Central Powers Invade Serbia

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 204th installment in the series.   

October 6, 1915: Central Powers Invade Serbia 

The First World War resulted from Austria-Hungary’s determination to crush Serbia, but against all expectations the small Slavic kingdom managed to repel a series of invasions with decisive victories over Habsburg forces at Cer Mountain and Kolubara. Subsequently Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hotzendorf had his hands full trying to stop the Russian advance in Galicia, and then organizing defenses on yet another front after Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915.

But this yearlong respite was only a temporary reprieve, and by the fall of 1915 Serbia’s number was up. The Austro-German breakthrough on the Eastern Front, and the Russian Great Retreat which followed, failed to knock Russia out of the war but did end the Russian threat to Hungary, and so removed the main domestic political obstacle to a new attack against Serbia, as Hungary’s Magyar elite now felt secure enough to support renewed offensive operations. Meanwhile Habsburg forces stabilized the situation on the Italian front with defensive victories at the First and Second Battles of Isonzo, and the Allied attack at Gallipoli convinced Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany of the need to conquer Serbia to open up direct rail communications with the beleaguered Ottoman Empire, in order to send urgently needed supplies and reinforcements to the Turks. 

Last but certainly not least, in July Germany and Austria-Hungary finally persuaded the Bulgarians to join their planned offensive, followed by a military pact detailing Bulgaria’s part in the campaign – effectively sealing Serbia’s fate, as it now faced overwhelming numbers attacking on multiple fronts (any hope of Allied forces coming to Serbia's rescue was dispelled by Greece’s pro-German King Constantine, who refused to allow British and French forces to land at Salonika, effectively repudiating Greece’s pre-war alliance with Serbia; the Allies eventually landed anyway in violation of Greek neutrality – but too late to help Serbia). 

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The attack would be carried out by Army Group Temesvar under August von Mackensen – battle-hardened troops under a seasoned commander fresh from multiple victories during the conquest of Russian Poland. The German Eleventh Army under General Max von Gallwitz would spearhead the northern assault, supported by the combined Austro-German Third Army under General Hermann Kövess von Kövesshaza, attacking the Serbian Third and First Armies, respectively. From the east the Bulgarian First and Second Armies would attack the Serbian Macedonian, Second, and Timok Armies (the last named for the tributary of the Danube which provided the main line of defense in this region). The Bulgarian First Army was also under Mackensen’s control as part of his army group, while the Bulgarian Third Army stood guard against Romania. 

Altogether the Central Powers would field 23 divisions (including ten German, seven Habsburg, and six Bulgarian) numbering around 600,000 men, of which the Austro-Germans contributed roughly 330,000. Against these the Serbian Army – scarcely recovered from the Balkan Wars when hostilities began, and now further depleted by a year of fighting and the ruinous typhus epidemic – could muster ten understrength divisions, numbering around 250,000 men, with another 50,000 from Serbia’s tiny ally Montenegro. The Central Powers also enjoyed a massive superiority in artillery, with Mackensen’s army group employing over 2,000 medium and heavy guns, versus 330 for the Serbs – foreshadowing a repeat of Mackensen’s tried-and-true tactics from the Eastern Front, where Austro-German bombardments simply obliterated the Russian trenches. 

In short, there was never any question about the outcome: Serbia was going to be annihilated. The offensive began on the night of October 5-6, 1915 with a bombardment of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, growing in intensity until large parts of the city were in flames. One observer, the British correspondent Gordon Gordon-Smith, recalled: “The bombardment of Belgrade was one of the fiercest in the history of the present war. Over 50,000 projectiles fell in the town in the first forty-eight hours. Nothing was spared. Over eighty shells struck or fell around the American Hospital… in spite of the fact that a Red Cross flag, visible for miles, was flying from the roof.” 

On October 6-7 the Austro-German troops began crossing the Danube and Sava Rivers, now cleared of mines by artillery shelling, on light river craft (above, German cavalry crossing the Danube) or by fording in places where the rivers or their tributaries were shallow enough (top). Despite the artillery preparation the attackers sustained heavy losses as they proceeded across the wide, slow-flowing rivers and reached shore amidst Serbian machine gun and rifle fire, followed by hand-to-hand combat. Gordon-Smith recalled: 

After a number of unsuccessful attempts the German infantry on October 6th managed to get a footing on the right bank of the Danube at Belgrade and three other points. The capital was only defended by a small body of troops, the gendarmerie and a number of Comitadjis or irregulars. The defenders fought their assailants hand to hand. The quays of the Danube were running with blood and piled with German corpses. 

