World War I: Great Serbian Retreat (1916)

Serb great retreat World War I
Figure 1.--The Serbian Army retreated from Serbia, crossing the Albania moubtains to the Adriatic where they could be evacuated. There were many youths in the Army. The Serbian Government also ordered civilian boys to join the retreat. The fate of these boys is one of the most tragic events of World War I.

The Serbian Army as a result of the Central Powers offensive faced destruction. The Allied relief column deom Salonika was turned back by the Bulgars. The Serbs facing total destruction executed a terrible winter retreat west over the Albanian mountains. The retreat began in mid-December 1915. They Serbian Army was accompanied by the King and many civilians. An American observer writes, "The stream of the refugees grew daily greater - mothers, children, bedding, pots and pans, food and fodder, all packed into the jolting wagons; wounded soldiers, exhausted, starving, hopeless men, and (after the first few days) leaden skies and pitiless rain, and the awful, clinging, squelching mud. The roads were obliterated by the passage of big guns - those guns served by that wonderful "Last Hope" of the Serbians, the old men, the Cheechas, the "uncles", who held the enemy for the priceless few days or even hours, and so saved the youth of the country. For every Serbian boy - every man-child over twelve - had to retreat. The Serbians had at last realized that the enemy were out to finish her as a nation, and the only way to save herself was to run away. And at first all those battalions of boys, gay with the coloured blankets they carried coiled across their backs, camping round the great camp-fires at night, were happy -- until the days grew into weeks, and the rain fell and fell and there was no bread anywhere. But the rain, which churned up the mud, and soaked the ill-clad people, was called by the Serbians "the little friend of Serbia", for it held up the Austrian advance, and consequently saved practically the whole of Serbia's remaining Army." The Serbs sought refuge on the island of Corfu. Allied naval power helped evacuate them and made it impossible for the Astrian-German forces to attack them. This meant, however, that Serbia itself was finally occupied by the Central Powers. Much of the Belgian Army after their country was occupied, sat out the war in the Netherlands. This was not the case of the Serbian Army.

German Goals

Conquering Serbia was an Austrian priority. Kaiser Wilhelm wroke the Austrians a 'blank check' meaning full support, which started a chain of events leading to World War I (August 1914). The Germans were primarily ficused on defeating the French and occupying Paris. A Russian offensive forced them to divert resources and the French nd British were svle to create a strong Western defensive line. Once the Ottoman Empire entered the war (October 28, 1914). The primary allure was Russian territory in the Caucauses and the British cotrolled Suez Canal. These offendives failed and proved costly (1914-15) The Allies conter attacked at Galipoli (1915). The Germans wanted to establish a rail line to the Ottomans. This was blocked by Serbia. Thus the conquest of Serbia became a German priority. The Austrians were not all that interested in aiding the Ottomans, but did want to defeat the Serbs.

Central Powers Offensive (October 6, 1915)

The poorly equipped Serbs managed to fight off several Austrian offensives. The Central Powers in late-1915 prepared a final offensive to knock the Serbs out of the War. Field Marshal Mackensen commanded a force made up of a German Army, and an Austro-Hungarian Army, along with the Bulgarian Army which was about to enter the War. This was a force comprising more than 300,000 well-equipped and supplied men. The smaller and less well equipped Serbian Army was deployed in the north defending Belgrade. The Allies had no way of getting substantial quantities of military equipment to Sebia. The Austro-German forces attacked first in the north with a devestating artillery barage (October 6). They then attacked across the Danube. The Austro-Hungarian forces captured Belgrade (October 9). The initial fighting in Serbia (1914-15) was conducted by the Austro-Hungarian Army. This time German troops were involved. Austrian tropos were reinfoirced with the German 11th Army. German and Austro-Hungarian troops under a heavy artillery barage launced their long awaiyed offensive (October 6). The Austrian and Herman troops crossed the wide Danube River in heavy rains. They entered the city (October 9), forcing the Serbs to fall back.

