Primary Documents - The Fall of Serbia by Erich von Falkenhayn, November 1915

Erich von Falkenhayn Reproduced below is German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn's account of the fall of Serbia in November 1915.

Although the Serbs had successfully repulsed a concerted Austro-Hungarian offensive the previous year - much to the surprise of the major European powers - the entry of Bulgaria into the war in October 1915 effectively doomed Serbia.

Bulgaria entered the war for the openly stated purpose of annexing territory from Serbia; her participation in the planned Austro-German offensive against Serbia ensured the latter's defeat.

Click here to read an account of Serbia's defeat by German General von Cramon, attached to the Austro-Hungarian command.

The Fall of Serbia, November 1915 by German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn

While the great battle in France was developing and raging, the deployment and preparations for attack in South Hungary pursued their allotted course.  Instead of the one division that was to come from France, another that was on its way from Russia to the West was diverted to the South-East.  That was the sum total of the influence on the Serbian campaign of all that the English and French had sacrificed in the West.

In the course of the month of September, the Serbian bank was repeatedly shelled for purposes of deception, without any further steps being taken, but on the 6th October the bombardment preparatory to the real crossing was begun, the crossing following on the 7th.

The Third Austro-Hungarian Army crossed on the line Kupinovo-Belgrade, and the left half of our Eleventh Army at Ram, the right following on the next day at Semendria.

Feints by the troops on the Drina and at Orsova riveted the attention of the enemy at those points.  Tactically, they were completely taken by surprise.  The assurances of the Entente that the Central Powers could only be pretending to attack, and that they would reinforce the Serbians in ample time, had lulled the Serbians into a sense of security.  Their main forces were assembled to meet the Bulgarians.  It was not until, at the beginning of October, the gravity of the danger threatening from the North was recognized and more or less unsystematic troop movements in that direction were undertaken.

Accordingly, the Third Austro-Hungarian and our Eleventh Army, while they were often bravely opposed, were nowhere resisted with real determination.  The speed of their advance was reduced, not so much by the enemy's resistance as by the difficulties of ensuring supplies.

Thus, the bridging material for the Eleventh Army could not be brought up until the hill country between Belgrade and Semendria had been cleared.  Then bridging work was prevented for several days by one of the notorious Danube storms, called the Kossowa.  It was not until the 21st October that we succeeded in building two bridges for this army.

On this day the First Bulgarian Army had reached the Timok valley and its left wing was fighting round Pirot.  The Second Bulgarian Army was approaching the sector of the Vardar which it had already cut at Veles.  The railway communications of the Serbians to Salonika were thus broken.

All the armies were complaining bitterly of the great difficulties caused by the lack of roads, and still more by the condition during wet weather of such roads as there were.  This was especially the case with the Third Austro-Hungarian Army, which, even without that disadvantage, found it more difficult to overcome the enemy resistance than the neighbouring army, which consisted wholly of German formations.

The position on the left wing of the Eleventh Army, too, was not wholly satisfactory.  The Austro-Hungarian group at Orsova, not, it is true, a very large one, had not yet succeeded in crossing the river.  As a result, the preparations for opening communications with Bulgaria, which the shortage of munitions and equipment that was already making itself felt among the Bulgarian forces made most urgent, could not be carried out.

The advance continued at all points, in spite of temporary stoppages at one point or another through difficulties of supply or resistance by the enemy.  At times considerable persuasion was required to induce the First Bulgarian Army to advance.

Nish fell on the 5th November.  The inner wings of the two Bulgarian armies occupied the capitol of Serbia.  South of Strumitza weak attempts at attack by the French, who had meanwhile landed at Salonika, were easily beaten off.

After suffering very heavy losses in the fighting up to this point, the Serbians were now retreating on the whole front in the general direction of the plateau of Kossovo ("the plain of the blackbirds"), near Prishtina.

