Serbian Infantry in Winter Uniform

Serbian Late WW1 Infantry

28 July 1914 saw Austro-Hungary declare war on Serbia. By midnight Belgrade was being shelled from the Danube, and Serbia found itself to be the first Allied country officially embroiled in the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian staff had expected an isolated Serbia to last less than a month, yet by August such calculations were made redundant. The Balkan Kingdom had claimed the first Allied victory after a four day defence of the mountain of Cer. Although a rushed counteroffensive around Drina failed, further victories around the Kolubara River meant that, by 1915, the outnumbered and poorly equipped Serbian army had managed to effectively maintain the existing border with Austro-Hungary. Two Balkan wars (1912-13 and 1913) had previously bled the Kingdom’s Army of recruits and equipment. Throughout the initial stages of the war the Serbian army suffered from a shortage of artillery and artillery stocks. Only four Maxim type machine guns were allocated to front line regiments, almost half the number issued to an equivalent Austro-Hungarian unit. Uniform was also in short supply, as only the first ban, or first class of age defined recruits, could be fully equipped in military issue trench coats, boots, loose fitting trousers, Serbian style moccasins (Opanci) and Šajkacas (Serbian national caps). It is estimated that around 50,000 of the 450,000 mobilised soldiers had no equipment whatsoever. The Serbian Army consisted primarily of infantry, with 11½ Rifle and one Cavalry division.

October 1915 saw the deployment of the 11th German Army, thought to be more effective than anything deployed on the front previously. This was coupled with the entry of a revanchist Bulgaria (aiming to reverse its 1913 defeat and partition) into the war on behalf of the Central Powers, as well as a serious typhus epidemic that ravaged the Serbian trenches. The opening of an exposed and vast eastern front, the routing of the Serbian 2nd Army by a numerically superior Bulgarian force, successful crossing of rivers, and the capture of Belgrade in the north meant that the Serbian position became untenable. The majority of the Serbian army, deployed in the north, was forced to retreat southward in an attempt to join several allied divisions proceeding through Macedonia. A successful Bulgarian offensive around Kosovo compromised such plans also. By order of Field Marshal Radomir Putnik, the Serbian army was to proceed west towards the Allied Kingdom of Montenegro and then into neutral Albania. The circumstances of such a winter retreat were terrible with an estimated 200,000 Serbs thought to have died in the roadless Albanian mountains from cold, disease, thirst, hunger and skirmishes with local forces. After two hellish months 155,000 Serbs (consisting of both civilian and military personnel) managed to reach the Adriatic coast and were subsequently ferried to the Allied isles of Corfu and Vido, as well as to Tunisia, whereas most civilians were ferried to France. The conditions throughout the retreat were so severe that many Serbs later died from exhaustion and disease on the islands themselves. This tragedy, also known as the ‘Albanian Golgotha’, firmly cemented itself within Serbian national consciousness, as evidenced by the song heard in the background. By 12 December 1915 Western Allied forces in southern Serbia were forced to retreat back to Greece, leaving Serbia completely occupied. Despite these setbacks, a substantial part of the Serbian Army had nevertheless successfully evacuated, albeit with little materiel.

January 1916 saw the Montenegrin army surrender after a 20 day campaign and Austro-Hungarian troops capturing Italian Albania. The French government insisted on establishing a Macedonian front from Thessaloniki with the goal of severing German communications with Turkey and eventually establishing supply lines through the Black Sea with Russia. It took six months to reequip the Serbian army from Allied stocks. Many servicemen, throughout the latter part of the war, wore blue French and khaki British uniforms. The evacuation meant that the shortage of Serbian use Mausers was exacerbated, and many soldiers had to use the French Lebel and Berthier rifles. Many were also reequipped with French Adrian helmets, engraved with a Serbian double-headed eagle.

By 17 August 1917 a Bulgarian Army and one German division had launched an offensive three days prior to a planned Allied one. The Greek Army was ordered not to resist and substantial gains were made in eastern Greece around the Struma River. In the West, however, the Allied Army of the Orient maintained their positions and launched a counterattack. Serbian and French elements of the multinational Army had captured the mountain peak of Kajmakcalan despite German reinforcements consisting of a further two divisions. By 1918, however, the withdrawal of Austrian and German forces from the Macedonian front meant that French and Serbian troops could finally attempt a breakthrough. These forces defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Dobro Pole. Although Bulgaria avoided an occupation, its government had to capitulate on the 29th September 1918. Seven infantry and one cavalry division were rerouted by the German High Command in order to re-establish the front. This, however, proved fruitless as the Army of the Orient managed to finally liberate Serbia two weeks before the end of the War.

By 1918 58% of the Serbian Army, numbering around 450,000 servicemen, had perished from various causes. The small Balkan Kingdom had also lost 16% of its total population and more than any other combatant nation. All throughout the war, Serbian infantry had endured and battled, bringing ultimate victory ever closer.