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 210th installment in the series.
November 17-24, 1915: Serbian “Great Retreat” Begins
By the second half of November 1915 Serbia was staring annihilation in the face: on November 16 the victorious Bulgarians captured the town of Prilep and the Babuna Pass, opening the way to Monastir in southwestern Serbia (now Macedonia). On November 20 the French relief force, cut off from the Serbs by the Bulgarian conquest of the Vardar River Valley and its strategic railroad, began withdrawing to their base at the Greek port of Salonika, while to the north the Austro-Hungarians conquered the territory known as Novibazar (which was, in a convoluted way, one of the main causes of First World War).
There was no question about Serbia’s fate now. But rather than accept defeat the Serbian government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pasic, made the heroic decision to abandon their homeland and fight on from exile. From the beginning they knew this plan would mean death for many thousands of soldiers and civilians. As the armies of the Central Powers closed in from the north and east, the only possible avenue of escape lay to the southwest, over the towering Korab and Prokletije mountain ranges of Albania, both part of the Dinaric Alps (below, part of the Korab range).
The “Great Retreat” (not to be confused with the Russian Great Retreat earlier in 1915) would take the remnants of the Serbian Army, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, across some of the roughest terrain in Europe in the middle of winter (“Prokletije” translates as “Accursed Mountains” in Serbian; image below). They set out on this journey, challenging under the best of circumstances, with no more than a week’s rations and insufficient cold weather gear. Pack animals struggled to climb mountainsides turned to trackless wastes by several feet of snow, and what little shelter there was belonged to hostile Albanian villagers, who robbed and killed stragglers (perhaps in retribution for Serbian brutality in the First Balkan War).
No surprise, then, that the Great Retreat is still remembered as one of Serbia’s worst ordeals, as around 70,000 soldiers and 140,000 civilians froze, starved to death, died of disease or were killed by bandits between November 1915 and February 1916. Out of around 400,000 people who set out on the journey, just 130,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilian refugees arrived at the Adriatic coast to be evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu.
By late November the weather was already turning against them, with autumn rains turning primitive roads into expanses of mud, followed not long after by snow. The British war correspondent Gordon Gordon-Smith described the miserable conditions as Serbian troops retreated from the town of Mitrovica in the middle of the night:
By the light of the guttering lantern swinging above the door of our café, I could see company after company, squadron after squadron, and battery after battery pouring past. Hour after hour the steady “tramp, tramp” of thousands of feet echoed in the narrow streets. It was four o’clock in the morning when the last battery rumbled through, the roll of the wheels drowning the soft patter of the oxen drawing the guns. And then it began to rain, and such rain!... It came down in sheets, it came down in buckets, it rained ramrods. The gutters in the centre of the streets became rushing torrents, while Niagaras poured from all the overhanging eaves.
Even before they reached the mountains, freezing weather was taking its toll on the starving animals, according to Gordon-Smith, who witnessed the final passage over the famous Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, from November 20-25:
As far as the eye could reach, the snow-covered plain of Kossovo extended on every side. Every feature of the landscape was blotted out by a shroud of snow feet deep. Over this, long lines of snow-clad figures could be seen moving, the columns extending for miles… By this time the wind had fallen, and the curious silence which accompanies heavy snow reigned everywhere. In every direction were the ghostly columns plodding in single file over fields and long roads. On all sides were dead horses and oxen, singly and in heaps, half buried in snow, with swarms of carrion crows whirling and croaking overhead.
Olive Aldridge, a British nurse following the same route, remembered passing the first corpses by the roadside, as well as the suffering of prisoners of war even worse off than their captors:
A few hours after leaving Prishtina and within a few miles distance of each other, five men were stretched out stiff and lifeless across our path. Nobody took any notice of them: all passed by, just stepping over or round the dead bodies. The driver of my ox waggon caught my glance as we passed the second man, but the only comment he made was “Niye dobro” (not good)… One saw, too, many hungry Austrians… Many of them were literally starving. They would come to us with clasped hands begging for bread, but we had nothing to give them. It was terrible, for in many cases we knew that within the next few days they would be dead, and would never see their homes or their country again.
