World War I: Serbia


Figure 1.--Here we see a an unidentified Serbian boy in what appears to be a palace guard uniform. We do not if he was a boy associated with the court, or if it is more of a play uniform. The portrait is undated. We woul guess it was just before World war I, but it could have been just after the War..

It was Serbian terrorism that actually precipitated World War I although many other forces were at wirk that led to the War. Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia (1908) has intendified ethnic tensions in the Balkans. Serbian nationalists assassinatied Archduke Francis Ferdinand (June 28, 1914). There is no evidence that the Serbian government was directtly responsible, although Government officials did support terroist groups. Austro-Hungarian officials were concerned with the rising demands of Slavic national groups and decided that reducing Serbia which had made substantial gains in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) would help to control the Slavs and Pan-Slavism. Austria issued a an ultimatum with a list of demands (July 23). Serbia wished to avoid the War. The Serbs were exhausted by the two Balkan Wars. War with the much larger Austria-Hungary Army was a ausome threat. The Serbian Government thus accepted all of the Austrian demands, except the demand for Austrian officials to participate in Serbian courts. The Serbs held out as a result of Russian pledges to support Serbia in case of Austrian attack. The Germans supported the Austrians rejected efforts by the British (Sir Edward Grey) to negotiate. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia (July 28). Russian mobilization resulted in a German ultimatum (July 31). When the Russians continued to mobilize, the Germans declared war on Russia (August 1) and on France (August 3). Thus launching World War I. The Serbian war plan was to rapidly double the size of the army from 5 to 10 divisions. Unlike Austria-Hungary, the small Serbian Army was battle tested, having participated in a series of Balkan wars. Although the War began in the Balkans, the campaign there is the least reported campaign of World war I. Austria began the campaign by launching three offensives against Serbia (1914). The Central Powers convinved the Bulgarians to enter the War by offering territory that the Serbs had gained in the Balkan wars (September 6, 1915). The Austro-German forces attacked across the Danube (October 6). The Bulgars in the south, into eastern Serbia (October 11) and into Macedonia (October 14). The western Allies attempted to assist Serbia. Greece was neutral, but Prime Minister Eleuthérios Venizélos favored the Allies and made the port of Salonika available. The Allies diverted troops from the Gallipoli campaign. Commanded by French General Maurice Sarrail the Allied troops arrived at Salonika (October 5). Nevertheless the Allies pressed forward north up the Vardar into Serbian Macedonia. Bulgar forces, however, prevented them from linking up with the Serbs. The Allied forced fell back to Salonika (mid-December 1915. The Serbian Army facing destruction executed a terrible winter retreat west over the Albanian mountains. They were accompanied by the King and many civilians. They sought refuge on the island of Corfu. Allied naval power made it impossible for the Astrian-German forces attack them. This meant, however, that Serbia was finally occupied by the Central Powers. The Allies planned a new offensive. The Allies forces at Salonika were reinforced by the Serb Army transported from Corfu and more British and French troops as well as some Russians. What followed was a sea-saw battle with the Bulgars in Macedonia. The Allies were eventually reinforced by the Greek Army when Greece enter the War (June 1917). Greek and Serbian troops eventually proved decisive in breaking the Bulgar lines. This then opened up the liberation of Serbia.

Serbian Independence (1878)

Serbia is a relatively new nation, but has an amcient heritage. The medieval Christan kingdom of Serbia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, bur reemerged as an independent country in the 19th century. Serbian resistance to Ottoman rule began to grow in the 18th century. The first major uprisings occurred in 1804 and 1815. The Ottoman Empire was declining and faced increasing resistance in the largely Christian Balkan provinces. Russian expamsion was another factor presuring the Ottomans as was a social system which could keep pace with the technical and indutrial advances flowing from the Industrial revolution in Europe. The Serbs launched both a national and social revolution gradually making Ottoman rule untenable. Only the differences among the great powers as to how to divide Ottomam territory allowed the Empire to survive. Serbia gradually emerged as a largely autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. Formal independence came after the Russo-Turkish War (1878). Bismarck with considerable difficult managed to arrange a peace, although it postponed rather than resolved the major issues. Serbia was frmally recognized as an indpendent country under the terms of the Congress of Berlin (1878).

