Friday, November 5, 2010

Where were the French and English? / The Retreat of a Nation

St. Clair Stobart

Photo of "The Flaming Sword" courtesy
of Milana "Mim" Bizic

...THE situation was growing more and more serious.

We had retreated forty miles in the last two days,

evidently not without reason, as the Germans had

entered Jagodina, at noon, on the day we had passed

through at 2.30 a.m. and, as there were other columns

behind us, that did not leave a large margin of safety.

I was always aware that delay caused by mistake in

taking the wrong road, or by dalliance with accidents,

would be fatal; but neither in our column, nor in

any column that I saw during three months of

retreat, was there ever anything but calmness and

apparent unconcern. Had there at any time been

panic, the narrow defiles would have been catacombed

with dead, in addition to the thousands who perished

from other causes.

But remarkable indeed was the dignity and order-

liness with which, from start to finish, the retreat of

the Serbian Army was conducted. And the silence!

Hour after hour, day and night after day and night,

week after week, thousands upon thousands of

soldiers, trudging wearily beside their slow-paced

oxen, or with their regiments of infantry, or driving

their gun-carriages, or, as cavalry, riding their horses

in silence. No laughter, no singing, no talking;

the silence of a funeral procession, which indeed it

was; a silence only broken by the cries of the drivers

to their oxen: "Svetko! Belia! Napred! Desno!

Levo! " ("Svetko! Belia! Forward! To the right!

To the left!") and the ceaseless rumbling of wagon

wheels, which sounded like the breaking of an angry

sea on a distant pebble beach. I have, since my

return, re-read accounts of the retreat of Napoleon's

army from Moscow, and though we were spared

some of the horrors they endured, there were two

features in our Serbian retreat, which were happily

absent in the other. For the retreat in which we

took part was the retreat, not only of the Serbian

Army, but of the Serbian nation. This meant that

thousands of women, children, and old men, driven

from their homes by the advancing enemy, were, in

ever-increasing numbers, as we progressed southwards,

adding to the difficulties of the safe retreat of the

Army, by mixing with the columns of artillery,

cavalry, infantry, engineers, field hospitals, and

swelling the procession.

Wagons filled with household treasures, beds,

blankets, chairs, frying-pans, even geese, slung head

downwards at the back of the cart, or balancing

themselves with curious dignity, upon the uneven

surfaces of indiscriminate luggage; a look of pained

astonishment on their faces, at their rude removal

from their own comfortable pastures.

Or, more frequent and more painful still, wagons

filled with little children; the oxen, weary and

hungry, led by women, also weary, hungry, and foot-

sore. I saw one woman, dragging by the rope, two

tired oxen drawing a wagon, in which were eight

small children. I saw a tiny boy leading two tiny

calves, which were drawing a tiny cart containing a

tiny baby, who was strapped to the cart. I saw a

woman, evidently not wealthy enough to possess a

cart and oxen of her own, carrying her two babies,

one on her back, and one in front ; and, in one of the

crushes which frequently occurred, the baby on her

back, was knocked off by the horns of a passing ox.

We wondered, at Shabatz, why we were on that

side of the river, with no bridge near us, when all

the other columns were travelling towards Krushevatz

on the other side. We received no orders all that day,

and I wondered more and more, for there was always

the possibility that the order might have gone astray.

But at 3 a.m. on Saturday, November 6th, the order

came to start at once for Kupgi, beyond Krushevatz,

via the pontoon bridge, which we had left on our

way here.

It was still dark when we reached the bridge. A

lengthy convoy of artillery was crossing, and behind

them again were endless other convoys. We halted,

and it seemed likely that hours would pass before

we should get a chance of butting in. But, to my joy,

I found that the artillery column was under the com-

mand of my Varvarin Major. He saw us, and at once

came up and said that he would arrange for us to

cross the bridge immediately after his guns. We

had not more than an hour to wait. A short, steep

bank of mud, and we were up on the approach road

to the bridge. I was told to dismount, and, following

close upon the guns, and followed by our own Red

Cross wagons, I led my horse across the pontoon.

Dawn was breaking, and I was glad, for my eyes

would surely never again see such a sight. Purple

mountains, wrapped in white mists, and crowned

with soft pink clouds; the broad grey river, rushing

wildly to its fate; and a bridge of boats. Upon the

bridge, dimly visible in the growing light, soldiers,

leading wagons which were carrying cannons and

heavy guns motives of murder and destruction

dominant closely followed by women leading Red

Cross wagons the cross of Christianity waving in the


On the other side of the bridge, refugees, streaming

along the road from Stalatz to Krushevatz, converged

with the stream of columns and refugees who crossed

the bridge, and made confusion even more confounded

than before. But I found my friend, the Major,

waiting for me on the other side. He had seen his

column safely across, and now he would, he said,

ride with us to Krushevatz, to show us the road out

of the town. He did this, and then rode off to place

his battery for a rearguard action.

The town was a solid mass of convoys and fugitives,

and it was anxious work steering the column safely

through, intact. The road leading through the town

was broader than usual, and the wagons of refugees

and of columns were jammed together three abreast

in hopeless tangle. "Many oxen were come about

us; lean bulls of Basan closed us in on every side."

Later, the Headquarters Staff overtook us, and I rode

for a while beside our Divisional Commander. He told

me quietly, as though he were talking of the death of

a distant relative, that Nish had been taken by the

Bulgars; those flags of welcome which we had seen, were

now welcoming our enemies. Where, we asked each

other, were the French and the English ? But not a word

of bitterness passed his lips; "there was doubtless some

good reason," was his only comment. And I could only

say what I always said, "Never mind, we shall get it

all back one day," but I sometimes almost wished,

for the first time in my life, that I was not English.

Mabel Annie Stobart
("St. Clair Stobart")
"The Flaming Sword in Serbia and Elsewhere"



Mrs (Mabel Anne St Clair) Stobart (1862-1954)

Although with some anti-war sympathies, at the outset of WW1 Mrs Stobart founded the Women’s National Service League to facilitate women’s war service both at home and abroad. She set up all-women staffed hospitals in Belgium, Antwerp and Northern France and, in 1915, created an innovative tented hospital in Serbia, and a series of emergency dispensaries to which thousands of Serbian civilians turned to for help. In 1915 the Serbian Army Medical Services sent her to the front in command of a mobile hospital unit. Stobart led her group on horseback for over eighty days through harsh terrain, arriving in Scutari (Albania) without any loss of personnel.

If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at