Glimpses of Serbia in Retreat

By Fortier Jones

[The Century Magazine, August 1916]

The author was working with a British relief organization in northern Serbia when the Austro-German invasion took place; and with a party of nurses whom he had been asked to get safely out of the country he accompanied the Serbians on their march into exile. The following incidents are characteristic of that tremendous national tragedy. —THE EDITOR


It was at the Mladenovats railway station, late one rainy afternoon in the early days of the great retreat, that we made the acquaintance of the "Little Sergeant," the youngest officer, as well as the youngest soldier, in the Serbian army.

He is—or now, perhaps, was—a real sergeant. On his diminutive soldier's coat he wore three gold stars, and in lieu of a sword he carried an Austrian bayonet, and in lieu of a rifle a Russian cavalry carbine. A full-sized, well-filled cartridge-belt was slung over his shoulders, because it would easily have encircled his baby waist three times. He was ten years old, and had been in the service for "a long time." He had asked and obtained a leave to go home just before all the trouble began, and now he was answering the hurried summons sent out to all soldiers on leave to return to their regiments at once. His home was three days' walk from Valjevo, the nearest railway point, and he had walked the whole way alone; but he was late, and was afraid of exceeding the time allowed for soldiers to return. He said if he reached his station too late, he "would be shot as a deserter, and rightly so." Then his regiment "would be disgraced." He had no money, but did not need any. At the military stations he demanded his loaf of bread as a Serbski vernik, and got it. As for sleeping, well, any cafe-owner would not refuse a Serbian soldier the hospitality of his floor.

Our train was due to leave at seven that evening, but it showed no signs of departing, so we took the "Little Sergeant" into the town and gave him dinner at the hotel. He ate tremendously, but seriously, preoccupied, as a man would have been, and at times discussing military affairs. Despite all his efforts, we detected a slight limp, and found his small feet in a frightful condition. His opanki had not fitted well and were nearly worn out. He had very bad blisters and stone-bruises. To his boundless, but unexpressed, delight, we were able to give him a new pair.

Every one plied him with questions, which he answered slowly, taking great care as to his words. Whom had he left at home? Why, his mother and little sister, who was five years older than himself. His father and brother were in the army. When he went home on leave he was able to cut wood and bring water, see to the prune-trees and feed the pigs; but most of the time the women had to do this, which was very bad. But what could one do? His country was at war, and that, meant that men must fight. Soon, though, when his own regiment, with which none other could compare, had administered a much-needed thrashing to the Suabas, he would return home and help build up the farm. Yes, his father was a soldier of the line in his regiment, the bravest man in the regiment. He himself had shot well, and had been cautious in the trenches, and so had been promoted above his father, who now, according to military discipline, had to salute his son. But he never allowed this; he always forestalled his father, and at the same time conserved discipline by seizing the hand that would have saluted and kissing it. His regiment was somewhere near Semendria, but exactly where he did not care to say, because there were spies all about—this with a wary glance at me.

As we waited in the smoky little station, crowded with refugees, he stood as straight as an arrow before the seated ladies of our party, refusing a seat. He was a Serbski vernik with a party of civilians who had been kind to him, and while men of that party had to stand, he would not sit. Blisters and bruises might go whence they came, to the devil. But as it grew late, an enemy he could not conquer attacked him. He had risen at four that morning, and it was now ten at night. With the tactfulness born of long years of diplomatic life in European capitals, Mme. Christitch quickly made room on the bench beside her, which a moment later the "Little Sergeant" unconsciously filled. Almost at once his head sank to her lap, his hands sought hers, and a last, convincing, incontestable proof that he was a real Serbski vernik was given: a snore, loud, resonant, manly, broke on the watching crowd.

Two hours later, when our train whistled, I gathered up a sergeant of the Serbian army, carbine, ammunition, sword, knapsack, and all, and carried him without resistance to the freight-truck in which we were to travel, and laid him, covered with my blankets, on a soft bale of clothing. I hope that if ever in the distant future I shall so hold a boy more closely akin to me, I can be as proud of my burden as I was that night. Shortly before our ways parted next day we asked him if he was not afraid to go back to the trenches.

"A man does not die a hundred times," he replied quietly.

I almost find myself hoping that in the horrible carnage which occurred at Semendria a few days later a bullet found the "Little Sergeant" after some momentary victory, some gallant charge of his beloved regiment. Life had been so simple for him! His country was at war; she could not be wrong; all true men must fight. And he had known her only in glorious victory.

