As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.
The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.
I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.
Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.
Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.
The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.
While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.
The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.
Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.
Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.
That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.