Introduction: Did Serbia want Crisis and War in 1914?

Due to its geopolitical position in the Balkans, Serbia can be understood only through the broader framework of the confronted interests of the Central Powers and the Entente at the time. Austria-Hungary had developed its own Balkan projects as early as 1906,[1] and Russia, Italy and Germany had their own plans. The Balkan nations developed their particular plans, too, collectively aimed at accomplishing national liberation goals at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. Conversely, both the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary experienced internal ethnic strife from Poland to Italy and the Balkans. The old Empire was also eager to improve its credibility as a Great Power. Furthermore, at some point Austria-Hungary’s interests became closely aligned with those of Germany.[2]

The Balkan Wars improved the positions of Serbia and Russia. In spite of the success with the creation of Albania and the resultant severing of Serbia’s access to the sea, Austria-Hungary felt frustrated because its plans were jeopardized, if not totally obstructed. The Balkan Wars resonated among its South Slav population and this, along with its fear for integrity, led to Austria-Hungary’s decision to act decisively in accordance with the previous plans, thereby denying Serbia time for recovery and Russia to carry out its military reforms and railroad network within next three years. Upon analysis of the papers of General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852-1925), Chief of General Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, American historian Sidney Bradshaw Fay (1876-1967) counted twenty-four demands in the ultimatum issued in the period from 1 January 1913 and 1 June 1914, made by Conrad von Hötzendorf.[3] What Conrad von Hötzendorf failed to find was an excuse or pretext good enough to convince the public in both Austria-Hungary and Germany that war was necessary.

The Serbian government was fully aware of Austro-Hungarian hostility, while its own country was entirely exhausted after the two Balkan wars. The government and its Prime Minister also understood that its mighty neighbor could continue to stir up Albanians and Bulgarians against Serbia.[4] Therefore, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (1845-1926) in his address to Parliament in late 1913 expressed the official attitude by emphasizing that:

[the] Serbian government is convinced that the Serbian people need a long period of peace in order to cultivate newly acquired territories and to achieve their comprehensive development. Therefore, the government is overwhelmed by the desire to live in peace and friendship with all of its neighbors and to dismantle all possible obstacles that could harm the policy of peace and friendship.[5]

His address, published in full, invited Austria-Hungary to peacefully settle all disputes with Serbia. As an expression of good will, the Serbian government opened negotiations to cede a concession for southern railroads to Austria-Hungary. Talks were ongoing when the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este (1863-1914) in Sarajevo occurred.[6] Furthermore, in order to appease the monarchy, Serbia and Montenegro canceled ongoing negotiations on the unification of the two Serbian kingdoms. The latter came after a warning of Austrian discontent arrived in St. Petersburg from Berlin and Vienna, and upon the demand of the Russian Minister of foreign affairs.[7]

To deprive the monarchy of any possible pretext for a new crisis - or worse, a war - the Serbian government ordered, through the Ministry of War, the removal from the border of all officers who had been involved in previous intelligence work or with patriotic organizations in Bosnia and Croatia. Several of them, suspected members of the clandestine organization “Unification or Death,” were moved inland from the borders. Somehow, Major Ljubomir Vulović (1876-1917), who was close to Lieutenant Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević (1876-1917), was installed on the border post.[8]

The Serbian government was upset by the information coming from the Ministry of the Interior on alleged smuggling of arms and explosives to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Major of the Drina district had reported that his subalterns had some knowledge and that he did his best in accordance to the Minister’s previous order to stop such activities. However, some ammunition had already been passed to Drina. There is no proof that the Serbian government knew about the assassination plan, nor that it had given instructions to its envoy in Vienna to warn the Austro-Hungarian government.[9] Prime Minister Pašić ordered that the Minister of Defense should prevent such dangerous acts. Minister of War, Colonel Dušan Stefanović (1870-1951) demanded a statement from the then chief of Intelligence Lieutenant Colonel Dimitrijević on the issue. Dimitrijević explained in a two-page document that the distribution of the arms’ supply was executed at the request of his informer Rade Malobabić (1881-1917) to protect the messengers or the agents (informers) in a case of need. Dimitrijević confirmed that he approved delivery of four guns and ammunition, but not hand grenades. He denied that he “armed our population in Bosnia.” It is of great importance to note that he bought four revolvers of the “Nagan” type that had never been used in action. When Dimitrijević was arrested in December 1916, the investigators found, among seized documents, a receipt for the “Nagans” bought at the shop “Dragomir Zdravković and Sons.” He was asked about the document during interrogation on 26 January 1917 and replied that the purpose of the purchase was to arm his agents upon the request of his principle informer from Austria-Hungary (Malobabić).[10] He also took the opportunity to demand that his Minister invite the Ministry of the Interior and the organization "National Defense" (Narodna Odbrana) to stop interfering and obstructing military intelligence.[11] Colonel Dimitrijević admitted that he was seriously worried since he was receiving daily information from Bosnia as well as from Vienna about Austro-Hungarian activities. The Minister of Defense was not satisfied and sent the jurist Colonel Dragiša Cvetković (1893-1969) on a secret mission along the border posts. Additionally, Dimitrijević secretly sent Djuro Šarac (1881-1918) to the Young Bosnians to dissuade them from the plot. The young man did not want to listen and stuck to the original plan to eliminate Franz Ferdinand. This was done at the request of his close associates from the Black Hand who disagreed with his ideas and his personal reassessment.[12]

Three years later, Colonel Dimitrijević would provoke controversy on his “real” role in the plot during the Salonika. Maybe in order to spare the life of his long-term associate Rade Malobabić, then accused of being an Austrian spy and principle alleged assassin of Aleksandar Obrenović, King of Serbia (1876-1903), he submitted a secret letter to the Court saying that he had masterminded the Sarajevo plot by sending Malobabić. Dimitrijević did not want the matter to be discussed in the trial sessions.[13] Some historians welcome the confession as the final truth, and even speculate that he was taken to trial because of Sarajevo. The most explicit is Sean McMeekin, who maintains that Young Bosnia was simply an offshoot of the Black Hand and that “Apis knew of and supported the plot was established in a legal sense by Serbia’s own government-in-exile, which put Dimitrijević on trial at Salonika in 1917 and executed him after he openly confessed to the crime.” He also asserts that Pašić knew of the plot.[14]

The assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was a shock for the Serbian public and official circles. Soon after the disturbing news had reached Serbia, all celebrations for St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), to commemorate the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (the first after the liberation of Kosovo), were spontaneously canceled.[15] Everyone instinctively felt that Austria-Hungary could blame Serbia for the assassination and use it as a pretext for an act of aggression. The very fact that the assassins were of Serb origin and that two of them had recently returned home from Serbia could enable that excuse regardless of whether it was true or not. The cables from Vienna and Berlin, from 29 June onwards, warned Belgrade’s government about the undertones that prevailed in the media. It was too obvious that in both capitals, the media insisted on Serbia’s direct responsibility.[16]

The Serbian government publicly condemned the crime and expressed condolences to the Habsburg Court, but in vain. The course of the events turned to the worst-case scenario, unfortunately in line with the underlying fears in Serbia.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Austria’s readiness to take military action against Serbia and consciously accept the risk of war, along with German willingness to support them in such a venture, were of major importance in determination of the outcome of the ensuing crisis. In the early days of July, military commentators in Berlin emphasized the opportunity the current crisis represented, pointing in particular to Russia’s relative lack of preparedness.[17]

When Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941) received the first report on the events from the German Ambassador in Vienna, he famously proclaimed “now or never.”[18] Immediately upon his arrival in Vienna on 29 June, General Conrad von Hötzendorf demanded mobilization for 1 July.[19] On the same day he explained his program to Count Leopold Berchtold (1863-1942), Minister of Foreign Affairs: “War, war, war!’’[20] The Austro-Hungarian Chargé d'Affairs in Belgrade, Wilhelm von Storck, acknowledged the possibility that the assassination was not at that particular moment in accordance with “the conceptions of Serbian leadership,” but still suggested a reckoning with Serbia. He reminded the leadership in Vienna of his earlier suggestions to grab any good excuse “to strike a devastating blow to Serbia” since “[the] Serbian Government only understands the language of force.” In his mind, this was the only way for Austria-Hungary to preserve the legitimacy of the Great Power.[21]

The officials who ran the investigation into the Sarajevo incident did not supply Vienna with the hoped for conclusive proof of official Serbian involvement in the plot; nor did the special envoy from Vienna, Friedrich von Wiesner (1851-1926), who had been sent to Sarajevo to collect information and report anything that could be compromising to Serbia. In his cable of 13 July he emphasized that it was not possible to prove any involvement of the Serbian government, concluding that the facts overwhelmingly ruled out any such possibility. He went as far as to say, “there is no cause even for suspicion” since there were “far more reasons for claiming that it had nothing to do with it”.[22] Nonetheless, in the first days of July the two Central Powers decided on war, even agreeing on the tone and character of the ultimatum. In order to limit possible mediation by other Great Powers, their ultimatum envisaged giving the Serbian government only forty-eight hours to respond. Since Serbia did not unconditionally comply with two out of the ten demands, the Austro-Hungarian envoy in Serbia, General Wladimir Baron Giesl von Gieslingen (1860-1936), broke off relations on the evening of 25 July. He was not in a capacity to decide whether his country would engage in a war, so it was obvious that his sole purpose was to provide an excuse for war. In fact, historiography confirms that on 7 July he received the following instruction: “however the Serbs react to the must break off relations and it must come to war.”[23] The war was announced to the Serbian government via an open cable on 28 July. Belgrade was bombed on the same evening.

In the decisive forty-eight hours after delivery of the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia’s only hope lay in the hands of Russia, France, Great Britain and the Italian royal family. The Russian Chargé d'Affaires had no instructions, but he advised the Serbian Regent, later Alexander I, King of Yugoslavia (1888-1934), to write a personal letter to the Tsar. The Russian government responded that it would seek international mediation by the neutral countries: without the Tsar’s approval they could do no more. This message was delivered by a Serbian envoy from Saint Petersburg early in the morning of 25 July.[24] In the late evening Belgrade received an official Russian statement that Russia was worried by the sequence of the events to which it could not be indifferent.

Prince Alexander had sent an appeal to Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868-1918) on 24 July. The answer was not delivered before 28 July under the, by then, completely new circumstances: that is to say, it could not have influenced the Serbian response to the ultimatum. The Russian envoy in Belgrade had suggested that Serbian politicians bear in mind that Russia was not ready for war; in other words, that they should go as far as possible to meet Austrian demands. The news of the Russian government session (early afternoon on 25 July), especially on the envisaged partial mobilization in the event of unfavorable events, had not reached Belgrade before the late evening on that day (or possibly the next day), certainly well after Serbia delivered its response to the ultimatum.[25] The Serbian stance to a reply was defined around noon that day. Basically, the Prime Minister made it clear (this is corroborated by reports from foreigners) to Serbian legates abroad, as well as some friendly foreign representatives in Belgrade, that a response

[would] be drawn up in most conciliatory terms and [would] meet Austrian demands in as large measure as possible. ...The opinion of the Serbian government is that, unless the Austrian Government desires war at any cost, they will accept full satisfaction offered in Serbian reply.[26]

Some historians still insist that Serbia was ready to comply with all points of the ultimatum throughout 25 July but after receiving Russian support changed its stance.[27] Others correctly state that the Serbian Prime Minister “was probably disappointed at the degree of Russian support on the 25th and [that] there is no evidence that Russian advice substantially altered the terms of Serbia’s reply.”[28]

The only ally that openly sided with Serbia was Montenegro. On 27 July, Nikola I, King of Montenegro (1841-1921) sent Regent Alexander a message to that effect: “The pride of the Serbian nation has not permited further concessions. Sweet are the sacrifices made for national justice and independence...Our Serbian nation shall emerge victorius from these...“[29] It was not until August that Great Britain and France took their stand on Serbia. Surprised by events, Serbia quickly re-adjusted not only its military efforts with the new Allies but also its war aims.