"Sbogum, Americanske braat" ("Good-by, American brother"), he murmured when we separated.


The frequent sight of starvation was one of the terrible commonplaces of the Serbian retreat. In the march along the Ibar valley we began to see increasing instances of it. In places where the road was particularly bad Austrian prisoners were always found tending it. Seeing the cross on my arm, these men would come to me begging medicines, for many of them were suffering from malarial fever. "Can't you give us bread? Can't you give us quinine?" they begged. To be unable to supply these simple wants was very sad. There were few soldiers guarding these prisoners; indeed, frequently they were virtually alone, but starving as they were, they remained peaceable and calm. They obeyed orders willingly, and, it seemed to me, regretted the suffering among the Serbs as much as their own hardships. Their guards suffered just as their prisoners did. When there was any bread, it was share and share alike.

Coming across a particularly wretched group of these prisoners in one of the most desolate parts of our way, I saw a tall Austrian weakly leaning against a rock and weeping in an insane manner. He sobbed and blubbered, and bit his lips until the blood ran. He was mad from hunger, dying by inches, and not alone; hundreds of others passing him, and three hundred of his comrades there, faced the same fate. A gray-haired man came by, apparently a Serb who had seen better days, but who was now walking the muddy road with a pack on his back. Seeing the prisoner, he stopped and asked a guard what was the matter. "No bread," was the brief answer. The Serb reached into his pocket and took out a large hunk of white bread, the first I had seen in a long time, for bread of that sort was not to be had at any price. The starving man seized it, turned it over and over in his hands, and then devoured it in an incredibly short time. For a brief moment a sort of ecstasy came into his eyes, and then he grew violently ill. He vomited up the precious food, and fell to sobbing once more.

Frequently, after bread and flour gave out, the prisoners would procure an ear or two of Indian corn. They never knew where they would get any more, and as this was all that lay between them and starvation, they hoarded the grains as a miser would so many diamonds. By repeated counting they knew the number of rows and grains on a cob, and would allow just so many rows for a meal. They either parched the grain in hot ashes or boiled it in old tin cans, and sometimes, when they found a dead animal, they made soup.

Searching about for wood when we made camp that night, I came across a slightly wounded soldier lying inert among the bushes. It was chilly, the ground was wet, and he was in rags; but when I stumbled over him he did not move. I turned him over and looked at his face. He was a mere boy, not more than twenty. He was dazed, and when he did become aware that some one was near him, he mumbled over and over in Serbian: "Is there any bread? Is there any bread?" I dragged him to our fire, got some mutton and biscuit, and placed them in his hands. For fully five minutes he looked at the food, turning it about, bewildered. Then he dropped it on the ground, and took out of his pocket a cob from which he had gnawed nearly all the corn. Counting a dozen grains, he bit them off, carefully replaced the cob, and lay down in the mud. It was with the greatest difficulty that we awakened him out of his lethargy to the extent that he realized we had real food for him. Next morning we had to leave him by our smoldering fire with the scanty food I felt justified in taking from the stores. Continually during those dreary weeks we had thus to make compromises with our better feelings. To leave a man like that in the wilderness was simply murder, but there were the women of our party to be thought of. And why choose him for life when hundreds and thousands of his fellows were in a like predicament? The only respite from such trying decisions came when they had grown so common that no one felt them any more.


One morning we got under way about five o'clock, while it was yet pitch-dark, in the hope of doing several kilometers before the creeping glacier of vehicles should begin again. This was hopeless, however, for every one else had had the same inspiration, and already the road was full. I use "road" from habit; on this day it was a turbid stream, sometimes ankle-deep, sometimes up to the drivers' waists where wet-weather torrents had broken their banks and overflowed it. Through this highway, long before it was light, thousands upon thousands of ox-carts, carriages, and automobiles were plowing their way. For the most part the road was so narrow that there was no chance of passing those in front, the ground on each hand being impassable mire. After an hour or so, when all the gaps were filled, this meant that if far ahead in the environment of Pristina an ox slipped his yoke or a cart-wheel broke or a horse balked or an automobile stuck or a driver wished to light a cigarette or any other imaginable contingency came to pass, a few minutes later carts just leaving Mitrovitze would be held up until the other carts twenty kilometers ahead should move. This was the condition on all the mountain roads of Serbia. It added at least fifty per cent, to the time required to finish one's journey. Every one was drenched, for it had poured during the night, and few people had had any sort of shelter.

