3 DECEMBER, 1914: Disastrous Victories

The Battle of the Kolubara River began a hundred years ago today, a six-day carnage in northern Serbia that ended the third and final Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country in 1914. So let’s talk about Serbia and its war to date.

Serbia was yet another of Europe’s new countries, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its twentieth-century character had been defined by a coup d’état in 1903, when King Alexander was assassinated and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, in the person of King Peter I, was installed in its place. The King ruled through an appointed cabinet that answered to a National Assembly (Skuptshina) directly elected by all male taxpayers and dominated by moderate liberals.

The regime’s home policies broadly reflected this political preference but its foreign policy, heavily influenced by the military, was aggressively expansionist and committed to the establishment of a pan-Slav state. In practical terms this meant seeking access to the Adriatic through Albania, and control over the rest of what would one day be Yugoslavia through absorption or federation. Tiny, independent Montenegro aside, all these places were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in 1914, and this fact alone pretty much guaranteed diplomatic support for Serbia from Russia.

Russian support had been crucial to Serbian success in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. While St. Petersburg’s guarantees kept other European powers from intervening, Serbia almost doubled it size and raised its population to around 4.5 million. You couldn’t call these secure or stable gains, given that the entire region – including Bulgaria, Greece and Rumania – was soon gearing up for another territorial merry-go-round, but Serbia made an alliance with Greece to counterbalance the threat of Bulgarian dissatisfaction with the 1913 peace, and went right on trying to expand.

A nice, simple regional map of the  Balkan mess in 1914.
A nice, simple regional map of the Balkan mess in 1914.

Belgrade had been encouraging pan-Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia since 1903. Both were semi-autonomous states within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter seized full control of Bosnia in 1908, after which rising tension between Vienna and Belgrade found red hot focus in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. By June 1914 Sarajevo was ready to blow, and the assassination of visiting Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, an act so famous you don’t need me to describe it, lit the touch paper.  Some controversy still hangs around the question of whether or not the Serbian government planned the killing. It didn’t, as evidenced by its desperate attempt to stave off war in answering Vienna’s subsequent ultimatum, but the Black Hand did.

The Black Hand was a hard-line nationalist organisation with strong military links and fingers in every other important Serbian pie, essentially a state within a state. It had engineered a political crisis that forced King Peter to pass executive power to his son, Alexander, on 14 June, and an election to legitimise the change was underway when the Archduke died. The killing was in line with Black Hand ambitions to goad Vienna into an aggressive act that would bring Russia to war, allowing Serbia to profit from a wider conflict’s fallout, and this pragmatic policy reflected the basic fact that Serbia couldn’t hope to win a war against an industrial power.

An overwhelmingly rural society, landlocked and essentially tribal in its outlying regions, Serbia possessed few mineral or other industrial resources.  A mere 10,000 Serbs were engaged in industrial manufacture, almost all of them in Belgrade (itself a primitive backwater compared to major European capitals), and the economy was largely dependent on exports of food and hides to Germany, Austria and Turkey. All Serbia’s fuel, arms and other military necessities were imported overland, using the navigable Danube, poor roads or the country’s only two railway lines, which linked Belgrade with Sofia and Constantinople. Meanwhile its army could muster a maximum of some 350,000 men, most of them ill equipped and overage, and was hardly the instrument to fulfil the leadership’s grandiose ambitions.

So Serbia was relying on outside help, and despite the government’s initial fears the Black Hand felt pretty confident about getting it . Meanwhile the Serbian population, fuelled by years of racially based propaganda (as were Austrians on the other side of the frontier), rushed to battle with the same confident enthusiasm displayed in Berlin, London and Paris when war came at the end of July.  Disaster beckoned.

Help didn’t arrive. As the diplomatic dominoes crumbled and massed armies collided all over Europe, none of Serbia’s allies against the Central Powers could spare the resources to provide significant support, and Serbia (along with Montenegro) was forced to face Austro-Hungarian invasion alone. What followed was a brilliant series of defensive campaigns, under the skilled command of General Putnik and carried out by troops familiar with the mountainous terrain.

By the time he launched a counterattack against Austrian positions at the Kolubara, Putnik had repelled two ineptly executed invasions in August and September, and made a tactical retreat before a third in November, giving up Belgrade to enemy occupation on 2 December.   The counterattack struck at fatigued troops, and after two days of heavy fighting Austrian forces began retreating back towards the frontier. Serbian forces recaptured the nearby town of Valyevo on 6 December, and the invaders re-crossed the frontier at the Drina three days later, at which point Putnik’s exhausted army gave up the pursuit.

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara River. It took a while.

The third invasion had cost the Austrians more than 225,000 troops, but the drain on victorious Serbian forces was more significant. The country had acted as a nation in arms, sparking reprisals by Austrian occupiers no less gruesome than those inflicted on Belgium by occupying German armies, and losses of some 180,000 men during the year could not be replaced. Still denied any material support by the Allies (although Britain did provide money for the purchase of supplies), the battered, exhausted rump of the Serbian Army could only spend the winter huddled in its fastnesses, desperately short of food, medicines and all other military necessities, while typhus spread through the ranks.

Driven by soaring ambition at the heart of its body politic, Serbia had gambled on war and lost, but seemed to have got away with it at the end of 1914. The year to come would bring a terrible reckoning.

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