Serbia: The Forgotten War

by Spencer Small


The research which I have completed has yielded wonderful results, regarding the Serbian experience during World War I, and it all has stemmed from a late night rendezvous with a fascinating Wikipedia article. After what seemed to be aimless and endless meandering through the many pages which discussed World War I, I came across the entry for the Battle of Cer (which  you can find here), and since then I have been rifling through texts attempting to gain a sense for the Serbian narrative of the war.

“Serbian Artillery Officers going off for the War”

The narrative which I wish to tell encapsulates the Serbian war, a war which is often neglected in many general histories of the Great War (my frame of reference is the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary). The Serbian narrative involves fighting throughout Serbia, a retreat through the Albanian mountains, a consolidation of government and a statement of purpose in Greece, and an eventual retaking of the country from the Central Powers. Through these trials Serbia was not alone, and was often helped along in various capacities by various members of the Entente forces including France, Britain, and Russia. While much contemporary scholarship tends to focus on the Entente fighting in Europe, they played a major role in supporting Serbia’s war in the east.

Initial Research

As a starting point,  Cox, John K. The History of Serbia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. is a wonderfully consolidated narrative of the events in and surrounding Serbia during World War I. In chapter six of his narrative, Cox tells the story of a Serbia which fought hard against the Central aggressors, was ultimately overrun, but which was able to regroup and reclaim what was their with the help of Allied powers. All of this is set in a frame of burgeoning Yugoslavism, which is presented as an elastic construction, but one that was able to help compel a more unified front against the Central Powers which had occupied Serbia for several years.

The second source which I have used as a general background to the Serbian involvement in the conflict is Pavlowitch, Stevan K. Serbia: The History of an Idea. New York: New York UP, 2002. Pavlowitch expands upon the key concept of local mobilization of those who wished for a unified Slavic state, namely those living in Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. In addition to some of the local efforts during the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation, Pavlowitch delves into the politics which helped to transform much of the Balkans into what became Yugoslavia after the war. Foreign support was instrumental in assisting with the process of harboring Serbian officials and then helping to liberate their homeland from the Central Powers.

Serbian infantry positioned at Ada Ciganlija.

The Early Stages of War

The war really began for Serbia when they were invaded by the Austro-Hungarian empire after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. While the war eventually transformed into a fight for Serbian/Slavic unity, it began as a war of defense (Pavlowitch, 110). A wonderful analysis of the Austro-Hungarian invasion can be found in  Rothenberg, Gunther E. “The Austro-Hungarian Campaign Against Serbia in 1914.” Journal Of Military History 53, no. 2 (April 1989): 127-146. Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost. The Habsburg forces thought that they could easily route the relatively weak Serbian military without much resistance, although they did realize that, “…Russia would be the main enemy requiring the vast bulk of available forces,” (130). However, this thought process proved fatal for many of the early combatants of the conflict, as it turned into a deadly and costly war, and the Austro-Hungarians saw very little lasting success during the first year of war. As the entrenched Serbian forces utilized tactical retreats to their advantage, they proved to be a formidable and dedicated fighting force who were determined to defend their homes (Cox, 65). However, the situation had a dramatic shift in mid-1915, which would change the course of the war.

That dramatic shift was the intervention of Bulgaria, who entered on the side of the Central Powers in 1915. Having been promised Serbian and Greek territory for their immediate involvement, Bulgaria jumped at the offer which finally presented enough incentive after a drawn out process of various offers from both sides which had been going on since early 1915 (Pavlowitch, 96). Bulgaria’s involvement was the final blow which would dislodge Serbia from Serb hands. “In October, Serbia was struck down by the full weight of a German-led combined German-Austrian-Bulgarian offensive,” (Pavlowitch, 96). There is an excellent account of the joint invasion in Douglas W. Johnson’s, Battlefields of the World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1921. Once the Central Powers established control, life for Serbs under occupation was a far cry from what they may have expected and was often a struggle to survive.  The only logical option for the Serbian state and military was a full retreat, but that path was not as straightforward as simple relocation; it would involve a multi-national effort and carefully coordinated plans. An extremely difficult journey lay ahead.

Austrians executing Serbs.


