Serbian bravery that changed the world
The following excerpts are from book:
The author, Mr. Gordon Brooks-Shepherd served as a lieutenant-colonel in World War II. Formely Diplomatic Correspondent, he is now Chief Assistant Editor of the Sunday Telegraph. "November 1918" is his eleventh book.
The book November 1918 - is the first history of World War One to focus
exclusively on the crucial events of the last hundred days of the conflict.
Pages 116 - 117:
Serbia was a most awkward ally to have. She was
SURROUNDED ON ALL SIDES BY ENEMY or neutral states and the only
feasable access, from the south, was hampered by some of the fiercest
mountains [Prokletije - "Cursed Mountains"] and poorest communications to be found
anywhere on the continent of Europe. For the first fourteen months of
the war France and England,... left the Serbs to cope as best they
could with the invaders. That best proved good enough until, in the
autumn of 1915, the odds against isolated Serbia began to multiply.
Bulgaria entered the war against them, determined to get... the whole
of... Macedonian province... Then the Germans, who had long been
irritated by the poor military showing displayed by their Austrian
allies [against Serbia in 1914-1915], mounted a new invasion of Serbia
alongside these new Bulgarian partners. IT WAS A DESPERATE OUTLOOK FOR
THE SERBS. Against their 194 remaining battalions - all of them by now
exhausted and depleted - was raised a fresh army of 341 battalions, of
which 111 were German and 177 were Bulgarian... Before Christmas 
all of Serbia was in enemy hands [while entire Serbian army, together with
the Parliament and the Serbian King retreated, across Albania's Cursed
Mountains into Greek - Salonika front].
Pages 122 - 124:
As summer  came,
the second round of the "Emperor's Battle" was
reaching its climax on the Western Front and the outlook for the
Entente powers [Western alliance] was grim, with the French armies
broken and reeling back on the capital. [The French Prime Minister]
Clemenceau, running through his army list for commanders to meet the
crisis, soon stopped at the name of General Guillaumat who, six months
before, had been sent out to Salonica... In eyes of his Prime Minister,
he was just too good an officer to be left languishing in a Macedonian
side-show when his own homeland was in danger. On 6 June Clemenceau
recalled him to France, initially to defend the capital... On the
afternoon of that same 6 June General Franchet d'Esperey, whose Northern
Army Group had been driven back in the overall German advance, was told
to hand over his command on the Western Front and take over the Orient
[Salonika] Army in Guillamaut's place.
received d'Esperey in Paris the following morning he
made it clear to the general... that he was being handed a military
demotion... [D'Esperey was] to assume command of an international army
in the most explosive area of Europe. Yet none of this would have
disturbed him unduly, for he had his own ideas about the Balkan
theatre, ideas that were cherished and long-standing... For d'Esperey
it was the realization of a dream... [H]e had also taken every
opportunity, private or official, to study at first hand the Danube
Basin, which held professional as well as a historical fascination for
him: there, after all, was the vulnerable southern flank of Germany's
vulnerable Habsburg ally... D'Esperey saw again the mountains and
valleys of Macedonia, valleys which led, however awkwardly, up to
Central European plain and the twin capitals of Austria-Hungary...
Pages 126 - 127:
...[F]or the offensive projects, [D'Esperay] dismissed the most
ambitious ... because it was also the most obvious - a strike up the
Vardar Valley which the enemy would always be half-expecting, since
this was the main north-south road and rail artery of the entire front.
...A more exciting idea: to concentrate a great mass of men in a
mountainous sector so SAVAGE that even the chamois trod there with
caution, and then use this as the seemingly impossible launching-pad
for the main attack.
THE IDEA OWED MUCH TO THE CHIEF-OF-STAFF OF HIS SERBIAN ALLIES, Zivoine
Misic [pronounced: Mee-shich, proper spelling in Serbian: Živojin Mišić ], whose battle headquarters were at Yelak..
