National Herald

Balkan Wars 1912. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

As quickly as the ink dried with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (1912), establishing peace between the Ottoman Empire and Italy, the Balkan League (Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria) marched off to war against the Ottoman Empire in October 1912. Our ambassador in Constantinople informed me on the eve of the Balkan conflict that Washington extended my stay as Consul General in Salonika for another 12 months. I was surprised at the extension. Anyway, I was beginning to enjoy my role as the senior U.S. diplomat in the second most important European city of the Ottoman Empire.

With the declaration of war, events moved so fast that I had very little time to absorb them as the Balkan League scored spectacular military successes against the Turks. The entire diplomatic corps in Salonika couldn't believe that the Turks collapsed so quickly with the Bulgarian army pushing close to the gates of Constantinople. The Greeks had their moment of celebration in occupying Salonika before the Bulgarians – who were very upset over this prize of war. Salonika would prove a bone of contention between these two allies as the Bulgarians believed it belonged to them.

On November 8, 1912, a triumphant Greek army lead by Crown Prince Constantine entered Salonika, who was received enthusiastically by the Greek inhabitants who shouted: "Long Live Greece," thus ending nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule. I later learned that we had many U.S. citizens of Greek origin who played an essential role in the Greek victories. These men were loyal to the U.S. but hadn't forgotten their Greek roots. However, there were dissenting voices back home, who considered these citizens as having divided loyalties. Privately, I thought these men were heroes not traitors but patriots for their former homeland.

The Jews, Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, and other races lived in Salonika. The Jews were by far the most significant element and dominated the local economy of the city. There were Jewish converts to Islam who were known as donmes. Some of them were founding members of the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks).

The Greeks entered Salonika one day before the feast day of St. Demetrios, who is regarded as the patron saint and protector of the city. I heard the Greeks had prayed to him to liberate them from the Ottoman yoke and believed his heavenly intercessions helped the Greek army achieve its military victories in Yenidje and Pigadia.

I saw from the second floor of our consulate, on November 11, King George entering Salonika to jubilant citizens waving Greek flags, showering the Royal family with flowers, and singing the Greek national anthem. It was a moment that I shall never forget. The next day, Constantinos Ractivan, the Minister of Justice, arrived in Salonika. I took the opportunity to arrange a meeting with him to discuss how the Greek occupation would impact our educational and commercial interests in Salonika and Macedonia generally. He assured me that our interests would be protected in areas under Greek control. He couldn't guarantee the actions of his Serbian and Bulgarian partners towards American interests in their respective military zones, however.

The first Balkan war continued as the Bulgarians pinned the Turks onto the Chatalja defense line and looked poised to enter Constantinople. However, the spread of cholera and dysentery amongst the combatants resulted in many deaths on both sides. On the other hand, the Russians weren't keen to see the Bulgarians occupying Constantinople, which they always wanted to possess.

I received reports from the British Consul and our Consuls in Macedonia of atrocities – rape, robbery, and massacres committed mainly by irregulars and, in some cases, troops from all combatants against innocent Christian and Muslim populations. I understood troops fighting against each other, but the targeting of civilians was inexcusable. All stories of massacres and other crimes were to be investigated by an international commission headed by leading jurists.

The Greek navy played an essential role in the conflict by blockading the coast of Epirus from the Gulf of Arta to Avlona Bay. Furthermore, the islands of Thasos, Samothrace, Imbros, Lemnos, Tenedos, and Psara came under Greek control. These islands were mainly Greek populated with its inhabitants demanding union with Greece. The Peace Treaty of London of May 1913 negotiated between the great European powers, and the Balkan League left some unresolved issues such as the disposition of the Aegean islands and Bulgaria's dissatisfaction regarding Macedonia. 

Our Minister in Athens informed me that conversations among foreign representatives of the great powers there favored Salonika becoming a free city under international control. I told him that Greece had legitimate claims to the occupied islands, but Salonika was a different matter. Salonika was something that the Balkan states had to work out among themselves. I knew the Greeks would not give up Salonika under any circumstances. They regarded it as rightfully theirs and would be prepared to fight for it. A combined Greek-Serbian force defeated the Bulgarians in June 1913, with Salonika officially incorporated into the Hellenic Kingdom.

The assassination of King George I of Greece in March 1913 shook Greece to its core. Greeks couldn't understand why Alexander Schinas carried out this act against their beloved sovereign. Rumors were circulating in Salonika that the assassin may have in the pay of a foreign power, or the Bulgarians could have been behind it. The Bulgarian premier, Ivan Gueshoff, sent a telegram to Venizelos expressing his condolence in which the former referred to the king as "one of the first authority of our holy alliance." No report was ever issued stating whether Schinas acted alone or involved others.

I was devastated when I learned of the King’s assassination. He was my very good friend with whom I shared many fine moments at the palace. As the Greek nation mourned the loss of its popular monarch, our new president Woodrow Wilson sent a condolence telegram to his widow, Queen Olga. I attended the King’s funeral in Athens where the streets were thronged with thousands of Athenians crying and paying their last respects to their popular king.

Before taking up my next diplomatic posting, the Treaty of Bucharest signed by all the belligerents on August 10, 1913 established peace in the Balkans. Furthermore, the Ottoman government signed two treaties with Bulgaria and Greece in September and November 1913. The former, known as the Treaty of Constantinople, established the frontier between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. In contrast, the latter one saw the Ottoman Empire ceding Macedonia, including Salonica, a large chunk of Epirus, Crete, and the Aegean islands to Greece.