The Black Hand

Many secret socities were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to promote a wide range of political and nationlist agendas. One of the most notorious was the Black Hand. These groups in many ways are similar to Al Qaida and other fundamentalist Islamic groups of the 21st century. Just 2 days after Austria annexed Bosnia, a group of Serbian nationalists met in the Belgrade City Hall on October 8, 1908, to form the semi-secret Serbian nationalist society--Narodna Odbrana (National Defense) dedicated to promote pan-Slavism. The men who formed the Black Handc were some of the most important men in Serbia, including noted Serbian ministers. The goal of Narodna Odbrana was to recruit and train agents to persue to gain control of Bosnia even if it meant war with Austria. They promoted anti-Austrian propaganda and supported assaasins and saboteurs to operate in Bosnia and other Austro-Hungarian provinces. Narodna Odbrana also organized local underground groups in other Austr-Hungarian provinces with Slavic populations, including Slovinia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Istria. The Bosnian group was Mlada Bosna--Young Bosnia. Narodna Odbrana proved extremely successful. A a result, Austria in 1909 demanded that the Austrian Government restrain its anti-Austrian subversive work. Serbia fearing an Austrian invasion, did restrain but not supress Narodna Odbrana. Russia was unwilling at the time to fully support Serbia. Narodna Odbrana shifted its focus to education and propaganda within Serbia itself, refashinning itself as a more benign cultural organization. Many members of Narodna Odbrana were not prepared to suspend their anti-Austrian agitation. These were generally lower-level members who had less to lose. A small group of 10 men met on May 9, 1911 to form Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), better known as The Black Hand. It was a much smaller more, shdowy organization than Narodna Odbrana. As a result, the Serbian Government could more easily deny resonsibility for its operations. The connection with the Serbian Governmentis not fully known, but many members were Serbian army officers. The Black Hand by 1914 had hundreds of operatives who were committed to creating a Greater Serbia and prepared to use terrorist violence to achieve that goal. The Black Hand trained and equipped saboteurs and assassins. The basic unit of the Black Hand was local 3 to 5-member cells who did not know of other cells in order to ensure the security of cladestine operatioins. These cells which were controlled by district committees. The entire organization was directed by a Central Committee in Belgrade, Serbia. A 10-member Executive Committee was headed by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as Apis. New members swore "...before God, on my honor and my life, that I will execute all missions and commands without question. I swear before God, on my honor and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organization into my grave with me." [Shackelford] It was a cell of the Black Hand in Sarajevo that was instructed to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One of its members was Gavrilo Princip.

Bosnia (1908-09)

Independent Serbia not only faced conflict with the Ottomans, but with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, another multi-ethnic empire. This intensified agitation by ultra-nationlist Serbian groups. The principal target of Serbian nationalists had for centuries been the Ottomon Turks. The Ottomons by the turn of the 20th century were an empire in decline and were being forced out of the Balkans, in large measure by the Russians who expoused the cause of fellow Orthodoc Slavs. The Serbs increasingly were looking at the Austrians who were expanding into the Balkans as the country which was denying their national aspirations. Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina (October 6, 1908). Many Orthodox Christians in Bosnia resented Austrian rule and dreamed of a united southern Slav nation. Bosnia had, however, a mixed population with many Muslims and Catholic Croats.

Balkan Wars (1911-13)

The Balkans Wars are very complicated and involved extensive assaults and killing of civilians by all sides. Italy began the assault on the Ottomon Empire by declaring war in this case to secure a new colony in North Africa--Libya. The Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) also fought a war with the Ottomons, While fought outside the Balkans, it further weaked Ottomon troops. In this case the Ottomons largely ceeded ton Italian demands because of the worsening situation in the Balkas. The First Balkan War (1912) was essentially a continuation of the wars for independence from the Ottoman Empire. This meant by the 20th century dividing up the spoils of the Ottomon territories in Europe. The new Balkan states (Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia) combined to drive the Ottomans from Eastern Roumelia (Lower Thrace and Macedonia). Unfortunately for the people of Macedonia and other Balkan lands, there was no agreed plan for partitioned the territory liberated from the Ottomans. Which lead to the Second Balkan War (1913). This time the primary target was Bulgaria. Romania joined this war to get a slice of Bulgaria--Southern Dobrudža. Even the Ottomns attacked Bulgaria which had occupied areas desired by its neighbors. The First Balkan War had been fought by the Balkan states obstensibly to liberate Cgristian peoples from Muslim Turkis rule. The Second Balkan War was largely fought among those Christian states and involved attrocities and ethnic cleaning that still affect the people of the Balkans today. While not active participants, the Wars also involved Russia and Austria-Hungary. The rivalries involved were probably a factor in the ability of the two Emoires to contain the escalating conflict after the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which finally led ton World War I. In the end, Bulgaria was outraged by the territories that it had to surender. In particular it had to renounce its claims to Macedonia and cede Southern Dobrudža back to Romania. This left an embittered Bulgaria, once World War I (1914) broke out, willing to join the Central Powers to regain these territories.