The Serbs have stormed those heights in the autumn of 1916 and had sat
there defiantly ever since. IT WAS AS CLOSE AS THEY COULD GET TO THAT
BELOVED HOMELAND [now "FYR Macedonia"] from which the combined armies
of Germany, Austria and Bulgaria had driven them... [C]ould not other
peaks of the area now be used to leap forward a hundred miles... to
liberate Serbia; and knock Bulgaria out of the war altogether? The three
leaders who, on June 29, met at Yelak - d'Esperey, Mišić, and his
commander, the exiled Serbian Prince-Regent Alexander - were all fired
by the same thought, the two Serbs because it was the shortest way home,
the Frenchman because IT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT[!] From the observation
post hollowed out of the rock 7,500 feet up, they looked across at the
enemy's mountain line which, if it could only be smashed, would open the
way to the Upper Vardar Valley and so both turn his defences and imperil
his retreat... Looking at the terrain ahead [one] saw a series of
forbidding crests, strange towers of stone and saw-toothed shapes ranged
one behind the other right up to the far horizon. [O]f its dark,
forbidding atmosphere [a French infantry sergeant who was a university
professor in private life] wrote: "C'est un pais pour faire bigorner
le monde, et jouer cache-cache avec les noirs." ...
More specifically, the military chiefs crouched in their stone eyrie
on the afternoon of the 29 June took stock of the four giant granite
pillars of the Bulgarian defence system ahead, each of which would
have to be turned or toppled if the Allied attack were to succeed:
In the foreground the Sokol [= hawk in Serbian] and Veternik [= windy]
peaks with the jugged ridge of the Dobropolje [= good field] running
between them; and, a few miles behind, the summit of Kuchkov Kamen
[=dogs stone] which crowned the enemy's second line of resistance.
Their heights ranged from 5,000 to 6,000 feet, and their flanks were
laced with little more than goat-tracks. IT LOOKED, at first sight,
A STRONGER NATURAL BARRIER THAN ANYTHING MAN-MADE out of barred wire
and pill-boxes along the Western Front d'Esprey knew so well... Special
roads would have to be built and vast exertions of mule and man power
expended on the task. He slept on it... and in the morning told the
DELIGHTED Serbs that the attack was on!
Pages 128 - 131:
...A new task force, the so-called "Central Franco-Serbian Group", was
to be formed for the main blow-up at Mogrena, consisting of all four
Serbian divisions with two French divisions placed under Serb command.
They were to make decisive breakthrough, and, once past the high granite
barrier... [they] would fan out, heading to Prilep to the north and
Gradsko and Veles on the Vardar River to the north-east. Beyond those
targets d'Esperey certainly dreamed, but did not as yet dare to think...
D'Esperey now had to clear the lines with his political and military
masters in Paris and London. This proved... arduous... D'Esperey could
see why the Salonika army had to take a back seat while any CRISIS was
raging on the Western Front...
Not after the tide had turned in the West [with American reinforcements
flooding into France], with Foch's counter-offensive from the Marne, was
d'Esperey given approval... At last, on 10 September, after more than
two months of long-range tussling, d'Esperey received direct clearance
from Clemenceau to commence operations... The 29 divisions of his
Orient Army gave a total of 574,000 men... the Germans, Bulgarians and
Austrians who faced him were somewhat larger... [But] artillery was now
where he wanted it. Batteries of heavy 155 and 105 mm guns had been
brought forward... and the great weapons with their ammunition had then
been heaven up by tractor to heights approaching 8,000 feet from where
they dominated... The men who were to go right behind the shells knew
what this could mean for them. Just before the attack, when the air was
ringing with shouts of "NAPRED" [= "Forward!" in Serbian], the French
"Some old Serbian soldiers came to look at the guns, which
they gazed at respectfully and at length. One of them fervently
kissed the barrel of a 120mm... Another called out "God bless you,
and au revoir in Serbia!"
Pages 133 - 135:
[O]n 14 September, d'Esperey heavy guns boomed out in the mountains of
Mogreana to sound Allied advance... and boomed on until nightfall with
only one half-hour pause for the barrels to cool... a concentrated
barrage the like of which the mountains of Macedonia had never felt.
At dawn on the 15th, with the guns now quiet behind them, the French
and Serbian infantry went in... Veternik was not taken by the Serbs
until the afternoon, and the Sokol held out until nightfall. THE SERBS
MAY HAVE BEEN FIGHTING LIKE HEROES TO RE-CROSS THE OLD BORDER OF THEIR
COUNTRY; [now FYR Macedonia] but the Bulgars seemed no less determined.
