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  • James Houser

November 24, 1915 - The Great Retreat and Serbia's WWI

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 24, 1915. The Bulgarian Army, which is a thing that exists, marches into Kosovo in the southwest corner of Serbia. The small European nation that served as the spark of World War I is now completely occupied, and will remain so until the end of the war. The Serbian struggle is doomed to be forgotten by popular history; the first country to be attacked in the Great War is the last to be remembered.

One of the only things that most people know about World War I is that a Serbian assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and this somehow led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. And…to most people, that’s where Serbia’s story ends. From that point on World War I becomes a British, French, German, Russian or American story. Serbia, which should hold prime place of importance since the war literally started on their doorstep, somehow gets left out of the narrative. But Serbia suffered sharper losses than any other country in the conflict, waged some of the bitterest battles, endured some of the greatest hardships, and yet gained the most out of the First World War.

Despite Serbia’s starring role in the leadup to World War I, it gets pushed to stage left afterwards mainly because there were very few Western Europeans around to tell the story. Every side in every war focuses on their own experience most of all. If you ask the British, you’d think the Somme and Passchendaele were the only things that happened in the war, and they of course won it all by themselves. If you asked the French, you’d think that they won they war at Verdun. Ask the Americans, and only our arrival in 1918 saved the Allies from imminent disaster. Ask the Serbians…but no one ever asked the Serbians.

So let’s tell Serbia’s story.

The first shots of World War I were fired on July 29, 1914, one day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia’s capital of Belgrade was perilously exposed to enemy attack, since it sat right on Serbia’s northern border on the Danube River. The Austro-Hungarian river fleet had steamed south from its bases farther up the Danube and launched some artillery shells into the city, as I said the first shots of the war. Serbia had already begun to call up its reserves and mobilize its army, and Serbia’s 11 infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division were ready faster than almost any other army in the war. Serbia had an ally, as well – tiny Montenegro on the Mediterranean coast, whose miniscule army would also pitch in.

Serbia was in an obviously fragile position. Not only was it a small country confronting the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, but its capital and largest city was right there on the frontlines. The Serbian Army was able to raise 450,000 men to take part in the initial campaigns of 1914, but this represented basically all of Serbia’s limited manpower and the majority of men aged 21 to 45. Serbia had suffered losses only very recently in the Balkan Wars from 1912 to 1913, and these losses had not been made good. The army’s equipment stocks were short for the same reason, and though new equipment and ammunition was on order from Russia and France, it would take months to arrive since those countries were preparing for war as well. Many Serbian soldiers would go to war in August 1914 without rifles and even without uniforms. Serbia had no native military industry, small country that it was, and relied on foreign imports.

This litany of gloom makes it sound like I’m describing why the Serbian Army failed. Yeah, if that was the only side of things Serbia would have been a beer can crushed beneath Austria-Hungary’s heel. But despite their extreme poverty, lack of resources, and limited manpower, the Serbian Army had QUALITY on its side. Almost all its officers were experienced in modern war, thanks to the Balkan Wars, and their higher commanders were excellent. Especially awesome was Marshal Radomir Putnik, the aged commander-in-chief who though 67 years old was an outstanding strategic mind and a powerful symbol. Putnik was probably the most able commander-in-chief any European army had in the days before the Great War, standing head and shoulders above Britain’s French, France’s Joffre, and Germany’s von Moltke in terms of sheer competence and organizational ability.

The Austro-Hungarians, in contrast, were a confused mess of an army, tearing apart at the seams and under the inept, vainglorious hand of Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf. This Austrian general was fond of making extraordinary plans that had no realistic chance of coming to fruition. I’ve ranted enough about Conrad and general Austro-Hungarian ineptitude in earlier First World War posts, but the junior officers all looked to him as a model which only made matters worse. The Austro-Hungarians would stumble into World War I as a backwards, broken army that only got worse with time, and the Serbians would be the first to remind them of their issues.

Conrad’s plan for World War I called for a double effort to invade both Serbian and Russian territory. Unfortunately for him, his plans exceeded the ability of Austria-Hungary’s army, and by trying to attack both he succeeded in attacking neither. As the bulk of the Austrian forces headed north to Russia, where they would get curb-stomped in dramatic fashion during the Battles of Galicia, other Austrian forces prepared to attack Serbia. The Austrian-Serbian border formed a right angle, with the relatively flat northern plain overlooking Belgrade and the jagged western border fronting a river crossing lined by hills and small mountains. The Austrian commander, General Oskar Potiorek, was a rival of Conrad’s and wanted to gain a major victory before the Emperor’s birthday. He decided to launch an early attack, but due to the incomplete Austrian deployment any such move would have to be from the west.

