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Behold the death of an empire

The first Allied victory in WWI was a decisive Serbian triumph against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was called the Battle of Cer.


The world was amazed. When the Serbs kicked the whole shooting match off by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, no-one expected the little Balkan nation, already battered and weakened by previous wars in which it first defeated the Ottoman Empire (1912) and then Bulgaria (1913), to do anything but die.


And it almost did. But before that happened, it gave the allies their first victory of WWI, and followed it up with another one – the vicious and gruelling Battle of Kolubara.


As these things go, the Serbian army’s success in the first battle, led to the second battle. But it was a brutal, close-run thing.


The Serbs were commanded by the Crown Prince Alexander, and his chief of the Serbian General Staff, Radomir Putnik – a fearsome, very able, and much-loved commander. The forces at his disposal were essentially a peasant army, but a very unique one – especially at that time in history.


The soldiers were placed in squads (chetas – from where the word chetnik comes from) made up of their friends and relatives, often from the same village. Fathers fought together with sons, and brothers with brothers. They largely brought their own weapons, and any heavy transportation was done by manpower, horse-drawn carts, or wagons hauled by oxen. The officers associated freely with the men, ate with them, and fought alongside them. They had all been seasoned by years of battle, were once again fighting to defend their homes and families, and were regarded – certainly after their amazing success at the Battle of Cer – as some of the bravest and toughest soldiers on earth. And this was despite the fact that 50,000 of them had no rifles or equipment at all.


The Austro-Hungarian army was a very different bowl of beans. Largely conscripted men, poorly trained, but relatively well-armed and nicely uniformed – they had proper boots, while many of the Serbs fought in opanke (essentially braided leather sandals with closed, uptilted toes) – they had not fought a battle in ages. But they, or at least their commanders – headed by the rather ridiculous Oskar Potiorek – were absolutely convinced they would crush the much smaller Serbian army in very short order. They boasted twice as many machine guns and artillery pieces as the Serbs, abundant supplies of ammunition, and a much better infrastructure.


But Oskar…well, he was in charge. Oskar was in the car in Sarajevo when Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke. And Oskar was also the bloke who had failed to inform the driver there was a route change. And that’s how the Archduke and his wife Sophie ended up with Serbian caps in their Hapsburg arses courtesy of Gavrilo.


One has to wonder what Oskar was thinking in August of 1914 as the Battle of Cer unfolded, as the Serbs chased his terrified army across the Drina River, where many of them drowned. With 10,000 killed, 30,000 wounded and 4500 taken prisoner, Oskar could not have been thinking nice thoughts.


But he was certainly thinking of revenge. And in late September, he kicked it into high gear. As Radomir carried on with his northern offensive on the Sava River, Oskar launched a massive attack on the Serbian western front at the Drina River. He had been told, after his humiliation at Cer, that he could mount another attack provided he did “not risk anything that might lead to a further fiasco”.

If he’d said: “Hold my beer”, history does not record this.


This attack was spearheaded by the Austrian Fifth Army, commanded by the magnificently moustachioed General Liborius Ritter Von Frank. He had lost many of his soldiers to the cold waters of the Drina after the fiasco at Cer, but he was keen to have another crack.


Radomir’s plan at this point was rather quaint. All the valleys in this part of Serbia are swamped with constant rainfall at that time of year. And snow had begun covering the mountains. “All my strategy consists in placing the ‘Serbian National Mud’ between the enemy’s fighting line and his supplies,” Radomir explained to his staff.


And so began Austria-Hungary’s third invasion of Serbia. On 6 November, 1916, massive artillery barrages hammered Serbia’s border towns. Vastly outnumbered and almost without ammunition, the Serbian army resisted as long as it could, but was forced to retreat. The Serbian 3rd Army fell back against a road by the Jadar River and dug in to hold back the Austro-Hungarian advance, while the 1st army retreated into the country’s interior, and the Uzice Army somehow managed to prevent the Austro-Hungarians crossing the Drina River.


Two days later, the Austro-Hungarians attacked the Serbian 2nd Army near Cer Mountain, and managed to entrench themselves at the foot of the mountain (from which they had run not so long ago), some one-and-a-half kilometres from the Serbian front line.


The Serbs were given orders to hold, but if that became impossible, they were to retreat towards the Dobrava river and hold the right bank to block the approach to the town of Valjevo.


