Serbian Campaign of the World War
Part of the Balkans Theatre of World War I
Vojska Ada Ciganlija.jpg
Serbian infantry positioned at Ada Ciganlija.
Date 28 July 1914 – 21 October 1918
(1 year, 2 months, 3 weeks and 2 days)
Location Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Albania
Result Central Powers victory in 1915
Occupation of Serbia
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg Austria-Hungary
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Bulgaria (1915–1918)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Germany (1915–1918)
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Serbia
Flag of the Kingdom of Montenegro.svg Montenegro
Flag of France.svg France (1915–1918)
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom (1915–1918)
Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire (until 1917)
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg Oskar Potiorek
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg Stjepan Sarkotić
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg Hermann Kövess von Kövessháza
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Nikola Zhekov
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Kliment Boyadzhiev
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Georgi Todorov
Flag of the German Empire.svg August von Mackensen
Flag of the German Empire.svg Max von Gallwitz
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Crown Prince Alexander
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Radomir Putnik
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Živojin Mišić
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Stepa Stepanović
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Petar Bojović
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg Pavle Jurišić Šturm
Flag of the Kingdom of Montenegro.svg Nicholas I
Flag of the Kingdom of Montenegro.svg Janko Vukotić
Flag of France.svg Louis Franchet d'Espèrey
Flag of France.svg Maurice Sarrail
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Bryan Mahon
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg 462,000
State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg 420,597
Casualties and losses
Flag of Austria-Hungary (1869-1918).svg 264,500+ killed and wounded (estimated)

Flag of Bulgaria.svg 37,000
Flag of the German Empire.svg 12,000

State Flag of Serbia (1882-1918).svg 320,000 killed, wounded or diseased (estimated)

Flag of the Kingdom of Montenegro.svg Unknown
Flag of France.svg Unknown
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Unknown

The Serbian Campaign of World War I was fought from late July 1914, when Austria-Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Serbia at the outset of World War I, until the war's conclusion in 1918. The front ranged from the Danube to southern Macedonia and back north again, involving forces from almost all of the combatants of the war.

The Serbian Army declined severely towards the end of the war, falling from about 420,000 at its peak to about 100,000 in 1918. The Kingdom of Serbia lost more than 1,100,000 inhabitants during the war (both army and civilian losses), which represented over 27% of its overall population and 60% of its male population. According to estimates by the Serbian government (1924) Serbia had lost 265,164 soldiers, or 25% of all mobilized people. By comparison, France lost 16.8%, Germany 15.4%, Russia 11.5%, and Italy 10.3%.

Background[edit | edit source]

Austria-Hungary precipitated the Bosnian crisis of 1908–09 by annexing the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878. This angered the Kingdom of Serbia and its patron, the Pan-Slavic and Orthodox Russian Empire. Russian political manoeuvring in the region destabilised peace accords that were already unravelling in what was known as "the powder keg of Europe".

The Austro-Hungarian government's declaration of war in a telegram sent to the government of Serbia on 28 July 1914, signed by Imperial Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold.

In 1912 and 1913 the First Balkan War was fought between the Balkan League and the fracturing Ottoman Empire. The resulting Treaty of London further shrank the Ottoman Empire, creating an independent Albanian state while enlarging the territorial holdings of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. When Bulgaria attacked both Serbia and Greece on 16 June 1913, it lost most of its Macedonian region to Serbia and Greece, the Southern Dobruja region to Romania, and Adrianople (the present-day city of Edirne, which had been conquered by a combined Serbian-Bulgarian force) to Turkey in the 33-day Second Balkan War, which further destabilized the region.

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student and member of multi-ethnic organisation of national revolutionaries called Young Bosnia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

The political objective of the assassination was to break the Austro-Hungarian's South-Slav provinces off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination triggered a chain of events that embroiled Russia and the major European powers. This began a period of diplomatic manoeuvring among Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain called the July Crisis. Wanting to finally end Serbian interference in Bosnia and the Balkans, Austria-Hungary delivered the July Ultimatum to Serbia, a series of ten demands intentionally made unacceptable, intending to provoke a war with Serbia. When Serbia agreed to only eight of the ten demands, Austria-Hungary declared war on 28 July 1914. Military historian Hew Strachan argued "Whether an equivocal and early response by Serbia would have made any difference to Austria-Hungary's behaviour must be doubtful. Franz Ferdinand was not the sort of personality who commanded popularity, and his demise did not cast the empire into deepest mourning".

The dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia escalated into what is now known as World War I, which involved Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Within a week, Austria-Hungary had to face a war with Russia, which had the largest army in the world at the time. The result was that Serbia became just another front to the massive fight that started to unfold along Austria-Hungary's border with Russia. Serbia had an experienced army, having fought two successful Balkan wars in the previous two years, but it was also exhausted and poorly equipped, which led the Austro-Hungarians to believe that it would fall in less than a month. Serbia's strategy was to hold on as long as it could and hope the Russians and other Allies could defeat the main Austro-Hungarian Army. Serbia constantly had to worry about its hostile neighbor to the east, Bulgaria, with which it had fought several wars, most recently in 1913.

1914[edit | edit source]

The Serbian Campaign started on 28 July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and her artillery shelled Belgrade the following day. On August 12 the Austro-Hungarian armies crossed the border, the Drina River (see map).

Initially, three out of six Austro-Hungarian armies were mobilized at the Serbian frontier, but due to Russian intervention, the 2nd Army was redirected east to the Galician theater. However since the railroad lines leading to Galicia were busy with transport of other troops 2nd army could only start its departure northward at August 18. In order to make use of the temporary presence of the 2nd army AOK allowed parts of it to be used in Serbian campaign until that date. Eventually AOK directed significant part of 2nd army (around 4 divisions) to assistance of Potiorek's main force and postponed their transportation to Russia until the last week of August, defeats suffered in the first invasion of Serbia eventually forced AOK to permanently transfer 2 divisions from 2nd army to Potiorek's army.

The V and VI Austro-Hungarian armies had about 270,000 men who were much better equipped than the Serbs. Overall, Austro-Hungarian command was in the hands of general Potiorek. In addition, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had the third largest population in Europe in 1914, behind Russia and Germany, and almost twelve times the population of the Kingdom of Serbia, giving it an enormous manpower advantage.

Battle of Cer[edit | edit source]

First Attack on Serbia, August 1914

Potiorek rushed the attack against Serbia from northern Bosnia with his Fifth Army, supported by elements of the Second Army from Syrmia. The Second Army was due to be transported to Galicia to face the Russians at the end of August, but he made use of it until then. The Sixth was positioning itself in southern Bosnia and was not yet able to commence offensive operations. Potiorek's desire was to win a victory before Emperor Franz Joseph's birthday and to knock Serbia out as soon as possible. Thus he made two grave strategic errors, attacking with only just over half of his strength, and attacking hilly western Serbia instead of the open plains of the north. This move surprised Marshal Putnik, who expected attack from the north and initially believed that it was a feint. Once it became clear that it was the main thrust, the strong Second Army under the command of General Stepa Stepanović was sent to join the small Third Army under Pavle Jurišić Šturm already facing the Austro-Hungarians and expel the invaders. After a fierce four-day battle, the Austro-Hungarians were forced to retreat, marking the first Allied victory of the war. Casualties numbered 23,000 for the Austro-Hungarians (of whom 4,500 were captured) and 16,500 for the Serbs.

Battle of Drina[edit | edit source]

Maxim МG 10 of Serbian Royal Army

Under pressure from its allies, Serbia conducted a limited offensive across the Sava river into the Austro-Hungarian region of Syrmia with its Serbian First Army. The main operational goal was to delay the transport of the Austro-Hungarian Second Army to the Russian front. The objective was shown to be futile as forces of the Second Army were already in transport. Meanwhile, the Timok division I of the Serbian Second Army suffered a heavy defeat in a diversionary crossing, suffering around 6,000 casualties while inflicting only 2,000.

With most of his forces in Bosnia, Potiorek decided that the best way to stop the Serbian offensive was to launch another invasion into Serbia to force the Serbs to recall their troops to defend their much smaller homeland.

"The Serbians, seasoned, war-hardened men, inspired by the fiercest patriotism, the result of generations of torment and struggle, awaited undaunted whatever fate might bestow."

Winston Churchill, The Great War.

7 September brought a renewed Austro-Hungarian attack from the west, across the river Drina, this time with both the Fifth Army in Mačva, and the Sixth further south. The initial attack by the Fifth Army was repelled by the Serbian Second Army, with 4,000 Austro-Hungarian casualties, but the stronger Sixth Army managed to surprise the Serbian Third Army and gain a foothold. After some units from the Serbian Second Army were sent to bolster the Third, the Austro-Hungarian Fifth Army also managed to establish a bridgehead with a renewed attack. At that time, Marshal Putnik withdrew the First Army from Syrmia (against much popular opposition) and used it to deliver a fierce counterattack against the Sixth Army that initially went well, but finally bogged down in a bloody four-day fight for a peak of the Jagodnja mountain called Mačkov Kamen, in which both sides suffered horrendous losses in successive frontal attacks and counterattacks. Two Serbian divisions lost around 11,000 men, while Austro-Hungarian losses were probably comparable.

