Thursday, 12 February 2015

The fate of Serbia

The pot-pourri of peoples comprising Austria-Hungary
Not surprising there was such instability

One answer to my rhetorical question re Poland in the previous blog might be Serbia. Serbia suffered dreadfully during the first world war and on many occasions since but, unlike Poland, was not blameless in the long sequence of events leading up to WW1. Serbia, as a small nation striving for autonomy for the southern Slav peoples had been exhausted and weakened by the first and second Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, and yet had to face the onslaught of Austria, fuelled by righteous indignation after the assassination in Sarajevo, in the very opening phases of the war in late July. Following the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 Serbia had to beware of its southern and eastern borders where Bulgaria, Greece and Albania all had designs on its newly gained territories. In July 1914, against all expectations, the Serbs routed the Austrians in the first exchanges, but then followed another of WW1's see saw struggles. Once Austria had benefited from significant German reinforcements, the Serbian nation suffered terribly in the forced winter retreats through the mountains towards the Adriatic sea, and its misery continued through 1915 to the end of the war.

Although all had expected Serbia to be destroyed quickly by Austria, this had not happened. The Serbs even advanced into Bosnia in Autumn 1914 to strike at Sarajevo, but at this point the Austrians re-established control and sent them back into Serbia – to Valjevo and the river Kolubara. The Austrian public demanded revenge for the earlier humiliations, and the Austro-German strategy of gains in the east - to create a corridor through to the Aegean sea - meant that German strength was added to the Austrian forces.

Potiorek - previously
nominated as one of the
failures of WW1
Initial success for Potiorek, commander of the Austrians, opened up the possibility of advancing to Belgrade and seizing the railway that opened up the route to Turkey. The Serbian Crown Prince’s army was completely dwarfed by the wide sweep of the Austrian advances from rivers Danube, Sava and Drina, and was forced to retreat into the mountains to the south east. Yet again Potiorek misjudged events with disastrous consequences. He decided that the retreat of the Serbians to the mountains marked the end of any effective resistance. He detached three of his army corps to leave Serbia and join the fighting in Galicia.  The Austrians actually entered Belgrade, but they were weakened and exhausted, and vulnerable to a Serbian counter-stroke. Their offensive plan was to move on south east with a pincer movement to enclose the Serbian army, and they moved to cover the line between Mladenovatz and Ushitza on 1st December. They advanced into a trap, and a fierce and desperate Serbian counter attack came on 3rd December, all along the front. By dawn on 6th the Austrians were routed and in full retreat north and west to Austria and Hungary, even beyond their own borders.
(Buchan):On the 15th the capital was retaken, and while the Austrian rearguard was fighting in the northern suburbs, King Peter was on his knees in the cathedral giving thanks for victory.

Of the 200,000 Austrians who crossed the Drina and Sava, not 100,000 returned. The disaster was indeed for Austria what Tannenberg had been for Russia: it virtually destroyed a field army. Potiorek was removed (finally) from his command, and all talk of the conquest of Serbia by Austria alone died away.
Sadly for Serbia, strengthened central powers forces would return and force them into the nightmare retreat back across the mountains that effectively finished the country as a theatre of war. (Wikipedia)The Serbian Army declined severely towards the end of the war, falling from about 420,000 at its peak to about 100,000 at the moment of liberation. 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. These figures are not matched by any other country.

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