By the end of August 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and his close collaborators outlined Serbia’s war aims. The document had the initial purpose of explaining to the Entente Powers why Serbia declined to cede part of Macedonia to Bulgaria as they had suggested. The Serbian government emphasized that Serbia became victim of both German Empires[30] since it stood on their “drive towards East.”[31] On 4 September, all Serbian ambassadors received instructions to work on the creation “of strong South-West Slav state, which was to encompass all Croats, Serbs and Slovenes.” This was confirmed in the Declaration of the Serbian Parliament on 7 December 1914.[32]

In order to speed up their agenda, the Serbian government came up with a plan to engage not only diplomats, but scientists, prominent scholars and notable émigrés from Austria-Hungary, mainly from Bosnia and Dalmatia. The idea of the creation of a Yugoslav Committee came up as early as 1914.[33] The Committee was created in 1915 and had from then on worked with the Serbian government. There was discontent at some points, produced by mistrust or historic local experience. However, the Committee overcame different views on basic points and delivered a common declaration (Corfu, July 1917) in favor of unification into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.[34] The newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) on 1 December 1918 was the fulfillment of the Serbian war aim that had been formulated as early as late August and presented to the Allies in September 1914 with the compliance of the later-established Yugoslav Committee.

The Serbian Army in the Great War

The events in the summer 1914 caught the Serbian army wholly unprepared for war. According to Nikola Pašić’s estimates, Serbia and its army needed at least three years for rearmament and for the development of new military formations in the south. The inflow of the new contingent of conscripts from the south had not started until April 1914. Serbia needed a much longer period for the development of a new railroad network in the southern and western parts of the country, as well as for the construction of a bridge over the Danube to establish a rail connection with Romania. These views were shared by the General Staff and Prince Alexander.[35] The Serbian army lacked at least 120,000 rifles, heavy and mountain artillery, ammunition, means of transportation, camping equipment, some 300,000 complete sets of uniforms, medical equipment, medical staff, newly trained men to replace some 50,000 deceased and handicapped from the Balkan Wars, and some 6,000 horses.[36]

Prime Minister Pašić, fully aware of those weaknesses and the threats to security from neighboring areas, looked for loans in France and Russia in order to purchase the armaments on time. First he turned to Russia (in January 1914), and demanded 120,000 rifles, twenty-four howitzers 105mm, thirty-six mountain guns, and equipment for 250,000 men. His demand was declined in January, again in April and once more at the peak of the July crisis. The basic motive for the Russian government to turn down this quest was an attempt to minimize a possible pretext for the Austrians to blame Serbia and Russia for their alleged intentions.[37] Pašić was more welcome in France. There he managed to secure a loan of 130 million Francs, but not before May 1914. However, only small quantity of artillery ammunition, black powder and some other materials reached Serbia through the port of Salonika before the outbreak of the war. Rifles and howitzers, badly needed by the army, could not be transported in time.[38] Finally, when the export ban was removed in September, Russia sent 119,980 rifles, 90 million cartridges, 1,280 shells 120mm and 1,140 horses.[39]

In spite of its weaknesses, Serbia was determined to defend itself in the event of an attack. The Russian Chargé d'Affaires hesitated to deliver a message from St. Petersburg that suggested Serbians should not set up resistance but instead withdraw southward and appeal to the Great Powers for mediation.[40] A general mobilization was declared in the evening of 25 July, soon after the Austro-Hungarian Plenipotentiary in Belgrade had declared a break-off of diplomatic relations. Mobilization commenced on 26 July. Everyone obeyed the government’s appeal so it took merely three days to accomplish the mobilization goals. More than 400,000 reservists enrolled in the ranks. The Serbian operational army had some 250,000 combatants distributed across eleven infantry, one cavalry division and several detachments. In total it had 213 battalions, fifty cavalry squadrons, and was equiped with 200 machine guns and 528 cannons.[41] The rest of the men included recruits, cadets or non-combatants (almost 250,000) were on various duties including logistical support, post office, policing, working on the railways or in the war industry. The complete concentration was developed by 10 August. The First Army (three divisions) was situated in the Morava Valley; the Second (four divisions) in Central Serbia; the Third (2.5 divisions) along the Drina and Sava rivers; the Užice Army (one division) on the Upper Drina; and a Braničevo detachment was distributed along the Danube banks (1.5 divisions).