Marshal Putnik ordered a retreat into the surrounding hills and the front settled into a month and a half of trench warfare, which was highly unfavourable to the Serbs, who had little in the way of an industrial base and were deficient in heavy artillery, ammunition stocks, shell production (having only a single factory producing around 100 shells a day) and also footwear, since the vast majority of infantry wore the traditional (though state-issued) opanaks, while the Austro-Hungarians had waterproof leather boots. Most of their war material was supplied by the Allies, who were short of such materials themselves. In such a situation, Serbian artillery quickly became almost silent, while the Austro-Hungarians steadily increased their fire. Serbian casualties reached 100 soldiers a day from all causes in some divisions.

During the first weeks of trench warfare, the Serbian Užice Army (one strengthened division) and the Montenegrin Sanjak Army (roughly a division) conducted an abortive offensive into Bosnia. In addition, both sides conducted a few local attacks, most of which were soundly defeated. In one such attack, the Serbian Army used mine warfare for the first time: the Combined Division dug tunnels beneath the Austro-Hungarian trenches (that were only 20–30 meters away from the Serbian ones on this sector), planted mines and set them off just before an infantry charge.

Battle of Kolubara[edit | edit source]

Later Operations in Serbia, 1914

Having thus weakened the Serbian army, the Austro-Hungarian Army launched another massive attack on November 5. The Serbs withdrew step by step, offering strong resistance at the Kolubara River, but to no avail, due to the lack of artillery ammunition. It was at that time that General Živojin Mišić was made commander of the battered First Army, replacing the wounded Petar Bojović. He insisted on a deep withdrawal in order to give the troops some much-needed rest and to shorten the front. Marshal Putnik finally relented, but the consequence was the abandonment of the capital city of Belgrade. After suffering heavy losses, the Austro-Hungarian Army entered the city on December 2. This move led Potiorek to move the whole Fifth Army into the Belgrade area and use it to crush the Serbian right flank. This, however, left the Sixth alone for a few days to face the whole Serbian army.

At this point, artillery ammunition finally arrived from France and Greece. In addition, some replacements were sent to the units and Marshal Putnik correctly sensed that the Austro-Hungarian forces were dangerously overstretched and weakened in the previous offensives, so he ordered a full-scale counterattack with the entire Serbian Army on December 3 against the Sixth Army. The Fifth hurried its flanking maneuver, but it was already too late – with the Sixth Army broken, the Second and Third Serbian Armies overwhelmed the Fifth. Finally, Potiorek lost his nerve and ordered yet another retreat back across the rivers into Austria-Hungary's territory. The Serbian Army recaptured Belgrade on December 15.

The first phase of the war against Serbia had ended with no change in the border, but casualties were enormous compared to earlier wars, though not out of keeping with other campaigns of this war. The Serbian army suffered 170,000 men killed, wounded, captured or missing. Austro-Hungarian losses were approaching 215,000 men killed, wounded or missing. Austro-Hungarian General Potiorek was removed from command and replaced by Archduke Eugen of Austria. On the Serbian side, a deadly typhus epidemic killed hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians during the winter.

After the Battle of Kolubara, the Serbian Parliament adopted the Niš Declaration (7 December 1914) on the war goals of Serbia: "Convinced that the entire Serbian nation is determined to persevere in the holy struggle for the defense of their homesteads and their freedom, the government of the Kingdom (of Serbia) considers that, in these fateful times, its main and only task is to ensure the successful completion of this great warfare which, at the moment when it started, also became a struggle for the liberation and unification of all our unliberated Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian brothers. The great success which is to crown this warfare will make up for the extremely bloody sacrifices which this generation of Serbs is making".

1915[edit | edit source]

Prelude[edit | edit source]

Serbian artillery

Nikola Pašić, Serbian prime minister in 1915

Refugee Transport from Serbia 1914/15 in Leibnitz, Styria

Early in 1915, with the Ottoman defeats at the Battle of Sarikamis and in the First Suez Offensive, German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn tried to convince the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, of the importance of conquering Serbia. If Serbia were taken, then the Germans would have a rail link from Germany, through Austria-Hungary and down to Istanbul (and beyond). This would allow the Germans to send military supplies and even troops to help the Ottoman Empire. While this was hardly in Austria-Hungary's interests, the Austro-Hungarians did want to defeat Serbia. However, Russia was the more dangerous enemy, and furthermore, with the entry of Italy into the war on the Allied side, the Austro-Hungarians had their hands full (see Italian Campaign (World War I)).

