“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, Berlin still 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, the Hundred 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.
Outnumbered and Fighting Uphill
As a rule of thumb when launching an offensive, it is a good idea to outnumber your enemy and not attack an adversary that’s dug in on the high ground. At the Battle of Dobro Polje, Serbian, French, British and Greek troops fought to dislodge well-fortified Bulgarian and German positions located on a steep ridge line. The main Franco-Serbian assault took place on a 15 kilometer front between the Sušnica and Lešnica rivers, and was directed against mountainous heights between 1,400 to 1,800 meters, with steep slopes rising up to ridges and heights held by the enemy, accessible in many places only by mule paths. Even today, a four-wheel drive vehicle and guide are needed to reach the area. The Central Powers outnumbered the Entente forces, 300 battalions to 291. Yet, the Allies’ use of artillery would level the playing field. This coupled with poor Bulgarian morale and sheer Serbian doggedness carried the day.
Artillery Paved the Way
The Entente hoped to soften up the defenders with a massive artillery barrage, one which they began planning four months in advance of the assault. The Allies massed 553 guns along the 15 kilometer front where Serbian and French forces were to attack. Each battery had four days of ammunition stockpiled, with additional reserves waiting in nearby depots. The bombardment kicked off two days before the infantry began their ascent, with gunners directing their fire onto enemy artillery first. The shelling intensified a day before the assault, lasting 21 hours and 30 minutes. Poison gas shells were restricted to counter-battery fire and to disrupting enemy troop concentrations. None was brought down on the enemy front lines for fear that the wind would blow the gas towards friendly troops.
A Fierce Commander
Serbian forces were led by Vojvoda (Field Marshall) Živojin Mišić, a seasoned general who had commanded Serbia’s 1st Army at the Battle of Kolubara in 1914. At Kolubara, Mišić’s 1st Army had dealt a significant and humiliating defeat to the Austro-Hungarian 5th and 6th Armies, which forced a ten-month pause in Austro-Hungarian offensive action against Serbia and saw Serbia capture large quantities of war materiel and substantial numbers of prisoners.
After dislodging the enemy from Dobro Polje, the Franco-Serbian forces pressed the attack, driving the Central Powers. During this advance the Allies liberated all of Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro, and sliced into Bosnia and Herzegovina, even crossing the Sava and Danube rivers into southern Hungary. In fact, so much ground was gained so fast (despite the poor condition of roads throughout the region), Allied artillery actually had trouble keeping up. With Entente forces surging north from the Balkans, Austria Hungary was next to call it quits; Germany would be next.
For years, the Entente and Central Powers found themselves locked in a stalemate in the Balkans. With neither side fielding more than a million troops at any one time there, the Salonika Front seemed like a distant theatre, and one of little consequence, particularly when considering the massive armies fighting in France and Belgium. Yet like a proverbial domino, the victory by a few thousand troops at Dobro Polje would trigger a series of events that would force German to the peace table and end the First World War. Remarkably, to this day, few in the west have even heard of it.
Dr. James Lyon is the author of Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of the Great War. The book was awarded the World War I Historical Association‘s Norman B. Tomlinson Book Prize in 2015. Lyon has a Ph.D. from UCLA in Balkan History, is founder and CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Heritage, and is an associate researcher at the University of Graz. He has written extensively on the Balkans and has spent over two decades living and working in the lands of the former Yugoslavia. He has also lived in Germany, Russia, and England, and traveled widely from Africa to Latin America to the Middle East.