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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.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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