History is written by the victors. But not all the victors will find their deserved place in history. This is my remembrance of a small victor, a country caught in the whirlwind of the Great War that no school kid outside its borders will ever write a social studies assignment on. My high school student son couldn’t. His topic was Russia in the Great War. The other two “angles” he could’ve chosen from were the big Allies states, or the states of the Central Powers.
This small country which won the Great War also paid the highest price for its victory: it lost one quarter of its total population and sixty percent of its army.
Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash
On June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old, young nationalist (fanatic, patriot, terrorist – he’s been different things to different people, there will never be a consensus about him) from Bosnia killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, in Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had illegally occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina some time earlier, was quick to blame the small Balkan Kingdom of Serbia for this act. Princip was a Bosnian Serb, after all; he’d lived there for some time. Princip was a teenager who had dreamed a Pan-Slavic dream – the state for all south Slavs – Yugoslavia – with Serbia as its “Piedmont”. (“Yug” means “south” in south Slavic languages.) He’d been connected to some extreme nationalistic groups in Serbia, true, but certainly not with the government. Serbia, which had fought for freedom from the five-century-long Ottoman rule less than fifty years before, yet still had to fight the Turks in 1912, and then Bulgaria in 1913, didn’t need nor want another war. The insane act of Gavrilo (“Gabriel”) Princip and his group ignited the war that would have happened anyway. They didn’t cause it, even though they have been blamed for it since then. (This part, history didn’t forget. Funny, but no one blames the victorious Allies for setting the stage for WWII by imposing the humiliating and impossible war reparations on Germany after WWI. Even the former U.S. president, Clinton, in his arrogance and disturbing lack of knowledge of modern history, blamed Serbia, in one of his speeches, for starting not only WWI but WWII as well.)
Yet, a month later, in July 1914, after Serbia refused only one of a long list of humiliating terms of an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, the mighty Empire, the huge multinational country with 52.8 million people and one of the greatest military powers of its time, declared war upon the tiny Kingdom of Serbia, whose population was 4.5 million.
Germany followed suit and in the next few days, the Allies and the Central Powers declared war upon each other. Within weeks, almost the whole world was in flames.
The Austro-Hungarian Army invaded Serbia in August 1914. And then the impossible happened. The much smaller and poorly-armed Serbian soldiers, most of them drafted peasants, won two big battles – those of Cer and Kolubara – and pushed the enemy back over the Drina River, the border between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The Battle of Cer (Cer is a mountain in Serbia; the world itself means ‘oak’), under the command of General – later Field marshal, or Duke, the highest military rank in Serbian Army – Stepa Stepanović, is still considered a “masterpiece of the art of war and it’s studied, even today, in many serious military academies, including West Point, as an example of the shift from strategic defense to counter-attack.” In November, General Živojin Mišić, who would later also became a field marshal/duke, won the Kolubara Battle. These were the two first Allies’ victories in the Great War.
This embedded composition, The March to Drina, was composed in honour of the victory at Cer and the commander of the elite Iron Regiment, who had been killed in the battle.
In 1915, Austro-Hungarians and Germans occupied the larger part of Serbia and the capital, Belgrade. Bulgarians attacked Serbia without declaring war, preventing their retreat toward Greece. The Supreme Command of the Serbian Army decided to withdraw toward the Adriatic Sea through Albania. There, France and Italy would help the army to recover and return back to Serbia. That was the plan.
The withdrawal lasted from November 24th to December 21st 1915. It was an event unknown in the war’s history. The bulk of the army, civilians, the entire government, the Supreme Command, King Peter (already in his seventies and sick), the diplomats, writers, poets, painters, actors… children, young, old… set off across the snowy Albanian mountains toward the sea. Hungry, poorly dressed, with very few weapons, with thousands of wounded and sick… It’s said that King Peter crossed Albania riding on an ox cart. The soldiers carried the old and gravely ill Field marshal Radomir Putnik, the Head of the Supreme Command, in an improvised wooden litter, a vertical rectangular box with a slot so that light could get in. Later he would joke that it was like a coffin with a window.
About 72,000 people died on the narrow, icy roads of the Albanian mountains. Those who made it to the shores of the Adriatic Sea soon realized there was no one waiting for them there. No allies, no food, no clothes, no help.
After weeks of long negotiations, the Allies, mainly French and Italians, finally transported them to the Greek island of Corfu – around 160,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians. For thousands and thousands it was too late. At first they were buried on the islands, later in the Ionian Sea – more than 10,000 people.
The survivors were sent back to the Salonica Front in Greece in spring of 1916. After heavy losses – more than 4,000 soldiers – they liberated the town of Bitola in Macedonia, but all further actions were ceased due to problems on other fronts. The army would stay on Salonica Front fighting until the fall of 1918, losing almost 10,000 people.
In September 1918, a breakthrough was made. As a part of the Allied forces, the Serbian Army under the command of Field marshal Petar Bojović launched an attack, breaking the main part of the front. They entered Skoplje on September 25th. Four days later, Bulgaria surrendered. The First Army liberated Niš, and on November 1st they victoriously marched in Belgrade. On November 3rd, Austria-Hungary capitulated, followed by her allies. Soon, it would cease to exist, along with two other empires – the Ottoman and the Russian.
The small Balkan kingdom would soon fulfill Gavrilo Princip’s dream. On December 1st, several South Slavic nations would unite in the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This “association”, the naive vision and hope of pan-utopians, idealists and romantics wouldn’t last long and wouldn’t make anyone happy. It would break twice, in 1941 and again in 1991 in two devastating wars. But this is another tale, one I won’t attempt to write about.
This story of unimaginable suffering, terrible loss and incredible moral strength is mostly forgotten. It should not be, but it is – that’s the fate of the small and less significant. We often forget that wars, victories, losses, destruction… are wars, victories, losses and destruction, equally tragic to everyone. They don’t happen only to big and powerful countries. Others suffer, too, no matter how small they seem in the great scheme of things.
Every man’s death diminishes all of us, to paraphrase John Donne. May all those killed and perished in the Great War rest in peace, no matter the side they fought on. Millions suffered: the same pain, same wounds, visible and invisible, some that healed by time, some never. Indirectly, this is my story, and that’s why I wanted to tell it: my own Austrian grandfather fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front. When he returned from a Russian war prison in 1920, he married my Serbian grandmother. This memento mori is my personal homage to a small, brave and forgotten victor of the Great War and my tribute to one-eighth of my own blood.