What price freedom?

Which nation lost a quarter of its population, over 35% of its army and around 60% of its adult male population in a conflict during the last Century? The Soviet Union? Vietnam? Iraq perhaps?

The actual answer is the Kingdom of Serbia in the First World War. Was the fight for freedom worth the sacrifice?

In 1914, Serbia found herself at the centre of an Imperial game between the Great Powers and surrounded by hostile states: Austria-Hungary in the North and West (who believed that “Alle Serben mussen sterben” (“All Serbs must die”)), an angry Bulgaria in the East, a restless Albanian population in the South East and an Italian government ambitiously eyeing up the Dalmatian and Albanian peninsula.

The First Invasion

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip fulfilled the defining act of the century: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. At his trial Princip proclaimed that Yugoslavia “was my basic idea”. Following Serbia’s refusal to satisfy the subsequent Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, an Empire of 50 million inhabitants declared war on a nation of 4.5 million. The invasion began on 12 August and within a few days 450,000 well-armed troops crossed into Serbia. The Austrian Fifth Army invaded from Bosnia across the Drina and soon drove back the Serbian Third Army commanded by Pavle Jurišić-Šturm. The Austrian Sixth Army attacked Serbia on 15 August. The following day the Serbian Second Army led by Stepa Stepanović launched a massive counter-attack co-ordinated by Vojvoda Radomir Putnik that culminated in the four day Battle on the Cer ridge. The Austro-Hungarian force was obliterated and retreated. The victory at Cer was the first Allied victory in the First World War and was widely celebrated in London, Paris and Moscow.

The Second Invasion

Incandescent with rage the Austro-Hungarians replenished their forces and launched fiercer assaults on 7 September and 6 November. Putnik was forced to withdraw his troops who were suffering from high losses, exhaustion and dwindling supplies. A hastily convened joint session of government and the supreme command, chaired by Prince Regent Aleksandar, decided that resistance should continue for as long as possible. Prime Minister Nikola Pašić sent pleas to the Allies for ammunition but only France responded. On 2 December Belgrade was abandoned without a fight and the Austro-Hungarians held a victory parade in the city.

Just when hope was starting to fade, 20,000 French grenades arrived from Salonika. The Austro-Hungarians had temporarily ceased their offensive preparation for the next push southwards. General Živojin Mišić, Commander of the Serbian First Army, exploited this lull to rest his troops and prepare for a massive counter-attack, the Battle of Kolubara. The co-ordination and speed of the attack completely took the Austrians by surprise; by 15 December Belgrade was liberated and they had been driven from Serbia. 76,000 Austro-Hungarian troops were captured and significantly more were killed or wounded. General Mišić was promoted to Vojvoda whilst the Austrian General Potiorek was retired in disgrace and replaced by Archduke Eugen. The New York Times wrote: “Obituaries had been written for Serbia. The small Serbian people reduced the army of a mighty Empire to Ashes”.

1915 Catharsis and Golgotha

During 1914, the Austro-Hungarian invading force lost almost 250,000 of its 450,000 men; the Serbian army around 170,000. The losses were compounded by the Typhus epidemic (introduced by captured Hungarian soldiers) which claimed 500,000 – 650,000 Serbian lives and led American journalist John Reed to describe Serbia as “a country of death”. Such a weakened nation was unlikely to survive another invasion.

By 1915, the Central Powers were now involved in a war on two fronts and were keen to avoid a third opening up. Serbia was offered a separate peace conditional upon betraying her allies and signing an agreement based solely on Serbian interests. Invoking the legend of Tsar Lazar, Serbia rejected the offer, knowing that she was signing her own death warrant; the honourable refusal to betray her allies would come back to haunt her repeatedly.

On 5 October 1915, an army of over 500,000 well-equipped men, led by German Field-Marshall von Mackensen, attacked Serbia on a front 1200 miles wide. Serbia’s 225,000 poorly equipped troops offered brave resistance, but when Bulgaria attacked from the rear on 11 October, defeat was inevitable. Capitulation was rejected as it would mean the death of Serbian statehood. Instead the Serbs retreated through Albania to the Adriatic coast where the Allies had agreed to set up supply camps.

Albanian leader Essad Pasha Toptani agreed to allow Serbian troops and civilians through his territory unhindered, but other Albanian leaders were not so sympathetic, with the result that thousands of Serbs were robbed and killed in ambushes by roving bands.

For four months, in the heart of winter, an entire nation trudged through the Albanian snow toward the coast. French journalist Henri Barbie wrote: “No pictures of the French retreat from Russia [in 1912] can depict desperation such as the withdrawal of the Serbs...An entire nation consumed by a snowstorm...”