Belgrade

Belgrade was the capital of Serbia. It was at the time if World War I located in northern Serbia close to the Austro-Hungarian (Croatian) and Romanian border. It was the primary objective of the Austrian punishmebnt effort (July 1914). The seizure of Belgrade in the Austro-German offensive (October 1915) was not the first time during the that the Austrian troops had occupied the Serbian capital. The Austrians had begun a miliitary cmpaign to punish the Serbs even before World war I broke out. This was the result of the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which would ultimalely lead to World War I. Serbia proved a harder nut for the Austrians to crack than they had anticipated. The Austro-Hungarian Army was much larger and better equipped, but could not be fully committed because the Russians supported the Serbs and engaged the Austrians on the Eastern Front (Augist 1914). The Austrian managed to finally take Belgrade after several months of very hard fighting. (December 1, 1914). The Austrians set about punishment operations, reducing areas of the city to rubble. One of the most heavily targeted areas was Belgrade University, a center of nationalist senyiment and secret societies. An American journalist wrote, "The Austrians had made it their special target, for there had been the hotbed of pan-Serbian propaganda, and among the students that formed the secret society whose members murdered the Archduke Franz Ferdinand." [Reed] The Serbs counterattacked 2 weeks later and retook the city, captured 40,000 Austrian prisoners. We are not sure how POWs were treated in the early stages of the War. The front lines, however, remained close to the city. The Austrians and Serbs fought it out for much of 1915, but the Serbs held on to Belgrade. The Germans sent forces to support the Austrians and in a massive new offensive, took the city (October 9). Two days later the Bulgarians attacked in the south, making any Serbian countr-offensive impossible. Belgrade and Serbia would be occupied by the Central Powers until the end of the War.

Bulgaria Enters the war (October 11)

Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov issued a statement announcing a declaration of war on embattled Serbia (October 11, 1915). Bulgarioa had been courted by both the Allies and Centralm Powers. Bulgaria finally decided to join the Central Powers. Radoslavov argued that confronting the Allied powers—Britain, France and Russia—alongside Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire was desirable not only for economic reasons, as the latter two countries were Bulgaria’s chief partners in trade, but also as a way for the country to defend itself against the aggression of Serbia, the Russian ally and major power in the Balkans that Radoslavov considered to be his country’s 'greatest foe'. The Bulgars were particularly interested in regaining territory lost to Serbia in earlier conflicts. This meant Macedonia abd southern Serbia. The Ottoman Empire had conquered the entire Bzlkans and contrilled it for several centuries. There was considerable mixing of peoples. Thus when the Balkan states began to form (Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Serbia), there were no established frontiers and areas of mixed populations. This mixed with Russisn and Austrian imperial ambitions led to aeries of bloody Balkan wars. The Bulgarian Army immediately went into action in the south. The Serbians had been forced to concentrate their forces in the north to defend against the Austrian and German armies. The Bulgars attacked into eastern Serbia towards Niš (October 11) and then further south towards Skopje into Macedonia (October 14). The Serbs had only weak forces in the south to oppose the Bulgars. The Bulgars committed most of their Army which was fresh and well supplied. The Bulgars broke the Serbs in a series of victorious battles (Morava, Ovche Pole, and Kosovo). Thev Bulgars not only cut the Serbs off from its allies, but threatened to attack the Serbian forces facing thge Austrians and Germans in the rear.

Western Allies

The western Allies had been attempting to assist Serbia by brining Greece into the War. This would open up a supply route ti the serbs. Greece remained neutral as King Constantine refused to enter the War. Prime Minister Eleuthérios Venizélos, however, favored the Allies. In violation of Greek neutrality, he made the port of Salonika available. The Allies diverted troops from the failed Gallipoli campaign. The Allied force was commanded by French General Maurice Sarrail. The Allied troops reached Salonika (October 5). King Constantine forced Venizélos to resign. The Allies, hiowever, were in place and launched a march north up the Vardar into Serbian Macedonia. Days later the Bulgars entered the War the War and prevebted an Allied-Serbian link. The relatively small Allied force fell back to Salonika (mid-December 1915).

Threatened Destruction

The Serbian Army after falling back from Belgrade attempted to organize a counter-offensive. The Bulgariab declaration of war changed evderything. The Serbian Army as a result of the Central Powers offensive in the north and Bulgar offensive in the south faced destruction. The Allied relief column from Salonika was turned back by the Bulgars. The situstion was militarily untenable. It was clear that all of Serbia would fall into enemy hands. And if the Serbian Army did not retreat, so would the country's entire Army.

Serbian Decession

The Serbian Government made a stunning decession. They decided to evacuate the Army from Serbia. I can think of no other examples in warfare where an Army retreated from its own country. There might be examples, but I can't think of one. I am not sure if this was discussed with the Allies. As far as I know, it was a decision the Serbs made on their own. They also decided to bring boys with them that would form the basis for a future Serb Army and nation. The Government ordered the Army and civilian boys to leave the country. There were boy soldiers in the regiments at this time. It is believed that an additional 30,000 civilian boys aged between 12 and 18 years left Serbia with the military forces in the winter of 1915.

Albania

Albania was a new nation created following the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan War by the Great Powers at the London Conference (1912). A German aristocrat was appointed prince, but he had trouble establishing a government. He departed his new country when war broke out and joined the Germany Army. Albania was left virtually without a government. It was neutral in the War, but there wee symathies with the Ottoman Empire. The neigbboring states (Greece, Italy, Montenegro, and Serbia) occupied the country early in the War. This was an example of the Allies invading a neutral state.