Potiorek’s Austrians crossed the Drina River, which marked Serbia’s western border, on August 12. At this moment, German troops were pouring into Belgium, and French and British troops were assembling for the first great set of battles that would climax at the Marne. Potiorek’s move caught Serbian Marshal Putnik by surprise, since he figured the Austrians couldn’t be dumb enough to attack from THAT angle. Nevertheless, he reacted quickly, diverting several divisions to the hilly ground overlooking the Drina River.

Potiorek’s premature attack ran into disaster. The well-entrenched Serbs lay down a galling fire on the river crossing as the light blue-coated Austrians struggled across in the intense August heat. The Battle of Cer Mountain, which lasted from August 15 to August 24, was as bitterly fought a battle as any in the Great War. Austrian and Serbian troops fought with rifle, bayonet and artillery across the densely wooded hills of the Balkans, and both suffered mightily.

The Croats and Bosnians within the Austrian ranks took the opportunity to avenge old tribal enmities and committed savage acts against local civilians and Serbian POWs. Local sources told of the mutilation of women and children and the torture of men. The Serbians were hardly kinder, though their brutal activities were mostly reprisal killings. Little-known today, the massacres during the Austro-Hungarian advance at Cer were probably worse than the infamous “Rape of Belgium” that the Germans were committing at the same time.

The Serbs were victorious at Cer, though – and this victory was humiliating for the Austrians. The battle ended with the invaders fleeing back across the river in panic as shells burst on the narrow shore, with many Austrian soldiers drowning in the mad rush back to safety. Cer ended up causing the Austrian forces almost 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Serbs suffered 20,000 in all. It was a painfully embarrassing episode for an Austrian army that was supposed to be putting a tiny nation in its place. But the worst was yet to come for Austria-Hungary.

In September, the Austrians forced another crossing at the Battle of the Drina, and this time they managed to actually stay across the river and establish a defensive line within Serbian territory. Putnik and his Serbian forces faced an unpleasant truth: while they had won the Battle of Cer, they had expended a great deal of their munitions in the process. Serbia wasn’t like the large powers of the war, with massive industrial bases to produce rifle rounds and shells and uniforms in constant streams; Serbia’s shell stock at the beginning of the war was limited, and only supplies from other countries could refill it. Serbia’s army was also too small to cover its whole border. The Serbians, despite their undoubted superiority in the arts of modern war, nevertheless had no choice but to give ground to the Austrians due to lack of resources and manpower. Fierce Serbian counterattacks cost heavy losses but still proved unable to drive the Austrians back into the Drina, while their artillery gradually fell silent on the slopes above the Drina.

By late October, the Austrians had worn the Serbian Army down to the bone. Putnik’s men were running low on food and ammunition, their substandard homespun uniforms were wearing thin, and winter was fast approaching. On November 5, as the British and Germans were battling it out at Ypres, the Austrians launched a large attack intended to overwhelm the Serbians before the onset of winter. The Serbs withdrew step by step, giving ground only under severe pressure and defending their land with valor, but they were still being pushed back. With the entire army on the verge of snapping, Serbian First Army commander Zivojin Misic asked Putnik for permission to conduct a deep withdrawal in order to gain time to restock and reinforce. Putnik knew that any such retreat would mean the abandonment of Belgrade, and if the Serbian Army kept retreating, they’d eventually run out of Serbian land to defend. But Putnik assented, and Misic made a large-scale withdrawal in late November. On December 2, the triumphant Austro-Hungarians entered Belgrade.

But they had made a critical error. By pushing forward in so many directions at once, Potiorek had fatally overextended his lines, and Putnik was preparing for a counterblow. The breathing room gained by Misic’s withdrawal bought critical time for the battered Serbian Army to rally, and a nick-of-time shipment of artillery rounds from France restocked his munitions supplies. The teenagers of 18, 19, and 20 had turned out en masse to refill the ranks.

Knowing that Serbia was on the brink of total destruction, Putnik ordered his counterattack on December 3 with the entire Serbian Army. Striking first one Austrian force, then the other, the Serbians utterly routed the Austrians along the valley of the Kolubara River. The Austrians once again retreated in shock and disorder, leaving behind equipment, supplies, and many of their wounded. It was a stunning reversal of what seemed like an assured Austro-Hungarian victory, and on December 15 Putnik capped his triumph when he recaptured Belgrade. The Battle of Kolubara tore the heart out of the Austro-Hungarian Army, costing them a staggering 230,000 casualties. The Serbs lost a similarly painful 130,000.

