Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913

Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913

By Edward J. Erickson

Praeger, 2003

Originally reviewed by Christopher Deliso on January 21, 2005 here.

Defeat in detail – a title with a clever double meaning – refers both to the author’s exhaustive treatment of a little-known yet vital part of modern European history, as well as to a more technical military definition. “Defeat in detail, “the author says in his introduction, “is a doctrinal military term that means to defeat and enemy by destroying smalls portions of its armies instead of engaging its entire strength” (p. xvii).Erickson, who happens to be both an ex-military man and a historian with an excellent knowledge of the Ottoman source material, makes a compelling case in this book that the Ottoman failure in the First Balkan War owed precisely to this factor: “the Ottoman Empire split its field armies into groups and thereby created the conditions necessary for its enemies to achieve numerical superiority on the battlefield” (p. xvii).

There has been no comprehensive account of the specific decisions and actions made by the Ottoman army leading to its defeat in the First Balkan War of 1912-1913. Defeat in Detail fills this vacuum, while also putting to rest some of the prevailing myths about the late Ottoman army, particularly, that it was a ragged band of incompetents resistant to modernization efforts and doomed from the start. Erickson shows clearly that this was not the case, that the Turks by 1911 were not only in a ramped-up phase of military modernization, but that they had in fact been devoted to acquiring new European war technology and especially know-how, since at least the humiliating conclusion of the war against Russia in 1877, which brought Czarist forces to the gates of Constantinople and resulted in the permanent loss of Bulgaria.

While they tried to accomplish the strategy of overwhelming numbers several times during the defensive war against the Balkan League of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, the Ottomans were never able to get their act together, for a variety of reasons; an unreasonable attachment to offensive warfare, strategic blunders, unforeseen weather or logistical snags, enemy movements on other fronts, blocked supply routes, bandits, etc. Without the requisite reinforcements, and stretched too thin across a long territory on which they were besieged from all sides, it became only a matter of time that the Ottomans would be driven out from their Balkan possessions.

There is no doubt that this book is a real work of military history. While its succinct discussions of the political history and diplomacy involved before, during and after the First Balkan War, Defeat in Detail is not concerned primarily with these phenomena. What Erickson tries to do is tell the story of an army’s failure, and an empire’s near collapse. For this reason, perhaps, the book will not appeal to all connoisseurs of Balkan history, but it will satisfy those interested in the war as well as winning a crossover audience from military history buffs in general. The book is that detailed and precise that the armchair generals in the reading world can gain a good appreciation of the challenges facing (especially) the Turkish commanders, why they chose to fight as they did, and how they could have done better.

Source Issues

Defeat in Detail is quite unique in its heavy reliance on Turkish source material, especially the Turkish General Staff’s campaign histories. Erickson claims that the Turkish archives, along with the Serbian, are the most difficult to gain access to, but he seems to have done the job well and reproduces a variety of maps, charts and detailed personnel lists, along with comprehensive accounts of the campaigns themselves.

Every historian must gauge the credibility of his sources. Erickson believes that “on balance, I believe the Turkish Army’s official histories are credible and offer an accurate portrayal of the actions and activities of the Ottoman forces during the Balkan Wars” (p. xix). He points out that they harmonize quite well with official histories produced by the Greeks and where the histories of the combatant nations differ mostly is in reported casualty counts. Of course, it’s only natural that even so many decades later nations would like to minimize their losses. By averaging out the different claims, Erickson is able to find a happy medium which he believes to be more or less accurate.

However, this generally pro-Turkish bias can create problems, in that the author tends to transmit the Turkish point of view in certain cases that are highly controversial, without acknowledging the other side of the story. For example, there is the description of Armenian “terrorists” and, when Armenian civilians were killed in large numbers (up to 1.5 million, which Armenians today call the Armenian Genocide) this is blamed on Kurdish and Turkmen tribesmen drafted into the Ottoman Army.

Yet while from the tactical standpoint the claim that poor training led to the deaths may be substantiated, Erickson does not get into the strategic question of who was giving the orders to exterminate the Armenians from their ancestral homeland or why. But this is a minor point, given the general orientation of his book towards the Balkans. Nevertheless it is indicative of his widely pro-Turkish point of view.

Setting the Context

In lucid and concise prose, the author does a good job of sketching the larger context of political and military actions leading up to the Balkan Wars in his first chapter “Defeat and Military Reforms, 1877-1910″). His starting point is the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. Erickson argues that the defeat had a cathartic effect on the Ottomans, leading to a further speeding up of military reform plans that had begun in the aftermath of the Crimean War in 1869. These had included the creation of active and reserve forces, like the European armies, the acquisition of modern rifles, and conscription (not universal, for Christian subjects were excluded and had to pay a tax instead).

