World War I: Saving Serbian Orphans (1914-18)

Author: William Fergusson

Serbian war orphans
Figure 1.-- Here we see Serbian orphans by the graves of their parents after the Austrians began shelling Belgrade.

Some of the sadest victims of any war are the children orphaned by the fighting as well as the economic consequences of the war. Serbia was one of the countries most severely affected by World War I. Serbia played a central role in setting off the War and proved to be on the winning side. While Serbia proved to be on the winning side, the country was defeated and occupied by the Central Powers. Enormous damage was done in the fighting phase. And the resulting occupation by the Central Powers was harsh. There were severe food shortages. Ehen ever there are food shortages, orphans are usually the individuals most threatened. And Serbian orphans were especially in danger. Unlike Belgium there was little publicity for their plight and the logistics of getting aid deep into the Balkans was much more complicated. Serbian children were caught in the middle of all of this. Our information on the occupation is limitd. Western hisorians focus on the Westen Front and military operations. What occurred in occupied Sebia is a poorly covered topic. A CIH reader has provided us a valuable account on Saving Serbian Orphans and an effort to save them by a Serbian-American and an American humanitarian who joined forces to assist them. America as in Belgium was in a unique position to help becaue of its huge potential to produce food and its neutral status until April 1917.

Hero Humanitarians

Two not well-regognized humanitarians heroes helped save hundreds of Serbian orphans during World War I. Darinka Gruyich Radovich was a Serbian national living in the United States when Europe began to move toward War. She returned to Serbia to carry out humanitarian work. Much of this effort would eventually be financd by American philanthropist John Frotingham. His grandfather was born in America, but made a fortune in Canada as a merchant specializing in hardwear. Radovich understood that the Serbian people were endangered as the country moved toward war. She was especially concerned about the children who are often the greatest victims of war.

Military Developments (June-July 1914)

Serbian terrorists asasinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia (June 1914). The Austrians were intent on punishing the Serbs. Austrian has a large multi-ethnic empire. Many of the constiuent parts of the Empire wanted indeendence. And Serbia wanted to annex provinces like Bosnia with Serb populations. Austria had been an important Europen power for centries, but in an industrial age had fallen behind the other Great Powers. The Serbs manaaged to fight off the Austrian punative expedition launched before the outbreak of World war I. The Austrians were shocked when the Serbian Army stopped their offensive (July 1914). But they advanced close enough to Belgrade to bombard the Serbian capital with artillery. There were many children in the flood of refugees that fled Belgrade during the Austrian artillery bombardment. There were also large numbers of children who remained in Belgrade and caught up in the carnage. Serbian soldiers found them in the ruins. They came across children who remained by the bodies of their dead mothers. Other orphaned children were found hiding in the ruins or wondering about lost and forlorn.

Preliminary Steps (July 1914)

The refugee children were first taken to the Serbian Army command headquarters in Mladenovac, one of Belgrade's municipal neigborhoods. Authorities found temporary accommodation for the children with families in the area. The commanding officer worked as best they could to find a solution for the care of the refugee children. Darinka Radovichm learnt of the plight of the children and returned to Serbia find out what she could do. She organised food to be brought to the children. An empty food wagon was found to transport the youngest children further away from the fighting. The Commanding officer saw to it that two extra railway coaches were attached to the infirmary train. The refugee children were thus able to leave the area and travel to safety.

Fund Raising in America: Serbian Immigrant Community

The plight of Belgium which was invaded and occupied by the Germans at the onset of the War (August 1914) was widely publicized in the international media and resulted in an outcry of condemnaton aimed at the Germans not oly for invading, but the btutal treatment of the Belgian people. It was nothing like would occur in Wold war II, but none-the-less shocked punlic opinion. Asa result, a flood of life-saving humanitarian supplies reached the Belgians, both refugees in northern France and the others who remained in the German occupied country. The plight of the Serbs, in contrast, was virtully unknown. Radovich saw the plight of the Serbian children and understood that a much bigger mercy relief would be needed than she could manage personally. She went back to America to seek help firstly from the Serbians immigrant population. At the start of the War, Serbian Americans had formed the Serbian Relief organisation to collect money and essential clothing.

Serbian-American Community

Serbia becane independent from the Ottoman Empire (1878) at about the time that substantial immigration from Eastern and southern Europe began. At first a substantial part of what was to be Serbia was still under Ottoman control. Ethnic Serbs also libed in Austrian-controlled Bosnia. Serbia was one of the many European countries where people emmigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We do not yet have much information about Serbian emigration. Deteriorating economic conditions seems to have generated emigration of the southern Slavs (Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs). The largely afrarian society seems unable to support a rising population. Much of the emigration seems go have come from Austria-Hungary. Most of them were Serbs who emigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. I am not sure that economic condition were much better in Serbia than in Austria-Hungary. This suggests that it was not only economic factors that drove emigration, but the political suppression of subject nationalities. Slovenes and Croats (especially after the annexation of Bosnia) lived within the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but most Serbs lived in newly independent Serbia.

