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05 November 1915 – Orient Express

After three days of fighting, the Serbian wartime capital at Niš falls today to the Bulgarian First Army. In just four weeks, the Central Powers have seized control of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway route from its crossing at Sava on the Danube River (see above), now under repairs, to Niš, to the Bulgarian capital, and onward to their Ottoman allies, thus achieving one of the primary policy ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II. His prewar scheming in the Balkans, including the brief reign of German princeling William Wied over Albania, was aimed at securing this very route to the east so that he might equal or exceed the British Empire in Asia. Until now, Wilhelm has sent military aid to Turkey and Bulgaria via an alternate route through Romania, but growing calls for intervention against the Central Powers in that country threaten to close it off. Today’s victory thus provides an important strategic relief to both belligerents.

A propaganda postcard produced to commemorate the Bulgarian victory today

A propaganda postcard produced to commemorate the Bulgarian victory today

As the Germans and Bulgarians link flanks at Krivi Vir, a village 35 miles north of Niš, their success does not go unnoticed elsewhere. British War Minister Lord Kitchener learns of the defeat while en route to Mudros for a personal tour of the Gallipoli landing beaches; when he telegraphs London on November 23rd to recommend withdrawal, he will cite the newly-opened logistical highway as a primary impediment to victory in the Dardanelles. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians threaten to sever the vital railway into Serbia from the Greek port of Salonika, making further resistance impossible for the outnumbered and outgunned Serbian Army.

Kitchener then floats a new plan to land at Alexandretta, severing the Ottoman railroad below the Adana Mountains and supporting the Mesopotamian campaign. Another former sideshow of the Great War, the future nation of Iraq now looms larger as the British Empire seeks to expunge the disappointments of 1915 into some sort of strategic victory in the east before Christmas. Kitchener’s idea also reduces the Turkish threat to Egypt through the Sinai, but London rejects his proposal, as Salonika increasingly becomes the focus of hope in the region for the Entente allies.

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A map of the Ottoman railway network showing the route through Serbia. Click to embiggen

The hits keep on coming. On November 9th, the Serbian Second Army is forced to retreat into Kosovo and the Bulgarian Second army defeats the Serbian defenders at Kumanovo, permanently cutting the vital railroad to Skopje. Within another six days, the entire Vardar River valley is in Bulgarian hands; on the twelfth day after that defeat, two French divisions marching out of Krivolak are repulsed, ending the last hope of maintaining an overland resupply link. The day after Kitchener sends his telegram, the situation in Serbia is so dire that King Peter’s government moves to the Albanian city of Scutari, prompting Field Marshall Radomir Putnik to order a general retreat to the Adriatic Sea, where those who survive the cold and deadly journey through the hills filled with hostile tribesmen finally board a scratch flotilla of allied ships sent to carry them to the Italian island of Corfu.

The survivors will leave at least seventy thousand thousand Serbs behind them, victims of frostbite, disease, and hunger. Known as the ‘golgotha,’ this humanitarian disaster catches at least 220,000 civilians and 200,000 soldiers in the open, without food or shelter, right as winter descends on the land. When they do eventually return to liberate Serbia in 1918, it will be through Greece and Macedonia — the same route by which France and Britain have tried, but failed to support them against the overwhelming might of three nations.

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Still in use: the flow of refugees from Syria and the Middle East today follows rail and road routes more than a century old