The defeats of 1914 in Russia and in Serbia had broken the back of the Austro-Hungarian Army almost permanently. A defunct fighting force from the beginning of the war, it would never recover from the loss of its well-trained officers and NCOs in those terrible months in Galicia, Serbia and the Carpathians. For the rest of World War I, the Austro-Hungarians would be fundamentally incapable of launching a major attack without German assistance.

But the Serbs had not gotten off scot-free. They had lost almost 170,000 men by the end of 1914 – over a third of their entire army – and unlike the larger nations of World War I, they had no pool of replacements. The Serbian military-age males were already in the ranks, and from this point on any replacements would have to be old men and teenagers. Though they had defended their borders and delivered the Austrians a pair of stinging, mortifying defeats, the Serbs had suffered irretrievable losses of men and material in the process. Throughout the winter of 1914-1915, too, a typhus epidemic swept Serbia and killed many civilians. The Serbian suffering was acute already, and worse was yet to come.

After Serbia’s initial battles of 1914, the broader situation of the war had changed dramatically. First, the Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I created a need for Germany to assist its new ally – the problem was, of course, that Serbia stood on the direct rail line from Central Powers territory into Ottoman lands. This need only grew more acute when the Allies attacked the Ottomans at Gallipoli, making a direct land link to Constantinople a vital war necessity. Austria-Hungary refused to take action against Serbia after 1914, since the Russians posed a much more direct and major threat, but after Russia’s terrible defeats in 1915 this danger seemed to recede. Finally, the Serbian Army was suffering mortal attrition as it defended its borders from the Austrians. Their lack of food, clothing, ammunition and other basic necessities contributed to the misery of the Serbian Army. Nevertheless, they continued to display outstanding morale and fighting ability. This angry little European nation would be a tough nut to crack.

To help crack the Serbian nut, Germany peeled 100,000 men of the 11th Army from the main fighting fronts in France and Russia. The 11th Army would serve as the spearhead, the Austro-Hungarian forces dragging behind to mop up. As a symbol of the fact that Germany was now basically carrying the whole war effort, General August von Mackensen would take charge of all Central Powers forces. This was an insulting blow to the Austro-Hungarians: it would be a German general, with German troops, that was largely responsible for defeating a tiny country that they had twice failed to subdue. But cracking the Serbian nut would require even more. Careful German diplomacy had managed to get Bulgaria moving towards an alliance.

Bulgaria had been on the sidelines throughout 1914 and 1915, watching the Allies and Central Powers go at it and trying to figure out who to side with. Neither faction really cared about Bulgarian interests unless it benefited them, and Bulgaria wanted to end up on the winning side. The Russian defeats in 1915 and the failure of the Gallipoli offensive, though, swung Bulgaria over to the Central Powers. It didn’t hurt that Serbia had delivered a massive defeat to Bulgaria only two years ago in the Second Balkan War, and Bulgaria was eager for revenge. Germany promised Bulgaria large chunks of Serbian territory, too.

On October 7, 1915, the Central Powers launched their combined offensive against Serbia. They attacked from three sides: the Austrians from the west over the old battlefield of Cer, the Germans from the north against Belgrade, and the Bulgarians from the east. Marshal Putnik, now very ill, had anticipated the Bulgarian threat and placed troops to watch them. Against the power of all three nations, Serbian resistance was hopeless, but that didn’t mean they didn’t try. Fanatic Serbian defenses faced every angle of Central Powers attack, and Belgrade in particular became a center of intense last-ditch city fighting.

At one point in the battle for Belgrade, Serbian Major Dragutin Gavrilovic led his battalion into the maelstrom of German fire, declaring to his men that “Our regiment has been sacrificed for the honor of Belgrade and the Fatherland. Therefore, you no longer need to worry about your lives: they no longer exist. So, forward to glory! For the King and the Fatherland! Long live the King, Long live Belgrade!” This desperate charge failed, but Gavrilovic’s bravery gained admiration even from General Mackensen, who had a monument erected on the site – a highly unusual occurrence of an enemy general marking the valor of his foe.

Despite such bravery, Belgrade was lost for good on October 9, and the Serbian Army now had a new mission: survival. The Western Allies had finally woken up to the danger that Serbia was in and sent a small force to land in Greece and march north to save Serbia. French General Maurice Serrail’s force of British and French divisions was blocked from advancing in several battles against the Bulgarians and retreated to the Greek port of Salonika. On November 24, 1915, as the Bulgarians entered Pristina – the capital of Kosovo – Serbia as a territorial unit ceased to exist. It was totally overrun.

