Memoirs & Diaries - The Great Retreat in Serbia in 1915

Serbian infantrymen The field hospital had been busy for eight months trying to stem the awful tide of death which was sweeping over the country, and, together with other volunteer units, had pretty well succeeded.

The typhus, sinister legacy of the Austrians when they evacuated Belgrade at Christmas 1914, had been carried to the farthest comer of Serbia by soldiers going home on leave - to the little farms and cottages where, under Turkish domination for hundreds of years, the ideas of hygiene and sanitation were practically undeveloped.  With the result that nearly a third of the total population succumbed.

By October 1915 the typhus had been fought and beaten, and then the human enemy overwhelmed the country.  The Bulgarians declared war early in October.  Simultaneously the Austrians attacked on the north, and the field hospital had to retreat with the Army.

We were in the town of Kraguyevatz, arsenal of Serbia, which had suffered the bombardment of Austrian aeroplanes for weeks before the evacuation.  and was left an open city.  Having sent off every man who had sound feet, and left those who were unable to move in charge of American doctors (who were then neutrals) the trek southwards began.

It was southwards at first, for we had been told that, if we could reach Monastir, there was the possibility of transport to Salonika.  The single railway line from Belgrade to Salonika had been cut the first day after the declaration of war by the Bulgarians; and there was the life-line, as it were, severed, for on that railway line all the stores, men, and ammunition were transported.

Serbian peasants burying their deadWe started off with bullock-wagons with as much of the hospital equipment as we could carry, and for three weeks we trekked south - a long, slow procession of springless carts, each drawn by oxen, moving deliberately at the rate of two miles an hour - day or night was all one.

Several times the unit halted, hoping that the retreat was stayed, for all the telephone wires were down, and no one knew exactly what was happening.  There we would rig up a dressing station, and dress the wounds of the men as they marched by, and there we were invariably sent to join the retreating mass again, as the sound of the guns drew nearer and the towns behind were occupied by the enemy.

The stream of the refugees grew daily greater - mothers, children, bedding, pots and pans, food and fodder, all packed into the jolting wagons; wounded soldiers, exhausted, starving, hopeless men, and (after the first few days) leaden skies and pitiless rain, and the awful, clinging, squelching mud.

The roads were obliterated by the passage of big guns - those guns served by that wonderful "Last Hope" of the Serbians, the old men, the Cheechas, the "uncles", who held the enemy for the priceless few days or even hours, and so saved the youth of the country.

For every Serbian boy - every man-child over twelve - had to retreat.  The Serbians had at last realized that the enemy were out to finish her as a nation, and the only way to save herself was to run away.  And at first all those battalions of boys, gay with the coloured blankets they carried coiled across their backs, camping round the great camp-fires at night, were happy - until the days grew into weeks, and the rain fell and fell and there was no bread anywhere.

Serbian supply depotBut the rain, which churned up the mud, and soaked the ill-clad people, was called by the Serbians "the little friend of Serbia", for it held up the Austrian advance, and consequently saved practically the whole of Serbia's remaining Army.

We camped one night in an old monastery, deep in the heart of the mountains, the residence of the Metropolitan, dating back to the thirteenth century.  Here it was decided we might stop for a time, and the monks gave us their new school-house for a dressing station.

We had high hopes of being able to remain the winter, so entirely ignorant were we all of the real conditions, and we actually did remain for a fortnight, amongst the most beautiful hills, clothed in their gorgeous autumn colours, for the country thereabouts was one glowing wonder of beech-woods.

Until again came the order to evacuate, and in haste, for we were not on the beaten track, and were in danger of being cut off.

We had orders to go to a town called Rashka, and we trudged there in a jam of ox-wagons and soldiers, big guns and refugees, in the most appalling mud and pelting rain - and quite unquenchable good spirits.  Until we were nearly there, when one of our number was shot through the lungs - an accidental shot, fired by an irate farmer after some flying refugees who were stealing his horses.

The injured girl was taken to a Serbian dressing station about eight miles back along the road, with two doctors and a nurse; after which the rest of us tramped unhappily on, knowing that they would inevitably be taken prisoners, which they were two days later.

They were well treated, however, by the Austrians, and when the girl who had been shot was sufficiently recovered to undertake the journey, they were all passed through Vienna and Switzerland, and so home to England.  But that is another story.

Serbian volunteersMeanwhile, the rest of us arrived, soaked to the skin, at Rashka, and were cheered by hot soup and cocoa, in the awful little hovel in which the earlier arrivals were housed.

We slept that night under a roof, but infinitely preferred our previous nights under the stars, for about twenty of us were crammed into an indescribably filthy room, over a stable full of Army horses, and next to a larger room in which they were making shells!

In those days there was no time for factories.  Things were made anywhere.  Most of the Army had no uniforms.  The country had not recovered from the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, and there was no help outside the country when all Europe was engaged in her own bitter struggle.

Then, two days before we would have reached Monastir, the Bulgarians took it.  We had no choice now but to cross the mountains - the mountains of Albania and Montenegro, which we had been told were impassable for women in the winter.  The three weeks' trek south had made us three weeks later in the beginning of the attempt, and the very first night we got to the narrow ways, the snow came.