The Austro-Hungarians then drove a wedge between the 1st and 3rd Armies, and forced another retreat. An emergency session was held in the Serb parliament that day. Radomir had told his government it was critical the Serbs held on to Kolubara River and the towns around it, and if that proved impossible, maybe they might seek some kind of treaty with the Austro-Hungarians. The Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic, was having none of that crap. He urged the Supreme Command to stop dicking around and fight on.


So Radomir fought on. He was hoping the enemy’s supply lines would be overstretched as they pressed deeper into his country, and he also hoped the Serbs could hang onto their railheads. But it was not to be. The Serbs fought savagely, but the Austro-Hungarians hammered at them with artillery they had managed to drag through the ‘National Mud’, and inflicted massive casualties.


Serbian morale dropped in time with the thermometer. The army was exhausted by the long and brutal series of retreats. They had little winter clothing and were almost out of ammunition. Radomir realised his army would need to re-group somewhere if it had any chance of resisting the Austro-Hungarian juggernaut.


He ordered the town of Valjevo be abandoned, and that the Serbs take up positions on the Kolubara River. The retreat to the river was excruciating – the Serbs had to abandon most of their heavy equipment, and destroy all the bridges and telephone lines. The situation looked hopeless. They were out of ammunition, artillery, and supplies.


Radomir sent a telegram to Serbian envoys abroad. “Urgent help is required. Beg and plead” it read. Russia and England expressed “understanding” but did nothing. Only the French stepped up, and immediately began sending munitions and supplies. But it’s not like they arrived the following day…


On 15 November, the Austro-Hungarians entered Valjevo, and wild celebrations erupted across the empire. Oskar was lauded, had streets named after him, and was made an honourary citizens of dozens of towns which had bowed to Hapsburg rule.


Oskar was of the view the Serbian army was no longer an effective fighting force, and it was job done. Victory was plainly in sight – and the Battle of Kolubara, which was to crown that victory, began on 16 November.


So while Oskar was right in thinking the Serbian army was exhausted, he’d failed to grasp its defensive positions along the Kolubara River had been prepared months in advance.


Further, Radomir’s carefully staged and orderly fighting retreats had kept Serbian losses to a minimum – certainly less than if they had fought pitched battles with the Austro-Hungarians.


Then there was the geography of north-western Serbia. It hugely favoured defensive operations. The approaches to the Kolubara River, which was itself surrounded by mountains, offered no cover for an invading army. The Serbs had also managed to fortify the nearby Jeljak and Maljen mountain ranges, and constructed extensive field fortifications, which now, in association with the terrain, gave the Austro-Hungarians no choice but to fight in the open countryside with virtually no lines of communication.

The Serbs, entrenched on a prominence called Vrace Brdo near the banks of the Kolubara River, met the advancing enemy on 16 November. For five days, the armies fought a series of savage battles in heavy rain and snow – and many soldiers succumbed to hypothermia and frostbite.


Further Austro-Hungarian assaults commenced just south of the capital, Belgrade. And once again, Oskar made a major error. He attacked the strong right flank of the Serbian 1st Army, and was beaten back.


During the night of 18 November, the Austro-Hungarians moved into positions for a further assault and they went in hard. The goal was to break through the defences of the Serbian 2nd Army and to drive the 1st Army back. They gained a foothold on Vracko Brdo by the following evening. The 1st Army was forced to retreat, and Oskar was starting to wonder if this was all some kind of cunning plan by Radomir to lure his forces even deeper into the Serbian interior, encircle them, and smash them in the flanks. “Meh,” he then shrugged, correctly assessing the Serbian army was in no position to be able to do such a thing.


More brutal engagements followed on 21 November, as Oskar’s lads advanced towards Mount Maljen intending to drive the Serbian 1st Army from its positions. Three days of intense fighting followed, and the Serbs retreated. Oskar was feeling generous, so he did not pursue them.


Or maybe he could not pursue them. His forces had suffered great casualties and they were exhausted by the endless fighting. And the terrain was becoming more difficult the further they advanced. Also, while the 1st Army withdrew, the 2nd and 3rd armies fiercely resisted the Austro-Hungarian advance.


Oskar reinforced his positions around the town of Lazarevac, and he made a series of predictions about what the Serbs would do next. Combat around the town intensified, and the Serbs managed to keep the Austro-Hungarians at bay, despite having almost no ammunition left.


By 24 November, Oskar was once again predicting Serbia would be defeated in a matter of days. He even appointed Stjepan Sarkotic to be the country’s governor once it was occupied.