Escape Route

Serbia wa a land-locked country. The Serbian Arny thus faced being surrounded and totally destroyed. As a result of occupying parts of Albania, however, they had a potential escape route. The Italians who had joined the Allies had also occupied parts of Albania. Thus the Serbs decided to retreat into Albania. The Allies controlled the Mediterranean and Adriatic, although German U-bozts were active. Thus from the coast of Albania, the Allied ships could transport the Serbs to safety. This is one of the few examples in history of an army retreating out of a country and congtinuing the fight even though their country was occupied.

Naval Situation

The Allies controlled the Mediterranrean and all but the northern Adriatic where the Austrian fleet was bottled up. When the War broke out the French fleet was concentrated in the Mediterranean. The British Royal Navy was promarily deployed in the North Atlantic to blockade German ports and bottle up the German Highseas Fleet. It at first looked like the Allies would face the combined Austrian-Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. The Italians did not, however, join the Austrans and Germans when war broke out and eventually joined the Allies (May 1915). This meant the Mediterranean was controlled by the Allies. The Germany eventually deployed a few U-boats in the Mediterranean, but neither the Austrins or Turks could seriously challenge the French and Italian fleets supported by a few Royal Navy ships. Late in the War, the Japanese even deployed a destroyer force for anti-submarine warfare. Thus if the Serbs got to the coast, they could be evacuated by the Allies.

The Weather

The winter of 1915-16 was dreadful. It was the coldest on record. And the route took them over the mountains of Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. This meant tht they faced horendous confitions on the long march to the sea. The conditions were a challenge to the hearty Serbian soldiers. For many of the boys who had accompanied them it was too much.

Winter Retreat

The Serbs executed a difficult winter retreat west over the Albanian mountains. Serbian commander Marshal Putnik ordered a full retreat, south and west through Montenegro into Albania. The retreat began after Winter had begun to set in (mid-December 1915). Crossing mountains during the winter possed a major challenge. The Allied relief column from Salonika had failed to link up with the Serbian Army and the Allies were falling bavk on Salonika. The only option was to move toward the Adriatic ports in Albania. The weather was terrible and the roads were primitive. Railroads which could have been used to effect a more orderly retreat. The rail lines, however, ran south to Greece and could have been cut off by the Bulgarians. The French assisted the Serbs with some transports. The British helped get King Perer to safety. A British reader writes, "My father was in the British Army during World War I, on the Balkan front. He was in the Army Service Corps, and was one of the motor car drivers who transported King Peter across the mountains during this retreat. When they got to safety, before going by sea to Corfu, King Peter's son, Prince Alexander, gave my father the Serbian Cross. This medal was awarded "in the field" for services to King Peter and the Serbian army during the Retreat. My father has been dead for many years now, but I still have that medal today, and feel very proud of what he did." [Kelley]

Civilians

They Serbian Army was accompanied by King Peter, the royal family, and many civilians. An American observer wirking in Red Cross hospiyals writes, "The stream of the refugees grew daily greater - mothers, children, bedding, pots and pans, food and fodder, all packed into the jolting wagons; wounded soldiers, exhausted, starving, hopeless men, and (after the first few days) leaden skies and pitiless rain, and the awful, clinging, squelching mud. The roads were obliterated by the passage of big guns - those guns served by that wonderful "Last Hope" of the Serbians, the old men, the Cheechas, the "uncles", who held the enemy for the priceless few days or even hours, and so saved the youth of the country. For every Serbian boy - every man-child over twelve - had to retreat. The Serbians had at last realized that the enemy were out to finish her as a nation, and the only way to save herself was to run away. And at first all those battalions of boys, gay with the coloured blankets they carried coiled across their backs, camping round the great camp-fires at night, were happy -- until the days grew into weeks, and the rain fell and fell and there was no bread anywhere. But the rain, which churned up the mud, and soaked the ill-clad people, was called by the Serbians "the little friend of Serbia", for it held up the Austrian advance, and consequently saved practically the whole of Serbia's remaining Army." [Tatham]

Boys

The sadest aspect of the Great Retreat is the boys that accompanied the soldiers. Serbian officials not only ordered the Army to retreat out of Serbia, but also boys that could be future soldiers. I am not sure who ordered this. About 30,000 boys joined the retreat. I'm not sure if this was the number ordered. Nor do we know how the boys were selected or recruited. Nor do we know what the parents attitudes were. The boys were 12-18 years old. It soon became obvious that the younger boys did not have the strength or stamina to endure the orduous trek over mountains in winter conditions. Sadly the young boys found that the flight to safety was too difficult. About half the boys died in the Prokletije mountains from, cold, hunger, and disease. Many boys might have made it during the summer. But the combination of the long trek, poor food, and especially the bitter winter weather was too much. These stout hearted youngsters were beaten by the cold, hunger and the hardship of the journey and bandit attacks. An estimated 15,000 boys died in the Prokletije, the Hardship Mountains of Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. The boys who made it over the mountains were in terrible condition. The supplies delivered by the Italians were inadequate. Another 6,000 boys died awaiting transport, primarily because they were in such poor condition after their winter trek. French transports took abour 24 housrs to move the boys from Avalona to Corfu. About 2,000 boys died during that short trip. Once on Corfu, the boys died at the rate of avout 100 a day. Only about 7,000 of the boys survived. They were eventually trasported to France and Britain.