When the starving and exhausted Serbs reached the Albanian coastline, it was clear that the Allies’ promises had not been kept. After the first shipment of food from Italy had been sunk by an Austrian submarine, the Italians had decided it was too risky to send any more. To make matters worse, the Austrian air force began to bomb the refugees on the beaches. Many believed that the Serbs should be allowed to perish rather than risking Allied lives to rescue them; in disgust, Tsar Nicholas II threatened to withdraw from the Entente and sign a separate peace with Germany if the Serbs were not immediately evacuated from Albania. The French Government came to the aid of the Serbs, agreeing to transfer them. Even then the Austro-Hungarian navy continued to attack the Serbs, forcing them to walk another 200km southwards along the malaria-ridden Albanian coastline. Countless died.

The Italians halted the march just shy of its destination claiming it was necessary to quarantine the soldiers. British medical staff appealed in vain that the “illness” was nothing more than exhaustion and hunger. For ten days the troops were kept starving, just short of the ports laden with food while Italian ships set sail with Austrian Prisoners of War on board. Imagine how those people must have felt watching their enemy prisoners sailing away to safety?

Finally, in January 1916, the French began to transfer the Serbian Army, the first evacuees to Biserte in Tunisia, the remainder to Corfu. Between 3,000 and 9,500 people were evacuated daily. Prime Minister Nikola Pašić said: “Yes, we have lost everything, but we have saved Serbia’s honour”. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs perished in Albania. It is miraculous that the state, the army and the people survived at all.

Serbia in Exile

In 1916, Corfu was an island of 100,000 inhabitants; by 21 February that year, over 150,000 Serbs had disembarked onto the island of the gods, where once Odysseus and his sailors were said to have recuperated following a shipwreck. Yet even here, the Serb nation could not escape tragedy; thousands of soldiers died from the after-effects of protracted starvation and the inability to assimilate unlimited quantities of food.

The frailest were quarantined on the small nearby island of Vidos. Of those that died only 1,200 could be buried there. Approximately 6,000 remaining dead were laid to rest in the Ionian Sea, the “Blue Graveyard”. The worst of the mass deaths was over by the end of February; the Serbian Army began to recuperate, eager to liberate their homeland. Within a few weeks, Serbia accessed the funds that had been deposited in foreign accounts; a nation in exile was back on its feet to the delight of the locals.

To this day, the Greeks speak of the discipline and hardiness of the Serbian Army. Not one theft, not one instance of vandalism or unruliness was committed by the Serbs whilst on Corfu. On the island there are many memorials to the brave Serbian soldiers and to the Greeks who to this day remain loyal to the Serbian people.

The Salonika Front

On 13 April embarkation for the Salonika Front began. Until 1918, the front was relatively quiet but by September a final attack was launched. The Allies dithered and argued about everything from politics to tactics. The Chief of the Allied Balkan Force, General Franchet D’Esperey proved to be merely a figurehead; in reality Vojvoda Živojin Mišić and the Serbian High Command were responsible for planning and executing all of the tactics in the offensive that followed. They proposed attacking through mountainous terrain that the Allies had deemed impossible to cross; by the following day Serb and French forces had made a breach 14km wide. The French paused for two days to consolidate but there was no stopping the Serbian Army. After only one week of fighting they breached the River Vardar. The Bulgarians that had proclaimed the death of the Serbian Army in 1915 fled shouting, “Run away the living, here come the dead!” The German Command ordered a general retreat.

Bulgaria capitulated on 29 September, withdrawing an army of 700,000 men. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany furiously demanded: “Should 62,000 Serbs decide the outcome of the war?!” British Prime Minister Lloyd George acknowledged that the unique importance of Salonika Front: “It was there that the mortal blow was dealt to the Central Powers”. General Petar Bojović ignored General D’Esperey’s command to halt outside Belgrade and the city was liberated on 1 November 1918. After only 45 days, the Serbian Army had advanced an astonishing 600km. By 3 November, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had imploded and signed an armistice. Eight days later, the First World War was over.

Conclusions: What Price Freedom?

Over 1 million Serbs perished in the First World War, proportionally the highest casualty rate of any of the combatants in the entire conflict. Serbian casualties accounted for 8% of the total Entente military deaths.

Following the Great War, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed a parliamentary democracy under the Karađorđević Dynasty. However, in 1915, Serbia had also signed the (then secret) Treaty of London that promised her:

Slavonia and the Dalmatian coast between Krka and Ston, including the Peseljac peninsula, Split and the island of Brač.


Srem and Bačka

Parts of Northern Albania.

Serbia did not pursue this treaty and it was instead replaced by the post-war treaties that drew the borders of the new Kingdom. We will never know how different the following 90 years might have been if Serbia had been less noble and trusting and more selfish, as all the other countries were.

Serbia sacrificed its independence and an entire generation for a unified “country of the South Slavs.” 90 years on, it is still struggling to disentangle itself from the “Yugoslav” legacy. What Price Freedom? Too high considering that we are still struggling to find it.

By Aleks Racić