...It was the same story the next day when Mišić, having moved his men
steadily forward through the night, attacked Kozyak [=goat] ridge six
miles further north... Then, suddenly, as though the backbone had been
ripped clean out of a fighting salmon, the Bulgarian line sagged and
gave way. First, they gave up to Kozyak, despite ARRIVAL OF GOOD
QUALITY GERMAN SAXON JAEGER battalion to stiffen them. Then, with that
second-line citadel fallen, the commander of the Bulgarian 2nd Division
seemingly panicked and withdrew precipitately to the third line of
defence, imperilling all formations on his flanks. [German commander
of the entire enemy front] Von Scholtz was forced to order a general
withdrawal,... he was wondering, on the morning of 18th, whether he had
been fooled after all and whether this MAD SURGE across central
mountains was not, in fact, a calculated thrust to the Vardar [River]..
[At the same time, at central sector British General Milne's army was
to fool the Germans that the main attack would come at that - the most
obvious direction.] After two days of murderous fighting General Milne's
men were left with only the limited ground they overrun in the first
hours of the attack... The Bulgars remained masters of the... hills,
and their machineguns had meanwhile taken a dreadful toll of the
attackers. The 7th South Wales Borderers... finally pulled back with
only one wounded officer and fifty-five men left alive out of the WHOLE
BATTALION. The Scottish Brigade, which took over the assault from the
Welch the following day, got no further and suffered almost as much...
When the attacks were abandoned and the tally made, it was found that
the British alone had lost 3,871 men, killed, wounded an missing in the
two days' of fighting... It was savage by Balkan standards, and came to
more than twice the total losses suffered by the French and Serbs in
their assault... General Milne's men had failed to take their most
important objectives. Endless explanations and excuses were produced...
...For all the great valour which the British troops displayed, they
just did not possess that EXTRA CUTTING EDGE OF SAVAGE FANATICISM for
the task which had DRIVEN their SERBIAN COMRADES to top of Veternik
[=windy], the Sokol [=hawk] and Kozyak [=goat]. After all, none of
those Macedonian mountain ridges spelt a return home to the English,
Welsh or Scots [as it did for the Serbs].
Pages 136 - 137:
[British RAF airplanes] on the morning of 21 Setember... reported that
a defile west of the town of Rabrovo was jammed with [enemy] military
transports... This could only mean that THE WHOLE ARMY WAS WITHDRAWING.
What have happened was that, two days before... [General] Todorov,
the newly appointed Bulgarian Commander-in-Chief was so buoyed up by the defeat
his men had just inflicted on the British... that he even proposed an
all-out offensive to sweep the Allied Army back into the sea. [German
General] Von Steuben was horrified at such over-sanguine folly and,
like his Army Group commander, was increasingly worried by that SHARP,
STRONG WEDGE WHICH FRENCH AND SERBS WERE STILL DRIVING INTO THE CENTRAL
SECTOR. Realizing too late that this might well be the MAIN threat, von
Stauben persuaded Bulgarian colleague to join in a general withdrawal,
arguing that d'Esperey would waste himself in the mountains of Serbia
just as Napoleon had spent himself in the steppes of Russia...
Von Stauben may have been thinking soundly according to his Prussian
text-books. But in that reality of war which supersedes all theory,
he had failed at... the PHENOMENAL ENDURANCE OF THE SERBIAN FOOT-SLOGGER
now to be displayed along the entire battlefield...
The infantry, and especially the SERBS, HAD PERFORMED... GREAT FEATS OF
ENDURANCE, for they had done everything on their feet. Their supply
system for the advance was grimly simple: they carried NO food with
them at all, just ammunition, relying on whatever the impoverished
peasantry of their homeland could provide. As a result many who had set
out as bronzed fighting men ended up as walking wraiths, mahogany
turning into wax. BUT THEY WENT ON WALKING, OUT-DISTANCING NOT ONLY
THE FRENCH HORSEMEN BUT EVEN THE BRITISH RATION-LORRIES. Such fanaticism
was the answer to the puzzled comment [German] Hindenburg made later:
"Without rest, it seemed IMPOSSIBLE for the enemy to bring up strong
forces forward to Skopje... How would he overcome the problems of
supply, for we had completely destroyed the railways and roads?"
WHAT THE GERMANS COULD NOT DESTROY WAS THE *SERBIAN SPIRIT*.
