“Conventional wisdom holds that World War One ended in the west with the collapse of the Hindenburg Line; in reality it was a comparatively small clash in one of the war’s forgotten fronts that precipitated the downfall of the Central Powers.”
WHEN GERMANY signed the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the Central Powers were still in a strong position (at least on paper).
The Kaiser had already pushed Montenegro, Romania, and Russia out of the war; occupied Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, large parts of Poland and the Ukraine; and secured access to natural resources in the east. On the Western Front, French, British and American armies had yet to set foot on German soil. But despite all of this, Berlinstill sued for peace in the autumn of 1918. For many historians, this makes the end of the war on the Western Front somewhat hard to explain; it is difficult to find a decisive battle that served as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.
Yet, such an engagement did occur. It took place at Dobro Polje on the Salonika Front in today’s Macedonia. This little-known Allied victory, which was won by a small Franco-Serbian army, ended on Sept. 17, 1918. Although the clash generated fewer than 5,000 casualties, it broke the deadlock in the Balkans precipitating a ‘chain reaction’ of events that forced Berlin to seek terms within weeks.
The Allied victory at Dobro Polje broke the Bulgarian army, compelling Sofia to seek a separate peace on Sept. 29. Alone and isolated, the German 11th Army, which had been shoring up the southern flank since 1915, had no choice but to surrender too. This in turn weakened the Italian Front and opened the door for British troops to force Turkey to the peace table in October. The Central Powers’ ‘soft underbelly’ was suddenly exposed and utterly defenseles — Germany’s fate (and that of Austria-Hungary) was sealed.
Conventional wisdom holds that World War One ended with the Battle of Amiens, theHundred Days Offensive in the west and the collapse of the Hindenburg Line; in reality it was a comparatively small clash in one of the war’s forgotten fronts that precipitated the downfall of the Central Powers. Here are six things about Dobro Polje, the most decisive battle you’ve probably never heard of.
A Successful Multi-National Effort
The Entente forces at Salonika were comprised of just seven-and-a-half Serbian divisions, eight French, one Italian, 10 Greek, and three British divisions. The Anglo French forces consisted of significant numbers of colonial troops. All operated under the leadership of France’s General Franchet d’Esperey, commander of the Allied Armies of the East. The 62-year-old veteran of the Marne had been transferred to the region following his poor performance at the Third Battle of the Aisne in May 1918. He’d more than make up for his lackluster showing in the West by delivering the Allies a war-winning victory.
Serbian Esprit, French Reluctance
Serbia’s small 60,000-man army is often given most of the credit for the victory at Dobro Polje, as well as and the subsequent breakout that brought World War One to a speedy conclusion. Following Bulgaria’s decision to seek a separate peace with the Allies, Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram to the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand fuming about the outcome of the battle. “Disgraceful! 62,000 Serbs decided the war,” wrote Germany’s emperor. His assessment was remarkably astute. The Serbian army, which had been forced into exile following the Austro-Hungarian occupation of 1915, had been pressing for a major offensive on the Salonika Front for two years. Its leaders hoped to restore the army’s honour by finally liberating their homeland. France, however, had long opposed a major offensive in the south, viewing the Balkans as a sideshow, wishing to focus instead on what Paris viewed as the far more important Western Front. Serbia’s army-in-exile relied on France for all its supplies and equipment. As such, the Salonika Front remained largely stagnant from the end of 1916 until the Battle of Dobro Polje. During the lull, Serbian artillery was allowed to fall into disrepair. France also insisted that its own officers control the heavy guns, the Serbs would get only light artillery and trench mortars. It was only in 1918 when France decided in favor of an offensive in the Balkans that artillery was refurbished and reinforced.
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