The army, too, was beginning to awaken. Long trains of oxen—the army, of course, had all the best oxen, huge, powerful animals, far better than horses for the Serbian roads—were pulling the big guns from the camps along the wayside. From twelve to twenty teams were required for each gun, and even then they had to strain every muscle in the frequent mud-holes. They would go forward a few meters, all pulling together in a long line, then, as the heavy guns sank deeper, some of the wilder ones would begin to swing from side to side, oscillating like a pendulum, each swing wider, until all the teams were in hopeless disorder, while yokes broke, and drivers cursed. At last they would come to a standstill, all the waiting thousands behind perforce following their example, bringing comparative silence, in the midst of which the German and Serbian cannon could be heard incessantly, like rumbling thunder. Then the caravan would move on again, only to stop once more. This was repeated all day long each day for weeks and weeks.

During one of these lulls we heard a great commotion behind us. There was a loud trampling of men's and horses' feet, and a lot of shouting, which steadily grew louder, and finally sounded abreast of us. Out in the marshy fields along the road I saw a thousand or fifteen hundred Serbian youths ranging in age from twelve to eighteen. They were the material out of which next year and the succeeding years Serbia was to replenish her army. Not yet ripe for service, the Government had ordered them out at the evacuation of every place, and had brought them along with the army in order to save them from being taken by the enemy into Austria, Germany, and Bulgaria as prisoners of war. For it is these boys the invaders are especially anxious to get. They are the force of tomorrow, and tomorrow, it has been my observation, the Teutonic allies now dread above all else in the world.

One of the Austrian official communiqués recently read, "And here we also took about one hundred and fifty youths almost ready for military service." It is the only official mention I have ever seen of such captures, although in the fighting of last year they were common. It is a bare statement of one of the most terrible aspects of the Serbian retreat.

The boys I saw in the flooded fields were not strangers to me, but now for the first time I saw them bearing arms. When the trouble first began I had seen these and other thousands all along the railway-line from Belgrade. Many for the first time in their lives were away from their own villages, and most of them had never before been separated from their families. There was no one to look after them. They did not even have the advantage of a soldier in getting food and shelter. If there was bread left over at the military stations, they got it; if not, they did not. Never were they sheltered, but slept where they happened to stand when night came on. Few of them had sufficient clothing; only those whose mothers had been able to supply them with the warm, durable, homespun garments that the peasants make were adequately protected. I used to see the smaller of them sitting on the railway-cars crying together by the dozens. They were hungry, of course; but it was not hunger or thirst or cold: it was pure, old-fashioned, boarding-school home-sickness that had them, with the slight difference that they longed for homes which no more existed. "The capture" of such as these to be honored with an official communiqué!

When the retreat took them from the railway, they marched over the country in droves. There were no officers to oversee them. They were like antelope, roaming over the wild hills along the Ibar. They ate anything they could find, rotten apples, bad vegetables, the precious bits of food found in abandoned tins, and yet most of them had arrived safe and sound at Mitrovitze, where the Government had large magazines of munitions.

Now, when the order came at midnight, like a clap of thunder, to evacuate Mitrovitze immediately, they were rounded up by some officers on horseback, and to each was given a rifle, a canteen, and absolutely all the ammunition he could stagger under. They were delighted, tickled to death to have real guns and to be real soldiers, and as the officers were insufficient, they were soon riddling the atmosphere with high-power bullets in every direction, creating a real danger. If a crow flew over a mile high, half the company banged at him on the instant. A black squirrel in a wayside tree called forth a fusillade that would have carried a trench in Flanders.

They were not particular about the aim. There were plenty of cartridges and, after all, it was the first good time they had had in many a week and perhaps the last.

Joyously they had left Mitrovitze with us the afternoon before and, like us, they had camped in the open, but here the analogy must rest. We had tried to sleep, at any rate, whereas they had made night hideous with violent attacks on bats, rats, rabbits, and even the moon before the clouds came to her rescue. But they had been soaked and had had nothing for breakfast and were getting tired of their own exquisite sport. So they were loath to march with that enthusiasm and at the rate the officers on horseback desired. This accounted for the commotion in the fields.