They offered no determined resistance save to the southern half of the Second Bulgarian Army, whose swift advance threatened to cut off their retreat to Albania, the only line of escape that still remained open to them.

Attempts to hasten the advance of this army by sending portions of the First Bulgarian Army to its aid had no success.  The roads and the problem of supply presented insuperable obstacles to all troop movements that could not be thoroughly worked out long beforehand.

For this reason it proved impossible to employ German forces on the southern wing, as was repeatedly urged by the Austro-Hungarian High Staff.  In addition, there was no ground for the fear that the Serbians might break through at Veles in order to join the Entente troops that were advancing from Salonika up the Vardar.

That this might be attempted was within the bounds of probability, but it could have no prospects of success in face of the pressure of the main body of Mackensen's forces, which could operate from the north against the flank and rear of any such movement.

Signs, too, of the breaking up of the Serbian Army became ever more clearly recognizable on the line of their retreat.  If they were not given breathing space, their end would come in a few weeks.  Their escape to Albania, it is true, could not be wholly prevented, but it could be rendered more difficult by accelerating the advance of a column of the Third Austro-Hungarian Army along the road from Kralievo, through Rashka, and that of the Bulgarians up to and beyond Prishtina in the direction of Mitrovitza.

The topographical conditions compelled the pursuing armies simply to keep on the march along the few roads that were still available.  But there was little to be feared from a flight into Albania.  In that wild mountain country, the Serbians could not take with them artillery or transport, or wheeled vehicles of any description.  Again, they could find no food there, nothing indeed but a population largely hostile to them, and unlikely to neglect the opportunity to rob them of anything they had left.

While the columns of the allied armies climbed up in the course of November to the Kossovo plateau, under indescribable difficulties of marching, increased by bad weather, and soon also by difficulties of supply, the question arose for urgent decision what measures, apart from mere defence, were to be taken against the Entente forces that had landed in Salonika from Gallipoli, Egypt and Northern France to relieve the Serbians.

They had been disembarking since the beginning of October.  As the Greek Government had not consented to this, their action involved a serious breach of international law, which deprived the Entente even of ostensible justification for any further outcry against the march through Belgium as an act of incredible oppression.

Greece did not, however, dare to oppose the invaders by force of arms.  The defenceless position of her open coasts and towns against the English and French naval guns, and the fact that the Greek people would starve if they were deprived of imports by sea, were decisive to their attitude.

Germany's allies, however, were disposed to take this as ground for regarding Greece also as an enemy, and it was not without difficulty that the German point of view prevailed and Greece was treated as a friend.

After the Entente troops, as already mentioned, had been defeated by the Bulgarians in the hills to the south of Strumitza, they abandoned their advance in this direction, and marched instead up the Vardar valley.  In the middle of November, the heads of their forces were on the left bank of the Cerna, facing formations from the Second Bulgarian Army, which had been diverted to meet them.

The movements of the enemy were very slow.  The inactivity of the troops in general led to the conclusion that they were very unwilling to obey orders given merely for political reasons, to risk their lives for Serbian interests.

In this matter our High Staff acted consistently with its general attitude to the Serbian undertaking.  It regarded it as emphatically a subsidiary operation.  The object of the campaign would be completely achieved with the now impending complete defeat of the Serbians, which would remove the threat to the Austro-Hungarian flank, and open the way to the Near East.

The idea, however, of seeking the decision of the war in the Balkans was wholly unsound.  The German troops necessary for this could not be spared from the main theatres of war.

Holding the views above stated, the Chief of the High Staff found himself to some extent in disagreement with the army chiefs of our allies.  They both attached importance to the presence of German troops in the Balkans in as great strength and for as long a time as possible.

In addition to the purely military advantages which they stood to gain by this, they hoped also for a furthering of their political aims.  It was obviously useful for them to be able, as a result of the presence of strong German forces, to have portions of their own troops available for particular aims of their own.  This motive was especially noticeable in the case of the Austrian-Hungarian G.H.Q.

This divergence of views on fundamental questions relating to the conduct of the war possessed elements of danger that were not to be underestimated, and which were increased by the coolness that had existed from the first in the relations between Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.

The position was not improved when the two armies were brought into closer contact, and the points of difference brought about actual friction.  The Bulgarian leaders were greatly hurt by the tendency, apparently firmly rooted among the Austrians, to regard, and at times even to treat, their allies in the Balkans less as allies than as auxiliaries of inferior standing.

Austro-Hungarian G.H.Q. complained bitterly of the Bulgarians' thirst for territory and of their arrogance.  I make no attempt here to decide which party was in the right.  In any case, the unhappy relations between the two allies did not assist the conduct of operations, and frequently called for the mediation of the third party in the alliance.  So far this had always been successful, but it was doubtful whether it would always be available at the right moment when the attention of the Chief of the High Staff was more fully taken up with other theatres of war.

Having regard to this situation, the Chief went into the question whether it would not be advisable to give an officially recognized and, therefore, more binding form to the command of the campaign, which in fact lay in German hands, but was exercised formally on the basis of complete equality.

But to emphasize publicly Germany's prominence in the alliance would have an unfavourable effect on the respect commanded by the Austro-Hungarian Government in the interior of the Dual Monarchy.  The position would have been different if such a regime had prevailed from the outbreak of war.

At the present time its introduction would have been taken by ill-disposed persons, of whom there were many in Austria-Hungary, as an expression of distrust.  Finally, we thought we were justified in expecting that the experience gained up to date in the campaign would enable us to avoid serious friction in the future.

Accordingly, although both Bulgaria and Turkey favoured the proposal, the Chief of the High Staff let it drop.

The advance of the Third Austro-Hungarian and our Eleventh Army to the decisive point in the neighbourhood of Pristina did not, unfortunately, keep to its program.  In the end, the advance could only be maintained by the withdrawal of half of each of the armies in the neighbourhood of the railways, and the handing over of their supply columns to the troops that remained on the march, in order to enable the latter to continue.

The distant cooperation of these troops, however, had its effect on a despairing attack delivered by the Serbians on the 22nd of November at Ferizovic, depriving it of all hope of success once it had failed to break immediately through the brave Bulgarians.

The Serbian Army moved quickly to its fate.  In the last days of November and on the 1st of December it was repeatedly defeated by the Bulgarian troops pursuing it towards Prizrend, being in part taken prisoner and in part scattered.  Weaker Serbian groups, with which the heads of the Third Austro-Hungarian and Eleventh Armies came into contact, met with the same fate.  Only a few miserable remnants escaped into the Albanian mountains, losing the whole of their artillery and everything else that they could not carry.  There was no longer a Serbian Army.

The Bulgarians continued the pursuit with small bodies across the Djakova-Dibra line, occupied Ochrida, and dispatched a column to Monastir.  A few small German infantry and cavalry formations were attached to this column, both for purposes of deception and to secure the presence of capable and acceptable negotiators in the event of any encounter with Greek troops.

To the north of the Bulgarians, portions of the Third Austro-Hungarian Army, repelling without difficulty some Montenegrin battalions that had moved across the frontier, advanced on Ipek, Rozaz and Bjelopolje.

The English and French troops dispatched from Salonika had not succeeded in altering the closing act of the Serbian drama.  As soon as they realized this, they withdrew, in the latter half of November, the portions of their armies that had advanced over the Cerna back behind the sector, and now held against the main body of the Second Bulgarian Army a line running from the Cerna, behind the Vardar to Mirovca, and thence to Lake Doiran.

Their condition led to the conclusion that, in spite of the shortness of their rear communications, they had not succeeded in satisfactorily solving the question of supply.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

French tanks were used for the first time in battle on 17 April 1917, when the 'Char Schneider' (as they were known) was used during the Second Battle of the Aisne.

- Did you know?

Primary Docs