The invaders then faced heavy artillery fire in the streets of Belgrade, including British naval guns hurriedly brought up to the capital, which dropped shrapnel shells into the narrow streets with devastating effect. One German soldier, a medical student, bargained with a higher power as his unit advanced into the enemy city under fierce shelling: 

When I saw my comrades falling down I thought: Now you are getting your share as well. In the deepest anxiety of my soul I called upon God. “Oh my dear God, please help, help, save me, have mercy with the shot I am getting.” I am prepared to sacrifice an arm or a leg, I also take a shot in the chest… Suddenly I thought about my eyes. If only I’m not blinded. I might be prepared to sacrifice one eye, but rather not even this. If only I’m not blinded. 

As expected he was hit, and (understandably) believed the wound was much worse than it actually was: 

… I feel a terrible hit against my right ear. It is a feeling as if someone had hit my right cheek with a rubber truncheon. There’s a heavy jerk and then a clear crack of bones. On my left side I see a comrade holding his head with both hands. He has got his share too… There is blood dripping on my hands, too, and my coat. When I see it I scream: I am bleeding to death, I am bleeding to death. 

By October 9 the Central Powers were in control of Belgrade, which gave them an important propaganda victory but did little to change the strategic situation. The Serbian government had wisely relocated some months before to a new temporary capital at Nis, and the Serbian Army, seeing the futility of trying to hold the city against overwhelming numbers, also mostly withdrew in the weeks before the Austro-German assault, to mount a more determined defense to the south. Now they were joined by thousands of civilian refugees, who fled the city in long columns, heading into central Serbia on foot or in horse-drawn wagons. T.R.F. Butler, an Irish medical volunteer, described the scene on the road south of Belgrade on the night of October 8-9: 

A few minutes later we found ourselves among an immense throng of refugees the whole city, one might say, in retreat moving along the one road that could lead them to safety. The spectacle was the most melancholy that I have ever witnessed. One saw old women struggling along as best they could under heavy burdens and usually there were ill clad, crying children following along behind them. There were wounded soldiers too in groups of three or four, often supporting each other for the order had been given that every wounded man who could walk must do so… When we looked back we could see Belgrade burning in seven different places. 

A much more strategically important turn of events was looming in the east: the Bulgarian intervention, which began with attacks by the First and Second Armies on October 12 (followed two days later by the actual declaration of war), appeared to seal Serbia’s fate.  As the Bulgarian guns boomed it became clear that Serbia was doomed, unless by some miracle the French troops now landing at Salonika under General Maurice Sarrail could reach them in time. 

The Allies were cutting it close, to say the least: the first French troops arrived in Salonika on October 5, landing cautiously due to fear Greek forces might resist this blatant violation of Greek neutrality (true, pro-Allied Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos had invited the Allies to land in Greece, but he was promptly fired by Greece's pro-German King Constantine; in any event by this time concerns about the rights of small neutrals, ostensibly one of the causes of the war, had obviously gone out the window). On October 12 Sarrail himself arrived, and two days later French troops were moving north through the valley of the River Strumiza. But by October 15 the rescue mission had essentially failed, as the Bulgarians captured the key Serbian city of Vranje, severing the rail link between the Allied base in Salonika and the Serbian armies to the north. 

Still the outnumbered Serbs fought on, hoping to at least delay the Central Powers advance long enough to allow wounded soldiers, heavy artillery, and other supplies to be evacuated. Gordon-Smith described the grim determination of Serbian soldiers headed to the front aboard trains leaving the central Serbian town of Kragujevac, at night and in miserable conditions: 

Hour after hour we waited in the pouring rain. The streaming platforms were glistening with wet in the crude light of the arc lamps. Train after train emerged from the outer darkness, trundled slowly, axles creaking and groaning beneath the load of men and guns, through the station and were again swallowed up in the obscurity beyond. One had a momentary glimpse of the Serbian soldiers, standing stoically in the open trucks in the pouring rain, or saw the silhouette of the guns, their muzzles pointing skywards, as they passed, the heads of the horses emerging through the openings of the cattle trucks used for their transport. 

Ultimately the Serbian army’s valiant resistance made little difference: as in Russia, the Austro-German artillery proved irresistible. A few days later Gordon-Smith witnessed the effect of massed shellfire on Serbian hilltop trenches, and indeed the natural landscape itself:

But nothing could have withstood the tremendous fire of the German heavy guns… Huge shells from the thirty-eight centimetre guns were pounding the crest of the hills, which were smoking like volcanoes as these enormous projectiles burst. So tremendous was their effect that the crests were changing their shape before our eyes. As one gun after another came into action the Serbian position became untenable. They had no artillery with which they could make effective reply to ordnance of this calibre, and we could see the long lines of grey-coated infantry winding down the slope, using woods, ditches, and the ruined villages as cover from the murderous fire of the enemy. A minute or two later a tremendous explosion shook the air, and a couple of miles away a pillar of black smoke mounted slowly into the sky. The Serbs had blown up the last bridge across the Morava. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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