It was very simple. A few would lag, then more and more, and soon the entire thousand would simply be paddling about in the fields like so many ducks. Then the officers, infuriated, would ride full tilt into them, heavy riding-whips in their hands, and spurs in their horses' sides. I saw many of the boys ridden down, tumbled in the mire, and stepped on by the horses. Blood streamed from the faces of scores of others whom the whips had found. The rest at once regained their enthusiasm, and rushed forward with cries of fear. I saw this performance recur several times before the herd passed out of sight around the curve.

Months later I heard from an authoritative source that twenty-three thousand of these boys perished in Albania.


It was about eight o'clock that same morning when the blizzard began, first some snow flurries, then a bitter cold wind of great velocity and snow as thick as fog. The cart in front, the cart behind, the pedestrian stream on each side, and oneself became immediately the center of the universe. How these fared, what they suffered, one knew. Beyond or behind that the veil was impenetrable. We were no more a part of a miserable mob. We were alone now, simply a few wretched creatures with the cart before and the cart behind, struggling against a knife-like wind along a way where the mud and water were fast turning to ice.

In less than an hour our soaked clothes were frozen stiff. From the long hair of the oxen slim, keen icicles hung in hundreds, giving them a glittering, strange appearance, and many of them despite the hard work were trembling terribly with the cold. For a short time the freezing wind accelerated the pace of the refugees on foot. The old men shouted to the women, and the women dragged along their children. But soon this energy was spent.

While the wind at no time diminished, now and then the storm lifted its snow veil as if to see how much was already accomplished in the extermination of these feeble human beings. At such times we came once more into the life of the throng, and it was possible to form some idea of what this whim of nature meant. Less than two hours after the beginning of the snow the mortality among oxen and horses was frightful. Already weakened by long marches and insufficient food, the animals now began to drop all along the line. When one ox of a team gave out, the other and the cart were usually abandoned, too, there being no extra beasts. An ox would falter, moan, and fall; a few drivers would gather, drag the ox and its mate to the side of the road, then seizing the cart, they would tumble it over the embankment, most frequently contents and all; and then the caravan moved on. Automobiles also were being abandoned, the occupants continuing their journey on foot.

For some time I had noticed an old peasant couple who moved along just at our speed, staying within view. They were very aged even for Serbs, and carried no provisions of any sort that I could see. The old woman was following the old man. I saw them visibly grow weaker and weaker until their progress became a series of stumbling falls. We came to a place where low clumps of bushes grew by the roadside. The snow had drifted around and behind them so as to form a sort of cave, a niche between them. This was sheltered from the gale to some extent. By unspoken consent they made for it, and sank down side by side to rest. Their expression spoke nothing but thankfulness for this haven. Of course they never got up from it. This was quite the happiest thing I saw all that day, for such episodes were repeated with innumerable tragic variations scores of times. The terrible arithmetic of the storm multiplied them until by the end of the day we had ceased to think or feel.

When dusk came on, the aspect of the plain seemed exactly the same as hours before; we did not appear to have moved an inch. Only the road had begun to climb a little and had grown even muddier. The snow ceased, but the wind increased and became much colder. No one seemed to know how far we were from Pristina, but all knew that the oxen were worn out and could not go much farther. However, to camp out there without huge fires all night meant death, and there was nothing whatever with which to make fires.

We climbed a hillside slowly. It was darker there than it would be on the crest, for the sun set before and not behind us. A little before four we reached the top. At most we could not travel more than thirty minutes longer, but we did not need to. Below us lay Pristina.

This ancient Turkish town was very beautiful in the dusk. It stands at the head of a broad valley, and on three sides is surrounded by hills which now were gleaming peaks. Lower down, the mountains shaded from light blue to deep purple, while a mist, rising from the river, spread a thin gray over the place itself. Hundreds of minarets, covered with ice and snow, pierced up like silver arrows to a sky now clear and full of stars. The snow was certainly over, but it was incredibly cold on the hill-crest, where the wind had full sway. Some bells in a mosque were ringing, and the sound came to us clear, thin, brittle, icy cold. But no place will ever seem so welcome again. It was blazing with lights, not a house, not a window, unlighted. On the right, down the broad stretch of a valley, for at least five miles, was a remarkable sight. We had moved in the middle of the refugee wave. The crest had reached Pristina the day before, had surged through its narrow, crooked, filthy streets, and debouched over the plain beyond in thousands and thousands of camps. Now this huge camp-ground was lighted from one end to the other by camp-fires, for, blessing of blessings, along the river was firewood. There must have been five thousand carts in that valley. This meant ten thousand oxen and five thousand drivers, and every driver had his fire. The thing stretched away along the curving river like the luminous tail of a comet from the blazing head at Pristina. The contrast from the plain we had come over brought exclamations of pleasure from every one, and for a minute we paused there, watching the plodding refugees as they came to the top and gazed down into this heaven of warmth and light.

