The Dying Agony of a Nation
Scenes of Horror in Serbia

By Henri Barby

[The New York Times/Current History; March 1916]

The following piece of appalling realism is the eyewitness narrative of Henri Barby, a French journalist, and was forwarded to The London Daily News by its Paris correspondent:

On the evening of his arrival at Rashka he came upon M. Pachitch, standing sad and solitary on the bridge over the Ibar.

"It is here that we were born," remarked the great Serb statesman, the tears running down his cheeks; "Heaven grant that Rashka be not our grave."

But already the Austro-Germans were threatening, and the retreat was resumed to Novi Bazar and Mitrovitza; and no sooner had the Government and Headquarters Staff reached Mitrovitza than they had to fly from it.

The panic at Mitrovitza may be readily understood. It was the morning of Nov. 16. After the authorities had left, every one who had at his disposal any means of locomotion hurriedly packed a few provisions and clothes and hastened to follow. At the station were crowded 10,000 fugitives, but the last train had left with the baggage and archives of the Headquarters Staff.

After a morning's feverish search (continued M. Barby) I was fortunate enough to be taken on the lorry of the Chief of the Army Telegraph and Telephone Service, who was endeavoring to save the most precious parts of his material. The lorry was already crowded, but I had no luggage. With the exception of the clothes I was wearing, my sole possession was an Austrian knapsack, which I had picked up on the battlefield of the Tser in August, 1914. In it were some biscuits, articles of toilet, a pair of boots, and a blanket.

I describe my own plight, but I was one of the privileged in the frightful debacle. The destitution of the Serb soldiers and people was complete. Most of them were in rags and went barefoot, and they lived on raw cabbage and maize.

But all the miseries, all the sufferings which I had till then witnessed were as nothing beside the frightful things I saw on quitting Mitrovitza. We had hardly proceeded three miles when we found the road blocked by some thirty motor cars and lorries imbedded in the mud. Soldiers and gangs of prisoners were endeavoring to extricate them from the quagmire. Only people on foot or on horseback could get by and Lipliane was still thirty miles off. Finally, after waiting four hours I set off on foot in the night, and after two hours' march through a pelting rain I reached Vuchitru. On the next day, Nov. 17, the rain, which had not ceased, fell in torrents, the cold became sharper, and soon a driving snowstorm covered the town, the immense plain of Kossovo, and the surrounding mountains. The road alone was darkened by the crowd of fugitives who spent the night amid the storm, stumbling on with drooping heads, dazed with fatigue, suffering, and despair. To my last day I shall remember that fearful march across the plain of Kossovo from Vuchitru to Prishtina. Around me all the unhappy fugitives were exhausted. Overcome by the cold, by the sudden snowstorm, numbers of them fell on the road among sunken lorries, overturned and broken vehicles, dead oxen and horses.

None of the pictures recalling the retreat from Moscow gives any idea of the terrifying spectacle spread out as far as the eye could reach in all its tragic reality. I saw a woman stretched out on the step of a lorry which had sunk in the mud. She was straining to her breast a baby already stark and stiff. She, too, was dying of cold and hunger. A little girl eight years at most shivering under a tattered shawl, was vainly trying to raise her; then, scared all at once by her mother's frightful silence, she burst into sobs and fell on her knees.

Further on, again, a little boy was cowering by the ditch. Tears were streaming down his wan cheeks and his teeth were chattering. I questioned him. He had lost his parents and had eaten nothing for two days. He could go no further. What could I do? I gave him what was left of my maize bread and went on with sinking heart unable to restrain my own tears. * * *

The first time I witnessed this frightful agony it seemed to me that the poor wretch who was dying before my eyes was intoxicated. After a supreme effort to rise, he rolled his head from this side to that and moved his legs. Then his movements grew feebler till they ceased entirely and all was over.

Right through that awful day I witnessed the agony of the Serb people in that same valley of Kossovo where five centuries earlier the first great Serb Empire had gone under.

And the snow kept on falling, covering the dead and the dying and lashing the faces of those who still held out.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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