The Balkan front was silent until November 1915 when Field Marshall Mackensen led a combined force of Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians to a final invasion of the upstart Serbia. This was a necessary move since Serbia was an obstacle on the road from Germany to Turkey. Short on ammunition and other supplies, General Putnik and his Serbian army were helpless under the Central Powers' onslaught.
On October 3, 1915, the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force consisting of two divisions landed in Salonica with the aim of supporting the Serbians. Salonica was a part of neutral Greece, however the Greek government did not do anything other than issuing a protest. Allies were hoping that the retreating Serbs could use Salonica as a safe haven, but this was prevented by the intervention of Bulgarians.
After their land route to Salonica was cut, Serbian troops were evacuated from Albanian ports and transported to the Greek port by ferries. By the summer of 1916, the Allied force in Salonica, which was under the command of the French General Sarrail, grew to 350 thousand men and represented a big threat to Central Powers’ interests in the Balkans, especially the railroad linking Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.
On May 26, 1916, Bulgarian forces penetrated through the Greek frontier and by August they reached the Struma River in pursuit of the retreating Greek IV Army Corps. Meanwhile, the Allied forces took the initiative and began to march to Monastir.
On September 12, 1916, the German High Command asked Enver Pasha to provide additional troops for the Balkan front. On the same day, Enver Pasha gave a positive response to this request.
The 50th Infantry Division, then resting at Izmit west of Istanbul, was alerted for deployment immediately. Troops were first taken to Üsküdar (on the Asian side of Istanbul), crossed Bosphorus by ferry and then they settled at camps in Bakırköy. Their entrainment to the Balkans commenced on September 21, with one train departing each day, and was completed after four days with the arrival of the last troops in the Greek city of Drama and the Bulgarian front at Salonica.
Upon its arrival, the 50th Division, commanded by Lt.Col. Şükrü Naili Bey, joined the Bulgarian 10th Division and was assigned a sector at the mouth of the Struma River on the Aegean Sea between the Lake of Tahinos and Leftera Bay. 158th and 169th Regiments were deployed forward, whereas 157th Regiment was retained in reserve. Because of the overwhelming British naval presence in the Aegean, one battalion was deployed to guard the coastal flank.
A major Allied attack began on October 31. The British were assaulting from both sides of the Tahinos Lake and attacking on the 169th Regiment from south. They hardly managed to approach the first defensive line by late evening and Turkish unit managed to repulse this attack at a cost of 19 killed and total casualties of 113 in one day.
After another series of failed attempts, an Allied force of French, Serbian and Russian troops began to advance in West Macedonia against a Bulgarian force, which was trying to defend this mountainous region. General Serrail wanted to take Monastir and he achieved his target on November 19.
One More Division
Meanwhile, there was another campaign going on in Romania and more manpower was needed. Responding positively to a request of Germans, Enver Pasha decided to send the 46th Infantry Division to Macedonia where it would join the 50th Division and the 16th Depot Regiment in order to establish the new XX Army Corps. General Abdülkerim Pasha was appointed to the command of this corps, which would fight against the British. In addition, the 177th Infantry Regiment was to be reinforced, renamed as Rumeli Field Detachment and deployed in West Macedonia to join the Bulgarians against the French at the Monastir front.
The XX Corps headquarters arrived Drama on December 6 and established contact with the 50th Division and also with the Bulgarian 2nd Army. The 46th Division was to be responsible for the defense of the Serez region, north of the Tahinos Lake, where it would replace the Bulgarian 7th Division. The width of the defensive line was 30 kilometers and therefore it was decided to reinforce it with Bulgarian artillery units and a cavalry squad.
There was not much action in Macedonia in winter 1917. For the next three months, the XX Corps enjoyed a period of quiet and there were only some small scale regimental level fighting. At the same time the Turkish army was suffering in all other fronts. East Anatolia was under Russian occupation, British were marching towards Jerusalem and an elite corps of 29,000 men was waiting in Macedonia doing nothing.
Enver Pasha wanted his men back. After a series of requests, the German High Command finally agreed on March 10, 1917, but only for the return of a single division. 46th Division began to leave Drama on March 19 and completed its entrainment in mid-April. The story of the Turkish 46th Division in the Balkan theatre had been nothing but just a European holiday. Upon its arrival in Istanbul, the division was deployed to Mesopotamia.
April and May 1917 have been quiet at the banks of Struma River but in Mesopotamia, British troops had entered Baghdad. Enver Pasha established a new army (the Seventh) to save Baghdad and he urgently needed his units in Europe back. After talks with the German High Command, the 50th Division was ordered to leave Macedonia and go directly to Aleppo. After the departure of this division, the only Turkish presence left in the Balkan theatre was the Rumeli Field Detachment, i.e. reinforced 177th Infantry Regiment, which would remain there for another year.
Rumeli Field Detachment
Entrainment of the Rumeli Field Detachment to Macedonia was completed on December 29, 1916 and the troops were assembled in the town of Köprülü, south of Skopje. This was the town where, in 1908, a young Major Enver had delivered the proclamation of independence, revolting against the Sultan. There volunteers were recruited and soon the unit achieved a manpower of 4,300.