On November 23, as Pristina and Mitrovica fell to the Central Powers and the Serbian government abandoned Prizrend, its last temporary capital in Serbia, the defeated Serbian Army split into four columns and headed west into the mountains of Albania and Montenegro. Their only hope was reaching the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where Allied ships would rescue them from the Albanian ports of San Giovanni di Medua, Durazzo, and Valona.
The army’s rock-bottom morale was boosted somewhat by the presence of the ailing, 71-year-old King Peter, who had stepped aside in June 1914 to let his son Prince Alexander rule as Regent but now resumed his throne to face the crisis with his people. The elderly monarch, who was almost blind, traveled through the mountains riding in an ox cart (below).
In the snow-covered mountains, hunger, exposure and disease killed Serbian soldiers and civilians, as well as POWs traveling with them, by the thousands. Donovan Young, a British junior officer attached to the Serbian Army, recalled:
We awoke one morning to the fact that snow lay from three to four feet on the ground… Day and night we were exposed to the full blast of the blinding sleet and cold… Our rations became increasingly short, and very soon we were faced with hardships which was impossible to contend with. Men went down in dozens from frostbite. It was a common event to see a man suddenly fall into the snow, frozen stiff and insensible, or a man half lying, half kneeling at the entrance of the hole he had scraped for himself, quite unconscious.
Similarly, Gordon-Smith described the horrifying scenes that greeted refugees following in the footsteps of the retreating columns:
Up and up we went, thousands and thousands of feet. Every few hundred yards we came on bodies of men frozen or starved to death. At one point there were four in a heap. They were convicts from Prisrend penitentiary, who had been sent in chains across the mountains. They had been shot either for insubordination or because they were unable to proceed. Two other nearly naked bodies were evidently those of Serbian soldiers murdered by Albanians.
Despite everything, like some other observers and participants in the war, Gordon-Smith was still able to recognize transcendent beauty in the midst of horror, highlighting the insignificance of humanity in the face of nature:
By midday we reached the summit of the mountain, a wind-swept plateau several thousand feet above the level of the sea. For fifty miles extended range upon range of snow-clad mountains, the crests of which had never been trodden by the foot of man. Nothing could be seen but an endless series of peaks, glittering like diamonds in the brilliant sunshine. The scene was one of undescribable grandeur and desolation.
But these moments of beauty were fleeting, while the scenes of suffering became ever more frequent and shocking:
After traversing the plateau we began the descent, skirting the edges of precipices of enormous height and traversing narrow gorges running between towering walls of black basalt. Every few hundred yards we would come on corpses of Serbian soldiers, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. One man had evidently gone to sleep beside a wretched fire he had been able to light. The heat of it had melted the snow, and the water had flowed over his feet. In the night during his sleep this had frozen and his feet were imprisoned in a solid block of ice. When I reached him he was still breathing. From time to time he moved feebly as if trying to free his feet from their icy covering. We were powerless to aid him, he was so far gone that nothing could have saved him.
Britain Implements “Derby Scheme” with Threat of Conscription
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain was unique among the Great Powers in having an all-volunteer professional army that was much smaller than the conscription-based forces maintained by the continental states – reflecting the centuries of security afforded by Britain’s “Splendid Isolation,” behind the protective barrier of the Channel.
By autumn 1915 the traditional system was under attack, however, as the war’s vast manpower requirements quickly outstripped Britain’s tiny army. The British Army that went to war in July 1914 had been virtually wiped out by the end of that year, much of it at the desperate First Battle of Ypres; and while hundreds of thousands of patriotic young Britons enlisted voluntarily to form Secretary of War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army” in 1914-1915, grievous casualties at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert, and above all Gallipoli and Loos had once again cut wide swathes in the ranks.
Indeed, Britain was rapidly catching up with the other belligerents in terms of both military strength and casualties, although huge discrepancies remained. By November 1915 Britain had mobilized 94 divisions and sustained well over half a million casualties, including around 150,000 dead (with over 100,000 of these on the Western Front), over 60,000 taken prisoner, and 340,000 wounded. For comparison, by November 1915 France had mobilized 117 divisions and suffered around two and a quarter million casualties, including roughly 680,000 dead, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 1.5 million wounded (may of the wounded returned to duty and sustained multiple wounds, so they are counted twice).