For the quick “punishment” of Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian High Command employed three of its armies (part of the Second, and the entire Fifth and Sixth): in total some eleven infantry divisions and six brigades of the first class, one cavalry division, Landsturm brigades, Marsch brigades and regiments, frontier protection battalions, etc.[42] In the period from 12 to 18 August, the Second Army was deployed across the Serbian northern border along the rivers Sava and Danube, that is to say, the Balkan Army had sixteen infantry divisions around Serbia.[43]

It took several weeks after the declaration of war (28 July) for Austria-Hungary to rally the troops for a full-scale offensive. The Fifth and Second Armies were directed toward Loznica and Šabac, and launched the attack on 12 August. The Sixth Army did not develop full-scale action toward Užice. The northwest corner of Serbia with Tser (Cer) Mountain in the center soon became the stage for the first Allies’ victory. The main Serbian force, its Second Army, had stopped the invaders, pushing them back over the borders (from 16 to 20 August).[44]

The Allies overestimated the capabilities of the Serbian Army, since it was still awaiting the promised 120,000 rifles, artillery ammunition, horses, tents and sufficient pontoons for floating bridges,[45] and firmly insisted on its offensive over the Serbian borders. Reluctantly, Serbians agreed and pushed their First Army and part of the Second across the River Sava. The Užice Army, in close cooperation with the Montenegrin Army, crossed the Upper Drina and pursued the Austro-Hungarian Sixth Army toward Sarajevo and eastern Bosnia: but not for long. After recovering and regrouping its armies General Oskar Potiorek (1853-1933) launched his second offensive on Serbia by the end of September. After fifty-five days of fierce, entrenched battles during which its artillery ammunition ran out,[46] the Serbian Army began a slow retreat some fifty to sixty kilometers south leaving even the capital Belgrade. When no one, especially Potiorek, expected it, the Serbian Army launched a counteroffensive on 3 December. The Serbian First Army led by General Živojin Mišić (1855-1921) made an astonishing breakthrough. The Austro-Hungarian troops were pushed out of Serbia for the second time within ten days.[47]

The Serbian government and the High Command were, with good reason, concerned about the attitude of Young Turks in North Albania and the Austro-Hungarian clandestine endeavor in encouraging Albanian uprising and attacks from the rear. After several appeals for assistance by Essad Pasha Toptani (1863-1920), the Serbian government decided to support him and sent the troops in June 1915 to occupy important communications posts along the River Drin and the towns of Elbasan and Tirana. This mission was carried out in spite of advice against it and even some threats by the Allies. This Serbian move proved helpful six months later during the retreat through Albania.[48]

After ten months of “ceasefire,” in October 1915, the Third Austro-Hungarian, Eleventh German and two Bulgarian armies, as well as General Stephan von Sarkotic’s (1858-1939) troops from Bosnia and Herzegovina (forty-seven battalions, 148 guns), invaded Serbia for the third time since the outbreak of war. The Central Powers had assembled twenty-six divisions (eight German, eight Austro-Hungarian, ten Bulgarian, in total 493 battalions, sixty-six cavalry squadrons, 483 batteries, 492,000 rifles, 9,430 horsemen, and 1,717 artillery pieces).[49] The Commander-in-Chief was Field Marshal August von Mackensen (1849-1945).

Serbia pursued its war efforts through anything and anyone it could mobilize. It finally assembled 8,897 officers and 411,700 men (288 battalions, 250,000 rifles, forty cavalry squadrons, and 678 artillery pieces). The Montenegrin Army assisted with 48,244 men (eighty-two battalions and 134 guns).[50] Some Allied assistance was also available. The Russians sent marine engineers, gunners, cannon, mines and torpedo batteries. The British and French sent assistance in the form of guns, men and ammunition. Their primary task was to improve the defense of Belgrade and the right bank of the Dunube by introducing heavy coastal guns, mines and torpedos. The French were engaged in establishing an air force. They came with one squadron and soon incorporated the small Serbian forces into the French Military Aviation Mission.[51]

The Austro-Hungarian and German armies launched an offensive over the Danube on 6 October 1915. The principle targets were Belgrade and the Morava Valley where the Central Powers would establish direct contact with Bulgaria and Turkey, push Serbia out, and cut off the supply route to Russia from Salonika. On 12 October, the Bulgarians joined the Central Powers.

After two weeks of fighting, von Mackensen’s armies had advanced only thirty kilometers into Serbia, far less than had been planned, due to the tremendous tenacity of the Serbian First and Third Armies. The Serbian Second Army successfully halted the Bulgarian First Army from the east. After hearing about this, the German High Command concluded that in spite of shortages on other fronts, it had to move its Alpine Corps from the Western front to Serbia to reinforce von Mackensen’s army. In addition, Austria-Hungary sent its Tenth mountain brigade. By the end of October, they pushed forward strongly once again. The Serbs continued fierce resistance and gradually withdrew, desperately hoping for the Allies’ promised aid. Unfortunately, the French and British arrival in Salonika was far too slow to create a strong army of 150,000 men on time, and match Bulgarian advancement in South Serbia. However, the Allies for many reasons did not engage in larger-scale action. Meanwhile, the Second Bulgarian Army managed to cut off the Serbian escape route to Salonika by taking Skopje on 22 October and then pushed northwestward to Kosovo. Finally, the Serbian Army, followed by a large number of refugees, withdrew to the Kosovo Valley, thus escaping on several occasions the enemy’s attempts to cut it off and force surrender. On 25 November, the Serbian High Command issued the order to retreat through Montenegro and Albania, to join the Allies and continue the war out of the country. The Serbian High Command emphasized that its army was not in a favorable condition for a counteroffensive, but that capitulation was viewed as a worse choice.[52] The epic retreat through high, snowy mountains, in poor clothes, with no food and medical supplies, sometimes through the hostile Albanian villages, claimed thousands of soldiers’ lives and left many wounded. The sufferings were similar for the civilians and prisoners of war (POW) who moved alongside their once victors.[53]