Intense artillery bombardments on 25 November forced the Serbs to withdraw from Vrace Brdo, and on the following day, the Austro-Hungarians attempted to cross the Kolubara River. They managed an initial foothold, but the Serbs counter-attacked, and drove them back, inflicting 50 per cent casualties, and the advance ground to a screaming and bleeding halt.


The following day, the Serbs attacked Vrace Brdo and forced the enemy off the hill. But Radomir was becoming very concerned his lines were over-extended, and began considering another withdrawal. Yes, he had inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy, but by his assessment, Belgrade might have to be evacuated and ceded to the enemy.


His decision was made for him when the Austro-Hungarians attacked on the night of 26 November. Belgrade was evacuated on 29 November and the Austro-Hungarians entered the city on 1 December.


Vienna was in raptures. Parties everywhere. Germany was delighted at the capture of Belgrade and sent congratulatory notes to the Austro-Hungarian court. On 2 December, the 66th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s rule, Oskar wrote to him to say he was: “Laying town and fortress Belgrade at His Majesty’s feet.”


But the only thing Oskar ended up laying at his emperor’s feet were the ruins of his empire. The Serbian army had withdrawn 19km from the front, rested, and then converged on Mount Rudnik, where it was greeted with the long-awaited munitions and supplies.

On 2 December, Radomir ordered his leather-sandaled armies to attack along the entire front. An ageing King Peter I, took up a rifle and joined his troops at the front.


As the Serbs attacked, the Austro-Hungarians were holding a magnificent victory parade in Belgrade. Oskar shit his pants as the artillery began to rain down. He had failed to prepare his army for any counter-attack, imaging there could never be one. That same night, the Serbs had pushed the entire front back several kilometres and advanced towards Belgrade, inflicting heavy casualties and taking thousands of prisoners.


By 6 December, the British Ambassador to Serbia informed his government the Serb offensive was “progressing brilliantly”. The centre of the Austro-Hungarian army had been smashed and its right flank had collapsed. In desperation, they tried to consolidate their control of Belgrade and attacked the right flank of the advancing Serbian army.


It didn’t work. On 8 December the Austro-Hungarians fell back to the towns of Uzice and Valjevo. Radomir had a feeling this is where they might entrench themselves and hold off the Serbs. But the Austro-Hungarians had not prepared any defensive lines. The Serbs promptly encircled the enemy, suffering minimal casualties, and the crushing of an empire began in earnest.


The Bulgarian ambassador to Serbia reported the following: “The most improbable news from the battleground, sweet to the Serb ear, has been going around since this morning. The Serbs have captured an Austro-Hungarian General, 49 officers, more than 20,000 troops, 40 cannons, and a huge amount of war materiel…”

One Austro-Hungarian soldier wrote: “We could not have imagined the Serbs were on our heels, after all we had recently been victorious…”


By 9 December, the Austro-Hungarian forces were in full retreat. On 10 December, the Serbs captured the lower reaches of the Drina River, which forced the majority of the Austro-Hungarian troops to once again embrace the cold waters of a Serbian waterway, and flee in panic. They did not stop running until they had crossed the Sava river, then the Danube, and entered the Banat. Very few Austrian soldiers ever made it back home.

The Serbian army re-entered Belgrade on 15 December. Oskar was dismissed from his post, and his subordinate, Liborius, commander of the 5th Army, was likewise cashiered in disgrace.


The consequences of this defeat were far-reaching. The battle did not achieve any of Austria-Hungary’s objectives. It failed to knock Serbia out of the war. It failed to induce Bulgaria to join the Central powers, and it failed to convince Romania to stay neutral. It was a clusterfuck of epic proportions.


German publicist, Maximilian Harden wrote: “Serbia has risen from its grave on the field of Kosovo. From the source of the Kolubara River, it will draw courage for the greatest battles of the whole century.”


The Austro-Hungarians suffered 225,000 casualties – 30,000 killed, 173,000 wounded, and 70,000 taken prisoner, with 200 officers among them.


The Serbs suffered 22,000 killed, 91,000 wonded, and 19,000 missing or captured.


As the western press entered the country, it was appalled at the atrocities the Austro-Hungarians had committed against Serbia civilians, including women and children. William Shepard of the United Press, was an eyewitness and confirmed at least 18 towns had been abandoned and destroyed and the entire north-west of Serbia was almost depopulated.


This battle may have been won, but the price was huge – and there was a much greater one still to be paid. The war was not yet over for Serbia.


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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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