On the other side the Central Powers, led by Germany, were doing their utmost to mobilize untapped manpower as well, relying almost entirely on conscription. Bulgaria’s entry into the war in October 1915 immediately added twelve divisions, and millions of new recruits inducted by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in 1915 would allow them to begin fielding dozens of new divisions beginning in early 1916.
At the same time, after a promising start in 1914 and the first half of 1915 Britain’s own voluntary recruitment efforts were lagging, as the first burst of patriotism wore off and horror stories from the front filtered back via letters, news accounts and men on leave (as the aftermath of Loos showed, there was only so much censors and propaganda could do to cover up the truth).
This was especially ominous because, looking ahead, Lord Kitchener estimated Britain would need at least another million men to carry on the war in 1916, as France was fast approaching its maximum strength and Russia (though still able to draw on massive reserves of manpower in the long run) was temporarily out of the game following huge losses in the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive of mid-1915. In short, disaster was looming if British recruiting continued to fall short.
This was the background to the “Derby Scheme,” a last-ditch attempt to fill the ranks through voluntary recruiting alone – although “voluntary” proved to be a relative term. The scheme was named for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who was appointed Director-General of Recruiting on October 5, and oversaw a national program whose goal was to strongly encourage eligible men to enlist, using every means short of compulsion, including social pressure and public shaming.
The Derby Scheme built on earlier efforts to come to grips with the manpower problem. In August 1915 a small army of 40,000 census takers had surveyed the population and drawn up a registry of around 5.1 million men of military age in England and Wales. Of these, it was determined that 1.5 million were in “reserved” occupations in some way essential to the war effort. Another quarter were assumed to be probably unfit due to physical or mental shortcomings. That left somewhere between 2.7 and three million men of military age who qualified for military service but had not yet enlisted.
Beginning October 16, Derby’s office sent forms to every household in England, Wales, and Scotland, encouraging all men ages 19-41 to either join the army immediately, or make an official declaration of their willingness to join at a later date if needed. In order to “persuade” young men to embrace their patriotic duty, the Scheme employed a range of high-profile tactics including posters, banners, flag ceremonies, parades, announcements before and after music hall performances, and newspaper editorials.
Beyond that, in each town and village it also relied on local notables, friends and family members – especially women and children – to cajole and if necessary shame young men into signing up. Men who had signed up, declared their willingness to do so, or received exemption because they were in war essential industries received a khaki armband to wear in public (below); everyone else was fair game, and “shirkers” were liable to be given a white feather by women in a public place, signifying cowardice.
It would be hard to exaggerate the intense feeling in all the belligerent nations around the subject of “shirkers” or “slackers.” In August 1915 Private Robert Lord Crawford, serving as a medical orderly on the Western Front, wrote in his diary:
Talking with men back from leave. They all seem to have had words with slackers they met everywhere at home. I observe the growth of resentment against this desertion of us – I hear threats of what should and will be done after the war, and I doubt not that, though many would forgive, there are some who will carry their threats into effect… The excuse that the country doesn’t realise the situation can no longer be pleaded, unless indeed we acknowledge ourselves to be a nation of idiots.
Meanwhile John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wrote to his mother, complaining that “there are two or three millions in Great Britain who could and should come, but they stick at home, and let married men and only sons and widows’ sons come. Lots of the wounded we get here are quite old fellows.”
Even worse, foreign troops couldn’t fail to notice the reluctance of some young British men, heightening public embarrassment among the proud English. Yusuf Khan, an Indian soldier, wrote a letter home in October 1915 that combined contempt with a bit of inaccurate rumor-mongering:
The news here is that the white men have refused to enlist… An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked them if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to help him. But really, the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied.
Again, these attitudes were evident across Europe. In his play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus includes a scene in which “The Grumbler” dismisses a naïve statement by “The Optimist” asserting that young men in Vienna were eager to go to the front. Thanks in part to the rickety public telephone system, “The Grumbler” gets to listen to the plans of draft dodgers taking advantage of official corruption to stay out of the trenches:
I don’t get around much. But my phone is on a party line… Ever since the outbreak of the war, which has in no way improved the national telephone service, the conversations concern yet another problem, and every single day, whenever I am called to the telephone to listen to other people talk to each other, which is at least ten times every day, I hear conversations such as these: “Gus went up and got things fixed.” “And how is Rudi doing?” “Rudi went up, too, and he also got things fixed.”…
It’s worth noting that these attitudes, while common, weren’t universal; a strong current of pacifism, especially among socialists, positively discouraged military service. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, was on sentry duty in the Baltic port of Memel as 1915 drew to a close, and recalled one occasion when:
… a lad aged about seventeen came along and chatted with me. He wanted to volunteer to join the army. I advised him not to and described life on the Front to him in a way that made his hair stand on end. “No, if it’s like that, I would rather wait until I am called up.” “Even then it will be too early,” I said. He thanked me and went away. I had the feeling that I had done a good deed.
