Serbia Retakes Belgrade

Serbian Army, 200,000
Field Marshal Putnick

Austrian Army, 300,000
Archduke Frederick

After clipping the wings of the Austrian eagle at Jadar in August, and compelling its flight across the frontier, the Serbians in September took the offensive by joining the Montenegrins in an attack upon Serajevo, the Bosnian capital, then in Austrian possession. The Serbo-Monténégrin armies on September 8, 1914, attempted the crossing of the Drina River, but were beaten back on the following day by a powerful Austrian army, which succeeded in gaining a foothold on the Serbian side. A week later the Serbians struck at the Austrian center, compelling its retirement across the river, but the right flank of the Austrian army maintained its position, giving it the control of a bridgehead and the road from Liubovia to Valjeva. In this engagement the Austrians sustained heavy losses.

Burning for an opportunity to retrieve their two defeats, the Austrians, in October, took advantage of Hindenberg's drive in Russian Poland to withdraw an army of 150,000 seasoned troops from Galicia and launch a new campaign in Serbia.

The Austrians particularly aimed at seizing the Morava-Vardar Road with a view to establishing communications with Turkey. Their plan of campaign was to advance through Valjevo to the western Morava valley and thence down this valley to Nish, the temporary capital of Serbia. South of Valjevo, there is a continuous line of ridges extending to the Save River at Obrenovats. It was on this series of ridges that the Serbians decided to take their defensive positions.

The Austrians, in this third invasion, entered Serbia from two directions. One Austrian column crossed the Drina River on the west, the other column crossing the Danube on the northeast. Without opposition, these columns gradually converged toward the ridges on which the Serbians had taken their position. Meanwhile, daily for weeks, the capital city, Belgrade, had been bombarded, and it at last fell in December, after an heroic resistance. Town after town had surrendered to the Austrian invaders and it looked as if the fate of Serbia was sealed.

Austrians Meet with Disaster

On December 1, 1914, the Austrians assaulted the Maljin and Rudnik Ridges, on which the Serbian army was posted. In two days they had gained positions on the lower hills and the western ridge of Rudnik. Another week must surely have witnessed the capture of the Serbian armies, but on December 3, 1914, word reached the Austrians that, in far off Galicia, the Russians had once more scaled the Carpathians and swarmed out upon the Hungarian plains.

Fearful for the safety of their own land, the Austrians attempted to disengage themselves from the battle with the Serbians and return into Galicia. Three Austrian corps were hastily withdrawn from the battlefront. Now was Serbia's opportunity to strike a deadly blow at the enemy. Sweeping down from the ridges, the Serbians engaged the retreating Austrians in fierce hand-to-hand struggle. In less than two weeks the great Austrian army was all but annihilated. The right wing, caught in the hills, was totally destroyed. The remnant of the left and center escaped northward through Shabatz and Belgrade, and crossed into Austria. Of all the Austrian forces, only a third survived to cross the Danube. On December 15, 1915, the Serbians retook Belgrade.

Serbia Swept by Epidemic of Typhus

So badly whipped were the Austrians that for nearly a year they did not venture again into Serbia. But another and more dreadful enemy now appeared. An epidemic of spotted typhus, which had broken out among the troops at Valjevo, began to spread throughout the whole country. Exhausted by years of warfare in the Balkan conflicts, the Serbian soldiers easily fell victims to this scourge and perished by thousands. The villages and towns were ravaged by the pestilence, people by hundreds dropping dead in the streets, and entire families being wiped out. The Allied nations, in response to Serbia's appeal, sent their best doctors and nurses to combat the plague. Hospitals were erected and everything that science could suggest was forth-coming, but it was not until April, 1915, that the last traces of the epidemic were stamped out. By that time, a quarter of the population had perished.

Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 triggered World War I. Most of the subsequent Balkan offensives occurred near Belgrade. Austro-Hungarian monitors shelled Belgrade on July 29, 1914, and it was taken by the Austro-Hungarian Army under General Oskar Potiorek on November 30. On December 15, it was re-taken by Serbian troops under Marshal Radomir Putnik. After a prolonged battle which destroyed much of the city, between October 6 and October 9, 1915, Belgrade fell to German and Austro-Hungarian troops commanded by Field Marshal August von Mackensen on October 9, 1915. The city was liberated by Serbian and French troops on November 5, 1918, under the command of Marshal Louis Franchet d'Espérey of France and Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia. Decimated as the front-line city, for a while it was Subotica[51] that was the largest city in the Kingdom; still, Belgrade grew rapidly, retrieving its position by the early 1920s.