Assasination of Franz Ferdinand (June 1914)

It was Serbian terrorism that actually precipitated World War I although many other forces were at work that led to the War. It was these forces that prevented mediation of the Balkans incident. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia (June 28, 1914). It was their 14th wedding anniversary. The Archduke's role of Inspector General of the Austrian army had brought him to Sarajevo for the summer maneuvers. Coming to Bosnia on of all days the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Pale was sure to arouse the emotions of Serbs who took it as a personal affront. I'm not sure to what extent the Archduke was aware of the passions involved. Surely he would not have exposed his wife to the dnger if he was. The Archduke appers to have disregard the most basic safety precautions. The local authorities appaer to have concentrated securitybprecautiions on the main streets where it was assumed that the official cars would be driven. As the cars had set out for the Town Hall, a bomb had been thrown at them, severely injuring the Archduke's aide-de-camp. Rather than intensifying security, on leaving the Town Hall, the Archduke ordered his car to be driven to the hospital to which his aide-de-camp had been taken so he could personally checkmon his condition and care. As his car turned slowly into a side street out of the well-guarded main street, the grammar school boy, Gavrilo Princip, took advantage of the confusion arising from the approach of the Archducal car to fire two pistol-shots with lethal accuracy. The dying Duchess of Hohenberg sank on to the shoulder of her mortally wounded husband. Both were taken to the Konak, the residence of General Potiorek, the commanding officer. The Archduke died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness. The bodies were brought back to Vienna for a state funeral. Neither Emperor Franz Josef or the Kaiser saw fit to attend the funeral. This would seem a strange reaction when in response to the assasination, they were to plunge Europe into World War I which would result in the loss of millions of lives and end both the Austrian and German monarchies.

Balkan Crisis (July 1914)

Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia (1908) intensified ethnic tensions in the Balkans. The territory gained by Serbia in the Balkan Wars made it a growing threat to Austria-Hungary which had a Slavic minority in its southern provinces, especially newly annexed Bosnia. The desire to destroy Serbia as a threat to the Empire was why Austrian authorities made such onerous demands on Serbia following the assasination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand (June 1914). Austro-Hungarian officials were concerned with the rising demands of Slavic national groups and decided that reducing Serbia which had made substantial gains in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) would help to control the Slavs and Pan-Slavism. Count Berchtold persuaded the Emperor to wage a punitive campaign against Serbia. Austria issued a an ultimatum with a list of demands (July 23). Serbia wished to avoid the War. The Serbs were exhausted by the two Balkan Wars. War with the much larger Austria-Hungary Army was a ausome threat. The Serbian Government thus accepted all of the Austrian demands, except the demand for Austrian officials to participate in Serbian courts.

Outbreak of War (August 1914)

It was Serbian terrorism that actually precipitated World War I although many other forces were at work that led to the War. It was these forces that prevented mediation of the Balkans incident. The Serbs held out as a result of Russian pledges to support Serbia in case of Austrian attack. The Germans supported the Austrians rejected efforts by the British (Sir Edward Grey) to negotiate. Audtria-Hungary declared war on Serbia (July 28). Russian mobilization resulted in a German ultimatum (July 31). When the Russians continued to mobilize, the Germans declared war on Russia (August 1) and on France (August 3). Thus launching World War I. Germany's invasion of Belgium brought Britain into the War. This was particularly important for Serbia, because the British had the global reach to first sabe the Sebian Army and then to launch an offensive to liberate Serbia.

Austrian Invasion (August 1914)

The Serbian war plan was to rapidly double the size of the army from 5 to 10 divisions. Unlike Austria-Hungary, the small Serbian Army was battle tested, having participated in a series of Balkan wars. Although the War began in the Balkans, the campaign there is the least reported campaign of World war I. Austria began the campaign by launching three offensives against Serbia (1914). All three failed. The Central Powers planed a larger offensive. The Austrian failure was embarassung.

Turkey and Bulgaria

The Serbian situation was undermined by the entry of Turkey and Bulgaria into the War on the side of the Central Powers. The Turkish entry into the war did not at first affect Sebia as neutral Bulgaria stood between the two countries. Turkey's entrance made it important to establish secure rail connections with Austria-Hungary and Germany. The Central Powers convinced Bulgaria to enter the War (September 6, 1915). The Central Powers offered the Bulgarians the territory that the Serbs had gained in the Balkan wars. While Turkish troops did not play an important role in the campaign against Serbia, the Bulgarian Army was entirely committed to the Serbian campaign.

Central Powers Offensive (October 1915)

The Serbs had fought 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 the Bulgarian Army, a German Army, and an Austro-Hungarian Army, a force comprisding more than 300,000 men. The Austro-German forces attacked first in the north with a devestating artillery barage (October 6). They then attacked across the Danube. The Bulgars in the south, then attacked into eastern Serbia towards Niš (October 11) and then further south towards Skopje into Macedonia (October 14). The Serbs had most of their army in the north fronting the Austrians and Germans. Thus inadequate forces were available to resist the Bulgars. The Bulgarian Army was fresh and well supplied. They overwealmed the Serbian defenders. The Bulgarian broke the Serbian front in a series of battles (Morava, Ovche Pole, and Kosovo). The western Allies attempted to assist Serbia. Greece was neutral, but Prime Minister Eleuthérios Venizélos favored the Allies and made the port of Salonika available. The Allies diverted troops from the Gallipoli campaign. The Allied troops began landing at Salonika (October 5). French General Maurice Sarrail commanded the British-French force. Venizélos under pressure from King Constantine resigned. Sarrail attacked north from Salonika into Serbiam Macedonia. (November 1916). The British divisions received orders not to cross the Greek border. The French divisions advanced without the British up the Vardar River. The French weere stopped by the Bulgarians who prevented from linking up with the Serbian Army. While they fauled to releave the Serbs, they diverted substantial Bulgarian forces. This was of some assistance to the hard-pressed Serbian Army as the Bulgarian Army had to concentrate larger forces on their southern flank to deal with the threat. General Sarrail eventually decided he could not sustain his positions and fell back on Salonika (mid-December 1915).

Great Serbian Retreat (January-February 1916)

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.

Central Powers Victory

The Central Powers offensive was a virtual total victory in the Balkans. Serbia was defeated and occupied. Punishing Servia had been the initial Austrian objective. They failed to bag the Serbian Army, bit they had Serbia. Another major achievement was opening the rail lines from Berlin to Constantinople which ran through Serbia. This allowed the Germans to transport arms and supplied to the Ottoman Empire which had only a limited capability to produce modern weapons. THis was critical for keeping the Ottomans in the War. The Allied naval blockade made it impossible to transport supplies by sea. The failure to destoy the Serbian Army was, however, a major failure as the Allies within 6 months had redeployed.

Occupied Serbia (1916-18)

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, butwe can not yet confiem just what happened in occupied Serbia. I am 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.

Greece

The Allies and Central Powers offered enducements for the Balkan countries to enter the War on their side. The Balkan countries had fought wars just before World War I. The principal targets were Turkey and Bulgaria. Thus when those two countries joined the Central Powers it helped build support for the Allies in Serbia and Romania. Serbia of course had already been attacked by Austria. This World War I in the Balkans was a continuation of the wars begun earlier, but on a wider scale. Greece which had participated in the Balkan Wars, was more reluctant to enter World War I. Greece finally entered the War on the Allied side (June 1917). The Allies offered substntial territorial enducements. The Greeks were especially interested areas of the Ottomon Empire with ethnic Greek populations. The Greek Army was, however, primarily committed in the Balkan campaign against the Bulgars.

Allied Offensive

The Allies planned a new offensive. The Allies forces at Salonika were reinforced by the Serb Army transported from Corfu and more British and French troops as well as some Russians. What followed was a sea-saw battle with the Bulgars in Macedonia. The Allies were eventually reinforced by the Greek Army when Greece enter the War (June 1917). Greek and Serbian troops eventually proved decisive in breaking the Bulgar lines. This then opened up the defeat of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia.

Orphans

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.

Sources

Shackelford, Micheal. "The Black Hand: The Secret Serbian Terrorist Society."






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Created: 6:10 PM 2/19/2006
Last updated: 7:02 PM 5/5/2015