Both the Allies and the Central Powers tried to get Bulgaria to pick a side in the Great War. Bulgaria and Serbia had fought two wars in the last 30 years: the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885, and the Second Balkan War in 1913. The result was that the Bulgarian government and people felt that Serbia was in possession of lands to which Bulgaria was entitled, and when the Central Powers offered to give them what they claimed, the Bulgarians entered the war on their side. With the Allied loss in the Battle of Gallipoli and the Russian defeat at Gorlice, Tsar Ferdinand signed a treaty with Germany and on September 23, 1915 and Bulgaria began mobilizing for war.

Opposing forces[edit | edit source]

During the preceding nine months, the Serbs had tried, and failed, to rebuild their battered armies and improve their supply situation. Despite their efforts, the Serbian Army was only about 30,000 men stronger than at the start of the war (around 225,000) and was still badly equipped. Although Britain and France had talked about sending serious military forces to Serbia, nothing was done until it was too late. When Bulgaria began mobilizing, the French and British sent two divisions, but they arrived late in the Greek town of Salonika. Part of the reason for the delay was the Greek government's conflicted views about the war.

Against Serbia were marshalled the Bulgarian First Army (Kliment Boyadzhiev), the German Eleventh Army (Max von Gallwitz) and the Austro-Hungarian Third Army (Hermann Kövess von Kövessháza), all under the command of Field Marshal Mackensen. In addition the Bulgarian Second Army (Georgi Todorov), which remained under the direct control of the Bulgarian high command, was deployed against Macedonia.

Course of the Campaign[edit | edit source]

Conquest of Serbia, 1915

The Austro-Hungarians and Germans began their attack on 7 October, with their troops crossing the Drina and Sava rivers, covered by heavy artillery fire. Once they crossed the Danube, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians moved on Belgrade itself. Vicious street fighting ensued and the Serbs' resistance in the city was finally crushed on 9 October.

Then, on 14 October, the Bulgarian Army attacked from two directions, from the north of Bulgaria towards Niš and from the south towards Skopje (see map). The Bulgarian First Army defeated the Serbian Second Army at the Battle of Morava, while the Bulgarian Second Army defeated the Serbians at the Battle of Ovche Pole. With the Bulgarian breakthrough, the Serbian position became untenable; the main army in the north (around Belgrade) could either retreat, or be surrounded and forced to surrender. In the Battle of Kosovo the Serbs made a last and desperate attempt to join the two incomplete Allied divisions that made a limited advance from the south, but were unable to gather enough forces, due to the pressure from the north and east and were halted by the Bulgarians under General Georgi Todorov and had to pull back.

Marshal Putnik ordered a full retreat, south and west through Montenegro and into Albania. The weather was terrible, the roads poor, and the army had to help the tens of thousands of civilians who retreated with them with almost no supplies or food left. But the bad weather and poor roads worked for the refugees as well, as the Central Powers forces could not press them hard enough, and so they evaded capture. Many of the fleeing soldiers and civilians did not make it to the coast, though – they were lost to hunger, disease, attacks by enemy forces and Albanian tribal bands. The circumstances of the retreat were disastrous, and all told, only some 155,000 Serbs, mostly soldiers, reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and embarked on Allied transport ships that carried the army to various Greek islands (many to Corfu) before being sent to Salonika. The evacuation of the Serbian army from Albania was completed on 10 February.
The survivors were so weakened that thousands of them died from sheer exhaustion in the weeks after their rescue. Marshal Putnik had to be carried during the whole retreat and he died a bit more than a year later in a hospital in France.

Serbian Army during its retreat towards Albania

The French and British divisions had marched north from Thessaloniki in October 1915 under the command of French General Maurice Sarrail. However, the War Office in London was reluctant to advance too deep into Serbia. So the French divisions advanced on their own up the Vardar River. This advance gave some limited help to the retreating Serbian Army, as the Bulgarians had to concentrate larger forces on their southern flank to deal with the threat, which led to the Battle of Krivolak (October–November 1915).By the end of November, General Sarrail had to retreat in the face of massive Bulgarian assaults on his positions. During his retreat, the British at Kosturino were also forced to retreat. By 12 December all allied forces were back in Greece.

The Army of Serbia's ally Montenegro, didn't follow the Serbs into exile, but retreated to defend their own country. The Austrian-Hungarians launched their Montenegrin Campaign on 5 January 1916. The Montenegrins fought bravely, but despite some success in the Battle of Mojkovac, they were completely defeated within 2 weeks.

This was a nearly complete victory for the Central Powers at a cost of around 67,000 casualties as compared to around 90,000 Serbs killed or wounded and 174,000 captured. The railroad from Berlin to Istanbul was finally opened. The only flaw in the victory was the remarkable retreat of the Serbian Army, which was almost completely disorganized and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch.

1916–1918[edit | edit source]

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