On 26 September 1918 the road to Skopje, the second largest town of
Serbia, [and capital of Serbian Tzar Dusan in fourteenth century],
and even to the capital, Belgrade, two hundred and fifty miles further
north, seemed feasible in military terms. That same morning it became
wide open as politics momentarily took over. [Bulgarian King] "Foxy
Ferdinand" decided he had enough...
Pages 140 - 141:
[German warlord] Ludendorff at his own Spa headquarters on the other
side of Europe realized that a major political and strategic crisis
was looming up in Bulgaria, with an ally on the brink of collapse and
the entire south-eastern flank of the Austrian and German Empires
threatened with exposure. He did what he could to stem the tide.
Nine German and Austrian divisions were rushed from ALL OVER Europe
to the Balkan Peninsula including, from the Western Front itself,
the crack Alpine Corps with its mountain equipment. "We are coming
to help and save you with every man available" Ludendorff signaled the
But position could no longer be held. On the morning of 26 September...
[only 12 days after the offensive have started] a German staff car with a large white
flag flapping alongside its bonnet... pulled up in front of the British
troops. Out stepped two Bulgarian officers... with a letter signed by
their Commander-in-Chief, General Todorov asking ... "a suspension of
hostilities... for an armistice, and eventually for peace."...
...The first armistice of the Great War had been imposed - by the
forgotten army of that war... What was its impact?
In the world outside the collapse of Bulgaria was widely seen for what
it was: THE BEGINNING OF THE FINAL PHASE OF THE WAR. Winston Churchill,
in Paris at the time, "recognized at once that the end had come." For
the Maurice Hankey, the influential secretary of the British Cabinet,
"the first of the props had fallen." Over in America President Wilson..
according to one of his intimates, "He immediately realized that, for
the Central Powers, the beginning of the end was here."
But of all the reactions in the West the most incisive came,... from
an ordinary British cavalry officer in France... He described the
"dramatic effect" it had on the troops and then wrote:
"Towns and prisoners and guns and ships had been captured by
both sides for four years past without any apparent effect on
the war... But when whole nations began to fall and capitulate
without conditions, then indeed there seemed ground for hope.
If one fell away, others would surely follow..."
[At the enemy camp] the Austrian Foreign Minister Count Burian
graphically put it to his master: "In jumping clear from us, Bulgaria
has knocked the bottom out of the barrel." That verdict was pronounced
at an emergency meeting of the Austrian Crown Council convened by
Charles in Vienna on 27 September, the day the Bulgarian
plenipotentiaries were setting out for Salonica. Its protocol shows
a desperately worried sovereign and his advisers surveying the fulfillment of their worst predictions...
Pages 149 - 150:
At the Supreme Headquarters in occupied Belgium, Hindenburg and
Ludendorff were already drawing up another of their military balance
sheets, and wherever they looked, the prospects looked darker than
before... The behaviour of the Berlin Stock Exchange was the best
barometer of the change. It had remained steady, even firm, throughout
the series of military setbacks... But this public defection of an ally
could neither be concealed nor explained away; and when the news of
the armistice reached the German capital shares plummeted in waves of
[German first in command] Ludendorff wrote soon: "...Our Balkan front
was unstable and it was quite uncertain whether we could be able to
reconstruct it in Serbia and Bulgaria, or even along the Danube...
The overall military position could only get distinctly worse. Whether
things would move slowly or with terrifying speed could not be forseen
but it was probable that it would all be over in a relatively short
Bulgaria had reduced the solid-looking Quadruple Alliance to a nervous
band of three. By the time Ludendorff was doing his fateful calculations
at Spa, it seemed inevitable that they would soon be down to two.
Turkey, all land links with her [German] allies already severed by the
Balkan collapse, was about to fall itself.
In a quote from Ludendorff's memoirs (when I have time to retype the
text) we will see that the first in command of the Central Powers saw,
with crystal clarity that Salonika debacle means that Germany would
for sure loose the war. Ludendorff admits that it was the first time
he got to that realization.
Neither Germans nor Austrians ever forgot or forgave the Serbian bravery in
the two world wars.
It is the other Westerners, the Serbian allies in the two wars like Americans, British, French... who forgot the Serbian sacrifice in the two wars. In the First World war Serbia lost 23% of its population!
[ World War One ]