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


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.


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

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