The roads were now too narrow for wagons, even though at the beginning they had been sawn laboriously in half, so that two wheels might pass where four would not, and the only means of transport were pack-mules or donkeys.  These carried what food we had, and the blankets without which we would have perished.  For many died on those pitiless mountains, and the snow fell and covered up their misery for ever.

Yet, with all hope gone, their country left behind, their women left behind (for when we reached the mountains the only women were the Red Cross units), starving, beaten, miserable, how wonderful were those soldiers!

Peasants, driven from the soil which bred them, these men had no high education to tell them how to hold themselves in this disaster.  But every Serbian is a poet: how else had they kept their souls free under 500 years of the Turkish yoke?

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara RiverAnd ever down those years, entirely through their songs and stories, and through their religion (for, to give the Turks their due, they did not interfere with that), they had kept alive and burning bright the flame of the belief that one day their country would be free.

And in the year 1912 it came true, for the small Balkan states banded together and pushed the Turks out of their country - back to Constantinople.  But for a pitiful short time, for in 1914 came Armageddon.

These retreating men, even if they won through wounds and starvation and exposure and hardship unspeakable, had only hope of exile.  For us who were with them, the end of our journey was home.  So it was easier to bear things cheerily, though hearts could hold no more of pity.

Simple as children, with the unquestioning gratitude of such, no one ever saw them other than forbearing with each other, when men fell dead of starvation while waiting for the ration of bread and were laid by the roadside and left for the snow to shroud; no one ever saw them other than courteous to women.

And when one remembers how the conditions of retreat can turn men into animals, when things are down to the bed-rock of primitive passions and desire for life, then it is a proud thing to remember also the high courage with which this people bore their disaster.

To add to the horrors of the retreat, there fell upon the mountains in that December one of the worst snow-storms for decades, and then was the pathway indeed bordered by death.

We were crossing the higher passes, and only a 2-foot track wound upwards.  On the right were snow-covered cliffs, on the left a sheer drop to the river 1,000 feet below.  Two mules could not pass each other on that path, deep in snow or slippery with ice, and when a pack mule fell and died (brave little faithful beasts of burden) there they froze and the trail passed over them.

Serbian King Peter IThe worst night of the storm we sheltered in an Albanian hut.  The fire smouldered in the middle of the mud floor, the smoke escaping through a hole in the roof - and round the fire squatted the family - unto the third and fourth generation!

Around them again, the refugees, soldiers, and nurses, and the livestock of the little farm.  (My neighbour on one side was a warm and comfortable calf!)

Everything that could be sheltered was sheltered; those that had no shelter remained out on the mountain and died.  In the morning, the pack-mules, which were under the lee of the hut, were frozen stiff; and again the blankets and gear were reduced.

At the last, when the mountains were crossed, and the weary, muddy miles to the sea lay before us, nothing remained to most of us but what we carried ourselves.

But we had our lives, and many had left theirs on those cruel heights.  But for those exiles, literally bereft of everything that made life worth living - family, home, country - what use, after all, seemed even that?

Those last days, towards the sea and the ultimate hope of rest, were even more dreadful than the rest.  For now it was not the snow which covered death and corruption, but mud.  It seemed as though there never had been and never again could be anything else than rain, rain, rain.  And in all the world there is surely nothing more depressing than rain which falls soddenly on mud, and mud which receives all sullenly the rain.

Then, as the uttermost depths seemed reached, the skies of the nearly-last night cleared.  It was late, nearly midnight, but the little fishing village on the Adriatic coast had somehow to be reached by morning - for a ship was to be there to take us off.  (It was torpedoed, and we sat on the shore, as it happened, for three more days.)

And suddenly, out of the welter of misery, the road burst out on to the sea - lying dark and shining under stars; and perhaps the most vivid memory of all those weeks of adventure is the sight of her - sudden, beautiful, clean.  "Who hath desired the sea, the immense and contemptuous surges"; after all, what was starvation and death?

Serbian Prime Minister Nikolai PasicThe Italian ship which was to meet us at San Giovanni di Medua was, as I said, torpedoed, along with every food-ship which was being sent by the Italian Government to meet the refugees.  The little harbour was full of the sprouting masts and funnels of unhappy ships which had been sunk, a pitiful sight at the ebb of the tide.

And the surrounding hills were quivering at night with the little fires of innumerable soldiers, who had survived starvation on the mountains only to meet it again on the shore.  While overhead the Austrian aeroplanes circled, and dropped their bombs.

Then, after three days, a ship got through.  Little as she was, she was able to take off all the Red Cross units.  The soldiers had to set off again on that everlasting trek, down to Alassio and the further ports.  No man of military age was allowed on board, but many refugees who were quite hopelessly smashed, and women of the coast as well, filled the little ship literally to overflowing.

There was not room for all to lie down.  Twice she was attacked, and tacking, swerving, zigzagging across the Adriatic, we came at last at dawn to Brindisi.  And as the light grew, to port and starboard of the little ship, loomed in the mist first one and then another protecting form.  And hearts at last believed in safety, for they were British gunboats.  We landed at Brindisi, and had our first real meal for over two months.

Miss M. I. Tatham served (1915) with Stobart Field Hospital (Serbian Relief Unit), Kraguyevatz, Serbia.  1916-1917, Corsica, S.R.F. Unit.  1918, Scottish Women's Hospital, Royaumont and Villers-Coterets, France, until the Armistice.

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Boche" was a disparaging term used to describe anything German.

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