In the same vein, in his novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque bitterly criticized schoolteachers like the unflattering character Kantorek, who pressured their students into joining the army early:
There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best – in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly. For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future… The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces… We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
It was apparently a common occurrence for teachers to shame students into joining up before they were conscripted. In Arnold Zweig’s novel Young Woman of 1914, the character David Wahl noted the activity of one particularly disliked teacher, “The Bedbug”:
“The fact is,” he went on, “no one can hold out any more at school. The masters treat a fellow with open contempt. There are now only eight left in the Lower Sixth, all the others have given in… The Bedbug honored them with a funeral oration, which contained sundry hidden threats and allusions to certain football players and swimmers who would do well to take a lesson from those departing.”
Many young people privately lamented the unfairness of a situation in which old men declared war but young men had to do the actual fighting and dying. The English diarist Vera Brittain later recalled: “The war, we decided, came hardest of all upon us who were young. The middle-aged and old had know their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.” Similarly in April 1915 a German soldier, Wilhelm Wolter, wrote in a letter home:
People are always saying that it is easier for the young men to face death than for the older ones, the fathers of families and others. I hardly think so, for such a man knows – at least, if he has been conscious of any mission in life – that he has at any rate partially fulfilled it, and that he will survive in his works, of whatever kind they are, and in his children. It can’t be so hard for him to die in a just cause.
The Derby Scheme Fails
In Britain the Derby Scheme soon ran into some difficulties. Most importantly, it was widely assumed that single men without families would be the first to be called up, but married men (and their wives) wanted guarantees they wouldn’t have to go until all the available single men had enlisted. On November 2, Prime Minister Asquith made a vague statement to that effect in Parliament, but the lack of specifics only generated more confusion and anxiety. Above all, married men wanted to know, what would happen if not enough single men volunteered? The answer would inevitably involve conscription.
On November 19, 1915, Lord Derby wrote a letter to Asquith to clarify the terms under which married men promised to join the military. According to the press bureau which publicized the letter and Asquith’s response (see poster below), the prime minister confirmed his statement on November 2, promising:
Married men will not be called upon for war service before young unmarried men. If the latter do not offer themselves in adequate numbers, voluntarily, the married men who have offered as recruits will be released from any pledge, and a bill will introduced compelling young men to serve. If this Bill should not pass, the married men will be automatically released. Mr. Asquith, in his reply, says the letter correctly expressed the Government’s intention.
In short, it was up to Britain’s male citizens whether the country would retain its tradition of voluntary military service or be forced to resort to conscription; either way, however, young men were going to join the army. Also on November 19, Lord Derby extended the deadline for men to declare and be attested from November 30 to December 11, 1915; this marked the beginning of the final phase of the Derby Scheme, with the threat of conscription hanging over the country if voluntary enlistment failed.
Fail it did, as many expected (including Lord Derby, in private). From October to December, the Derby Scheme produced 215,000 direct enlistments in the military. Furthermore, out of 2.2 million single men of military age, only 840,000 declared themselves willing to serve if necessary – and over 200,000 of these were in “reserved” occupations (which might explain their willingness to volunteer, since they were much less likely to actually be called up) while another 220,000 were rejected as unfit. Meanwhile over a million unmarried men had not made any declaration or openly refused to enlist, of whom 650,000 were not in reserved occupations; in other words, the men most liable to service had (unsurprisingly) stayed away.
Now there was no way around the issue: on December 14, 1915 a Cabinet committee began considering how to implement compulsory conscription, and on December 20, Lord Curzon and Leo Amery began drafting a bill to introduce to Parliament in the New Year. One of Britain’s proudest traditions was about to become a casualty of war.