Former Pupils

 

Tamo Daleko: There, Far Away

The Serbian Herioters of the First World War

Over the course of the Centenary years of the First World War, I will tell you the story in instalments of a group of twenty-seven Foundationers whose lives were transformed by their education at George Heriot's. They were all Serbian, aged between twelve and seventeen, and all had survived what is known as the "retreat": a journey over the mountains of Albania and Montenegro during the winter of 1915-1916 to escape capture after their country suffered catastrophic defeat at the hands of Germany and its allies.

Around eight thousand boys died in in these remote, hostile mountains of starvation, cold and disease. Others were shot by the Albanians. Nearly one hundred thousand Serbian soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians died alongside them. But such numbers express nothing of the agonising, miserable deaths they suffered. And it is also only by understanding what these twenty-seven Serbian boys survived that makes clear how great their transformation was at our school.

Their suffering began long before they reached the mountains, on the other side of which lay the Adriatic and the prospect of rescue by their British, French and Italian Allies. They had left their homes under the ill-considered orders of the Serbian government, who were desperate to save them from interment at the hands of the enemy but, in the face of imminent defeat, were utterly incapable of feeding, clothing or supervising them. Even before they reached the mountains the boys were suffering.

"I used to see the smaller of them sitting on top of the railway-cars crying together by the dozens," wrote an American observer. "They ate anything they could find, rotten apples, bad vegetables [and] the precious bits of food found in abandoned tins..."

Others were appalled by their misery.

"Their faces were white, and their noses red," recalled a British observer."

"The dreary processions of starving boys shuffled up again [near Raška]; some were crying, some helping others along, one had an English jam tin hanging around his neck."

By the time the enemy had driven the boys to the mountains on Serbia's western borders, the Adriatic was ninety miles away but the distance they had to cross was easily doubled by ice and snow-covered peaks and passes, some more than five thousand feet high. By the time they neared the warmer shores of the Adriatic, most were ragged, sick and virtually skeletal. Many were barely clinging to life.

"I saw two boys (and I set this down for those that glorify war) that, too weak either of them to walk alone, were staggering along, each supported against the other,"

recorded Hilton Young, a member of the British Adriatic Mission to Serbia.

"They were bent with the pains of dysentery, and the arm of the younger one had been broken, and having been left untended had set, projecting unnaturally. Every few steps these two stopped and lay down together by the roadside. Looking back at them after we passed, I saw them stagger aside off the road and fall amongst the bushes. I rode back to them and found them lying side by side. The boy with the broken arm was at the point of death. The other spoke to me; a few words were all he could manage, and I could not understand them, but I think that he was asking for help for a brother or a friend. There was no help for me to give, and in a few minutes the younger boy died."

Of the seven thousand who survived to reach the Albanian coast, two thousand more suffered deaths like these before they could be evacuated. Five thousand survived. Our twenty-seven future Herioters were among them. Via a circuitous journey, the first ten arrived at Waverley Station in Edinburgh in August 1916, just before the start of the new school term. Almost without a word of English between them, they were embraced by the School and supported by the generosity of the people of Edinburgh during the war years until they were able to return to what remained of their homes.

Over the three years they were hosted at the School, several shone academically. But it was on the playing fields of Goldenacre where they gained fame. These boys, who had never played rugby before, embraced the game and showed extraordinary and unexpected talent. Several were good enough to join the First Fifteen, where they played alongside future Scottish internationalists like Daniel Drysdale. They are further credited with having played the first Serbian international sporting match on the fields of Inverleith in 1918 and for having brought rugby back to Serbia following their return.

Serbian XV

Their education and experience here in Edinburgh turned them into proud Herioters and changed the course of their lives.

"The prime of our lives was spent here in this beautiful country with your grandfathers and grandmothers," wrote Dimitrije Dulkanović when he was in his eighties. "We can never forget the hospitality and friendship which we felt everywhere in Scotland. At that war time we were homeless and parentless so our gratitude to Scotland and [the] Scottish people will last till the end of our lives..."

Dimitrije was the last surviving Serbian boy. He was buried in 1995 in Zemun, Belgrade, in his Heriot's school tie.

Their story is thus a happy one, at the heart of which is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. However it is also one of almost unbearable tragedy when one remembers that ten thousand boys just like them, with the same abilities, ambitions and appreciation of life, died before the Allies were able to rescue them.

My aim over the course of these quarterly articles will be to introduce you to these boys and take you through the war as they experienced it, both in Serbia and in Edinburgh. In so doing, I hope to tell you a little about the war affected the School. In this first article, I will introduce you to them and tell you a little of their lives in Serbia before the war. In the final article, I will tell you how their education changed their course of their lives in what became the country of Yugoslavia. I am very pleased to have the assistance of several of their descendants who, during the course of these articles, will tell you directly about their fathers and grandfathers and the impact their schooling in Edinburgh had on their lives. The first article is written by Radmila Marinović, the daughter of Gavrilo Lazović, who has written about the early experiences of her father.

Serbian Herioters with Sir Edward and Lady Parrott
Our twenty-seven were part of a contingent of around four hundred Serbian boy refugees who, along with a handful of girls, were welcomed to British shores during the first half of 1916. They came from a firmly peasant Kingdom: although a minor aristocracy of sorts had developed around the Royal family, its four million inhabitants largely worked on smallholdings, making a hard but adequate living on Serbia's fertile land. The country had an established, professional army with a foreign-educated officer class and a growing middle class, but these groups remained small. Illiteracy rates were high: in 1900 they stood at nearly 80%. At the outset of the First World War, Belgrade, its capital, was the one of the few places in Serbia able to boast of paved streets and electric lights.

Miodrag Martic  Nikola Vasic and Dimitrije DulkanovicThe tiny number of Serbian child refugees accepted onto British shores stands in stark contrast to the generosity of France, who took in around three thousand five hundred. The British, conscious of how pale their efforts were in comparison, at least made a point of accepting children randomly. But the sorting began in vigour shortly after their arrival and soon seventeen locations across England, Wales and Scotland were sporting "colonies" of Serbian boys who had been divided on the grounds of health or levels of education. The tubercular ones were sent to a sanatorium in Chandler's Ford. Some - almost certainly the peasant boys - were sent to fruit farms in Cambridgeshire to receive agricultural training, while still others were sent to technical colleges and factories. Those deemed able to benefit from a formal education were sent to a number of centres. Four were in Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee.

The boys selected to study at Heriot's had been carefully selected. They were mostly from the small but growing middle class but several came from privileged backgrounds. All had had some schooling until the war disrupted their education and the Scotsman reported that many had been chosen because of their interest in engineering. (Please click here for short biographies of the boys).

The boys were looking forward to the new school term when Austria-Hungary lobbed the first shell across the Sava river at Belgrade on 29 June, 1914. In the years that followed, the country would be ravaged by repeated invasion, a typhus epidemic and three years of enemy occupation. By the time the last shell fell on the Serbian army, at least 16% of the Serbian population would be dead. No family was left unscathed and the gathering forces would soon sweep up our twenty-seven boys into this global conflagration.

In the next article, I will describe the impact of the first months of the war in Serbia on their lives.

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