Serbian Victory at Kolubara

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 156th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 2, 1914: Serbian Victory at Kolubara 

As Austria-Hungary’s determination to crush Serbia was the immediate cause of the Great War, most observers expected the Dual Monarchy to annihilate the small Slavic kingdom, still exhausted from the Balkan Wars, within a few weeks of the outbreak of hostilities. Instead the scrappy Serbs amazed the world by scoring a string of defensive victories, humiliating the Hapsburg armies and tying down hundreds of thousands of troops sorely needed on the Russian front. 

After the first Austro-Hungarian invasion was decisively defeated during the Battle of Cer Mountain from August 15-24, 1914, the Austrian commander, Oskar Potiorek, regrouped in preparation for another offensive while the Serbs conducted harassing attacks across the frontier along the Sava and Drina Rivers, including incursions into Austrian Bosnia, with scant success in the Battle of the Drina from September 6-October 4.

By mid-October Potiorek’s troops had secured bridgeheads across the Drina River, while chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf scraped together reinforcements wherever he could find them, laying the groundwork for a renewed Hapsburg offensive in the autumn. In early November the Austro-Hungarian Fifth and Sixth Armies, together numbering around 450,000 troops, launched a pincer movement against northwestern Serbia, defended by around 400,000 Serbian soldiers in three main armies and two smaller army detachments.

Rather than simply wait for the blow to fall, however, Serbian chief of the general staff Radomir Putnik staged a fighting retreat, drawing the enemy deeper into central Serbia, where autumn rain turned primitive roads into mud, disrupting the Hapsburg supply lines and forcing the armies to widen the arms of the planned pincer. According to Josef Šrámek, a Czech soldier in the Hapsburg army, food was already scarce and disease rampant as early as October, exacerbated by corruption and indiscipline: 

Hunger every day, too little bread available. Dysentery is spreading among us. I am expecting packages from home – in vain – feldwebels [sergeants] stole them. The same happens to rum and wine! Officers are drunk. They push us around and beat us with sticks… Being in the army is getting tougher day by day… We even lack water.

Nonetheless, encouraged by the apparent crumbling of Serbian resistance, Potiorek pressed forward, capturing the strategic town of Valjevo on November 15 and forcing the Serbs to abandon their capital, Belgrade, and relocate to the central Serbian town of Niš on November 29. Šrámek noted that this gave a much-needed boost to morale: “With great enthusiasm we think we have now won the war; there are even some prophets saying we will be home by Christmas.” 

As jubilant crowds in Vienna celebrated each new Hapsburg advance, the situation looked increasingly hopeless for the Serbs – but now Putnik, running out of options, decided to make a last stand along the Kolubara River, where mountainous terrain would afford his troops would a defensive advantage, and the enemy forces would have to approach over relatively open ground from the north. At the same time the lines of supply and communication between the diverging Austro-Hungarian armies were stretching to the breaking point. Šrámek recounted: “We slept in the fields – hungry, freezing exhausted… No bread – there is one portion for ten men. We stay without meals for three days…”

After reaching the Kolubara on November 16, the Austro-Hungarians battered Serbian defenses in miserable conditions dominated by freezing rain and snow, finally managing to push the Serbian First Army out of its defensive positions on the southern flank on November 19. Potiorek followed up these gains with another push by Sixth Army against the Serbian First Army on November 21, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. Now, as the Serbian First Army retreated east, he once again glimpsed the tantalizing prospect of a pincer movement leading to encirclement and total destruction of the Serbian armies.

However Putnik’s skillful management of the Serbian retreat prevented Potiorek from coming to grips with the First Army, aided by the latter’s decision to allow his own troops to rest. Meanwhile crucial supplies of artillery shells from the Allies began arriving from the south, where they were disembarked in the Greek port of Salonika and hurried north to the Serbs by rail. With his ammunition replenished, Putnik decided to stake everything on a surprise counterattack (top, Serbian artillery at Kolubara).

The sudden Serbian assault on December 2, 1914 took the enemy completely by surprise; running low on ammunition and supplies themselves, the over-confident Hapsburg forces were overstretched and had also failed to establish strong defensive positions. The first day’s attack succeeded in pushing the Austro-Hungarian troops back a few miles, and more importantly restored the Serbs’ flagging morale.

On December 3 they resumed the offensive, before the enemy had a chance to reconstitute their defensive line – and now, just as suddenly as they had advanced, the Hapsburg forces simply collapsed. By December 6 they were in headlong retreat, abandoning Valjevo on December 8 and Belgrade on December 14, while the Serbs captured tens of thousands of prisoners. Šrámek wrote in his diary: 

It is all in vain! We’ve been firing for the 4th day now. The Serbs are all around. For 4 days now, we’ve had no food, no officers, and we’ve kept the last hill. Today I was in a real rain of bullets 3 times. The unit is destroyed; each of us has run in a different direction. Grenades crackle in the snow around me. I am dead tired… Suddenly the Serbs were here. “Bacaj puski!” [“Drop your guns!”] 

Any hopes Šrámek and his fellow Slavic soldiers they may have held of gentle treatment from their ethnic cousins, the Serbs, were quickly shattered: 

The Serbs robbed us immediately. I didn’t want to give them my bag. A Serb hit me with the butt end of his gun, and I fell down… The first thing our brother Serbs did was take off our coats and put them on themselves. The same with our shoes. All that had any value – underwear, blankets, watches, money – everything comes in handy for them. All we ate in 3 days were 3 halves of a bread loaf. We slept on the snow and saw the first swamps the first two nights.