Albanian Raiders

Albanian tribesmen reportedly attacked The Serbs, especially stranglers and small units. These appear to have been marauding bands of bandits without any political motivation. We do not, however, have any detailed information on this.

Condition

The Serbs reaching the Albanian port of Avalona on the Adriatic. They were in terrible conditions. They were near starvation, ragged, and many were sick or wounded. And the suffering still was not over. The Austrians began air attacks on the Serb camps. An estimated 125,000 Serbian soldiers reached Albanian Adriatic ports. Marshal Putnik was sick and had to be carried on the retreat. He subsequently died the following year in a French hospital. The Serbs were refugees in Avalona. The Italians let them stay until other arrangements could be made. The Allies were not sure what to do with them. Unfortunately there was insufficient food and lodging for them. While the Allies studied the situation, more youngsters died.

Relief Supplies

The Italians who had joined the Allies rushed relief supplies to Albanian ports to assist the Serbs who reached the coast in terrible conditions. I am not sure how effective this effort was, but given the number of Serbs a substantial effort was required. Some of the relief ships were torpedoed. [Tatham] Austrians planes attacked the Serbs camps as hey waited to be evacuated.

Greek Islands

The Allies eventually convinced the Greeks to allow the Serbs to go to to various Greek islands. primarily to Corfu. Allied naval power helped evacuate them and made it impossible for the Astrian-German forces to attack them. I am not sure why they could not have been evacuated to Italy. Greece at the time was still neutral. When ships arrived to take the Serbs o Corfu there were only 9,000 boys left. It would take 24 hours to reach this island from Avalona. On the voyage a further 2,000 died. Once on Corfu the situation was very grim. There was a lack of food and it is believed that a hundred boys died each day because of this. The survivors were eventually sent to England and France.

Occupation

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 country occupied by the Central Powers. The Central Powers occupied Serbia during 1916, 1917, and most of 1918. We have some limited information at this time on the nature of the Austrian, German, Bulgarian occupation. Much has been written about German behavior in occupied Belgium. Much less information is available on what happened in Serbia. Most of thec available information repirts on the Austrians and Bulgars. Austrian soldiers appear to have commotted extensive attrocities in the areas they occupied. It is unclear to what extent vthese were acts of individual officers and nmen as opposed to actiions ordred by the Government and military authorities. A German criminologist and observer describes a frightening "system of extermination". [Reiss] He describes the executions of prisoners of war, killing operations carried out against civilians, as well rape. ThecAustrians burned andc loogtef Serbian villages and towns. In addition fruit trees were cut, livestock seized, and wells poisoned to force the Serbian populations from areas. [Reiss and Holzer] The Bulgarian army also committed atrocities, particularly in Niš and the town of Surdulica. Serbian sources report that Croats and Muslims commited atrocities on Serb civilians. This is a highly politicized topic. We are not sure just what occurred in the wake of the Astrian-German-Bulgarian advance. This is a topic we need to persue, but detailed sources are difficult to find. Serbia was liberated when an Allied advance from Greece finslly broke through Bulgarian lines (late-1918)..

Redeployment

Much of the Belgian Army after their country was occupied, sat out the war in the Netherlands. This was not the case of the Serbian Army. The Serb Army was subsequently redeployed to Salonika after Greece entered the war on the Allied side.

Reader Comment

A reader in Belgrade writes, "There is a monument to France in Belgrade. It honors the help the French gave Serbia doing World War I and I think it is about the Great Retreat. Certainly many thousands died on this retreat. It was the French that provided the transports needed to escape."

Sources

Kelley, Jan. E-mail, September 16, 2012.

Reed, John.

Reiss, R.A. 'How Austria-Hungary waged war in Serbia' (1915).

Holzer, Anton. Augenzeugen. Der Krieg gegen Zivilisten. Fotografien aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Vienna).

Tatham, M. I. "Memoirs & Diaries: The Great Retreat in Serbia in 1915," C. B. Purdom, ed. Everyman at War (1930).






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Created: 6:59 AM 12/10/2006
Last updated: 11:06 PM 9/16/2012