Following the twin defeats in Bulgaria and Caucasia, the sultan took a personal interest in jump-starting the reforms. Most notably, in 1882 the Ottomans began a long and fateful program of military training from the Germans. In that year, a German military mission was established, and a leader who would become one of the most colorful characters of the mission – certainly one with the longest name- arrived: Lieutenant Colonel Baron Wilhelm Leopold Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. Over the next 14 years, von der Goltz (a leading author of his day on military strategy and organization) exerted tremendous influence over the reform process of the Ottoman Army.

It is hard to explain von der Goltz’s singular fascination with the Turks; perhaps the man had been a Seljuk bowman on the Anatolian plain in a past life. His attachment to the Ottoman Empire indeed proved to be a lifelong one; in 1914, when he was over 70 years old, the German was recalled to “active duty” in Constantinople. Wilhelm of Arabia would die two years later of typhus in Baghdad, while leading the Ottoman charge in the Mesopotamian theater.

Toppling Myths

Throughout the remainder of this first chapter, Erickson does an unprecedented service in discussing the modernization of Ottoman views and practices, and provides the historical evidence for the specific military training, personnel and equipment ordered from Germany in the end of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth. While the amount of attention devoted to such details as exact troop numbers, placement and regimental distinctions may be overwhelming for the general reader, purists will find it useful. In any case, Erickson makes the case convincingly that far from being caught unawares by the Balkan League’s 1912 offensive, the Turks had been preparing for such a war for years and were trying to develop an appropriate strategy for dealing with the threat. The author thus convincingly challenges the conventional Western wisdom, which has tended to paint the late Ottoman Empire as a decrepit and diseased rotting institution happy enough to languish in its obsolescence.

No such case, the author says, and while it is an ignominious defeat indeed that Erickson traces in the pages of Defeat in Detail, this failure had a galvanizing effect on the entire Ottoman administration and especially, the army. He traces the Young Turks movement and details how, in the wake of the defeat, they forcibly retired the “Old Guard” of the officer corps, changed yet again the detachment sizes and organizations, keeping once again in line with the latest German military doctrines. In this sense Defeat in Detail comes as a prequel to Erickson’s earlier book, Ordered to Die, which is devoted to the relative victory of the Ottoman Army a few years later in World War I, when they “sustained their combat effectiveness and capability… long after many other armies had quit the field.”

Campaign Coverage

The bulk of Defeat in Detail is dedicated to the war campaigns themselves. This coverage is both meaty and complex. While the author is coming at it from mainly the Ottoman point of view, he also considers carefully the battle strategies and coordinated efforts of the Serbian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian and Greek forces, and how they brought overwhelming force to bear on a splintered Ottoman Army (that is, defeat in detail). After all, the Ottomans did not just lose; the allied forces showed at times excellent tactical decision-making, were operating on their own turf and could therefore count on the local populations.

This blow-by-blow, battle-by-battle coverage goes on for over 200 pages, and is divided into chapters covering the campaigns in Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro and a little bit in Albania as well. The level of attention given to each individual engagement will satisfy the most demanding war buff.

The Role of the Greek Navy

The author provides a good introduction to the military resources and organization of the countries of the Balkan League. Aside from the usual infantry, cavalry and artillery, the League also had several secret weapons. One of the most potent was the Greek navy, which played a vital but usually underestimated role in eliminating the Aegean as a transit route for Ottoman supply ships and reinforcements from the Middle East and Africa. While small, the navy was well-organized and manned. Erickson points to one ship in particular – the armored cruiser Georgios Averov – as being the deciding factor in Greek maritime dominance.

Erickson makes the quite telling point that if it were not for Greek naval control, several of the most important battles could have gone the other way, had Turkish reinforcements been allowed to arrive in time. For this reason, despite putting far less troops in the field than either the Bulgarians or the Serbs, Greece did quite well in recapturing some of her islands, especially the strategic ones near the entrance to the Dardanelles, as well as part of Macedonia. Serbia took most of the rest of the province.

Indeed, it was Bulgarian jealousy over the gains of Serbia and Greece relative to their lower casualty counts which sparked the Second Balkan War of 1913, in which Bulgaria was overcome by its former allies. While the author points out that the Ottomans “stayed well clear” of that war, he does single out the peaceful Turkish recapture of Adrianople (Edirne) – which had a large Christian population and which the Bulgarians had just won – as being an event of great importance for quashing dreams of Bulgarian expansion, and also for the tenor of World War I in the Balkans.

A Shortcoming: Macedonia

Speaking of Macedonia, we might consider that some of the book’s few drawbacks occur here. Considering that the Balkan Wars were in large part a battle over Macedonia, the author could have spent more time dealing with the complexities of the issue. Instead he offers only a brief section in which he states point-blank that “the population of Macedonia was primarily Bulgarian.”

