brother brother against


South Slavs fought for both Sides in what was to be­come a bit­ter the­atre of op­er­a­tions

At the time of World War I the South Slavs were a peo­ple united by a com­mon lan­guage and di­vided by al­most ev­ery­thing else. Con­sist­ing broadly of four groups of Serbo-croat speak­ers – Bos­ni­aks (Bos­nian Mus­lims), Croats (Ro­man Catholics, us­ing the Latin al­pha­bet), Serbs and Mon­tene­grins (both Eastern or­tho­dox, us­ing the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet) – and three lin­guis­tic cousins; closely Slovenes, more dis­tantly Mace­do­nians and Bul­gar­i­ans.

These pop­u­la­tions (along with non-south Slavs, such as Ger­mans, Hun­gar­i­ans, Greeks, Jews, Roma and Sinti, Al­ba­ni­ans and Vlachs) could be found across the Balkans, re­gard­less of na­tional bound­aries. Within the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian Em­pire, Bos­ni­aks, Croats and Slovenes were gen­er­ally per­ceived as loyal to the Hab­s­burg crown, while Serbs were widely seen as po­ten­tial fifth colum­nists.

These divi­sions and dis­tinc­tions played a role in the Ser­bian cam­paign from the out­set. With the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the Ser­bian army, Serbs liv­ing in Hab­s­burg lands crossed the bor­der to serve with their kin against their neigh­bours. This be­trayal shouldn’t have been a sur­prise. In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Franz Fer­di­nand’s as­sas­si­na­tion, Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina’s mil­i­tary gover­nor os­car po­tiorek (a Slovene) or­gan­ised vi­cious reprisals against Bos­nia’s Serb pop­u­la­tion.

In these reprisals, shops were looted, men were beaten in the street, and a pre­dom­i­nantly Bos­niak Schutzko­rps mili­tia was formed to com­bat sus­pected Serb na­tion­al­ists and gueril­las. An es­ti­mated 5,500 Serbs were ar­rested in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina, be­tween 700 and 2,200 died in prison while 460 were ex­e­cuted. A fur­ther 5,200 Bos­nian Serb fam­i­lies were forcibly ex­pelled from the coun­try in a pat­tern that would be trag­i­cally echoed later in the 20th cen­tury.

South Slavs were a sig­nif­i­cant mi­nor­ity in the KUK forces. 563,400 (31.3 per cent) of Aus­tria-hun­gary’s to­tal man­power could be iden­ti­fied as Serb, Croat or Bos­niak, and a fur­ther two per cent (50,400) were Slovene. With the out­break of war, Serbs in the Balkan Army were re­moved from com­bat units and placed in labour de­tach­ments.

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