Sunday, March 31, 2013

Before the Resurrection of the Serbian Army and Nation / The Great Retreat of 1915

Aleksandra's Note: In this special season of resurrection, new beginnings, and new life, only those who have ever experienced the incredible harshness winter is capable of can fully appreciate what human beings are capable of when the very survival of their people and their nation is at stake. In the last months of 1915, after their homeland was invaded and occupied by the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria, the Serbian people had two choices: stay in their homeland and die, losing their nation to the enemy forever, or make the retreat across the dangerous Albanian mountains in the brutal winter conditions and perhaps make it to the other side with their lives and the determination that their beloved homeland was not lost to them forever - that they would live to fight another day.

The story of this GREAT RETREAT of 1915/16 has been told with compassion and reverence by foreigners who were awestruck at the remarkable capacity of the Serbs to persevere in the worst of conditions. Though so many perished, those who survived to recover and live to fight another day are testament to what the Heroes of Serbia were capable of, and just how deeply they loved their  Serbia; their homeland, their country, their nation. Such patriots they were and so much did they believe in their Christian God and in their righteous destiny.

I have always loved the season of winter. As brutal of a season as it can be, it is also capable of producing breathtaking beauty and serenity. Ever since I learned about this incredible period in human history and what the Serbs went through during World War One as they undertook the Great Retreat of 1915, I cannot help but smile when I hear folks complain about the winter weather or winter conditions here in America. Being a native Chicagoan, I know winter well. But knowing well now what the Serbs experienced and transcended, every complaint about winter is now just mere triviality.

Below you will find one historian's description of an unforgettable, indeed cinematic story. Francis Whiting Halsey, author of The Literary Digest History of the World War: Volume VIII, [1919], was clearly moved by the story of the Serbs, and I'm thankful for such historians who have an appreciation for the unforgettable war stories that take place far from the battlefields.


Aleksandra Rebic


French World War One poster depicting the Great Retreat of the Serbs

World War One postcard of the Serbian Great Retreat of 1915/16

No mere outline can give any idea of the dreadful nature of the Serbian retreat. [Beginning in December 1915] It must be remembered that it was not the mere retirement of an army. It was probably unique in that not one active army, but all the armed forces of the nation were withdrawing from the country.  And with those armies went the King and members of the royal family, the Government and all its civil personnel; the foreign legations and the doctors, nurses, and staffs of the hospitals of the Allied peoples. Most pathetic of all was the great mass of peasant refugees, villagers, peasants and people of the towns who fled in sheer terror. Rather than face the Austro-German occupation, the entire Serbian population, save a few who were held back by some unbreakable tie, gathered together what little household goods they could and took flight. A great proportion were physically unfit to face the difficulties of the road. Almost none had food to last through the journey. It was not only armies which retired, it was almost a nation which fled. Swelling the number of those who had to be fed upon the road were some 20,000 Austrian prisoners who had been captured the year before. The road which the multitude had to travel for great part of the way, lay through and over rugged mountains, often by paths dangerous at any time, and these mountains were peopled by a population of hereditary enemies, largely brigands, who fell upon small parties and robbed and murdered whenever they dared.

The crowning burden was the fact that the weather was most bitter, heavy snow falling for many days with the temperature in the mountains for the most part intensely cold. It seems as if no detail that could add to the horror of the march was omitted. Terrible scenes were witnessed on the road to Prisrend. [Prizren - a town in Kosovo] Deep snow lay everywhere. There was practically no supply-column or commissariat. The men sustained life largely on the carcasses of cattle and horses that fell on the road.

At Prisrend [Prizren] 150,000 refugees, among whom the destitution and suffering was terrible, were massed. From here the only path of escape lay over the forbidden mountains of Albania to Skutari, over 100 miles away. All motor-cars, carriages, guns and stores had to be destroyed or thrown into the waters of the Ibar, for to get them over the mountains was impossible. Here Marshal Putnik, very ill, as he had been since midsummer, arrived in a motor-car and had to be carried in a chair. Here King Peter left his ox-wagon and with two officers as companions, went on foot with an escort of twelve men. The Crown Prince [Aleksandar] also went on foot, with an escort of twelve of the Royal Guard. All arrived finally at their destination, but suffering and broken, the Crown Prince lying for some time seriously ill at Alessio.

Part of the Serbian troops, instead of taking the road by Prisrend [Prizren], struck west from Prishtina [Pristina - in Kosovo] to Ipek in Montenegro, and so reached Skutari [in Albania]. These succeeded in taking with them some batteries of field and mountain guns. Over the Albanian Mountains it was not possible to take larger guns. The road was in parts of a precipitous and dangerous character. In the snow, there was ever a likelihood of detached parties missing the route, which was often marked by the corpses of those who had fallen. Immense numbers of people, both soldiers and civilians, died from sheer exhaustion, from weakness and hunger, lying down at the roadside to die. Where a road was steep, or where a small stream had to be forged, the road might be marked by accumulations of the dead. Not a few people and great numbers of transport animals lost their lives by falling out of narrow paths down mountain sides. Many died from frostbite and dysentery, and not a few, both Serbian soldiers and civilians, fell victims to the Albanian inhabitants of the mountains.

This flight of the Serbians from their country was one of the tragic episodes of history. For many who took part in the exodus, the retreat lasted over two months. For those who started from the center of the country, as from Kragujevac or Krusevac, the time taken was from six to eight weeks. The journey was made in all cases under conditions of great hardship, from lack of food, from the physical difficulties of the latter part of the road, and from the bitter weather. The Serbian Army, by the time it reached the Adriatic, had lost about 120,000 men, or one half of its original strength. The mortality among the civilian population will never be known, but it was very great. Hardly any country in any age has seen so terrible a calamity.

Skutari was the sixth capital Serbia had had during two months. After Nish came Kraljevo, Raska, Mitrovica, Prizren and then Skutari. In their flight to Skutari, men composing the Serbian government rode little mountain ponies, but often had to abandon their mounts and go on foot. So dangerous were the mountain roads that horses often slipped and fell into abysses. Sometimes a man had to go on all fours; others, to avoid vertigo, had to be guided. Roads in places were worn through the snow a yard deep. Through such a country the army could not bring guns and convoys. Officers and soldiers wept as they demolished guns, pieces of steel which they called their "French friends," and which had been made at Creusot. After suffering from cold, hunger, and fatigue, many soldiers now barefoot, reached Skutari. Altogether there arrived by various routes 6,000 women and children. The tragedy of the situation was that the army had had almost nothing to eat for four days. Small quantities of flour were kept and baked for women and children. Skutari, although a temporary haven of refuge at which the Serbians gained rest after their exhaustion, was by no means a place of permanent safety. It was necessary to get everybody, soldier and civilian alike, first to the coast, and then to some place across the water beyond the reach of danger...

Francis Whiting Halsey
The Literary Digest History of the World War
Volume VIII
Pages 277-281


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