07 September 1914 – Balkan Rules

On the Western Front, France and their British ally are meeting the Imperial German Army with a hail of fire at the Marne, finally turning back the ‘grey wave’ after weeks of failure. On the Eastern Front, the Germans are still following up their destruction of Russia’s 2nd Army by pursuing the 1st Army northeast.

But we turn today to the Balkan Front, where the Hapsburg Empire is once again attacking Serbia to punish the upstart nation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The first expedition has already ended in miserable failure, with the attendant consequence that the Austro-Hungarian army met its Russian foe outnumbered and outgunned in Galicia. This second offensive will fare marginally better than the first for a few days, but just like the battle unfolding on the Marne, it will settle into trench warfare.

The war so far has looked much like the wars of the past century, with armies moving as masses over open ground and then blasting each other apart. That is about to change.

Serb troops crossing a pontoon bridge on the Drina

Serb troops crossing a pontoon bridge on the Drina during their limited offensives of the previous two weeks

After chasing the Hapsburg army out of Serbia two weeks ago, the Serbs have gotten brave, conducting limited offensives into Bosnia and the emperor’s realms. This is unacceptable to General Oskar Potiorek, the man whose security arrangements left the Archduke vulnerable to an assassin’s bullets. He orders the Fifth and Sixth armies to cross the Drina River into Serbia, and though the defenders fight hard, the limits of their national procurement shortages are beginning to tell.

Still rebuilding from its successes in the Balkan wars, the little Serbian army doesn’t have enough modern rifles for this war. Its one little ammunition factory is only turning out 100 shells a day for the guns, making it impossible for them to meet the attack with the sustained, effective rates of fire that might push assaults back — or support their own attacks effectively.

These problems only become more acute when the Serbs retreat from a two-day battle over a mountain peak to dig in for a six-week campaign. Whereas most Serbian soldiers have been issued traditional opanaks, a kind of moccasin, the Hapsburgs have equipped their troops with waterproof leather boots that are much better for fighting in undrained trenches. The Serbs are eventually forced to retreat again, this time leaving the capital of Belgrade exposed.

Serbia suffered a shortage of artillery shells

Though her crews were actually better-drilled, Serbia suffered a serious shortage of artillery shells

Serbia’s allies are trying to resupply her, but none of them had ramped up production in expectation of a long war, and none of them has converted their economy to wartime production because everyone expects it to be over quickly. The result is that within a few months, all of Serbia’s allies will be suffering shell shortages themselves, particularly their Russian sponsors, so they are never able to make up the shortfall in the Balkans even by sending their own troops to fight here.

But resupply does arrive in December, just in time for the Serb counterattack that recovers Belgrade. It is one of twenty times in history that the Serbian capital falls to one invader or another. The Balkan Front is known for its history of cruelty, especially to civilians, and every Hapsburg advance is accompanied by another massacre. Nor are the Serbs innocent themselves: during the Balkan wars of the last two years, the Serbian army conducted massacres and atrocities of its own in Albania and Kosovo, and King Peter has ordered an expensive resettlement of Serbs in the ethnically-cleansed territories.

Serb machine gun crews

Serb machine guns were just as effective as the Hapsburg ones, and Serb crews at least their equal, but the little nation soon ran short of ammunition and spare parts

The 20th Century is a bloody one, and nowhere is that more true than the Balkans. To some extent, this is made worse by the fact that newspapers in allied countries become less willing to report atrocities committed by the Serbs than against them. Wartime propaganda elevates their national plight without any corresponding examination of their crimes.

With the end of the war, the dream of “Greater Serbia” is largely achieved by a treaty that awards the Kingdom lands like Bosnia that contain non-Serb majorities. When Yugoslavia collapses at the cusp of the 21st Century, ethnic hatreds and official policies encouraging violence against civilians make a terrifying comeback, and these lands see the worst abuses.

Residents of the Balkans will often tell you that the Turks brought this way of war with them in the 14th Century, and that it is simply how things work in their region. But the truth is that in 1914, the horrors of Serbian imperialism were at least the equal of Hapsburg imperialism — and Serbian chauvinism has certainly outlasted all its rivals.

Twelve year-old Dragoljub Jelicic, one of the youngest soldiers of the Great War, wearing

Dragoljub Jelicic, one of the youngest soldiers of the Great War, wearing traditional opanaks on his feet