In strategic terms the defeat at Kolubara was yet another disaster for the hapless Hapsburgs, coming on top of their earlier humiliation in Serbia in September and their repeated defeats in Galicia, and further confirming the opinion of the German general Erich Ludendorff, fairly dripping with disdain: “Ally? Ha! We are shackled to a corpse!” As 1914 drew to a close it had become clear that Austria-Hungary was entirely dependent on Germany for its continued existence – and the Germans weren’t shy about taking control of the situation, stirring Austrian resentment against the high-handed behavior of the “arrogant Prussians.”

Boer Rebellion Collapses

After the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the Germans hoped to distract the British by stirring up colonial rebellions in Africa and Asia, but for the most part these schemes quickly collapsed in the face of the British Empire’s superior resources. The short-lived uprising by several Boer groups in the Union of South Africa was one of the first to be crushed.

Taking advantage of the South African government’s general lack of preparation, compounded by the difficulty of marshaling troops over the vast spaces of the interior, the Boer rebels managed to score a few minor victories at first. On October 24 rebel forces under Christiaan de Wet captured the town of Heilbron in the Orange Free State, and on November 8 they defeated government troops in a skirmish at Doornberg, though De Wet’s son Danie was killed. 

But the net was already closing around them. On October 22 loyalist forces defeated Boer rebels under Manie Maritz at Ratedrai, near Upington, then pursued them until they fled over the border to German Southwest Africa (today Namibia). Meanwhile South African Prime Minister Louis Botha (a Boer who remained loyal to Britain, and was familiar with rebel tactics from his own experience in the Boer War) personally took the field in late October, forcing rebels under Christian Frederick Beyers to flee Rustenburg, Transvaal. 

The climactic battle occurred at Mushroom Valley in the Winburg region of the Orange Free State on November 16, following an all-night march by government forces under Botha. Eric Moore Ritchie, a British observer with Botha’s forces, described the exhausting journey through a strange landscape:

It was bitterly cold – cold as the Free State night on the veld knows how to be. And we could not smoke, could not talk above a faint murmur, and nodded in our saddles. The clear stars danced fantastically in the sky ahead of us, and the ground seemed to be falling away from us into vast hollows, then rising to our horses' noses ready to smash into us…

As dawn broke Botha’s armored cars and machine guns took Wet’s irregulars by surprise in open fields, decimating the rebel force. De Wet himself managed to escape, fleeing to nearby Bechuanaland, and on December 1, 1914 the rest of his troops surrendered. A week later Botha’s troops destroyed another rebel force under Beyers, who attempted to flee by jumping into the Vaal River, but drowned in the swift current. 

Although isolated clashes occurred into 1915, the Boer Rebellion was effectively over. Now the South African Government could return to the main task – the conquest of German Southwest Africa.

Allies Advance in Cameroon 

German Southwest Africa was the scene of just one of several African colonial campaigns during the First World War. While a scrappy colonial force under the brilliant commander Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck defied the British in German East Africa (today Tanzania), on the other side of the continent the Allies were slowly making headway against German forces in Kamerun (today Cameroon – map shows borders before the Treaty of Berlin). 

The commanders of the German schutztruppe in Cameroon, numbering less than 2,000 men in 1914, faced a daunting prospect of war on all fronts, as the colony was surrounded by British Nigeria, and French North Africa, Equatorial Africa, and Congo; the Allies could also call on Belgian troops from the nearby Belgian Congo. However the Germans also enjoyed a considerable defensive advantage thanks to Cameroon’s huge size (comparable to California), sparse population, and extremely rugged terrain, including a mountainous interior blanketed with tropical forests. They also benefited from rivalry between the British and French, who both wanted Cameroon for themselves after the war (the French got it in the end). 

Despite their differences, in 1914 the Allies were able to pick off most of the low-hanging fruit (literally) as they navigated rivers to capture unprotected towns in the low-lying coastal region. The British campaign got off to a bad start with a defeat at Nsanakong on September 6, but they on September 27 they occupied the main commercial city, Duala, and a small British force headed up the Mungo River to capture Yabassi on October 4. Another British force moved up the Nyong River and captured Dehane on October 22, then headed north to capture Edea on October 26. 

On November 15 British colonial troops under Colonel E.H. Gorges captured the German colonial capital, Buea (above, Nigerian troops at Muyuka, near Buea). The French took the coastal town of Kribi on December 2, and on December 10-11 Gorges took Nkongsamba, giving the British control of the German Cameroon Northern Railway, followed by the town of Bare, where in a stroke of luck they captured several German warplanes, still in crates. 

The Allies also made some progress in the interior, as French and Belgian troops occupied Batouri on December 9, Molundu on December 19, and Bertoua on December 29. To the north French troops had occupied all of northern Cameroon by December 12, with the exception of the fortified town of Mora, where British and French troops from Nigeria were repulsed despite their superiority in artillery on October 29-31. The German defenders settled in for a long siege, which continued into early 1915.

However the vast, rugged highlands of central Cameroon remained unconquered, and the Germans were able to recruit more colonial troops in 1915, effectively tripling their small force. Ultimately they would manage to hold out until March 1916. 

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13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. Here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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