France led the Allies in organizing a rescue mission and help save the Serbian Army on the Albanian littoral. General Piarron de Mondésir (1857-1943) was head of the Mission beginning 12 December. An Inter-Allies commission was set up in Rome to help coordinate joint efforts. The Greek island of Corfu was occupied for this purpose as the most suitable spot for the endeavor. The first phase was evacuation from Albania. Some eighty-seven liners and hospital ships were engaged, along with seventy war ships. The second phase was recovery and reorganization. Some 169,828 soldiers and civilians were transferred to Corfu, Bizerte, Italy, and France. After several months of recovery, some 125,000 Serbian troops were shipped to Khalkidhiki nearby Salonika.[54] They were soon reinforced by 4,641 volunteers from overseas as well as by 14,626 Yugoslavs from Russia, mainly Serbs. They joined the Serbian Army in 1918 after a long journey from Vladivostok or Archangelsk. They were once part of the 44,851 men strong Serbian (Yugoslav) voluntary corps in Russia. Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in Russia, if they were of South Slav origin, were granted the opportunity to switch sides and join the Allies. Serbia had sent officers from Corfu for this purpose.[55]

The Serbian Army became part of the Allied East Army (L’armée d’Orient) and was given the central part of the Salonika front. The reorganized army was smaller, but possessed more fire power than before. The sudden Bulgarian offensive on 17 August, south of Monastir caught the Allies’ Supreme Commander, and the Serbian forces by surprise, while on a march in a difficult position. Soon, they halted the Bulgarian offensive and took over dominant mountain peaks, pushing the enemy back on the second mountain chain. Monastir (Bitolj) was liberated, becoming the first Serbian ground. Within next two years, the front was basically peaceful with no large-scale operations.

The next successful offensive, in September 1918, had far-reaching consequences. It proved the advocates of the Balkan front right and legitimized their farsighted view on its strategic significance. Among them were Generals Franchet d’Espèrey (1856-1942) and Noël de Castelnau (1851-1944), in 1914 commanders on the Western front. They were later joined by some Americans who developed the very same ideas: no mention of the Serbs who had in vain suggested the same in 1915.[56]

The Serbian Second Army reinforced by two French divisions in the first line made a major breach across the mountains of Dobro Polje. The blow was so tremendous that enemy could not regroup. Both Serbian armies continued to pursue the demoralized Bulgarian troops and crushed all attempts made by reserves. The Bulgarians quickly faltered and concluded a truce at the end of September. The rapid penetration of the Serbian First Army and French Cavalry into the Morava Valley and the liberation of Niš destroyed all hopes by the German High Command of organizing a new Balkan front and thereby saving Austria-Hungary from collapse. The entire territory of the former Kingdom of Serbia was liberated by 1 November 1918.

It was not only a military collapse. The breach near Salonika supported the belief that Germany and Austria must capitulate, as had Bulgaria previously. This contributed to an upswing of liberal ideas in central Europe. In response to the news of the Serbian advancement, the South Slav movement started to gather momentum. The press spread optimism, foreshadowing great events ahead - the collapse of Austria-Hungary and Yugoslav unification.[57] The Supreme Allied Commander in the east, General D'Espèrey issued orders for the Serbian Army that had not only military significance, but also political. The first included instructions for crossing the rivers Drina, Sava and Danube with smaller detachments, to enable him to declare that his troops had advanced into Austria-Hungary. His instructions on 3 November assigned the Serbian Army to the general support of and organization of Yugoslav movement in Bosnia, Croatia and Vojvodina. The latter was in line with the Chief of the Serbian High Command Mišić's instructions to his army commanders, and also his response to demands of the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs based in Zagreb for military assistance on the Adriatic against Italian claims. In addition, General d'Espèrey had demanded troops to protect order and security along railroads and in the principle cities. In the meantime, the National Council organized several military detachments with former Serbian POWs in Austria-Hungary (Ljubljana, Maribor, Zagreb, Novi Sad). D'Espèrey was also entitled to determine the boundaries of the occupation zones for each ally. Politicaly it was a very sensitive topic since it involved questions about the secret treaties between the Allies and Italy and Romania, as well as future questions on delimitation between Albania and its neighbors, Hungary and Austria.[58]

The Serbian War Contribution

The Serbian contribution to the Allies' joint efforts was considerable. According to Conrad von Hötzendorf, he employed almost 400,000 of his troops on the Serbian front throughout 1914, in contrast to 921,000 on the Russian front. The total casualties of the Balkan front climbed to 273,813 (28,285 dead, 122,122 wounded, 46,716 with maladies, 76,690 captured or disappeared) in 1914, and 29,000 dead, wounded and captured in 1915.[59] In 1915, the Germans suffered some 12,000 casualties and the Bulgarians some 30,000 on the Serbian front alone.[60]

The Serbian Army suffered as well. During the first month of hostilities, the Serbian Army losses included 2,068 killed, 11,519 wounded and 8,823 captured or lost.[61] The subsequent combats and war victories in late 1914 accounted for 20,208 dead, 84,185 wounded and 36,336 captured or lost.[62] However, the worst loss of lives would come in the first months of 1915 when an estimated 27,000 men, many of them wounded, died of typhus.[63]

It was very difficult for the High Command to figure out the fate of the thousands who did not reach the Albanian coast in late 1915. The Allies rescued only 153,000 soldiers and recruits (Corfu and Bizerte). The divisions’ data, medical corps’ data and the regimental logs were deliberately destroyed or only partially saved. Along with the previous number of the rescued ones we positively know that the Central Powers received over 167,000 POWs until the end of December 1916, many of them previously wounded and left in the war hospitals.[64] Within weeks after 6 January when the first transporters arrived, some 2,900 died from exhaustion and disease. French data shows that an additional 4,847 Serbian soldiers died on Corfu from 23 January to 23 March 1916.[65] Some 3,000 severely ill evacuees died in Bizerte (Tunisia).

