Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Tragedy of Serbia

"They paid the price to reach their goal

Across a world in flame."

—R. Kipling.

It was hardly likely that the restless Balkan States should remain neutral throughout the war. From the very beginning, constant and attractive offers for their sympathy and active help had been made by the Central Powers on the one side and by the Allies on the other. The first year of the war passed, and none of the Balkan States had as yet intervened.

True, Serbia had been fighting against Austria-Hungary since that day in 1914 when war was declared, and the old King Peter with his two young sons rode forth to do battle. It was known that Rumania, with her English Queen Marie, sympathised with the Allies, It was also a fact that Greece, with her German Queen Sophie, the Kaiser's own sister, was torn between the fighting factions. But with regard to Bulgaria—the Emperor Ferdinand had been a dark horse. Both sides claimed his attention; both thought they had gained it.

"Let us see how the struggle develops, and which side offers the highest price for our support." Such was the royal attitude.

The collapse of Russia and the failure of the Allies at Gallipoli confirmed Bulgaria in the view that the Germans would be victorious, and that it would be well to come in on the side of the victors. The country was divided. "War will lead to fresh disasters: it will not only ruin our country but your dynasty, and may cost you your head."

The royal reply was ignoble. "Neutrality," said the King, "has enabled us to bring the military preparedness of our army to such a pitch as has never before been reached." Serbia was an "eternal enemy," and "Russia's darling." Bulgaria began to mobilise, at the same time assuring the Allies of her "armed neutrality" as a measure of safety, although the capital Sofia was known to be full of German officers.

"The Bulgarian Government has taken up a position of armed neutrality," declared England, "to defend her rights and independence. Not only is there no hostility in this country to Bulgaria, but there is traditionally a warm feeling of sympathy for the Bulgarian people. If, however, the Bulgarian mobilisation were to result in Bulgaria taking the side of our enemies, we are prepared to give our friends in the Balkans all the support in our power without reserve and without qualification."

Suddenly the news rang through Europe that Bulgaria had thrown in her lot with Germany, and had decided on an invasion of Serbia in union with the Central Powers.

Early in October, General Mackensen had hurried south from Galicia to lead the Austrian forces against Serbia. It was not the first time since the outbreak of the war that Austria had invaded Serbia, bent on her annihilation. But their attempts to cross the Danube had been repulsed, and they had been hurled back across the frontier in confusion. Unfortunately this had exhausted the stock of Serbian munitions, and, hearing this, the Austrians had surged back, forcing the Serbians to evacuate their capital, Belgrade. This time it seemed as if the Austrians must succeed. To her fifty shells, the Serbians had but one. Everything depended on a grim stand till the promised munitions arrived.

"Heroes!" cried King Peter to his peasant soldiers in the trenches, fighting with their last remnants of ammunition, "you have taken two oaths: one to me, your King, and one to your country. From the first I release you; from the second, no man can release you. But if you decide to return to your houses, and if we should be victorious, you shall not suffer. As for me and my sons, we will remain here."

Not a man left his post. Ammunition arrived in time from the Allies, and the King entered Belgrade once more at the head of his heroic army. This defeat of the Austrian army by the Serbians appeared to the rest of Europe almost an impossible feat of arms. Enormous numbers of prisoners, guns, and war material fell into their hands.

But their trials were not yet ended. Their endurance was to be tested yet more highly. An epidemic of typhus now began to spread over the country. The Serbian soldiers, exhausted by their hard fighting, fell victims to it by the thousand. Hundreds fell and died by the roadside, and none could cope with the outbreak. Then the Serbians appealed to the Allies, who instantly responded to their call. France, Britain, and Russia sent out doctors and nurses, who worked day and night among the stricken people. Gradually science and heroism prevailed, but not till some 70,000 Serbians had succumbed to the terrible scourge.

Now, not one enemy alone, but four—Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey— were invading their little land from various points. Again, in their distress, they turned to the Allies, who were even now hurrying to Salonika from Gallipoli ready for action. But one of Bulgaria's first efforts had been to cut off communication, and prevent any help reaching the Serbians from that quarter. Ignorant of this, the Serbians were buoying themselves up with hopes that British and French help would arrive in time to save them. Nish was decorated with bunting, and children stood with flowers to greet their friends. But they listened in vain for the guns that never came. They were alone, for Greece had failed them too. Greece, in honour bound to help Serbia in need, had repudiated the Treaty, and broken up for ever the Balkan League. The tragic drama of Serbia was beginning.

On 5th October the crash came with the bombardment of Belgrade by the Germans—one of the fiercest in the whole war. The capital was only defended by a small body of troops. Shells were bursting and German aeroplanes were dropping bombs on the defenceless people in the town. Overwhelmed by numbers, the Serbians fought desperately with the courage of despair, and when they at last evacuated the city, the German flag waved over a desolate scene of ruined homes. The Bulgarian army came into action on 11th October. It was 100,000 men stronger than the entire Serbian army, which had to face in addition 300,000 Germans and Austrians armed to the teeth. The position was desperate. As town after town fell into the hands of the enemy, the Serbians were pushed back and back westwards toward the great frontier mountains of Albania.

On 24th October, Uskub fell; on 5th November the Bulgarians took Nish; and with the union of the German army, the way to Constantinople was open. Masses of fugitives, to the distant sounds of the enemy's guns, fled from town and country by the only routes that were available. By the middle of November, winter had set in, and the great Albanian mountains and passes were deep in snow. The Serbians had lost heavily in men and guns, and only some 150,000 weary warriors were left out of her once heroic force. On the Albanian frontier, the last resolution was taken in the hour of storm and stress. It must be unconditional surrender or further flight over the desolate snow-bound heights to the Adriatic coast.

On 24th November the decision was made. The King, the army, and Government refused to treat with the enemy—rather would they attempt the Albanian mountains.

The great Serbian retreat one of the great tragedies of the war—now began. It was "the exodus of a nation rather than the retreat of an army." There were two routes open—one through Montenegro to Scutari, and one through Albania to Durazzo. The roads were mere sheep tracks over the mountains. Waggons and horses had to be abandoned, food had to be carried, and the journey made on foot was across the endless ranges of snow-capped mountains—their peaks towering into cloud.

The old King, rheumatic and nearly blind, with the Royal Household and the Royal Guard, started himself on foot through the snow for the 120 miles to Scutari. Along every mountain track streamed long black lines of refugees—women and children, doctors and nurses, ministers, secretaries, consuls—the country's uprooted and exiled population. Snow fell as they tramped, and camp fires lit up the hillsides where the night was spent. Now they had to wade through streams of ice-cold water, now to creep along the edge of a precipice, where far below could be heard a rushing mountain torrent, now in blinding snow-storms, always with insufficient food and aching feet. The retreat is a confused story of cold and hunger and of heroic endurance—men dying by the wayside, others stumbling on silent with grief and misery. It is said a quarter of a million civilians and half the Serbian army perished on the retreat. But the long journey was over at last, and the remnants of what was once the Serbian nation were given headquarters at Corfu till the day of deliverance arrived.

"My soldiers," cried King Peter, "I yet believe in the liberty of Serbia. The dream of my youth, for which I fought throughout manhood, has become my faith in the twilight of my life. I am tired and bruised and broken from my struggle in life, but I must live to see Serbia free, and to see the victory of my country."

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