A woman dragging three children came wearily up. There was a baby on her back, but for a wonder it was not crying. She stopped, sat down on a bank, and had one of the children unfasten the cloths that held the baby in position. Then she reached back, caught it, brought it around to her lap. She shook it, but it was frozen to death. There were no tears on her face. She simply gazed from it to the children beside her, who were almost exhausted. She seemed foolish, sitting there holding it. She was bewildered. She did not know what to do with it. Some men passed, took in the situation, and promptly buried it in two feet of mud and snow. The whole affair had lasted perhaps ten minutes.


In Ipek there were many automobiles—motor-lorries, limousines, and touring-cars. They were drawn up around the public squares in imposing rows. Apparently from habit the chauffeurs pottered about them, polishing the plate-glass and nickel and cleaning the engines. But when evacuation was announced they drove a little way out of the town. Some of them had brought hand-grenades, and leaving the engines running, they lifted up the hoods, struck the percussion-caps of the bombs, which they dropped beside the cylinders, and then ran. A Serbian grenade explodes in from seven to ten seconds after the cap is struck, so that one could not get very far before the racing motor was blown to scrap-iron. Fire usually consumed the body. Other chauffeurs saturated their cars with petrol and set them on fire. In the case of limousines this was spectacular. With all the upholstery soaked well with benzine, and everything closed tight except a small crack in one window through which the match was thrown, the luxurious cars became roaring furnaces for a minute, and then literally exploded into glorious bonfires. But these methods were as nothing compared with what one chauffeur conceived and, by setting the fashion, brought several others to adopt. The man who thought about it ought not to be a chauffeur at all; he ought to be at the head of a cinematograph company.

The mountain horse-trail does not begin in Ipek itself, but is approached by three or four kilometers of regular road, which at a right-angular turn shrinks into the two-foot trail. At this point it is cut in the side of a sheer cliff three or four hundred feet above a little stream. There is no balustrade; the earth simply ends, and space begins. Having arrived at this point, to step out of the car, let in the clutch, and push down the accelerator was less dangerous than the grenade, easier, quicker, and far more exciting than the fire. It was a great game. There was a long gray Cadillac that took the brink like a trained hunter, leaping far out over the edge. As its power was suddenly released from the friction of the road; the car roared, and trembled like a live animal during the infinitesimal instant that it hung upright, held by its own momentum. Then the motor dragged its nose downward as true as an arrow until it struck the steep slope, down which it did quick somersaults, the tires bursting with bangs that could be heard above the crash. Before it had rolled into the stream it became a ball of fire. A ponderous Benz limousine followed, and tucked its nose into the slope without a spectacular leap. It was like a fat old lady falling down-stairs. Its tires blew out, and its body came loose from the chassis, both running a race to the river. An expensive-looking Fiat behaved much in the manner of the Cadillac, and was followed by a large French motor-lorry, which plowed a terrible path down the cliff, pretty well giving knock for knock, and finally grinding to splinters the wreckage on which it hit at the bottom. Others followed, each taking the leap in an individual manner. Sometimes they flew almost to bits. The tires invariably blew out with loud reports. Since it had to be done, one did wish for every small boy in America to watch it. I think the chauffeurs who burned or blew up their cars were sorry.

It is doubtless permissible to add that one very famous and very cheap American car made the leap. It had up good speed and its well-known characteristic of lightness sent it far beyond the brink, where it floated four hundred feet above the river. It acted quite as if it wanted to fly, and with a little encouragement and experience might have sailed on over the mountain-tops, headed for Detroit. But once started on its downward course, it gyrated with incredible swiftness, quite as fast as its wheels had ever turned, and, bouncing on the river-bank, flew beyond the other cars, swam the stream, and came to an eternal resting-place on the farther side. It was just the sort of stunt one would expect from a strong-nerved little thing like that!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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