During the operations in 1916 and 1917 (up to 15 May) some 5,108 had been killed in action or died, 20,451 wounded, 2,630 injured by blast and 2,040 disappeared. Malaria took also a toll, claiming some 412 lives from 1916 to 1918.[66] The final offensive in September 1918 took 681 lives, leaving 3,206 wounded and 132 missing. The combined Allied losses accounted for 16,200 casualties, with 4,000 dead and missing.[67] The wars from 1912 to 1918 left 33,837 officers and soldiers of the Serbian Army disabled. In spite of different approximations, comparison of the censuses from 1911 and 1921 for Serbia proper clearly demonstrates a decline in male population from county to county from 17.43 percent to 29.5 percent. The greatest declines were in the Drina and Toplica counties. The census of 1921 shows a surplus of female population: 23 percent at the ages of eighteen to fifty-two.[68] The civilian casualties caused by the war and occupation have never been fully established. The epidemics of typhus, famine, suffering in concentration camps or being killed in retaliation by occupiers claimed hundreds of thousands.

Time Period Killed in action

Wounded Died in Hospitals (wounds and diseases) Missing or POWs Died in Captivity
1914, August to December 22,759 97,044 2,572 45,420  ?
1915, October to December No exact data No exact data, 25,000 were left in hospitals in December Up to 27,000 died to May 166,000 (POWs)

80,000 missing (Combat and Retreat through Albania)

1916 January to May (Corfu, Bizerte) 11,647  ?
1916-1918 6,490 30,054 1,808 2,740 79,000-81,214
Total 29,249 152,098 43,027 294,160 79,000-81,214

Table 1: Serbian Army losses 1914 to 1918[69]

Prisoners of War

Interwar Austrian data suggested that the toll of captives and deserters on the Serbian front, in other words those who were "lost in action", amounted to 80,276, According to Serbian data from January 1915, the POW command in Niš registered 568 officers and 54,906 soldiers, but the number would rise with the arrival of those who had been previously wounded and had been treated in hospitals. Finally, in the officers’ POW camp in Niš, were 734 officers, and about 57,000 soldiers and NCOs. The small number of POWs were scattered out of the command’s notion, the wounded and doctors on the first place. The catastrophic typhus epidemic, which lasted through the winter months of 1915, claimed some 20 to 25 percent of lives; estimates indicated that 9,000 were lost during the retreat to the Adriatic in December 1915. Lastly, some 638 officers and 21,320 soldiers were relinquished to the Italians in Valona. Fewer than 3,000 had remained in Serbia according to Serbian estimates and were liberated by the Bulgarians and Austrians.[70] Some data suggest that not all, but some of the 35,000 had started withdrawal, poorly guarded; they took the chance to escape, sometimes with assistance from local Albanians.[71]

The living conditions of Austro-Hungarian POWs, many of whom were wounded or sick, had been the subject of wartime propaganda from the monarchy. Serbians had often been blamed for maltreatment, torture or killing of the prisoners. In reality, the status quo was quite the opposite according to reports of the International Commission established to investigate the situation among POWs in mid-1915. Foreign journalists, diplomats and military personnel recorded their observations at the time. POWs as well as the Serbian army had to share all the difficulties of the wartime shortages with wounded or sick soldiers, civilians and several hundred thousand refugees from the war zone and from Austria-Hungary. Generally, they suffered from a lack of available housing or shelters and a lack of medicaments and doctors, clothing and food supplies. The typhus epidemic worsened all the aforementioned categories. The assistance from foreign Red Cross or medical missions helped reduce some of the hardships. It took time for Serbia and the monarchy to establish continuous shipments of aid for POWs. In effect, the hardships that POWs experienced, mostly during the winter of 1915, were not due to the ill will of the Serbian people nor their authorities. Serbia fully obeyed the Hague and Geneva conventions.[72]

Once again, in 1916, the Serbs set up a POW command and several POW regiments at the Salonika front. Immediately after combat operations, in the summer and autumn, there were some 7,800 POWs on their hands. In 1917, they created the “Third German POW regiment,’’ soon followed by the Fourth and Fifth “Bulgarian’’ regiments. After the September offensive of 1918, there were 23,900 POWs in total. In contrast to the period in Serbia whereby generally poor conditions in the country and the epidemic of typhus produced high mortality rates among POWs (20 to 25 percent), the Salonika front was a completely different matter. The Serbian POW command reduced the mortality rate to less than 1 percent (1917). At the same time in other belligerent states’ POW camps average mortality rate was far higher (in German POW camps it was 7 percent; in American 1.92 percent; in English 3.03 percent; in French 9.4 percent; in Russian 37 percent; in Romanian 39 percent). The Serbs implemented vaccinations against typhus and cholera; precautionary hygiene measures; good nourishment; and other protective measures.[73] The Serbians, on the other hand, suffered hardships in POW camps in Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, but also to some extent in Austria and Germany. One-third never returned from Austria-Hungary: only 97,677 out of 147,677 made it back. Some 29,000 never returned from Bulgarian captivity.[74]

At the beginning of the war campaign, the Austro-Hungarians deliberately shot, captured, or even wounded POWs, on several occasions. These captured Serbian soldiers shared the same fate of some 3,000 Serbian civilians in north-western Serbia during August and September. The evidence was well documented via photographs and through numerous reports, but was also described soon after by neutral experts.[75] The merciless killing of the Serbian POWs was repeated in late 1915 - especially exhausted individuals who could not manage long marches from the south to the zones of rail transport. Even Germans committed war crimes against POWs in the vicinity of Smederevo in 1915. It was an act of revenge for some 3,000 lost comrades who had fallen in previous days. The Bulgarians also committed war crimes against the wounded and captured. The misfortune of 114 wounded Serbians left at Štip hospital, as well as some 200 POWs killed in the vicinity of Radovište, was notorious and recorded in many accounts.[76]

The first Serbian POWs were captured in August 1914. The number had reached 35,000 to 40,000 by December. According to the official German war history, in November 1915, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians captured 100,000 Serbs, and the Bulgarians claimed that they captured some 50,000 POWs. In December, they added some 16,000 POWs.[77]

The Home Front: Economy and War Financing

The Serbian economy was basically agricultural and export-based. Coal and mineral mining, textile, glass, wood, bricks and armament production made up most of its economy. Serbian currency (dinar) value was based on gold, silver and foreign loans. The currency conversion rate to the French franc was one-to-one.

