The First Days of War

The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum was handed to the Serbian Foreign Office in the early evening of 23 July. A group of four Ministers carried the document from the anti-room to a larger room, grey-faced and tense, to read the document that they knew would determine the future of their country. One read it aloud to the others. The emotion in the room grew with each of the ten demands as the realisation dawned on them that it had been drafted to be impossible to accept. At the end, no spoke. At last one stood up and grimly uttered the words,

"Well, there is nothing to do but die fighting".

But there was nothing fatalistic in their efforts over the next forty-eight hours. They scrambled frantically to draft a response to the Ultimatum that would placate their enemy and avoid war. The response they handed to the Austro-Hungarian Legation was conciliatory, bordering on desperate. Having fought in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, the Serbian government knew that its depleted, tired and ill-equipped army was unprepared to fight yet another war, let alone with a Great Power. Only the request that Austrian officials be permitted to take part in a judicial inquiry was refused fully, because of the implications for Serbian sovereignty. But this alone was the casus belli that the Austro-Hungarians had engineered.

Every evening, as war edged closer, the Austro-Hungarians turned their searchlights across the Sava and Danube rivers on Belgrade and other towns along the river borders. Panic spread fast on rumours of impending war. Many citizens of Belgrade immediately scrambled together what possessions they could carry and fled the city.

It is impossible to know whether our two boys from the Serbian capital were among them. Eleven-year-old Miodrag Pavlović and twelve-year-old Miodrag Tutunović had been about to start the new school term. But it is likely that Pavlović, the son of the Chief Commandant of the 30th Infantry Regiment, had been rushed away. Tutunović, the son of an ordnance factory worker, was more likely to have experienced the first days of war in Belgrade. If so, he would have seen sweat and soil-stained soldiers toiling along the river digging trenches and Austro-Hungarian warships cruising up and down the Danube, their guns pointed at Belgrade.

He may have joined the feverish crowds that began to gather outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Palace as they waited for news. Meanwhile, the government and many private offices packed up and fled south to Serbia's second largest town, Niš.

On 28 July, Austro-Hungary declared war. On the 29th, the first shells of the First World War were fired on Belgrade from the other side of the Sava river. Bullets began to whistle over the fort of Kalemegdan, the main military barracks, which perched exposed on the hill overlooking the confluence between the Danube and Sava rivers. Just after midnight, anyone able to sleep would have been woken by the sound of a great explosion, as the Serbs attempted to blow the bridge over the Sava linking Serbia to Austro-Hungary, with only partial success. The high explosive shells that were fired into the city were met by silence from the Serbian guns. Finally, two days later, the Serb guns roared into action. By then, our two boys had almost certainly been forced from their homes on the journey that would eventually lead them to Edinburgh.

Rising panic also began to sweep the wealthy merchant town of Šabac, which lay just over fifty miles east along the Sava river, on the other side of which lay Austria-Hungary. This picturesque town of around thirteen thousand inhabitants was the home of Milorad Maletić and Mihailo Radovanović. During the night of 11 August, it was also where the blue-uniformed enemy soldiers stormed across the river in the first ground invasion of Serbia. Enemy regiment after regiment poured across a pontoon bridge which they had hurriedly erected across the river. They marched with the "assured step of conquerors," commented one observer, bringing with them guns of small and large calibre.

They had chosen their target carefully, the aim of the expedition starkly evident by the name given to it by the Austro-Hungarians, the "Strafexpedition" ("Punitive Expedition"). Theirs was a dual aim: to crush the troublesome Serbian army and deliver collective punishment to the citizens of Sabać and nearby Loznica for the alleged assistance given by the employees of their customs houses to the small band of assassins who had murdered the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. With the scorn of a Great Power poised to attack a small, peasant Kingdom, they dismissed the capabilities of the Serbian army. Its Chief of Staff declared that victory would be theirs in two weeks.

Most onlookers would not have dared disagree. Most of the Serbian army's artillery was outdated, there was little money to re-equip and there were not enough rifles for all its soldiers. More than half the men lacked uniforms and many did not even have boots. The smart soldiers of the modern Austro-Hungarian army were about to face men dressed in sandals and homespun clothing, heavy with black braiding, armed with only pitchforks and axes.

