Great Retreat (Serbian)
gigatos | November 14, 2021
Albanian Golgotha (Serbian: Albanian Golgotha) is a historiographic name for the retreat of Serbian military and civilians through Albania and Montenegro after the invasion of Serbia by the central powers in the winter of 191516 during World War I. Serbian troops and civilians made their way from Metohija to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where the Entente countries provided transport ships and security until they arrived at their destinations. It is believed that tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died of wounds, disease and starvation during the retreat.
After the victory of the Serbian army at the Battle of Kolubara in December 1914, there was a lull on the Serbian front until early autumn 1915. But already on October 6, 1915, the Austro-Hungarian Army and the 11th German Army Corps under the command of Field Marshal August von Mackensen (about 500,000 soldiers supported by aircraft and a flotilla on the Danube and Sava rivers) launched the largest offensive on Serbian territory. By October 15, 1915, the Austro-Hungarian army had crossed the Sava and Drina rivers, while the 11th German Army Corps crossed the Danube and occupied Belgrade, Smederevo, Pozarevac and Zrenjanin, forcing the Serbian forces to launch an urgent large-scale retreat.
On the same day, October 15, 1915 without declaration of war, the Bulgarian army, suppressing weak Serbian resistance, penetrated the valley of the South Morava River and by October 22, 1915 had already taken Kumanovo, Stip, Skopje, which was a huge problem for the further retreat of the Serbian troops. The Serbian army and refugees found themselves in a desperate situation in Kosovo and Metohija. The road to Thessaloniki was closed. The Austro-Hungarian army from the northwest, the German army from the north and the Bulgarian army from the south and east advanced rapidly toward Kosovo in order to destroy the remnants of the Serbian army. Under pressure from the troops of the Triple Alliance countries, the rate of the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army decided on 24 November 1915 to suspend the retreat to Thessaloniki directly across the southern Serbian border. This decision was taken after an unsuccessful attempt to pass through the valley of the Vardar River, which was occupied by the Bulgarian army. The military and state leaders urgently began to work out a plan for further action, based on the reality of the situation. Surrender was categorically forbidden, as it would have meant the end of the state. Duke Zivojin Misic”s proposal to stage an anti-coup in the country was rejected. As a result, state leaders decided to withdraw troops to the Adriatic coast through Albania, to re-form and replenish the army and then join the Allied forces on the Thessaloniki front. Prime Minister Nikola Pashic sent the following telegram to the Allied command:
“Serbia finds itself in a difficult position, and things could turn for the worse. Serbia has decided to go all the way against the invaders, faithfully. With the allies, Serbia could change the course of the war, the result of which would be the complete defeat of the enemy.”
After this decision, the entire government, with King Peter I and Prime Minister Pashic, went to church. As they left the church, Pashic was met by a huge crowd of refugees waiting to hear words of comfort from him. Pashic answered them, “People, don”t worry, you won”t be in Rome. On November 23, 1915, a commission was formed to convey the Serbian government”s message to France, Great Britain, Russia and Italy. It was decided to form a base in Shkodra and Durres, where they immediately began to prepare allied ships with food and other needs. Meanwhile, the Serbian government reached an agreement with Albanian Prime Minister Essad Pasha Toptani, who became an ally for the period of the Serbian army crossing into Albania.
The condition of the Serbian army was very bad. They had to endure fatigue, hunger and winter frosts. On November 26, 1915, the first group of troops began to move to the Albanian border over the bridge over the town of Prizren. On November 30, 1915, the second group of troops began crossing at Prizren. The third group of troops was withdrawn to the territory of Albania from the town of Pecs.
On November 29, 1915 the German High Command declared: “The Serbian Army no longer exists, there are only its miserable remnants who have fled to the wild Albanians and to Montenegro, where there is no food after winter. And if they do not find their death there do not find their death, they will no longer issue reports from the Balkan battles.”
Although there were all the prerequisites for surrender, the idea of a counteroffensive arose, which was received from Živojin Mišić. During four sessions (November 29 – December 1) he and Stepa Stepanovic, Pavle Jurisic-Sturm and Mihajlo Živković proposed a counteroffensive. The idea was not accepted, and the Serbian army continued to act on the order of the Supreme High Command Headquarters.
The movement of troops on the icy roads was slow, and additional problems were created by attacks by Albanians, who did not support the policy of Essad Pasha Toptani. By December 13, almost the entire Serbian army was between Andrijevica and Podgorica. And between 15 and 21 December it arrived in Shkoder. According to the High Command of Serbia and Albania, there were about 110,000 soldiers and 2,350 officers on the coast. About 72,000 are believed to have died since the withdrawal began. A total of about 54,000 went through Albania and about 90,000 through Montenegro.
After more than a month of hard marching, the Serbian army gathered in the cities of Shkoder, Durres and Vlora. Arriving on the Adriatic coast of Albania did not mean final salvation. A proper reception was arranged on shore by the Allies. However, Italy, which was still in alliance with the Entente, was trying its best to prevent the presence of Serbian troops on the coast. On December 28, Nikola Pashic sent a message to the Italian government, stating that the Serbian army had no intention of entering into conflict with Italy. The Russian ambassador in Rome interceded for the Serbs, so the Italian foreign minister said it was not in the “interest of Italy”.
Then Nikola Pashic sent a message to Russian Tsar Nicholas II on January 15, 1916, asking for help. The message arrived to Tsar Nicholas II on January 18, and on the same day Nicholas II sent a telegram to the King of Great Britain and the President of France, in which he said that if the Serbian army was not saved, Russia would end its alliance with them. The intervention of the Russian emperor forced the allies to make concessions, and the Italian government allowed the Serbs to enter Vlora.
On January 28, the French government dispatched all its available ships to evacuate the Serbian troops from the coast. By February 15, about 135,000 men had been taken to the Greek island of Corfu and about 10,000 to Bizerte. By April, 151,828 soldiers and civilians were going to Corfu. The material costs of servicing the Serbian army were borne by France and Great Britain.
The first days in Corfu were terrible for the Serbs. The Allies did not have enough time to prepare to receive so many people. There was an acute shortage of food, clothing, firewood, and tents. Soldiers began to die en masse. The weather conditions were not favorable because of the rain that had been falling incessantly for a week. The exhausted soldiers were in the rain all week. Sickness began to set in. The sick were taken to Vido Island. From January 23 to March 23, 1916, 4,847 people died of disease. Sometimes the mortality rate was as high as 300 per day. Because there were not enough places to bury the dead on land, it was decided to bury the dead directly at sea, pressing the bodies with stones so that they would not float up. More than 5,000 people were buried at sea near the island of Vido. Because of this, the waters around the island are called the “Blue Grave” (Serbian Plava Grobnica).
Some of the graves of Serbian soldiers who died during the retreat in the city of Shkoder have been preserved.
In 1938, a mausoleum was erected on the island, designed by the architect Nikolai Krasnov. Within the walls of the mausoleum are 1,232 caissons containing the remains of soldiers previously buried in the cemeteries of Corfu, whose names were known. The remains of unknown soldiers were buried under two memorial slabs outside the mausoleum.
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