There was intense fighting going on between the French who had occupied the town of Monastir and Central Powers’ forces. The Turkish detachment was ordered to position itself 15 kilometers north of the city where it would await the expected French offensive. The French were preparing for attack, however not to north from Monastir, as Germans were expecting them to do, but at the lake region west of the city.
On March 13, 1917, the French offensive commenced, on a 10 kilometer wide and 16 kilometer long corridor between the lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. They had to be stopped because their passage through this corridor would mean jeopardizing the Bulgarian 1st Army and the German 11th Army in the north. The Turkish detachment was ordered on the same day to move to the lake region and join the Bulgarian 2nd Division.
The French 76th Division had a clear superiority in terms of manpower against the Bulgarians and even with the addition of the Turkish troops, there were 15 French battalions against six Central Powers battalions in defense. When the Rumeli Field Detachment arrived Hotoshevo, west of Lake Prespa, the French were in pursuit of retreating German and Austrian battalions, which had suffered heavily.
A sudden Turkish attack supported by Turkish and German machine gun fire caused panic among French lines. After one whole day of fighting, the French advance was halted but both sides suffered heavy casualties.
Now it was time for the Central Powers’ forces to attack. Bulgarian generals prepared a plan, without consulting the commander of the Rumeli Field Detachment, Maj. Nazım Bey, which implied pushing the French further south inside the corridor and taking the Gorica-Trapezica line. According to the plan, the assault was to be executed by the Turkish detachment alone and if initial success would be achieved the others would follow.
The assault started at 2:00 pm on April 1, 1917 with intense artillery fire. In the evening Turkish infantry managed to take the French entrenchments through bayonet charge. However their losses were high and Maj. Nazım Bey ordered the battalions to stop advancing and stay in their current positions. Next morning Turkish troops woke up to heavy French artillery fire followed by an infantry attack. Turks had to go back to their starting line.
After losing 712 men in casualties over the first two days of April 1917, the rest of the month was spent in quiet. The weather was getting worse and there was snow, which was causing problems in logistics. Turkish troops were, however, enjoying their thick and warm German-made uniforms.
Cold weather was not the reason of unrest among Turkish troops. They had lost nearly one third of their manpower over the first 18 days of their participation in this war theater. German, Austrian and Bulgarian battalions were deployed in regions with much less action, whereas Turkish detachment was not even given the chance to relax after heavy fighting.
After realizing that the French were intending to turn the campaign into trench warfare, Maj. Nazım Bey cabled the commander of the Bulgarian 22nd Division and also the German regional commander Col. von Thierry asking them to have his detachment replaced by other battalions and take a rest. There was no reply. Nazım was getting anxious and he cabled the commander of German 62nd Corps, telling him about the situation. Again no reply. But Nazım’s last attempt made Col. von Thierry furious and he sent a complaint about Nazım to Enver Pasha.
Enver Pasha asked Maj. Nazım Bey for a report and after receiving the report, which explained the Germans' double-standard in detail, he asked the German High Command for the return of the Rumeli Field Detachment back to Turkey. He was rejected.
Maj. Nazım Bey was offended. He had done his best but things only got worse. Now it was difficult for Turkish soldiers even to find drinking water. Enver Pasha thought that Nazım was overreacting, but he was not. He resigned on July 10 and was replaced by Lt.Col. Ali Bey on July 28.
After some minor fighting in August, Lt.Col. Ali Bey asked the command of the German 62nd Corps for an opportunity to rest. He was rejected and instead he was given the duty to take a hill right across the front line with a night attack. This mission was accomplished on September 5 at a cost of 41 Turkish and two German dead.
Ali did not give up cabling Istanbul and also the Bulgarian and German commanders about the conditions. On October 6, the Ottoman High Command ordered the Rumeli Field Detachment to prepare to return to Turkey. Soldiers’ joy did not last long. Two days after the above mentioned order was issued, Enver Pasha sent another cable: “Order for your return to Turkey is cancelled.”
The reason of this sudden change is still unknown. It also remains a question why the German High Commander insisted so much for the stay of the Turkish detachment. Apparently there were political issues involved.
October and November 1917 were quiet months. Winter conditions were getting tougher and there was no improvement in the conditions in which Turkish troops had to live. Lt.Col. Ali Bey was sending cables to German, Bulgarian and Turkish commands and his efforts bore fruits on November 23. A telegram from General Ludendorff, then second man in German High Command after Hindenburg, ordered the Rumeli Field Detachment to be replaced by a Bulgarian regiment and move to back front.
The detachment was to have a rest for one month but it stayed in Prilep until February 11, 1918. This time was spent with training and meanwhile Lt.Col. Ali Bey was replaced by Lt.Col. Sadık Bey. In February, they returned to the lake region, but the war was nearing end and there was no fighting going on.
In May 1918, the Rumeli Field Detachment was ordered to return to Turkey. At the end of June, troops left from the Romanian port of Costanza by ferry for Batum on the East Black Sea coast. There they would join the Third Army. Turkish presence in Europe during the First World War was over.
In conclusion, it would not be an aberration to say that the XX Army Corps was sent to Macedonia for nothing. In a time when fresh troops were desperately needed in other fronts, 25,000 men spent their time in the Balkans doing nothing. It was a big mistake and an unnecessary waste of manpower. In contrast with the XX Corps, the Rumeli Field Detachment was very active and also successful against the French in the lake region around Monastir.