But the Serbian army had strengths that had been overlooked by the enemy. It had able soldiers who were accustomed to hardship. Its commanders were competent and experienced. Its soldiers were also patriotic and reliable, unlike those of Austria-Hungary, many of whom were fellow Slavs who disliked the thought of fighting the Serbs. But above all, they were driven by the knowledge that their families and homesteads lay to the rear of the fighting. With grim determination, they vowed to protect them from the invaders.

The Austro-Hungarian army seized the town of Sabać during the night of 11 August and then marched southwest toward the banks of the Jadar river and the foothills of the Cer mountains. As the fighting began, the men of the Serbian army replaced their pitchforks and axes with the rifles of the dead. Soon the Austrian commander reported to his superiors in Vienna that he was suffering "heavy losses" and pleaded with them to send support. Support reached the Serbs first. From their positions half-way up Cer mountain, the Serbs directed the full force of their artillery on the enemy below before charging at them with bayonets drawn.

The Austrian lines collapsed as its soldiers rushed headlong back toward the Sava river, throwing away any equipment that might impede their progress. By the time they reached it, the formerly smart, proud soldiers were barely recognisable.

"We now beheld a bedraggled, dishevelled, dirty mass of humanity almost all with torn clothing, some only half dressed, pantless or coatless, and bareheaded,"

wrote an observer. By 24th August, the last Austrian had been driven from Serbia.

This was the first Allied victory of the war, but it was one that must have rang hollow to the Serbs. Although the Serbs referred contemptuously to the Austro-Hungarian army as the "bestrafte", the "punished" one, both sides had suffered greatly. "The area where the ruthless battle was fought...was nothing but mass graves and appalling stench," recorded a French journalist. "From the shade of the woods the air was so foul that the approach to the crest of the Cer was near impossible. There, the number of dead bodies was so considerable that the [Austro-Hungarian] 2nd Army was forced by lack of resources and time to abandon their burial". Between six and ten thousand of the invaders were killed, along with three to five thousand Serbian soldiers.

While the enemy had utterly failed in its aim to defeat the Serbian army, it had stayed on Serbian soil long enough to rain savagery upon the civilian inhabitants of Sabać and Loznica. The aftermath of the atrocities was documented by multiple witnesses of different nationalities, who described coming across the mutilated bodies of men, women and children. Photographs of the atrocities, too graphic to reprint, show their heaped, twisted, mutilated bodies, lying in great heaps or long rows. Between three to four thousand civilians suffered such appalling deaths largely at the hands of the Hungarian element of the Army.

They also destroyed the homes of Milorad Maletić and Mihailo Radovanović. Sabać "had been a rich and important town," wrote John Reed, an American journalist who travelled across Serbia in 1915.

"It contained twenty-five hundred houses. Some had been destroyed by the guns; twice as many more were wantonly burned, and all of them had been broken into and looted. One walked along miles and miles of streets - every house was gutted...Not simply a few houses had been so treated - every house. It was a terrible thing to see. At the time of the first invasion many people remained in [Sabać], trusting that they would be safe. But the soldiers were loosed like wild beasts in the city, burning, pillaging, raping."

The "punishment" of Sabać did not finish with the Serbian victory. From the safety of the far side of the Sava river, the Austro-Hungarians continued to shell the town heavily, which meant that its inhabitants were unable to return. Almost all became refugees in the interior of Serbia, including Milorad Maletić and Mihailo Radovanović. Hundreds of its inhabitants, perhaps including these two boys, were scraping a miserable existence, exposed to the elements, in a civilian refugee camp two miles from their destroyed homes.

The first battle of the First World War thus forced Milorad Maletić, Mihailo Radovanović, Miodrag Pavlović and Miodrag Tutunović from their homes and schools, turning them into refugees and setting them on the trajectory that would end with their arrival in Edinburgh. However, the lives of many of the other boys would also have been dramatically affected. Those living away from the fighting would have joined their classes in the new school term as normal, but would have been gripped with tension as the news of the fighting, following by that of the atrocities, reached them. They would also have had to say goodbye to their older brothers and fathers when they were drafted to go to the front. For some, it was to be for the last time.

