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.
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.