Serbian Women’s Relief Fund

Radovich was selected as president of The Serbian Women’s Relief Fund. She helped organize charitable events in New York and substantial funds were raised for Serb war relief. At one of theses invnts, an American Industrialist was present -- John Frotingham. He prsonally pledged a large dination. This was much more than the usual amount individuals donated. His initial donation was $10,000. This does not sound like much money today, but it was an enormous sum in 1915 dollars. He thought a field hospital would be needed. He also advised Radovich to go back to Serbia and head of the mission there so that he would know precisely what relief aid was most needed. She introduced Frotingham to a famous Serbian scientist named Mihaylo Pupin who had an even better knowledge of Serbian relief needs than she did

Second Serbian Mission (October 1914)

As a result of Frotingham's contribution a field hospital and 10 staff members were on its way to Greece (October 1914). Serbia was almost surrounded by the Central Powers. The only way to get supplies to Serbia was through Greece. Radovich did not go with thie hospital team, but stayed in America and continued her lecture tour to raisefunds. The only news that was received about the field hospital was to say it had arrived safely in Greece. In wartime cinditions, there was no more news was about it. Rdovich sailed for Greece to find out what the situation was. Once there she found out that the hospital was in storage due to bureaucratic complications. She had Frotingham’s authority to act for him. She wasted no time in sorting out the problems which she soon did and the field hospital could become operational. It was split into two parts. One part went to Djevdjelija (Dyevdyeliya) and the other to Skopje. Djevdjelija (Gevgelija in modern Macedonia) was located in southern erbia along the Greek-Serbian border on he Vardar River. Skopje was at the time also located in soutgern Serbia (modern Macedonia). At the time this was well away from the fighting with Austria in the north. Radovich after getting the field hospitals set up traveled to Belgrade and met the one remaining relief mission remaining in the capital. She toured the area and saw first hand the atrocities which the Austro-Hungarian bombardment had inflicted on the Serbian people. It was at this time that she realised that while the injured soldiers were being taken care of there was an even bigger problem which was not being addressed. This was the Serbian children who were the most venerable and in the greatest danger.

Orphan Relief

Radovich returned to America and reported her findindings about the pressing need to aid Serbian refugeees, especially the orphned abd fisplaced children. She ptposed a special relief effort to fund orphan homes for orphan children. Very quickly equipment to furnish orphanages was on its way to Serbia. Radovich returned to Thessalonica in northern Greece to head the John Frotingham Home for War Orphan Children Foundation. As this was occuring the Central Powers lunched a new mote powerful offensive. The Germans Austrians attacked in the north and the Bulgarians in the south. A train carrying injured soldiers and orphan children was attacked by Bulgarians. Radovich and her team of relief workers managed to save the children. They arrived in Skopje but she received news that it was unsafe so they moved to another location. As they travelled new orphans joined the group. Eventually a safe place was found for the orphanage to be set up in school buildings. A few weeks later it had to relocate because enemy troops were advancing to where they were.

Central Powers Offensive (October 1915)

Once the Germans as well as the Bulgarians joined the Austrians, it was beyond the military capabilities of the Serbs to effectivly resist. Bulgarian joined the CentralmPowers nd a massive military offensive was launchd agaunst Serbia (October 1915). Radovich realized that with the Central Powers military offensive into Serbia that there would many displaced an orphaned children (October 1915). Orphans nd displced children were especilly vulnerable because they tended to gther around military camps. There they could usually ger food from the soldiers in exchange for small favors. [Jovanović, p. 181.] A retreating, defeated army put these child camp followers in danger. The defeated Serbian Army refused to surrender and conducted what came to be known as Great Serbian Retreat. All of Srbian was occupied by the Central Powers. Once this occurred, there was no way to get relief supplies into Serbia. The Germans allowed relieft supplies into Belgium, but not into Serbia. The Serbian orphans that Radovich got out if the country could be aided.

Occupied Serbia (1915-18)

While the Central Powers did not destroy the Serbian Army, they did occupy all of Serbia. After Belgium in the west, Serbia was the second Allied country occupied by the Central Powers. The Central Powers occupied Serbia during 1916, 1917, and most of 1918. We have no information at this time on the Austrian-German occupation. Serbian sources report that Croats and Muslims commited atrocities on Serb civilians. This is a highly politicized topic. We know that terrible attrocities occurred during World War II, bu twe can not yet confiem just what happened in occupied Serbia. We are not sure just what occurred in the wake of the Austrian-German advance. We have so far been unable to find any reliable account as to what occurred. The fact that so many young men left Serbias part of the Army retreat, we suspect that many Serb families experienced difficult cinditions and that food productuin declined.

