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.

Click to enlarge

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.

New Game of Thrones Season 8 Teaser Features an Important Callback to the Very First Episode

HBO
HBO

On Sunday, January 13, HBO finally shared the air date for Game of Thrones's eighth and final season, along with a 90-second promo that featured Jon Snow and Sansa and Arya Stark walking through the Crypts of Winterfell with the voices of the late Lyanna, Catelyn, and Ned Stark heard as they passed each of their statues.

In the immediate aftermath of the new teaser, the biggest question on people's minds seemed to be the whereabouts of Bran Stark—and whether his absence from the trailer confirmed one of the long-held fan theories that Bran is in fact the Night King, or that he is the Three-Eyed Raven. But now that fans have had additional time to digest the footage, they've noticed something else: a clever callback to the series' first-ever episode from 2011.

Just after the 1:00 mark, the camera closes in on feather which quickly freezes over with ice. To the casual viewer, this may not seem like an important thing. But those who recall the show's tiniest details recognized the feather as a callback to the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, and a symbol of Jon Snow's true parentage.

As Business Insider reminds us in "Winter is Coming"—the first aired episode of Game of Thrones—Lyanna's statue was shown in very much the same way that we see it in the new teaser, with King Robert Baratheon placing a feather on it. Fast forward to the fifth season, and you may remember Sansa visiting Lyanna's crypt and picking up that same feather. Both of these scenes hinted that Lyanna was Jon's real mother—a fact that was confirmed in season seven, when it was revealed that he is indeed the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, who were secretly married in Dorne. (Though Jon doesn't know it yet.)

Ever since that revelation, we've suspected that Jon—who is believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark—will finally learn about his parents in the final season, and the teaser seems to confirm that it will be an important storyline. Especially considering the growing romance between Jon and Daenerys Targaryen, who is Rhaegar's sister … making her Jon's aunt (unbeknownst to either of them, of course).

The final season of Game of Thrones will premiere on April 14, 2019.

Why Chris Evans Turned Down the Role of Captain America 'A Few Times'

Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

In 2011, Chris Evans made his first big-screen appearance as superhero Steve Rogers/Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger. It may now seem impossible for Marvel fans to imagine any other actor in the role, but Evans once admitted that it took a lot of convincing to get him to sign on for the part.

While appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2016, Evans revealed that he actually turned down the project "a few times" before finally saying yes. When asked by Kimmel why he was so reluctant to play such a popular superhero, Evans replied that, "I was scared."

In addition to admitting to "having some social anxiety with this industry," Evans explained that his main hesitation was in signing what was ostensibly a nine-picture contract. "In doing movies one at a time, if all of a sudden you decide you don't want to do it anymore, you're afforded the opportunity to take a step back and recalibrate," Evans said. "When you have a giant contract, if all of a sudden you're not responding well? Too bad, you've got to suit up again. That was scary."

Though he initially declined the role, Evans said the offer just kept coming back to him. And after talking to family and friends about it, he realized what an amazing opportunity he was being offered—and what was holding him back.

"I was saying no out of fear, really," Evans said. "You can't do anything out of fear. You can't be doing something because you're scared. It ended up kind of clicking to me in the way that whatever you're scared of, push yourself into it."

Evans's Captain America has gone on to become one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most popular characters, though it's largely rumored that Avengers: Endgame will mark his final outing as The Captain. Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, and Keke Palmer are just a few of the actors whose names are swirling as possible replacements for Evans.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER