The Serbian Tragedy As I Saw It

By Herbert Corey

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, August 1917]

Picture to yourself a Macedonian landscape. In the distance blue mountains, saw-toothed as our own Sierras, rise abruptly from the plain. In the foreground the ground rolls from the marshy levels of the creek-bottoms to wide, treeless swells topped with rock ledges worn by the ages. Patches of dwarf bushes have an odd resemblance to sage-brush. Here and there are squalid villages, mud-walled, flat-roofed. Each huddles about the white needle of a minaret, though the obvious fact that cleanliness and prosperity are of the past proves that the Turk is giving way in Macedonia. Mud is everywhere. The roads are knee-deep in slush, so that one's horse lurches on with a pulling and uncertain motion. Overhead the skies are wet. The color-scheme is everywhere a monotonous, dirty, depressing gray.

Trails lead down from the hills toward the Monastir Road, on which is concentrated the rush and color of the war. On this road great trucks pound on. Troops in every uniform, from that of the Arab and Sikh to the Highlander and Bersaglieri, are forever on the move. Ox-wagons waggle creakingly and complainingly, but perseveringly, on. Heavily packed donkeys wind through the tangle of the road, their ears pricked inquiringly forward. Great carts drawn by eight and ten horses suck and spatter through the mire. Bulgarian prisoners of war bossed by German prisoners of war are guarded by incredibly black Senegalese. Peasant children in their baggy, shapeless clothes clink upon the piles of stone gathered for road-mending.

On the trails thin lines of men move slowly toward the road. As they come nearer it may be seen many are of middle age and some are almost old. Some walk erect under the blue shrapnel helmet furnished to the Serbian army by the French. Others slouch along at precisely the speed of an ox-team. All their lives these Serb peasants have marched by their oxen, goad in hand. To-day the pace of the army remains the same. Their faces are deeply lined and covered with many days' growth of gray beard. Once their uniforms were of the horizon blue of the French army. To-day they are of a nondescript gray, bleached almost to white in places by a winter's weather. These men are sad and quiet. Bundles hang about them in unmilitary fashion. There are eighteen thousand of them. They are all that are left of the army of four hundred and fifty thousand with which Serbia began the war.

I planned this story as that of the last campaign of the Serbian army. I had been with them during the winter of 1916-17 and had watched their numbers dwindle from the seventy thousand who had been brought to Macedonia from the Italian island of Corfu. The seventy thousand were all that were left after the fighting of the first two years and the tragic sacrifices of the great retreat through the mountain-passes of Albania and Montenegro. Last winter they carried off the honors among the half-million Allied troops who are fighting in Macedonia. It was to the fierce determination of the Serbs that the capture of Monastir was due. The French and British and Italian and Russian troops played their parts well, but it was the Serbs who took the commanding hills.

Monastir's capture meant to the Serbs that they were at last returning home. Their army had been driven out of their country, while the women and children remained behind. They were fighting to get back. They were armed with artillery that was not up to the work on other fronts, and with rifles the French army had discarded, and they depended for transport largely upon the ox and ass and cart. When the spring rains made further aggression impossible they were ordered back for a rest. It seemed then that the man-power of Serbia had been almost destroyed. More than ten per cent, of her population is accounted for in that first army of four hundred and fifty thousand men.

"It is the end," the soldiers said this spring. "We shall not be asked to do more."

So we all thought. There was to be a small offensive in March, we were told, in which the Serbs would be used. Then they were to be sent to the rear to stay. They were henceforth to be used only in guarding railway lines and bridges and town places. The winter of 1916 would be remembered as their last campaign. When I sailed from France for America, a month later, I read in a Bordeaux paper that the Serbs had just taken a German trench near Monastir in their old, gallant, medieval way.

"The Serbians have now been retired," the correspondent added in his despatch from Saloniki. "The army is exhausted."

I had rejoiced. I knew these cheechas—cheecha is the Serbian word for uncle; it is the courtesy title given a man when the light goes out of his eyes and his hair turns gray—would be happy to say good-by to the front line. There is no reflection to be read there upon their courage or devotion. I believe that any one of them or any regiment of them would gladly die for Serbia. That is not a mere phrase. It does not over-praise their spirit. But they have fought very hard and suffered greatly. They mourn their comrades who have passed. Most of them are past the prime of life and are appalled at the thought of further hardships. They had hoped they might do the rest of their service somewhere else than on the front. They were not so lucky, poor peasants. Two months later a communiqué from Saloniki carries on their story:

"After a determined action the Serbs took a Bulgarian trench at the point of the bayonet."

Everywhere else except on the Serbian front in Macedonia the life of the fighting man is almost tidal in its regularity. He does a regular turn in the front trench, but he is not kept in that front trench too long. The morale of the individual is apt to break down. In the front trench he is in danger of death or mutilation each passing second of the day and night. His meals come to him irregularly, for the curtain fire of the enemy may cut off the cook corvée. He sleeps when he can, on the floor of a trench angle where the sun has shone in to dry the mud; in a moldy, straw-filled dugout; on a firing platform behind the sentry's heels. He is distressed by every instrument man has invented with which to harry man, from the greater cannon to the poison gas. After a few days he develops trench face and trench nerves. When it is practicable he is taken back for a rest. He is as good a soldier as he ever was, but his commanders will not strain him too far.

"How long have you been fighting without a rest?" I asked the staff of the Morava division of the Serbian army.

"Ninety-five days."

I had seen their trench—their one trench—and I had seen them fight. During that period the men of the Morava did not have a second trench. They lived on the front line, eating there, sleeping there, by hundreds dying there. They left it only to go forward, or to go back wounded. There was no reserve behind their thin line. If the Bulgarians had broken through they might have gone on unhindered by a single Serbian soldier all the way to the base at Saloniki. It was necessary for the Serbs to watch all the time and fight all the time. On any other sector of any front a first-line trench is often taken. It is of little consequence, for it is the weakest bar of the gridiron of trenches. It is an obstacle, designed to hold up the advancing enemy while the men in the second trench and the third trench prepare themselves and until the enemy gets the new range. The Serbs only had one trench. "To-night the staff-officers give a dinner," I was told when Col. Panta Grouitch took over command of the Morava division. "They will welcome their new leader. You will see all our friends."

The guns seemed to hammer overhead that night. Their grumbling was heard almost every minute. Half-way through the dinner the vacant chairs told that most of the company was still at the front. Even the staff-officers were fighting in the line by this time, for it was early in the spring after a black winter. So Panta Grouitch caught up the military telephone and talked from the table to his staff in the trenches. They were cheery, the men in those reeking ditches, under the beating rain of a Macedonian night. Some of their great voices so roared through the telephone that we who sat at the table could catch the words. Others were not able to leave their watch.

"The Bulgarians are up to something to-night and the captain will not enter the dugout. He is watching them from the parapet," one orderly reported, "but he has just called to me to give you his very dear love."

The fighting was of a Middle Age character, somewhat influenced by modern instruments of war. The Serbian rather looked down upon the German who furnished the stiffening for the Bulgarian and Turkish lines. It was not that the German was inferior in quality. Quite the contrary. The German is better armed and fed and clothed and equipped than is his Balkan confederate, and he has infinitely more iron in his soul. But the Serb and Bulgarian have been fighting neighbors for hundreds of years. They know each other's little ways and fight each, other in a comfortable fashion. Neither relies much on artillery. They prefer to make war a personal affair and settle the national difficulty with the individual knife and butt. Only on the surface is their war more savage than the western war. That very intimacy of contact which makes a Balkan battle so distressing, by comparison with the impersonal and machined killing in the west, sometimes flowers in an old-fashioned chivalry.

"A Turkish company held up our advance on one occasion," said Capt. Milan Georgeovitch, who was once military attaché at Constantinople. "They had the high ground and fought desperately. I do not know how many of our men were killed, but when we got into the trench there were but four Turks of the company left alive. By a miracle the Turkish captain was unhurt. His clothes had been pierced in seven places by bullets, but he had not been touched. He was brought before Voivode Mischitch.

"'Give him his sword!" shouted the Voivode. "How dare you bring such a soldier as this before me when he is not wearing his sword?"

"That night we started back for headquarters and General Mischitch called for his car. "The Turkish captain rides with me," said the general. "No doubt he is tired."'

One day at Soubotsko a big Serbian soldier called upon his captain. He had an equally big Bulgarian by the crook of the elbow. Both men were grinning.

"This is Stefan," said the Serbian. "He captured me in the last war."

Then, Balkan fashion, the Serb and Bulgarian kissed each other on both cheeks and patted each other on the back and acted as though this reunion was one of the joyful incidents of two particularly sunny lives. The captain gave them bread and cheese—at that time the Serbian dietary was mostly bread and cheese—and poured out a drink for each from his own bottle of cognac. That afternoon they sat on a mud-bank gossiping. When the day's catch of prisoners started down the road that night the Serbian secured an assignment as guard. The two good enemies marched side by side, chatting like two bearded children.

They regard the rules of war in the Balkan hills. Only once, so far as I know, did the Bulgarian prove recreant. There is an understanding that meal hours are not to be disturbed, so the artillery play is lively in the early morning and dies away to nothing while coffee is being served in the trenches. It rises to a crescendo in the forenoon, but two hours of peace are allowed for lunch. Then the fighting men on either side lie down in their dugouts, leaving only a few sentinels on watch.

They need the sleep, for it is the Balkan practice to fight all night. Three o'clock in the morning charges are particularly in favor. After the siesta there is more fighting, and then peace comes with the dinner. That is the great occasion of the day, when the cook's helpers come through the trenches with steaming pots of soup and stew and meat with paprika. Once the Bulgarians on Dobrapolya shelled the cook's helpers, but only once. An aroused soldiery taught them penitence.

"We will want more bread in the first line to-morrow," said a captain in my hearing. "We expect many deserters."

Every army receives deserters, but I had never heard before of an army making preparations to receive them. The story that was told me illustrates the extremely personal nature of the fighting in Macedonia. The Serbians had directed a number of Bulgarian prisoners to wash their faces and brush their clothes and slick back their hair. Then the captors distributed much soup and stew and lamb broiled in strips over the coals of a wood fire.

"Now sit down," was the order, "and look pleasant."

The stuffed and shining men dropped on the grass and lolled about in garden-party attitudes. The picture which an army photographer took of them is the most ridiculous thing in the Balkans. The grinning Bulgarians entered into the spirit of the affair, and put their arms about each other's necks, and draped themselves in elaborate postures and featured the large hunks of bread and the strips of beautifully greasy meat and the steaming cans of coffee. Except for certain details of clothing and the guards in the background it might have been a basket-picnic. The Serbs tied copies of this picture to stones and threw them into the Bulgarian trenches.

"See how well we treat your brothers?" ran the legend. "Come on over." They came for a time. Then the bait ceased to attract more deserters, though the Serbs dangled it never so wisely before enemy eyes. After a time the Serbian officer who had been responsible for the plan to get deserters by advertising made inquiries along the best follow-up methods in use commercially. He wrote letters to his prospective customers and threw them into the Bulgarian trenches. He wanted to know what was the trouble? Were not the samples of his goods convincing? The Bulgarians said they were not.

"Our brothers smile in the picture," was the reply, "but how do we know what they are thinking?"

The Serbian officer considered for a time. Then he visited the prison camp, armed with much writing-paper and many pencils.

"Write to your friends at the front," said he, "and tell them truthfully how well you have been treated."

So that for days that squad of enemy soldiers sat in the sun and sternly sucked the tips of their lead-pencils and gazed into gray distance for inspiration and painfully wrote down their testimony. The essence of the Serbian plan was that each letter should be addressed by a captured Bulgarian to his nearest friend in the trenches opposite. Perhaps the letters did not always reach the men to whom they were written, but the success of the plan was ample. It forced the Bulgarian officers to abandon their comfortable dugouts in the rear of the line and stay in the unpleasant front trenches to keep their men from leaking away. The correspondence school of prisoners was the winter's joke on Wetternich.

"It was our Yankee trick," the Serbs said, laughing.

The story of last year's campaign of the Serbian army might be told as a tragedy. It is tragic enough, Heaven knows. But to those who saw it the memory will always be an inspiration. They are only peasants, these eighteen thousand men who are left. Many of them were in the fourth "ban" before the war, and considered exempt by reason of age from further service. A very considerable number of them have been wounded more than once. They are silent men, except when they are stirred by action. One day we met a man who might have been fifty years old stumbling down-hill from Chuke. The tears were running into his gray beard. The officer with me asked why he was leaving the line. He lifted the loose flap of his coat and showed a black patch of spreading blood upon his shirt.

"Damn him!" he sobbed. "Damn him! The captain made me go."

One never hears them personify "duty," nor do they ever speak of sacrifice. They are candid in their detestation of war and they are almost sick with longing for the cottages set on the flanks of the Serbian hills, for they are a home-loving people. They apologize to their guests sometimes because they are unhappy. Only once did I see mirth in their ranks. That was when we rode into Jivonia one day to find the Serbians breaking camp. They had just received a message that the Bulgarians had evacuated Monastir, and the men streamed along the road toward the new front shouting at one another, and calling out jokes and laughing. Their faces beamed like those of happy children.

"Think of it!" they called to one another. "At last we are on the way home."

In order to completely understand the heroism of the Serbian army—what there was left of it—during the campaign of 1916-17 it is necessary to glance for a moment at what had gone before. No one knows and no one may ever know precisely how many have fought for Serbia. The records were destroyed, to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy, or lost or scattered. As nearly as can be told the total of enlistments is something more than four hundred and fifty thousand. In 1914 and 1915 the Serbians first defeated Austria, and were then crushed under the weight of the Hapsburg armies and a retreat was ordered. Voivode Mischitch, the genius of the Macedonian campaign of 1916, would have stayed to fight it out, but he was overruled.

The world knows a little—not much— of that retreat through the snow-filled passes of Albania and Montenegro. A rear-guard action was fought every day. There were days when the only trail through which it was possible to move was barely ox-team wide and packed with beaten snow. Some of the minor trails were not even wide enough for wheeled vehicles, and to this day the bones of pack-mules and men who fell down the precipitous slopes molder on the mountainsides. The army was encumbered by women and children and prisoners. For days it was under artillery fire from three sides. There were weeks when the only food of some units was half an ear of corn a day for each man.

"We held our men together by the most rigid discipline," a captain who passed through the retreat told me. "One day I missed Louka. I knew that he had come into camp the night before, and I jumped to the conclusion that he had deserted. It was necessary to check any such impulse immediately.

"Find Louka," I ordered. 'He shall be shot."

"An hour afterward Louka staggered into camp. He was so in crusted with frozen snow that he was barely recognizable. His face was graven in deep lines with fatigue. In his arms he carried a dozen tiny ears of corn.

"For you, my captain," said Louka.

"We had had no food, but Louka had once lived in the neighborhood, and had searched all night long for a distant farm which might have escaped the foragers. Without that corn I might have starved."

Perhaps two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers started on that march which shall ever be known in Serbian annals as the Great Retreat. Not more than one hundred and fifty thousand reached the shores of the Adriatic. That is the maximum. Fully one hundred thousand men had been killed or captured or had frozen to death or starved on the way. They suffered everything except surrender. The Serb rarely surrenders. It does not occur to him that this stubborn bravery is heroism, or that it may be folly. He only goes on and fights on until he can go and fight no more. Fifty thousand boys started on that mad march, to escape the Austrians who were gathering the youngsters nearing military age into concentration camps. In the turmoil of the time no provision had been made for feeding these boys. Twenty-three thousand of them died.

Of the one hundred and fifty thousand who reached Corfu not more than seventy thousand were considered fit to go to Macedonia and fight again in the summer of 1916. There had been a failure of forethought on Corfu. There had not been enough food or clothing or medicine for these starved and disease-stricken survivors of the Great Retreat. The island of Vido had been set aside as a lazarette for those suffering from contagious and infectious diseases, and for those who were only too sick to live. It was a wise arrangement—only some one had forgotten to provide doctors and nurses and food and tents and blankets in time. Dying men dug their own graves and then dug the graves of the men who were already dead. Dead men lay elbow to elbow on the beach, waiting for the boats that were to carry them out to sea. Then they floated back because the bodies had not been weighted down, to strand upon this island of despair.

There is no need for more of this horror. The seventy thousand who went to Macedonia last summer were grim and angry men. Life had not lost its attraction for them, but death had become so commonplace that its terror had departed. Their first fight was on Kaymakchalan, when they took a mountain so rimmed around with trenches and so dotted with guns that when one walks over the field to-day it seems impossible that it could ever have been taken. The Serbs drove the Bulgars up the slope of Kaymakchalan until they came to the rim-rock that guards its top, and there the battle hung for days. At last the Bulgarians gave way and fled wildly to the valley of the Cerna which gleamed below.

To-day the bones of Bulgarians who leaped from that rim-rock rather than stay to face the Serbs may be found on the reverse slopes. They were driven across the valley until they found good holding ground in the hills on the other side. From that day on the Serbs did not relax their efforts until their capture of the hills commanding the Bulgarian lines of communication forced the enemy to evacuate Monastir. Wetternich Mountain was taken at a loss of one thousand of the fourteen hundred men who assaulted it. That assault lasted one savage week, during which the Serbs wormed their way upward, taking shelter behind rocks and bushes and killing when they came to their foes. On the crest of Wetternich is the Rock of Blood, two hundred and fifty feet high, and with sides that were so precipitous that it could not be assaulted. The four hundred men who were left held the Bulgarians on that Rock of Blood for six long weeks before relief came to them. It was a military impossibility—but then, the Serbs are accustomed to military impossibilities.

When the Serbian army was sent into the valley for rest in February of 1917, after having been almost continually on the defensive since August of 1916, there were but eighteen thousand four hundred and sixty, according to the official figures furnished me, of the seventy thousand men who began the campaign. These were to be recruited against the opening of the spring campaign by the sick and wounded men and by the men who were too old and the boys who were too young, who had been gathered at Bizerta, Tunis. It was to be the last effort of Serbia. No one knows how many valid men are in the enemy concentration camps, or how many have been held in Serbia to till fields for their enemies' use. So far as we know, the manhood of Serbia has been destroyed. Those who remain to carry on the race are those who are still too young for war.

"Serbia is finished," her men say. "Our people have been killed. But we have taken the price."

Yet there is still an army in Serbia. One day a comitadji came through the lines, a guerrilla leader known and trusted. Before the war he paid taxes on property valued at half a million francs. To-day he is but thirty-two years old. I guessed his age at fifty, so lined is his face and so wild and haggard are his eyes. He is a general in this army.

"We live in the woods," said he," and "loyal peasants feed us. We wait for our army to break through and meanwhile we do what we can."

This army is armed, after a fashion. Each has a knife, at least, and guns are often procured from dead Bulgarians who die in the open at night. It is even said they have cannon. When the Allied armies break through, this guerrilla army will break down the bridges and cut the lines behind the Bulgarians, that their collapse may be complete. The Serbian general staff is in communication with this army which is a part of the preparation for victory.

Not the least tragic element of last year's campaign was the extreme poverty of men and army. Whatever resources the individual might have in Serbia had been cut off from him by the blockaded frontier. The men were unable even to hear from their families at home. One day I came upon the chief of staff of one of the Serbian divisions looking somewhat wistfully at a postal card he held in his hand. To the suggestion that he had received news from home he assented. Then he added that it had come to him from Belgrade three months before.

"Can you read Serbian?" he asked.

Unfortunately, I could not. Then he translated it to me. I thought I saw a hint of tears in his eyes. He was a magnificent soldier, but he was the kindest and gentlest of men. His wife had written him these few words upon the card—written them five months before:

"To-day I spent my last dinar. I do not know what I shall do."

Serbia has no funds now, and no way of getting money except by borrowing from her allies. It is only natural that France and Great Britain, while furnishing the Serbians what is needed, shall restrict these loans as much as possible, for their own needs are so great. The men began the winter with clothes enough, but campaigning is hard on clothes. Long before spring came they were ragged and weather-stained. It was not until the rush on Monastir began that an army that had become almost barefoot was reshod by France. I was in an English camp one day when a Serbian officer came in. He knew every one in the officers' mess and blushingly received their congratulations upon a recent promotion for gallantry. By and by he called one of his friends to one side.

"Can you loan me a square of canvas?" he asked. "My tent burned a few weeks ago and I have been sleeping in a dugout since. It is very cold. We have no spare tents, nor can we get any."

"But if you are in a dugout, why a tent?" his friend asked.

"You do not understand," the Serb said, patiently. "I have always slept in a dugout, but I wrapped myself in my tent."

The two things the Serbs had in plenty were ammunition and fighting. Their hospitals, by comparison with those of the other Allies, were poor affairs. Often the wounded men slept in sour heaps of straw spread upon the wet ground, and only in the more permanent establishments were bedsteads woven of withes cut from the willows that lined the creek-bottoms. They had not even enough stretcher-men in some of their most important actions because the men who should have carried the wounded had been called into the trenches. The wounded men walked out, or were huddled on mule litters—one on either side of the mule, lurching in sickening fashion as the animal moved, or leaning against each other in a pathetic comradeship of pain—or sprawled in the bottoms of the empty carts that were going out for more shells.

Yet one never heard them complain. A captain of the Choumadia division told me of the fighting on Dobrapolya, when his company was told to take a trench that seemed impregnable. The men protested. The captain urged that the capture of that trench was essential to the further movement that had been planned. Still they demurred. Then he made his final appeal to his homesick soldiers.

"On the other side of that trench," he said, "is Serbia—-and your wives are alone in Serbia."

An hour later those who were still alive were in the Bulgar trench.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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