Serbian war orphans
Figure 2.-- Here we another image of Serbian orphans, but we have no further details.

First Orphanage: New Faler (Greece)

The military situation was confusing as the Bulgarian Army drove into Serbia and the Serbian Army retrating. Radovich managed to find accommodation for her orphaned abd displaced children in northeastern Greece--Thessolonkia. Greece at the time wasneutral. At first it was a tented home. Soldiers also brought her abandoned children they had found. They said of her 'You first, God Second'. While still neutral, Greek forces began attacks into Bulgaria. In return the Bulgarians bgan shelling into Thessolonika. Radovich had to move her tented orphanage south after the Bulgarians began to bombard Thessalonica. Shells exploded among the tents. Fortunately no one was injured. They left by ship and arrived in Piraues, a port city in Attica, near Athens. They were welcomed by the populace. The children were put up in villas and a school was found for lessons. The orphanage was named New Faler. The children started to call Radovich ‘Mama Radovich.’

Second Orphanage: Nice (France)

Once the first orphanage was settled, Radovich returned to Thessalonica to open another children’s orphanage in Thessolaika, the closes she could get to occupied Serbia. Greece was still officially neutra, but fighting had broken out along the Bulgarian-Greek border in Thessoloanika. This was a volitile area because the Bulgarians claimed Thessolanika and the Greeks clamed area of Macedinia now occupied by the Bugarians. Thus it was too dangrous to stay in Thessolanika so Radovich secretly arranged ships to take her and the children to safety. She did this secretly out of fear of German U-boars.Radovich and the orphans arrived in Tdulaese (Decmber 1916). [BILL: Where is Tulase? Could it be Toulone?] Radovich decidd that because of the unsttled condition in Grece, to move the childen to France. Again they were welcomed with open arms. Eventually they moved to a site in Nice. Radovich was in charge of the home there. Money was regularly received from Frotingham in America. The home was run properly. Part of their education was to remember where they had come from. The children also celebrated traditional Serbian Orthodox feast days.

America Enters the War (April 1917)

America after Germany resumed undeclared submarine warfare finally entrd the War (April 1917). ater that year Frotingham set out on a European tour. He came to France see what his foundation had achieved. He was over whelmed by the reception he received at the Serbian war orphan home. He was impressed so much by what Radovich had done. He cancelled his tour and stayed to help out at the orphanage. He eventually became head of Mission (1918). Frotingham had to legally state at one point for bureaucratic purposes that he was father to the 230 children which lived in the orphanage. The Serbian Governmnt awarded Frotingham the Order of the Star of Karadorde for his efforts to protect Serbian ophas. .

Greece Enters the War: Thessolanika Front (June 1917)

Some pro-Allied Greeks had been waging an undeclared war against the Bukgarians in occupied Serbia from Thessolaninka for months. Finally as a result of political changes, Greece finally entered the War and declared war in the Central Powers (June 1917). Allies forces, including the evacuated Serbian Army arrived and oppened the Thessalonica Front. The Allies after hard fighting broke the Thessalonica Frontand liberated Serbia (1918). Once it was safe to do so, Radovich moved the Greek orphanage to Belgrade. She could not find a proper building to house the children, so set up a tented orphanage in the Belgrade suburbs which is now called Hyde Park.

After the War

Not all the children were orphans. Many were simply duspalced. Once the war was over surviving parents and othr family members came to collect their children. This was a problem at first because the children were frightened of adults they thought were strangers. Radovich allowed the children’s relatives to stay until the children until they had become used to them. Frotingham arrived. He joined the staff as they ran the orphanage. He also joined the search for a building to turn into an orphanage. Eventually a building was found. It was an abandoned castle. They was turned into an orphanage. The Serbian war orphans who had been sent to France arrived at the new orphanage. Not all of the childen were dispalced. Many were orphans anfd needrd care for years. The orphanage remained open until 1933. Darinka Gruyioh Radovich remained in Belgrade and nothing is known about her after 1954. Frotingham married Jelena Lozanic (1921). She had been a key member of his Serbian Relief committee. They married when he returned to America. He stayed in contact with the orphanage. When it closed in 1933 it became a boarding school. Frotingham also financed it. He died in 1935. There were other homes for war orphaned children established. There was one in Nis The English – Serbian Home for Orphans which had been established by Miss Carrington Wilde. It was still operating in 1931.


Jovanović, Miroslav. Childhood in South East Europe: Historical Perspectives on Growing Up in the 19th and 20th Century (LIT Verlag: Münster, 2004), 299p.

Bachkovich, Ema. "Darinka and John -- Gifts from the Heart," Zabavnik bpoj 3288 (February 13, 2015). Natasha Draskovich translated it.


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Created: 8:13 PM 5/5/2015
Last updated: 3:07 AM 5/7/2015