Retreat and Recapture

After the decisive blow dealt by the multi-national front of the Central Powers, the Serbian government and military was forced to perform a full retreat, and to do this they required assistance. After the Greeks refused to send any military support to the Serbian front, the leadership decided that they had to create a path without the help of King Constantine I (Johnson, 611). It was decided that the Serbian state would, “…flee across Albania rather than surrender or continue a suicidal war…Thousands died of exposure, disease, and Austrian attacks. The Albanians whose territory they crossed were largely unsympathetic,” (Cox. 66). However, the retreat was not as hopeless and unsupported as it may seem at first glance. The retreat was assisted through a conglomerate of various nations,including France, Britain, and Russia all attempting to secure some sort of future for their concept of Serbia (66). A wonderful example of the multinational effort is displayed in an essay authored by Charles Fryer,”The Watch on the Danube: The British Naval Mission in Serbia: 1914-1916.” Mariner’s Mirror 73, no. 3 (August 1987): 297-312. Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost. The narrative tells the story of Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge, a British naval officer who patrolled the Danube River, watching for Austrian “monitor” ships as Serbia retreated. While the story lends itself to the influence of the west apart from the western front, Troubridge’s assignment was considered, “unusual,” (Fryer, 297).

American propaganda poster calling for the US to support the Serbian war effort. This is one example of the vast international support which Serbia received during the war.

Through all of this, the survivors eventually reached the Greek island of Corfu, where they were granted asylum and were allowed to regroup and plan their counter, this is all described by Andrew Wachtel in his book, The Balkans in World History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. This consolidation of government led to discussions on the recapture of Serbia and the umbrella idea of a united Seria and slavic peoples, leading to the term and idea of Yugoslavia (“south slavs”), which would prove to be extremely important in the years immediately following the war (Wachtel, 92-93). These values would help to encourage the coming fight which would wrest Serbia and its people from the Central Powers’ control.

Serbia was ready to return to the fight by mid-late 1916, and after being stationed in Salonika, a city in Northern Greece, and joined by various allied armies, the Serbian army marched forth to retake what they viewed as their sovereign territory, and would eventually do so by 1918 (Cox, 66-67). At this point, not only did Serbia retake its territory, but they further encouraged the notion of Yugoslavism, pursued it, and made it a reality in 1918.

Closing Thoughts

What should not be taken for granted is the international community’s commitment to supporting Serbian efforts, especially after it was realized that they would not be able to defend their state with the entrance of Bulgaria. While often outnumbered and outgunned, the Serbians consistently had support from the west in some form or another. This includes of course, military support, and international propaganda campaigns (here is an awesome website full of World War I propaganda with examples of American and French posters supporting Serbia),  but also efforts such as the work of Red Cross nurse Mary Gladwin, who served as a nurse in the country throughout the war as is described in various accounts such as Priscilla M. Harding’s,  “A Red Cross Nurse in Belgrade: Mary Gladwin Saw World War I from the Inside of a Hospital. Her Battles Were No Easier Than Those of the Soldiers.” American History Illustrated 16, no. 9 (January 1982): 41-47. Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost. Here is a neat link to free ebook which has compiled various volumes of the Red Cross Bulletin, the article on page 176 briefly tells the story of Mary Gladwin and her efforts in Serbia, overall it is a fascinating read. The efforts of all of these people contributed greatly to the eventual outcome of Serbian victory. Whether that was for the better or worse in the long run is up to each individual interpretation of the events which transpired afterwards.

Throughout all of my research through the College of William and Mary’s Swem Library and its various online databases (granted, most of my research into the subject has occurred within the past month) and general knowledge of World War I, it has taken a very deliberate effort to uncover the western Allies’ relationship with Serbia during the war. In several histories which claim to analyze the history of the war, the Serbian front is only mentioned peripherally, and while the western Allies are discussed in length, the discussion often excludes their important relationship with Serbia; some of the texts include Geoffrey Jukes’, Peter Simkins’, and Michael Hickey’s, The First World War. New York: Routledge, 2003 and Norman Stone’s, World War One. New York: Basic, 2009.

My goal is to provide information about a subject which is so often neglected. It is important that we know what happened on the fields of Serbia, as those events not only substantially contributed to the creation of Yugoslavia (a hotbed in contemporary history and politics), but this story also provides a window into into a time when people who were torn apart were able to come together and create something which they saw benefitted the greater good, which is in a way, one of the essences of humanity.