The Conquest of the Black Mountain
Meaning and Importance of the Austrian Invasion of Montenegro

[The Independent; January 24, 1916]

The capture of Mount Lovcen by the Austrians as a military operation is insignificant compared with the constant conflicts, between the millions of soldiers who confront one another in France and Poland, for Montenegro is the least of the twelve nations involved in the Great War and the casualties of the assault will not appreciably swell the daily death list. Yet on some accounts it is an event of tremendous significance and far-reaching influence. It means for one thing that another of the smaller countries is likely soon to lose, at least for a time, its freedom and independence; the seventh of such to be overrun by hostile or alien armies. Luxemburg, Belgium, Serbia, Greece, Albania, Persia and Montenegro.

When King Nicholas of Montenegro celebrated his seventy-first birthday on October 8, 1912, by declaring war on the Sultan, he little realized—tho there were many who did and warned him—that he was thereby precipitating a general European war which would be likely to engulf his kingdom. How should he realize it? It was the custom of his country to fight the Turks on any favorable opportunity. Every boy babe is pledged at birth to avenge Kossovo, the battle in which Serbs and Montenegrins were defeated by the Turks 536 years ago as they were again defeated a month ago by the Austrians and Bulgars on the same field. Ever since then the men of Serbia and Montenegro have worn, a band of crepe on their crimson caps, to be removed only when all their race shall be free. There is no question of volunteering or conscription. Every man is a soldier and his wife is his commissary department, cooking his meals and carrying them to him at the front. The law requires there what the law here forbids, that every man carry a revolver whenever he steps out of doors. And every bride goes out into the desert alone to practice the widow's keen, that she may be ready suitably to lament the death of her husband in battle whenever his time shall come. The history of Montenegro, said Gladstone, "excels in glory all the war annals of the world."

But native courage of this primitive kind is of no avail against modern scientific warfare. From the concrete emplacements of their hidden forts about the Mouths of Cattarro the Austrian howitzers shelled the rocky hights above and the Montenegrins were almost as helpless as the Aztecs against the Spanish matchlocks.

Tourists have often wondered why these forts, constructed twenty years ago, were so placed that their heaviest guns pointed inward and landward toward insignificant little Montenegro instead of outward and seaward whence some foemen more worthy of their steel might be expected to come. Now we know why. We see that the Austrians were right in suspecting that when the time came it would not be Montenegrins they would have, to fight but more powerful nations behind them. It is then not surprizing that it was French and Russian cannon which replied to them from Mount Lovcen and that Italian troops are hastening to its defense. What is surprizing is the Allies did not send such aid before. It seems that the fatal words "too late!" which, as Lloyd George says, have dogged all the operations of the Allies, must here again be used. If the hundreds of thousands of Italian lives which have been wasted in vain attempts to break the Austrian lines to the north had been spent in the Balkans it may be that Serbia, Montenegro and Albania might have been saved and the Kaiser kept from Constantinople.

Italian interests are here almost as closely concerned as in Trentino or Triest. The Queen of Italy is the daughter of the King of Montenegro. The Albanian and Dalmatian coast has long been coveted by Italy. And if Italy is to become again "Queen of the Adriatic"' she must possess the Bocche di Cattaro, for it is one of the strongest as well as most beautiful of the harbors of the world, and has played an important rôle in the history of many nations. Teuta, the pirate queen of Illyria, made here her haven, over two thousand years ago, and Rome had to resort to bribery to accomplish her overthrow. Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Venetians, Turks, Spanish, Russians, Austrians, Hungarians, Bosnians, Serbs and French have at one time and another held possession of this landlocked bay.

The reason of its strategic value may be seen by a glance at the map. The Bocche di Cattaro or the "Cattaro Mouths" form a triple harbor, a veritable naval cerberus. It would be foolish for any warship to try to penetrate such a labyrinth. The entrance to the inner harbor is still called Le Catene, from the chains that used to be stretched across it to keep out pirates, but doubtless mines take their place nowadays. Here probably have been hidden the Austrian submarines which have recently been raiding the shipping of the Mediterranean.

Cattaro looks like a Norwegian fiord which somehow has got misplaced on the Dalmatian coast. It is a jagged channel cleft into the limestone ridge known as the Karst or Carso which stretches along the eastern shore of the Adriatic and forms the boundary between Italy and Austria further north. Against this rocky barrier about Görz, the Italian armies have been beating in vain for many months. The culmination of the Karst is Montenegro, a disorderly heap of mountains, and barren ledges, cuplike sinks and deep crevasses, blistering hot in summertime and freezing cold in winter. Let geologists explain it how they will, the natives have their own theory, which other people may prefer because it is easier to imagine. When, according to the legend, God Almighty was putting the finishing touches to creation by sowing the stones evenly over the land, the bag burst as he past over Montenegro and all the stones he had left were spilled there.

Montenegro is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island taken together, and has about the population of Rhode Island alone. The Black Mountain it has been called in all ages and all languages; Kara Bagh is the Turkish name for it and in the Serbian tongue, which is also the Montenegrin, it is known as Crngora, not so impossible to pronounce as it appears, for the Slavs have discovered that if you roll an r you can make a vowel of it. The initial C is pronounced Ch or Teh.

The Montenegrin people are among the most warlike in the world, but in numbers they are insignificant, for even before the war their war strength only amounted to 30,000 or 40,000 men, that is, about the same as the mobile troops of the United States army.

Right at the head of the inner gulf of Cattaro, and less than three miles from salt water, is the Sacred Mountain of Lovcen (pronounce it Lovtchen and you will get it as near correct as can be expected). This is 5770 feet high and overlooks on one side the Bocche di Qattaro, where Herzegovina, Dalmatia and Montenegro meet, and on the other the valley which conceals Cettinje, the village capital of Montenegro. Here Ivan the Black made his stronghold when the Turks drove him out of the lowlands of Scutari over four centuries ago. Gathering his little band of mountaineers about him he pledged his people to perpetual warfare until the Turk should be driven back into Asia and the assemblage then and there decreed that any Montenegrin who left the field of battle without orders when fighting the Moslems should be drest in woman's clothes and driven out of the country by the women with blows of their spindles.

One of the first undertakings of the Allies after the declaration of war was an attempt to capture the Boeche di Cattaro. On August 12, 1914, the French and British warships in the Adriatic bombarded the Austrian forts at the mouth of the bay while the Montenegrins attacked them from the land side. But their efforts then and since were in vain.

Ivan the Black is not dead but sleeping, say the Montenegrins. Hidden in a cave in the heart of Mount Lovcen, he sleeps, like the Emperor Barbarossa, waiting for the day of his triumph when all Europe has been free from the Turk. Three years ago when his successor, King Nicholas, threw down his gauntlet to the Turk, Black John must have felt that the time had come for him to awake, for it seemed that with Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro fighting shoulder to shoulder the Cross must surely drive out the Crescent. But the Allies fell out over the parting of the spoils, leaving their task unfinished, and now at the invitation of three Christian Powers the Moslem armies are being brought back into Europe. Surely the sleeping hero, must have groaned as he heard over his head the march of Austrian boots and the rumble of the cannon wheels.

But this is not the end of it. History does not so reverse itself. Let us reread for our encouragement the poem Chesterton wrote three years ago on "The March of the Black Mountain":

But men shall remember the Mountain
Tho it fall down like a tree,
They shall see the sign of the Mountain
Faith cast into the sea;
Tho the crooked swords overcome it
And the Crooked Moon ride free,
When, the Mountain comes to Mahomet.
It has more life than he.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury