Australians in the Serbian Campaign and occupation of World War I
A series of actions were launched against Serbia in World War I. Some Australians served in actions as part of the Serbian Campaign. Australian sailors supported the Allied campaign in the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Australian troops served alongside the Serbian army on the Salonika Front. Members of the Australian Army Nursing Service served in this theatre of war from mid-1917. Civilian volunteers from Australia also worked there in hospitals and voluntary medical units, and with British Red Cross and other organisations. Serbia assumed the leading position in the new kingdom of Yugoslavia after the war, but the human cost of the war was tragic for its people.
Conflict in the Serbian region
Assassination and the July Crisis
On the morning of 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Honenberg, were assassinated in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip.
Princip was a pan-Serb activist in the group Mlada Bosnia. He had received weapons training and was influenced by a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian secret military society dedicated to freeing the Balkans from Austro-Hungarian rule and creating a South Slavic nation. He fired at the Archduke and Duchess in protest at Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The fatal shots set in train a series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres known as the July Crisis.
Across Europe, alliances were invoked and armies mobilised. Each escalation and each miscalculation brought the continent closer to a war regarded as unlikely by some and by others as being in their country's best interest.
For Austria-Hungary, the best course of action seemed in the words of its foreign minister, to be a 'final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia' before Serbia's ally, Russia, could intervene.
Using the assassination as a pretext, and with Germany's full support, Austria-Hungary issued Serbia an ultimatum with 11 separate demands, including:
- accept an Austro-Hungarian investigation into the murders of the Archduke and Duchess
- suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia
- eliminate terrorist organisations in Serbia
Given 48 hours to respond, Serbia appealed to its powerful ally Russia and began to mobilise for war. At the same time, Serbia agreed to most of Austria-Hungary's terms and to seek further advice from the International Tribunal at The Hague or the Great Powers.
Declaration of war
Bent on seizing Serbia, Austria-Hungary nevertheless declared war on 28 July 1914.
The next day, Austrian artillery and monitors (small, slow vessels armed with disproportionately large guns) on the Danube shelled the Serbian capital, Belgrade. A doctor, showered by broken glass as the hospital's windows shattered, recalled:
there was another explosion, and another one, and then silence again. So it was true! The war had started.
In London, Britain's foreign secretary warned Germany's ambassador that the conflict in the Balkans becoming a general European war would be 'the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.' His worst fears were realised within a week.
The war's immediate origins lay in Serbian nationalism but it quickly engulfed Europe. By the end of 1914, much of the world was involved.
Germany had declared war on Russia and then France by 3 August. Britain (known, along with Russia and France, as the Triple Entente and referred to hereafter as the Allies) declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary a week after Austria-Hungary's declaration against Serbia.
International attention suddenly began shifting from the Balkans to the war's main theatres, particularly the Western Front in Belgium and France.
However, the fighting in the Balkans and south-eastern Europe continued. It affected and was affected by events on other fronts during World War I, and brought enormous suffering to Serbia's civilian population.
Loss and recapture of Belgrade
Austria-Hungary's attempt to inflict a quick defeat on Serbia soon stalled.
The Serbian army was poorly equipped for a conflict with a major power. But, with recent experience in the Balkan War of 1912 to 1913, Serbia defeated an Austro-Hungarian offensive in August 1914.
The victorious Serbs pushed into Bosnia-Herzegovina. But on 7 September, the Austrians struck back, sending two armies into Serbia where they met fierce counterattacks.
A fresh Austro-Hungarian attack launched on 5 November reached the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on 2 December. As Austro-Hungarian supply lines lengthened, a Serbian assault broke through their front, forcing a retreat to the frontier. Serbian troops recaptured Belgrade on 15 December.
Brutality of occupation
During the periods of Austro-Hungarian occupation in 1914, Serbia's civilian population was subject to extremes of brutality. One corps of the Austro-Hungarian army was told:
The war is taking us into country inhabited by a population inspired with fanatical hatred towards us, into a country where murder … is recognised even by the upper classes, who glorify it as heroism. Towards such a population all humanity and all kindness of heart are out of place; they are even harmful, for any consideration, such as is sometimes possible to show in war, would in this case endanger our own troops.
An Austrian soldier said that his orders were that 'no one should be spared'. While a Swiss doctor reported that up to 4000 civilians were killed or disappeared in a 'systematic extermination'. Tens of thousands more died during a typhus epidemic.
Bulgaria and the Allies join the war
Austria-Hungary's next attempt to conquer Serbia became a far larger affair than the 1914 invasions.
Serbia's eastern neighbour, Bulgaria, believed it was entitled to Serbian Macedonia – the region bordering Greece – after wars against Serbia in 1885 and 1913. The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) offered to give Bulgaria the territory if it would enter the war on their side.
Wary at first that neighbours Romania and Greece would join the war on the side of Britain and France, Bulgaria was also concerned that an Anglo-French victory on Gallipoli would give the Allies ascendancy in the region. By September 1915, that outcome seemed less likely.
As the threat to Serbia increased, Britain and France concluded incorrectly that only a show of force could prevent Bulgaria from joining the Central Powers.
On 5 October, in a pre-emptive move, an Anglo-French force landed at the Greek port town of Salonika (Thessaloniki). The next day, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians launched a major offensive against Serbia, joined a week later by two Bulgarian armies.
Allied troops crossed into Serbia on 15 October to help the Serbs. However, the Serbian Army was already in disarray, caught between the invading forces. The Serbian King, Government, Army, civilian refugees and prisoners of war retreated over the snowy mountains through Montenegro and into Albania. By 12 December, the Anglo-French force withdrew from Serbia, back across the Greek border. The survivors of the Great Retreat reached the Adriatic coast in January 1916.
In the summer of 1916, Bulgarian troops advanced into Greek-held eastern Macedonia, reaching the Aegean in the south before being driven back by an Allied counterattack.
Romania joins the war and Bulgaria weakens
Romania joined the war on the Allied side in August 1916. Later that year, Serbian troops led an offensive into enemy-occupied Serbia and recaptured some territory, including Monastir (Bitola). However, the Bulgarian line held. Facing the Romanian army in the north, the Serbians and the Allies remained on the defensive in Serbia through 1917.
An Allied offensive on the Salonika Front failed that spring. But by 1918, material conditions both in Bulgaria and on the front lines had deteriorated significantly. Bulgaria's strongest ally, Germany, was shifting forces from the Balkans to France in preparation for the 1918 Spring offensive on the Western Front.
In June 1918, a combined French and Greek attack on the Salonika Front met a Bulgarian army now so weakened as to be unable to mount counterattacks.
Three months later, on 14 September 1918, French and Serbian forces launched a fresh assault, breaching the Bulgarian defences and surging through the gap into Serbia. British attacks elsewhere on the front met stronger resistance. But the Bulgarian collapse continued until the country became the first of the Central Powers to leave the war.
Bulgaria and the Treaty of Neuilly
Bulgaria signed an armistice with the Allies in Salonika on 29 September 1918.
After the war, the Treaty of Neuilly – the peace treaty between Bulgaria and the Allies – came into effect in August 1920.
The treaty awarded Bulgarian territory to Romania, Greece and to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia).
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken apart. Austria and Hungary lost territory to Yugoslavia and Romania.
Serbia assumed the leading position in the new kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Actions on the Salonika Front
On 5 October 1915, two divisions of British and French infantry landed in the neutral Greek port town of Salonika. The Allies were trying to deter Bulgaria from entering the war in the Balkans.
The next day, 6 October, Austro-Hungarian and German troops launched a major offensive against Serbia from the north and west.
On 14 October, the Bulgarian Army joined the offensive, winning a series of battles in Serbia's east. Four days later, an Australian newspaper described the war in this theatre as 'the temporary storm centre of Serbia'. However, the action proved to be far from temporary.
British and French troops advanced from Salonika to support the Serbian army, which was now in retreat. However, the Allies could do little to help, and they were also forced to withdraw after suffering some 6000 casualties.
The Anglo-French force was back in Salonika by 12 December 1915. An English doctor who saw the Great Retreat recalled:
I never realized the horrors of war until I got to the front. Those villages becoming evacuated daily as the enemy got nearer, the roads full of droves of refugees … I have never seen anything so sad and shall never forget it …
After the Great Retreat, the remnants of the Serbian army were suffering from exposure, starvation and disease, including a typhus epidemic. The situation was made worse by tens of thousands of civilian refugees making their way through Montenegro and Albania to the Adriatic coast, where survivors gathered in groups in port towns. The refugees were evacuated by British, French and Italian ships to Corfu, Corsica and French North Africa. Some Australian doctors and nurses were on board the hospital ships, and others served in Corfu and Corsica, caring for the sick and wounded.
Improved supply line to Ottoman army
Bulgaria joining the war on the side of the Central Powers, and the conquest of Serbia, had implications for the Allied campaign on Gallipoli. An Australian journalist wrote:
The Serbian Army was shattered before the landing of the Allies at Salonika could prevent free passage to Turkey of everything that the sorely harassed and depleted Ottoman Army needed.
Now equipment, supplies and troops could be sent overland from Germany to the Ottoman Empire, which included present-day Turkey and much of the Middle East.
The change was perhaps most evident to the Allies in the Dardanelles when the Ottomans began acquiring the kind of heavy artillery used mainly on the Western Front to that point in the war.
Stalemate on the front
The Salonika Front settled into a stalemate.
The Allied front was held by French, British and dominion troops, along with Italians and a brigade of Russians. From April 1916, they were joined by Serbian troops who had survived the Great Retreat.
Salonika was a main supply base depot and an entrenched camp. The town became crowded with troops and military equipment. Communications between the port and the front were poor. There were too few roads to meet the needs of a modern military campaign.
Most troops arriving at Salonika faced a long march from the town to the front. Summers were scorching hot. Winters were freezing. Mosquito-borne malaria was widespread and many soldiers were afflicted by outbreaks of dysentery.
Periods of renewed conflict
Fighting flared again in August 1916 when a Bulgarian offensive was defeated.
In September, the Allies launched their own attacks. They made some gains, including the town of Monastir on Serbian soil. The harsh winter brought the offensive to an end in December.
A renewed Allied offensive in April and May 1917 failed with heavy losses.
Greece joins war
The failed Allied action provoked a crisis in neutral Greece. After a pro-Allied government was installed, Greece declared war on the Central Powers in late June 1917.
The Salonika Campaign continued without major offensive action by either side for more than a year.
Then in September 1918, Allied troops launched the attacks that broke the Bulgarian army in Serbia. Said one British soldier after a successful advance:
we are finishing the Bulgar in great style.
For those who served at Salonika, the victory had been hard-won over 3 years of campaigning. But the fighting there would always be eclipsed by the vast scale of the war on other fronts.
The human cost of the campaign was huge for those living in the region.
In 1914, the Kingdom of Serbia had some 4.5 million inhabitants. While there is wide variation in Serbia's casualty figures for World War I, the numbers are tragic. Estimates suggest that some 400,000 Serbian soldiers and perhaps as many as 840,000 civilians lost their lives.
Australians in Serbia
Some 1500 Australians and New Zealanders have been identified as having served in the Serbian Campaign. More than 60 were killed or died from illness or wounds, and many more were wounded.
An estimated 145 to 165 Australians served alongside the Serbian army on the Salonika Front. They were members of either the British Army or the British Royal Flying Corps.
Small units of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), a transport unit and a remount unit, served alongside British forces.
A contingent of transport drivers from the 6th Brigade of the 2nd Australian Division, attached to the 10th Irish Division, took part in the battle of Kosturino. This was a little-known action in Serbia in early December 1915.
Some 88 men who had moved to Australia from the Balkans before the war were recruited and partly trained in Australia for service with the Serbian army. Attached to Serbian units, they served in the Serbian Campaign in 1917 and 1918.
Two Australians who went on to senior command during World War II served with the British in Salonika:
- then Major John Laverack, Brigade Major Royal Artillery with the 22nd British Division
- then Second Lieutenant Edmund (Ned) Herring who was also with the 22nd Division's artillery
Herring received the Military Cross (MC) and Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his work on the Salonika Front.
Doctors, nurses and volunteers
More than 380 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service served in the theatre from mid-1917.
Australian civilian volunteers worked in hospitals and voluntary medical units as doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers. They also worked with the British Red Cross and other organisations in Serbia, such as The Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service. One Australian, Olive King, was decorated for her distinguished service as an ambulance driver with the Serbian army.
The Royal Australian Navy supported the Allied campaign in the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean seas in 1917 and 1918 with a 6 vessel-strong destroyer flotilla, crewed by some 400 sailors.
The Australian flotilla served as part of a Royal Navy fleet. It was mainly engaged in anti-submarine work in the Straits of Otranto, through which German and Austro-Hungarian submarines had to pass to enter the Mediterranean.
Australian destroyers also played a role in ensuring safe passage for troops and supplies bound for Salonika.
In 1918, Australian ships took part in bombarding the port of Durazzo as part of the final Allied offensive in the Balkans.
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