Serbia now consisted of the Army, led by its King and the ailing Marshal Putnik. With their escape route south blocked by the Anglo-French defeat, the Serbians were being closed in from all sides. They would have to fight their way out. 180,000 survivors remained of the Serbian Army, only a third of its initial strength. 220,000 Serbian civilians also decided to abandon their country and flee for safety, aware of Austro-Hungarian atrocities earlier in the war and afraid they would be conscripted into the German war effort. The result was that 400,000 Serbs prepared for one of the most tragic and terrible events of the First World War.

In what became called The Great Retreat, this great human mass ventured through the high mountains of southwest Serbia and Albania to reach refuge along the Greek coast. Across some of the most mountainous terrain in Europe, in bitter cold and freezing temperatures, the starving, sick and exposed columns braved the terrain and the weather. They had to move fast, to escape the encircling Central Powers forces, but even at the front of the columns there was no peace. Albanian bandits, men who remembered Serbian atrocities during the Balkan Wars, constantly harassed and attacked the columns as they ascended the slopes of the Balkan Mountains. With the Bulgarians nipping at their heels, the Serbians straggled across the mountains in a dramatic and horrifying human experience. The 71-year old King Peter of Serbia led his central column on foot with a rifle on his shoulder, while the critically ill Marshal Putnik had to be carried in a covered litter by his willing, adoring soldiers.

By the time the Great Retreat reached the sea, the nation of Serbia had been dealt a body blow. Around 160,000 civilians had died during the terrible crossing, most from exposure, disease or starvation. Around 77,000 soldiers also died, and only a remnant of the Serbian Army survived to be picked up by French ships and taken to the Greek island of Corfu. Many of those who had survived the crossing died after their salvation, they were so weak and enfeebled by the physical effort. Marshal Radomir Putnik, the bedrock of Serbian resistance in 1914 and 1915, had been drained by two years of war and by the terrible ordeal, and he died after extensive treatment at a French hospital in 1917. The sad remnant of the Serbian nation remained on Corfu through most of 1916.

Back in Serbia, the Bulgarian and Austrian occupation was as harsh as many feared. The Serbs were exposed to mass internment, forced labor, and the cultural genocide of the Serbian language and culture. In the Austro-Hungarian zones, deliberate annexation was the anticipated future of Serbia and political repression was ever-present. As far as the Central Powers were concerned, there WAS no Serbia anymore. It had been wiped off the map.

But as we know, lots can happen in war. That small British/French force in northern Greece ended up growing into a considerable army based on the port city of Salonika, and by late 1916 they had bounced back and rebuilt a frontline. Only the Bulgarians were really left to face them, since the Austrians and Germans needed their troops for other fronts. Throughout 1916 and 1917, the Allied forces on the Salonika Front waited for their moment, and soon they had new arrivals. The remnants of the Serbian Army, reinforced and reequipped by their Allied benefactors, slipped into the trenches next to the British, Greek, and French soldiers in front of Salonika. Beyond those Bulgarian trenches lay their occupied country.

Though the Allied armies at Salonika earned much scorn for their inactivity, being referred to as the “Gardeners of Salonika,” that all changed in September 1918 when the front went over to the offensive. The Serbian Army, beaten, battered, but very much alive, took the spearhead as the Allies shattered the Bulgarians and steamed north. The broken Bulgarians sued for peace on September 29, the first of the Central Powers to admit defeat. On November 1, 1918 – three years and a month after they had lost their capital – the Serbs reentered Belgrade. From the first rounds to the last terrible triumph, the Serbs had somehow come out on top in World War I.

But they paid out the nose for it. Serbia lost a higher proportion of its population than any country in EITHER World War. Out of a prewar population of 4.5 million inhabitants, the Serbs probably lost around 1.1 million – or almost 25%. The Serbian Army lost 57% of its strength killed in the war, and since the Army basically comprised all the nation’s military-age males this was a particular demographic catastrophe. Serbia had nearly ceased to exist under the pressure of war, massacre, famine, disease, and overall suffering. 150,000 people died of the 1915 typhus epidemic alone. Serbia, for all its glory and all its unlikely salvations, had come out of World War I a shadow of its former self.

But it was a BIG shadow. On December 1, 1918, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire paved the way for a new union of the South Slavic peoples into a contiguous nation. King Peter I of Serbia became the King of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and Serbia became the cornerstone of a new country known as Yugoslavia. So that’s a nice consolation prize for the near-destruction of your ethnic community, I suppose.

Of course, lumping a myriad of different ethnic groups that all hate each other into a single state is NOT gonna work out great. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

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