The previous Balkan Wars pushed Serbian financial and economical sources to the limits. With the war debt, Serbia had to repay a total of 1.15 billion francs, but it needed longer to heal from the financial impact on its economy. Immediately before the July crisis, Serbia succeeded in obtaining a French loan of 130 million francs. The unexpected war put its recovery and future at stake. The Serbian government was fully aware that the harvest would provide enough food for the people and cattle during 1914, but not for 1915. Since there would be no export of goods, financial stability would be jeopardized as well. The only way out was to appeal to the Allies to provide Serbia with aid and loans. Serbia needed 30 million per month to keep currency stable; to provide military equipment and armaments; to nourish 522,000 enlisted in the army’s service: 40,000 Montenegrin combatants, 60,000 POWs, some 200,000 refugees, and to nourish 130,000 horses and oxen. The Allies responded as early as mid-August. France approved 90 million francs for the first three months, and Russia 20 million francs. The latter was followed by the first joint loan of 150 million at the end of 1914, and a subsequent loan worth 200 million in April of 1915. Under the new circumstances, after the disasters of 1915, the Allies continue to pay 30 million monthly until September of 1919. The Serbian gold reserves worth 60 million were evacuated to France in December 1914.[78]

Additional assistance by the Allies was provided for the recovery of the Serbian Army remnants on Corfu, Bizerte, and Salonika. The Serbian Army also depended on full-scale supply during the operations on the Salonika front. Great Britain and France in February of 1916 came to terms about supplying the Serbian Army with approximately 140,000 and 30,000 cattle, respectively. The Allies’ convention on supplying the Serbian Army from February 1916 was renewed on 25 July 1918. Meanwhile, the United States was directly involved and paid 1 million U.S. dollars per month. France provided armaments, ammunition and airplanes, and other countries provided clothes, tents, vehicles, food and medical supplies.[79]

Serbia enjoyed widespread sympathy in many Allied countries, as well as among neutrals. In the moments of desperate need for relief many doctors and volunteers rushed to Serbia to offer help. Since Serbia had only 360 doctors and medical staff, but tens of thousands wounded and more than 100,000 affected by the typhus epidemic in 1915, everyone was welcomed. According to the War Ministry there were fifteen foreign medical missions with 364 members in March 1915. Among them were three Russian, six British (Scottish) missions and four American missions. Many doctors did not belong to the missions, but worked at Serbian hospitals. The rate of mortality from typhus among medical staff was high.

The Serbian government supported a large community of refugees in Greece, Tunisia, Italy, France, Switzerland and Great Britain, and helped its own POWs through the International Red Cross. The accurate number of Serbian refugees from 1914 to 1918 has never been established. With some certainty, historians could claim that by 1917, around 17,000 refugees were in France and some 4,000 in Russia; with some 8,000 in Salonika and 1,500 in Lerin by 1915 (Greece).[80]

The aforementioned countries showed readiness to help educate Serbian youth at their schools and universities. The role of France was of the utmost importance. A mixed Franco-Serb “University Committee for Serb Youth” was formed in December 1915. The Committee helped to organize the acceptance of some 2,700 pupils and students at French institutions and 300 at British institutions. The French government donated 65,000 francs and the Serbian government aditional 50,000 as the initial support. The students were dispersed through universities in Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Rennes, Dijon, Poitier, Grenoble, Nancy, Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand and Besançon in France, as well as at the universities in Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain, and at the universities of Geneva, Zurich, Berne and Lausanne in Switzerland. Students, as well as the refugees, were also supported by Serbian Relief Fund based in London, by La Nation Serbe en France based in Paris, the Serbian Relief Committee of America, based in New York, etc. In 1918, Serbian institutions supported some 5,500 pupils and students, and the Montenegrin King Nikolas supported 183 students.[81]

Occupation and the first Rebellion in the Occupied Countries

In late 1915, the military defeat and withdrawal of the Serbian Army finally enabled Austria-Hungary to carry out premeditated plans for the solution of the “Serbian question.” In effect, all the plans drafted since 1906 had envisaged partition, diminishing semi-sovereign remnants and incorporating them into the Austro-Hungarian zone of interest. Montenegro was also viewed as part of the “Serbian Question.” According to the plans, Macedonia and eastern parts of Serbia would go to Bulgaria. In the pre-war years there was some division among Austrians and Hungarians on this matter, even among Austrians themselves. Hungarians at first opposed the idea of Serbia’s incorporation as a whole under the monarchy on the ground that there were too many South Slavs already.

The new circumstances and the strong attitude of Bulgaria against any restoration of Serbia prompted radicals in Wien to come up with a drastic solution. The Hungarian suspicions remained as they had been before. In 1916, Serbia was divided between two occupiers. Austro-Hungarians had control of less than half, essentially the north-western territory. They established a Military General Governorate (MGG) and appointed an army general as its head. He was a direct subordinate of the Austrian High Command. The territorial division comprised the city of Belgrade and twelve districts. Bulgarians occupied the eastern and southern parts. They extended their zone to the western parts of Kosovo and even to Elbasan in “independent” Albania. They extended beyond what they had been promised by the Central Powers. Through German intermediation in 1916, the strife between the two was settled and Bulgarians withdrew eastwards, leaving Kosovo to the Austro-Hungarians. The Austro-Hungarians envisaged the ceding of Kosovo and Sanjak to Greater Albania. The Germans had their goals too. First, they insisted on the exploitation of the mines in the Bulgarian zone during the war and its aftermath.

