Serbia In The First World War

In the years leading to World War I, there were hostilities between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Their ties worsened with Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 which angered the Serbian nationalists, who wanted the territories to be part of Serbia. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke by a Bosnian Serb gave Austria-Hungary an opportunity to declare war on Serbia on 28th July, 1914 and soon all the major powers joined the conflict turning it into the First World War. Despite facing numerous challenges, Serbia was able to thwart the Austro-Hungarian invasion in 1914. However, the following year a combined army of Germany, Austria Hungary and Bulgaria forced the Serbians to abandon their homeland and retreat to Albania. With the Allies winning the war, Serbia was liberated by November 1, 1918. However, it had lost a quarter of its population in the war. Here is a detailed analysis of Serbia’s participation in World War I including all the major events in which it was involved.

Balkans – Powder Keg of Europe

The Ottoman and, to a lesser extent, the Austro Hungarian Empire had deteriorated in the years leading up to the First World War. This had a major effect on the strategic Balkan region in South-eastern Europe, which saw the emergence of new nations from the old empires. This in turn, led to the region gaining the political interest of the Major Powers in Europe. The emergence of overlapping claims to territories and ethnic groups, spheres of influence of the Great Empires, nationalism among the Balkan nations and rise of pan Slavism made the Balkans a hotbed for small conflicts and larger wars, akin to the powder keg of Europe.

Map of the Balkans in 1914
Map of the Balkans in 1914 – showing recent territorial changes and the extent of the Ottoman Empire

Pan Slavism and Assassination of the Archduke

Pan Slavism was the political ideology to unite all of the Slavs of the Balkans into one nation, i.e. Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs”). Supported by the Russian Empire, the idea had gained ground in the Slavic states of the Balkans, especially Serbia. This was however a threat to the Austro-Hungarians which had large territories with considerable Slavic populations.

Sarajevo citizens in 1908
Sarajevo citizens reading a poster proclaiming the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1908

The hostilities between Serbia and Austria Hungary further increased with the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, when Austria Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, thus angering the Serbian nationalists, who wanted the territories to be part of Serbia. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 improved the positions of Serbia and Russia. In spite of the success in the creation of Albania and the resultant severing of Serbia’s access to the sea, Austria-Hungary felt unsatisfied because its plans were not fully realized.

Beltrame's Illustration of the assassination
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as illustrated by Achille Beltrame

Franz Ferdinand was the presumptive heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was an advocate of increased federalism and wanted to reorganize his Empire by combining the Slavic lands into a third crown. Any such reform would have been a blow to pro-Slav nationalism. In 1914, he was thus assassinated by members of Serbian nationalist secret society Blank Hand, which had ties in the Serbian military and government. The act was carried by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princep on 28th June, 1914 in Sarajevo. This event would push Europe into a diplomatic scramble known as the July Crisis and finally into the First World War.

July Ultimatum and War Crisis

With the full backing of Germany, the Austro Hungarians were determined to pursue a hard-lined policy towards Serbia in the aftermath of the assassination. A stern ultimatum was thus prepared by Austria Hungary, which demanded the suppression of the criminal and terrorist propaganda in Serbia against the Empire, and also included the demand for Austria-Hungary’s participation in any internal inquiry. It was delivered in the evening on July 23, 1914 and Serbia was given 48 hours to comply. Historians disagree on the extent to which the Serbs genuinely compromised or whether Russian support influenced their reply. Any which way the Serbian reply was not found to be satisfactory and the Austro Hungarians declared war on Serbia on 28th July, 1914.

Austria-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia report
Newspaper report on Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia

In 1914, the Serbian forces were a sad state of affairs. Still recovering from the losses of the Balkan Wars, Serbia and its army needed at least three years for rearmament for the development of new military formations in the south. There was shortage of ammunition, funds, railroads, horses and men but in spite of its weaknesses, Serbia was determined to defend itself in the event of an attack. The country ordered mobilization on 25 July, 1914. Serbia raised approximately 450,000 men of three age-defined classes, this comprised all able-bodied men between 21 and 45 years of age. Lack of finances, a significant domestic military-industrial complex, modern weaponry and equipment however made Serbia dependent on imports and help from allies, pegging them down as a fighting force.

Successes of 1914

It took several weeks after the declaration of war for Austria-Hungary to launch its first full scale offensive against the Serbs. Three out of six (II, V and VI) Austro-Hungarian armies and 270,000 men were mobilized at the Serbian frontier. However, due to Russian intervention, part the 2nd Army was redirected towards the east. Between August and December, the Austro-Hungarians under General Oskar Potiorek made three attempts to invade and defeat the Serbians. Their forces were however checked and defeated by a determined Serbian defense under Marshall Radomir Putnik with notable victories at Cer and Kolubara.

Field Marshal Radomir Putnik
Field Marshal Radomir Putnik – under whom Serbia thwarted the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1914

Defeat and Retreat of 1915

Almost a year after the failed invasion of Serbia, combined forces from Germany, Austria Hungary and Bulgaria launched another invasion of Serbia under the leadership of General August von Mackensen, in October 1915. The Germans were keen on a rail route to Istanbul via Serbia and the Austro Hungarians wanted relief after Italy opened up a new front against them joining the Allies.

German field marshal August von Mackensen
German field marshal August von Mackensen – Who successfully led the Serbian Campaign

The Serbians capitulated under the invading force, and in November, Serbian Field Marshall Radomir Putnik ordered full retreat south and west through Montenegro and into Albania. Serbian casualties numbered 90,000 and another 174,000 were captured. Of those who managed to escape many would perish to hunger, disease, thirst and hypothermia; and at the hands of Albanian tribal bands seeking revenge for the Balkan Wars. About 150,000 reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea from where they were transported by Allied ships to various Greek islands by February of 1916. This was an emphatic victory for the Central Powers with Serbia been all but knocked out of the war and the railroad from Berlin to Istanbul was finally opened.

Serbian army retreat in World War 1
Serbian Army during its retreat towards Albania

Rest of the War

The rested and reorganized Serbian Army was made part of the Army of the East and was given the center of the Salonika front. In November 1916, after an expensive Monastir Offensive, the Serbian and French forces took limited areas of Macedonia and stabilized the front against the Bulgarians. After 2 years of lull, the major breakthrough came in September 1918, when the Serbian Second Army reinforced by two French divisions made a breach across the mountains of Dobro Polje. The Bulgarians quickly faltered and concluded a truce at the end of September. The entire territory of the former Kingdom of Serbia was liberated by November 1, 1918.

Serbian civilians being executed by Austro-Hungarian forces
Austro-Hungarian firing squad executing Serbian civilians in 1917

Serbia’s farmers had made up an unprecedented 80 percent of the Serbian army. A quarter of Serbia’s population of 4.5 million did not survive the First World War, the highest in terms of percentage. Most perished in combat, more than 400,000 died of typhoid, cold or hunger; while occupying forces executed another 60,000 Serbian civilians.

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