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.