02 December 1914 – Belgrade

The capital city of the Serbian Kingdom has fortress walls, but it has fallen or been handed over in defeat some twenty times to various invaders over the centuries. The Turks, who only took the city on their third try, named it ‘Dar-i-Jihad,’ the House of Holy War. Vienna and Constantinople traded possession of the city several times in the ebb and flow of their empires, but after a century of struggle they are both in decline while the dream of ‘Greater Serbia‘ is ascendant.

Lying on the southern bank of the Danube and Sava Rivers, which mark the boundaries of Austro-Hungarian territory in 1914, the city has suffered harassing bombardment by Hapsburg river monitors since July 29th, and Serbian units have had to cross and win the opposite shore to relieve the city from Austrian artillery fire. That defense has become untenable in recent days while the Austrian army (KUK) undertakes its third invasion of Serbia this year and the ‘rogue state‘ of Serbia suffers a severe shell shortage.

After initially entering the city yesterday, the KUK enters an evacuated Belgrade in a triumphant parade this morning, and Vienna sends out the news in time for the London papers. Yet they do not get to celebrate very long, as new shells have arrived in Serbia from France by way of Montenegro, and another powerful Serb counter-attack begins tomorrow. In just two weeks, the invading Hapsburg army is broken and forced to retreat after losing half its strength to exposure, disease, and combat in the course of four months.

An artistic vision of the Austrian entry into Belgrade today

An artistic vision of the Austrian entry into Belgrade today. Very few of the city’s residents were left to watch the spectacle, while the burning and looting actually began as soon as the Austrians arrived

The Serbian Army is down to just 100,000 effectives, but the KUK is suffering severe problems of their own. They are commanded by Oskar Potiorek, the man whose bumbling security arrangements left the Archduke vulnerable to an assassin’s bullets in the first place. His third failure in Serbia is the final straw; Potiorek is sacked, and the Balkan theater becomes one more place where Germans must prop up their faltering ally.

The KUK is also dealing with rampant typhus in its camp. When the Battle of Kolubara ends on the 9th of December, so many of the 450,000-man force that first set out in August are found sick and abandoned in field hospitals that the Serbian nation cannot care for them all. There is little incentive for them to do so, either, for more than eleven hundred Serbian civilians have already been arbitrarily executed by these same Austrians. These atrocities are well-documented by the Austrians themselves, who keep posing for photographs while they hang and shoot victims in a deliberate policy of terror aimed at Serbs still living within the empire’s borders.

Meanwhile, the internal displacement of 200,000 Serb civilians — in addition to the quarter-million Serbs who have already fled Hapsburg dominions for their besieged ethnic bastion — is producing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war. Food supplies are low, and malnutrition only increases vulnerability to disease. Combined with devastated or inadequate shelter, this will be a very cold and deadly Winter.

A 1910 map of Belgrade shows how indefensible the capital of Serbia was

A 1910 map of Belgrade shows how indefensible the capital of Serbia was, being open on three sides to Austrian territory

The defeat of the Austrian army does not become a rout until after the 11th of December, when whole units find themselves trapped against the Danube near Belgrade and surrender en masse. By then, they have marched and fought and suffered for seventeen weeks in an exhausting, poorly-led, poorly-planned series of disasters. The year ends with Serbia the only nation allied against the Central Powers that can truly say they have defeated their enemy, having lost 70,000 men to their enemy’s 227,000.

Belgrade is left in ruins, especially the university campus from which so much pan-Slavic agitation has spread throughout the Balkans. Many residents return to find their homes looted and destroyed, while the cafés which had managed to stay open under bombardment have been ransacked. There will be no serious rebuilding efforts before the city is once again overrun by a very different army under German leadership in 1915. Much of the damage will not be repaired until the war is over, and then many structures will simply be torn down and replaced.

The Serbian capital has the unique distinction of breaking both armies, for in retaking this city and crushing the invader, the Serbian Army has unknowingly contracted its single most deadly enemy of the war: typhus. By the time General Mackensen leads a combined force to overrun the Serbian Kingdom next Summer, the stalwart defenders of Belgrade have already been decimated by a microbe that thrives in prisoner of war camps, refugee camps, and devastated cities.

King Peter I triumphantly reenters Belgrade

Contemporary illustration of King Peter I triumphantly reentering Belgrade on December 15th