In the MGG, Austro-Hungarians as well as Bulgarians in their zone took all branches of the economy, education and everyday life into their hands. Some locals were involved too, but merely for assistance. The majority of the population was at brink of starvation, especially in Belgrade and the small towns. The problem of the food supply stemmed from 1915 when all armies had been forced to undertake requisitions. In addition, plundering and taking cattle away as booty in 1916 only aggravated the situation. The Serbs were forced into free labor. A wide range of punishments was implemented for not obeying commands, but the worst measure was sending people to detention camps in the monarchy. The economic exploitation was on the way in both zones.

Soon after the beginning of the occupation, it became evident that one of the goals was a ruthless denationalization program, which was implemented as quickly and systematically as possible. The Latin alphabet was introduced in MGG, as were Croatian textbooks and teachers; on the other hand, Bulgarians brought their own. Serbian teachers and clergy were sent to the prisoner camps or executed on the spot.[82]

Many aspects of the occupation led to considerable and widespread discontent in Serbia. The majority of Serbs never abandoned the idea that the kingdom would be resurrected. People learned that a new army was being assembled in the south ready to return. In addition, when Romania entered the war no one could hide hopes. Many gathered in the woods, especially former soldiers and officers who had escaped imprisonment. The rumors that Bulgarians would draft youngsters into the army propelled many to hide in the hills and woods. The Serbian High Command sent their envoy for guerrilla warfare, Kosta Pećanac (1879-1944), to prepare for and organize disruptions on communications, the railroads in particular: but not before the beginning of the main assault from the south. The guerrilla groups that were scattered could not be subdued under his control: they had already been engaged in activities and the occupiers sent detachments to pursue them. The most prominent leader within the guerrilla forces Kosta Vojinović (1891-1917) issued a plea for an uprising in October 1916. Some 13,000 followed him in a desperate fight until the end of March 1917. Reluctantly Kosta Pećanac was involved too. Regarding himself as one designated directly by High Command he set up his own headquarters. The center of the uprising was the Toplica region, the South Morava Valley and Kopaonik Mountain. Some 26,000 enemy troops were engaged in the operation for suppressing the “Toplica uprising.” In spite of reprisals, the acts of disobedience and revolt went on until the end of war.[83]


The reverberations of the Balkan Wars among its South Slav populous, coupled with fears for the integrity and credibility of the Great Power, led Austria-Hungary to act decisively in accordance with the plans developed since 1906. The monarchy was also frustrated by the results of the Balkan Wars since they had obstructed all its Balkan projects except influence in the newly established Albanian state. The Sarajevo assassination on 28 June 1914 masterminded and carried out by the local members of Young Bosnia was embraced as a good enough pretext to convince the public in both Austria-Hungary and Germany, that war was necessary.

The Serbian government was aware of Austro-Hungarian hostility since the country was exhausted after the two wars. It did its best to retain the stable relationship and prevent any action abroad that could lead to war, but in vain: Austro-Hungarian officials and the press pointed the finger at the Serbian government as a principle culprit. In spite of lacking evidence for the claim, the decision for the war solution was obtained as the only one desirable. The short period given for the ultimatum response (forty-eight hours) was also designed for the purpose. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July.

The events in the summer 1914 caught the Serbian Army unprepared: according to Nikola Pašić’s estimates, Serbia and its army could not rearm or develop new military formations for at least three years, yet the country was determined to defend itself, making this clear to Russia and other possible allies even before those countries firmly determined their position on the issue.

The Serbian Army once again proved its reputation gained during the Balkan Wars. It twice overcame far superior and better-equipped Austro-Hungarian armies (in August and December 1914). In the 1914 campaign, the monarchy employed almost one-third (400,000) of its total forces, and total casualties climbed to 273,813. The third offensive against Serbia in the fall of 1915 led by German Field Marshall von Mackensen, in spite of the tremendous tenacity of the Serbian Army, brought success for the Central Powers, and Serbia was occupied for the next three years. The remnants of the army that had crossed the mountains of Montenegro and Albania was gathered and reorganized into a new fighting force on Corfu and later shifted to the Salonika front. Once again, those forces had important role in the several offensives in 1916 and 1918.

Many aspects of the occupation led to large and widespread discontent in Serbia. The majority of Serbs never abandoned the idea that the kingdom would be resurrected. Those military personnel who remained in Serbia after 1915 were engaged in many activities against the occupiers and finally led the first large-scale uprising, in 1917. The enemy had to engage more than 26,000 troops to suppress it.

The war successes came at the cost of some 63,000 killed in combat, 115,000 wounded (data for 1914, 1916-1918), 35,000 dead from disease or exhaustion, and some 79,000 who never returned from captivity (Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany). The country as a whole was devastated by the war and the requisitions exercised by all armies and occupying authorities. The working force was out of the fields for years and livestock was mobilized as well as human resources. However, Serbian financial policy and financing of the war efforts were stable. The National Bank transferred gold and silver on time into France. Alongside the foreign loans and assistance, the Serbian currency (dinar) had lost only 10 percent of prewar value. From the beginning of the war, Serbia needed 30 million dinars francs per month to sustain its Army, refugees and POWs, as well as Montenegrin needs.

Serbia enjoyed widespread sympathies in many Allied countries, as well as among neutrals. In the time of need they sent medical missions and doctors to Serbia, assisted with food and medical supplies. They embraced Serbian refugees after 1916 and enabled the education of some 5,500 pupils and students. By the end of the war, Serbia had accomplished its war aim declared in August 1914 by its government and sustained by the parliament on 7 December 1914. Alongside the Yugoslav Committee established in 1915 they laid down the basic principles of South Slav unification that was promulgated on 1 December 1918.

Mile Bjelajac, Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije

Section Editors: Milan Ristović; Richard C. Hall; Tamara Scheer