Astonishingly, we also learn from one of his population charts (reproduced from a Turkish publication) that Kosovo included a “Bulgarian Muslim” minority! The almost complete disavowal of a Macedonian ethnicity seems to be due primarily to the author’s reliance on the major political formations calling the shots; after all, for the Greek, Serbs and Bulgarian governments, the possibility of a fourth element (the Macedonian) being added into the mix was not particularly helpful.

Thus while the Macedonia question is said to be of great import to the Balkan Wars and the turbulent events leading up to them, the author is forced to be both vague and contradictory in making his case. Therefore, while the turn-of-the-century liberation Committees were “primarily Bulgarian” (the rest being who?), it was the “Macedonian Slavs” who “joined the Bulgarians in rebellion” in 1903 following the bombing of the Osmanli Bank in Salonika (p. 43).

Of course, what Erickson is referring to is the Ilinden Uprising, though he does not mention it by that name, and the paragraph’s remaining references to “Macedonians” seems to be tacit admission of an ethnicity which he had basically denied or at least omitted in the previous material.

Most egregious is the depiction of the modern Macedonian state. While Erickson does admit that the place is populated by “Orthodox Christian Slavs who speak a distinct language,” he does not go so far as to call them Macedonians. Most astonishingly, he goes on to say that “Greece and Bulgaria also have sizeable minority populations in modern Macedonia” (39). This statement is utterly ludicrous. God knows that if there were any Greeks in Macedonia, they would have taken that EU passport and fled for Greece long ago.

KFOR Before KFOR- Macedonia, 1905

That issue aside, we do hear of some pretty interesting and little-known details, such as the Murzsteg Reform Programme, created by Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became an unprecedented sort of international peacekeeping mission in the Balkans that would find no equal until the Bosnia and Kosovo missions of the present day.

Under the agreement, an Italian general with 25 foreign officers would “help” the Turks administer the fractious province, which was carved up into operational zones: the Austro-Hungarians in Skopje, the Italians in Bitola, Russia in Salonika, France in Serres and Great Britain in Drama. While this KFOR before KFOR scheme seemed to stabilize the area somewhat, the spirit of cooperation was broken in 1908 by Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia.

More Drawbacks: Maps and Nomenclature

Defeat in Detail contains a wealth of charts and annexes, including a fascinating one on early Ottoman aviation efforts. Scores of tables are presented, listing Ottoman officers by name and rank, battle plans and maps outlining the course of almost every battle discussed.

While this is a handy addition to the text, in general the maps are not good enough. Considering that the outcome of battle often depends on the terrain on which it is being fought, one would expect that the author would have plenty of topographic maps. However, they are not found. And the maps showing movements of troops – with lines and arrows – tend to be confusing. In the end, the written account of the battles is probably more evocative and comprehensible that the visual aids.

Another small problem that crops up from time to time is with names. Throughout the work, the Turkish version of all Balkan towns, cities and geographical formations is used. Oftentimes, in cases of potential confusion both the Turkish and modern names are used (Edirne/Adrianople, Mesta Karasu/Nestos River, etc.). However, sometimes they are not to be found and for the smaller settlements this can be confusing, especially since the maps show large open areas in which the modern borders of states have not been added. Unless one is a real Turkophile, it can thus prove hard in following the action to know where you are exactly, even if you basically know where you are.

Conclusion: Buy It

There is perhaps one other shortcoming in Defeat in Detail. In his desire to stick to the major troop movements and confrontations of the armies involved, the author says very little about the impact irregular units, rebels and brigands have had on fighting and logistical necessaries – though he occasionally remembers to say that this was in places a significant obstacle to Ottoman victory. True, there is the odd mention of atrocities against civilians from one or the other armies involved, but not much about the rest – presumably because archival evidence does not exist on the subject of outlaws.

However, considering what the author sets out to do and what he accomplishes, this is quibbling. Defeat in Detail succeeds on a major scale to present the first accurate picture, with far more detail and attention than is required, of the Ottoman Army during the Balkan Wars. Erickson does an excellent job of not only narrating the military engagements of the war, but also of contextualizing the development of Ottoman arms in light of major events in the Balkans both before and after, from the 1877 war with Russia to the First World War, which is where his sequel (written earlier, interestingly enough) Ordered to Die picks up the story. Defeat in Detail is sure to be a welcome addition to the library of any war buff or those interested in the history of the Balkans at a turbulent and fascinating time.

Readers of this book will also like:

Edward J. Erickson, Palestine: The Ottoman Campaigns of 1914-1918

Edward J. Erickson, Gallipoli: Command Under Fire

Egemen Bezci, Turkish Intelligence and the Cold War: The Turkish Secret Service, the US and the UK

Hew Strachan, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War: New Edition

Michal Provence, The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle Eas