Serbia’s bloodyminded 1914: Part I
The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Austria-hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia were the ignition for World War I, yet the actual conflict in the Balkans has faded from popular memory. No mere sideshow, the Serbian campaign of 1914 gave the Ente
Discover why Serbia’s 1914 campaign saw the Entente’s first great victory
Though the Kingdom of Serbia had emerged from the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-13 and 1913) as the undisputed military powerhouse of the Balkans, nearly doubling its territory at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, the reality of the situation was that Serbia was in no condition for a scrap in 1914. National confidence – never in short supply in a country obsessed with a nationalist calling to unite the South Slavs – was sky high. While its army was experienced and blooded, Serbia’s economy had been battered by conflict and its new, rural provinces from Turkey’s semi-feudal hinterland yielded few material benefits.
Furthermore, Serbia was now home to minorities with aspirations and grievances of their own. They proved as hostile to their new Serbian overlords as Bosnian Serbs, like the assassin Gavrilo Princip, were to Austria-hungary. A cautious customs and military union with the mountainous Kingdom of Montenegro – considered kin in language, identity and Orthodox rite – had begun in 1914, but on the eve of war that remained the only concession to state-building, and all this contributed to the war effort in real terms was 35,000 glorified clan levies with nothing resembling a professional officer class. However, Austria-hungary too was supremely confident. The Kaiserlich und Königlich
(Imperial and Royal) troops gathered at its borders overwhelmingly outnumbered Serbia’s fighting forces and outclassed them in materiel. Troops packed into trains raucously sang out, “Every shot – one Russian/ Every stroke – one Frenchman/those in Serbia have to die too!” as they clattered towards their divisions. Although battle-hardened, flushed with its earlier victories and able to muster an estimated 200-250,000 fighting men, the lack of modern equipment (and uniforms, some men marched without boots) reduced the Serbian army to 180,000 combat-ready infantry, supported by 200 machine guns and 528 artillery pieces (with only 381 of them being quick-loading).
The Austro-hungarian Balkan Army, meanwhile, was able to field some 320,000 infantry, 744 artillery pieces and 486 machine guns, plus support from riverine monitors and support vessels entering the Sava from the Danube.
Depleted stores from the First and Second Balkan Wars also placed a very low ceiling on how long Serbia could keep fighting, forcing them to rely on long, vulnerable resupply routes through neutral (but sympathetic) Greece.
Plans drawn up by Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf in 1909 had prepared Austriahungary for war in the Balkans against Serbia, or against both Serbia and Russia. This 1909 doctrine divided their forces into Echelon A, Echelon B and Minimalgruppe Balkan. Assuming Italy and Romania honoured their treaty
“SERBIA WAS NOW HOME TO MINORITIES WITH ASPIRATIONS AND GRIEVANCES OF THEIR OWN. THEY PROVED AS HOSTILE TO THEIR NEW SERBIAN OVERLORDS AS BOSNIAN SERBS, LIKE THE ASSASSIN GAVRILO PRINCIP, WERE TO AUSTRIA-HUNGARY”
commitments and rallied to Austria-hungary’s cause (they wouldn’t, but that’s another story), Echelon A (the largest) would concentrate on Russia, while the Minimalgruppe Balkan took up a defensive position against Serbia. Meanwhile, Echelon B was to support operations against Russia, or in a scenario in which Russia abandoned Serbia, support Minimalgruppe Balkan in a Balkan offensive.
What Hötzendorf’s plan didn’t account for was two offensive campaigns running simultaneously against Russia and Serbia. Russia’s early (and surprisingly swift) partial mobilisation on 29 July had spooked Austriahungary and Germany, necessitating rapid action in the east. In addition, recent conflicts were judged to have weakened the Serbian army to the point where Austria-hungary’s Balkan Army could quickly accomplish an invasion of Serbia. But most crucially, the murder of the Habsburg heir by revolutionaries armed and directed by a cabal within Serbian military intelligence meant that punishing
Serbia was a non-negotiable priority for Vienna.
The lie of the land
With the Dinaric Alps running north to south through the Balkans in the west, invading forces from antiquity had typically marched in parallel through the broad basin that began near the Serbian capital Belgrade and led through the heart of the country. The northern border with the Austro-hungarian Kingdom of Croatia-slavonia was marked by the Sava, a Danube tributary with only one bridge at Belgrade, and the Danube itself. The western border with the Austro-hungarian protectorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina was separated by the River Drina and the rugged Dinarics, which would naturally favour the defender and make any advance punishingly slow.
Uniquely vulnerable, Belgrade was perched on the banks of the Sava within artillery range of the town of Semlin (now Zemun) in Croatia-slavonia. Government institutions were withdrawn to the interior, and the Belgrade garrison left the walls for the high ground southwest of the city, while further south three army groups mustered over a 40 to 60-kilometre (25 to 37-mile) area, to cover the most likely invasion route into northern and central Serbia.
Serbia’s mobilisation order on 25 July summoned three waves of soldiers, as it had done in the Balkan Wars. First line (aged 2131) and second line (aged 32-37) troops were spread across the three army groups, while third line troops (aged 18-20 and 38-50) were a territorial force, mainly kept on garrison and guard duty. While first line and second line units were fully uniformed, supplies simply didn’t stretch to the third line, and many wore civilian clothes, embellished by army greatcoats and the ubiquitous šajkaca cap.
First Army, made up of eight cavalry squadrons, 40 infantry battalions and 90 guns, was headquartered at Raca on the right flank of the deployment area, while the left flank was held by Third Army, the weakest of the three groups, consisting of six cavalry squadrons, 28 infantry battalions and 72 guns. In the centre was the larger of the three, Second Army, which consisted of 13 cavalry squadrons, 40 infantry battalions and 90 guns.
First Army was led by General Petar Bojovic, Second Army by General Stepan ‘Stepa’ Stepanovic, and Third Army by the fascinating figure of General Pavle Jurišic Šturm. Born Paul Sturm in Germany, he had graduated from the Prussian Military Academy and French War Academy but travelled to Serbia in 1876 to fight against the Ottoman Empire. After the war he stayed, took a Serbian name and rose through the ranks. All three men had led armies in the First and Second Balkan Wars and had commanded troops in the Serbo-turkish War (1876-1878) and Serbo-bulgarian War (1885). Overall command was held by Field Marshal Radomir Putnik, who had unsuccessfully tried to resign as chief of staff due to ill-health, but King Petar I insisted that his capable old warhorse stay. Bizarrely, Putnik had been taking the waters in an Austrian spa when war was declared and was allowed home, either out of old world chivalry or because he was seen as a spent force. Meanwhile, the Serbian war plans were held in Putnik’s safe and he held the only key, forcing the army high command to break it open to retrieve their mobilisation orders.
East of the Bosnian frontier, the Užice
Army (two squadrons of cavalry, 24 infantry battalions and 54 guns) took up a defensive position around the town of the same name under the command of General
Miloš Božanovic, an ally of the paramilitary Black Hand accused of orchestrating the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
“EACH ARMY WAS ADDITIONALLY ACCOMPANIED BY BANDS OF CHETNIK IRREGULARS WHO HAD PROVEN THEIR WORTH BEHIND THE LINES IN EARLIER WARS”
Serbian soldiers line a trench securing the high ground. Serbian troops dugin with the expectation of Austria-hungary’s advance
Sofija Jovanovic was a Serbian woman who fought during World War I
Austro-hungarian soldiers attend a worship service in sight of Semlin in 1914