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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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15 Educational Facts About Old School
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Old School starred Luke Wilson as Mitch Martin, an attorney who—after catching his girlfriend cheating, and through some real estate and bitter dean-related circumstances—becomes the leader of a not-quite-official college fraternity. Along with his fellow thirtysomething friends Bernard (Vince Vaughn) and newlywed Frank (Will Ferrell), they end up having to fight for their right to maintain their status as a party-loving frat on campus.

The film, which was released 15 years ago today, marked Vaughn’s return to major comedies and Ferrell’s first major starring role after seven years on Saturday Night Live. Here are some facts about the movie for everyone, but particularly for my boy, Blue.

1. THE IDEA ORIGINATED WITH AN AD GUY.

Writer-director Todd Phillips was talking to a friend of his from the advertising industry named Court Crandall one day. Crandall had seen and enjoyed Phillips's movie Frat House (1998) and told his director buddy, “You know what would be funny is a movie about older guys who start a fraternity of their own.” After being told by Phillips to write it, he presented Phillips with a “loose version” of the finished product.

2. SOME OF THE FRAT SHENANIGANS WERE REAL.

While Crandall received the story credit for Old School, Phillips and Scot Armstrong received the credit for writing the script. Armstrong put his own college fraternity experiences into the script. “We were in Peoria, Illinois, so it was up to us to entertain ourselves," Armstrong shared in the movie's official production notes. "A lot of ideas for Old School came from things that really happened. When it was cold, everyone would go stir crazy and it inspired some moments of brilliance. Of course, my definition of ‘brilliance' might be different from other people's.”

3. IVAN REITMAN HELPED OUT.

Ivan Reitman, director of Stripes and Ghostbusters, was an executive producer on the film. Phillips and Armstrong wrote and rewrote every day for two months at Reitman’s house, an experience Phillips described as comedy writing “boot camp.”

4. THE STUDIO DIDN’T WANT VINCE VAUGHN.

Vince Vaughn in 'Old School' (2003)
DreamWorks

It didn’t seem to make a difference to DreamWorks that Phillips and Armstrong had written the role of Bernard with Vince Vaughn in mind—the studio didn't want him. After his breakout success in Swingers, Vaughn had taken roles in dramas like the 1998 remake of Psycho. “So when Todd Phillips wanted me for Old School, the studio didn’t want me,” Vaughn told Variety in 2015. “They didn’t think I could do comedy! They said, ‘He’s a dramatic actor from smaller films.’ Todd really had to push for me.”

5. RECYCLED SHOTS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY WERE USED.

The film was mainly shot on the Westwood campus of UCLA. The aerial shots of the fictitious Harrison University, however, were of Harvard; they had been shot for Road Trip (2000).

6. VINCE VAUGHN FANS MIGHT RECOGNIZE THE CHURCH.

In the film, Frank gets married at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California. Vaughn and Owen Wilson were in that same church two years later for Wedding Crashers (2005).

7. WILL FERRELL SCARED MEMBERS OF A 24-HOUR GYM.

Frank’s streaking scene was shot on a city street. As Ferrell remembered it, one of the storefronts was a 24-hour gym with Stairmasters and treadmills in the window. “I was rehearsing in a robe, and all these people are in the gym, watching me. I asked one of the production assistants, ‘Shouldn’t we tell them I’m going to be naked?’ Sure enough, I dropped my robe and there were shrieks of pure horror. After the first take, nobody was at the window anymore. I took that as a sign of approval.”

8. FERRELL REALLY WAS NAKED.

Ferrell justified it by saying it showed his character falling off the wagon. “The fact that it made sense was the reason I was really into doing it, and why I was able to commit on that level," Ferrell told the BBC. "If it was just for the sake of doing a crazy shot, then I don't think it makes sense.” Still, Ferrell needed some liquid courage, and was intimidated by the presence of Snoop Dogg.

9. ROB CORDDRY WAS NOT NAKED, BUT HE STILL HAD TO SIGN AWAY HIS NUDITY RIGHTS.

Old School marked the first major film role for Rob Corddry, who at the time was best known as a correspondent for The Daily Show. He had a jewel bag around his private parts for his nude scene, but his butt made it into the final cut. He had to sign a nudity clause, which gave the film the right to use his naked image “in any part of the universe, in any form, even that which is not devised.”

10. SNOOP DOGG AGREED TO CAMEO SO HE COULD PLAY HUGGY BEAR IN STARSKY & HUTCH.

Phillips admitted to essentially bribing the hip-hop artist/actor, using Snoop Dogg’s desire to play the street informant in the modern movie adaptation of the classic TV show (which Phillips was also directing) to his advantage. “So when I went to him I said, 'I want you to do Huggy Bear,' he was really excited. And I said, 'Oh yeah, also will you do this little thing for me in Old School a little cameo?' So he kind of had to do it I think."

11. SNOOP WANTED TO HANG OUT WITH VINCE VAUGHN ON SET, BUT NOT LUKE WILSON.

Snoop Dogg in 'Old School' (2003)
Richard Foreman, Dreamworks

Vaughn and his friends accepted an invitation to hang out in Snoop Dogg’s trailer to play video games on the last day of shooting. Vaughn recalled seeing Luke Wilson later watching the news alone in his trailer; he had not been informed of the get-together.

12. WILSON WAS TEASED BY HIS CO-STARS.

Vaughn, Wilson, and Ferrell dubbed themselves “The Wolfpack”—years before Phillips directed The Hangover—because they would always make fun of each other. A particularly stinging exchange had Ferrell refer to Legally Blonde (which Wilson had starred in) as Legally Bland. Wilson said it didn’t make him feel great. Wilson retorted by telling Ferrell that "the transition from TV to the movies isn't a very easy one, so you might just want to keep one foot back in TV just in case this whole movie thing falls through!"

13. TERRY O’QUINN SCARED HIS SONS INTO THINKING THEY WERE TRIPPING.

Terry O’Quinn (who went on to play John Locke on Lost the following year) agreed to play Goldberg, uncredited, in what was a two-day job for him. He neglected to inform his sons he was in the movie, and when they saw it, one of them called their father. “I got a call from my sons one night, and they said, ‘What were you doing in Old School? We didn’t even know you were in it!’ They said, ‘We’re sitting there, and the first time we see you, it’s, like, in a reflection in a window. And when we saw it, and we both thought we were, like, tripping or something!’”

14. THE EARMUFFS WERE IMPROVISED.

Before filming, Vaughn worked with Ferrell to figure out their characters' backstories and how they knew each other; he credited that with helping him figure out who Bernard was, which led to several ad-libbed moments. “The earmuff scene where he swears in front of the kids, and then I tell the kid to earmuff, that all is off the cuff. But that stuff is a lot easier to do when you know who you are and your circumstances, and who your characters are,” Vaughn explained.

15. FERRELL AND VAUGHN DIDN’T LOVE A SCRIPT FOR A SEQUEL.

Armstrong had written Old School Dos in 2006, which saw the frat going to Spring Break. Ferrell said that he and Vaughn read the script but felt like they would just be “kind of doing the same thing again.” Wilson, on the other hand, was excited over the new script.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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