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.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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