Serbia In Collapse

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 208th installment in the series.

November 5, 1915: Serbia In Collapse

With Serbia outnumbered by more than two to one by its German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian foes, there was never really any doubt about the outcome of the Central Powers’ offensive against the small Slavic kingdom in the autumn of 1915—and it wasn’t long in coming.

Attacked on multiple fronts in the first half of October 1915, the Serbian armies were quickly forced to fall back towards central Serbia by overwhelming enemy firepower, as German and Habsburg heavy guns blasted Serbian trenches out of existence. Reeling backwards, the Serbs made desperate attempts to slow the onslaught at the Battles of the Morava and Ovche Pole, while a French relief force, marching north from the Greek port of Salonika, fought the Bulgarians at the Battle of Krivolak.

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By mid-November all three battles had turned against the Serbs and their allies. During the Battle of the Morava, named for the river valley where much of the fighting took place, the Bulgarian First Army broke through the Serbian lines at Pirot on October 24, and by November 9 the outnumbered Serbian Second Army was in retreat towards the southern province of Kosovo. Further south, in the Battle of Ovche Pole the Bulgarian Second Army overwhelmed Serbian defenses at Kumanovo, severing the vital rail link to Salonika and conquering the Vardar River valley by November 15. Simultaneously the Bulgarians held off the French force advancing from the south at Krivolak, ending any hope that the Allies might be able to send reinforcements to the outnumbered Serbs by November 21.

Meanwhile the Austro-German Eleventh Army and Austro-Hungarian Third Army were advancing relentlessly from the north. A British observer, Gordon Gordon-Smith, described the tried-and-true method used by the Eleventh Army, which he was able to observe from the Serbian side in a battle near the town of Paraćin (top, German troops marching through Paraćin):

Shells fell by hundreds on every square mile of the Serbian positions. After two hours or so of this indiscriminate bombardment we began to see parties of infantry, twenty to fifty strong, pushing forward. When they came within rifle-range they began to deploy and opened fire on the Serbian positions. As soon as the Serbian infantry began to reply, a field telephone, with which each of the German advance parties was armed, ’phoned back the exact position of the trenches to the artillery in the rear. An instant later an avalanche of shrapnel and shell was poured on the Serbian lines, while at the same time the heavier German guns opened a “tir de barrage” [covering fire] on the ground two miles in the Serbian rear to hinder the movement of retreat or prevent reinforcements being brought up.

On October 19 the Serbian government abandoned the temporary capital at Niš for Prizren in the far southwest, near the Albanian border. By October 22 the Bulgarians had reached Uskub (today Skopje, Macedonia; below, local men listen to a Serbian soldier before the evacuation of Skopje) then captured Kragujevac, in the heart of Serbia, on November 1. On November 5 Niš fell to the Central Powers—opening direct rail communications with the Ottoman Empire, one of the main goals of the campaign—followed by Kruševac the next day. Gordon-Smith, who was present at the evacuation of Kruševac, described the lurid scene as Serbian troops and civilians fled into the hills while the Serbian rearguard tried to hold off the enemy for a few more hours:

From the eminence on which I stood the spectacle was terrifying. Krushevatz was blazing at half a dozen points, the whole sky was covered with a crimson glare, while below us the river, blood-red in the flames, could be followed to the horizon, where the flashes of Serbian guns delaying the German advance could be seen… Suddenly there was an explosion like an earthquake. An immense column of yellow flame shot heavenward, lighting up the whole country for miles round. The heavy girder bridge over the river had been dynamited.

On November 7 the battered Serbian armies began retreating towards the famous “Field of Blackbirds” or Kosovo Polje—full of symbolic meaning as the scene of Serbia’s crushing defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1389, and soon to witness yet another heroic martyrdom at the hands of the Central Powers (below, Serbian forces in retreat). The ragged Serbian armies would make their last stand at Kosovo Polje from November 20-25, 1915.

Once again, Gordon-Smith was present as the Serbs retreated southwest from Kruševac down the Rasina River Valley towards Kosovo:

The panorama which met our eyes was grandiose in the extreme. To right and left of us snow-capped mountains towered to the clouds. Through the centre of the valley they formed wound a narrow road skirting a rushing stream, the Rasina. As far as the eye could reach, both front and rear, was an endless line of marching regiments, infantry, cavalry and artillery… For fifty kilometres in front of us and ten behind us rolled this human flood, 130,000 men, 20,000 horses and 80,000 oxen, with here and there a pontoon train, a field telegraph section or a battery of immense howitzers drawn by teams of twenty-four oxen. But behind us we could always hear the inexorable thunder of the German guns.

After a month of non-stop fighting and marching, the Serbian troops were understandably exhausted and demoralized. Gordon-Smith recalled the sad scene when the army pitched camp at night:

Squatting down on their heels, the men stretched their numbed hands to the flickering blaze. Sometimes one would hear the plaintive strains from the violin of a gipsy soldier, or the low sounds of the native flute. The men seemed in these somber days to sleep but little. After tramping all day alongside their wagons they would remain seated around the bivouac fires, dozing or talking in low tones, till the advent of the cheerless dawn warned them to feed the oxen and prepare to resume their weary march.

Things were about to become much worse. Even by the standards of the First World War Serbia’s fate was a humanitarian disaster, as hundreds of thousands of peasants streamed south to join the Serbian Army in the “Great Retreat”—a horrible journey over the snowy Albanian mountains in mid-winter, conducted without enough food or shelter, from November 1915 to January 1916 (below, peasant refugees).

Already the weather was turning against the retreating Serbs—not to mention thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war who suffered the same privations as their captors (or worse). Josef Šrámek, a Czech prisoner of war, described the incredible conditions in his diary as his POW column made its way through Pristina, Kosovo, on October 28-30:

We walk all day without stopping. Those who stay behind get beaten with a stick or gun butt or stabbed with bayonets. You mustn’t stop to have a sip of water as the guards keep on screaming “Četyry a četyry” [“march”]. The road is flooded. We walk in water that reaches up to our waists for almost 4 hours… Last night we slept in the rain again. Our guards raged—they hit, kicked, and robbed us.

Hunger was already spreading in the Serbian ranks, and with the logic of war thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war would be the first to starve to death. On November 12 Šrámek wrote:

Sad times—no bread or meals for 3 days, and yet we have to work. We are dying for food. It is raining; the creek flooded the road, and the supplies can’t reach us. We boil corn and rose hips. I traded a little corn flour for a shirt and underwear. The Arnauts [ethnic Albanians] do not want Serb money. The boys trade flour for their last blankets… Today someone shouted at the narednik [officer]: “Give us bread or shoot us. We cannot live like this.” We’re hopeless.

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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