The prestige of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been struck a catastrophic blow by the Serbian victory. It was inconceivable to a Great Power that such humiliation on the world stage could go unanswered and the defeat of the Serbs now became a matter of "personal vindication" for the Austrian commander. The planning for a second attack, to knock the Serbs out of the war at any cost, began immediately. The Austrians bided their time throughout September and much of October, fighting only vicious trench skirmishes with the Serbs. On the face of it this fighting had little strategic significance, but it was sufficient nonetheless to exhaust the Serbian army further, drain its already depleted resources ahead of the impending invasion and ensure a steady flow of men to the hospitals in the interior of the country.

The Austrian bombardment began in late October. First, the enemy attempted to neutralise the defences of the Serbian army by shelling them heavily. Serbian civilians who were still resident near the Austro-Hungarian frontier fled en masse into the interior of the country, terrified lest they experience the same fate as the inhabitants who had fallen into the hands of the Hungarians in August. The population fled south, creating a refugee crisis of enormous proportions in central Serbia. One of the refugees was eleven-year-old Stanko Ilić, the son of a customs-house official who lived in the picturesque border town of Smederovo, which lies east along the Danube from Belgrade.

On 7 November, the Austrian-Hungarians attacked across the Drina river which marked Serbia's north-western frontier. They aimed first to seize a triangle of territory in the northwest of Serbia, at the heart of which was the town of Valjevo, which served as the communications hub for the region. They then planned to move on Belgrade. The home of Nikola Vasić in the western village of Ljibovija lay directly in their path. At just eleven-years-old, this son of a merchant shopkeeper now became a refugee in his own country.

The Austro-Hungarians had left little to chance this time. The army they had marched into Serbia was overwhelming superior in terms of both manpower and artillery. The Serbs, who were crushingly outgunned and outnumbered, were forced to retreat rapidly before them. On 15th November, only eight days after the launch of the attack, the enemy seized Valjevo. The Austro-Hungarians continued their rapid progress over the mountainous country, through valleys and along rough paths to the Kolubara river, where the Serbs had dug in across the far bank. The armies faced each other under grey skies, driving rain, sleet and snow that had turned the ground around them into quagmires.

Casualties from the fighting were multiplied in their thousands by men falling sick or suffering from exposure, many with frostbite. Still, the upper hand remained with the enemy. On 22nd November, they broke through Serbian resistance and began their march on the Serbian capital. The Serbian commander, faced with a desperate shortage of ammunition and an increasingly demoralised army, surrendered Belgrade on 28 November in an effort to shorten the Serbian line. The news was met with rejoicing in Vienna, the Austrian capital. Confident now of imminent victory, the Austrian commander allowed his soldiers to pause for three days so that they could resupply and recover their strength.

But ammunition from the Allies reached the Serbs first. Although not great in quantity, it gave the Serbs hope. The Serbian Commander, Field Marshal Putnik, decided to stake everything on one final attack. He rallied his last reserves, including gendarmes, new recruits and student battalions for one final attack on 2nd December. His counter-attack caught the Austrians entirely by surprise. As the enemy lines dissolved into chaos, the Serbs regained the morale that they had lost after weeks of discouragement. The exhausted Austrians fled, leaving behind anything that could impede their progress over roads of churned mud. By 15th December, the Austrians had once again been routed.

The Serbian victory had again come at a tremendous cost. Over one hundred and thirty thousand of its soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing in action. The Austrian losses were equally staggering. Nearly half of the four hundred and fifty thousand soldiers who had marched into Serbia did not return. Of these, around seventy six and a half thousand became POWs. The attack had also created five hundred thousand internal refugees, including Stanko Ilić and Nikola Vasić.
The Serbs did not have the infrastructure or resources to cope with the scale of the refugee crisis. As winter descended, the towns and villages to the south of the fighting were overflowing with half-starved and ill-housed refugees and prisoners.

Across Serbia the incidence of disease started to mount ominously. Worst affected by the spread of disease and the lack of food and shelter were the Austrian POWs. While there were individual cases of cruelty, the Serbs on the whole treated them reasonably well, employing as many as possible in a range of tasks for a minimal salary or better rations.

However, the Serbs simply could not absorb them all into their shattered economy. Many of those who were unable to find work were packed into crowded and filthy former stables, with insufficient food and little by way of sanitary arrangements. Sickness spread rapidly among them. The Allied medical units then at work in Serbia pleaded desperately in communications home for assistance, in conditions they realised were ripe for an epidemic.

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